Experience and Photography – What You Experience as You Photograph

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida

I have been thinking a bit lately about how important experience is for me in how I photograph. I'm not talking about one's experience as a photographer. I'm talking about what one experiences as you photograph.

I recently rediscovered my copy of Great Photographic Essays from LIFE. I had had this book from years ago because I had always been impressed with LIFE magazine growing up. In reading through this book, and yes I was reading it not just looking at the pictures, it made me think how important experience, that is, how one experiences the world, was to my photography. For almost all of the photographers shown in this book, their experience of the world was what they were photographing, what they were sharing with the rest of the world. They were not concerned about creating fine art, about winning contests, about impressing other people, but about using their photography to communicate something that was special to them about the world they were experiencing. (This book has long been out of print, but you can find it used at low prices from AbeBooks.com or amazon.com).

This made me think how important this has always been to me. I think it probably had something to do with some of my college education that included learning photojournalism. Photojournalism really is about what is happening in the world around you, how you experience that, and how you translate that experience through your photography. This applies to all parts of our amazing world, not just the bold and dramatic.

Spring cherries in bloom, California

Spring cherries in bloom, California

When I think back at much of the work that I have done in the past, the things that really made me feel best about working as photographer, writer, and editor were the things that encouraged me to engage and experience the world in new ways. I've always loved learning new things about the world around us, especially in nature, and anything that I can do to better experience that world, to connect me better with that world, is something that I really enjoy. Plus I find it gives me my best photographs, both in terms of what satisfies me and what seem to connect well with others.

Now I know that not everybody is going to think of photography that way – that's OK. I am simply sharing one approach to photography, an approach that is important to me. Some people will see the world as place for raw material for them to deal with in their photographs as fine artists. That's fun for them. Some people just want to create interesting, beautiful photographs for the wall, or images to win contests, or to impress other people. If that's what turns you on about photography, good for you.

Native bee on San Diego sunflower (a small Southern California native flower)

Native bee on San Diego sunflower (a small Southern California native flower)

I'm not saying that I don't want to create interesting, beautiful images. What I am saying is that the experience of engaging the world through my photography is the starter for me. How I  then create my images, what I do with the craft of photography to better communicate through my images, to have better composition, to make sure that my technique is appropriate, is all about controlling my photography to better show off the world as I experience it.

I know that there are other photographers who feel the same way. I sometimes fear that this approach to photography is being lost by the overbearing influence of Facebook and social media on photography. Those places for photography tend to emphasize the ephemeral, the quick glance, the dramatic and colorful, resulting in mostly a quick, more cursory look at images.

I believe there is real value in sharing your experiences of the world through your photography. We all see and experience the world a little differently than others. That experience helps other people connect with you, connect with the world, and often provides new insights for someone else. And you know something interesting? I'm finding that my work connects better with people the more I share my experiences rather than simply showing off a bunch of pretty pictures.

Your experiences are worth sharing. Especially in today's world that can be so polarized and divisive. Photography is one way of bridging that gap because it is such a universal language. When we share our experiences, we share our humanity and that is something that has a great chance of connecting with others.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

About Rob

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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4 Responses to Experience and Photography – What You Experience as You Photograph

  1. Bob, fine article. A photographer has to know what he is looking at and why it interests him or her.

    For me it is about sharing what I see in our wonderful and even at times ugly world no matter what genre presents itself to me or how I artistically want to present it in my journeys. Hopefully, no matter where it is shared including social media it makes someone stop and "see" not just pass on by. It is a way of seeing and it isn't always compelling to every viewer, but ideally it might give them a glimpse of what I see.

    We live in an age where social media is a reality that we have. Let the "experienced" photographers present material that compels viewers to pause and "see" even the most common scenes.

  2. Jim Clark says:

    We are indeed, kindred spirits, my dear friend. Your article is one I'm going to pass on to my workshop students so they can see that I'm not the only one who simply loves the experience of being outside, soaking in nature's stories, and using photography to convey that excitement and wonder. Thanks for the article, Rob...Much appreciated...

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