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?
Got a moment to give me your opinion on something I’ve been thinking about? I’ll explain more here. Leave me your thoughts to 3 simple questions and you could win a portfolio review or free enrollment in one of my online courses.
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
I really enjoyed this article. Shoot what it feels like. It sounds so inviting. But as you indicated I couldn’t think clearly about what it actually meant.
I really appreciated how you broke it down and gave me specific ideas to think about. Like why we use certain settings or lenses. What are we trying to evoke?
I think sometimes I can get hung up on trying to make sure a photo is technically correct, but that doesn’t mean whole lot if it doesn’t make anyone feel anything.
Thanks for the thoughts to ponder. I’ll need to return to this more over time.
One of your best articles, David. Just my “two cents,” of course, but knowing how the camera and various lenses “see,” the world is so important. Along with knowing how “you,” as an individual “sees,” it as well. It is these two things that are so important in creating “Art,” with your equipment.
Thanks for that, Tom. Means a lot coming from a guy who’s read this blog for so long. Hope you’re well.
“Are you making exposures or experiences?” Profound, and yet so simple to grasp. Thank you. (So good to meet you in person.)
Thanks Jo. Our lunch together was a highlight for me. Thank you. Love to Jim.
Really enjoyed this article. What I liked the most about this article is where you said to study the work of others and figure out what I respond to when looking at their photographs. You could write a whole article on how to study the work of others and get inspired from it. Thanks
Thanks, Marc. That’s a great idea. I have talked about this in the past, but I could revisit it. Search “Study the masters” on this blog and you’ll see some of the articles. One of the best ways to study is to buy a book, especially one with a good introduction or an interview. To read the insights of others and the photographers themselves and to hear what they prioritize is a good first step to understanding what they are trying to achieve, and then looking at the work as individual images and also as a series, and asking, “Ok, so how did they do it? Was it use of pattern and scale? Was it choice of moment? Was it choices about colour? What made their work stand out?” – I find that very helpful.
Thanks for the really great article on feeling and the aesthetic in photography.!! I am filing it to be read over again
Thank you, Piers!
Thanks David for your regular Contact Sheets. Just completed ImageWorks and Commenced ImageStory. Your teaching has awakened in me and is fuelling my photographic aspirations. From reading and reflecting on this Contact Sheet as well as the courses I have written a Challenge Statement for myself: “Learn and Establish the Connection between the Particular Camera Settings and Craft that will both Express and Result in the Conveyance of the Feelings I Wish to Produce in the Viewer/Observer of my Images.” Can I ask, how well, if at all, does this statement fit in with your message?
You just made my day, Steve! Thank you for that. Means the world to me when the people for whom I make my courses and books, etc., find the kind of value in them that I hoped they would. 🙏
Your challenge statement hits the nail on the head, though you get docked 5 points for all the capital letters. LOL. Save some for later, man! 😂
Thanks for this article. I’ve never been able to understand how to photograph “what I feel.”
You have provided me with some food for thought on this issue.
Thanks, Carl. We all do this differently, but my experience tells me you’ll know it when you find it.
Great essay. I know that I will be coming back to it several times, as it addresses important ideas that need some time to marinate in the brain. I’d love to see you elaborate on these ideas in future essays.
This is what I’ve been struggling with lately. I’m glad I’m not the only one because it totally felt that way. This article is absolutely what I needed to read. Not sure how I will implement it as of yet but at least I have food for thought so thank you.
Sandy, I just recommended my book The Heart of the Photograph to Craig Miller who commented just before you. I wonder if you’ve read it? Might be a good start to figuring out some of the devices by which we “shoot how it feels”. Ultimately of course the real work is in simply getting out there and experimenting but I think the book might help guide that experimentation. Just a thought. 🙂
Thanks, Craig. I tried to elaborate on some of this in my last book, The Heart of the Photograph. I went into it asking, “what are the things to which we respond in an image?” and I think that book does a good job of beginning the conversation.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the way the photograph is presented impacts how we feel about it. On a screen VS printed for starters. Small VS large. Do these things impact the emotional response too? I’m thinking they do.
