What is Plan B?

The best-laid plans can go awry. It happens to all of us from time to time. You set off to go somewhere, maybe an hour’s drive away, may be further afield for a photo shoot.

It may be a place you’ve been to before and you have some particular images in mind to re-shoot or some fresh ideas. It may be somewhere new to you, and you’ve done a bit of research and got a bucket list of images in mind. You’ve checked the weather, looked at the map, chosen the right gear to take. Planned your timings. You’ve got everything covered – what could possibly go wrong?

The answer is of course, anything and everything can go wrong. The weather forecast is wrong – the sun that was promised has gone AWOL. The light is all wrong. The traffic was snarled up and you were late. You left home too late. Your timing was totally wrong. The car broke down. You got lost on the way. You arrive and it’s a nightmare to find anywhere to park, etc.

So there you are at your chosen place and it’s all gone pear-shaped. Your carefully drawn up plans have gone up in smoke. What do you do? Swear probably…and when you’re done with that, then what? Turn tail and head home? Go off in a bad mood to the nearest bar? Find someone to blame – your wife, husband perhaps for delaying you? No doubt at one time or another some or all of those reactions will ring a bell. Resist those knee-jerk reactions.

How do you get through this? Annoyance, frustration, irritation, negativity, anger perhaps – all those understandable feelings are not conducive to creativity – in fact they are the enemies of it. You need to take a time out. Maybe a half hour in a bar or café to calm down. If you’ve got a newspaper or book with you, it might be a good idea to read for a few minutes. Anything that will help to distract you. Try to wipe your brain clear of the ideas you had.

Then step outside again, take a look around you and think: how can I turn this around? Try to feel positive. Where are the pictures here, now? What is the Plan B? Look at the place with fresh eyes and it will be a rare occasion when you don’t spot the potential for unexpected images. And once you pick up that camera and start to look, images will come to you.

In January a couple of years ago, we set off for Ivinghoe Beacon – it’s a forty-five minute drive away. It’s a favourite high point that we regularly visit. The sun was shining and in my mind’s eye I was seeing long shadows spreading across the valley floors around the hill.  By the time we arrived, and got to the top of the hill, the sun was still there in the sky, but a nearby wooded ridge meant that the valley floor was in deep shadow. I had misjudged the sun’s trajectory. Too late was the cry!

I was relatively calm although frustrated; there would be other opportunities, but it was still an hour and a half of driving for no results. I decided to step off the hill and walk the long way back to the car. A couple of minutes walking and I turned round to look back up to the ridgeline and saw images. The silhouettes of people out walking in the late afternoon sun. Something totally different from anything I had ever seen at this place.

_DSC1498_wpThe next half an hour flew by as I shot image after image – some of the best I have taken at that place. I went home happy. The strange thing is that if I had just walked back off the hill down the usual path I would have missed these pictures completely.

_DSC1513_1Always think – what and where is Plan B? You may be surprised by the results.

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How do we See?

How do we See? That may sound a very simple question with an equally easy answer: ‘We use our eyes’. And on a very superficial level that is of course the right answer. But for the majority of us who are mastering, or have mastered, the ability to See, the answer is a little bit more complicated than that.

The process of mastering the Ability to See (which I discussed in the post ‘Don’t Look – Learn to See’) involves taking observation to a new level. It results in a heightened state of visual awareness of our environment that enables us to see the world around us in our own individual way. It becomes a skill that we carry with us everywhere we go. Annie Leibovitz phrased it like this: ‘One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time’.

Previously also I’ve written about the role our Creative Self, or our innate Creativity, plays in directing our eye (see my Post: ‘Personal Creativity’). In that post I explained how our Creativity is an evolving aspect of our personality shaped by all the influences, preferences, and visual references that we are exposed to throughout life. Our Eye is driven by our Creativity.

The question I’m posing today is this: What is actually happening in practice when we use our Ability to See? How do we See What we See. What is the mechanism? What’s actually going on upstairs in our grey matter? What I’m going to attempt to do is describe a theoretical model of ‘How’ we See. It’s not a Eureka moment, or a game-changing plan that will suddenly enable you to ‘See’ better. But it might be that by thinking a little about what is happening inside our heads as we observe the world around us, we may be able to harness our Creativity a little better,

Let’s imagine that we are in a very ordinary urban situation or place. Not somewhere where you would normally carry a camera.

In such an environment, an ordinary person, who merely ‘Looks’ (implying a rather superficial, casual way of viewing the environment) will maybe notice – in passing – aspects of that environment. It might include the buildings themselves, glass, reflectivity, lines, geometry, colour, light and shade. It might be something unusual or out of place. Nothing registers on that ordinary person’s visual radar as image-worthy although he/she may spot all those aspects of the environment. The person, who merely ‘looks’, has not yet mastered the technique of ‘unlocking’ that specific environment and therefore he or she fails to identifyBar Chart_1 anything worth capturing.

Alongside is a graphic way of explaining this idea. I’ve drawn a bar chart of a set of characteristics that might apply to an urban environment. The person who merely ‘Looks’ will notice all those characteristics but he/she will look aimlessly around unable to see anything that ‘stands out’. In other words – that person’s vision will not attach any weight to, nor show any particular interest in, any characteristic of that environment. They will all rank the same – of insignificant value.

