The art of seeing

For me, one of the more challenging aspects of photography has been learning to see. It is relatively easy (especially now even cheap cameras are so capable) to achieve sufficient mastery of the technical aspects to take photos that have the expected qualities; but actually visualising subjects in a creative and fresh way is very much harder, and something that I suspect most of us never perfect.

There are some things we can all do to help the process: for example, using a tripod to force ourselves to take time framing a shot, or using a card with a rectangular cutout as a framing aid. The more time you take to look and think, the less you need to do this – I almost instinctively home in on things I want to capture now – but it’s taken me years of practice to get there. It also helps to ration yourself to a few considered frames at a given location, rather than blazing away at everything.

Unless you are very unlucky, I expect you share with me the occasional thrill of coming across a subject that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck (and like me, sometimes, you left the camera behind!) That moment when you think “Yes!”, and know that you can’t wait to print the resulting shot.

But more often than not, a little intellectual effort is necessary to find the best angle, the best light, or the best framing, which is one of the things that sorts out the serious photographer from the snapshooter.

(I’m not demeaning snapshots at all: they are often great fun and have serious meaning to the person that took them – we all have at least some tucked away. But few of them stand the test of being art as well.)

Anyway – why am I rambling on like this? I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take a few photos that I have admired over the years and analyse why I think they work. You may not agree with me, or have different takes on the same image – if so, please email me and I’ll add comments here.

Iceland Fjord

Here’s the first one, taken by the late Michael Reichmann of the Luminous Landscape on his 2004 summer workshop:

Michael Reichmann - Iceland Fjord
Michael Reichmann – Iceland Fjord

On first glance, the casual observer might see just a pretty scene of mountains, sky and water, then move on to something brighter. But look more closely at the lyrical associations of colour and form: the shape harmony of the cloud and wind riffles in the sea, the reversed echo of the dark reflected mountains and the light clouds, and the low land on the horizon recalled by the nearby patch of rough water.

Then there are contrasts – for example of texture: the rough velvet of the hillsides, frosted areas of calm water and rippled matt areas. All this is achieved in a subtle, restricted palette of harmonious pale cyan, gold and brown.

This is definitely not an image that you’d find on a biscuit tin (when emerald grass, turquoise water and blinding snowy peaks spring to mind) – but how much more rewarding it is to contemplate.

Near Hartsop, English Lake District

The next one is by Pete Saunders – a virtual acquaintance of mine whose style I greatly admire. Unfortunately both his web sites are now defunct, so I can’t point you to any other examples.

Pete Saunders - Near Hartsop
Pete Saunders – Near Hartsop

Apart from the immaculate composition (of which more later), I love the quirky humour of this scene: I guess it takes a Brit to find pleasure in a deserted bus stop in such a glorious location. So, why does it appeal so much to me? There is the obvious majesty of the scenery, but it’s the way the whole thing hangs together that is the strongest feature.

The wispy clouds echo the dust on the tarmac, and there is a whole series of lines and edges swirling into a point about a third of the way from the bottom right corner: the walls, the verge, the line on the road, the slope of the sunlit hill at the left. And then there are the interlocking shapes of the foreground, the shadowed wall, and the fell behind lending depth. The fell’s brooding mass is balanced by the gentler slopes of the nearby land, and the shadowed walls left and right add another touch of almost-symmetry. Then we have the whimsical punctuation of the homely bus stop and a sunlit gate as focal points.

Doubtless, many others have stopped here, and probably taken a snap or two: but how many shared Pete’s vision, and his inspiration to include the bus stop as a finishing touch? That’s what I mean by the art of seeing!


The last one is by Seymour Rogansky, another virtual acquaintance of mine who shares my love of the north west of Scotland, and has a distinctive style. His site is here.

Seymour Rogansky - Sutherland
Seymour Rogansky – Sutherland

When I asked Seymour if I could add one of his images to this page, he told me I could choose any from the gallery on his web site. I was spoilt for choice, but this one kept nagging at the back of my mind, and although it is not necessarily the most spectacular or immediately appealing one there, it has something about it that I find irresistible.

The radiating clouds almost mirror the tidal patterns of sand on the beach, so here is an example of when symmetry (partial in this case) makes a photo. There is a semi-symmetry in the horizontal too: the two interlocking spits of land in the distance, which pin down the swirling shapes of sky and beach, and also give, by their relationship, a further sense of depth and distance.

The dramatic treatment given to the sky in this black and white image accentuates the mood of course, but for me, the thing that gives me a frisson of pleasure every time I look is the skirling lines of light sand in the foreground. There is something so satisfying and yet simple in this natural abstract; but look closely, and you see a line of footprints, so even this wild place is marked by humans.

Which brings me tangentially to another aspect of the appeal of a photo: if it is of (or like) a place we know ourselves, it takes on an extra layer of significance. As I have visited such beaches often myself, perhaps it’s that little twinkle of recognition that does it for me? Let me know what you think.

A note on the tyranny of the rule of thirds

One of the phrases trotted out most often by well-meaning photography critiquers is the Rule of Thirds. Classical theory of composition actually talks about the Golden Mean or Golden Section: a harmonious proportion for locating key elements in a design on an 8:5 proportion (actually, 1.618033989, but who’s counting?). This has, I imagine, been repackaged for the non-mathematicians among us as the Rule of Thirds, which states that a design element located at one of the four intersections of a regular 3×3 grid on the canvas is more pleasing than something elsewhere. Hmm. Like all rules, you need to know when to break it. Sometimes, perfect lateral or vertical symmetry makes an image and deliberately de-centring it is a silly thing to do; and some subjects are not susceptible to such geometric analysis anyway.

James Murray - Kingman, Arizona (Rustic Gathering #7521)
James Murray – Kingman, Arizona (Rustic Gathering #7521)

Part II  – See what I think of some more images, starting with this one.