I initially took up photography because I couldn’t paint or draw. I wanted a creative outlet and I figured that the reason I was so abysmal using a pencil or a paint bush was because I lacked the necessary hand to eye coordination required. So I took up photography at the age of 14 and set about learning this art. I picked up the technical aspects quite quickly and started producing photos. Which were really boring.
This went on for a few years and although I was quite a competent photographer technically – the photos I created were not much beyond snapshots. So what was going wrong? I racked my brains long and hard but could not figure it out. The strange thing was that even at school I was teaching other kids how to process films and how to get their exposures correct. Frustratingly some of them were catching on really quickly and I could see pretty much straightaway that their photos were better than mine – more creative and pleasing on the eye. I began to think that maybe I just wasn’t ‘artistic’ and I was wasting my time. But slowly I realised that the kids who’s photography was better than mine were the ones that were already good at painting/drawing – this was getting seriously depressing.
After a lot of soul searching I figured that there was a link. The people who were good at art were also good at photography – why? It was more than hand/eye coordination. Then it became clear – when I had a blank piece of paper/canvas in front of me I used to just attack it with a pencil/paintbrush and try to recreate the bottle, glass or bulb of garlic in front of me. I never analysed the lighting, the composition, the delicate lines and structure. My mind would go blank and I would just clumsily make a vague representation of my subject. And I realised that I was approaching my photography in much the same way. The guys and girls who were photographically accelerating away from me were already tuned into these things and could apply them when using a camera. I was randomly snapping away with my rolls of 36 and hoping that a few of them would turn out ok. I had never properly planned a shoot and I had never visualised how a photo should look before I went and took it. This changed everything. My photos started to improve and gain more depth to them. It was like having cataracts removed.
The problem with photography is that DSLRs offer instant gratification – “Don’t like that shot, delete, shoot another”. Repeat until happy. Do it like that and you probably will not improve. It is so easy to get snap happy and with big memory cards we can find ourselves machine-gunning our lives away. The process to do just about any project is to research, visualise and execute. Plan for lighting, setting, composition, angles, poses etc. in as much detail as you can. Use mood-boards, sketches, tear sheets, memory – whatever works for you. It is more challenging because after you have done your previsualisation you have to discipline yourself to achieve the planned images rather than free-styling. But you will find that your images will improve.
Now there are instances where you just go out and take photos for the sheer joy of it and the excitement of catching something totally unplanned. And that’s something we should all do. And for the wedding photographers amongst us and others who like to capture the moment it’s still extremely useful to recce the venue beforehand to visualise where the best places will be for backgrounds, lighting etc.
Possibly the most impressive exponents of the previsualisation technique are the landscape photographers who plan, turn up and wait hours and hours to capture the moment where the light, sky and vista is at the zenith of perfection. Perhaps just one shot. That is dedication. It might not happen on that day. And if it does it may have taken the same time to capture it as it would have to paint it.
Which brings me back to my original blank canvas. These days, with my experience and hindsight I plan most of my shoots with detail and care. I know what I want before I pick up my camera. With my clients I can visualise their ideas and turn them into highly polished images that help them sell their products and services.
But I am still rubbish at painting.