Observation Skills

excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

Green Anole in spotlight on palm

One of the most critical 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. We must be able to see that which others do not and we must develop our observation skills so that we can notice subtle differences in color, light, texture, behavior and so on. In order to see all the possibilities of a situation it is important that we develop our observation skills and our sense of visual awareness.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned for making images that stand out can be summed up in one sentence: know it intimately and render it uniquely. This is a simple yet tremendously valuable insight that makes perfect sense for painters and writers. It also happens to be true for nature photographers.

It is common practice for painters and writers to study their subjects carefully and thoroughly so they can understand the subject and its details in order to most effectively execute their unique and special interpretations. Photographers need to study their subjects even more carefully because we must understand how our cameras will render the subject.

Fortunately close scrutiny of our subject matter is an easy and pleasurable habit to get into. For example, 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 out or harm it, but observe it. Turn the leaf over and look at it from different angles. Is it the same color on both sides? Anything living or growing on it? Is it rough, slick, wet, dry? Does the color or texture evoke any significant feelings or memories for you? Does that give you an idea for a photograph? There can be dozens of photo worthy things about the simple leaf, but would you have known about them had you not stopped? Surely you wouldn’t have seen them!

Great Blue Heron nesting display. I watched this bird for a long time — until I could anticipate when it would stretch. Click!

The ability to look for that which others would never see, and to look from creative perspectives are critical skills for the artist who wants to give their viewers something unique. Getting into the habit of really examining your subject is also beneficial for the artist within and helps develop your sense of visual awareness.

Another good reason for improving our observation skills is for more practical reasons: we need to be aware of every little thing that makes its way into our tiny viewfinders. Nature photography is about selecting, eliminating and defining and while the smallest details of a landscape may not seem important, they show up in our images just the same. Stray distractions, blinding highlights and blocked-up shadows are easily identified by the trained eye. Scrutinize the entire frame and visualize the final image. This last step is critical as you may have only one opportunity at a location.

Whether we do it for personal or practical reasons, all photographers who want artistic control over the content of their work should keep their observation skills tack sharp.

More than Seeing
As artists set on capturing the essence of nature, it would be foolhardy of us to limit our observation of it to sight. The rhythms of nature can be heard, felt, smelled, tasted and seen. Nature speaks through the wind in the trees, the earth beneath our feet, the water on the ground and in the air, and through the creatures that share our space. Rather than arrive at a location and marvel at the scenery, try to immerse all of your senses in the moment and become a part of the scene. Forget about what you expect or hope to see and let yourself be a part of nature because you are.

It is only when we shed our expectations of a subject, let go our prejudgments and look with open minds, a discriminating eye and all of our senses can we see the scene in a unique way. Being immersed in a scene or place and thoroughly engrossed in our subjects can also create a powerful connection with nature. Many photographers thrive during this very special time and for many, this experience is the only reason they’re out there.

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excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins, All Rights Reserved