Vision is Beginning

Intent is what brings depth and significance to a photograph. In many ways you can say it’s the lifeline of the photograph—or any work of fine art for that matter. A photograph without intention behind it won’t convey any importance to the viewers either. It might be as beautiful as anything in the world, but we still won’t stay with it for more than a glimpse of time and we won’t remember it if it doesn’t reveal the photographer behind it. A writer without anything to say in his novel, a filmmaker without a story in her movie or a musician without passionate songs, aren’t going to spellbind their audience and will all soon be forgotten. In the end nobody is going to care about their work. So it is with photography and photographers. A photographer who has no intention with his or her photography will most likely bore the viewers—no matter how technical brilliant the work is or how beautiful the composition is. Intention is what brings uniqueness and substance to a photograph.

«Without intent we’re left with accidental photography, and while accidental photography may once in a while generate interesting photographs, it will not generally count as an act of expression any more than hoping that saying random words will result in a sentence that says something meaningful.» Those are the words of David duChemin taken from his eBook The Vision Driven Photographer.

For David duChemin intent is a way to focus on the why instead of the what in the photographic process. It’s all about being clear about why you shoot what you shoot. By having a clear intent you will better be able to express your vision. For David duChemin the photographic vision is just another word for the intent behind the photograph. Vision is everything—without it the final result is dead. duChemin is one of the contemporary photographers who has been most unambiguous about the need for intent in the photographic process—for the photographer to have a vision. He is probably also the one who has best been able to put words to the somewhat abstract idea of vision and the role it plays in photography. It’s not without reason he calls himself a vision driven photographer.

The photographer’s vision is where the photographic process begins—or where it should begin. Unfortunately most photographers—and I willingly admit that I am prone to the same thoughtlessness, too—don’t have a clear thought about their vision, they just never get beyond the technical part of photography or beyond seeing light or composition. «Before our photographs can say what we want them to, and in so-doing to look like we want them to, we need to understand what we want to say, and how we want to say it. That’s vision.» That’s another quote by duChemin.

In order to better understand the vague and abstract idea of vision, David duChemin splits it in two types. He talks about personal vision and photographic vision. The former is something everybody has although we are not always consciously aware of it. It’s our understanding of the world around us and ourselves. It’s what makes you vote for a certain party, it’s what makes to choose to do what you do, it’s what makes you pay attention to what you see, it’s what makes you photograph something and not something else. The personal vision is based on experience and learning, and it changes with time as it grows more depth with ageing. Photographic vision on the other hand is the link between our personal vision and the final photograph. It’s what makes you frame an image in a certain way, it’s what makes you choose a certain lens over another, it’s what makes you photograph from one angle or another. While personal vision is the how you see life, photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye.

Your personal vision is where it all starts. It’s what makes you choose to photograph something over something else. It’s the intent, which could be anything from wanting to show injustice in the world to declaring your love for something or someone. As a photographer you then move out into the world with your intent, and as you know, suddenly you see something that catches your attention. That’s the moment of perception. On the street you suddenly see a couple or an action that arouses your photographic interest. Even in the studio the same thing happens, but instead of moving around in the world until something catches your interest, you move the world around you and rearrange it until it feels right. While in that moment of perception, take a bit of time to reflect over the reason why you were stopped by whatever made you stop. Even if it was only light that seemed to arouse you interest, something made you choose this subject matter of that. This is paying conscious attention to your personal vision. Then continue to discern how you best can express this intention by photographic means available to you. This is the part where your photographic vision comes into play. Only then is it time to pull the trigger and continue the photographic process all the way to the final print, the manifestation of your vision.

This all seems like an elaborate process but as a matter of fact the more you get into the habit of paying attention to your vision, the faster the whole process will progress. From something catches you attention, till the camera has captured the subject, in reality it might only take a fraction of a second. The important part is being aware of your intent—or having a conscious vision. Unfortunately most photographers don’t. They see something without being aware of why the subject caught their attention and then start shooting right away. Of course their personal vision still made them react, but they just don’t know why or are not aware of it.

Do you have a clear intent when you are shooting? Are you a vision driven photographer? Or do you only arbitrarily take snap shots of whatever catches you interest?

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60 thoughts on “Vision is Beginning

  1. I think with wildlife it’s harder to shoot with intent. At the moment, which is generally so fleeting, I am just focused on getting the shot with correct exposure etc. The intent for me happens at editing. It’s then I can crop, or adjust to tell the story of what I saw at that moment in time.

    1. Yes, wildlife happens quickly, but I still think you can make decisions whether you want to show wildlife in it’s natural environment, endangered in some way, or as portraits or just how you frame an animal – as examples. And surely there is intent in the editing process, too.

