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The Visual Experience: Observation Skills

excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

by Gloria Hopkins

One of the most important skills a photographer can possess is called into action well before the camera is pulled out of the bag. It is the ability to see and observe. You must be able to see that which others do not, and to develop your observational skills so that you notice subtle differences in color, light, texture, behavior, and so on. In order to see all the possibilities, it is important that you develop your observational skills and visual awareness.

If you want your images to stand out, you must come to know your subject matter intimately and render it uniquely. This is a simple yet tremendously valuable insight that makes perfect sense for painters and writers. It is also true for nature photographers.

It is a common practice for painters and writers to study their subjects carefully and thoroughly so that they can understand the subject and its fine details in order to most effectively execute their unique interpretations. Photographers need to study their subjects even more carefully because they must understand how their cameras will render the subject. Studying and even scrutinizing your subjects carefully is an easy habit to develop. When walking along a trail, instead of remarking on the particularly pretty shape of a leaf, stop and look at it. Don’t pluck it or harm it; observe it. Look at it from different angles. Is it the same color on both sides? Is anything living or growing on it? Is it rough, slick, wet, dry? Does the color or texture evoke any significant feelings or memories? If yes, do they give you an idea for a photograph? There can be dozens of photo-worthy things about a simple leaf, but would you have known about them had you not stopped?

The ability to look for and find things that others might not see and to view what you discover from a variety of creative perspectives are critical skills for artists who want to give their viewers something unique. Getting into the habit of carefully examining your subject is beneficial for your artist within as it helps develop your sense of visual awareness.

Another good reason for improving your observational skills is a more practical one: you need to be aware of everything that makes its way into your viewfinder. Nature photography is about selecting, eliminating, and defining your images. Small details may not seem important, but they show up in your images. Stray distractions, out of focus elements in front of the subject, elements cut by the frame edge, blinding highlights, and blocked shadows are easily identified by the trained eye. Scrutinize the entire frame and visualize the resulting image. This last step is critical; each situation has a unique set of problems that need to be dealt with.

All photographers who want to maintain artistic control should keep their observational skills tack sharp

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excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

Revised August 2011
Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins