The psychology that revolves around capturing beauty with the medium of photography is profound. Psychology and photography are deeply and intimately intertwined. Vision in photography is a multi-layered phenomenon similar to the layers of the stratosphere, the intricacies of a symphony, or even pieces of a puzzle (i.e., RAW pixels) that you shape to make a photograph into your own vision (and not to mention the layers in Photoshop).
To explore this idea a bit deeper, your vision itself consists of your physical vision (both central and peripheral) and your psychological vision or “mind’s eye” (symbolic and metaphorical vision) which is your ability to reinterpret, deliteralize and reframe the world around you in the most imaginatively meaningful, mindful, and autobiographical ways possible. The camera itself acts an extension or bridge between your physical and psychological vision that you use to capture a moment. The combination of all three make up your “photographic vision”.
In a previous interview, I pronounced the following: “I do not believe in rules of photography in absolute terms. I believe in practical principles of photography that foster an authenticity, aesthetic, and affirmation in an artist’s photography which inevitably leads the photographer to discover this synesthesia of vision and voice in the pursuit of their own fine art photography.” I still believe and practice this notion. When I have considered the development of photographic vision, including my own, I have utilized practical psychological and philosophical principles to hone my own vision:
The content of a photograph is not limited to one subject or style of photography. Although there is a strong association with fine art photography being “black and white” (and sometimes “long exposure”) for landscapes, waterscapes, architecture, abstracts, portraits, and artistic nudes, colour is just as valid and can be just as timeless. It is one of the main reasons I espouse and promote an “eclectic aesthetic fine art” (EAFA) philosophy of photography. I think the main mission of any great photographer, in my estimations, is to explore and capture the complexity of beauty in the simplest of moments while offering a reflective psychological and emotive experience based on the artist’s self-expression or vision. Originality in content is not a prerequisite for mastery of one or more subject matters in photography. It may be said that “originality” has been done before. It is one of the reasons that I also focus on something I refer to as “oramagraphy” (“vision drawing” or photography based on a meaningful pursuit of an artist’s own realized vision to obtain a personal originality). Fine art photography is about the communication and contemplation of a revealed aesthetic meant to awaken something within us. There is vast but precarious agreement about what is beautiful as a subject in fine art based on masterful works and our own learning about what beauty is and means as individuals. I may find architecture as a striking subject for artistic expression but you may disagree. However, the aesthetic content of photographic art matters in so much as it can be contextualized as part of the artist’s personal vision.
1. Variety (The 1:1:1 Invisibility Technique): – 1 subject, 1 camera, 1 lens (you may also use a tripod). Try to capture a specific subject (many subjects) in different light, from a different angle or perspective, using a specific technique (e.g., long exposure), or focusing on a specific detail or theme (e.g., “blue”, “shapes”, “nothingness”, etc.), to find something unique from what you see every day. We don’t always “stop, sense, and see”. It comes with time. It’s interesting to note that over time, the physical holding of the camera, the actual “click”, and the view screen have conditioning properties and self-reinforcement values. The better you become at looking up, down and all around, the more the “art of seeing” evolves. We often learn to see the “invisible” by first asking “what did I see?” and then asking “what did I not see?”. Eventually, we become like Jason Bourne and notice everything in our environment.
2. Intuition (Mindfulness): Mindful practice refers to being in the present moment and just noticing everything around you without judgement or focusing on what your mind is telling you. Notice the scene in a 360 degrees of sights and sounds from the ground up. I often teach students about vision in this order: “sense, think, then act” (but sometimes we think too much and get stuck in our own heads). As you can tell, this is more meditative before it becomes decisive. Sometimes, sensing and acting alone works well. The act and art of seeing, closing your eyes, and seeing again can often reap benefits as well.
“Composition is the strongest way of seeing.“ – Edward Weston
Many photographers, including myself, tend to gravitate towards the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, and even the diagonal method as a basis for composition when they first pick up a camera. Although I believe photography is a skill that develops and evolves with experience and time like any other skill, these rules of composition are helpful but they set limits for instinctual discovery and trajectories of ingenuity in photography. There are many geometric compositions, such as the Gamut or 1.5 Armature, that offer a more interesting balance to the eye when viewing a scene or photograph. However, if we were to imagine a tesseract composition, for example, where the inner cube of the cube focuses on the main subject(s) and the outer cube stretches to elements within the frame that compliment the position of the subject, we would be creating a more complex geometric perception that may work well (or not). In many ways, a resilient composition is the foundation of a strong visual aesthetic in photography because it balances and orders all elements within a minimalist or multi-layered scene into a flowing perspective with a pleasurable and powerful sensory and emotional impact. When a photograph offers resistance to true vision because it lacks a stimulating subject matter, perspective, or composition, it disavows the Rothkoesque notion of the “aesthetic” and “felt content” (something that I have come to call the “felt aesthetic”) as an essential condition and content of all art. In essence, a good composition, whether standard or idiosyncratic, instinctual or calculated, is the starting point for all photographers but it also becomes a tipping point for a natural and beautiful geometric harmony in the photograph that just looks and feels right.
