Have you ever wondered why some photographers just seem to have a knack for what they’re doing? It’s almost as if they have some sixth sense for photography, an uncanny ability to pick anything of interest from a scene and make it stand out. I believe we all have the ability to see what they see. I don’t think it’s rocket science. You just need to try out this simple fifteen minute exercise.
So what is it? In a word, I want you to sit back and observe your surroundings. Don’t do anything at all. Do not pick up your camera. Do not pass GO. Do not set anything up. For the next fifteen minutes, your job is to notice everything going on around you. Take some time and pay attention to the light. Watch your subject in action (or not in action at all if you’re doing still life or landscapes). Simply allow the ideas to flow to you.
I know this sounds a little hippy dippy and new age. If you’re not the meditative type, just think of it as preparation. That’s really what this is about. You are taking mental field notes of what is going on around you. They don’t have to be anything spectacular. Sometimes I notice a place is too cluttered, and I need to go somewhere else. Sometimes I notice the speed at which a waterfall is moving, and I use it to calibrate my shutter speed.
Literally sit back for fifteen minutes and notice everything going on. If it helps, bring a pen and a piece of paper with you to write it down. I don’t usually take notes, but it can help to organize your thoughts if you’re into it. Here is a handy list of things I’m usually paying attention to.
- Light intensity
- Light direction
- Textures on subject
- Interesting patterns
- Geometry and shapes
- Presence/absence of foreground elements
- Type of light (diffuse, direct, etc.)
- Small details that could look interesting close up
- Framing possibilities (how can I get my photo to follow the rule of thirds?)
- Angles above and below my subject
- Reflections in glass or eyewear
- Presence/absence of clouds and weather
- The effect of my lens on my subject (is there distortion? etc.)
- Mood of the setting
- How my subject is feeling in the given situation
As you can see, there is a lot to think about. I probably haven’t even covered the half of it. So many things can go right or wrong in a photo. A great photographer is someone who is always taking mental notes on it all. The more complex your understanding of a photo becomes, the more likely you are to produce an outstanding image.
Make sure you spend the whole 15 minutes just looking and planning. Don't take any photos, and don't stop after 10 minutes and think you're done. Often, it's when I think I've seen everything, I notice a different angle, or a different lighting pattern I didn't see before that made the best image.
Stop and smell the roses
I learned this one from my many days in commercial photography. The client usually has a certain idea of what he or she wants to see. You still need to deliver that image to the client (you are getting paid, right?), but sometimes the singular desire to get something very specific can blind you to everything else that is out there.
Even if you’re in a rush, it still helps to slow down and see what’s around you before beginning. Sometimes it’s not so much about creating something you envision beforehand. There are plenty of times when it is better to create the best image for a given situation. That’s what this fifteen minute exercise is really about.
Once those fifteen minutes are over, it’s time to setup your shot. By this time, I’ve usually noticed at least a dozen different things going on. Each observation is tied to an action I will eventually take. Perhaps I’ll put a reflector on one side of my subject, or I’ll open up the aperture to emphasize the texture of someone’s sweater.
Some people like to jot down a camera adjustment they might make for each thing they find. It’s not a bad idea. Here's some written notes from the last few photos I took:
- Snowy weather. Turn up exposure compensation. Stay close to subject. Use manual focus. Make sure subject is adequately clothed and warm.
- Flat light. Include objects and scenes that break up the light. Shoot bright colors.
- Sun angled behind and to the right. Line up the subject in front and to the left.
- It’s crowded. Go find an area that’s a little quieter and out of the way.
- Subject is wearing sunglasses. Find a lower angle to shoot from, one that doesn’t include me as the photographer in the reflection.
- Middle of the day. It’s probably okay to use no flash. Set the ISO to 100.
These are your observations. If you’re the note taking type, go ahead and write something down every time you notice something new. Over the course of a year, you’ll be amazed at how your observations change. All that in just 15 minutes. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.
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