Green Seas - Norway - Rafael Rojas

“Looking is not seeing. Engaging with the world as a photographer means we need to keep not only our eyes open, but also our mind and soul.”

Reality does not exist. Each of us makes our own reality. Perception, which might start with visual stimuli, is filtered by our mental templates, preconceptions, memories and experiences. The result becomes a personal appreciation of reality, which then, by association, releases a number of emotions, feelings and souvenirs linked to other situations and experiences of our life.

Photographing the world means making statements about it, and if we want our statements to be meaningful we need to fully absorb what is around us, understand the way it affects us and then explore ways to communicate that effectively through photography.

This is why learning to see, and learning how the camera ‘sees’, will not only make you a better photographer, but will help you live in a more intense way.

Burning Peak - Matterhorn, Switzerland

Breaking the barriers to seeing

Have you ever observed small children? They see the world with open eyes, absorbing every single detail, making associations, imagining things, and paying attention to many things we adults consider too small to be of any importance.

We have all been children and we too saw the world in this way. Years of education, life experience and interest in more “practical” things created layers of veils which, little by little, started to blind our eyes. Now, as photographers, we have to learn how to rip off those veils, and start seeing again like we did when we were younger. Not only will our images improve, but our whole lives as our appreciation of the world around us becomes richer, deeper.

There are a few ‘tricks’ we can all follow in order to break these bad habits and start seeing, rather than just looking.

Golden forest - Switzerland - Rafael Rojas

1. Slow down

There are all sorts of movements based on the philosophy of doing things slowly. Slow food, slow work and even slow sex! Well, we photographers should advocate the movement of slow photography. When photographing your subject or landscape, pay attention first and photograph later. Do not start firing away before you establish contact with your subject. If you are photographing portraits of a person, get to know that person first. Talk with them, even if you do not speak their language! Simply be around them for a while, establish rapport and only then photograph. Not only will your subject be more natural and open to collaborate with, you will get to know that person a little better, sensing their soul and spirit, and be able to capture that in your images.

When photographing a landscape, do the same thing. Sit down, observe the details, see how the light moves around, how the character of the place changes with light and weather.

Imagine how the place was, how it will be. When you feel ready, capture your image.

Stream to Infinity_Iceland - Rafael Rojas

2. Relax

Good photography is approached in a meditational state. While you photograph, many worrying thoughts will cross your mind. Learn to simply see the coming and going without judgment.

You may think of duties you have to complete when you reach the studio. Tell yourself that you will handle those obligations later on, give yourself the freedom to work during a certain amount of time.

Frequently, thoughts about how the images are coming along (or not) will also cross your mind. We all tend to be a little too hard on ourselves sometimes, and stress about whether our images are going to be good or not, or whether or not we have the creative ‘mojo’! The best solution is to forget about the final result (the photographs) and just take pleasure in the experience and the freedom of capturing images and doing something you enjoy. Imagine the worst case scenario: Photographing without a memory card! It will help you realize that even in that situation the wonderful experience of being in the outdoors taking photos is still incomparable! We need to forget about the photos, and focus on the experience. Only when we do not run after great images do they happen.

Hebridean Stripes - Scotland - Rafael Rojas

3. Forget preconceptions

When we visit a certain well known locale, we are likely to have previously seen hundreds of images from other photographers. All these images create preconceptions, rigid templates of the kind of images we should be making, the type of weather or light conditions we should be hoping for, and so on.

Preconceptions are exactly the best way of sabotaging ourselves, and avoiding the creation of our best and most personal work. Remember, we are all different, and the way you approach the same landscape or subject with your camera should not bend to conventions of any kind. One good way for encouraging this is by visiting banal and ordinary places you have not seen or photographed before, and force yourself to spend time there with your camera. Another one is photographing intimate landscapes, where scale and anchors to reality or a particular place are absent.

This exercise will make you more comfortable and able to later approach and photograph better known places while isolating yourself from the influence of other images you have seen.

Sun and Mist - France - Rafael Rojas

4. Learn the rules in order to break them

We have all heard that in order to break the rules you have to learn them. Basically, the idea is not to learn the rules, but rather to understand the reason why those rules were invented. Personally, I discourage all my students from thinking about any rules whatsoever. They simply do not exist.