3. Synthesis (Shaping Shutter Sense): The great thing about teaching composition is that we already have a roadmap we call “geometry”. There may or may not be many possible combinations that may work well for a particular scene but the challenge becomes in breaking apart the elements of a scene (analysis) to find balance and symmetry, a pleasing confluence of lines, shapes and forms that work well together (synthesis). Look for patterns, rhythms, contrast, textures, and lines (e.g., horizontal, vertical, converging and diagonal) when composing your shot. When studying the work of other photographers, figure out the geometry of the composition and why it works. Study where the eye starts and roves in the photo. Whether you are using minimal or multiple elements in your photo, less is always more (i.e., isolating a subject or grouping distinct subjects into a pattern). A more concrete example comes with the very act of viewing and moving with your camera to find elements that work together as part of the shaping process (i.e., continuous approximations to your final composition). Also, the act of squinting can help with recognizing patterns, forms, shapes, and overall compositions that work. It is the reason why taking multiple shots of a subject(s) can help you find harmony in your compositions. One of the things I also focus on with my students of architectural photography is a technique I call “hug a building today” (getting closer and closer to the building while noticing each unique perspective as you eventually “hug the building”). They are often amazed at the perspective. These simple exercises can help shape your composition.
4. Investigation (Perspective-Waiting & Reframing): The brain loves a good challenge. In fact, it loves the act of perceptual problem-solving as if putting together a puzzle to understand the whole picture. Every photo waiting to be made by you is a problem to be solved. This is why abstract or archistract art photography can be so appealing. You may have a photo on your desktop right now that has been sitting there for a month or more. That is not a bad sign as it helps provide some distance between your experience at the moment of taking the photo and the act of objectively evaluating the photo. This not to say that you should emotionally disengage from your primal feelings completely when you took the photograph, but there is an obvious reason why you took the photograph “that way” with that composition that allows you to feel something different about the scene. Sometimes, the act of letting your RAW photo “cool” or “breathe” (whatever analogy works for you) on your desktop is necessary for perspective and “figuring out” the best composition. The very act of cropping a 2:3 to a 1:1 (square) ratio format or rotating your photos can have profound effects. As much as I would always like to get it perfect straight out of camera, the reality is that sometimes you have to fiddle with it to get a great composition or perspective. There is a reason why the Old Masters kept painting over their canvases. It is the same for photographers.
“Some photographers take reality… and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.” – Ansel Adams
Context is one of the most important principles of photography because it is intimately linked to the photographer’s vision and voice and the possibility of avant-garde photography. In the simplest of terms, context is the way a photographer uses photographic and post-processing techniques to realize their own vision of beauty based on content and composition. In many ways, context is everything in photography simply because it sets the mood, it tells a story, and leads to discourse about the function of beauty through the artist’s visual interpretation and “final” statement about the world around them. It is autobiographical. It says something about how you see the world, how you would like the world to be, and why you want it to be that way. Vision is mostly about answering the WHY (and the WHY NOT) of art creation rather than the HOW or WHAT. There is this notion in the neurosciences that you can “reverse-engineer” art to understand the artist’s mind. That is, view the end product to understand the creative process, decision-making flow, and perceptions of the artist. We often think we need to view the “before” to understand the “after”. What if we focus on what was the “final touch” and peel back the layers? I think we can study art to understand the working of the mind and the artist’s behaviour much better.
5. Orientation (Pre & Post Visualization): Consider how you want things to be rather than what they are. This is where your creative imagination can alter reality and sculpt your photographic vision when you are in the field taking photos. This is where you study a subject and imagine what it would look like as your “final” edit or in black and white (you can also put your camera in b/w mode to “see” it this way). Compare your vision for the photograph “in the field” and “at the desktop”. Ask yourself why are they different. You will soon realize that both moments of vision tend to intersect well over time. How does that happen? It’s a self-reinforcing prophecy. What you are happy with as a final edit will be used as a template in the field. Your vision after you process your photos will act as a filter for seeing content differently with new compositions. This is where we start to think in themes or a series of photographs that work well together.