What a great question, Elena. Yes, absolutely it does. In my last course, The Photographer’s Voice, I dedicate a lesson to this idea – that our work benefits not only from harmony with our tastes and preferences, and the theme or through-line of our work, but from a harmony with the way we share it. It’s a larger subject but try this idea on for size: I asked in the article above if you were making experiences or just exposures. That word experience is super important, right? So, here’s what I think: we don’t experience a photograph. We experience the medium on which the photograph is presented. We experience it on social media, in magazines, on a wall in a gallery, or in a slideshow etc., and every medium is different. We go to social with certain expectations and behaviours, and they’re much different than the expectations and behaviours we bring to a book or a gallery. Those determine our experience and therefore our emotional response. It’s one reason I think social media is poorly suited to photography. It’s a big subject. Thanks for opening the can of worms! 🙂
I rally liked this (Shoot What It Feels Like) Contact Sheet email because I’ve very interested in learning more about how to convey emotions through photos. I would be interested in a course that dealt with this topic.
Another idea for a course, which is related to the one above, is How to Study Photographs (to link decisions the photographer made and the emotions conveyed in the image)
Thanks for that, Evelyn. I agree. Have you by chance read my book The Heart of the Photograph? It was written as a way to have some of the conversation about the elements and devices to which we respond in an image.
First, a suggestion. Maybe the rest of your fans is less of a technological idiot than I am, but in case that’s not true, let me tell you what I just did. I wrote a fairly long comment, then left the page to check on the accuracy of a url I was giving you and when I tried to come back, everything was gone. Normally, I’d just say “screw it” and move on, but I’m writing again, because I’m interested in your reaction to something. If you can use my stupidity to save others the frustration of losing what they’ve written, that might be a good idea. It would also get you more comments, because I think a lot of folks won’t write again.
So, here’s what I can remember of what I just lost.
I really enjoy your columns. They are thoughtful, simple and, so, profound.
I’m 80. For many years my wife and I were fortunate to be able to travel widely, and I took many photos. I’m a decent amateur, perhaps decent-plus, if you’re an easy grader. arniekanter.zenfolio.com My wife rights poetry and is rather widely published, she’s definitely decent-plus, probably better than that. We’ve put together three books of her poetry and my photography, http://www.dualartspress.com. They’re pretty good. People seem to like the combination of arts, poetry and photography.
During the pandemic, we’ve canceled four trips, and I’ve put away my camera and have been happily engaged in some creative philanthropy my wife and I have been doing to support small arts organizations in under-served communities, http://www.innovation80.org We’re working on a fourth poetry/photography book, but even that has not gotten me back to wanting to photograph again. Reading your columns, though, does make me think of doing that.
So, do you have any advice on how to get back on the wagon, slowly, for people who have fallen off? It’s especially a challenge for me, because so much of my photography has been connected to travel and I’m not sure when or whether that will return.
Keep the columns coming.
Hi Arnie – Thanks for this. I’m sorry for the technical frustrations, but I’m quite sure the limitations of this medium and the technology behind it don’t remotely qualify you as an idiot. 🙂
You asked about getting on the wagon again and all I can tell you is what works for me. The first is this: find your joy. Find the reason you do this and make that happen. Is it the exploration? You can do that without travelling. You can explore worlds with a macro lens and a bouquet of flowers. Is it playing with new techniques or tools? You can get a new lens cheaply in the classifieds and play with it. Find the reason you enjoy this craft and use that as a door to enter again. The second is this: do the work. Many of us, myself included, don’t find inspiration until we pick up the camera and get photographing. Maybe start a personal project. Make portraits of the people that are most important to you. Make landscapes of the places you most love within 100 miles of home. Go for a walk everyday at sunrise and bring the camera. Make one photograph every time. There are so many ways to do this but you won’t know if it’s the right one until you try. I hope that helps. Whatever you do, if it brings you joy, find a way to get back to it. Life, as you know, is too short not to fill the days as best we can with joy. Best to you and Carol, Arnie.