Your Ability To Notice As A Photographer.

“Technique won’t compensate for inability to notice.”

Elliot Erwitt

I don’t think the importance of the ability to notice in street photography can ever be overstated. Once you move beyond your obsession to get all your technicalities right all the time, only then will you actually thrive as a street photographer. If you still find yourself lacking confidence, go back to AUTO mode for a while and start concentrating on the creative aspect of composing a shot.

Though in that case, you will be hindering yourself in your growth in understanding several fundamentals, you will still be concentrating 100% on the “moment”. This effort will of course pay-off in your growth as a street photographer in the long run.

As you just go out and shoot, you will naturally learn about exposure, and how the exposure triangle works. It may take you longer than other photographers to grab the knowledge of these fundamentals, but you will surely have a solid understanding.

I myself learned photography in a trial-and-error method and brushed my technical knowledge later on in my journey as a photographer. I learned through experience what each setting did, but I never really “fully” understood it until I focused on those aspects. To me, understanding the technical side of things always came second to the observational process. It holds true for me even today.

ability to notice

Without a good sense of your surroundings and ability to notice the photographable moments, when they happen in front of you, there is no photo, to begin with. You can have the best gear, the best technique, the best exposure settings, but if you are constantly out in the street missing great moments as they pass by you, what is it all worth?

I think that is what makes street photography a little bit different than other genres. It is a lot less about the technicalities, with gear and settings, and a lot more about getting out there and experiencing those moments, and photographing them when they happen. That is why you will probably hear about great street photographers who shoot in auto or priority settings on their cameras.

Obviously, they know how to shoot in MANUAL mode and how the exposure triangle works, but they choose to shoot in these AUTO settings because it allows them to focus more on what’s happening around them.

black and white photograph of the crowd on street

For me, images that make me feel something, or tell a story – those are the type of images I believe in striving to take. I don’t need the best gear or the best settings to take those kinds of photos. Understanding the other technical concepts are important – in certain cases, the exposure can make-or-break a composition, use of light and shadow can create a huge difference – but obsessing over those can kill the creative aspect of photography. The creative aspect of your photography is determined by your ability to notice.

Developing your eye and practicing to observe everything in your surrounding – that’s the one thing that’s non-negotiable. As you go out every day and shoot, you will naturally start perfecting your exposure. Don’t let the lack of understanding about a concept, or the lack of a certain piece of a gear discourage you from creating your own work.

a colored photograph of a street in a town

If someone asks me what settings I used to take my photograph, I wouldn’t be able to say without looking down at my camera, even if I took the photo a few minutes ago.

As photographers, when we see a beautiful photograph, we are quick to ask what camera someone used or what lens or what exposure settings they used for that photo. Most of the time we do it unconsciously, I do it myself. We do so because we see those things as attainable – we think that if we get that camera, or get that lens, or use those settings, we will be closer to getting a photograph like that one – but that’s not necessarily the truth.

It’s good to ask those things as a way to learn, but don’t use them as an excuse for not taking better photographs. What you should ask instead is what made them take that photo – what they saw in that photograph that spoke to them. I believe a lot of photographers will enjoy answering those questions more than the previous ones. Because it gives them the recognition for their creative talent, and not just about the gear they bought in exchange for money.

It will even make things easier for you to get in the mindset the next time you hit the road. The insights will help you to see those photographs when they happen in your surroundings.

Improving your ability to observe and notice is not something you can purchase or even learn by reading a blog or watching a course video – it is something that you have to experience yourself by going out there and shooting consistently. Over time, your eye is going to develop and you are going to see the world differently. Being patient with yourself during your learning curve and investing enough time is crucial.

The way my eyes observe today, my ability to notice is not the same as they observed three years ago. Just think of all the shooting experiences, visual experiences, and inspiration you can expose yourself to over a period of even one year. All of that contributes to how you see through your camera.

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

Henri Cartier Bresson

Taking bad photographs is the most important part of your learning process. Bad photographs are better than no photographs. Every bad photograph you take means you are one photograph closer to your next good photograph. Even the most talented photographers don’t manage to take 100% good photographs during a shoot. Grow through each bad photograph of yours. The more you shoot, the better will be your ability to notice.

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