Olafphoto discusses the importance of pushing a photographer’s vision and entering a new world of seeing. Why, despite all the personal and social pushbacks, this approach is a must for every creative photographer.
Kevin, one of our subscribers, asked a very important question. He wrote: “As you know, your attitude and imagery inspire me a lot. Lately, I challenge myself and take visual risks. However, when I show my pictures to my friends they react differently; it’s like they don’t like it (however deep down I know I love it). How do you experience this situation? My visual experience is growing with every day I am photographing; this also means, to leave your old vision behind. As a consequence, there would be a different photographic me.”
This brilliant question from Kevin is so timely. Just recently I had a conversation on this very topic with my dear friend Bob, who is also a subscriber. In fact, this dilemma has been on my mind for months now. Let’s get down to it.
I have been a photographer most of my life without realizing it. Even as a child I was interested in the visual arts and why certain things looked the way they do. Although few of my peers cared about the design of objects around them, I found it very important. At one point this fascination with design spilled over to photography. Of course, initially it was centred around documenting my family life. Then, after some dramatic life experiences, I decided to pursue photography full time. My first interest was landscape.
I guess that part of the fascination with landscape and nature was my bruised and tired mind, after years of struggle with my health and depression. I wanted something calm, peaceful and stationary. I enjoyed my travels to beautiful destinations, which I often visited multiple times to capture one perfect image. Interestingly, as my photography improved, my “seeing” started to rebel. I noticed I had found a formula for a great, highly popular image. A great location, stormy skies, beautiful light and simple composition worked every time. Sure, receiving hundreds of likes was a pleasant experience but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I felt I was standing still because my photography had become repetitive. I had become a factory making “beautiful photos.” There was a side of me that needed to break that mould, to shed my skin and become new. And that’s exactly what I did.
I shifted from landscape to travel photography, where I could include more elements, experiment with my camera and have more freedom to see (this is not a criticism of landscape photography but rather a personal experience). I started incorporating people, played with framing and started taking more visual risks. This move paid off big time. My blog has become quite popular, Fujifilm started sending me their cameras and life was great again. Kasia (my partner in crime) and I revised our travel plans and put new destinations on the map. Our travels around North America’s Wild West was something we really enjoyed. My objective was to shoot each location with a visual twist. It was travel photography on steroids. Having said that, my “seeing” ventured out more but remained within a widely acceptable “pretty” photo framework.
As you can imagine, the popularity of my blog skyrocketed. All I had to do was to travel, produce great imagery and enjoy the ride. Easy breezy! Yes, on the surface it was a perfect world but deep down I was ready for another new, unknown, foreign destination.
First came the pushback – interestingly, it was coming from myself! Olaf, why would you risk your popularity? Why aren’t you happy with what you have? Don’t you worry about losing your followers, photographic friends, readers? What if you stumble and fall? Your reputation will suffer and you may never come back. Despite all these doubts, an urge to see anew won over. It took me to the streets of major cities. I took all I had learned and applied it to so-called “street photography.”
Although I could deal with my internal pushback, the outside resistance was much more difficult to deal with. “I don’t understand your photography” and “What have you smoked?” opinions started to filter into my new, still fragile seeing. Then, the readership of my blog experienced a noticeable drop. I had a major decision to make.
Despite the risk, I decided to go with my new visual voice (my wife Kasia would argue that it was because of my stubborn nature). Some readers who initially had a negative reaction came back. I got new followers and some people, without a doubt, went somewhere else. Most importantly, I accepted the outcome and took full responsibility for it.
For the next while I plunged into classic street photography – a portrait here and there, a person walking into a beautiful pocket of light, etc. As you may suspect, over time I started to suffocate again. I wanted to take my “seeing” beyond the streets and what is right there in front of you. This time I didn’t hesitate.
Why am I bothering you with all of this? Because great seeing, visual proficiency and innovative work don’t come from standing still and being comfortable. It is a constant struggle both with yourself and the world around you as ideas and directions clash.
It may have a negative vibe but if you manage to unleash this struggle and morph it into creative seeing, your photography will reach depths you never thought possible.
What does it mean to see with new eyes in real life? There are two key areas to consider.
Seeing and Visual Ideas
Attempting new “seeing” and experimenting with visual ideas should never be something you, as a photographer, should question. If you want to create stunning work, this all-in mindset must guide you every day!
The Process of Crafting the Imagery Itself
Once you have a visual idea, you must craft the final image. This is when things often go wrong. That’s part of the experience!
Let’s examine how a new visual idea is created.
- New Seeing (freedom to explore, detachment from your usual subject/s)
- Observation (seeing the scene as NOT what it appears to be in the real world)
- New Idea (every new idea is worth exploring, even the craziest one!)
- Crafting the image (turning your idea into an image)
- Assessment (Does it work or not? Visual proficiency at work)
A new mindset comes from giving yourself permission to observe and see the way you’ve never done before. You have reached a stage where there are no rules.
Then, you start observing and connecting with your surroundings in a way you’ve never done before (for example, shooting through a plastic bottle or composing the image from elements inside your local store).
Then as you experiment, you suddenly have a new visual idea. At this point, you should not pre-judge it. Instead, you must pursue it! Most people stop here because their brain refuses to follow a new route. This is the moment when a photographer must exhaust all possibilities – even the most remote.
