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Visual intuition is the term I use to describe a photographer’s ability to look at a scene and see things that work in terms of composition and light. A photographer with a developed visual intuition can compose photos rapidly without thinking about it.
A highly developed visual intuition is a key part of becoming a better photographer. And while it may sound complicated, it’s not as difficult to develop as you may think. Let’s look at some ways you can get started.
1. Know your equipment inside out
You need to use your camera – a lot – and become familiar with it. Even the most advanced cameras get in the way if you don’t know how to use them.
These are some of the things you need to know about your camera.
- How does it react in certain situations, such as low light?
- Do you get better results shooting in Aperture Priority mode or Shutter Priority?
- Does using Manual mode help or does it slow you down?
- What’s the highest ISO setting you’re comfortable using in low light?
- Do certain lenses focus faster and more accurately than others?
- What’s the best way to focus on moving subjects?
Once you know how to use your camera without thinking about these things you can concentrate on composition and seeing photos.
You can make the process easier by keeping things simple.
Start by setting file format to Raw, White Balance to either daylight or auto, and select your favorite color profile. Then you can forget about them as you can change each of these settings in Lightroom Classic when you develop your photos.
Now there are just five technical things to consider.
- What focal length to use?
- Where to focus the lens.
- What aperture, shutter speed and ISO to set.
And that’s it.
The rest is deciding where to stand and how to compose the image.
For example, when I’m taking photos of my son Alex I usually take one camera with a prime lens. My favorite lens at the moment is the Fujinon 23mm f2.
I use the camera in Aperture Priority mode. I have three technical decisions to make – aperture, ISO and where to focus the lens. That frees me up to concentrate on seeing and capturing the moment.
I made the photos below using this method on a recent day out.
2. Develop and educate your eye
Another way to develop your visual intuition is to make yourself familiar with the work of other photographers.
You’ll find plenty of work online to look at on websites like Lens Culture, Huck Magazine and Feature Shoot. Challenge yourself by looking at the work of photographers who you’re not familiar with and who shoot in different styles to you.
You’ll learn more if you analyze the composition of their photos. How do they apply well known guidelines such as the rule of thirds? How do they use color (or tone if the work is black and white)? What focal lengths do they appear to use? Why do you think they have included the elements they have within the frame, rather than leaving them out?
Another good source is Henry Carroll’s photography series (with titles like Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs and Photographers On Photography). The author has a degree in fine art photography and takes an interesting approach to teaching photography. You can find his books at Amazon and The Book Despository.
3. Look beyond the obvious
The previous two steps help you prepare to make better photographs. The next steps are helpful when you’re making photos.
The first thing I recommend is learning to look beyond the obvious to see what else you can find in the scene.
I’ve written about this before in the sense of working the subject. That’s where, rather than taking a single photo, you use different points of view and focal lengths to explore a subject.
This idea is similar. One approach to photography is to see an interesting scene, take a photo or two then move onto something else.
Instead, take some time to look beyond that first, obvious thing that attracted you. What else is there in the scene that’s worth photographing? How far can you explore it?
For example, I can across this greenhouse in the grounds of a historic home. This is the first view I saw and the first photo I made of it.
As I explored I found this point of view that I liked better.
I liked the way the plants inside were pressing against the glass. I moved in close to photograph that.
Then I photographed details like this one, made inside the greenhouse.
4. Make your photos interesting
Some photographers ask the wrong questions, especially when it comes to composition.
When faced with a certain scene you may ask yourself how you can compose it according to the rule of thirds. Or another rule of composition you read about somwhere.
But it’s usually better to ask yourself how you can make the photo more interesting. How can can you inject some excitement and interest?
With photos of kids (like the ones above) it’s about capturing interesting moments as they enjoy themselves.
In other situations, like the photos of the greenhouse I showed you, it’s about looking for interesting shapes, colors and textures.
It might be that you’re photographing a street or some other scene and you need some human interest to bring the composition alive, like the couple on the motorbike in the photo below.
Another approach is to get yourself into interesting places and situations.
For example, in Spain a few years ago a friend invited me to her aunt’s finca to see the annual branding of bull calfs.
Of course, I took my camera. You can see some of the photos below.
Not everyone has access to things like this. But a good way to get started is to ask yourself what interesting things you do have access to. Then you can look for ways to get into situations that are likely to lead to interesting photos.
It helps to have an open, curious mind. Curiosity and openness will take you far. They help you meet new people and learn about things that may be interesting to photograph.
It isn’t easy, but it will help you lead a more interesting life and become a better photographer.
Hopefully these ideas will help you develop your visual intuition. It takes time, but as you put these ideas into action you’ll find that your eye for a good composition improves. It’s all part of the process of learning to see and internalizing the principles of composition used by photographers.
You can learn more about photographic composition in my latest ebook Mastering Composition Book Three.
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