There are times when I almost believe that if I buy a better camera or a different set of lenses I could make better photographs. Yet I know that this is no more accurate than saying that buying a bigger or more expensive car will make me a better driver. Essentially, photography is an art form carried out by technical means, therefore it is by becoming more proficient in the technical aspects of the craft that we will begin to make better photographs. But that is only part of the story. The other part involves the mind of the photographer, the photographer’s vision or intent. Although we do, and should, strive for technical excellence (there is nothing worse than a ‘bad’ photograph!), I do think that individuality is equally important. Our vision, our intent as we shoot our images, is what brings individuality to our photography craft.
Helen Keller said, “It is terrible to see and have no vision.” Vision is something that belongs in the mind of each individual, it is how we see, it is what we see that others don’t see, and in photography our photographs are how we express that vision to others. In order to communicate our vision we need to spend time reflecting on that vision, thinking about our intent as we make our photographs. Randomly taking photographs will not express our vision. We need to look at our work in progress and think about where we go next. This reflection can take place any time, not just on a photography shoot. In fact, it is much better done away from the camera so that we can experience our creative space.
What is vision?
Our vision is our personal way of looking at the world. We can ask ourselves why we want to take photographs. Why did we start this craft in the first place? Our honest answer to these questions will illuminate our vision. If we want something more from our photography than just snapshots then it is likely that we have some vision for our work, some intent for our photography. It is easy to see why vision could make a difference to the images we make, as without vision we have nothing to inspire us, nothing to motivate us to change this or that to see if it will make a difference to the final image. Our vision is our motivator, it is what gets us beyond commonplace images as we strive to express our own personal view of the world through pictures.
Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. Jonathan Swift
Recently, I have been reading a lot about the vision aspect of photography as I believe it is an area for improvement that goes hand in hand with technical improvement. When I started my photography journey I didn’t really have a vision or an idea of what I would like to photograph. I soon found that the question, ‘What type of photography do you like?’ was the most often asked question so I began to think about what I liked to photograph. Initially I was taking pictures of landscapes, and I really like that area of photography. I also found myself drawn to making simple images and to trying out new techniques with different aperture and shutter speeds. I thought I wouldn’t like flower photography but discovered, when I tried it, that as a medium it had a lot to offer. I experimented with close up photography and I know I haven’t even begun to realise the potential which this area of photography has to offer. As I progressed from week to week, getting out there and capturing the images to which I was drawn, I began to clarify my vision, refine my intent and discover my preferences.
Much has been written on vision in photography by photographer and writer David duChemin, who has written a number of books and blogs on the subject. He believes that,
“Vision is the beginning and end of photography. It’s the thing that moves you to pick up the camera, and it determines what you look at and what you see when you do. It determines how you shoot and why. Without vision, the photographer perishes.” (Within the Frame, The Journey of Photographic Vision. David duChemin)
I recently completed an exercise from duChemin’s ‘The Visual Toolbox’, in which my task was to sit down with my favourite photographs to see what they have in common, looking for hints about how I see the world and ‘intuitively try to express that.’ What I discovered is that my favourite images are of small things, parts of flowers or plants, hidden landscapes. I love finding beautiful things in unusual places, seeing beauty around me in the ever-changing landscape and in things that ordinarily go unnoticed. I love to see swans glide up and down the river. I love flowers and parts of flowers, even dying flowers. I love waterfalls and water flowing in tiny streams. I love to catch an unusual action or expression and to tell ordinary stories of people and animals through my images. On the technical level, I love blurry backgrounds and freezing the motion of water. Doing this assignment has helped me to recognise my vision and will go towards enabling me to refine that vision as I shoot my images, which hopefully, in conjunction with technical learning, will help improve my photography.
To go back to DuChemin, he claims that the photographs that mean the most ‘are the ones made in that tension of learning to express your vision.’ This suggests that expressing vision is not easy. It may be challenging but it is part of our photographic journey, part of our way of grappling with how we see the world and making images to convey that view to others. And because our vision is not something that others can see, finding and expressing our vision is a process that we have to go through by ourselves. Part of the work is reflecting on our vision, knowing what our vision is, what it looks like, even how it is changing, the other part is getting out and making images that try to express that vision. These two aspects of the process are interdependent. Reflecting on our work leads us to taking new approaches and trying new things, while creating new images leads us back to reflecting on what we have created and seeing how it fits with our overall vision. For me, one way of reflecting on my vision is writing about the topic in this blog, so blogging has become an important element in my photographic journey and has helped me become more passionate about the photographs I make.
Occasionally, I find on a photo shoot that there is nothing to take, nothing ‘calls’ me and I go home empty handed or with a few shots of which I am not very proud. At other times something will call me and I will do anything I can to frame the perfect shot for myself. In photography, every time we line up our shot - choose the location, angle, light, distance - every time we wait a moment, adjust our focus, change direction, every time we move a little closer, move to the left or to the right, every time we include or exclude something from our picture, it is an expression of our vision, of how we see the world, of what is important to us. Even the images we end up deleting are not total rejects - they teach us something about what we want and don't want, how we want our image to be, what we need to do to achieve that image.
I remember taking this shot - I was on a photo shoot experimenting with depth of field. I almost ended up falling down a grassy bank in my effort to get this image, but it was the one I wanted! It expresses something of myself at that moment in time, how I felt about that particular image that I nearly injured myself trying to capture it!
“Photographs are everywhere. The destination is much less important than the vision you bring to it.” – Dan Carr.