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Making the Unseen Visible

Becoming a More Creative Photographer by Harold Davis, August 2009 (updated August 2010)


Introduction | I: Expecting the Unexpected | II: Focusing on What Matters | III: Becoming Composition Conscious | IV: Making the Unseen Visible | V: Knowing When to Quit | VI: Setting Limits | VII: A Spiral Model of Creativity

This is the fourth in a series of articles about becoming a more productive and inventive photographer. In these articles I’ll share some of the techniques I use to boost my creativity and I’ll show you how I’ve learned to be more imaginative with my photography. My goal is to help you to become more creative, too.

Each of the articles in this series presents assignments that will help you hone your creative approach (should you choose to accept them!).

In the first article in this series, Expecting the Unexpected, I explained that:

  • There is no simple formula for creativity;
  • It’s important to learn to see what is really there, as opposed to what you expect to see;
  • Great photographs can only be made when you strike the right balance between planning and “going with the flow”.

The second article, Focusing on What Matters, moved on to take a closer look at what you photograph. As I noted in the article, “Don’t believe those who think of photography as something than can always be done casually.” As with life itself, it is often (but not always) the case that the more effort you put into your photographic work, the more you will get back.

The point of the second article was to help you focus on what really matters to you and your life, to better be able to integrate personal passion with your photography, and to progress on the life-long journey of discovery that true artists make.

The third article, Becoming Composition Conscious, took a look at photography from a completely different perspective. My opinion is that photography is applied graphic design, so to make an effective photograph you’ve got to start with a good composition. But good composition is not a matter of rigidly following rules. This can lead to photographers who have passion and know what they want to photograph, but can’t quite get their images to gel from a compositional viewpoint. Becoming Composition Conscious provided a framework for working through these problems.

This article, the fourth in the series, Making the Unseen Visible, starts with an inquiry about the purpose of making photographs. The inquiry leads to the question of what capabilities photography has that are unique.

An important answer to this question is that photography can reveal things that are unseen. In fact, revealing things to people that they haven’t seen before is one of the main things that keeps me going as a photographer.

Of course, revelation is never straightforward, and there are a number of different strategies involved. And saying that something is “unseen” begs the question, “By whom or what is it unseen?”

A hoary chestnut comes to mind: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? In this sense, photography can make the unseen real. For example, theoretically we know that stars move in relationship to the earth (actually, it is the earth moving). A photo that shows star trails over time brings home the fact there is indeed relative motion, and that the motion of stars is real. For example, check out the circular motion of the stars over Pierce Farm in northern California (image right).

This is a great deal of ground to cover, so let’s get started. As usual, I’ll be providing examples and assignments along the way.

Goal of Photography

Why do we photograph? Obviously there are many reasons ranging from extremely practical to the artistic. Some photographs have a simple purpose, and are representations of modest subjects, such as something for sale. Family photos are intended to preserve memories, flatter the vanity of photographer and subject, and possibly torture family members. Journalistic photos purport to tell a story.

My photographs do none of these things, and I’m willing to bet that many of your best photos do not either.

Most photographers who are interesting in photography for the sheer joy of photography believe in their heart of hearts that their photos are showing people something they would not have otherwise seen: the overlooked detail, the paradoxical juxtaposition, or simply something that fits together neatly.

Certainly, when I see something that I know will look like an existing photo, I say to myself, “Why bother?”

I’m not saying that it is wrong to learn from the work of master photographers. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if you see a composition that works by a master, by all means see if you can repeat it and add your own personal twist.

Your assignment: Choose a still life composition by a master photographer such as Josef Sudek or Edward Weston. Try to replicate the lighting in the shot with a different choice of subject matter.

Most photographers really do want to go boldly where no photographer has gone before, and show the world something it has never seen. So embrace the audacity! If this is truly the goal of your photography, admit it, move on, and try to implement.

I wanted to illustrate the idea that the seeds of a flower are the start of a new generation of life. I created the poppy gone to seed (image right), lit with a variety of colored lights and positioned on black, looking almost like a fireworks bursting in the sky to show this idea.

