Seeing

First posted 1 October 2009

Looking around on the web I see many, many photographers who are producing sharp, well exposed shots and many of them are very competent photographers.
Often though, there is something missing; Too many of the shots are just BORING.
Making an image which is sharp and well exposed is the easy part, making an image which affects people, which has that certain ’something’ is another matter.

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Kitchen table and sunlight

So how do you develop (I know it’s a pun) a way of seeing?

Well, that depends on a few things; Where you are, what there is to photograph there and what you are interested in. Are you new to it and enthusiastic, or set in your ways?

Seeing is an important part of it, although not the full story -but I’ll come back to that in a minute…
What are you looking for? perhaps you have been looking in the wrong place?

The most common mistake is to concentrate too much on ‘what it is’ -the subject matter, the thing or person in front of the lens.
That may seem like a perverse statement, but let me expand on that.

The single most important element in Photography is Shape, not the subject matter. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as the shape looks good. If you get too fixated on the subject you lose sight of that. The second most important element in photography is Light. As I sit writing this I can see some interesting light on the curtains and I know it would make a decent shot. Curtains are not an interesting subject in themselves, but the way the light plays across them just now makes them so.
The third most important element is Tone, how the tonal range is distributed over the frame.
Photography (and this applies to monochrome mainly) is about shapes and tones within a delineated area, whether that be a square, a rectangle or even a circle. If you pay attention to that, you can photograph anything.
Go and look at some really good photography now and see it in the terms I have described, you will begin to see things very differently.
There is one other thing that I need to mention; To be able to see the good stuff you need to be able to spot the bad stuff! You need to cultivate a highly developed sense of the naff, the corny and tasteless, the boring and cliched. If you can spot it quickly you can avoid photographing it.

I said that seeing is important, but not the whole story, the missing part is presentation. I could show you my best shot, but if it was on poor quality paper and badly mounted in a crap frame it wouldn’t merit a second glance. Conversely, I could show you a simple image as a beautiful platinum print, mounted and framed professionally and it would be far more desirable.
It doesn’t have to be platinum, it could be a print on a good quality Fibre Based paper or an art paper ink-jet. It does however need to be presented as an object of beauty, so don’t use poor quality materials. One of my pet hates is seeing a low quality RC print with glaring whites in a cream coloured mount -Yuck!

Dried noodles

There are plenty of good papers out there, both darkroom and digital, though what is great for one type of image, might look wrong for another. choose your paper to suit the picture.

Think about how the space around the image helps to present it. Narrow borders make you look at the centre of the image, very wide borders make you look at the edge of the image. If you get the proportion right, the full area is taken in by the eye.
Make sure your quality control is high, don’t make do with unfinished prints, make sure your borders are properly square not wonky and don’t think that people won’t notice dust marks on your pictures, – they will. Your laziness will be noticed by others and their impression of you will go down.

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