1, I talked about how the basic rules of composition
are simply not enough to develop a creative vision.
In this part, I am going to go over some visual exercises
that *can* help in this area. My goal is to provide
specific exercises that you can do to improve yor photography,
as opposed to indulging in convoluted "arts-speak"
verbiage that seems to grip most of the artistic community.
So up, up and away....
ASSIMILATE AND COPY
A commonly-given advice to beginners
is to look at beautiful photos and see what works and
doesn't work. While this is certainly useful, I don't
think it pushes the envelope far enough. My suggestion
is to take this a step further: find photographs that
you like and try to replicate them. For example, there
are plenty of amazing photos on Yosemite, Yellowstone,
Ladakh, Rajasthan and various other locations. It doesn't
have to be too exotic either - I am sure there are beautiful
photos of your local region, whereever that may be (insert
New Jersey dig here). Find those photos, find those
regions and try to make the same photo.
I can just hear the reaction: Did
he just say "replicate"? Doesn't the dolt
realize that the whole point of developing a creative
vision is for it to be internal? What kind of a hokey,
low-rent operation is this anyhow?
Well, let me ssure you that you will gain tremendously from this approach. It is quite common for art students to
start out by copying the works of the famous painters,
and I strongly feel more photographers should follow
this approach as well.
Photography essentially consists of
2 parts - first visuaizing the image you want to make,
and then achieving that image.
With this approach, the visualization
is done for you. So now you are forced to start thinking
about how to harness your technical skills in order
to achieve a specific result, as opposed
to some arbitrary and unplanned image. This takes your
technical ability beyond the basic exposure/focus calculation
into the realm of using techniques to achieve a given
Secondly, and more importantly, it
helps you learn - by example - how to convert the photo
potential of a scene into a specific image. Imagine
going to a very scenic location near sunset. You have
in front of you a beautiful vista burgeoning with photo
opportunities. The light is also just right. So the
potential is all there. What is now needed is your creative
input, which will then realize the potential of this
scene. For a lot of people - including myself, when
I was starting out - one of the challenges, when faced
with a given scene, is figuring out what to include,
how to include and what to exclude.
When you already have the resulting
image in mind, it becomes easier to see what the expert
photographer chose to include and chose to exclude.
So now you have one example of how to convert the "photographic
potential" into a "high quality image."
You can see for yourself what was included, what was
excluded and why.
Done enough times, you'll eventually
find that you develop your own ability to convert a
given vista into a suitable composition. The more time
you spend on this, the more you refine this ability
to "see" a photograph amidst all the potential.
As you take the replica shot, you
might find that somwhere within your soul, a small voice
tells you to include this bit instead - or to exclude
that bit over there. Indulge that voice as well. Take
the replica shot, and take the shot that your own Muse
urges you to take. This is your own developing artistic
Initially atleast, you'll find that
the replica shot is indeed better. Which is ok - now
you can examine the images and see why it was better.
Certainly, replicating the experience in this manner
makes for a more meaningful analysis than simply looking
at a photo in a book. Eventually, you'll learn from
your mistakes and your inner voice's suggestions will
become more refined. Now, not only have you started
developing your "external vision" (seeing
the possibilities out there), but you are also developing
your own unique "internal vision" (a view
or interpretation that is unique to you).
Note that the goal of creating a replica
image isn't to create a shot that looks identical -
the goal is to re-create the design elements that went
into the picture, such as lines, colors, shapes, etc..
If the photo is of a particular subject - such as an
iconic building or monument, then yes, you need to shoot
the same subject. However, if it is a more generic subject,
then any comparable setting will do. For example, a
shot of a tree in a field can be replicated using any
tree or field, provided the main design elements are
the same. A necessary corollary to this, of course, is that you need to analyze the reference image and figure out what the design elements are.
Even if you are not able to re-create the original image exactly, a comparison between the reference and your image will tell you a lot about what makes each image work, and what doesn't.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
One of the more useful books for the
advanced photographer that I have come across has been
a set of 3 published by Brooks Jensen, the editor of
Magazine - "On Being a Photographer",
"Letting Go of the Camera" and "Single
These books, amidst other things,
raised one very important point that I found noteworthy:
the need for practice. It points out that a concert
pianist has to practice daily in order to maintain,
let alone improve, his abilities. A painter has to keep
painting, a sculptor has to keep chipping away (sorry,
couldn't resist), and we all know the amount of training
pro athletes do. So why do we photographers never emphasize
the value of practice?
