The REAL way to get better at photography - Mastering vision

Last updatedJul 8, 2022

Most people look at images and have a sense of whether they like them, or they don’t.

This happens in fractions of a second. It’s automatic, and we all have this ability.

But most people, won’t be able to tell you why.

They won’t be able to tell you why an image makes them feel a certain way. They won’t be able to tell you why they were reminded of a certain time in their lives when looking at it. They won’t be able to tell you why they enjoyed this one over the last 50 they just scrolled past in their feed.

Some people might be able to give you a rough explanation; “Oh, I like these colours”, “oh the light is nice”, or “oh I just thought it looked cool”.

And for most people, this explanation is enough. But for the people who make these images, this is just the beginning of the journey to mastering photography.

The real secret to mastering photography is not going to be found in TikTok's and Instagram Reels showing camera tricks and flashy tips that you probably will never do.

I hate to break it to you, but there’s no shortcut here. There’s a direct path, but it’s not quick.

You see, the real secret to mastering photography is mastering your vision.

Your vision as a photographer is the number 1 most important thing to learn, and learning it well takes years. But when you master vision, it doesn’t matter what camera you pick up, you’ll be able to do great things with it.

The way I explain this idea is that to have vision is to have a comprehension of visual language.

And just like real, spoken language, and the comprehension of anything in general, visual language is all about pattern recognition.

That’s all photography is. It’s a game of visual pattern recognition.

These patterns can be abstract ideas such as the use of colour, scale, positive and negative space, visual hierarchy, visual balance, and so on. But they can also be more literal compositional ideas such as frames, lines, shadow, vanishing points, etc.

To use the language metaphor, these are the “words”. They’re the pre-defined patterns that exist, and all of them have some kind of individual meaning associated with them.

For example, using the visual pattern of “framing” a subject provides the viewer with a focus point or a place for the eye to be directed. As a photographer, you can use this device to help communicate what it is you want to say to the viewer. By putting a subject in a frame, one of the things you’re saying to the viewer is “this is important, look at this”. That’s what framing in this instance could provide.

These patterns, these words, there are SO many of them, and the “practice of photography”, is about training yourself to be able to understand the meaning of them, identify them in the real world, and then be able to use them in your images.

Once you start to master these “words”, these patterns, much like in spoken language, you can then start to combine words to form sentences.

These sentences take on new meaning; they’re greater than the sum of their parts.

Once you start making sentences, once you’re using multiple patterns in a single image, guess what, you’re communicating. Visually.

You’re starting to say something. You’re starting to suggest things. You’re starting to tell a story. You’re starting to evoke emotion. There’s meaning and intention to what you’re doing.

The really good photographers are the ones that are masters at communicating what they want to say with their images. They’re the ones who use all these patterns in interesting ways with intention.

And that’s the thing. Intention.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, most people don’t understand why they like images. They just kinda look nice, or they’ll give you a surface-level meaning.

Hell, even pro photographers will go their entire careers without being able to articulate the specific patterns they’re using to create meaning.

But the truly great photographers have intention. They know what they’re doing. Even if they’re doing it subconsciously, which is eventually where you want to get to.

Breaking it down

To start to get better at understanding these patterns, let’s try to break them down.

Here’s a good starter example:

There are a bunch of “rules” in photography. “Rules” that people say can be broken. Things like the rule of thirds, which is a compositional pattern and a pretty solid one.

The thing is, the rule of thirds, and any other “rule” or pattern for that matter, has meaning baked into it. That’s why it’s a “rule”.

The rule of thirds has a compositional strength to it. There’s little awkwardness in the proportion which creates a strong anchor point for relative spaces in the composition. This is the rule.

But when you break that rule, this meaning no longer applies.

And I have no qualms with breaking rules, but the thing is, you have to know the original reason as to why the rule is the way that it is and then why you’re breaking those rules and what effect that has on the overall composition.

The same is true with every single pattern of visual language. The same is true with the spoken and written language too. If you spelt out the word “photo” without the letter T, you’d just have the word “phoo”, which doesn’t actually mean anything. Sometimes, this happens in visual language too. But sometimes you can also get away with it.

So then, the real secret to mastering photography is to master all the patterns of visual language. To increase your lexicon, to achieve fluency. To be able to understand them, identify them in the real world, and then be able to use them skillfully in our compositions to create meaning.

Here’s a list of visual patterns you might want to dig in to, but of course, it’s not exhaustive:

  • Abstract patterns
    • Colour
    • Contrast
    • Juxtaposition
    • Balance
    • Visual hierarchy
    • Minimalism
    • Positive and negative space
    • Scale
  • Compositional patterns
    • Frames
    • Lines
    • Shadow
    • Texture
    • Vanishing points
    • Rule of thirds
    • Golden ratio
    • Texture

And there’s so much more. But let’s dive into an example.

Let’s take this image.

This image has a lot of visual language patterns in it.

Firstly, this image uses contrast, specifically by the use of dark shadow in the sand against the bright sky. This has the effect of simplifying the image and directing the viewer's attention.

Secondly, it uses just a single colour, orange. Again, this has the effect of simplifying the image.

Thirdly, it has balance. The two halves of the image allow the viewer's eyes to immediately understand what’s important in this image and what is not. There’s no darting around of the eyes, and everything is understandable.

With these three patterns, one could say that this image is “minimal”, but I would say that it has clarity. Not the Lightroom slider kind, but clarity of subject, clarity of visual hierarchy; of what’s important. Clarity of intention.

Next, is a figure. A small one. The smaller the subject in your images, the more aligned to the idea and visual pattern of “scale” it has.

And speaking of scale, the sun in this image is gigantic and takes up much of the entire composition.

Juxtaposed against the small figure, the human looks tiny and gives the viewer a suggestion of just how vast this place might be.

And on the subject of that vastness, the negative space to the left of the composition gives the impression that the small figure has a long way to go, further adding to the feeling of vastness.

All of these things can start to suggest a story of what happened in this brief moment in time. You can start to imagine the heat, the feeling of never-ending dunes, the feeling of loneliness, and so much more.

This is what happens when you start to combine visual patterns together. You start to have this multi-faceted structure of meaning, or, as some people like to call it, a story.

And this is a great direction to aim for. The genesis of mastery in photography looks a lot like going out into the field and being able to spot these patterns in real life. To know which ones are good and for what use. To combine them with intention.

So to get really, truly good at photography, this is the practice. Take one of these patterns of visual language and practice it every day.

Spend an entire week every day only shooting things with high contrast.

Spend an entire week every day only shooting compositions of a single colour.

Spend an entire week every day only shooting frames.

Again, What you’re aiming for is to develop the lexicon of your visual language. Once you start to get a few of these under your belt, you’ll automatically start combining them, and then from there, you’ll be able to start doing so with intention, and then you’ll be able to start telling the stories you want to tell through your images.

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