Sooner or later your idea will take shape and you move to another phase, which is crafting the image. In other words, you must turn your innovation (idea) into a product (an image). This is a crucial phase and is where most visual innovations fall apart – in other words they don’t work. I would urge you to push ahead and craft the best image you can.
The final part is looking at your new image with a fresh but competent eye. Most of the images derived from your new seeing will look strange or weird or make you feel uncomfortable. This is the stage when your old seeing will push back with “Why did you do it?” “Didn’t you like what you had before?” “Why risk it all?” You must overcome those fears and assess the new image from a slightly different perspective.
You have done your innovative seeing and this new image is in front of you. You even like the idea – now here comes the important point. This new image must still meet certain design criteria such as clean composition, pleasing geometry and right placement of your subject. Most of my new visual ideas fail because they don’t meet strict design criteria – they are inferior from a visual perspective.
Very often a photographer may have a great idea but imperfect execution results in a messy, chaotic, disorganized image. I’ve learnt over the years that while attempting creative photography, the rate of failure is significantly higher than shooting your accustomed frames. This failure is part of the experience and it should not be taken personally.
A photographer must develop some sort of personal self-evaluation methodology to identify good, innovative imagery. When you’ve achieved that, you will have more confidence. You must OWN the image while presenting your new work. It is especially important, as most people around you will push back – the normal reaction to new ideas.
How do you deal with the pushback?
A well-crafted image, even with the wildest idea, will always defend itself. Although someone may say, “I don’t like this photo because it’s strange” I take it as a compliment. For many people, strange or weird describes their reaction to something they’ve never seen before. The other reaction might be: “I don’t understand your work,” which is not pleasing to hear but it should not be viewed as negative. It may well be the case that your viewer doesn’t understand this particular visual. The more innovative and unique the image, the less people will understand it.
One way to engage your viewer is in the form of a discussion or some sort of exchange. I often ask my viewer to look again and describe their thoughts about the image. You would be surprised how many people start warming up to the new idea.
Let me give you a few examples.
The idea was to shoot through a small fountain (initial idea) and overexpose the image to give it a dreamy look. I was waiting for a distinctive character to walk into the frame and give it visual appeal. After spending about 30 minutes working on the idea, I abandoned it. Confirmation came when I uploaded the file on my computer. It is obviously a very poor image with no clear subject and a confusing messaging. Failed!
Notice the UPS truck parked against a very clean stage (red and white wall). The next step was to narrow the frame and design the stage.
I settled on a square format, drastically reducing the number of elements in the frame. All I had to do to wait for a subject to enter the frame.
I like the reflections in the car windows and their positioning. The square format was my choice to eliminate as much street clutter as I could. Then I decided to incorporate a human element in the frame. Uploading the image to my computer and examining its design, I decided the image was not worth sharing. Despite the appealing visual idea, the image was still too busy and confusing. The top of the frame, in particular, had too many competing elements. It was a great idea but I couldn’t craft a great image out of it.
While shooting in San Francisco, one public square caught my eye because of its distinctive mosaic floor. My first decision was to work on a B&W image (dark and light elements). I knew that the mosaic, in itself, was not enough. Then I noticed a white table with the shadow of an umbrella falling on it. Not only was it reminiscent of a tile but it broke the pattern of tiles. I liked the chair with its different pattern. At this point I wanted to incorporate one more element.
This is the image I settled on. Unfortunately, I had to crop the shadow to capture the woman standing on the left but I was able to clean up the bottom corners of the image.
I noticed a bright square lamp inside an office against an otherwise pretty dark interior. At the same time, strong light was hitting the high-rises, providing a strong reflection in the window. My idea was to incorporate the reflected buildings with the lamp inside the office.
Here is the final image. I had to change my perspective to place the lamp in the middle of the frame and eliminate some minor distractions (by getting much lower). I liked the idea and was able to craft a great image.
The idea was to add extra dimensions to the frame using darker and brighter glass. Then I had a clear area where I wanted to place my subject. I noticed the girl walking toward my frame and took this image. After my evaluation, I decided to delete this image. Although I liked the initial idea (I may use it somewhere else) the frame is so cluttered, the light is poor and the stage itself has no organization. Failed!
Although most people were shooting the iconic red telephone booths in London by standing outside and including them in the frame as a whole, I decided to go inside and use the booth as a framing tool for other landmarks in London. I immediately liked the red interior of the booth. I liked my idea here but it was too graphical. There were too many elements fighting for the viewer’s attention.
Here is the final image. Success!
When shooting on the streets of Vancouver I found a small plaza with an incredible pocket of light. With drastic under-exposure, I was able to come up with this idea (above). The problem was I didn’t like the top of the frame.
I decided to reposition my camera and wait for a person to walk into the light path on the right.
The idea was to use the reflection in the doors of a store facing the landmark La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Then I liked the colourful umbrellas many people had. I wanted to combine the patterns on the umbrellas with the patterns on the building. I wanted to wait for a bright red umbrella and make it the subject of my photograph. With so many elements in the frame I tried to change my perspective. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t arrange the elements in a harmonious whole. Total failure! Deleted!
Please let me know if you would like to see more examples like this. I may discuss a few more images in the context of risk-taking in a separate post.