  2. I set myself small challenges, Otto, and also my larger challenge is not to take ‘cluttered’ images, so to some degree I guess I do!

  3. I do both, some days I have a particular goal in mind, but could still easily get diverted by whatever takes my eye, other days I just stroll of cycle and hope something will take my attention.

  4. Earlier this evening I read a newsletter von David duChemin about becoming more creative and I immediately thought about his words when I started reading your inspiring text, Otto. I do both. Mostly I go out with the camera and have a fairly clear intent, thus not meaning I know what the outcome will be. And many times I have no intent to make a photo and still bring the camera with me, you never know … 🙂
    Greetings from grey and extremely foggy Fredrikstad. I was so much hoping for snow and my intent was to return to England with lost of wintery shots, but obviously I was one week too late. 😦

    1. There is intent beforehand when you go out with you camera. And there is intent at the moment of captured, which isn’t necessarily the same. You may skip the former and still be intentional about what you want to say when you find something you want to capture. I was actually in Fredrikstad last week. A pity I didn’t know you were there.

  5. I think I am in the last category (snap to whatever comes for the most part) than the former two. Now, looking back to some pictures I have, some seems to give me long last memory than others and I think those I think I had some sort of closer related to. I guess that might be what you called here “intention”.

  6. When I was younger I my intent was to get better at making art, the message of the art was incidental. At another time in my life I was too heavy handed with whatever message I was trying to convey. Lately, I feel like I have to let go some to let the intent come through more naturally. Maybe our intent improves with maturity?

  7. I think that was one of the benefits of learning to shoot in the days of film. Each frame had a cost, each roll a small number of shots – that discouraged spraying off shots willy-nilly and encouraged having a good reason to take a photo. Still, I suspect there’s a gray area between shooting with conscious intent and unconscious intent. Conscious intent implies a preferred style, which after being practiced for a while can become unconscious. But it can also be the force behind getting out of the old comfort zone and trying something new.

    For what it’s worth, duChemin’s Vision-Driven Photography is next up on my video training list.

    1. You are very right in that the old analogue way of shooting ment more intentional thinking behind each shot. As much as I write about intention here, I also believe that our unconscious mind is very capable of making decisions for us. It’s part of learning a skill, the thinking moves from the explicit to the implicit memory, from the conscious to the unconscious mind.

  8. This is one of your articles that I will bookmark and return to a number of times to re-read – because the concepts are profound, and the language a little different in describing the linkage between the Eye and our Creative Heart that need to be underpinned by sound technical skills. The use of the word ‘Intent’, adds a subtle extra dimension to ‘Why’ we capture what we see. I know that I am as guilty as many others in seeing something and shooting without any real thought. It’s often just the recognition of seeing something that ‘connects’ with me creatively – maybe in that mode I am simply shooting to reinforce ideas and cement strands of nascent creativity. The language is complicated isn’t it! But the more ways we use to describe ‘the Art of Seeing’ or whatever else we choose to call it, the more complete our understanding of this complex concept will be. Well written, Otto.

    1. It is complicated, and the more we learn the more we are able to understand, indeed. I am happy this makes sense to you. I think I have mentioned it before, but I am working on an eBook about how we see with the intention of taking photos. Thank you for your poignant comment, Andy.

  9. ‘A photograph without intention behind it won’t convey any importance to the viewers either’. I agree, totally. But I.m often intrigued by the difference between the creator’s intention and the viewer’s/listener’s/reader.s interpretation. And does this matter?

    1. That’s always a relevant question. And not necessarily easy to agree upon a single answer. For me, what is important is that artwork touches the audience. Whether it’s the same reaction as what triggered the artist is less important.

  10. I’m not sure about this, but it seems to me that the more sensitive we are to the intentions that drive us, the more able we become to pay attention to those things in the world that will express our intent to others. As we grow in sensitivity, and become more attentive, the camera becomes less of a tool and more an extension of our vision — a way to say to others, “This is what I saw, and I want you to see it, too.”

    1. I agree. I have often seen expressed; the camera is an extension of the eye as the penn or the brush is an extension of the arm. Which goes to show the strong connection between our mind and whatever tool we use to express ourselves.

  11. my personal vision, well, that’s blur, and bad photographs of other kinds, and my photographic vision is to choose from thumbnails which version of the shot makes my heart sing, and then to process the mundane into my kind of prettyness 🙂

  12. I like your explanation Otto, you put it in very simple words, I guess photography as any other art, or work, it reflects our intentions, or lack off, and right there, lay the difference.
    As usual a great lesson, that can apply to many other things. 🙂

  13. I think my photography is a mix of intent and accidental. With nature, sometimes you almost have to depend on the accidental (although it does help to be familiar with an area, a season, the light at a certain time of day, etc.). Another interesting post, Otto. Thank you.

