Becoming a photographer: Learning To See – Part 2

This is part 2 ~ Learning to See. 


Learning To See


Strange as it may sound, one of the limitations we have as photographers, are our eyes.

Our eyes are highly functional. They simply see what is in front of us. Therefore, the temptation to photograph only what we can physically see is very powerful.  In fact, this is what most new photographers assume they need to do; you see something nice, so you photograph it. Simple.

The results as I discovered, are often sterile photocopier images; nice pretty pictures, well exposed, but nothing more

My early attempts at photography were frustrating in this regard, but it lead directly to the most significant step I took in learning how to become a photographer; a realisation that I was not seeing things in the same way that experienced photographers saw them.

I could see, but I had no creative or artistic vision, no depth or values around my work. 

This realisation was a huge breakthrough for me. It propelled my journey of photography down new paths.

I started to understand that a photograph is made and not taken. And that in order to do this I needed to look past what I literally saw in front of my eyes.  I now realised that there were many other senses and other qualities which I needed to develop, acquire and utilise. That these would allow me to make and create more substantial photographs .

The important points I am trying to share with you is this;

What we see with our eyes is just a raw canvas.

The challenge, for the more serious photographer, is the ability to build on that canvas.

What we choose to build needs to be based on a vision and set of values that we can bring into a photograph.

Let me explain.

Vision and Values:

One of the best ways to develop your vision and values, is get into the habit of asking yourself questions. It will be questions which can help you to define and express your vision and values. Ask yourself;

  • What would I like to do with what I see in front of me? Not just functionally, but in other ways based on your emotions, beliefs, passions and what you want to communicate or share.
  • Why do I want to do that?
  • What am I feeling about what I see and how might I express or emphasise those feelings so that others understand what I feel.
  • What do I want other people to think and feel when they look at my photographs?
  • What personal values do you hold about what you see or envision and how can those values be shared and expressed?
  • What do you want to say to a person viewing your photograph?
  • What connection do you want to make with people through your photographs?
  • What thoughts do you want a viewer to take away with them after looking at your work.

Another way to express what I am saying is this;  what you see in front of you is the here and now but your vision is the ‘place’ you would like to transport your viewers too.

  • So what does this place look like, feel like, smell like, taste like, sound like?
  • What are its textures, its colours, its shapes? Is it hard or soft. Is it static or active? What is its tone of voice?
  • What is it that this place wants to say to people.
  • Is your vision part of a story that you want to tell?
  • How might you develop and tell that story?

There are of course many questions which can be asked.  All, some or none of these questions above can be part of defining your vision and values. There are no rules. What those questions could be, will be different for each of us.

Part of becoming a photographer and developing the ability to have a vision for your project or photograph is the ability to ask questions and then, the ability to both express and / or answer those questions visually via your photograph.

Do not worry if the questions you ask of yourself, or your answers are vague and unclear. That is ok. It is normal. Clarity may come as you progress on a project, or it may come over time as you mature in experience as a photographer. There are no rules. There is no timetable. It is different for all of us. Simply make a start. But don’t just grab your camera and start shooting. Stop, take a step back and look at the big picture. What is your vision? What are your values?

Confused?  Bare with me and I will give you an example shortly. Let’s first talk about visualisation.



There is a next logical step in the process of learning to see like a photographer.

Once you start to develop the vision and values that you would like to express,  it helps to develop the skill of visualisation; i.e. ability to visualise in your own mind the many different possible ways that your photograph might be made to look. Here you have an unlimited number of creative and artistic choices. Visualisation lets you play with the many different ways you might express your vision.

Here is an exercise: Imagine that your camera and computer do not exist. That your camera and computer are now your mind. Ignore any level of skills you may have had and just start to imagine what you would really like to do with what you see in front of your eyes. You can do anything and everything. Start to paint a picture in your mind around the vision and values you have for your work. In your mind imagine what you would like your picture to look like; draw it, paint it and create it, change angles and focus, play with depth-of-field, imagine different exposures, play with colours, saturation, blow out some highlights, compose elements, play with shapes, follow lines, look for story elements, lengthen or shorten the exposure, let parts of your picture blur,  just let your mind wander and experiment. Do all of this and more, but do it in your mind. Do not touch your camera!

This is part of the process of visualisation.

Why is this important?

It is important because you are the photographer, not your camera. 

I have never run a workshop,
but my first lesson would be,
let’s meet by water’s edge at sunrise,
but leave your camera be.

Just look… and think… and feel,
now tell me, what do you see?