Your assignment: Illustrate the concept of birth and rebirth as part of the cycle of life in a way that you have never seen it before.

Revealing the Unseen

If your goal as a photographer is to create an image the world has never seen, then the content of your photo will be unseen, and your job is to reveal that which is unseen.

Revealing the unseen was the magic that kept me riveted in the chemical darkroom, and it’s the catnip that keeps me coming back for more as a digital photographer.

Let’s enumerate some of the ways that unseen things can be revealed:

  • The unseen thing is ignored, overlooked, or forgotten
  • The context in which the thing is viewed is changed
  • That which is unseen is only revealed over time, or using some other photographic mechanism
  • The unseen thing does not in fact exist at all; your job is to create it

The black and white photo of street lights coming through trees at the beginning of this article was taken on an extremely foggy night in a parking lot. I was on my way to photograph something else, and could easily have ignored or overlooked this image. The strength of the composition did not begin to emerge until I converted the image to monochrome in the digital darkroom.

It’s a pretty unusual view of urban trees in the fog. If I’ve ever seen anything similar probably it was in a horror movie.

The oregano leaves (image right) are unusual for a couple of reasons. If anyone else photographs oregano, they probably shoot the buds not the leaves. (Can you even recall what oregano leaves look like?)

I shot and processed this image to add vibrant colors to the oregano leaves. Altogether, this has become an abstraction, perhaps an artifact from an alien world.

The twelve minute exposure of a partially cloudy night sky along the Big Sur coast (image left) reveals a surprisingly pronounced Milky Way, not nearly as visible by eye.

The eight minute exposure of an Indian Paintbrush flower in the dark of the night (image right) shows colors behind the normal visual spectrum. This display is intended to attract pollinators, and happens during the day, too—we just can’t see it.

Your assignment: Find a subject that has secrets revealed only photographically.

Noticing Overlooked Things

Good photographers have hungry eyes. They are constantly looking, evaluating, internally composing—and yes, even being busy bodies and prying. The photographer is part voyeur, and the voyeur is obsessive about observing the details of their obsession.

This makes photographs that show things that are often overlooked a common source of photographic inspiration. Photographers are just naturally good at this kind of thing.

There are two parts to creating an image of something overlooked. You have to notice it, and then package it. The packaging is probably harder then the initial observation.

On the left is an image of a cyclamen (a small flower) petal. Before I took the shot I noticed that the petal had a diagonal white band. I decided to photograph the flower to make composition look like it was an aerial of a landscape, not a flower macro.

Your assignment: Photograph an interesting detail on a flower or plant to make it into an abstract composition.

The lights were glowing late in tourist-glitzy Cannery Row, one of the big attractions in Monterey, California. I noticed the homeless camp in a corner of the beach by a luxury hotel, and exposed the image long enough to you can make out the men sleeping (image right). In real life, the area was so dark that no details were visible, but by jacking up the exposure I could make the camera reveal a subject I couldn’t see by naked eye.

Your assignment: Create a photo that shows something disturbing in a dark corner or crevice that you wouldn’t normally notice.

Altering the Context

What is more normal than an eye? We look at other peoples’ eyes all the time. But if you alter the context by popping a skull or flower in the pupil, the image becomes new and different. Furthermore, the skull versus the flower makes a big difference.

Look for a moment at the image of the eye with the skull, and forget about the eye and flower. What are your associations? Now try it the other way round.

Adding an element to something that is commonplace changes the context of a photo, and the way we react the photo. Furthermore, the content of the added element can control the entire emotional gestalt of the revised image.

Your assignment: Photograph something commonplace. Contrive to add an element to the composition and note how the emotional freight associated with the image has changed. Now try the same thing with a different, new element.

The Power of Time

Time is probably the most powerful element that you can control in photography if you want to reveal the unseen, and also one of the most difficult to use successfully.

Classic uses of time in photos include blurring parts of a composition in motion, to turn lights at night into lines, and (as in the image right) reveal the trails made by stars. Movies are also still photos combined over time.