6. Negotiation (Metaphorical Thinking & Shifting Peaks). One of the easiest ways to captivate yourself and an audience as a photographer is not just to negotiate something new and different but to use some psychological principles that great artists have been using for centuries. The use of metaphors in photography can be powerful. When an object or objects can represent something else in composition (e.g., I often relate architectural compositions with Greek mythology), it says something about your unique vision. In other words, what else can that piece of architecture represent other than a building or what else can the use of blacks, whites and grays in different tones and contrasts say about your vision and why you chose to process the photo that way. Metaphorical titles can also do the same thing. When you look at some of the Masters of abstract painting, their titles sometimes say more than their paintings, but add so much to the value of voice and vision of the artist. Try an interesting title. You would be surprised by what that says about your vision. The other part of this equation is the fact that we often find distortions of a visual stimulus more exciting than the original stimulus. This is called the “peak shift” in neuroscience and the behaviour sciences. For example, we sometimes find long exposure clouds more interesting than regular clouds or isolating one part of a complex scene more interesting because it is not something we see every day. The surrealism of infrared photography and the simulated motion of objects in ICM (intentional camera movement) can have the same effect. Reality is “negotiable” to a photographer. The notion of sculpting or painting with light or creating something novel with a photographic or post-processing technique is a worthy exercise in vision itself. The negotiation also happens with the notion that nothing is really final in photography. We can take the same photograph we processed one time and re-process a different way to create different effects. Vision doesn’t always come to us like the Oracle of Delphi, but it is shaped over time with practical exercises.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
As much as there is an evolution of technical prowess that comes with photography (e.g., long exposure technique, post-processing, printing) that can offer us some level of confidence, there is also a psychology of self that evolves with it. Many photographers are stuck in their own heads about photography. Confidence comes from doing not thinking about doing. Here is a little experiment: the next time you feel “bad”, instead of thinking about your own thinking and believing everything you are telling yourself, sing your favourite song, dance, laugh, create more art, listen to music, etc. Do something pleasurable, interesting, fun. What happens? You tap into levels of reinforcement to activate your creativity once more by doing photography and not thinking about doing photography. You need to practice confidence to get confidence as a photographer. Put “fine art photographer” on your business card; enter award contests for the sake of entering such contests; engage with other photographers through social media and learn from them; and expose your talent like you mean it.
It’s interesting what you can tell about a person by their art. I think confidence is observable by someone’s evolution over time and their own verbal behaviour. We often see photographs and styles that imitate great masters in photography. Imitation is one of the first ways we learn in life. But what does that tell us about ourselves if we can not go beyond someone else’s vision or evolve in our own style? It is one of the main reasons that I am eclectic in my photography and try to practice and generalize my skills to other genres of photography that I may be uncomfortable with at first but soon learn that if you have aesthetic content, great composition, and an insightful context, confidence will soon follow. Some may believe that if you are a jack of all trades, then you must be a master of none. Since when should any one be governed by such a “rule” of human behaviour? In fact, it presupposes a rule of human excellence that is utterly limiting to everyone. I wholeheartedly believe in quite the opposite philosophy: “Master your passions and you will have few regrets” because it speaks to confidence and commitment. If I am going to do something, I am going to see it through to its zenith.
“Passion is the currency of commitment; practice is the necessary price; and the pinnacle you create is your own reward ” – Me
There is something you have to realize right away: not everyone is going to like your photography as much as you do. Guess what: That’s okay! If we compare ourselves to other photographers rather than strive to better our own photography, we missed the point of photography in the first place: you do it because you love it. Many of us seek exposure for our photography through social media. If you are fixated on numbers (how many followers, how many likes, how many awards, how many publications, etc.), and you do not get them the way you hoped, should you quit and start a long road to self-contemplation in Plato’s allegorical cave? I think not. If you take a different perspective, you will soon realize that every photographer has a bell curve of across social media engagement of “likes” or “+1’s” where the percentage changes based on your commitment to evolve in your art. This is not to say that you need to promote yourself 24 hours a day but Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis in his book “Outliers” about the 10, 000 rule of committed practice, which comes with opportunity, before you can be considered “expert” in your field holds some value. However, for me, photography is not a goal but a value like “being a great father”.
There is a reason why I offered a quote from famous photographers for each of my components of photographic vision and then offered my own quote: commitment breeds confidence, and confidence comes from knowing that there is no such word as “can’t” in photography when it is an absolute passion. As for my own commitment, photography had me at the first reinforcing “click” (a play on the Jerry Maguire movie line “you had me at hello” ). I am lost and found in the pursuit of its promises to fulfill my artistic side.
Did you notice that the vision exercises spelled “VISION”? Thank you for taking the time from your busy day to read this.