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Finding Your Photography Vision: Four Lessons on Getting a Fresh Perspective

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Roberto Valenzuela offers four lessons to help you improve your photography craft.
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While on the phone with a friend, he was sharing with me a story about his four-year-old child. My friend had taken his kid out for a quick walk around his neighborhood, and the kid just couldn’t stop laughing. Roy (the father) couldn’t figure out the culprit for his son’s unstoppable and addictive laughing streak. Nothing was out of the ordinary, there was nobody around, and it was just another day in the same neighborhood they had lived for years. As it turns out, the kid was laughing hysterically at the tree branches swaying in the wind. That’s it, tree branches!

The moral of the story is that to a kid, everything is new. Something as ordinary as swaying tree branches was the coolest thing that kid has ever seen. It made me wonder: how would our perspective and our photographic vision change if we could see our surroundings through the fresh eyes of a child? In this article, I offer some lessons I’ve learned for how to recapture that fresh perspective and see the world through new eyes.

According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Research Essentials, the average person living in America is exposed to nearly 1500 ads every single day. But how many can we really remember and describe to someone? We are so used to our surroundings that our senses are dulled from visual stimulus.

The same concept applies to the photographer: we feel that in order to have a good photo shoot, we must take our clients to a far away exotic location. Of course “exotic” is subjective, right? If you live in Arizona, you think the Hawaii landscape is the greatest gift nature has given us, but if you live in Hawaii, you couldn’t care less. The ironic thing about all of this is that creativity is a byproduct of scarcity. In other words, people’s creativity grows when forced to come up with solutions in the face of very limited resources. Equipped with this knowledge, we should all try to put ourselves into difficult photographic situations and force ourselves to come up with solutions.

At the beginning of my photography career, I only owned a plastic 50mm lens. I remember having to photograph a senior portrait session with only this lens. However, because I couldn’t afford to buy another lens, I didn’t know what I was missing. To me, having an SLR with a 50mm f/1.4 lens was the greatest! My excitement was so high that I walked around like I owned the town. Finally the day came where I had to photograph an entire wedding. I wasn’t concerned about my lack of equipment because I didn’t know better; I was nervous about my skill level. Everything from the bride getting ready to the couple’s portraits, family photos and reception was taken with the same 50mm plastic lens. I got to know that focal length like I knew how to spell my own name. That year alone I went on to photograph almost 20 weddings with that trusty 50mm f/1.4 lens purchased for less than $400. An additional complication was that most of those weddings were photographed in the same venue. Naturally, I had to figure out how to make the same venue look different at every wedding. Brides want to have their weddings customized for them, not feel like part of a cookie cutter assembly line.

Based on these and other early experiences, I came up with some lessons to help me improve my craft.

Lesson 1: Limit your equipment at a shoot.

Both my lack of equipment and shooting in the same venue are by far the best things that could have happened to me. I learned to master what I had to work with, instead of messing around with ten different lenses and not learning any of them well. Knowing a lens’s focal length and maximum aperture is like only knowing someone’s first and last name. Yes, that’s a start, but knowing someone means you can anticipate how that person behaves under different scenarios, his/her temper, attitude, weaknesses, strengths, hobbies, favorite food, etc. Now, imagine how much you know about a true long-time friend. We should strive to achieve this level of knowledge about every lens, camera and flash we own. I suggest getting to know your equipment by choosing one lens to carry around with you for a whole week. Take photos of everything and anything that strikes your fancy with that one lens. The following week try another lens, and so on. Limit yourself with your equipment to get to know it more intimately.

Lesson 2: Put a dollar value on every photo you take.

Last year I was invited to speak at the Photo Plus convention in NYC. One of my favorite events was the Canon party celebrating the launch of their new flagship camera, the Canon 1DX. This puppy has a full frame 35mm sensor and can shoot a burst of 14 frames per second! Although it’s a treat to hear the mirror flip up and down 14 times in one second, it also guides the photographer to rely on sheer numbers to get a good shot. In my opinion, a talented professional photographer has a higher yield of great photographs in a single roll or memory card. But to increase your yield, you must change the way you think before you push that shutter button. Put a monetary value on every photo you take, and you will immediately slow way down and think good and hard about the composition and quality of light of each photo you take. I personally like to think each push of the shutter costs me $5. At this rate, if I don’t choose my photos carefully, I soon will be waiting at the community soup line at the Mission in downtown LA.

Lesson 3: Photography requires you to be a builder.

A photograph should evoke emotion at first glance. This is the mystique of photography vs. video. There are many elements that must come together to build a moment in time. Yes, I said, “build”, not “take”. Before you go out on a shoot, think of photography as something you must build. Your tools are light, shadows, environment, subject matter, story, and composition. Now combine these building blocks while shooting with only one lens as described above, and you will have just taken your first steps towards seeing the environment with the same enthusiasm as a child, and performing like a master photographer. The number one rule every photographer should keep in mind is, that beauty in terms of photography is realized mainly with QUALITY OF LIGHT. Beauty in a landscape can be determined by mountans or lakes, beauty in a person can be determined by the symmetry and bone structure, but in photography, beauty is all about great light.

Lesson 4: Training, practicing, and learning from mistakes is all part of the game.

It has been said for decades that photography comes from the heart. Although I couldn’t agree more, there are some basic flaws with this sentiment. Let’s compare this to another famous quote about marriage; “Love is not enough.” Love in a marriage paramount, but love alone will not keep a couple together for the rest of their lives. In photography, loving the art form is also not enough. One most work at it and train to be a visual storyteller. It requires a different mindset to tell a story using only photographs. Photographers may love photography, but in order to make our cameras an extension of our vision, we must be technically proficient using our tools. Being a quick draw is of utmost importance in order to capture key moments. Learn the character, weaknesses and strengths of every lens you own as if it was true friend, so you know which tool is the absolute best for the job. Last but definitely not least, find a way to allow the natural beauty of our average everyday environments to reveal itself to us, so we can see our surroundings like a child and be able to again see what we no longer can.

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