As a photographer, you may think of yourself as an observer. It’s an easy mindset to fall into because that is sort of what we do. We go through this world looking for things to photograph. We watch, we wait for the right moment, photographing the objects and actions that stand out to us. And there is often a disconnect there. We are not part of the scene. We are merely the observer of the scene.
But, immersion is important, even though it is an often overlooked step. Part of what we photograph is emotion or a particular thought. So, how can we do that if we ourselves are outside the scene looking in? When we immerse ourselves, invest our emotions into the things that we are experiencing, connect with the scenes, that is how we learn them better. That experience, that knowledge is key. It is essential if you really want to pour meaning and depth into your photography.
That connection doesn’t always come easily, however. Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject, ideas that may help you make that connection with the things that you photograph.
Photographers, of course, need to know how their gear operates, how to make adjustments to various settings and so forth. What’s not so obvious is how you should use your camera to see. There’s only a couple of options: the viewfinder or the live view. The trick is to pick the one that works best for you.
For instance, some people prefer shooting with the live view. Why? Because to them, peering through a narrow viewfinder shuts them off from the world, breaks that connection they’ve made with the scene. Now, they are no longer a part of their surroundings, but a stranger, examining through a microscope.
On the flip side of that, other photographers prefer the viewfinder. They may find it easier to immerse themselves in this way because the viewfinder minimizes distractions. The photographer who prefers the viewfinder wishes to prioritize the things that he or she is looking at, connecting with the objects that are most relevant while blocking the distracting things, like cars passing on a nearby highway.
Experiment with both methods and choose the one that works best for you. It won’t be the same between all photographers. In fact, it may not be the same from one scene to the next. Simply be aware that the way you look at the world through your camera can affect how you connect with your surroundings.
Some photographers would rather be alone when they are creating art. A companion, even a spouse, as well loved as they are, prove to be a distraction. Chatter intrudes and the solitary photographer loses the train of thought. Others find comfort in the companionship, finding themselves more open to experiences when others are around. They’ll bounce ideas back and forth, engage in conversation until they’ve come up with something good.
Comfort is important – not only in your choice of companions or lack thereof but also in your other choices as well. If your shoes are pinching, you’ll be less focused on what is around you. A camera bag that is too heavy proves to be annoying and exhausting. Take water, a couple of granola bars so that you can eat and drink as you need.
Whether it’s your companions, your choice of gear or anything else, think about the choices you’ll make as you prepare for a photo outing. Make yourself as comfortable as possible so that you can avoid the distractions that would normally remove you from your environment.
Let’s say that you’ve traveled to a beautiful place — a forest of massive trees, a canyon. Anywhere that interests you. Should you start snapping photos as soon as you get there so as to not waste time? Maybe not. Instead, take the time to fully experience your surroundings. Sit down against a tree trunk or a boulder, look, listen and learn. You’ll notice details you hadn’t seen before and more importantly, you’ll come to better understand how a place feels. With that knowledge, you can better capture its essence.
This holds true for most types of photography. If you’re photographing crowds of people, get into the thick of things. Don’t merely observe, separating yourself from the scene. Become part of it because that is the only way to learn and feel the things that you need to document not only shapes and colors but thoughts and feelings. This is why sports photographers are on the sidelines, not high in the stands with a telephoto lens. Closer is always better and that’s not just a rule to create better exposures. It also applies to the understanding of your subject material.
Think of it this way: An actor, when learning a new part, often finds a way to live that part before acting it. So, if an actor is practicing for a character that comes from a certain region, he might spend weeks or months in that region, living it, learning the mannerisms and the details that will bring his character to life. Learning your scene is not so different from this. You immerse yourself in it, learn what you can about it and then photograph it with this new perspective.
The main idea to remember is that the connection you make with the people, places, and things that you photograph is all important. Perhaps some of the things I’ve mentioned here will help you make that connection. But, even if not, don’t lose hope! You’ll surely find other ways to connect on a deeper level as you practice your art.