Wednesday, February 4, 2015

5 Essential Elements of Photographic Vision

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
There are some things in photography that are more important to understand than others. At the very top of the list is photographic vision. All great photographs began with photographic vision. It is the one prerequisite to creating exceptional images.

I defined photographic vision as "a vivid and imaginative conception." In addition to that definition, photographic vision includes the process of turning the conception into a tangible photograph. Vision means nothing if it never becomes something real--it's nothing more than a dream.

Below are the five essential elements of photographic vision.

#1 - The Concept
Copy Machine - Mojave, California
All great photographs begin as an idea in the photographer's mind. The photographer senses that an opportunity exists, and then begins to ask himself or herself important questions about the scene. What exactly is it that attracts me? What are my feelings about this? Which elements are important and unimportant? How can I best compose the photograph to capture the scene as I want it to look?

There are many questions that go through a photographer's mind prior to capturing an image. The questions are an essential aspect of the experience. Without fully understanding the scene and one's relationship to it, there is little hope of making a meaningful image of it.

As the photographer answers in his or her mind the questions that he or she asked, a concept begins to form. The photographer begins to see what he or she wants the final image to look like.

#2 - Vividness
Keep Out The Sun - Tehachapi, California
The concept that the photographer forms in his or her mind cannot be fuzzy. The idea of what the photographer wishes to create must be clear. The photographer must have a firm grasp on the desired outcome.

If you don't know where you are going you will never arrive. Even if you do know where you are going, if you don't have directions you'll have a difficult time getting there. It is the same for photography--a vivid concept is the road map to the desired photograph.

If the concept is not seen in the photographer's mind with vividness, then it is time to return to step one and ask more questions to clarify the concept.

#3 - Imagination
Web of Neglect - Mojave, California
A vivid conception is not enough to create a great photograph. The concept must also be imaginative. This means that the photographer must use his or her imagination. This is about creativity. This is about refining the concept until it is better.

Being imaginative means being unique. It is looking at a scene and figuring out how to capture it in a way that is different from how others would capture it. It is infusing oneself into the photographs somehow.

Without imagination a photograph is doomed to be boring. It is the photographer's imagination that makes a photograph stand out from the millions of other similar images.

#4 - Capturing
The Sound of Silence - Mojave, California
Once the photographer has a vivid and imaginative conception, then he or she can capture the image. The photographer must ensure that the aperture is correct for the appropriate depth-of-field, the shutter speed is correct for the motion and stability, and the ISO is correct for exposure and clarity. In modern cameras, there are a host of other important settings that must also be considered.

There are a lot of little decisions that must be made prior to opening the shutter. All of these decisions are guided by the vivid and imaginative conception. These choices have implications to the outcome of the image, so they must be treated as important.

Finally, once everything is set right, the photographer can expose the frame. For some photographs, from the first element to the fourth, the time can be several minutes or longer. For other photographs, the time can be a matter of seconds.

#5 - Editing
From The Past - Mojave, California
The final element of photographic vision is post-processing. Sometimes the image as exposed fulfills the concept, but much more often than not some manipulation is required to tweak the photograph to make it match the vision.

Editing can include cropping, changing the color and luminosity curves, color saturation adjustments, monochrome conversion, adding or removing digital noise, adjusting contrast, and a whole host of other things. There are a bunch of different software options to accomplish this, including free ones.

Some people prefer photographs with little or no manipulation. That's fine if it fits the vision. But if the vivid and imaginative conception requires editing, then by all means edit! It is art, and the artist is who determines what the right amount of post-processing is for each particular photograph.

1956 Chevy Bel Air At Cameron's Dairy - Tehachapi, California 
Photographic vision is a vivid and imaginative conception, plus capturing and editing. It takes all five elements to create great photographs. It takes all five elements to produce photographs which convey the photographer's voice.

There are no shortcuts. It takes time, thought and practice for this to become second nature. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." It takes 10,000 images to begin to understand exactly what photographic vision is and how to apply it to your own images.

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