Searching For What Is Not Literally There by Sean Bagshaw

“When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.” – Ansel Adams

One of the most common challenges I see developing photographers struggling with is how to take photographs that actually express the creative, sensory and emotional experiences that motivated them to take the photo in the first place. We often take photographs that don’t adequately communicate our intentions or fail to express what we felt when the photo was created. How often are we deeply moved by a scene or an event and yet our photographs share very little of what made the experience special? A common refrain of the developing photographer is, “my photographs just don’t show it the way it was.”

This has been and always will be a fundamental artistic challenge in photography. One element that sets apart photography as art from photography as documentation is whether the photographer has the ability to to translate emotions, senses and perceptions of three dimensional space and time so that they resonate within a static, two dimensional image. Simply pointing a camera at a scene that, in person, feels significant is not enough in itself to communicate significance.

I recently listened to a conversation between two photographers in which it was agreed that art is a purely human endeavor and that nature itself doesn’t create art. In nature photography, art happens when the photographer recognizes and makes very personal choices about how to capture the important elements of a scene in an artistic way.

There are are many approaches to successfully capturing and expressing artistic vision in photography. I find that one of the main mental hurdles we wrestle with toward this end is the tendency to photograph everything literally, based only on what we see  with our eyes instead of revealing the qualities that stirred us from within.

To see past my initial literal perspective I find it helpful to refrain from taking a photograph until I have probed a little deeper into my inner motivation. Let’s say I was drawn to take a photograph of a particular tree. Why that tree? What caused me to be drawn make a photograph of it instead of another tree? There must be a reason. When I look beyond the fact that it is a tree and uncover what it is that makes me want to photograph it I’m able to more clearly define what my photograph should really be about. Perhaps I like its gnarled character, or the quality of light setting it apart from its surroundings, or the motion of its leaves in the wind. Perhaps I am drawn to the vibrant fall color of its leaves, or the texture of the bark or the way it stands forlorn and alone in the fog.

Once I can identify the quality or qualities that compelled me to photograph it I have a focus. I am no longer creating a photograph of a tree. I am now attempting to communicate with the viewer my experience of light, or color, or motion, or the feeling of being alone in the fog. The fact that there is a tree in the photo becomes secondary to the qualities that give the photograph purpose and meaning. If I am impressed by the gnarled character of the tree’s branches this helps inform where I will need to place my camera to capture that quality. If dramatic lighting is drawing my attention then my photo needs to be about showcasing that light. This informs how I might best compose the scene in my view finder and how many bracketed exposures I might need to take. If it is leaf motion in the wind that captivates me my photo becomes about motion, which in turn informs my decisions on lens choice and shutter speed.

We are conditioned to see things literally and practically (I’m taking a photograph of rocks and a lake) instead of identifying their qualities and how they affect us on the inside (the smooth black shapes silhouetted against the backdrop of reflected twilight color feel both mysterious and strangely calming at the same time) and then creating a photo that communicates that experience. It takes practice to look beyond the literal object or scene in order to identify one’s own personal artistic connection to it. It is difficult to successfully photograph the essence of that connection, but this is precisely what we need to do if our photographs are ever to be more than just pictures of things.

If we limit our vision to the [literal] world we will forever be fighting on the minus side of things, working only to make our photographs equal to what we see out there, but no better.” – Galen Rowell

I’d love to have you join the discussion with a comment.  What techniques help you determine how to approach a photograph? Do you also find it challenging to see past the literal? Is there something you do to help you tune into what your photograph is really about? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

You are also invited to explore more of my photography at


~ by Sean Bagshaw on July 14, 2011.

23 Responses to “Searching For What Is Not Literally There by Sean Bagshaw”

  1. My favorite technique is just to sit there and enjoy the view. It calms me and helps focus my mind to what is unfolding in front of me.

    Nice post Sean.

  2. This is an excellent and thought-provoking piece, and I’m not sure I can express what helps me see past the literal, or (perhaps more important) why I see past the literal. I often try to pre-visualize certain shots before I visit a place, but as is so often the case in landscape photography, light and weather can dramatically alter that pre-visualization–sometimes in dramatic and unexpected ways. In those cases, I notice in retrospect that my focus almost always becomes the light–because that’s what I react to most viscerally, I suppose–with line and texture following distantly behind.

    • The light is what usually pulls me in too, Robin. Sometimes it is so subtle that I feel it before I see it.

  3. A very good article Sean. It is going to really make me think more in depth and I am sure it will help me understand why I am taking a particular photo and hopeful convey what I want.

