​A Photographer's Most Valuable Skill Is Vision. Here Are 5 Insights To Help You Master It In Record Time

Nov 25, 2023

he most valuable skill for a photographer is the ability to have vision.

Not specifically pre visualising a photograph or a vision in a meaningful goal sort of way, but the simple ability to see the world in photographic terms.

Unfortunately, the technical, gear-obsessed landscape in photography keeps people from ever learning how to develop that vision. They spend hours (and usually a ton of money) trying to learn vision in an old-fashioned way.

I have a book on my desk right now by Andreas Feininger called 'The Complete Photographer', which is 343 pages of densely packed text about 'seeing'.

Andreas was a knowledgeable and talented photographer, but dense books of text aren't as useful anymore. We live in a different time.

I know there are better ways because I wasted decades and at least $184.25c on books trying to learn the secret to cultivating a photographic vision myself.

But, my loss is your gain.

What worked for me, wasn't found in a single book, but the wisdom of photographers from the ages. Vision isn't a do this, do that behavior but a way of thinking about the act of photographing

I've curated some insights from great photographers that will save you the frustration of trying to navigate the road to seeing by yourself...

Joel Meyerowitz

Hearing this completely changed the way I thought about the way I interacted with the camera in my hand. It stopped being a tool, and ended up more of an extension of myself

  • Fill up the frame with feelings, energy, discovery, and risk, and leave room enough for someone else to get in there.
  • I have to say, taking photographs is such an instantaneous act. The recognition and the acting on the recognition, depending on your equipment, is close to instantaneous.
  • [The small camera] taught me energy and decisiveness and immediacy ... The large camera taught me reverence, patience, and meditation.

Man Ray

Put some of these as your desktop background, absorb them

  • I would photograph an idea rather than an object, a dream rather than an idea
  • Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask 'how', while others of a more curious nature will ask 'why'. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.
  • You don’t ask a writer what typewriter he uses

Dan Winters

I consider Dan to be the modern-day equivalent of Irving Penn. These, despite being third on the list should be your mantras

  • One’s visual language is not something that manifests overnight. It develops organically over a lifetime. The shifts can be so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible and, at times, will come to fruition so rapidly, and with such force, that the profundity is all-consuming. That is life’s work.
  • I think there is a misconception, especially that students have and I really make a point when I speak at schools to talk about the fact that you never really arrive. You are always working towards something but you never stop. I think there is this crazy idea that you get somewhere and then everything is cool.

Joe McNally

Sometimes even simple, short statements can have a profound effect.

  • The most important piece of equipment in your bag is your attitude
  • I can't tell you how many pictures I've missed just 'cause I've been so hell-bent on getting the shot I think I want.
  • The camera’s not a camera, really. It’s an open door we need to walk through. It’s up to us to keep moving our feet.

Dorothea Lange

Much has been written about Dorothea, and one quote is mentioned more often (about a camera teaching you to see), but these I have found far more useful for opening my vision

  • I trust my instincts. I don't distrust them. They haven't led me astray. It's when I've made up my mind to be efficient that is when I have gone wrong.
  • Seeing is more than a physiological phenomenon... We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is. The artist is a professional see-er
  • To know ahead of time what you're looking for means you're then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false.

These 5 photographers (and countless others if truth be told) completely changed the way I thought about seeing the world as a photographer.

In one or two sentences they could say more about how to see and create photographs than I have discovered in weighty 'how to' books.

In case you feel I'm giving Mr Feininger a hard time I'm not. It was the way things were back then (The Complete Photographer was published in 1966)

When he wasn't writing actual books around his truth bombs, these are what they sounded like:

  • Knowhow is worthless unless guided by know - why and know - when.
  • The difference in 'seeing' between the eye and the lens should make it obvious that a photographer who merely points his camera at an appealing subject and expects to get an appealing picture in return, may be headed for a disappointment.
  • A technically perfect photograph can be the world's most boring picture.

If only I had discovered them sooner…