The Six Steps To Seeing A Photograph

Northern Shoveler Photo by Scott Bourne

The Six Steps To Seeing A Photograph

WARNING! This is long and speaks of advanced concepts in photography

I sometimes get tired of my own advice 🙂

I always tell people to get better at “seeing.” Anyone can buy a top-notch camera and press a shutter button. Real photographers and photography start with the eye behind the camera.

Just because you own the same piano that Mozart did, doesn’t mean you can play and compose music like he did. You have to find that art in your mind.

But HOW???

Much of this is so ethereal. I forget sometimes that not everyone approaches photography as deliberately as I do. With me, each and every shutter press is something I care deeply about. Ask folks who have been out shooting with me (like my pal Gary Hamburgh.) I make fewer exposures than just about anyone. I have a series of questions and goals and concerns that I must deal with before each and every shutter press. Each photograph of mine is very deliberate, hopefully carefully thought and sought out. It is in this practice of photography at a high level that I have finally begun, after 40 years, to learn how to “see.”

Two Geese Flying Through Sunrise In New Mexico - photo by Scott Bourne

Many of us talk about learning to see, but few of us have any ideas we can articulate (with any specificity anyway) on the how. So, while I may stumble over my own words here, I am going to at least try.

One caveat. This is how I do it. Perhaps it will help someone else, learn to “see.” Your mileage may vary.

Step One: Choose

This is the most important step in the process of “seeing” a photograph. You have to choose. You have to choose what you are passionate about. You have to choose a subject that moves you, that you love, that you understand, a subject that you just NEED to share. If you choose the right subject, most of the rest of the stuff on this list will at least begin to take care of itself. So choose wisely.

Step Two: Prepare

You cannot cheat time. You just can’t. There’s no substitute for hard work. I’ve worked hard my whole life and I need to because I probably have less talent than most. I have to make up for it with good old fashioned, hard work.

Spend time preparing, studying, getting ready. Know your camera. Know your subject. Know the area you’re working in. Know the timing. Know what you want. Know what you don’t want. Anticipate anything that might go wrong before it does. What do all these things have to do with “seeing?” Simple – if you do these things, if you work hard, then nothing can get in the way of your “vision.” This preparation I am talking about also puts your mind in a mode where it’s more prone to “see.” The fewer distractions the better. This is one place where the Boy Scouts got it right. BE PREPARED!

Wood Duck Photo by Scott Bourne

Step Three: Cull

I’ve said it many times, quoting John Shaw, “the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur photographer is that the pro knows what NOT to include in the photograph.

This is where truth matters. If something isn’t true to your heart or your subject, get rid of it. It doesn’t belong in your next photograph. You must be repulsed by things that don’t matter in order to have the ability to fully “see” what does.

Reject anything in the frame that doesn’t move your story forward. Refuse to let any object into your photograph that doesn’t have to be there. Be jealous of every millimeter. Guard each pixel. Remove any and all unwanted or unimportant objects from the frame. Once the clutter of mindless temptation is gone, it’s much, much, much easier to see that which you really care about and that which is really important to your photograph.

Step Four: Become Infatuated With Your Subject

It’s easier to see when your full attention is on your subject. As you may have guessed, I have bird brain. I love birds. I spend time with birds. I talk about birds. I talk TO birds (I tell them I am going to make them famous in the hope they will sit on the perch for just a second or two longer!) I photograph birds. I even went back to school to study birds. I teach others about birds. I am infatuated with birds.

These are words that describe infatuation: “passion for, love for, adoration of, desire for, fondness for, feeling for, regard for, devotion to, penchant for, preoccupation with, obsession with, fixation with…” If you find yourself that devoted to your subject, you will see things about that subject that nobody else sees. And THAT is where your photograph begins to take shape.

Sandhill crane at sunset - photo by Scott Bourne

Step Five: Have A Purpose

This has been instrumental in improving my ability to “see.” I can’t explain this without using a lot of words and the best way to explain this concept is to include a copy of my “Artist Statement.” Here goes:

For me, bird photography as art is about two connecting themes: extraordinary craftsmanship in terms of technical mastery of photography and a fundamental understanding of the dynamics of the nature behind the image.
At a deeper level, however, I pursue this art form because of its almost religious qualities.

One day, I can have a vision in my mind that represents a photograph I want to make. This vision exists only in my head and my heart – it’s a silent vision which has the power to bring me out into the field, month after month, and year after year, for a chance to turn that vision into something tangible that I can meaningfully share with others.

The other religious aspect of my work is focus and devotion to an idea over which I have absolutely no control. None.

I learn all that I can about the natural factors behind each photographic opportunity, but I never know how they will play out. My artistry focuses on the beauty of things which are random. Avian subjects operate within their own free will, on their own time and according to millions of years of genetic imprinting. In short – the bird flies its own path and it’s highly unlikely that I can have any real influence over that path.

This is different than working in a photography studio where I have control over the set, the model and the lights. As a photographer who makes avian art, my gift is to know how to “show up prepared” to interact with beauty that I do not control. I must learn to be at peace with my subject on their terms, not on mine. In other words, the only way to be successful is for me to give up all control. The feeling of peace I get when I find that perfect space is worth more to me than gold.

I am just human and heavily flawed, and I struggle with finding the patience and the path. But when that struggle becomes the hardest, I remember my calling. I speak for the creatures which have no voice. Perhaps this is why the experience is so emotional for me. It matters.

Each time I get to a perfect moment and capture that moment with my camera, I experience joy as well as sadness. I am joyful because the finished work provides me (and others) with a lifelong memory of a successful vision. But I also feel sadness that the pursuit is over.

After that moment, the cycle begins again, and I launch the pursuit of the next creative vision. I hope to share that vision well enough that others may someday wish to help speak for the birds too.

Wigeon in a pond photo by Scott Bourne

Step Six: Ascend

There’s only so much we can control when we’re making photographs. By immediately realizing, assessing, noting, and deciding on what we CANNOT control in a scene, we can free up our minds to focus precisely (like a laser) on only the things we CAN control in a scene. This frees up our vision so that we can “see” much more clearly. By letting go of the things we cannot control, we become better at controlling the things we CAN control. This leads to much better photographic vision.


At the end of the day, you either “see” a photograph or you don’t. If you don’t, chances are VERY good that you are your own worst enemy. Try applying any or all of these six steps to clear your mind. Get out of your own way.

Perhaps the best or worst news here (depending on how you look at it) is that your mind holds the key to the perfect image, not your camera.

Good luck.

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