How I Learned To See: 3 Ways To Vastly Improve Your Creative Vision


I often think too hard about a given creative situation. I get overcome by far too many possibilities and struggle to see through them clearly. Although I've been addicted to photography for over 20 years, I've only recently learned to 'see'. 

It's a funny thing this photography lark. You think you're there. But you're really not. You never really are or will be. It's a constant state of development as are you. That's the wonderment and sole cause of my obsession with photography: it's like chasing rainbows. There's no finish line, and there's no such thing as the 'perfect' picture. There are 'rules', but that doesn't mean you can't succeed by working outside of them. 


"It's like chasing rainbows."


So this of course raises the next question: what am I aiming for? I could go on about changing fashions, fads and the 'eye of the beholder' as some kind of approval rating. But that would be pointless. Creativity, by definition, is not following the well trodden path. Forget approval. Forget validation. Those things will lead to abject mediocrity. Work on a better plan.


1. Put Your Camera Away

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Try going on a photographic journey without a camera. It's hard. The fear of being presented with a 'perfect' scene without your camera. Try to resist the urge to use your camera phone or even better, go off the net entirely: leave your phone at home. This is learning photography Mr. Miyagi style. Wax on, wax off. Apologies to all millennials for the 1980s film reference, but it is relevant. You do in fact have your very best camera on you, and it's about to get a massive upgrade: your mind.


"If you master this I guarantee you will be creating original and arresting pieces of work."


If you live in the country, get out in the woods, the fields or the hills on your own. If you're in the city go out get lost in the streets or even vice versa. The important thing is to change your environment. Grab a coffee and people watch on a side street. It doesn't matter what the weather is like, you're there to observe. Look at people's faces, look at puddles on the ground, look up at the clouds in the sky, look across the freezing lake. Study the light: is it cloudy and flat? Is is sunny and direct? How does that fall on someone's face, a building, a bridge? How does that change as the day progresses. How does the atmosphere change and how does that make you feel about the place? If you were to take a picture right now, what would you want to say with it? Try and think about the point and what it is you want to convey. Study the smallest details. Feel it. It doesn't matter what kind of photography you're into, if you master this I guarantee you will be creating original and arresting pieces of work.

2. Change Your Diet

I have often looked at other creative's work and thought "I'll never be as good as that". It's totally normal and reasonable to expect. Trust me, every photographer and every creative feels like that at some point, and it's a healthy reaction. There are some incredible creatives in the world, and there are ever new and fascinating things being produced which never fail to astound me. If you think you're it, then you most definitely are not.

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Ego gets in the way of being a great creative, and definitely gets in the way of 'seeing'. You may have a crazy number of Instagram followers, and get an audacious number of likes for that selfie by an infinity pool in a 5 star hotel in Bali, but you're not really pushing that right sided creative brain. You've barely started. 


"Dramatically shape your creative vision without being consciously aware of it."


So don't be threatened by looking at others' creative work, past or present. It's easy to feel overwhelmed, looking at the apparent mountain of skills to climb. I urge you to look at as much content as you can. Not just Instagram or Facebook suggestions. Throw the net wider. Seek out photographers in your area, look at their websites, go to talks and exhibitions. You need to pour in as much creative input into your brain as you can and you need to make this a lifestyle choice. Your personality is made up of a blend of all of your experiences, people and interactions in addition to traits you were born with. I believe your creative mind is the same: a composite of all of your experiences and right brained interactions. Put more of the right stuff in the blender. Make it a deliberate and consistent choice. It's like a change in your diet for the better. And it will dramatically shape your creative vision without you being consciously aware of it. 


3. Go Fine Dining

I sometimes think it's hard to be original in a world that is now very well photographed. I'm wrong of course. The challenge has just changed. The perception is that it is harder. It isn't. Somebody once told me 'creativity is born of restriction' and never was there a truer adage.  The challenge is to think differently in a world very well photographed. You may not achieve it every time but remember everyday is a day of firsts and lasts: things that will never happen again in exactly that way. 

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"Creatives haven't changed, but their toolkit has."



More importantly is understanding what you can do. This is a constant state of learning because what you can do is constantly changing with the world around us. This rule applies to every creative no matter their chosen field. An architect must stay up to date with the development of new building materials and structural engineering discoveries in order to push the creative envelope. A painter must understand which type of canvas provides the right tonality or texture they want to convey their creation. A film maker must understand what is possible in the fast changing world of computer generated content and super resolution camera technology. A photographer must know what their camera can do, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

A camera is merely tool the first tool in making a photograph and despite a purists view, it is only part of the influence and the very start of a whole process. In the old days it used to be camera, film and the darkroom. It's now camera, memory card and computer. Creatives haven't changed, but their toolkit has. No professional photographer publishes his or her work in the press or online without post production. That is as true now as it was for photographers dodging and burning in darkroom back in the 20th century. To ignore your options for creative potential that the digital age provides is to ignore your own true potential. 


"A camera is merely the first tool in making a photograph."


To be clear I'm not talking about applying 'filters' or 'presets' to images in a global way. In fact that can be a reasonable start point, but here I'm talking about exploring how to 'see' and that involves a different mindset. There will always be somebody enterprising willing to sell you a group of 'presets', but that is like choosing food from a laminated menu. You can eat, but it isn't going to be memorable. Or you could go a la carte. Bespoke. Unique. 

Experimenting is crucial. Watch videos on how your favourite creatives produce content, absorb magazines, adopt new tools and try new techniques. Test, fail, retest. Get to know the art of the possible and how to have full control over your creations. You can't push the boundaries of your creativity without understanding or exploring what is possible. Learning is the biggest part of the fun that it is to be a creative and provides infinite potential. There is very often, no 'right way' to create an image, but there are techniques you can learn to give yourself a big leg up and find your own way. Come and join me on a workshop in 2018 or arrange a 1 to 1.


A Final Note

Investing in yourself is always a far wiser and ever more fruitful decision than investing in new photography gadgets or equipment. You would be amazed at the number of people who contact me everyday to ask what camera or kit I use or recommend. A developed creative mind will overcome the 'handicaps' of equipment and will push further in spite of it. I've seen people compose masterpieces with a camera phone or a 20 year old camera. A photograph taken by say, the remarkable Ansel Adams 60 years ago, is something most would find hard to equal today, despite technology. 


I've made so many mistakes in trying to master the 'un-masterable' and will forever enjoy continuing to do so. It's part of the process: sometimes infuriating, sometimes elavating. I know more today than I did yesterday but I will for ever be chasing rainbows.




Tom Barnes2 Comments