Like all art, photography, at times, can be frustrating. One of the most trying aspects of being a photographer is finding a clear artistic vision. Sometimes you may think you have a vision or a strong concept for your photographs and not still not be able to capture the idea. You can see the image in your head, but you can’t find a way to make it come to fruition. It feels like not being able to clearly articulate your point in an argument.
To make photography even more challenging, it is nearly impossible to replicate in a photo what you are seeing with your eyes. This is because humans “see much higher resolution in the central fovea (center part of our eyes) than near the edges. Cameras have uniform resolution everywhere.” Colors also may appear differently on film, and of course, humans see in 3D, while a camera captures 2D.
The idea of having an “artistic vision” can seem like a nebulous concept. You may be wondering what is an artistic vision, exactly, and if you need one at all. We liked photographer Gary Randall’s interpretation of artistic vision. Randall says:
“We create our work to express ourselves in a way that conversation never could. Perhaps we don’t have those words, or perhaps we;re too timid to vocalize them. We must use our artistic voice to express our artistic vision, to express ourselves. Our artistic vision is the reason and the purpose that we create. It’s what makes us fulfilled so we naturally want to share with others. We all have our own conscious reason for creating our art, but ultimately our artistic vision is comprised of every aspect of who we are and what we believe in, not just conscious decisions applied during the creative process or the application of the skill that we possess. It’s the part that comes naturally when it’s allowed.
Our artistic vision affects and drives our work. It creates an individuality in our work that will allow it to stand out from other work similar. It starts to express itself in the style of your art. Once you recognize that style you can refine it and make it all your own. You can also start to use it to envision a new future for the growth of your work. A plan for future experiments or projects to push the bounds of your skill and creativity.”
Succinctly, Randall is saying that artistic vision is born from a desire to express the inexpressible. It is what makes your work uniquely your own. The best way to find your artistic vision is to create as much art as you can. This will allow the process to become more subconscious and fluid, the way a musician plays an instrument with eyes closed, or a dancer’s body knows the next step before her brain does.
The more you practice, the more innate your photography skills become, and the more you will focus on honing your vision. You will start to worry less about the settings on your camera, the focus or using the “right” lens. In time, the technicalities will fall away and you will be able to focus entirely on expressing what you feel.
Instead of “finding your vision,” think of your vision slowly revealing itself to you. It may take time, but you already know that photography makes you happy, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be doing it. Practice regularly, and don’t judge yourself for making art that you don’t love. Eventually, when you stop to look at your body of work, you will begin to see your vision come to life.
It is easy to wax poetic about finding your vision and practicing your craft. It is much harder to actually carve out the time to practice, especially with the demands of work, kids and life. We;ve rounded up 9 practical tips to help you hone your craft, find your vision in photography and strengthen your body of work overall.
1. Try A Photography Challenge
One of the best ways to stay accountable is to join a photography challenge. This will give you direction for regular shooting and provide you with an opportunity to share your work.
Every year, Dogwood Photography puts on a 52 week photo challenge, and we’re just in time to start the 2019 challenge. Don’t worry if you miss the first few weeks, or even months.
“There is no specific start date for this challenge. Each photographer is on their own journey, and only competing with themselves from week to week. If you wish to form a challenge group and compete with each other based on this list you are welcome to do so! If you form a challenge group drop me an invite I would love to watch the progress.” – Dogwood Photography
In 2018, photographer Dale Foshe put together the challenge, and it has not yet been announced who will be curating the 2019 challenge.
Each Monday of the year, you will receive a specific photo challenge. There are typically several categories which rotate by the week. Categories include Portrait, Landscape and Artistic Vision. Dogwood explains each category saying:
“Portrait: Portrait photography is really about capturing the essence of a person in an image. A portrait image can range from a classic portrait to candid, or from street photography to a selfie. Each time this category comes up we will dive into a different area of portrait photography. The main focus should always be a person/persons (or maybe a pet).
Landscape: In the context of the #dogwood52 photography challenge, this category is pretty broad covering both traditional landscapes, and some non-traditional areas such as urbanscapes. Don’t be afraid to really explore your surroundings in this category. If the focus is the environment you are in, it will qualify as Landscape in this category.
Artistic Impression: When this category comes up, you really have room to express yourself. You can interpret the assignment literally or figuratively. Unlike the other two categories that are more focused, the main focus of this category is to let your creativity shine.”
For example, week 1 is a Portrait challenge, and the specific challenge is to capture a self-portrait. Dogwood says, “Start things off right with a “selfie!” Explore the self timer setting on your camera.
The ‘Artistic’ challenges are a great opportunity to think creatively and find your vision. Week 3 is an artistic challenge and the prompt is simply the word ‘Red.’ The directions say, ‘Shoot whatever inspires you. Red should be the focus of the image. Don’t be afraid to be creative.'”
One of the coolest things about a challenge like this, is that using a hashtag (ie #dogwood52 or #dogwoodweek1) you can share your work with a like-minded community.
Other fun challenges to consider are minimizing gear, shooting in low light, or capturing the alphabet. The alphabet challenge asks you to shoot a photo representing each photo of the alphabet. Photographer Kieran Stone says this challenge helped him find his photography vision.
“You may be in a creative rut, you may still be learning and want some basic experience in shooting film. Maybe you just feel like shaking things up a bit and challenging the style of photography you’ve become comfortable with. This low-tech, mentally and technically challenging, restrictive project gave me lots to think about when it comes to what is important in my photography.” – Kieran Stone
2. Stop Taking Pictures; Start Creating Images
Photographer Matt Dutile suggests sketching an image before you capture it on film.
“The first thing sketches will add to your photography is to help answer the questions, ‘What am I trying to convey?’ and ‘Why take this photo?’ When you sit down to plan out what it is you are looking for, you’re creating a vision. You’re forcing yourself to think about what might interest viewers, instead of just mindlessly snapping away and hoping to get a good photo in the process. I like to put together an editorial progression in my images, to tell a story. I always work to create a beginning, middle and end to the shoot. I find it helpful because it keeps me on a time table and let’s me convey something more than a casual snapshot could.”
Don’t worry if you’re not a good drawer. Dutile’s sketches are nothing fancy; they’re scribbled stick figures. This exercise is not about the quality of your sketch, it’s about taking the time to visualize your image. Most humans are visual thinkers, and having a sketch, even if it not perfectly reflected by your image, will help you go into your shoot with a clear, articulated concept.
Dutile explains how he uses his sketches before, during, and after his shoots:
“After a successful photo shoot, compare your sketches with the photos you captured. Did you get all the shots you wanted? How closely do they compare? Did they inspire you to try a new idea, angle or perspective? Even if I never end up referencing my own sketches during a photo shoot, the act of having drawn my ideas down will often make me remember them when I would have otherwise forgotten. Ultimately, they lend a greater vision and purpose to my photography. Prepare your thoughts, grab a pen or pencil and a pad of paper, and you’ll be on your way to creating and capturing images with a vision.”
This exercise will sharpen your creativity, and ultimately your photograph vision. Some people think that creativity is just something you are born with, like blue eyes or a skinny knees. Creativity can be taught however, and it can certainly improve with time.
“I think there are individual differences in our propensity to be creative, but having said that, it’s like a muscle. If you train yourself, and there are different methods for doing this, you can become more creative. There are individual differences in people, but I would argue that it is also something that can be developed, and therefore, taught.” – University of Pennsylvania professor Rom Schrift
3. Consider What You Want The Photo To Convey
Many photographers fall into the trap of shooting photos that look cool, but fail to tell a story. Think of this as a movie with lots of cool shots and special effects, but no plot. It gets boring and the “coolness” factor quickly wears off.
One way to find your artistic vision is to ask yourself constantly, “What is this photo about?” Is it about love, or loneliness? Is it about warmth, courage, kindness, compassion, greed? If you can’t answer this question, the photography is probably not working toward your vision.
Digital Photography School suggests keeping a camera, or at least a notebook on you at all times.
“Photo ops often come when you least expect it. If you can keep your equipment relatively simple — just a small camera bag and a tripod — you might be able to take advantage of some of those unexpected opportunities. Or, if your phone has a camera, use it to take ‘notes’ on scenes you’d like to return to with your regular camera.” – Digital Photography School
4. Discover Your Natural Strengths As An Artist
Maybe you are gifted at capturing spontaneous moments, connecting with your subjects or working with difficult light and crazy weather conditions. Maybe you are a gifted editor with a passion for making your photos come alive in post-production. Or perhaps you see detail and wonder in the ordinary and have a gift for making mundane scenes extraordinary.
“You need to believe you have the ability to be creative and commit to developing and practicing your creative skills. Making pictures is fun, and digital technology makes it so easy to explore and play with different ways to capture a moment. Take advantage of this digital feature to discover and develop your vision.” – Richard Altman of Viewbug
Time for a little tough love: You do yourself no favors by saying that you are not creative or talented. If you truly believe that you are not creative or artistically-inclined, perhaps you are in the wrong the field. Believe in your talent, work to strengthen your creativity and your photography vision will grow.
5. Hone In On What You Find Inspiring
Before you start shooting, ask yourself why you are shooting. Sounds simple, right? Think if a writer wrote novel without any inspiration. The result would be dull and without detauk.
Only you can decide what inspires you, what about photography makes you feel energized, inspired, happy and free. Altman suggests that all photographers ask the question:
“What makes us want to grab a camera and start shooting? Answering questions like this is an inside job, and it may take time to resolve. Some of us find our passion at an early age while the search for others can take awhile. Most of that time ‘searching’ is really spent stripping away all the garbage that keeps us from acknowledging what we feel in our ‘gut.’ Once we discover and acknowledge our area of creative interest, we need to learn how to channel it in ways that are meaningful to us. Photography is a great tool for creative expression. Your interests or passions can attract you to a subject, and your camera becomes the instrument for your creative exploration.”
Maybe you find landscape photography boring, or portrait sessions tedious or abstract photography too removed from reality. That’s fine. In fact, it’s great. It is a gift to have a clear idea of the type of photography you enjoy, the type that brings your vision to life. Don’t waste time and energy doing work you don’t enjoy; it will only dull your vision and perhaps your passion. Find what you love, and do more of it.
6. Advance Your Technical Skills
This may seem counterintuitive, but the better you get at technical camera and shooting skills, the less you have to think about them. When using your camera becomes second nature, you free up time and mental energy to focus solely on the art.
“The photo skills we learn from composition and lighting, to shutter speeds and lens selection, become tools that can be used creatively to help bring our vision into reality.” – Richard Altman of Viewbug
It is also helpful to understand what came before you, and learn the history of photography. If you are inspired by a certain photographer, learn everything you can about their practice and work. Study photographers whose work you don’t like too, as this will help you understand what you want to avoid.
“Since creativity is a process of making unique connections between existing knowledge and experiences, expanding our knowledge of photography and other subjects of interest is important…Spend time exploring other disciplines outside of photography to increase the opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas. There is no shortage of content on the web to stimulate your thinking and spark your imagination. Just be careful you don’t overwhelm yourself into inaction.” – Richard Altman of Viewbug
If you need a jumpstart, this 7 minute documentary about legendary photographer Jay Maisel is an inspiring starting point.
7. Not Every Photo You Take Will Be Good
Some of your photographs will turn out pretty shitty. This is okay and is to be expected. It does not indicate that your photography vision is bad. It just means you took a bad photo.
Learn from the images you don’t like. Is the lighting off? The focus? Does the photo seem overly-contrived or not deeply enough imagined?
“Study what you enjoyed about the work and what could have been better. This way you always learn something new even though when the work was not good enough that you would like to share.” – Photographer Mikko Lagerstedt
Be careful not to just discard something in a moment of disappointment. Sit with the work you do not love. Study it as you would a photograph you are proud of. Use the disappointing work as a chance to learn and grow.
8. Practice Daily
You have probably already heard Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of the 10,000 hours rule. In his book, Outliers, Gladwell suggests that they key to mastery in any field is putting in 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.”
Deliberate practice is defined by psychologists as practicing, with minimal distractions, in a way that pushes your skill set.
10,000 hours is no joke; it amounts to 20 hours of work every week for 10 years. You may not need to go to this extreme to sharpen your artistic vision; however, you do need to do the work. Recent articles have suggested that when mastering a new skill, “Worry more about the quality of your focus than the hours you log.”
Daily practice does not necessarily have to mean taking photos or working on your post-production skills. One of the most important aspects of finding your photography vision is to take the time to think about what inspires you, read about your craft and learn from the works of experts.
There are days where you are just not going to be able to shoot. Maybe it is pouring rain, maybe you’re sick, maybe you just really, really don’t feel like it. Every artist has these days, and taking a break from your craft can be helpful. It allows you come back to your work refreshed and inspired.
Use your off days as a chance to consume other photographers’ images and wisdom. In turn, this will help you hone your own photography vision. Some of the photography books we have found most inspiring are listed here:
- The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression by Bruce Barnbaum
- The Photography Book by Editors of Phaidon Press
- Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters’ Guide to Shooting from the Heart by The Shutter Sisters
- Road to Seeing by Dan Winters
- 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer’s Photographer by Gregory Heisler
- Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera by Bryan Peterson
- Vivian Maier: Street Photographer by Vivian Maier
- Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
- In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Photographs by Leah Bendavid Val
- Mastery by Robert Greene
- Beyond Portraiture: Creative People Photography by Bryan Peterson