Observation Skills in Photography

One of the most critical skills a photographer possesses is called into action well before the camera is pulled out of the bag. It is the ability to see and observe. You must be able to see that which others do not; notice subtle differences in color, light, texture, behavior, and so on. If we want to offer our viewers something unique, we need to be able see our world in a unique way.

Getting into the habit of carefully examining everything around you is an excellent way to beef up your visual awareness. For example, when I enter a store, I don’t just look at the items for sale, I look to see how the place was built. I look to see all the light sources, the color and designs of the walls, what the ceiling looks like, where all the doors are located, how clean the floors are, how the shelves are spaced throughout the store, and so on. Not much escapes my scrutiny and for this there is good reason.

I was down on knees and elbows on my paved driveway to get this shot. I knew there is no way that a person would get that low to the ground to watch this play-fight, so I knew it would be a different image, at least from a human’s perspective. The intimacy of the moment captured was worth the skinned knees.

Know it Intimately

One of the greatest lessons I have learned for making images that stand out can be summed up in one sentence: know it intimately and render it uniquely. This is a simple yet tremendously valuable insight that makes perfect sense for painters and writers. It also happens to be true for photographers. It is common practice for painters and writers to study their subjects thoroughly so that they can understand its fine details and subtleties in order to most effectively execute their unique interpretations. Photographers need to study their subjects even more carefully because they must understand how their cameras will render the subject.

Studying and even scrutinizing your subjects carefully is an easy habit to develop. When walking by a tree or bush, instead of remarking on the particularly pretty shape of a leaf, stop and look at it. Don’t pluck it or harm it; observe it. Look at it from different angles and heights. Is it the same color on both sides? Is anything living or growing on it? Is it rough, slick, wet, dry? Does the color or texture evoke any significant feelings or memories? What would different ambient/direct light scenarios do to the surface and transparency of the object? Do any of these things give you an idea for a photograph? There can be dozens of photo-worthy things about the simple leaf, but would you have known about them had you not stopped?

Conquering Clutter

Another good reason for improving your observation skills is a more practical one: you need to be aware of every little thing that makes its way into your viewfinder. This includes things that aren’t even there, like lens flare or blurring that can kill the good technical execution of a hard earned image, or implied lines that can ruin a carefully planned composition.

Photography is about selecting, eliminating, and defining your images. Small details may not seem important, but they show up in your images. Stray distractions, out of focus elements in front of the subject, elements cut by the frame edge, blinding highlights, and blocked shadows are easily identified by the trained eye. Scrutinize the entire frame and visualize the resulting image. This last step is critical; each situation has a unique set of problems that need to be dealt with, and you may only have one opportunity to capture the image.

TEST: Let’s test your skills right now. Below is a close-up photograph of a Black and Tan beer taken outside a pub on a sunny day. Can you guess why I took this photograph? Answer below.

Whether we do it for personal or practical reasons, all photographers who want artistic control over the content of their work should keep their observation skills tack sharp.

Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins. All Rights Reserved.

Answer: When was the last time you had a Jeep in the bottom of your beer? Most people would not have noticed this scene because they would not have had their chin on the picnic table as I did when I saw (and was looking for) it.