This raises 2 important points, both
of which are well worth taking to heart: one, photogrpahy
is a skill that requires practice to maintain and second
and more important, that it is a learnable skill. It
isn't a province of the gifted - with diligent effort,
everyone can get there (whereever "there"
For technical ability, useful skills
to practice include focusing on moving objects (see
my article on the Art of Auto-focus), getting familiar
with the camera body and learning to meter tricky scenes.
However, since we are discussing the aesthetic elements
of photography, let's talk about practice which is relevant here.
What you need to do is practice how to "see."
Simply look around and look at the photo opportunities
present. Put the viewfinder to your eye, and look at
your various options. What will you include, what will
you exclude, where will you stand, which lens will you
use and so on. Then after visualizing what you want
to do, take that shot. See how it worked out - if you
like it, why and if you hate it, why?
After a while, you'll find that you
don't even need a camera. As you get familiar with the
fields of view offered by different focal lengths, you'll
find that you can visualize the scene without putting
a viewfinder to your eye. And don't forget to look critically at your results as well. As you spend time evaluating
your photographs, you'll learn how your pre-shot visualizations translate into results. This will help you refine the quality of your visualization by providing you with feedback as to which compositions have
potential and which are not worth trying.
THINK IN TERMS OF PHOTO PROJECTS
Most of us are on the look-out for
that "perfect" shot. We see photos in National
Geographic, Nature's Best and other such places and
are inspired to go out and hunt for that amazing shot
That is not a very effective way to
work, as it is too random, but this what most people
do. They go from place A to place B, taking a few shots and moving on. Even
a lot of dedicated hobbyists are guilty of walking around,
looking for the perfect photo opportunity. The National
Geo photographer, on the other hand, doesn't just go
looking around for those 5 perfect shots - he spends
weeks and weeks investigating all the photo opportunities, making a specfic list of photos that he wants
and then shooting them. And the five shots that grace the
magazine emerge from that body of work. In other words,
the excellent photographs come about as a result of
a systemic exploration of the photo opporunities present.
There is a lesson there - in order
to get the best results, you need to focus your energies
and work systematically. A good way to do that is by
working in projects.
A project doesn't have to be an expensive,
time-consuming effort that requires you to quit your
job. It can be as simple as you want - in fact, when
you start out, simple is better as it is more likely
that you will follow through and complete it.
Working in a project involves the
- First, define what your project
is. Be specific. Also, choose a topic which you can
realistically finish, given your time, monetary and
- Second, make a list of the photographs
that you think are needed for the project. Again,
be as specific as possible when it comes to what each
shot is going to look like. It sometimes helps to
pretend that you are an author and this is an essay
project. Jot down what you'd like to tell the viewer, as text.
Then figure out what photos would best convey this.
That's your starting list. Note that you are not going
to be limited to just these shots - they are merely
a starting point. However, a good starting list will
greatly improve the quality of your results, so make
sure you give this stage the attention it deserves.
- Go out and get the shots that you
had planned. Sounds simple enough, but keep in mind
that you want these shots to be as good as possible.
So you need to get all the elements right - no "getting
to the spot at mid-day, taking a shot and moving on."
You'll have to spend time and effort in getting these
shots, and you'll find yourself working harder to
make these images.
What happens here is that by defining
the shots you want to make, you force yourself to think
ahead and plan on getting those shots. That alone increases
your probability of getting a good image, when compared
to someone who just turns up and hopes for the
best. All the hard work you put into getting top qality
images will improve the quality of each image. Consequently,
your overall body of work is not only more cohesive,
but also of higher quality as each image is the result
of greater planning and effort.
While the project is ongoing, you'll
also see additional shots that you did not think about
initially - go ahead and add them. It's a rare project
which can be planned completely in advance. In fact,
in your new "heightened state of awareness",
you'll very likely notice new things when shooting:
things that you may have missed with a more casual approach.
And last but not the least , because
you are spending more time waiting for just the right
shot, you increase the chances of being at the right
place when serendipity strikes. In other words, you
make your own luck. There is a great quote from a photographer
(whose name eludes me) that I came across a while back
- "the harder I work, the luckier I get."
Words to print on your camera bag.
