I sometimes think that the photographers who lived 200 years ago had it easy. Photography as an art form was completely uncharted territory, so every image these pioneers created was something new and wonderful. Today, nearly everyone has a camera, whether it’s a professional DSLR or a mobile phone camera.
So, with hundreds of thousands of images being created every day, how do you come up with something that hasn’t been done before? How does today’s photographer create something that can truly be considered art? Ernst Haas, one of the world’s most admired photojournalists, put it best when he said, “I am not interested in shooting new things – I am interested to see things new.”
You’ll often hear this philosophy by another name: the photographer’s eye. And, indeed, there is a book of the same name by John Szarkowski that uses examples of history’s most famous photographs to teach and inspire budding photographers.
In short, the photographer’s eye is not simply blind adherence to the Rule of Thirds or other laws of composition, and it’s definitely not about owning the best gear money can buy or learning the latest and greatest processing techniques. Instead, the photographer’s eye is a way of looking at everyday ordinary objects, finding something new and extraordinary about them and using that discovery to create something amazing.
The first step is to look at art – lots of it. Don’t limit yourself to specific genres, subjects or time periods. Look at antique daguerreotypes and modern digital images. Follow the work of photojournalists, portrait artists, nature photographers and more. By looking at what has gone before, you’ll start to develop a sense of not only what art admirers enjoy, but also what makes an image timeless.
As you’re studying the works of others, create your own images. If there is one advantage that modern photographers have, it’s that we are only limited by the space on our memory cards. So go out and take as many photos as you can, and analyze them critically. Do your images leave you with certain feelings, or do they somehow tell a story? Is there something about the play of colors or light and shadow that fascinates you? Compare them to the work of photographers you admire to see how they stack up – not only technically, but also emotionally.
Seeing something new in a subject that has been photographed thousands of times takes an incredible depth of knowledge about that subject. Let’s say that you’re in the woods, and you’ve found a rushing stream that you’d like to photograph. Before pressing the shutter, find a nice rock or log and sit down. Spend time – an hour, a day or however much time you have – just taking in your surroundings.
Listen to the sounds of the stream, the wind in the trees and the fleeting birdsong around you. Take in the fresh scents and examine how they make you feel about the scene before you. Watch the water playing over rocks or swirling around tree roots. Touch tree bark, rocks and foliage to get a feel for the myriad textures in this vista. Enjoy the colors you find and take the time to look for contrasts between light and dark. Once you’ve studied all the elements at play before you, then you can start looking for the image within them. With luck, you’ll have found something about the scene that no one else has noticed.
But what if your subject is a person? To create a portrait, you need the same intimate knowledge of your subject, but the acquisition of that knowledge comes a bit differently. You’ll want to spend time talking with your subject and getting to know them on a personal level – not only to help them feel more comfortable in front of your lens, but also to get a sense of your subject’s personality so that you can bring it out in your images.
Sometimes, though, there just isn’t time to become acquainted with your subject. Take, for example, event photography or wedding photography. It’s impossible to learn all about the entire wedding party – let alone the guests – prior to the big event. To create artistic images of those sudden special moments, you’ll need to practice on someone else. The best way to do this is to watch other people. Go to a public place like a park or mall and simply watch how people interact with each other. Before long, you’ll be able to pick out those fleeting moments and turn them into works of art.
To develop the “photographer’s eye,” there is a lot that you’ll need to learn. You’ll also need to remember that this is not a skill that you will develop overnight or in the course of a year’s work. Even the world’s greatest photographers are constantly learning and developing their skills so that they can continually create groundbreaking images.