“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
This is one of my favorite quotes. While Thoreau did not say this about photography, it’s about the best advice you can give to someone in our profession.
Photography is not about pressing a button on a camera. It is about telling a story — communicating what you see when you look at your subject.
Same Subject, Different Stories
Different photographers can photograph the same subject but tell a different story. This is true for all types of photography.
For example, let’s say you are a sports photographer covering a basketball game. The game is very close; there is a lot of excitement in the game and on the sidelines.
As the clock winds down, another photographer might focus all his attention on the court. But you spot a player on the sidelines, waving a towel to cheer on his team, that captures the emotion of the game even better.
Or let’s say you are hiking in the mountains and see a stream surrounded by lush vegetation.
Another photographer might go with a wide shot, but this seems boring to you. So you find an interesting rock formation to place in the foreground, providing contrast and giving a stronger feel for where you are.
Or perhaps you decide to go with a detail or macro shot instead. Why photograph a whole tree when a single leaf tells your story?
Training Yourself to Notice
We should always be looking for pretty light, interesting juxtapositions, leading lines and other visually stimulating subjects.
At the same time, we should always be looking for stories to tell.
Peer inside a building with unusual windows. See if someone is looking out, or reading a book, or painting.
Walk through an old cemetery. Maybe you’ll find someone pressure-washing the headstones.
Drive alongside a long, winding white fence. Perhaps you’ll come across a horse being fed by its owner.
Always be observing. Always be looking for interesting subjects, and thinking about what elements would make your photos even better.
The more you do this, the more often you will come across these elements — because you have trained yourself to notice them.