I have found this approach to work
when I was a consultant - the best pricing or marketing
strategies didn't come about as a "flash of inspiration",
but as a result of hours and hours of analysis - and
the best analysis was the result of a carefully planned
framework and a methodical way of working. I have also
found this to work very well while taking photos, and
I heartily recommend this to everyone as the most effective
way of working. Trust an engineering wonk to take the romance out of art, eh?
RESEARCH AND PLANNING
One theme you'll notice both the points
above is the emphasis on planning your shoot beforehand.
And in most cases, unless you know your subject really
well, this involves doing some reearch beforehand so
that you know what is worth shooting.
If you are shooting wildlife, learn
about your subject - where it is found, what the best
time of the year to see it, what some of the interesting
behavioral aspects of that animal are and so on. If
you are shooting travel photos, research your destination
to figure out what defines that destination in terms
of must see locations, flavor, people, culture, etc.
If you are shooting landscapes, it helps to know the
best time of the year to visit, the best locations,
Speak to photographers, ask around
in forums (and not necessarily just photography ones),
soak in images made by other photographers, read guidebooks
and generally immerse yourself in your subject.. Become
an expert on your proposed subject, and your photography
Ultimately, we develop our artistic
abilities through experience, and trial and error -
by learning what works, and what doesn't.
I believe it was either Edison or
Einstein who said (paraphrasing somewhat) - "What
other people regard as 100 failures, I see as learning
100 ways on how not to do things."
To benefit from experience, you have
to make a concerted effort to try to learn. If you simply
shoot a lot, keep the photos you like and dump the photos
you don't, you will not learn.
What you need to do is understand
what makes a particular photo work or not. If possible,
try to compare a successful image to a similar image
that doesn't quite work. Both can be your work, or you
can compare your work to that of other photographers
It is important that you do this after
every shoot. And after you've done your comparisons,
try to draw out one or two lessons that you can apply
for the next shoot. And from the next time on, try to
avoid making the same mistakes - atleast unintentionally.
Sometimes, you'll want to experiment with an approach
that hasn't worked for you before, and that is fine...
the main thing is to not blindly repeat the same mistakes.
For example, if your photo didn't
work because the horizon was right down the middle,
try to ensure that you don't repeat this next time.
It is ok to put the horizon down the middle if it is
deliberate - but try to avoid making this mistake inadvertently.
With every iteration of these exercises,
you'll find that you gain additional insights on how
to make better photos. You'll also refine and revise
older insights. It takes time, true - there is no quick
way to develop an artistic eye, unfortunately, no matter
what the various photo books may tell you - but it will
help you develop a style that is unique to you.
GET OUT OF YOUR RUT
A lot of photographers will stick
to shooting what works for them, and not experiment
with anything outside their comfort zone - I daresay
this has happened to virtually every photographer out
If that is happening to you (be honest),
force yourself out of your rut. Shoot something you
don't like. Use a different type of camera. Use a different
technique or approach. Anything works - as long as it
is something different from what you do.
Not only will this expand your photographic
horizons, but it will also make your ore photography
For example, if you notice the images
in this website, you'll notice very few portraits. That
is because I generally don't like photographing people
- I am simply not interested in it. I take other photographers
to places where they can shoot street scenes and colorful
characters, but while they are shooting, I simply watch
(that is something I do enjoy). However, one consequence
of shooting primarily landscape and wildlife was that
after a while, I found myself plateauing.
So I took a week off and forced myself
to travel with only a pocket camera. That's it. I also
forced myself to shoot only people scenes. And I chose
to shoot in B&W only, and for pure pleasure only:
not for sales, publication, or for fame, women and
glory (ha!). The result - I had fun making the images,
I found some new ways of working and most importantly,
my core wildlife and landscape work got a boost from
the sudden inflow of creative juices. I began to see
some similarities in my landscape work with my street
work, and that has given me a better insight into how
I see the world.
The above represent my thoughts on
how photographers can develop their vision. I think
a cookbook guide to composition is not very useful -
it stresses minor tactical details, but doesn't stress
the fact that developing creative ability is a process
that takes years. The goal of this article was to give
you a sense of how to put together a framework within
which you can work - and even apply all those composition
guidelines - and ultimately, develop your own inner
vision. Keep in mind that this is a process that can,
and will, take a long time. But hopeully you will notice
incremental changes on an ongoing basis, and that should
provide the inspiration to keep at it.