I find it fascinating to gain an occasional glimpse into the minds of other creative people. So many times I find the same passion, inspirations, and doubts that I know all too well from my own work. Sometimes, though, I learn interesting lessons that help me refine my own approach. One of the best settings for exploring such insights is by guiding or teaching workshops. As an instructor, it is much easier to ask someone personally what they hope to learn and the hurdles they wish to overcome. This knowledge helps my later interaction with them during the class, and also forces me to think more carefully about what I can do to help them on their creative journey.
One of the topics raised most often, in one choice of words or another, is the ability to see - or isolate - coherent compositions when encountering a new scene. This is not surprising, of course. The ability to make a well-composed image, often in chaotic settings, is at the heart of what we do. What is surprising is the common belief that there is a recipe, tip, or technique that will unlock whatever stands between the photographer and a great image. The irony is that the thing standing in your way is you. In other words, you have to change yourself first before you apply any tools and techniques.
The first step actually is the hardest: you have to believe that a good image can be made and believe in your ability to make it. Certainly, there will be happy accidents, but, in order to produce satisfying work consistently, don’t count on just luck.
Next come awareness and imagination. Make a quick mental inventory of the things you have to work with: objects, shapes, lines, colors, and anything else with distinct visual qualities. Sometimes the most interesting elements will not jump out at you. Taking time to look deliberately may reveal possibilities you were not aware of before. Then, use your imagination to arrange the elements in your mind’s eye. Decide what you want your main subject and theme to be and seek a perspective that will suit them best. Don’t lock yourself into any given focal length or compositional style or arbitrary guidelines. Let your imagination loose and don’t stand in its way. Evaluate the possibilities; pick the best one.
What if the best is not good enough? Think about what the place may have to offer at other times of the day or in other seasons. Even if you walk away with no image but with the knowledge of when to return, your efforts will be rewarded.
Most of all, take the time to appreciate where you are, the beauty around you, and the privilege of being able to see and to enjoy it. Possibilities are much more likely to reveal themselves when you maintain a positive state of mind and free yourself of distractions. The secret is no secret at all. You have the answers in you already.