Lesson 1: Learning to see and learning what you can see.
The great teachers and performers in photography usually agree that the biggest barrier to good photos is not the camera or lens used, not your settings like ISO and f/ stop, etc. The greatest barrier to good photos is ...not seeing... or not seeing well. More precisely, it is not seeing and not visualizing the kind of photo output you are trying to create. The "superficial looker," the 'Superficial Photographer,' is one who simply photographs objects. That building, those flowers, Aunt Martha, the waterfall, and so on. "Well, isn't that what photography is? What more is there?" - A whole lot more, it turns out.
The Excellent Photographer - most professionals, the contest winners and the like - sees things beyond or in addition to the subject as a unit. There are two main levels: First, when he or she sees objects in their field of view, they see them not as a bunch of flowers or a building etc, but are aware also of surrounding objects, arranged like dancers on a stage with a backdrop, lighting and the rest. [As an aside, where the Ordinary Photographer takes 10 shots of nearly the same thing, the Excellent Photographer considers multiple options - different combinations and arrangements, and usually captures several different versions - the bast of these.] The Expert's thinking is: "I'm going to consider a variety of options: just the bunch of flowers,... a single flower ...or several groupings choreographed as groups of 3, or 5... having the flowers the foreground in a wide-angle shot or up real close with a "macro" shot... What viewpoint or vantage will produce the best arrangements.. should I get high/low, close/far?" Is this the best light in terms of softness, angle and direction (maybe a later time today or earlier time tomorrow would be better.)
These sorts of questions also help the pro to formulate A) what should be included or excluded, and B) How should the included items be "arranged"? An analogy: Who should the characters in the play be and what should be their relationships?. [Aside: in some situations we have almost complete control over the arrangement - as in moving flowers or persons in a group photo. Other times our powers are limited - a landscape or sunset.... But even in those situations, we have some control over close-up or far, wide or narrow, the center of attention high or low; include foreground objects or not; use those branches as a frame; visible or in silhouette? blur the background or sharp...]
So, once the "pro" has a scene and vantage al set, the arrangement, the composition, they're ready to go, right? No. Sorry. There's another set of questions, another set of choices which sometimes may be even more important than the first:
"What are the subject's characteristics"? How can I capture what it's all about to the best of my ability? The characteristics might be color and texture in flowers. Or shape and size and grain in rock formations, patterns in clouds... Or, the glint in Aunt Martha's eyes, or the reflection of your nephew in those eyes, (neither of which which you're going to capture at 25 feet). In other words, consider not just the subject as a whole, but the subject in its detail, its "personality," its character.
A special additional case occurs when the scene involves motion: clouds, waterfalls, waves or rivulettes, or children or... whatever, things moving. Sometimes the pro feels it is better to freeze the wave or waterfall or cloud so that we can gaze at the shape and texture we never see with the naked eye. Other times, a silky flow fits the composition best... In addition, a few minutes or moments in time can make all the difference - in sporting events or even sunsets.
Now these choices of 1) inclusion and arrangement, 2) of featuring various attributes, and of 3) "stopping time" or not are usually sufficient when the photo is itself the goal of the shot. Well, in photography isn't that always the case?
No, the photo may NOT be the end purpose! Sometimes the photo is to serve as a catalyst for a greater cause - to show environmental destruction or living conditions, for example. Another possibility is to present an image that has artistic merit, where the overriding purpose is to create beauty or mystery or...whatever the photographer visualizes as art.
So, begin to see as a professional, as a visual artist sees and consider:
1) what is to be included or excluded?
2) how will the things included be arranged and what will be the backdrop?
3) what attributes give the subject is unique "personality'?: form, shape, texture, structure, color or other identifying attributes (delicacy of a flower, sturdiness of a rock formation...) and so on.
4) in dynamic situations - water, clouds, trees in wind - how will you treat motion: blur it, freeze it or record it?
To cover these four dimensions, you must look beyond the object as a whole and begin seeing these types of attributes. How might you train yourself to do this? How do you practice seeing at this 'level'?
