Becoming a photographer ~ part 1: the struggle to see

Part 1: The struggle to see

I remember being disappointed at my early attempts at photography.  I would look at my work, and my heart would sink.

Now, looking back, I can understand.

In those early days, what I was producing was a functional record of my day out with a camera. It was as if a photocopier had just copied what was in front of my eyes. I saw something nice, so I would take a picture of it. Simple.

The result was nice pretty pictures, well exposed, but there was not a lot more. I felt uncomfortable because I sensed that something was missing.

What I know now is that a ‘photocopier’ had taken those shots. I had been, not much more than a courier,  transporting a camera to a location and then letting my camera do all the work. I had thought I was a Photographer!   In reality, I had no idea what that meant.

In looking back at my early work, there was no emotion or passion in my photographs. There was no creative or artistic vision or expression. There was no story, design or structure to my images.  There was nothing in my images about what I was feeling for my subject. In essence, there was nothing significant of myself in those photographs. I had not made those pictures. My camera had.

A camera has no heart or soul, 

that alone is mine to toll, 

a mirror to its holders soul

In my quest to improve, I would read everything I could find about photography. However, what I found troubling was,  that despite my improving knowledge in how to work a camera and take photos,  the results of my photography only improved marginally. This was very frustrating to me at the time.

For the keen and the new, the world of photography can send mixed and erroneous signals. This can send your photographic journey down wrong paths and hold back your growth as a photographer. In stepping into this world of photography, I found that at lot of the help and advice that was easily available was a “poisoned chalice” and almost everything I read or was told came with a hidden agenda.

What I found was that many of the resources from which I was learning had two fatal flaws. First, they were very functional in how and what they were teaching. And second,  around every corner someone was trying to sell something; a book, a workshop or a shiny new camera.

I found that most popular books, magazines or workshops focused on the technical aspects of cameras and photography i.e.  the mechanics, not creativity, vision or ideas.  Most on-line forums talked about hardware, software, bits and bytes. Camera manufactures push their technical wizardry, supported by a notable array of professional endorsements, as if to say “if you want to be like me, you need to use this gear”.

The reality is that most of the world of photography ‘speaks’ to an agenda which encourages would-be photographers to talk and think in terms of “megapixels” rather than “vision”, and “equipment” rather than “ideas” and “creativity”.  What’s more, those books and workshops which do try to teach creativity and vision often resort to rules,  or speak in a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach, or focus their workshops heavily around post production software.

Now there is nothing wrong with technical books, or rules, or workshops.  I would encourage you to look at them all.  But be warned, they are often very functional.  While learning the mechanical and functional aspects of photography is important, such things often don’t put us into the right mind-space or teach us the visual and creative skills that allow us to make photographs. In essence they don’t teach us how to see, how to have a vision and how to get ideas.

Can you imagine Nikon or Canon running full page adds saying

” You don’t need a great camera,

what you need is vision and great ideas!”

If you can’t make great photography with a $29 ‘dumb’ plastic camera, than having and knowing how to use a $60,000 Hasselblad, or the super hi-tech Canons or Nikons will not make any difference.

Mamiya 7II / Velvia 50 film / Steve Coleman ~ from my series ‘sand dunes’














I pondered my frustrations for a while. Then a significant insight hit me like a thunderbolt;  I realised that I was not seeing things in the same way that experienced photographers saw things. ( Sometimes the obvious, seems embarrassingly obvious)  I had the same cameras and I was learning similar technical skills but I wasn’t getting the same results. The solution had to be found in my ability to SEE.  This was my first big step as a photographer.

Strange as it may sound, one of the limitations we have is our eyes.  Our eyes are highly functional, they see what is in front of us. Our eyes are not designed to understand, interpret or manage what they see. Therefore the temptation to photograph what we can physically see is very powerful.  In fact,  that is what most new photographers assume they need to do. (An assumption closely followed by the belief that the camera does something magical to the final image in the process.) Hence my sterile photocopier images.

Part 2: Learning to see like a photographer

In a few weeks I’ll post part 2 of this article and share with you some of the things I did that help me to see. I hope that sharing my own journey, helps you in your journey as a photographer. To Be Continued… Here is Part 2:



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

Why I shoot film:

Life & the Business of Photography:

Interview with photographer Huntington Witherill:



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One thought

  1. An excellent and very nicely written article, Steve, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve written here, including the early stages where my images were disappointing and, as you so neatly sum up, I was acting as a copying device.

    I’ve subscribed via RSS and shall most certainly read more.

    1. Thank you Mike for your nice comments. Photography is still something relatively new for me ( about 4 or 5 years now, late starter! but im getting up on my feet ) So its very much a journey and feeling my way, hence the blog is more about how I\’m traveling. And thanks for connecting, I trying to build up a connection of like minded souls to learn and share.

      Cheers, Steve

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