Observational Photography


iPhone Neon Reflections - Austin, Texas

iPhone Neon Reflections – Austin, Texas

I’m often asked “What do you shoot?”. I usually have some long-winded answer like, “Oh, I do urban architecture, urban landscapes but also street photography but also I also shoot details that I find interesting and oh yeah the I do the occasional model shoot.” Follow my mostlyfotos blog and you may agree.

My style is hard to define or pigeonhole. It’s all over the place with no apparent rhyme or reason. I often thought this was a disadvantage. If I could only shoot one kind of subject, I thought, I could more quickly establish my look. But recently, it’s occurred to me that, there is a pattern to my photography. I shoot what catches my eye. So I’m coining a phrase. I’m calling my style Observational Photography.

The great thing about Observational Photography is its variety. What catches your eye is different from what catches my eye. There isn’t a pre-canned look or a standard way to do this. There are no compositional rules that need to be followed. The popularity of iPhone photography shows that others are also interested in this free-from style. And this is where a small device like a iPhone or a point and shoot works so well. In fact, a big DSLR makes this kind of photography more cumbersome.

It’s socially awkward to whip-out a big camera, at a restaurant, or at other intimate places. This is where the smaller mirrorless cameras, like the Olympus Pens or the Sony NEX, work so well. They don’t get in the way and don’t attract attention. And unlike smaller point and shoots and camera phones, which have small sensors, these mirrorless cameras give you high quality images that rival DSLRs.

With practice, you begin to see more things that catches your eye. With repetition, your world expands and small details become larger. When I first started making pictures like this, I found it difficult to find anything interesting around me. I didn’t see the angles or compositions. I didn’t see the light or reflections. I didn’t see the juxtaposition of shapes. Over time, with practice, I think I’m improving and so will you.

Now, it’s a fun challenge, a game of sorts, to spot multiple photo worthy scenes around me. The rise of digital has made this accessible to anyone. With film, every shot is more precious. You ration your frames. You take less chances fearing failure and wasting a shot. When you fear failure, you don’t grow. Digital makes failure less painful and gives you an opportunity to improve quicker (if you are willing to learn from your mistakes).

With Observational Photography, I find that the world around me has grown. There is life and interest everywhere, you just have to observe. You begin to see like an architect and appreciate a building’s lines. You become an interior designer and appreciate the blend of color and texture. You notice the grittiness of a downtown. You become fascinated by people and what they wear. You become a social scientist observing how people interact with each other. You glory at the variety of natural landscapes. Or simply, capture mundane moments of time, that would be forgotten, if you didn’t take action.

I shot the photo above, at a restaurant, after a photography lecture. I noticed my friend’s iPhone reflecting the neon beer sign and the ring of menus. Is it great art? Probably not, but it is a study in observation. It works for me on several levels. Not only does it document a mundane but a fun time with friends but it incorporates reflections and neon with I find attractive.

Ultimately, you savor life because life becomes less automatic. The world no longer passes you by in a blur. You now grab pieces of it, little scenes, and appreciate its complexity and beauty. The photographs freeze time, make the temporary permanent and allows you to share this with others. This to me is Observational Photography. I hope you find my observations interesting and I hope you share your unique observations with the world, too.

9 thoughts on “Observational Photography

  1. While I mostly agree, for some people it comes harder. I gained my best Observational experience from shooting a single scene over a period of about 6 months. Yes I did some other things, but they were more in the vein of casual snaps.

    By singling out a building in my neighborhood many years ago, I learned every aspect of it, and learned how the light played with those features at 6 am, noon, 4 pm, midnite. If I couldn’t sleep, I went out to shoot the building. Almost everytime I went, I noticed nuances that I had failed to notice on previous trips. It did a lot in sharpening my observation skills.

    The other thing that really trained me in observation was becoming a retoucher. It’s what paid the bills for several years and still does. In one training session with a high end pro I was told “every image starts with a plan” with regards to retouch. The time spent in proper assessment of a retouch job will save time later. So now when I take some shots, I watch out for that errant lamp post that I would be want to be taking out later, because I simply can’t afford my own services LOL.

    1. Libby, shooting a similar scene over a long period of time is something that I have yet to do. Sounds like an interesting project. Something that I should consider doing. I love your comment about not affording to pay for your own retouching services.

  2. What a validating and informative post Andy. It’s true, the eye must constantly look for the compositions and angles hiding in plain sight. Once the Vision happens the relatively easy part is capturing it with a camera. I like your concept of observational photography too. It makes good sense that we must observe before we can record!

    Your writing has become much better as well.

    1. Alex, thank you for your kind words. Thank you about the writing comment too, however, I just found several grammatical errors so I really need a proof reader. I hope the concepts come through, even though my proof reading skills are sometimes lacking. Not good to post when I’m sleepy.

  3. very true Andy, I think that is a good definition of your style and I feel I do a lot of the same (though I mostly post my “big scene” shots) – well said my friend

  4. Hi Andy, I know that this post will come a little late, but I’ve just discovered your blog thanks to Kirk Tuck’s one, and I’m reading it backwards a little every day (VERY interesting!). I just wanted to comment that what you call Observational Photography just defines what I like to do… btw I don’t want to make a plug, just if you want you can see my photos at http://andreacosta.zenfolio.com
    Keep up with the beautiful work!
    Cheers

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