Mamiya 7II / 43mm / Velvia 50 6×7 Film

Ok, so let me give you an example; this photograph above. If you have not done so already, click on the picture to blow it up and have a look at it for a short while.

To my functional eyes the scene above looked nothing like this at all. In fact it was a cold, grey, dark, drab morning with almost no light. To my eyes there were few interesting colours or features and little if any composition. Yet, this is a beautiful photograph. How can that be?

So let me explain how vision, values and visualisation helped me to make this photograph.

First, I am in love with the ocean; the roll of the waves, the texture of sand, the movement of the clouds and the way in which light reflects off all that it touches. I love it. I feel something when I am around water. I particularly love the pre-dawn. It is the birth of a new day, and no matter what is going on in the world or my life,  a sunrise on the beach makes me feel like we all get a fresh chance to start again. Any problems of yesterday are now yesterday’s problems. Today is new. I want to capture this, ‘bottle it’ if I could,  and share it with others.

All of this and more is part of my vision and values.  As such it helps galvanise all my senses so as to be in-tune with everything that was happening on the beach.  I did not just see a cold, grey, drab beach that morning because I genuinely felt something wonderful beyond what I saw. And I wanted to photograph what I felt. I was driven by my vision and values.

The next step is visualisation.  I took what I felt and I let it play in my mind. I could see in my mind the lovely soft blur of the movement of water washing over the sand and the small rocks. I could see how the white break of the waves could reflect light from the street lamps at the left of me. In my mind I could see how all these different and moving colours and textures would blend together into a soft, deep and moody photograph if I were to make a long exposure. I could see a composition made up of shades of light and movement. These were things my eyes could not see. I had to see the possibility of this in my mind.

I also knew that my Velvia daylight balanced  film would capture these “not particularly interesting morning colours” very differently from my own eyes. So I had to visualise that the colour on film might be much more beautiful than my eyes could see.

“As a photographer,

I’m primarily interested in things I can’t see.”

~ Carl Bower

Is visualisation an exact science? Absolutely not. You can never exactly envision what the final result might look like.  But the more often you can visualise in your mind the photograph you want to make, the better at it you will become. You will start to ‘see’ like a photographer.

Jindabyne NSW Australia
Mamiya 7II / 43mm / Velvia 50 Film

How to capture what you see.

A next step on the journey to becoming a photographer, is learning how to capture what you can now ‘see’. And it is here that we need to talk about your relationship with your camera. We can discuss this in Part 3.

 ( To Be Continued…  :)


PS: here’s an ending thought…

Brooks Jensen relates a story about his growth as a photographer. He says, ” Linsey Buckingham (the guitarist from Fleetwood Mack) once said, ‘if you’re any good at all, you know you can be better’.”  Brooks says of this  “there’s a converse to that ‘ if you’re not very good, you think you’re terrific, and that’s a real dilemma for photographers and artists. You don’t know what you don’t know”

Brooks follows up with an example. He says,  “John Sexton ( in a workshop John was running) showed a long series of progressive images of  ‘Moonrise Hernandez’ that Ansell Adams had printed. Originally he ( Ansell ) had printed it fairly light. But towards the end of his career it was very contrasty, very dark, very Wagnerian. He learned how to print the negative over time. He understood that getting better was a never ending process”

PSS … As always, if you enjoyed this post please share it via the links below. Many thanks, Steve

Mamiya 7II / 43mm / Velvia 50 Film
Mamiya 7II / 43mm / Velvia 50 Film


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Here are some other posts I have written which may be of interest to you here:

What makes a photograph great?:

Interview with photographer Huntington Witherill: Some very good insights on what it is to be a photographer.

Waiting for the light:


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One thought

  1. Dear Steve,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, insights about the vision,values and visualisation… which apply to both life as well as photography.

    t!nY .

  2. I like your approach, Steve. I have just thought about my recent photographic trip and at times of feeling blocked working as you suggest might well have helped. I think your vision checklist is an excellent way of approaching a photograph.


  3. I especially like that you emphasize putting the camera down for this exercise. To me, that’s the part that too many people miss… it’s no good if you’re seeing when you’ve got a camera in your hand, but you’ve effectively gone “blind” the rest of the time.

    Looking forward to the third part (and all that comes after).

  4. Hi Steve, been following your FB for a while, and really enjoyed ‘The struggle to see’ linked from your post there recently.

    This one on ‘Learning to see’ also hits the nail on the head. The great thing is, it’s a lifetime journey, always a new insight in a new place. Being conscious of the need to look beyond what is presented, asking questions every time, trying different approaches… each image like a new day, to use your analogy.

    Thanks for sharing the insights, great series, looking forward to what’s coming up.


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