What's YOUR Photographic Vision?

©Jay Ryser

Photography is a visual medium (yes, I’ve been told I sometimes have a firm grasp on the obvious, but bear with me). The term photography is literally translated as Writing With Light. I’m guessing that most, if not all photographers, at a basic level, capture images to document events and experiences, and as a way of sharing those experiences with others. That’s not complicated – anyone with a camera phone, Polaroid, or disposable camera can do that. I’m talking about taking your images to the next level by clearly defining your Photographic Vision.

What do I mean by a vision? What is it that I want to capture? This goes beyond documentary photography (“I saw a mountain goat – here’s the proof”) to something that I hope is a little more personal and maybe even a little more artistic. Since I do primarily wildlife photography, my vision is to capture something unique about each individual animal that I photograph – something that makes that specific animal unique, an individual, among others in its community. I don’t want an image of a generic red fox, for instance, I want to capture the essence or personality of this specific animal, what makes it unique among other foxes, for instance. That’s what drives me, what pulls me out of bed on frigid winter mornings, again and again. I don’t always accomplish my vision, but it is the driving force behind what I do and why I do it.

Just that’s my vision and what I want to capture doesn’t mean it will work for you or should be your vision. I know and work with lots of great photographers. My father in law is a retired professional photographer. But each one of us has a unique, idiosyncratic vision of what we’re trying to capture in an image. When we define our vision, it makes us more mindful in our approach to making an image and capturing the image that we want.

Since I’m back into doing images for a stock agency, I have a very general vision in mind whenever I make images that I plan to submit. They have to be:
• sharp
• well exposed
• clean (no cluttered back or fore grounds, no Hand of Man)
To do that, I almost always use a tripod and a big gimbal head to get the sharpest images possible, I check the histogram regularly, I’m very aware of my camera settings.

You can’t execute your vision with the camera on Automatic, making the decisions for you.

That’s my basic vision whenever I shoot something that might have commercial potential, and I think the basis for any kind of decent nature photography (IMHO). Once I have the basics established, it’s time to refine things a little more to see what I really want in an image.

What, then, is my actual Photographic Vision? Well, in no particular order:
My primary goal is a connection with the animal (since I usually do wildlife), and that generally means eye contact with great light. I don’t just mean the animal is looking in my direction – I mean I want to be able to see the animals world reflected back at me in the eye. When I edit the image, I want to zoom in and literally see the reflection of the scene (sometimes even with me in it) there in the eyes. It may not be visible at a size viewed on the web or even a small print, but it’s there and may come across in a big print. there has to be great light to achieve this (more on that later). That’s the connection I want, and that I want to present. If I have just black, dead, shark-eyes, I don’t consider it a really successful image.

I want great light. My preference is for early morning light for its color, direction, and quality. I want that warm gold or red color that sets off animal fur beautifully, and that catch light in their eyes. It also reduces harsh shadows and illuminates fore and backgrounds with that magic light. I have to get up early in the morning (you might say I’m an early Ryser – pun always intended) to get a head start on the sun and the wildlife, but it’s worth it. I’m always surprised when I see folks arriving when I’m on my way home after a successful morning of wildlife photography. Plan for the light and arrange your schedule to capture it. Follow the light.

Dynamic is usually better than static. I have a virtual ton of documentary shots of animals (the shots that document that you saw an animal, shots that could be put in Wikipedia or a textbook to show the animal in an accurate way). That was OK when I was first starting out, but now I want more. I want behavior, I want action, I want something a little different to set my images apart. That takes patience and some understanding of the subject. I’ll use pikas as an example. They’re very cute little critters, but they’re almost always on the move, they blend in well with their environment, and they’re more likely to be heard than seen. Initially, just finding pikas and getting an occasional shot was enough. Now that I had the basics covered, I wanted action. I have to find pikas (first of all), and plant myself in a location where I have good light, and be prepared to catch the action. When I do that, I can catch them gathering food for the winter, barking out a warning, or even stretching & yawning. That’s the image I want, and that’s how I’m hoping to set my images apart and capture something a little different (and hopefully make them more marketable in the process).

Personality. This might be partly covered by behavior shots, but I’m also looking to capture personality whenever I can. My vision here is to find something that sets this particular animal apart from his or her peers. What makes this animal unique and individual. The old alpha male fox, Pock, was great – fearless, bold – a real character. I tried to capture his boldness whenever I could. His mate, the alpha female was calm and relaxed and seemed to project this, and made her great at doing portraits. Sadly, neither fox is with us anymore, making the time I spent trying to capture images even more special to me, and hopefully I was successful in preserving a little of what made each a unique personality.

Shoot from eye level. I find myself shooting from a lower and lower Point of View (POV), in an attempt to catch the animal at their eye level. The closer I can get to their eye level, the more I’m able to present an accurate representation of their world. For foxes, I now never extend the tripod legs so I’m more on their level. Someone recently commented that my fox images seemed to be getting better, and I think that’s part of the reason why. For mega-fauna (elk, bison, etc.), I’ll crank the tripod all the way up to keep up to their eye level, but for everything else, the tripod goes lower and lower. To facilitate that, I’m using a pair of knee pads that I got at Lowes for less than $30, and they’re a great investment and reminder to get down (and sometimes even look funky).

• Simplify and Isolate. I got this mantra from Brad Hill and try to practice it whenever possible. Basically, I try to isolate the subject(s) from the background and simplify the composition as much as possible. I shoot almost exclusively in Aperture Priority mode, usually close to wide open, so I can isolate the subject(s) from the background and simplify the composition as much as possible. When I do that, I’m much more pleased with my images.

That’s a quick summary of my Photographic Vision. I’m very mindful of what I’m trying to achieve in my images and try to stick closely to my vision when I shoot. It’s not meant to work for everyone, it’s just what works for me. I don’t expect anyone to follow my photographic vision, but to define and incorporate their own vision for what they want from their images.

What is it you want from your images? What’s YOUR Photographic Vision?

What's YOUR Photographic Vision?

Jay Ryser

Lakewood, United States

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