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Of all the many skills that these PhotographyTalk.com articles recommend that you develop, training your photographer’s eye may be the most critical. There are many technical concepts and compositional “rules” you can learn and practice to improve your digital photography. Exposure, lighting, focus, contrast, shooting modes, depth of field and rule of thirds are just a few of many that you’ll find in the PhotographyTalk.com How-To library of articles. You’ll never understand or use any of them successfully unless first you’re able to look at the world with the eyes (and mind) of a photographer.
As you train your eyes, you’ll quickly discover that that single skill will make digital photography more enjoyable and more satisfying because your pictures will become better. This article presents a few tips and exercises you can use to be more observant and shoot the great photos that were always there. You won’t need your camera; in fact, it could be a distraction because these techniques are meant to train your eye to look at a scene as your camera does. Once you acquire this skill, you’ll know you have a picture that deserves to be taken, and your camera will simply record what your trained eye found.
Go for a series of walks in your neighborhood as well as totally different environments: urban, suburban, rural, backcountry, mountains, the sea, etc. Find an angle on a scene that you think would make a good digital photo. Close your eyes and then re-open them. If the scene still attracts your interest, drives your emotions or tells a compelling story as it did at first, then that’s a picture you should take. The more times you do this exercise, and in different places and different times of the day, the more you’ll train your eyes.
Next, try a dimensional exercise. Because you have two eyes, you’re able to see in three dimensions; however, when you take a picture of a three-dimensional view, it is displayed in only two dimensions. The interesting scene you see with three dimensions may lose all its interest in two. During your walks, find a scene that you would want to photograph. Close one of your eyes and look at the scene with just one eye, much the same as your camera does. If what you thought was an interesting picture now looks dull, then it’s not worth recording. If the scene still captures your attention with your one-eyed view, then it’s likely to be just as interesting in two dimensions on your computer screen, or printed on paper.
Take the dimensional exercise above one step farther to help you identify contrast in a scene. With one eye still closed, squint with the open eye. As you practice this again and again, the contrast between light and dark areas of the scene should become more obvious and the details should become prominent. Those are marks of a digital photo to capture.
Digital cameras have amazing technology, but it’s not advanced enough to recognize the differences between highlights and shadows. This exercise will train your eyes to see the direction of light sources and how the light falls on objects in a scene. This time, take your walk during the early morning and late afternoon periods. The direction of sunlight will be low and the light will be more diffused. There may also be other light sources, such as streetlights or signs. Look for the subtle shifts in light, how it filters through various levels of objects in the scene. Sunrise and sunset can create reflections off various surfaces that wouldn’t be there at high noon. Crouch low to see the light’s effect from a low angle and stand on an object or move to higher ground to see the light on the top of objects and surfaces.
During your walks, be more conscious of color. Select a single color in a scene that interests you and concentrate just on the color. Try to disregard the object with that color and the other objects and details around it. Now, move to different angles to view the color, noticing how light and contrast change. Eventually, the color area will appear to dominant the scene. Make this color exercise part of your eye-training regimen and you’ll be shooting much improved digital photography soon.
By design, cameras frame an image with boundaries, or limits. Your eyes see a much larger view, with virtually no limits. Your next exercise is to learn how to see the photograph as your camera does, and not as you do. First, create a training frame. Cut an 8” x 10” piece of cardboard. Then make a 4” x 6” opening in the center of the board. Then, during your walks, use this frame to compose what could be an interesting photo. The border of the board blocks the other elements you would see with your eye, which is what your camera does. As you practice with the board, eventually you’ll train your eye to impose a frame on a scene, blocking what you wouldn’t want in your picture.
Training your photographer’s eye takes some conscious effort and diligence, but it’s the one skill that could have the most positive effect on your digital photography.