I was young when I first heard some version of this advice: don’t shoot what it looks like; shoot what it feels like.
That resonated with me then, and it still does, but I feel like my entire photographic journey has been spent trying to figure out what it practically means in a way that translates to my photographs.
“Shoot what it feels like” is great advice, but it’s low on any real actionable kind of next steps. It leaves me asking how? In hindsight, I’m glad I had to figure it out myself (I seem to learn better that way), but a little help along the way would have been welcome. I wish someone had told me I needed to learn what we actually respond to in a photograph.
The things in a photograph to which we respond. Keep that idea in mind because I’m going to come back to it.
I don’t think there is one single thing that leads to better photographs, though Stephen Shore comes close when he says: “It seems to me that a good photographer is a combination of two things: one is interesting perceptions, and the other is an understanding of how the world is translated by a camera into a photograph.”
I don’t know how to nurture the first of those except to suggest that the richer your inner life—the more complex your ideas and the sources from which you mine those ideas—the more likely you are to have interesting ways of seeing the world. But an understanding of how your camera sees the world and represents it visually in a photograph? That, I think, is one key to knowing how to “shoot what it feels like.”
The camera sees the world differently than you do. This is not so much a challenge to be overcome but a creative possibility to be used.
You, for example, can’t control depth of field when you look at a scene with your naked eye, but the camera can. Without a camera, you don’t have the benefit of different focal lengths and the magnification, angle of view, or distortion they make possible. You can’t under- or overexpose a scene. You can’t freeze a moment or blur it. The camera can. That’s how we “shoot what it feels like.”
When we use the camera not as a simple recording device but as a creative tool that can translate light, space, and time into an image in a million different ways, we get our first hints about the possibilities and the many feelings with which we might imbue our photographs.
Feelings created by the aesthetic effects of our technical choices. The choice to blur motion with a slower shutter, for example. Or the choice to partly obscure a subject with bokeh, the out-of-focus circles of light created by a wider aperture’s shallower depth of field. We feel these.
As another example, we shoot what it feels like when we choose a different point of view that forces the viewer of our photographs to take a different perspective themselves. A change in point of view can not only change what the image looks like but how it feels. We shoot what it feels like when we choose our moments more carefully and pay attention to the way colour works or how we tell a story.
You will become a better photographer as you think as much (or more) about aesthetic effects than you do about just their technical causes.
Beginning photographers think first about apertures and focal lengths, shutter speeds, and other matters of craft because those are the fundamentals and they aren’t easy to master. Like learning basic vocabulary and grammar of a spoken or written language, they need to come first. But eventually, you need to start thinking about how you can use those basic tools with greater power or subtlety to create a specific feeling or communicate a certain idea.
Beginning writers must first learn to use and think about vocabulary and grammar. To become a better writer, you need to think about bigger things: rhythm, how words sound together, and how to use devices like irony or sarcasm (because those are among the things to which we respond). To grow as a writer, one needs to begin thinking of the effect of the words and why one might choose some words over others to create that effect.
To shoot how it feels requires that we think not only of basic decisions of craft but the visual results of those decisions (and how we respond to them, but I’m not quite there yet). Beginners think of aperture and shutter and focal length and try to recall the basics of composition—and so they should; they are the fundamentals that need to be learned first. Those technical choices will get you to “what it looks like.”
But photographers who long to grow past those basics need to think about what those choices create in the image. They are how the camera translates the world into a photograph, and they are what will create the things we respond to with our feelings: depth, energy, balance, tension, use of space, colour, movement and juxtaposition, to name a few. We respond to those, among others: Mood. Mystery. Symbolism.
I became a better photographer (and continue to evolve as one) when I started thinking about how the camera’s unique ability to see and translate the world might create not a technical result but an aesthetic one.
I became a better photographer when I began to think about the more human side and ask: to what do we respond, either with our imagination or our emotions, in a photograph?
If you are willing to explore that, I think you can then more consistently make photographs to which people respond. If you can say to yourself, “I’m making technical choices X, Y, and Z, because they will create (for example) depth, mystery, and mood,” then you’re closer to making more meaningful technical choices that create an aesthetic to which we respond.
So, how do you shoot what it feels like? I think it happens at the intersection of three ideas:
- Interesting perceptions;
- A growing understanding of how the camera translates the world into a visual experience; and
- A sense of what it is to which we respond in a photograph.
We need something to say, creative ways to say it, and a sensitivity to the way humans respond to, or experience, the medium itself.
For example, do you have a sense of how to create a feeling of depth in your images? Because the camera has particular ways of creating depth in an image, and we respond to that depth with feeling. It engages us.
Have you ever considered the emotional charge of the colours you use? What about something as simple as the aesthetic effect of the bokeh created by that /1.2 lens you own? Sure, it looks “cool,” but I wonder if we can do better than that. How does bokeh affect you?
We respond to nostalgia, too. And to the sensuality of a certain kind of line. We respond to the mystery created by a missing detail and the humour created by an interesting juxtaposition.
We (and those with whom we share our photographs) rarely respond to an image only because it’s sharp and well-exposed, or for that matter just because we’ve embraced intentional camera motion, double exposures, or incomprehensible gimmicks like lens balls.
If we want to be better, evolving photographers capable of making images to which other humans respond, we need to think about what we respond to and how to collaborate with the camera to create it. I don’t know how we can shoot what it feels like if we ourselves don’t know what makes us feel one way or the other.
A good place to start is to study the work of others and figure out what you respond to in photographs. Is it energy? How was that created? We could do a whole masterclass about energy alone. How colour affects energy. How certain lines and different moments amplify, dilute, or change that energy, and how the emotional energy of an image can change simply with a change in glance or posture from the human in the frame. All this gets read and experienced by the human outside the frame.
That’s the point of this: the human experience. First and foremost for the human making the image, who longs for something more from their photographs. Perhaps it’s impact; perhaps it’s just a way to express thoughts and feelings or to pass on the wonder you experience in the face of great beauty. And then secondarily, it’s the others with whom you want to share that emotion. We need that feeling or emotional awareness, but as artists and practitioners of our craft, we need to know how to translate the visual into the visceral. Are you making exposures or experiences?
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For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown