Beginning to See Like an Artist

I had one of those “AHA” moments this week.  After years of playing guitar and taking guitar lessons, my guitar teacher made a comment that flicked the light switch on.  I am learning to play slide guitar which takes a certain feel.  My playing was sounding too mechanical, too technical.  He then said, play slide as if you are singing the tune.  Connect to your soul and express yourself through the instrument.  Wow, what a revelation and what a difference it made!  He just smiled, and we kept on playing.

I had a similar “AHA” moment in my photography about 4 years ago.  I was always very good at capturing a moment in time, reacting to an event.  If I was photographing sports, I could get great shots.  If I was photographing an event like a party, I could get great shots.  If I was photographing a motorcycle race, I could get great shots.  And, I could always shoot a decent portrait.  I was technically proficient and could produce a good image.  But, ask me to create a photograph that would capture someone’s attention for more than 6 seconds, well that was a different story.   Then I stumbled across Joe Baraban who is now my photography mentor.  Joe approaches photography as an artist and has helped me to develop my artist’s pallet for photography, a different way of looking at the world, and a different way of making photographs.  As Joe says, the most important photographic tool is 10 inches behind the lens: you the photographer.

Stained Glass – iPhone 6

No matter what type of camera that you shoot with, and no matter what type of subjects that you are shooting, your images will ratchet up a notch and will continue to get better if you begin to see like an artist.  If you shoot with a smartphone, your images will get better.  If you shoot with a point ‘n shoot camera, your images will get better.  If you shoot with a DSLR, your images will get better.  The trick is to begin to see like an artist.  It’s not the gear.  It is you, your artistic vision and your creativity.  You will transform your photography from taking pictures to making photographs.

Church – iPhone 6

“How do you do that Nick?”, you may ask.  Well, it takes some studying, a little bit of time, a bit of practice, and some patience.  Understanding the tools on your artist’s pallet, the elements of graphic design, is important.  Understanding how to use your brushes and canvas, your camera gear, is also very important.  But, the most important aspect is “seeing the light”.  As Joe tells me, “it is all about the light-chase the light”.  Check out the photographs of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Imogen Cunningham, and Annie Leibovitz, as well as many of the other great photographers.  Take a look at how they see the light.  They all use the other tools of graphic design on their pallets, but without the light, there is no photograph.

Panasonic ZS-100  Point ‘n Shoot – 60 seconds and it was gone

So, your homework for this week is to start “seeing the light”.  Just notice how it moves; how it changes color; what it looks like in the morning; what it looks like during the day; what it looks like late in the afternoon; how the appearance of objects change as the light changes; and the shadows that are created.  Then, choose a particular subject and how the light affects the look of that subject.  One of my routines as I drive over the Tyngsborough Bridge is to imagine how I would take a great shot of the newly painted First Parish Meetinghouse.  The look and feel of the building changes dramatically during the day.   As the sun rises, it lights the side and then the front.  At one point, there is a sharp line between the bright light and dark shadows.   As the day continues, the front of the building gets very bright and then becomes darker.  The color of the light changes the color of the building as the sun moves.  The image of the flower above was taken in a garden in Maine.  I was watching as shafts of light moved through the flowers.  This single flower was illuminated for about 60 seconds before the sun moved on.  I would have missed the shot if I had not noticed the light.

Once you start seeing the light, you will notice how to make a better photograph.  Maybe it is just a slight movement to the left.  Or maybe it is waiting 2 minutes for the sun to move through a flower bed.  Check out these photos from my iPhone 6 taken at different times of the day.  These are all straight out of the camera on the phone.  No post processing.  Join me for a private tutoring session.  Or, how about Berlin in May – this will be a great photography workshop with my mentor Joe Baraban.

Nico – iPhone 6

Lilly – iPhone 6

Purple Flower – iPhone 6

Old North Bridge – iPhone 6

Cigar Box Guitar (I build these!) – iPhone 6


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