If you close your eyes, point your camera in any direction, and take a picture, I’m willing the bet the photo won’t be a success. Unless you’re doing some artsy “blindfolded photography” project, it completely lacks intent or any engagement with the scene in front of you.
It’s not like that’s a common thing photographers do, but I wanted to mention it as the most extreme example of not perceiving things in photography. It’s hardly more personal than a security camera or a photo you took by accident.
But it’s something we can build from. The obvious step above the blindfolded approach is to take a photo of an actual subject: notice something, point your camera at it, and capture a quick photo.
That’s sure to lead to a better photo than the prior approach most of the time, but it’s not yet a recipe for success. While your photo does at least have a reason to exist this time – it reproduces something you saw – it still lacks artistic intent, and you’re only engaging with the subject / perceiving it at a very surface level.
The next level (where I hope that most photographers at least start) is to notice something, point your camera at it, and make some basic decisions about the shot, such as your exposure and an initial composition. It may not be a masterpiece, but you’re putting some thought into how you want the photo to look and not look. This is a good starting point, and it shows some degree of “working with the scene” – trying to perceive what’s in front of you at a more meaningful level.
The next step up is to find something worth photographing. You must rule out a lot of subjects that won’t make a good photo and deliberately search for subjects that will.
That involves seeing things from a slightly different perspective. Sometimes, what looks good in a photo isn’t all that noteworthy in the real world, and you might skip over it if you’re not paying close attention. An example that comes to my mind is one waterfall in Iceland (Kirkjufellsfoss) that a million people photograph every year. It looks amazing in photos, but when I visited it a few years ago, I couldn’t help but think it didn’t look as interesting in person, especially compared to Iceland’s other breathtaking waterfalls. Without the internet, I doubt I’d have ever realized there was a photo to be had there.
Some subjects are the opposite, where they look amazing in person but don’t fully translate to photos. I find that many landscapes are this way on a bright, sunny day around noon. These can be great conditions for hiking and enjoying the scenery, but their lighting conditions may not be anything interesting for photography. (I’m not saying they’re always bad conditions for photos, though.)
In any case, finding a worthwhile subject is as important as it gets. It takes practice to differentiate between an interesting sight in the real world and an interesting subject for a photo. Another way to describe this process is engaging with what’s in front of you and shifting your perspective from an onlooker to a photographer.
With some basic compositional, exposure, and post-processing decisions, you can get a good photo of interesting subjects even if you don’t do anything else particularly special. The subject’s own merits – which you noticed and framed the shot around – are enough to carry a lot of images reasonably far.
I hardly did anything special for the photo below other than recognize and point my lens at an interesting subject. This method leaves a lot to be desired in photography, but if the subject is interesting enough, it can still give you some solid photos.
What I consider the “highest level” of perception as a photographer is to be on the same page as your subject, where you know (consciously or subconsciously) how to portray it as best as possible. You’re capturing the composition and the light which best complement your subject. The camera settings and the technical side of things are optimal for how you want the photo to look. And you’re post-processing and displaying the photo in a way that conveys your message as well as possible.
This level of perception in photography is aspirational; it is almost impossible to actually achieve. You’ll rarely have “perfect” light, a “perfect” subject, a “perfect” composition, and so on, and you don’t need to. What I’m talking about instead is simply perceiving more about your subject – engaging with the scene and realizing how to capture it better in a photo (or realizing if it’s not even worth photographing in the first place). The more tuned-in you are to what’s in front of the lens, the better results you’ll get.
The final thing I want to emphasize is that despite my snappy captions – “the thoughtless photographer,” “the more engaged photographer,” etc. – you are not a member of one of these categories. You’re not a “level 3” or “level 4” photographer; there is no such thing. Rather, all of these are modes that every single photographer assumes at different times! Heck, the same photographer took all five photos in this article (me), and all except for the last shot were taken within an hour of each other. It’s not like my skills improved from “level 0” to “level 3” in less than an hour; I just started actually paying attention and perceiving the subject in front of me. If you find yourself taking too many “level 1” shots, it’s not that you’re a bad photographer, it’s that you need to clear your head and start engaging more with the scene. (Though if you find yourself taking too many “level 0” shots, there may be a problem…)
In an upcoming article, I’ll go through some of the techniques that I’ve found helpful for perceiving a subject better and taking stronger photos as a result. Keep an eye out for part two, “How to Make a Photo Feel More Deliberate.”
Of course digital makes level 1 so much easier to churn out and pray an occasional level 2 appears by accident. Currently I’m just a newbie trying to learn all the things required to be a thoughtful photographer. Once I’ve acquired more skills and knowledge, hopefully I’ll remember to be thoughtful.
I’d be curious to see a level 5 photo…
Be glad you never have. Level 5 photos are known to melt a photographer’s eyes and warp their souls.
Helpful. Thank you very much.
Struggling to Reach Level Three Photographer
It may not apply in your situation, but my usual recommendation in cases like that is not to rush when you’re in the field. Slow down and just soak in the scene for a while. Then try out lots of different compositions and move around before settling on one. Give yourself time to think about your subject and how it might look the best.
I have been trying your very good advice. It really helps! Thank you. Re=reading the article helps too!
Good, interesting article. I think the level 4 photo would be more effective if it had obviously been a crop of the Level 3 or earlier photo. The Level 3 photo seems to have two subjects, the mountains and the “castle”. Thoughtful article. Thanks!
Glad you liked it! I actually wanted the level 4 sample photo to be from the same location (the Great Wall of China) but didn’t take any photos there that I think are good enough. A crop of the level 3 photo could be an improvement though.
I do not say this in any self-inflating way, but this is the part of photography that has always been easy for me. I have always asked myself how does one teach this ephemeral subject l to someone to whom it is not innate. Like you, Spencer, I believe it can be taught. What I believe is that photographers have to open themselves to their spiritual side, and find their ability to connect and empathize through the viewfinder and into the scene. What helps me is to pan my lens around a scene that I think has potential until something says ‘this is it’, usually accompanied by a little zing of excitement. That becomes the shot. If that moment doesn’t come, I go find something else to shoot somewhere else. These things can’t be forced. If they are, they almost always end up as duds. I guess that boils what I am saying down into a rule that I follow, which is ‘never marry a scene’.
Yes! I think we’ve talked about this a bit before. You’re much more on the “subconscious flow” side of things and I’m on the “deliberate work” side of things. Both can lead to good photos – but I think I’m the type of person who you describe where it definitely was not innate for me! I’ve found the refining process to be the most successful way to teach composition for those like me (i.e., shoot, look for flaws in your shot, refine the composition, and repeat until the light is gone)!
Sorry, Spencer. I don’t believe it. Your beautiful black mountain next to the sea photo could not have been captured without a spiritual understanding of what was in front of you. Of course photos must be refined. I am completely with you there. I refine like crazy. I am by no means a ‘get it right in camera’ person. I crop and correct along with everyone else, as well as take multiple photos to find my best one. But composition is definitely innate for you, and you ought to own that. I also believe that composition can be taught as it certainly must be learned. No one is born making masterpieces. I just happen to believe that we all must find that part of ourselves that comes from inside in order to advance. I also think that it can come to us just through sheer practice and repetition, so long as we recognize it when it happens. Then we must learn how to use it! That is where the technical learning comes in, which you are a master at teaching. I know that I’ve learned so much from you over all these years. So I believe that we are on the same page after all!
Fine piece Spencer. Personally, makes me think of the art of spiritual photography, ie. Masao Yamamoto’s work.
Thank you, Ralph! Wow, I just looked up Masao Yamamoto. That’s some amazing work.
Good article, Spencer. Coming from the film era as I do, I don’t take many photos of a scene (perhaps wasting the chance to refine my photos in the field, as is so possible with digital), and try to stop, look, SEE, and photograph with intent.
I think that’s an advantage of film, or at least the film mindset. Approach every photo as if it deserves to be as good as possible.
I get where you’re coming from Spencer and think you lay out the case. Not everything written is poetry, so it is with photography. Where I may differ is that a subject worth “taking” is not always due to the perfect properties of the subject (light, condition, scene drama), but up to the image maker. Aspirational imagery should not be dependent on how good the subject is, but how the content is made good by connecting with it internally (consciously or subconsciously) and expressing that excitement.
Thanks Paul. You raise a great question. How much of a good photo is down to the photographer, and how much is dependent on the subject’s own merits? I tend to think it’s about 50/50, although more like 100/0 in favor of the photographer if you include “searching for good subjects and conditions” as part of the photographer’s purview.
Either way, to me, some subjects are just better for photography than others – even to the degree than a novice can take a good photo of them without much effort. But I like hearing the opposite perspective. Certainly the better photographer that someone is, the better photos they’ll take regardless of subject.
Perhaps a bit far-fetched but I would like to see a piece on subjects regardless of lighting “not good for photography” – human and otherwise within taste limits of course. Obviously this would be “photographer’s purview” but still interesting.
We take pictures to remember and remembering is living again, but we must learn to see, otherwise we will relive only the stones on the road.
Learning to see… to me, that’s what photography really is!
Great way to look at the topic! Especially because you assume the perspective of the photographer, who wants to improve. I feel like taking photographs mostly at level 2, sometimes at level 3 and never at level 4. At least not deliberately.
There seems to be an abundance of books, tutorials, guides,… that start at the finished picture and explain all the components that make it a good or even great one in a kind of retrospective.
Instead, it would be far more helpful to give support in the moment of decision. The guide could remind you of some steps to take, point out choices, show a bunch of different compositions and explain, how some of them support the message while others do less so. I remember your article about how you approached the photograph of that iceblock by the sea. That was one of the most helpful articles I have read so far!
Many guides seem to limit itself to those elements like composition, lighting, etc. while they should start at the perception first and only then go on to how that perception can be conveyed and supported by those tools. Anyway, that abstract term “message” gave me headaches for a long time. Many authors seem to avoid really teaching that term. And teaching is more than giving a definition but rather help to grasp it.
A few days ago on photographylife.com/photo…tion-books, I wrote a quite negative comment about Mark Silbers “Secrets of Creating Amazing Photos”. While I still don’t like the book, it probably was the completely wrong book for me. Maybe after my lengthy comment here, you can give me a recommendation that might be better suited for me?
Thank you, Alexander. Level 4 is aspirational anyway and probably not totally possible, but I think it’s an important target.
I can tell that you’re putting a lot of thought into how to improve these sorts of things, which is great. I honestly don’t know of a book that shows a photographer’s process of going from a bad photo to a great photo of the same scene. When I wrote that article a few months back (here for anyone’s reference: photographylife.com/lands…ng-process ) the remarkable comments I got in response convinced me that there’s a lack of photographers showing that process.
My favorite photography book so far is The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum. It doesn’t go through the refining process, but it spends pages upon pages outlining the meaning and practice behind “seeing” and perceiving the scene for its merits. After which you take what you perceived and pour it into your photo (which is what I consider the message to be). I’m not sure if it’s quite what you’re asking about, so maybe check out a copy at the library before buying it.
Thank you for the recommendation! I will give it a try!