  14. Another thought provoking post, Otto. I think I do take my photos with intent these days, since I started photographing animals and birds. This idea of doing things ‘with intent’ seems to be catching on lately. I remember reading that if one is mindful and intent upon what one is eating, one tends to eat less, which is a good thing. My T’ai Chi instructor is teaching us to walk with intent, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, but I’m getting the hang of it. 🙂

  15. «Without intent we’re left with accidental photography, and while accidental photography may once in a while generate interesting photographs, it will not generally count as an act of expression any more than hoping that saying random words will result in a sentence that says something meaningful.»

    David DuChemin said it well. It’s what I’ve felt about most so-called street photography, which has seemed so pointless and random to me. Some practitioners even prided themselves on holding the camera near their waist and not looking through the viewfinder.

    1. I think not looking through the viewfinder doesn’t necessarily mean there is not intent behind the photos. It’s not a style one has to like, but it’s definitely a style that was very much initiated by Lee Friedlander, who is regarded as one of the big contemporary photographers. 🙂 I my opinion his images are very strong both in content and intent.

  16. It’s an interesting perspective to think about intent with photography. I like the challenge of seeing anything with a different internal lens, and this is just one more way to dig a little deeper into purpose. I notice that I think about intention in other areas of my life more often as time goes by, so David duChemin’s description of the two types is helpful. And your photo is very nice. The light feels harsh and hot, yet you’ve created a warmth that isn’t distracting. Thank you, Otto. A very informative post.

  17. A beautiful book by William Mortensen is The Command To Look. Now a reprint, he’ll tell you about the four things needed 1. Sex(no not hard core) 2 Sentiment 3 Wonder 4 Eliminate the time stamp.
    We respond to photography/art emotionally first, then composition, cropping etc…
    Joseph Kubek M. Photog Cr.

  18. Sometimes I snap with intent but I have to say that often it’s accidental shooting and then afterwards I weave it into a story. Enjoyed your post Otto and I agree that having intent and a vision applies to both photography and writing.

    1. It probably applies to any kind of creative work. The way you approach your photography, is how most of us do it, I think, sometimes with intent and sometimes with not much thought in the moment of capture.

  19. Well I ‘think’ I have a vision. Photographing alone helps me to realize my vision because I am not influenced or distracted. I use a tripod which slows me down to think about how I want to capture a landscape I’ve disovered. I snapped a picture of a porcupine in a treetop the other day and shared it on Facebook because I thought it was unusual. It did not express my vision and that is how I feel about me and wildlife photography. If I’m presented with a wild animal I enjoy watching and shooting but in the end I always feel the image is about the wildlife and not about my vision.

  20. I like duChemin a lot, and intent is so important, in many areas of life. It’s true that we don’t think about it enough – it sits there, just under our conscious awareness. Your second-to=last paragraph is key for me – the camera makes it so easy to just keep taking pictures, without stopping for that important moment and thinking about what it is exactly that moves you, and how you can best bring that out. It’s also true that sometimes we just get into a good zone where we aren’t thinking much but are flowing with the energy of the moment, and when that happens I think we inevitably express that moment, even though we didn’t take a minute to slow down and be more deliberate. There’s a place for both ways of working, but too often we can go along on automatic. Great stuff Otto!

  21. “Do you have a clear intent when you are shooting?”
    I chuckle, as for the past three days (as I write off line) I’ve been going to the water’s edge to photograph the water hyacinths for a painting. On the first day I planned to sit and draw, and ten minutes later the rain sent me dashing back up the hill.
    The next day I returned with intent to photograph exactly what was needed for that particular painting. I thought I had more than enough reference photos, yet after viewing them that night – Nope, none were right, yet the images helped me to see so much more detail than I would have from sitting and drawing.

    Today I returned again, and hopefully this new series of photos will provide more than enough material to finish the painting. Anyone else might say that the photos are boring, yet after two failed attempts, I now understand how water hyacinths move (with the wind and/or currents) and how they grow – even how they float!

    1. That is quite some intent. When you say that you photos may be boring for others, it’s like in the saying; one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. You know what you are after and you get it. I am sure the painting is going to be gorgeous.

      1. The painting is going well, and today \i spent lots of time watching 6 of those precious birds flit and dance.. still trying to get a good photo of one w/back turned to reflect the lower belly on the water – necessary for the painting. suggestions, maestro, for training a little bird to pose in the water?

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