One way is by doing art - sketching, watercolors, even trying to do art - is a great aid to develop your ability to see, to know what to look for. I don't care if you are bad or good at it or "not an artist"! - Do the following exercises anyway:
Training in Seeing-1: Look at any scene and, without looking back, try to sketch or paint as much of the scene as you can from memory. Oh, oh! You don't remember the relative sizes or placement of things, do you?; or exactly the shape of the central subject; or the various shades of green in the trees, and so on. Aha! Neither do many other people!
What's worse, we fool ourselves into thinking that we are seeing: we glance at something and quickly name and identify it: "That, that's a rose; oh, and over there is an old barn..." "Yeah, that's Yosemite Falls all right." and so on, as though we are done, as though we really saw. The process is not helped by the fact that when we do look at something - without moving our eyes around - only a tiny portion in the center is in focus; everything else is blurred. (OK, you don't believe me; pick a spot in the room where you are and stare at it; without moving your eyes, what is in focus, and what is not?? Answer: a very small percentage of your field of view is in focus... yet, we think we "saw something."
Many great photos and ones that you like, have captured or contrasted shapes, textures, shadows, contrasts (big with little, red with yellow or green) and so on, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Practice registering what you observe - look, then look away- and when you do look away, sketch or paint or if you can't do that, make a list of what you saw. Humiliating, isn't it? But do this little exercise now and again, and you will become more and more observant, see many things you never noticed before and.... you will become a better photographer!
Training in Seeing - 2: Look at a book of photographs, or look at photos in an album, or on a photo web site. Some photos you pass over, some you may like. What's the difference? Think back on the process: what's different for the one that attracted, that interest you? You will become more aware of characteristics that matter to you, and more sensitive to your seeing.
Training in Seeing -3 What 'causes' are you interested in, including educational projects? The environment? Animal habitat? Conservation?... What sorts of photos or photo assemblies could help illustrate or stimulate in others to act on behalf of your interest or cause?
With these types of training, you'll soon be more aware of what's already there! You'll learn more about yourself and your likes and dislikes, an you'll begin to notice the "Characteristics That Count," and begin to find ways of capturing them - what kind and time of light? Which direction? Near or far? Blurred or sharp? In Color or Black & White? and so on.
In summary, at the First Level, there's the whole subject. The Second Level involves the attributes or characteristics of the subject.
X But be aware of them, perhaps your photos would enhance the subject's "story."
One more thing, there's a potential message and meaning in the connection of the "local" subject of your photo to the universal: your mountain's watershed connects with others in the range; the climate cycle which affects all living things into the future. Is there a way to connect to all that? Yes.
So work on how you can see your subject in a totally new way. Don't just think "mountain" or Aunt Minnie; Rather, think light, shadow; texture, shape, and so on. Then add the "meaning" or "message" or "feeling" of a subject, past, present, future. And at least consider the holistic view... that everything relates to our world and to every other object and force. Now, that's a tough one for most people, so here is a reading on the topic: Gross, Philippe and S.I. Shapiro: Tao of Photography, Seeing Beyond Seeing: Berkley: Ten Speed Press, 2001.] Their book brings the attitude of "Tao" ["Dow"] to photography. The Tao attitude helps the photographer break away from the restrictions and fragmentations of traditional judgments and rules. A most unusual and rewarding book (that includes great photos and enlightening poetry!)
As you begin to "see better", you can build on these concepts, and begin to 'put yourself' into your photos [NO, I don't mean taking selfies; I mean having your photos reflect what you care about, or see as beautiful, or what moves you....]
That capability is next in Essay: # 2. How to Add More Meaning to Your Photos. As I write this in early 2017, we plan to follow with #3. Exploring...and Reaching... Your Full potential, #4. What IS 'Excellence' in Photography?"; #5. How You Can Achieve Excellence and Meaning Consistently in Your Photos ! What can you control? And, finally, #6 Continued Learning- a Useful Bibliography of Sources about the what, why and how of photography - Jim Vedder