  4. Well said; art is blending of intuitive and cognitive processes. The kind of questions you are asking helps to bridge that gap to using the technical skills necessary to capture the intuitive. One of the basic tools of art I use to bridge that gap is to take the time to look at scene from a variety of perspectives. Thanks for your blog.

  5. Sean, Great article and so spot on. This is one of the factors I’ve learned having a career that requires being analytical, it makes it difficult to sometimes find my artistic side.

  6. Simply brilliant; well-written. A blog post expressed with as much focus and intent as a great photograph. Props.

  7. Excellent post Sean. Articulated so well. This will definitely change the way I approach landscape photography.

  8. I love this article and the images. I’ve tried to do this for years and your timely words remind me once again to slow down, perhaps meditate a few moments, if possible, before pressing that shutter, to be open to all the possibilities! A previous teacher suggested reducing your “seeing” to bare bones words: i.e. his parking lot graphic became “red, yellow, black,” before he began the process of eliminating all but those elements! Thinking this way certainly changed the way I looked at the flowers I love to photograph!

    Your website is always a gem! Thank you for sharing your knowledge.


  9. Great topic Sean, and gorgeous images to back up your thoughts.

    Techniques to determine approach; Hmmm… Get your ducks in a row and then trust your gut.
    Know your gear, research your location, recall your “history” with like subject matter; a sub-category of honest self-critique of past work. Be more comfortable car-camping than home in bed. Fall asleep with a head full of detail and wake up cleansed and ready to live the dream. I really, really, really try and listen to my gut. It isn’t easy because we train by detail, but when I approach a scene the last thing I want is to “make” a photo, even a gorgeous photo. What I want is to be so free from it all that I am able to be genuinely moved in some primal way, beyond what I’ve learnt. I don’t like the word ‘spiritual,’ and I believe there really is an explanation for it; but I feel “called” to my best captures. Almost audibly. It is a communion of appreciation between myself and that which calls. I am only rarely able to avoid the temptation to stand on the shoulders of others, or even get out of my own way, but when I do, magic happens. As easy, even mystical as, “trust your gut” sounds, in reality it actually involves 98% hard work, training, and prep, and all of it almost purely counter-intuitive to the remaining 2% that matters most when the light is right; shooting from your gut (heart) and leaving your head it’s details to fend for themselves back in the shadow lands of autonomic thought…

  10. One technique I practice is to not take any photos of a place until I’ve spent some time there. I actually like to feel the place, see what the light does, figure out what makes the place REALLY special. You don’t drive up to Mt. Rainier, jump out of your car, take a shot of flowers with the mountain and come home with a winner. You need to spend some time to actually feel what it is that you hope to capture!
    Thanks for the great article and love your work!

    • Eric, So true…knowing a place like you know yourself allows you to see what others don’t.

  11. Thanks for this, Sean.

    It’s a reminder to myself that my best photographs have been created when I’ve just reacted to what I see and allow creativity to happen. After leaving my newspaper career, I’m relearning how to trust my emotions and let them be expressed in my photographs. I was always wary of too much personal intervention while making an image for fear of violating the photojournalism code of ethics (which is a good thing.) Now that I no longer have to follow that code, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to take the image in any direction I wish. Your post was exactly what I needed to read.

    • Right on Jim. If art isn’t all about personal expression and telling the story the way you want it to be told then I don’t know what it’s about.

  12. Hi,
    Very nice and very interestind.
    Don’t you mind if we translate this article into Armenian and publish in website of Armenian speaking photographers online community (
    We will give credit to you and a link to original article.

    • Edgar – Thanks for asking. Yes, please do translate and repost my article. Send me a link when it is up.

  13. This is exactly why we take photographs, not pictures: to capture what we felt by being in a special place or a time. My husband and I were at Factory Butte last fall. The silence was so calming: no people, animals, airplanes, vehicles in the pre-dawn dark. Then the sun hit the storm clouds to the west turning them rosy pink. Perfect. Whenever I need a quiet moment, I look at this image, close my eyes and I am there. Thank-you for reminding us why we get up before dawn. Or, stay out past dark.

  14. Sean–your ideas exressed in this article are what make you such an incredible photographer and teacher–for me, nature photography is about experiencing “the moment” as I observe the literal beauty before me– how it ‘tickles” a place deep inside of me (my Soul?), and then if I am lucky can show a little of that awesomeness in the image…still learning….and thanks for being an amazing teacher! Barb T.

    • Thanks Barb! You get it and it really shows in your work. I look forward to getting out in the field with you again, soon I hope 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: