Posted by: kerryl29 | January 17, 2023

The Vision Thing

A professional photographer who conducts photo workshops recently told me that one of the most common problems he has to address when holding sessions is a marked tendency on the part of his clients to become hung up on technical matters in the field. The implication is that technique comes first and “the vision thing” comes later…if it comes at all. It’s almost as though a subconscious decision has been made to decide what to photograph based on what equipment is being used or what exposure settings to deploy.

Hector Falls, Schuyler County, New York

I found this…stupefying…in part, at least, because this feels completely backwards to me. My feeling is that, unless you’re engaged in some kind of deliberate creative exercise, gear and technique choices should always be a product of what you want to photograph, not the other way around.

Blue Valley Moonrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

I will concede that the process of seeing, as it pertains to artistic vision, is much more easily expressed as an intangible concept than it is realized as a tangible workflow. Much has been written on the subject, but most of it is inscrutable.

Foggy Sunrise, Everglades National Park, Florida

Discussion of gear and technique (and the association thereof), on the other hand, is inherently more approachable, because it really is what amounts to a conversation about a physical process. For instance, if you want to achieve a particular look (e.g. giving moving water a silky appearance), here’s how you about it (slow your shutter speed to 1/4 of a second or less…and there are several ways of going about this, etc.). There can be a learning curve with these matters when it comes to technique, but it’s something that can be overcome by just about everyone willing to invest the requisite time and practice.

Mary Lake and Cathedral Mountain from the West Opabin Trail, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

The vision thing, on the other hand…that’s a much stickier wicket. In the case of landscape photography, for instance, how to do you go about improving your ability to see in the field? More broadly, how do you about go about recognizing, first, what your artistic vision is? And then, how do you go about attempting to realize it?

Aspen Grove Dawn, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

I’ve actually taken a stab at suggesting some actionable steps for both of these processes in the past; exactly how much positive impact they’ve had is open to debate. This is the case, in part, because there’s a longstanding debate concerning the question of just how much artistic acumen can be learned, and how much is innate. Much ink has been spilled on the subject, a good deal of it from individuals far more qualified to offer something akin to an expert opinion than myself. But the tl;dr consensus is….a bit of both.

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Broadly speaking, there are two components to any visual artistic endeavor. There is the creative aspect–the aforementioned vision thing–which encompasses what one wants to express. And there’s the process of rendering that vision, which we can refer to as “technique.”

Crystal Lake Trees, Orleans County, Vermont

One of the reasons that photography has always been–and probably always will be regarded as–the red-headed stepchild of visual art, is that there is a sense that, unlike all of the other visual arts, anyone can master the technical side of photography. I think there is some truth to this. As I have noted in the personal statement on my website, I liked to draw pictures of landscapes as a child. I stopped because, frankly, I wasn’t very good at it technically. No matter what I did, I was never satisfied with the renderings represented by these drawings. I wasn’t dissatisfied with the vision behind the drawings, it was the quality, for lack of a better word, of the drawings that left me wanting. And that’s because the technical side of drawing is largely a function of innate ability. (An innate ability that I possess relatively little of, as it happens.) That talent can, undoubtedly, be refined and improved, but it’s fundamentally a function of something that you either have or you don’t. It can’t be taught.

East Woods, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

Photography is different. Virtually anyone can learn the technical side of the endeavor. Like other forms of visual art, technique is a means to an end, and is no substitute for “the vision thing,” Without the latter, your end product will be lacking, just as it is with painting, drawing, sculpting and so forth. But you need to master both sides of the artistic equation, I would argue, to produce satisfying work, and the technical side of photography can be taught in a way it cannot with these other media.

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Tennessee

But there is a certain irony to the fact that photography is judged as lesser, in the art world, because it is every bit as reliant on “the vision thing:” as any of the other forms of visual art. And, it’s the part of the endeavor that most of the cognoscenti claim to be at the center of “great art.”

China Creek Beach from Spruce Creek Viewpoint, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, Oregon

It is this part of artistic practice that, I am convinced, today more than ever, is something that everyone is capable of expressing. And, happily, because the technical side is conquerable by anyone willing to make the effort, photography is the least esoteric and the most–dare I say it–democratic of all of the forms of visual art.

Talkeetna Mountains Morning, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is, in the end, a matter of opinion. Either way, however, it is a thing.

“The Pledge,” Mono Lake, Mono County, California
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Responses

  1. As to the technical side, today’s camaras are pretty darned good in full auto so the person pushing the shutter button doesn’t have too many excuses left.

    • No question, much of the time, a modern camera will do just fine, technically, in full auto mode…but there are still plenty of situations when that’s not going to work out so well. But even at that, given that many camera’s now have a real-time histogram, focus peaking capabilities and the ability to zoom in to 100% (and beyond) on a high-res EVF, there aren’t many excuses left even if you’re in full MANUAL mode. So your point definitely stands. 🙂

  2. An excellent and thoughtful piece for this week. Thank you! Trey

    • Thanks very much!

  3. Great post! I get overwhelmed by some members of my camera club with their constant updating of equipment and editing apps, yet see the value of knowing settings on my camera to get certain effects. When I first got my DSLR camera I was thrilled to go out and use a slow shutter speed to get the silky look of a waterfall but have found my practice of “learning to see” the most engaging, fun, and helpful especially as you describe your process of searching for a good composition using the elements of design: lines, perspective, shapes, etc. You describe the process of scouting out a good photo so well-one of the reasons that I continue to follow you, as well as seeing your beautiful photos that show me those elements that make it “work.”

    • Thanks, Jane. I’ve always wondered whether describing what *I* do in the field as part of the process of “seeing” an image and then attempting to execute that vision, is of any help to anyone else. After all, we’re all as different, personally, as our creativity will allow. So, to know that someone is getting something out of it is exceptionally gratifying. Thanks, very much!

  4. You are definitely right that a lot has been written on this subject, but that doesn’t make it any less important of a topic for discussion. The ability to “see” is probably the most valuable tool in the photographer’s kit. Seeing the possibilities in a scene (grand or intimate) comes first, then the vision of what that can look like in a photograph, then the choices that are made to realize that vision. Those choices include not only the technical aspects of the camera, but also where to stand, whether to use a high or low viewpoint, and what to include/exclude from the frame. The seeing, the vision, the choices are what elevate a snapshot to a photograph.

    • Agreed, and that’s essentially why what I described at the head of the entry was so surprising to me. In a sense, technique is a tool–as much as the physical gear is–that allows you to execute your vision. The notion that people would use gear/technique to define their vision rather than making technical decisions based on what they’re trying to express is utterly confounding to me.

  5. Well said, Kerry. Everyone is a photographer these days, it seems, but only a small percentage have the creative vision and the ability to really see- and then make a successful image. And for me, that “Vision Thing” keeps evolving and changing as the years go by. Your accompanying images are wonderful examples of seeing. 🙂

  6. One of your best, Kerry. Thoughtful and thought – provoking.

    • Thanks very much, Andy!

  7. Kerry, I haven’t been part of a workshop for a while, but when I was, my observation was that people were hung up on technical issues because they were inexperienced. They hadn’t taken the time to thoroughly learn their gear, and hadn’t spent enough time thinking about and practicing the process so it became automatic. That forced them to think about process and “technical” issues instead of thinking about what they were trying capture and express with their images. I think they were hoping that the workshop would offer a shortcut and they would be able to make wonderful images without investing the learning and practice time. That frustrated the workshop leader(s) of course, because they were forced to spend their time helping people operate their equipment instead of teaching them about seeing and capturing what they were seeing.

    Great narrative and beautiful images!
    Steve

    • Thanks, Steve.

      I haven’t been on a workshop in a very long time, either. And to the extent that a workshop is focused on or at the very least is open to beginners, it’s not only understandable that technical issues would dominate, it should be expected.

      But I think we’re talking about something more than that. I remember, at a seminar I attended more than two decades ago, John Shaw talking about how many attendees of his workshops and tours–these were not primarily newbies–would get to a site (every site) and immediately set their tripods up at full height. It was the first thing that they’d do upon arrival. (I blogged about this a long time ago: https://lightscapesphotography.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/get-closer-get-lower/).

      This isn’t a classic technical matter, but it’s analogous, because it deals with gear (the other side of the tech duopoly) as a primary action driver. And it furthers the “backwards” notion that I raised in the above post; how you set up your tripod should guide your expression (I want to do this, therefore my tripod needs to be set up here, at X height). Instead, if you set up your tripod and use it as a platform for guiding your image search, you’re letting your gear guide your creativity rather than the other way around.

      I think this is a firm argument, ultimately, for getting the technicals down pat so they can’t possibly get in your way, but there’s a cognitive reboot required as well.

      I think a follow-up post may be in order…


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