Despite the ubiquity of time manipulation as a way to transcend the mundane in photography, it is one of the best tools available, and one that should be mastered.

Your assignment: Pick something in motion, and photograph it at a variety of shutter speeds to become very clear about the effect of time on motion in photography. Your choice of shutter speed should depend on what you choose to photograph and its speed. For example, you might choose to photograph cars on a city street at night, in which case 1/2 of a second, 2, 5, 10, and 30 seconds would be good starting places for this investigation.

An Active Imagination

If all else fails, make it up! The real world not good enough for you? There’s no limit to what you can do in the digital darkroom. Even if you start with pieces of the real world, since it is your imagination, you’ll end up with something the likes of which the world has never seen.

I shot the original basis for the image shown left with my 10.5mm fisheye, on a tripod, for 2 seconds at f/20 and ISO 100, on the campus at Stanford University in Palo Alto. In Photoshop, I duplicated the shot and rotated it with a horizontal flip. Then, I pasted the rotation on top of the original, and used it to enhance the symmetry on the left side of the image. Next, I opened a blank document the width of the original (horizontal) image and twice its height. I placed the original in the top of the new document as a layer. I rotated a copy of the original with a vertical flip, and pasted it as a third layer. The result shows a pretty odd world in which “up” and “down” can be transposed without a difference.

Your assignment: Create something from your imagination in the digital darkroom using pieces from one or more photos.

Conclusion

Revealing things that are not commonly seen, cannot be seen by naked eye, or are usually overlooked is one of the most significant ways you can add impact to a photo. This is not novelty for novelties sake, but rather it taps into one of the most important goals of photography as post-film medium of expression.

This article discussed a number of techniques for enhancing your creativity by introducing the element of revelation into your photos, including:

  • Showing things that have been ignored or forgotten
  • Showing things that are hidden by low light, but can be revealed by increasing the exposure
  • Changing the context of an existing photo by adding or subtracting elements
  • Using the power of photography to control time by changing the duration of an exposure
  • Constructing new worlds in the digital darkroom from pieces of the real world.

More

About the Author

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase. Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »


Text ©2009 Harold Davis.

Article revised August 2010.

Readers' Comments


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Eric Tastad , August 18, 2009; 05:05 P.M.

Hello,

Thanks for this insightful post! I am a hobbyist photographer who loves to look at the world in different ways, but I have recently been hitting some creative blocks in my photography.

One of my weaknesses is lack of planning, so I gave myself a project to take 52 planned photographs through the year. Some would be copies of master's work, and others would be my own visions, but the point is they would all be primarily planned (although I am always open to the available moment).

Your post has given me a lot of insight to my own attitudes towards photography and has given me some new inspiration and ideas to carry out.

Thanks!

Eric

Terry Day , August 18, 2009; 05:11 P.M.

Thanks for the great article. As a working Professional for over 30 years it never ceases to amaze me how beginning photographers seem to over simplify photography. They think that just pointing a camera at a subject is what taking photographs is all about. Your article covers the complexity of what it takes to make, and not just take, a creative image. Thanks again, Terry Day http://www.howtoshootdigitalphotos.com

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Dave Pierce , August 19, 2009; 02:38 A.M.

Harold, your work and your written lessons on Becoming a More Creative Photographer are masterful and insightful. My hardy thanks for sharing this valuable knowledge.

Your work reminds me of a book I've read, "The Tao of Photography--Seeing beyond Seeing", by Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro.

Again, thank you for this fine article!

Sincerely, Dave Pierce http://photo.net/photos/pierceart

Steven Richardson , August 19, 2009; 07:35 A.M.

Thank you for another wonderful article. I am always looking for new ways to improve my work and become more created. I think sometime I try too hard to find that one of a kind shot and miss seeing things that are available to me. You gave me new ideas and new things to try. Thanks again, Steven

Phil Orgeron , August 21, 2009; 12:48 P.M.

My favorite kind of photography. Thanks so much for sharing this enlightening and inspiring article.

mark prest , August 28, 2009; 10:03 A.M.

so the paintbrush flower...what was the lighting, just the moon?

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