However, what you can learn is how the visual design or certain compositional tricks and templates affect the way we perceive, feel and understand the images. That will give you not sterile and rigid rules to work with, but the knowledge to make your own decisions and apply the tools in a way that is coherent with the meaning you want to give to your images. For instance, if you know that placing elements in the middle of the frame will bring a strong static and stable feeling, with an absence of movement and a very strong emotional pull, you might use that position when photographing a single tree in the middle of the desert. That position, which breaks all rules of thirds, will be the best if what you want to highlight is the pride, the resilience, the isolation and the strength of that lonely tree in its hostile environment.

A lonely tree stands against the sand dunes in the Namib Naukluft NP, Namibia

5. Learn how the camera sees

We photographers use cameras and lenses, and these tools ‘see’ the world in a different way. Get used to seeing the world through the ‘eyes’ of your cameras. With experience, you will be able to imagine how a scene will look as a long exposure, with a very selective depth of field, in black and white, compressed with a telephoto lens or showing you a wide scene if using a fish-eye lens.

Watercolors - Scotland - Rafael Rojas

6. Develop your sensitivity to light

We photographers do not capture subjects, but rather the light reflected from them. This is why if we want to reach those subtle and magical moments which are happening all the time around us, we need to develop the sensitivity to be able to see them.

This is a skill which we can all practice, even without a camera in hand, every day, everywhere. As you commute to work, go on a stroll, glance outside the window, take a moment and pay attention to the way the light is diffused and reflected by the clouds, the buildings, the water… Look at the color of the light, and how it changes throughout the day. Pay attention to the shadows… Are they strong and well defined, or diffused and blurred? As you train your brain, you will acquire a skill and sensitivity that will help you a lot as a photographer. The best light conditions are not always those that are blunt and obvious.

Acquiring the skill of having a subtle appreciation of light is like a good chef who finally reaches that point where they can use their ingredients with care and good taste.

Black Summit - Switzerland - Rafael Rojas

7. Imagine

Do what you did when you were a child. Think “what if?” as you explore your subjects photographically. Imagine how that place looked many hundreds of years ago and how it will look in many more. Imagine that tree can see you, feel you. What would you tell it? What do you think it has to tell you? Photograph that.

Imagine you are a mouse, how would the perspective be? I have sometimes had students tell me that they do not have any imagination. I have proved to them again and again that everyone has the capacity to imagine, dream and create. Some people might have a few more layers of dirt and cobwebs to dig through to reach it, but it is there, waiting for you where you left it many years ago.

Bowing to the Sun - Finland - Rafael Rojas

8. Forget the tags and make abstractions

When we look at things, our brain is eager to assign a tag (word, definition) and pass on to something else. As a result, we lose interest in a tree at the very moment our brain identifies it as a tree. As photographers, we need to avoid the labels and see the visual elements which compose it. That is what we call making an abstraction of the subject. Abstracting is de-structuring the reality you see into the visual building blocks of which it is made: Lines, textures, colors, shapes, tones…

Have you ever heard large format photographers talking about how much they enjoy looking through ground glass and seeing the image upside down? The reason is that it is easier for them to trick their brains into abstraction, since reality becomes distorted through the ground glass and the tags come a little later.

We can do the same by training our eyes and paying attention to things around us, beyond simple recognition and identification.

All these tricks and recommendations seem easy, and indeed they are. We just need time and interest, slowing down, looking at the world in the very same way we used to do when we were children. We can all do it, and the rewards are immense. Not only will your photographs gain in depth and interest, but you as a person will become more interesting too! You will be amazed at how many people will pause when you are out there with your camera and tripod, wondering what you are looking at so attentively!

Rocky Cosmos - Spain - Rafael Rojas

About Rafael Rojas

Rafa_thumbnail_leaders Rafael Rojas, Hasselblad Master, is an internationally awarded fine art photographer, author, lecturer and educator. He is the Director of “Essential Seeing “, a company dedicated to teaching people how to see and use photography as a creative tool of meaningful personal expression, through inspirational eBooks, videos and photographic workshops. Along with his wife Anca, they organize photo-immersion trips to some of the most inspiring and authentic places around the world.

Picture 12 - Essential Seeing Logo

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