Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear?" It's the Christmas season, and in the background my radio is tuned to a station playing that Christmas song. The timing couldn't be better as I sit down to write the introduction to this completely revised edition of my book Learning to See Creatively (Amphoto, 1988). Do you see what I see? Maybe, maybe not. Even if you're standing right next to me and I see something that I want to share with you, you still may not see it until all that remains is a glimpse. My daughters both spotted a hot-air balloon up in the sky the other day. It wasn't until it was almost out of sight that I finally spotted it, but by then it was merely a dot in the vast sky. It was fnistrating for all of us, to be sure.
What does this story have to do with picture taking? It is analogous to picture taking and creative vision. All of us who are blessed with sight can see, but why is it that someone right next to us can see something of interest, yet we somehow miss it? If you've ever participated in a photography workshop in the field or gone out shooting with a friend from the local camera club, you know what I mean: Standing at the head of a trail you are bewildered, lost, and confused, while within minutes someone else is setting up a camera and tripod three feet away, zeroing in on a graphic composition of autumn-colored leaves. You watch in amazement and ask the most often heard question at workshops and field trip outings: "Why didn't I see that!?"
The answer may be a combination of things. Perhaps you were preoccupied with thoughts about your job, or hadn't dressed appropriately for the location and were shivering like crazy. Not being able to see is probably the greatest hurdle every photographer has to overcome. However, even once you begin to see—really see—you are faced with the next hurdle: composing all that great stuff in a balanced and harmonious fashion.
I know of no real rules that one must follow to learn how to see, but I do know of many, many principles and techniques that are designed to help you see. The aim of this book is to not only teach you how to recognize a picture-taking opportunity but also to challenge that conservative way of seeing that often leads to dull, ordinary photographs. Throughout this book, many of the
examples arc pairs of images that show you before and after, as well as good and better. These pictures are certainly not intended to be the right way, but simply my interpretation of a particular scene at that particular moment in time,
Fifteen years have passed since Learning to See Creatively was first published. So much has changed, thanks in large measure to the many, many innovations of the photography industry. I recall joking at a seminar I taught back in 1990 thai 1 was waiting for the industry to come out with a 20-40()mm F2.8 zoom lens with I'll) glass and internal focusing. Although there is still no such lens on the market today, r can truthfully say thai one day we will see just such a lens. Today, you can leave the house and head for the mountains or beach with no more than a camera and two lenses, and be ready for any subject that crosses your path—whether it be a close-up of a butterfly, the distant brown bear, or that big ball of orange flames setting In the western sky. Due to optical advances in the zoom lens arena, zoom lenses now rival and compete head to head with the once-favored sharper smgle-focal-length lenses.
However, the challenge still remains: To advance your personal vision, you must really practice and also exploit the vision of your lenses, no matter their zoom ratio or amazing sharpness. This all-new edition of Learning to See Creatively explores the subject of personal vision in great depth, with accompanying exercises throughout that promise to unleash the visionary in you—regardless of technology. Whether you're using film or, like many photographers, not bothering with film anymore and instead shooting everything digitally, as the old saying goes, "The more things change, the more things stay the same." Although I am the first to embrace change, using it is another matter. Even if I did employ the latest and greatest camera, lens, or photo-imaging software program, it would have very little impact on the one vital ingredient that separates a bo-hum image from an OMG ("Oh my God!"): creativity.
Creativity is perhaps best described as a combination of inventiveness, imagination, inspiration, and perception. The photography industry has yet to introduce a camera that searches out unique and interesting subject matter. There still isn't a camera that will alert you to the
two other compelling compositions that lie in wait next to the one you're currently shooting. There still isn't a camera that instinctively recognizes the "decisive moment." And, there still isn't a camera that will systematically arrange your composition in a balanced and harmonious fashion before you expose it digitally or on film. These are challenges that continue to be part of the wonderful world of image making, challenges for which the sole responsibility of success or failure rests squarely on your shoulders.
When I wrote the previous edition of Learning to See Creatively, I had one goal in mind: to dispel the myth that the art of image making was for the chosen few. Based on the overwhelming and positive responses I've heard at my many workshops and on-line courses, as well as contained in die many letters and e-mails I've received, I feel I reached that goal. This all-new, completely rewritten and reillustrated edition promises to continue to dispel the myth. In addition, I've added a section on color in the "Elements of Design" chapter, and I discuss in depth not only color's value as a design element, but also its impact on our mind and emotions. And again through the use of comparison images, you'll see the value of focusing your vision on line, shape, form, texture, and pattern, and how these elements are a strong force in creating truly compelling photographic compositions.
Learning to see creatively is also very dependent on what your camera and lens can and cannot see. Captains of ships need to become very familiar with their maps as they navigate the world, making certain to keep the ship pointed in the right direction. In much the same way, your lenses are maps that can lead you to new and enchanting lands. Widi constant practice, which comes by placing the camera and lens to your eye, you'll begin to visually memorize the unique vision of each and eveiy lens—both the pluses and the minuses. The more you do this, the less likely you'll be to ever see the world in the same way again. You'll learn just how vast an area a wide-angle lens can cover, or how a telephoto lens can select a single subject out of an otherwise busy and hectic scene. It won't be too much longer until you'll find yourself knowing, without hesitation, what lens to use as you see one picture-taking opportunity after another.
Then, you can begin to take this newfound vision to even greater heights, challenging yourself to view the forest from a toad's point of view, or the city streets from a sidewalk point of view, or your backyard from a robin's-nest point of view. (Ladders are not just for house painting.) Lie on your back at the base of a large fir tree and show me the point of view of the squirrel that raced up it only moments ago. Set your camera on the shoulder of the road, and fire away just as the big semi truck comes into view. A composition like this will, for example, make it dramatically obvious why it is so important that the city council builcl a small underpass for the ducks that cross that busy road every spring.
Whether or not your compositions are compelling depends not on some magic recipe, but rather on a thorough understanding of lens choice, point of view, elements of design, and final arrangement, or composition. All of these are, as I said, "maps" that require studying, some more then others. Both your fears and preconceived notions will be challenged. How will you ever share with others the robin's-nest viewpoint if you're afraid of heights? How will you share the busy sidewalk view if the idea of lying down on the sidewalk is too intimidating? You'll certainly hit a "reef' now and then, and you may even feel compelled to abandon ship at times.
This is perfectly normal and to be expected. And, for that reason, the exercises in this new edition are designed to help you get free of the reef and back on course. There are certainly times of bad weather, or lousy light, or a limited choice in subject matter, but these exercises will certainly dispel the myth that "there is nothing to shoot."
There's a great deal of material in this book that addresses the what, where, and why of successful image making. This is a book about ideas—ideas from the river that flows through all of us. It is my intention to help you find the knowledge of where to fish, the courage to cast your net, and the strength to pull in your catch and harvest those ideas. This is not a book about metering for the right exposure, or setting the right /■stops and shutter speeds. That information can be found in my other book, Understanding Exposure (Amphoto, 1990).
Most of all, have fun with the enclosed material and don't become preoccupied with "doing it right"; if there's one thing my students and peers have taught me over the years, it's that there are no formulas or recipes in the pursuit of image making. It's all about observation and thought. As Henry David Thoreau once said, "The question is not what you look at but what you see."
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