‘Great’ pictures rarely ‘just happen’ – those are your lucky shots. There was a saying in my Reuters news photography days – ‘if you saw it, you missed it’ – by the time you set up, it was too late. It is the ability to ‘create’ pictures not ‘take’ pictures that defines the creative photographer. Being creative is intensely enjoyable and creates unique images that stand out; essential in a world today awash with generic images. The skill of creative photographers is to gain inspiration from a scene that may at first glance, appear uninspiring even bland but see creative potential in the detail. Use the camera as the starting point only, not the end. The subject is not unique to you – your transformation is. ‘Seeing a good picture’ is not judging the scene in a literal way, but ‘seeing how you can transform the scene’ – then decide if you can ‘see a good picture’. Decide if it is worth the time and effort to pursue for full production.
However, just because you ‘can’ transform a scene, does not mean every scene will be a great picture – it won’t. How do you tell which will and which won’t? You need a set of criteria to provide the answer – to spot the rough diamonds you can polish into sparkling gems! The ones worth investing time in.
Creativity needs an idea then technical skills to turn that idea into print – Yes – but there is a missing link: Aesthetic skills. Aesthetic skill is the artistic ‘language’ of image making. Aesthetic skill turns crude ideas into beautifully crafted and refined artistic statements – the bridge between your abstract idea and the cold mechanics of making the image; technical skills. Think of a car engine analogy: Your aesthetic skill is understanding the ‘whole concept’ of how a car engine works. Technical skills, only the ability to take the engine apart. Technical skill is only a means to an end; production. Aesthetic skill is understanding how to craft concepts like beauty, composition, harmony, light, mood, drama and atmosphere into your pictures throughout the whole process; craftsmanship. Without aesthetic knowledge, the creative flow from idea to technical skill is broken; the result crude and unsophisticated, unrefined, having no artistic quality. Aesthetic skill is the core creative skill and aesthetic skills are best learnt from history’s most qualified and best practitioners: The Old Master Painters like Rembrandt.
Why old master painters – they create their paintings from scratch, photographers don’t. Painters are forced to understand aesthetic quality because it dictates their very first brush mark on the pure white canvas. Digital cameras give you a ‘ready-made’ picture; even without thinking. The ease of getting the image removes the pressure to understand the aesthetics of image making like painters do. The result; you stop the creative process short, accept what the camera gives you with just a minor polish and your photograph ends up looking like everyone else. Photographs with low aesthetic quality. Knowledge of old master painting contains many lessons that are as relevant today as your camera and post-production skills. As photographers we can underestimate this knowledge and the sheer volume and diversity of this fantastic resource; hundreds of painters, hundreds of years – all trying to solve the same visual questions and problems you are. The old master painters were all commercial artists in the very highly competitive world of gaining lucrative commissions from the church, royalty or aristocracy. They had to create visual solutions that worked and appealed – to earn a living. Creating works of ‘art for arts sake’ is only a modern concept. Why would their solutions not appeal now? Why not learn from them?
Creativity requires a fundamental change in your whole approach to photography; from a fragmented ‘shoot then polish’ approach to a far more holistic approach. After running workshops for a few years, I realized what clients were really wanting to learn was not the Photoshop skills, but learn aesthetic skills – aesthetic quality was what was missing in their work – they just couldn’t put their finger on it. The holistic workflow I teach, factors-in all the essential aesthetic techniques the old master painters used because their techniques work – they are the aesthetic masters. Aesthetic quality is not just for painters, it is also the essential quality of all good photography. Their lessons are directly responsible for me creating the look and feel of all of my images shown on this website – all popular views and available to every tourist, but these have more aesthetic quality. The most common comment on workshops is, ‘I don’t know how I want my pictures to look’ or ‘I don’t have a personal style’. The solution is to keep looking at works of art, photographs and paintings, you love and that inspire you. Be influenced by them. Learn from them.
When I say ‘Old Master Painters’ – did you think of Rembrandt. If I said ‘Rembrandt’ – did you think of ‘light’. Rembrandt was all about portraying light – light creates the life, mood, drama and atmosphere. Light is the soul of all pictures, photographic or painted. If you understand how Rembrandt communicated light in his paintings – would it not provide invaluable knowledge for how you could also treat the light in your photograph? Why not learn the same skills and employ the same techniques as a photographer?
How do you learn from old master paintings? Ask the paintings questions. Pick a specific subject, light, mood, drama etc. How did they portray spatial depth? Ask: How did they separate buildings and make buildings look three-dimensional? What techniques did they use to emphasize the main subject? The questions you can ask is endless! See what answers they give; what their solution was to very specific problems. See if other painters used the same solution. When looking at your answer in the painting, run through in your mind, how can you recreate the same effect in Lightroom or Photoshop. Dutch painters painted street scenes, landscapes and seascapes – how much of the light and mood, the drama was really in front of them while painting the image? – how much was ‘created’ from their imagination? – their scenes may have been just as bland as my photographs are before post-production.
Now, when you ask: ‘Does this make a good picture?’, you can ask yourself, ‘How would Rembrandt treat the scene?’ – your aesthetic knowledge learnt in part from studying the old master painters, gives you vast new points of reference to now see the creative potential in the scene you are looking at.
Creating a good photograph is communicating your idea with high aesthetic values and executed with quality technical skills. Photography previsualization is exactly the same process as physical production, just done mentally before taking a photograph while you are looking at the scene and before you touch the camera. You run through the production process in your mind in order to get a good feel for what the final photograph could look like as a final print. The more knowledge you have in all areas, the better you can previsualize ‘what the scene could become’ before taking the photograph. This is the criteria you use to decide ‘if you can see a good picture’. Can I create a photograph with aesthetic quality? How many scenes have you walked away from in the past that could have become beautiful diamonds?