For us to become better visual artists, we must undergo ‘visual training’.
What is visual training?
We know what training is when it comes to working out. We train ourselves by lifting heavier weights, and studying the form of others.
Visual training works the same way. The more we train ourselves visually, the better we can:
- Identify interesting scenes before we photograph it.
- Best compose/frame and “work the scene” while we are shooting a scene.
- Have the ability to choose our best pictures afterwards once we get home (the art of editing).
1. Study the work from the masters
To become more muscular in your visual senses, study the great work of the master photographers. For example, here are some pictures from Hiroji Kubota from Magnum Photos that I really like. I downloaded the pictures from the Magnum photos site to my iPad, then I take screenshots and sketch compositional lines above his pictures I like, as a way to deconstruct and analyze his pictures. I try to answer the question:
Why are these pictures so good, and why do I like them so much?
I discover the answer while I’m analyzing the pictures:
2. Conduct visual experiments
Conduct visual experiments with your own pictures to better understand what makes a good picture.
For example, I think I have a good intuitive sense of what makes a good composition while I’m shooting. But I don’t understand why this is. So I shoot pictures and try to deconstruct my working process.
When I shoot a scene, I always take lots of pictures of the same scene, and change the proportions of the elements of a picture, to figure out (using the above picture as an example):
How much red should I show, and how much white should I show?
For example, this picture looks like the black dot is an eye:
This other picture I shot didn’t include the black dot:
Now the simple question is this:
Which photo is better?
To answer this question, I put these pictures (shot on my phone) into VSCO, and I used the ‘distortia’ preset to analyze the pictures.
Below, you can better see the color proportions in the scene:
And in this picture, you can better see the proportions of the colors:
Once again, let us address the question:
Which photo is better?
To be frank, I don’t think there is a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ photo. But there is certainly a photograph I personally prefer.
So the better question is:
Which photo do you prefer more?
I prefer the picture with the little black dot, because it looks like an eye and an abstract face! To me, I prefer photos that have more emotion, soul, and surrealism.
b. How much of your subject should you show?
Another question I am curious about:
How much of your subject should you show?
In this scene, I took many pictures of Cindy’s hands. One picture shows her pink sleeves, the other doesn’t. And the other has a different composition:
Now the tricky question:
Which photo do I prefer the most?
In this case, I will follow color theory and choose the below picture, because I like how the top of the frame has blue, with Cindy’s orange hands in the center, and the pink sleeves on the bottom (Blue, Orange, Pink are nice colors):
c. Check the Corners
Another tip when shooting pictures:
Check the corners of your frame while you’re shooting. Cut the superfluous crap from the corners of the frame.
For example, I took many photos of this scene. Note the picture with more distractions at the corner of the frame:
This picture below is worse, because of the little white distraction in the edge-corner of the bottom of the frame:
d. Work the scene (don’t just take 1 picture)
The biggest tip: Don’t just take 1 picture; work the scene and shoot many photos of the same scene, and interact-dance with your subject!
For example, there was a nice sunset and I photographed the shadows of both Cindy and myself (while she was stretching/doing yoga moves). Note the two versions of the picture I liked:
I don’t like the below picture, because my right hand in the shadow isn’t dynamic. It is too static and boring:
And to better analyze the composition of the shadow, you can better see the shadow with the distortia (d2) preset in VSCO:
e. Face direction
Another thing to note when choosing your best pictures:
Which picture should I choose, when my subject is looking in different directions?
Choose the picture with the most dynamic hand-gestures.
For example, I feel the below photo has the most dynamic hand-gesture:
To also better judge your composition, apply different presets. Note how while I was shooting this scene, I tried to integrate diagonals into the picture by “checking my corners” while shooting the scene, and also making diagonals (diagonals from the top-left of the frame, as well as the diagonal with Cindy’s leg):
3. Curate your work
To curate your work means to edit down (or cull down) your photos, to select the photos you CARE about. In today’s brave new world of photography; it ain’t about making good photos — it is about being a good editor of your work (a good selector of your best work).
To continue your visual training, simple ideas:
First of all, keep shooting a lot of pictures, and become a very disciplined self-editor of your own work. Create your own standard and your own bar for your pictures.
Secondly, surround yourself with peers who you admire and respect. I have huge thanks to my buddy Charlie Kirk for setting the bar high; he inspired me a lot early on in photography, and gave me a strong visual education.
Third, be promiscuous. Find inspiration anything and everything. And ultimately with your photography and visual artistry, only seek to impress yourself.