Vision Isn’t Everything.
It’s Often Not Even the First Thing.
Those of you who have been with me a while probably never thought you’d see the day when I’d write those words. I’ve built much of my teaching around the idea that “vision is better'” and, specifically, have placed a priority on vision being better than relying on endless gear upgrades where more creative, authentic, or compelling photographs are concerned.
Over the last few years, I’ve used the word “intent” rather than “vision” because I think it’s clearer. It’s easier to act on.
Asking, “What do I want to say with this photograph, and how?'” is an intentional start to making images that say those things more powerfully.
But it assumes you know what your vision is, doesn’t it?
When I talk about photographing with vision, I get this feeling that people imagine me walking around places like Venice with a very clear idea in my mind of what I want to create. That is, I walk around, camera in hand, with a vision that is clear and developed and only needs some button-pushing to make it a reality. And I worry that those same people are wondering what the heck they are doing wrong because, more often than not, they wander around in a fog, with no idea what their intent or vision is. And I thought it might be a good time to tell you this: so do I.
Vision matters. Intent matters. Having some idea what your photograph is about makes it so much more likely that you’ll make a photograph that expresses that. What’s it about? What’s it not about? What needs to be in or out of the frame? Which choices about composition or perspective, shutter speed or focal length would best express that intent? So, so important.
But (again), it assumes you already know what your vision is. I typically do not. Not immediately. I’m usually wandering around in the same thick fog as you, muttering to myself in the hours or minutes before I stumble upon it. But I’m not wandering lost, not really. I’m exploring! (Which, I admit, most of the time feels like I’m wandering around lost.)
Exploration usually has to happen before expression.
When I arrive at a place or sit with a portrait subject, it takes time to discover what that place or person is all about. Even on the smallest scale, what is it in this specific moment that I want to express? I often don’t know. You might not, either.
I recently gave a virtual lecture to a camera club in St. Louis and was asked to explain my concept of sketch images. In doing so, it occurred to me that the idea that we all show up to make our photographs with a clear vision—rather than one that is slowly arrived at or discovered, usually after some bumping around in the dark—might be a harmful one. It’s certainly not realistic for most of us.
This is why I use sketch images. It’s why I make a lot of photographs, seeing what things look like when photographed, exploring different angles, different shutter speeds, focal lengths, and compositions. Because my process usually looks more like this:
(click) Interesting, what if I…
(click) Nope. But…
(click) Nope. Drat. Oh, but…
(click) Ooooh, hang on a…
(click) This gives me an idea.
(click) OMG. I love that.
(click, click, click)
With each phase of that process (which I have here compressed for you by many, many frames and omitted the cussing), I get closer to discovering my vision or what I want to say, and what I want my image to be about. Whether the camera is to my face or at my waist with the LCD screen flipped down, the process is not one of shoehorning my scene into the confines of my existing expectations. Rather, it is the exploration of that scene. It’s a process of discovery; I know when I’ve gotten there when the internal dialogue stops and it’s just click, click, click. When I’m caught up in the flow of it, that’s the sweet spot.
I rarely start at the sweet spot; I’m digging for treasure, and my camera is the shovel.
Dig, dig, dig. Click, click, click. But at some point, you hit the wooden top of the chest with a thunk—and you know you’re there.
The freedom to make sketch images is the freedom to dig in different places, not expecting to hear that thunk until you’ve done a little shoveling. It’s the freedom not to get discouraged that you don’t know exactly what you’ll find in the box once you get there. It could be astonishing riches (the vision for a body of work—hurray!). It could be one single gold coin (the vision for one photograph that you love!). It could be a map that leads you elsewhere: maybe not the treasure you hoped for, but the discovery of a bigger idea—or even hints of an idea—that take you elsewhere to dig.
Dig, dig, dig.
Click, click, click.
The longer I photograph, the more the exploration itself means to me. The more I’m content to let the expression of an idea—the thing my photographs are about—come at the end of a process that is not only necessary but beautiful and rewarding all on its own. The freedom to enjoy the search and the hope of discovery and to dig wherever I please leads me to make photographs that are not only stronger (and yes, more closely align with my vision once I unearth it), but I also enjoy the process more.
That’s why I make sketch images. Because X almost never marks the spot. Because it’s rare that I show up and discover that my first impressions of a place or a subject are my best impressions of it, or even my final impression of it. I seldom arrive to find my vision sitting there on the surface, polished and waiting for me. But if I do a little digging, it’s usually there if I’m paying attention and willing to get my hands dirty.
Vision matters. But sometimes you have to dig for a while with no sense of what you’re looking for so that you’ll know it when you see it.
If you’re not there yet, keep digging. Keep sifting through the soil.
Dig, dig, dig.
Click, click, click.
Keep digging, my friend. There’s gold there, I promise.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – If you’re here for the chance to win the Fuji X100F, you’re in the right place but the wrong time. This giveaway is now closed and the winners are Tiffany Luong and Daniel Bienvenue. Congrats to you, I’ll be sending these two beautiful cameras off to you this week! Thanks to everyone for the wonderful comments!