Although many tend to think of photography primarily as a way to show people what they saw, I have to agree with the famous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh who at the close of his commercial career recalled his overall approach of always being aware that “the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.”
There are no formulas for this, no shortcuts although some have said that we should spend equal time observing and thinking as we do in making pictures. For me this has been a good place to start. All too often we head out with a camera and just photograph whatever tickles our fancy. This is a good approach if we are practising our craft, something akin to musical scales which are not to be confused with the real performance. To make really good photographs, we need to approach our photography with more than just what we see.
Many artists will tell you to carry a notebook and with good reason. Ideas can pop into your head at any time through a thought or an observation and you need to write them down as they occur because they can disappear as fast as they came into your head. I used to think that if something was a really good idea, there was no way I would forget it. Sadly I think many a good revelation has been fleeting because of my lack of discipline in carrying around a notebook. Writing down ideas at the moment of their conception will allow you to forget about them and to come back later and see a connection which can point you in a direction. You will only record a thought or an idea because it meant something to your heart or your mind. That is not to say everything you write down is going to be good or even directly useful but what you write in your notebook will create a map for what you are thinking and what is important to you.
The really good ideas for your photography happen slowly. They need time to incubate and percolate before they can take a form that is both useful and instructive for you. The best ideas will reveal themselves because when you encounter them again through your notebook, you will have the same or a similar feeling as the first time they came to you. The not-so-good ideas won’t resonate in the same way.
One of the best tools I have found that works for me is the virtual notebook. I use the program Evernote to record ideas, thoughts, pictures and links I want to remember. It is on my desktop computer and the information syncs to the app that is on my iPhone and my iPad. Information is organized according to “Notebook” but there is an added benefit of being able to use tags so I can connect articles I’ve read to current or potential photography projects and more. Using a virtual notebook is also good if you are prone to losing your notebook.
I used think of notebooks as a bit pretentious but now that I am using them on a regular basis I wonder how I would have remembered half as much as I record in them. For photographers who subscribe to Karsh’s view of making pictures, notebooks are essential and you can never have too many of them.