If there’s one skill that will improve how you compose photographs, it’s the art of observation.
Observation is a part of almost every step in photography. From how you adjust your exposure to how you frame your subject, better observation almost always leads to better photography.
So what exactly does good observation mean? And how do you develop this skill?
This lesson will serve as brief introduction to the art, the craft, and the science of observation.
You’ll uncover techniques that are most impactful for developing your photographer’s eye for observation. You’ll also learn about the destructive enemy to artistic, skillful observation: autopilot blindness.
It happens all the time. You could be walking, driving, talking…. when suddenly you realize you completely zoned out.
It’s autopilot blindness.
As a photographer, this autopilot blindness leads to shooting photos of everything and anything – but not really paying attention to anything.
Plain and simple, it leads to lack of focus. Lack of precision. And lack of quality.
By observing the following four elements covered here, you can more easily avoid this autopilot blindness. More important, you can more easily get in-tuned with what happens around you – and how to capture it via your camera.
Observe the Lines
One of the most profound realizations for me was the power of lines. Their power lies right in front of our eyes. Yet most of us don’t even know it’s there.
Just observe what’s happening this very moment as you’re reading this lesson.
Your eyes are creating an imaginary beam of light, pointed straight at this text. Your face, shoulders, and legs are positioned to create another imaginary line at these few words.
Any casual observer would see this imaginary line connecting from you to the text – be it a cell phone, a desktop, or another device.
This is just one basic example. In our everyday lives, we take cues from following lines all the time.
If you’ve ever gone hiking in a remote area, you know how easy it is to assume a dirt path without plants is the path – when it very well may be a game trail leading nowhere.
By becoming aware of lines and the pull they have on our vision, you can then start using them in your own photographs.
There are primarily two types of lines you can use for composition:
Real lines are those concrete and visible lines anybody can notice. The lines outlining your computer screen, the road you drive, and street lights are all examples of ‘real’ lines.
There’s a distinct area that creates a line. This can be either through shadows, textures, or shape.
Imaginary lines are those lines that are not readily visible to the eye. Place ten bottles a foot apart, along the same trajectory and you’ll have created an imaginary line between the bottles. The line doesn’t actually ‘exist’. If you look at the bottles, however, it’s natural for your eyes to follow the path between them and create an imaginary line yourself.
While implied and not concrete, they can be just as, if not more, powerful than the ‘real’ lines that surround us.
In fact, the more you can utilize imaginary lines and visual motion within your images, the better you’ll be able to guide viewers into the world of your image.
One simple exercise I like to give to beginners trying to improve their compositions of lines is to pay attention to how you move about on a daily basis.
Start with your car. Notice how both real and imagined lines guide you to your destination. Watch how your feet follow paths. Pay attention to how your eyes wander about.
As you become more observant of the lines around you on a daily basis, you’ll be quicker when it comes time to actually shoot.
When at a shoot, ask yourself, which lines are the most prominent in your area? Which are least? Where are the lines forming patterns? Forming tension?
Before I even start shooting a scene, this observational awareness of lines is one of the first things I do. It guides my shots. It fuels my compositions.
Lines are essentially the building blocks to photography.
One last question I like to ask myself about lines before I start shooting is simple – and equally important:
How can lines be altered by my lens choice?
Think in terms of focal points. The focal point measures how your lens converges or diverges light. The average human eye has a focal point of around 10-17mm. A wide-angle (or ‘fisheye’) lens is smaller while a telephoto lens is much larger.
Your choice of lens can do one of three things:
- Make the lines around you more expansive (wide angle)
- Compress lines (telephoto lens)
- Attempt to recreate your current perspective (more of a ‘human’ perspective)
For a more comprehensive look at focal length and its influence on composition, check out this introduction to focal lengths.
Observe Between the Lines
Equally as important as observing lines is observing what falls within the lines.
We are accustomed to seeing the borders, walls, and outlines of things but not what is within them. By becoming more aware of the interior and ‘within’, we become less superficial observers and more well-rounded.
As E.T. Hall says:
“In the West, man perceives the objects but not the spaces between. In Japan, the spaces are perceived, named, and revered as the ma, or intervening interval.”
ET Hall, Hidden Dimension
All life is bristling with emotion. Watch a bee react when you get too close. Watch a crow hop closer to its crow partner when you get too close. And the squirrel curiously rush towards you in pursuit of food.
It’s everywhere – if you’re open to it.
Sadly, many aren’t even open to the emotional expressions our fellow human share on a daily basis.
To be able to effectively capture emotion on camera, you must be able to see it. This encompasses not just when your camera is out, but at all times.
Body language. Feeling. Expressions.
Take Walt Disney’s advice to animators when creating characters from nothing – an infinitely more challenging task on capturing emotion than us photographers have to face…
“An animator should not be allowed to start on a scene until he not only has the mechanics and routine of the business, but the feeling and the idea behind the scene thoroughly in mind.”
Certain facial expressions and body positions naturally imply messages. Standing straight, head up creates a different emotional experience than slumped down, hands in pockets.
What’s truly exciting is understanding the way we read expressions of emotion and applying these to inanimate objects. For example, a tree with similar body language as an excited person. When we see inanimate objects giving expressions we are tuned in to read, we can’t help feel similar emotions. This makes for some really creative, unique composition opportunities.
Light is everywhere around us. We bath in it all the time and when it goes away, we close our eyes and sleep.
It’s for this reason that we often take its qualities for granted.
“”The ability to be sensitive to what is around you is not something that turns on only when you’re out shooting. It should be on at all times. You will be amazed at how rich your visual experiences will be, even when you are not photographing.”
Becoming more observant of light is simple – just start noticing its effects on a daily basis.
Where is the light coming from? What is its quality? Does it produce harsh shadows or soft ones? Do colors become more vibrant or muted with the light?
How does the light change as the day wears on?
If you haven’t yet, I advise you to go outside during the last hour of the sun setting and watch what happens. The light will drastically change from minute to minute. Right before the sun goes beneath the horizon, the landscape will transform within seconds. Colors change. Trees become different in character. Magic happens.
Then it’s all gone. All that’s left is a faint glow in the distance.
And no matter how hard you tried to observe effects of light changes during that hour, you’ll have missed hundreds of nuances.
This is our medium as photographers. Bask in it.
Observe the Unobserved
There’s something more important than just observing lines, light, and emotion. It’s observing yourself.
It’s something most everyone ignores.
We naturally have warped views of ourselves. We think we make rational decisions when we don’t. We overestimate our skills constantly.
And we think we’re observing when we’re really still blind.
By observing how you observe you observe the unobserved. Nobody else is observing how you observe. And they never will. Only you can see how you observe and take action to improve the skill. But in order to impact your observational skills, you must first know how they operate.
How do you currently observe the following:
- Areas within lines
Your current ability and level of observation of these four areas will directly determine what you need to work on. It will also tell you what areas you are strong at and should work to make even stronger.
Some people are naturally perceptive to emotion – they’re more sensitive to others. Others are more observant of designs, patterns, and architecture around them. This will all show through in the photographs one takes – and the photo opportunities one ignores.
By becoming more aware of the choices you make and how they are strongly correlated to your observational choices, you can then alter (and improve) your future observations.