Seeing A Photograph – Learning To Look For What Isn’t There


“The goal is not to change your subjects, but for the subject to change the photographer.” – Author Unknown

This article won’t be for everyone. It’s in fact a very advanced concept and it might miss the target. If it does, I’ll take the blame because of my inability to share the heart of what drives me to find the perfect photo. But here’s trying a little bit.

Some photographers go through life randomly documenting what comes their way. Others pre-visualize their photography and set out to tell a story. There are many approaches to photography. All of them are valid. But there’s one you may not be familiar with. It’s a little bit Zen, but it’s very rewarding. It’s based on something I learned from landscape great John Shaw. As I’ve quoted before – Shaw always said:

“The difference between a professional and an amateur photographer is that a professional knows what NOT to include in the photo.”

Shaw believes that by a process of elimination, the photographer can start to exclude things from the scene until all that’s left is the desired end result.

There’s another more ethereal way to approach this that I have developed…. Try looking for what isn’t there.

When photographers are presented with iconic locations like Yosemite National Park or the Grand Canyon, it’s easy and tempting to try to “remake” photos that have been made famous by the masters.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I encourage it. Because ultimately, no two photographers will see the same thing – even if they are standing at the same place.

But to take this to a very high level, try standing at those places and looking for what isn’t there. What story aren’t you immediately seeing?. Beyond the obvious, such as the waterfalls at Yosemite or the lakes on Mt. Rainier, what aren’t you noticing? Try looking past the obvious. Try to find the secret treasure buried beneath the clutter of the everyday and mundane.

To see what isn’t there sounds weird. I get that. Perhaps a more practical way to express it is in the following description: Slow down. Be quiet. Calm yourself. Settle your mind so you can think clearly. Search. Question. Explore. Be prepared to be surprised. Have an innocent and open mind. Have a beginner’s mind. Be completely and precisely aware of your surroundings. Note everything. Overlook nothing. Look at what’s in front of you and then close your eyes. Now imagine what you saw and recreate that in your mind. Often your sub-conscious will be drawn to something deeper in the scene than the painfully obvious.

This type of photography was practiced by a great landscape photographer named Galen Rowell, who tragically lost his life in a plane crash. Besides Rowell and Shaw, there are others who’ve taught me to think like this. It boils down to some high-level concepts that are beyond most photographers’ will. We live in a drive-through window world. I understand the need for instant gratification. I’m speaking here to the few of you who want to feel your way to a photograph. I’m suggesting that by searching for harmony in our photography – by looking for what’s not there, we can elevate our images to the highest level. It’s hard to explain in an essay, but I hope it starts you on the path to seeing in new ways no matter how you get there. Why? Because that’s where true growth as an artist starts to happen – when you learn to see in a new way.

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