If you got my Contact Sheet on January 23, you’ve already read this, but if you didn’t, read on!
Painter Robert Henri (1865–1929) admonished his students to “Paint the spirit of the bird in flight, not its feathers.” His words have echoed with me since I heard them, joining photographer David Alan Harvey’s plea: “Don’t shoot what it looks like, shoot what it feels like.”
There’s a place in photography for the merely illustrative to show the world what a thing, person, or place looks like. At one point that was the primary role of the photographer: to go into the world where others might never go, and to report back with “what it looks like.” Or, similarly, to make portraits and create a likeness. But in 100 years, we’ve come to the point where nearly every corner of this world has been photographed, and at a minimum, most every person documented annually throughout their lives, if not selfie’d to the point of absurdity. There is less and less call for us to show anyone what anything looks like. We already know. Few of us really need more illustration, although the camera still does that very well.
“Don’t shoot what it looks like, shoot what it feels like.”
~ David Alan Harvey
What we need, and have always needed, is interpretation and inspiration. We don’t need to know what it looks like (whatever it is), but what it might mean—what it might feel like. More than ever, we need images that speak to a deeper part of our humanity than the thirst for details. We need, and hunger for, for context, insight, hope, and the kind of visual poetry that stirs our hearts, sparks our imaginations, churns our stomachs, or light a fire in us.
This is one reason the ongoing hunt for more megapixels or sharper lenses is so profoundly irrelevant. We’ve got the best tools we’ve ever had and photographers just can’t stop flocking to sites like PetaPixel and DPReview to argue about edge-to-edge sharpness and how many angels you can fit on a single pixel. I wonder how much more they need before the realization sets in that the human heart doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about the things they so passionately debate. I used to wish people had more passion, but that’s not the problem at all; there’s passion aplenty out there. It just hasn’t found the courage to stand on a hill worth defending, so it thrashes around in the mud pretending to matter, pretending to accomplish something. Passion needs an outlet.
“Paint the spirit of the bird in flight, not its feathers.”
~ Robert Henri
We don’t need better tools and we don’t need more passion. We need direction and something to say with the tools and the passion. If you want to photograph “what it feels like,” you have to experience that feeling. And the more deeply you experience it, the more you can put that into the photographs you make. It’s hard to do this at the beginning. How do you experience something deeply while also giving 100% of your attention to the buttons and dials and the histogram and the depth of field? OMG, by the time you’re done you’d be happy just to have the damn thing in focus, right?
At the beginning it’s hard enough to shoot what it looks like. What it feels like? Hell, it feels like frustration, that’s what it feels like, duChemin!
I get it.
This is why it’s so important to master your craft. Not to geek out and become a so-called techy or a pixel-peeper, but to get so comfortable with those buttons, dials, technical choices, and thought processes that you can concentrate on feeling. On the right strongest moment, the aperture and shutter and composition that best communicates that feeling. On knowing what you have to say and interpreting that with the tools in your hands. We become more free with the creative work when we can pay less attention to the technical because we are everyday getting closer to mastering those tools.
When I say mastery I don’t mean it in some elite way, just that you control the tools and not the other way around. I mean it in the sense that you’re not freaking out all the time about highlights or what your f/stop should be because you’ve made those choices a million times before and your focus can be on other things.
“An artist must first of all respond to his subject, he must be filled with emotion toward that subject and then he must make his technique so sincere, so translucent that it may be forgotten, the value of the subject shining through it.”
~ Robert Henri
We photograph how something feels by feeling that thing ourselves, which in turn gives us something to say. The camera and all the elements of our craft are merely the means by which we say those things. And since our craft and our vision are inseparable from each other, if you want to be better able to express your vision, you need to get more comfortable with the tools that do that. That means focusing your efforts and getting on the path toward mastery: the more you master your tools and get comfortable with them, the more you’ll be to use those tools creatively, playfully, and powerfully.
This morning I’ve posted a video called Three Obstacles to Mastering Your Craft. It’s the first of three videos on the topic and an eventual introduction to a new chance for you to walk the path toward mastery with me. For now, I just want you to start thinking about this: while it’s all well and good to want to “shoot what it feels like,” the way you do that is more practical and requires you to be so familiar with your tools and technique that they become what Robert Henri calls translucent. Forgotten, even. He was referring to painting, but it’s the same thing.
Watch Three Obstacles to Mastering Your Craft now.
The path to mastery isn’t a secret thing and it’s not unattainable. It takes time and focus and I hope the next couple weeks will help you get there faster and more intentionally. Watch this week’s video and I’ll email you when the next one is posted. The sooner you get on the path toward mastery instead of just messing around with your gear, the sooner you can “shoot what it feels like.”
PS. If you do get the Contact Sheet, just follow the link in today’s email and you won’t have to enter your email address again. I’ll let you know automatically when the next one is up! If you don’t get the Contact Sheet, I’ll ask for your email before you watch the video so I can send you those notifications, but you can always unsubscribe, no strings attached, no weird guilt-trips.
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This one resonates with me. I take photographs of people most often in candid situations. and, as I am seeing them, I am looking to capture that individual person and the interesting look or feeling that I see. I am not looking for an exact representation, but an image that can be seen to be them, but in the way that I am seeing them, the way that I am feeling them. I guess th vision that I am seeing as I look. It is often b&w, and heavily shadowed, and almost always focused on the one person, sometimes in a crowd, sometimes with the crowd that is around not seen. I want to capture the feeling that I am seeing, whether it is joy, laughter intense focus, it is what I am seeing in them. Thank you for your writing and encouragement. I have been struggling to understand what “vision” is, though I know what I am looking for when working. This article has helped.
well said. as humans we can still appreciate the “sublime” in art, no matter how far technology and convenience push us to forget that we are part of the universe.
Thank you for possibly the best blog post I have yet read on the subject of photography.
For a while now I had been wondering about something undefinable missing from my photos. I was taking pix of what I saw but when I looked at them a few days later at home I didn’t see what I had seen – if you see what I mean LOL.
Now I think I know where the problem is: I photograph with my visual eye, which is all nice and good of course, but I am not photographing with my inner eye.
Something to work on this year. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction. I guess I’ll begin this journey with a little theory by watching your three videos.
I’m curious how devices like this one (https://witharsenal.com) fit into the shooting process (in case the url gets stripped out, it’s “with arsenal dot com”). On one hand it feels a lot like training people to use a camera without them having to learn their camera at all (which doesn’t feel entirely right), but on the other hand maybe it does free people up to shoot the spirit of a people or place, and what the scene feels like, without the camera getting in the way.
As always though, thanks for the great content and perspective. Shooting the feeling of a place kind of takes the pressure off. “This is what I was thinking and feeling when I shot the photo and this is the story I’m telling you afterwards.”
It’s interesting but to be honest I’m not a fan of shortcuts. I think craft matters and this seems like a good way to never learn the craft itself. On the other hand, who am I to say? Mostly it seems like another thing to spend money on, another “secret sauce” or “magic button” that promises to make this easy when the hard stuff is all in our heads, the way we think and approach our creative process. There is no magic button and I get suspicious when companies start to promise one. Wouldn’t it be easier if we all just learned how to expose an image based on what the scene feels like? How does a device like Arsenal know what our vision for a scene is? Anyways, I guess it’s clear it’s not for me 🙂
Hi David, thanks for this excellent post. I can’t believe it only has one comment – the deep irony being, had the post been titled, “Face it people, Canon sucks” there would be hundreds by now.
Funnily enough, I was going to write exactly what Tom Kostes has said. Sticking with one camera brand would have been very helpful over the years. I went from Canon in the film days, to Nikon, to Olympus and then a couple of years ago I moved back to Canon again. The amount of time, effort and agonising that went into all of that was unbelievable. And it achieved nothing whatsoever.
The marketing for all these brands is very clever and tries to persuade one that the camera itself has a little bit of fairy dust in it, which is obviously rot. However, I’ve been following you for 10 years now, through several of your own camera changes, and regardless of what you’ve been using, the images all have a certain duChemin quality to them.
Thanks for being a voice of sanity in this field. I can’t help but feel that many bloggers out there change brands just to have something to write about, and also to attract sponsorship. You can’t blame them of course, but it’s not necessarily to the benefit of the reader.
Thanks, Gavin. I agree with you, and have long ago made my peace with just being the weird guy mumbling in the corner. The truth is, I think, that those of us that eventually get to this place get here after passing through phases, some of which include the gear addiction and the need to discover things for ourselves, including which camera feels best in the hand and the reality that not much else makes a hill of beans worth of difference. I very much agree about the liability of changing cameras so much, I think I was helped by using the same Pentax SLR for years as a teenager, giving me muscle memory and a reliance on simpler tools than what most people start with today. And when I did come to Fuji, which is the least sexy camera ever made (second to Pentax?) it was because it felt so much like my old cameras when I held them – the muscle memory kicked in and it was like I’d never put that Pentax Spotmatic down.
You should know I’m a Fuji X-Photographer, but I’ll be damned if I know exactly what that means and I’m not sure the mothership likes me very much. 🙂
Toally agree. I, personally, have found that staying with one make or brand of camera over time helps, but even so, each time I get a new model, I take time to go through and get a handle on at least the basics before going out to shoot, so I don’t have to fumble with settings.
I always shoot in RAW, so to have the most leeway in post to refine my “feelings” at the moment of the capture, for as you stated, I want the “spirit,” not the feathers.