I will walk through that same environment, and I will notice all the same things that the ordinary person notices. But as I walk, what my brain, via my eyes, is actually doing is searching for visual triggers, and as a consequence I will find images that the person who looks never spots.

Bar Chart_2Those of us who have mastered the Ability to See have developed the ability, driven by the preferences and visual likes/dislikes stored within our Creativity, to actively seek out images that ‘conform’ to a set of characteristics (or criteria) that we have subconsciously collated and stored as representative of a style or content that has visual appeal to us in that environment. (see second chart alongside).

In other words we subconsciously apply a ‘weighting’ (as shown visually in the second bar chart) to some of the characteristics of that environment. We could describe these ‘weightings’ as the visual triggers or the ‘hooks’ that drive our photography.

Over time we will develop a large number of different ‘sets’ of criteria that we learn to employ as aids to Seeing in all the different environments that we are regularly exposed to.

That, I’m happy to admit, is a gross simplification of a complex process; but I think it is a valid way of attempting to describe and understand how individually we employ our own Seeing Eye, and how that results in each one of us seeing things that others don’t see. And so long as we continue as active photographers, that process of finding images that have personal appeal will always be functioning as a feedback loop at a subconscious level, reinforcing the appeal of what we See and like, and embedding those preferences in our Creativity.

What are your thoughts on this complex idea? Join the conversation – do make a comment.

Don’t Look – Learn to See

The ability to ‘See’, differentiates the Serious Photographer from the Snap Shooter.

Half a century ago, I went on holiday, took pictures, came back home, sent the film for processing, got the prints back and showed them to people saying: ‘would you like to see the snaps I took on holiday?’

In those days I was simply taking snaps, nowadays I am making images.  Along the way I have learnt to See. As Ansel Adams wrote: ‘you don’t take a photograph, you make it.’

And here’s another excellent quote from Bran Gaylor FRPS: ‘That elusive ability of having ‘a good eye for a photograph’ is in fact learning the art of seeing rather than just looking’.

It’s a change that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. This quote from Jimi Jones sums it up very eloquently: ‘I have said this before and will say it yet again, a funny thing happens on the road to becoming a photographer. Your vision changes and you will never see the world the same again’. If you haven’t come across Jimi’s blog (Jimi Jones Visuals) you are missing some great photography. Click the link to visit his site.

When we get our first digital camera, we embark on a steep learning curve. Superficially, if it’s a compact, it may appear to be a simple point-and-shoot camera, but even compacts are powerful mini-computers. As my earlier posts described – learning the basics is critical. See the Posts: FaCT and FaCTS.

We all start off by simply Looking and Taking Pictures. We progress over time to Seeing and Making Images. What’s the difference between ‘Look’ and ‘See’?

Ordinary people Look – they glance casually, superficially, lazily. They fail to think. And so they fail to unlock their environment meaningfully.

Creative people See – their vision is focused, alert, searching, inquisitive, and thought through. They see what other people miss. ‘Seeing’ takes observation to a new level. It amounts to a heightened state of visual awareness of the environment that results in them seeing the world around them in their own individual way.

We can also take a schematic approach to differentiating Looking from Seeing.

Those who simply Look, use observation with a small ‘o’.  We can represent their photography as a simple two-step process of:

  1. Take a picture, and,
  2. (Process the image)
IMG_3238_wp

A snap of ‘The meeting Place’ by Paul Day,
St Pancras Station, London

The second step may be rudimentary or even absent. When you analyze it, images captured by those who Look are documentary rather than artistic. It’s along the lines of: ‘Been there, Seen that, Got the picture’.

And the processing step may not even exist. Or, it may be just a button press or two on an iPhone, or it may involve a dSLR and some software. The device is immaterial. Acquiring and using an expensive device does not enable us to See better. We have to cultivate the art of Seeing.

Those who See use their powers of observation differently (it’s Observation with a capital ‘O’), Their photography is a three-step process:

  1. The Seeing Eye
  2. Getting the picture
  3. Processing the image

IMG_3240_wpWhat’s different is that when we Learn to See there is that initial first creative step of not just identifying something to photograph but also deciding ‘how’ to photograph it. It may be a familiar building, landscape, or other place that is well-known, or it may be something that we See that others dismiss as not image-worthy. We work to find and capture images that are in one simple word ‘different’.

Our Images are our own personal ‘take’ DSC06611_2_wpon what our Eye picks out. And importantly, those three steps in the process are all interlinked – each step may involve additional creative thinking. That I believe is what Ansel Adams meant when he said we ‘make a photograph’. That three-step Creative Process as a whole is The Seeing Eye’s unique view of the world around us.

(At left, two views of the same sculpture: the result of Learning to See. Click on any image to see an enlargement).

How do we make the transition from Looking to Seeing? How do we Learn to See? These are topics that I will return to many times. Today we’ve merely scratched the surface of what Seeing involves.

While writing this Post I came across an on-line debate: ‘Does a Photographer Take Pictures or Make Pictures?’ If you’ve got a few minutes to spare it’s well worth a read, in part because in addition to what I’ve written it also uses the words Take and Make in a different way – just to confuse you! Click the link above.

Next week, the topic will be Image Saturation. If you’re enjoying what you read, then do make a comment today or sign up to subscribe in the Rt sidebar.