Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in becoming a proficient photographer is learning to see the creative possibilities of the scene in front of you. Most of us, when we first start out in photography, are so enamoured by our chosen hobby that we simply raise the camera to our eye and shoot away without a care in the world. As we develop our skills we realize this technique is a little like the infinite monkey theorem, where an infinite number of monkeys, given time, could write the complete works of Shakespeare. Taking an infinite number of pictures will, with time, produce a few great shots. However, by learning to see creatively, we can bypass the infinite monkey theorem and start producing great shots on a frequent basis. But how do we achieve this?
1. Slow Down The Process
The first thing you need to do, is stop looking through the camera and reconnect with the world. Train yourself to slow down, maybe sit down on a bench, or in a cafe near your chosen subject and just look. But you need to go beyond looking and to start seeing. Most of us when we look at a scene, our eyes skip over the view in front of us, our minds taking in the important elements without really digesting everything. It's a little like speed reading. What we need to do is allow our eyes to move slowly over every detail in the scene, stopping on each element and really understanding what we are looking at. Look at the light on the element, the colors, the movement the contrast between it and the background, everything about it. Then move on to the next element in the scene and do the same thing but try to relate it back to the previous element. Once you have isolated all the important elements in your scene, take a look at the overall scene and look for ways of tying all those elements together. These “tying” elements will then be arranged according the compositional rules – look for leading lines, positioning subjects on third, negative space – any compositional technique that can add weight to the scene. Then, and only then, it is time to put the camera up to the eye.
Of course, unless you are one of a lucky few, none of this comes easily, it takes practice and more practice to train your eye to see, but there are some “training exercises” that can help.
2. Single Subject, Multiple Angles
This is a great way of learning to see. Rather than shoot a subject and move on, allow yourself plenty of time on one single subject. It might be a stunning piece of architecture or a particular view but the idea is to sit, take a look at that subject, take it in, then spend time walking around it, looking at every element of it. Get down low and look up, if you can find one, go to a higher viewpoint and look down, look for contrasts within your subject, for example if it's a modern building look for something to offset it, like an old church. Look to shoot your subject as part of a greater view, as an isolated subject itself and going in depth to the details.
3. Take Only One Lens
This is a great way to train the eye. By taking just one lens, preferably a prime, you will force yourself to move around and look for the right angles and positions. Return to the same subject another time with an entirely different lens and look to repeat the previous shots and find new ones. If you don’t own a prime a simple technique to turn your zoom into a prime is to set the focal length and then put some electrical tape or similar around it, to prevent you moving it.
4. Shoot Wide Open
This is another good technique, shooting maximum aperture forces you to think about exactly what your subject is and make sure both your mind and your lens is focused upon it. By doing this you will have concentrated your thought process to the subject matter and how it relates to the scene.
There are many simple techniques for learning to see photographically, but perhaps the most important part is to slow down, lower the camera and really look at the scene in front of you. One thing you try to avoid is forcing the picture, relax, watch, look, see and let the photograph come to you.