It's All in Your Head: Photographic Vision Over Photographic Skills

It's All in Your Head: Photographic Vision Over Photographic Skills

Photographers will spend tons of money and lots of time perfecting their use of the tools of their trade. We buy books and classes, watch tutorials, and spend time practicing, gather in professional groups, and shadow other photographers. While we learn how to use our gear, there is one thing we shouldn’t overlook, because it’s the thing that ultimately matters the most: vision.

For those photographers who consider themselves artists, the one question that always seems beyond answering is “How do I make my work stand out?” In an age when image creation and distribution is so easy, that’s a great question. Often, the photographer will take a new class or buy a new piece of gear to give themselves that little edge, but the shine always wears off and they find themselves searching for the next thing, the next new piece of gear or the class that will finally teach them that one thing they’ve been missing, the thing that will bring them to a new level. What so many fail to realize is that, at that point, skill is mostlyirrelevant.

Given enough time behind the camera, skill level becomes a largely useless way to distinguish oneself. It’s not what gear they use that’s important, what f-stop, ISO, or aperture a photographer uses that will set their work apart. It’s not what choice of light source or modifier a photographer uses that will distinguish them from their peers, it’s why they chose those they chose those settings, that modifier, or that light pattern.

As an example, look at the work of Peter Lindbergh versus the work of Peggy Sirota. Both shoot very high-profile photographs that include celebrities, magazine covers, and advertisements, but the end results are many aesthetic worlds apart. While the work they do obviously requires a certain level of skill, these photographers don’t get hired because of their skill set, they get hired for their vision. If you’ve ever spent any time on Pinterest perusing family portraits, you’ll have seen what happens when everyone’s work begins to look the same; a family in a field of tall grass, backlit at sunset. The fact is, any one of a thousand photographers can take beautiful family portraits that are sharp, correctly exposed, and nicely lit, so price often ends up being the deciding factor for clients looking to have portraits taken.

Why does a magazine hire Annie Leibovitz? It’s not because she can properly light and pose her subjects, it’s because her work is stamped, very uniquely, with her visual signature.

So, what is it that makes people stop and stare for long minutes at one photographer's work while passing up that of another? It’s vision. It’s the unique way one person sees a thing, and how they approach turning what they see into a finished image. It’s the way someone chooses to apply their skills, not the skills themselves, that is most important. That is not to say that building skill is irrelevant since skill is what allows us to realize our vision, the problem is that those skills are largely the same skills everyone else is building. This means that, at some point, skill level fades into the background and vision is what wins the day.

So, if it’s vision that truly separates the cream from the milk, maybe it’s time we start asking new questions. Instead of asking a photographer we admire about their settings, or looking at another photographer’s work and wondering what light source they used, maybe we should start asking a more difficult, but more important question: why?

Is that photographer you admire shooting in low key, black and white? Why? What are those artistic choices communicating to you, and what is it that you are connecting with as a viewer? Is it the intimacy, the sensuality of the light that draws you in?

Low key black and white with Denver model Lakota Leffler

Or maybe you find you prefer bright, warm colors and smiling eye contact. Why? Is it the warmth, the friendly openness those choices convey that speaks to you?

Each choice that is made regarding how to apply photographic skill to creating an image should always be in the service of a vision, and that is the one part of the job that is unique to the photographer behind the camera. Anyone can learn to manipulate the exposure triangle, but not everyone can see the world in the same way.

So, if vision is ultimately the most important thing, how does one go about finding out what their vision is and how to hone it? That’s the question of the ages, but I think I can give a little bit of insight.

Everyone that has a unique mixture of personality, experiences, and preferences that separate us as individuals. Being authentic to who you are is the first part of having a vision, so those seeds are already there, planted deep inside you. It seems to me then that the first step in watering those seeds is to start asking yourself what makes you light up? What is it that you can’t stop thinking about, that inspires you and drives you?

Maybe it’s honest connection or joy or sensuality that makes you feel connected to an image. Maybe it’s being challenged, confronting pain, or questioning human nature. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as you know it. After that, start looking at work you love (hint: it shouldn’t be just photography) and try to figure out what is about how the piece was made that makes you love it. Take it apart and examine what makes you connect to the photo; is it the light, the color, the subject matter, the mood or the composition?

Hone that instrument that is yours alone, that no one else can replicate: your mind. Start believing that it’s your mind that is your most important piece of gear. Build as much skill in the way you see as you have in the way you manipulate your camera, and your work will no longer be merely another in a long line of similar work, it will scream out that it is a child of your heart.

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Kawika Lopez's picture

I absolutely love this article. I have so many colleagues that can analyze an image or film and break down every technique, skill and piece of gear that was used to create it. The problem is that they would never think to do it themselves because they haven't developed a sense of "good taste," as I call it.

I run into this all the time, especially with photo editing. How do you do this? How do you do that? The first thing I tell them is that it doesn't matter how I do it. There are probably a million ways to do it. The real factor is that I saw what I wanted in my head and figured out how to get there. If you look at a raw image and you don't know how to improve it, it doesn't matter if you know every photoshop technique in the world. You won't know which one to use because you don't know what you want.

And of course theres always the comment you get when your out shooting and someone says, "That camera takes such good photos." It used to upset me. Now, I just feel bad for the person saying it, because they really believe that gear is what makes someone a good artist.

Nicole York's picture

I'm glad it resonated with you! I've noticed those same things, and I think much of it has to do with craftsmanship vs being an artist.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

:) This one always amuses me. Being 75, I've seen the work of countless 'togs (amateur and professional), and I have always derived great pleasure from seeing just how good some of the amateurs are. Not even "keen" amateurs, necessarily - just people who enjoy getting the camera out and trying to take "a nice photo". Some of their "work" has been absolutely astounding. One, I remember, when I asked her for some of the technical details just looked blankly at me and didn't have the faintest idea what I was talking about - apparently she'd never got past taking the camera out of the box and setting it on AUTO - but she had a collection of photos on the wall that would do ANYONE proud!

The moral of this, for the rest of the photographic community, is simple. Do your homework, by all means. Study - get a degree or diploma - keep up with the technical journals. But never forget that creativity comes from within - not from a lecture or a book. And when you feel your creativity drying up, try going to a few art galleries - down through the ages, artists have learned from past masters, and so can we - if nothing else, it may open our eyes, so we see things that others ("busy people") pass by, and don't see.

Example - everyone takes a sunset sooner or later - having gotten myself a decent ND grad last year (and living a kilometer from the Indian Ocean), I started a "project" on sunsets last year - and quickly found that "west" was only a tiny part of what you CAN see - if only you look! What was particularly interesting was looking north - or south - or with my back to the sunset, looking east. Turns out the possibilities are practically endless - all we have to do is try! I even ended up showing friends in the park where I walk my dog, that the setting sun creates beauty in the sky and in the scenery around us - all over the place - and not just "the setting sun". (Apologies for taking so many years, before I woke up to that one!)

Éric Livernoche's picture

Very true. I need to keep this in mind! Thank you, Nicole.

Nicole York's picture

You're absolutely welcome :)

user-132126's picture

Absolutely the trick is not to be "better", its to be different.