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10 Practical Ways to Improve Visual Problem Solving

When you are on assignment, often even with extensive research, there are variables you cannot prepare for. Challenges you find on assignment include:

  • Light conditions
  • Having to search for vantage points that work
  • People are always moving around
  • Weather

Also even if you studiously pore over maps of the place you will be photographing, you still have the challenge of composing based on what the layout of the area really looks like when you encounter it with the light, weather, people, etc when you get there. You still have to search for vantage points that work for the story you are shooting.

To be a successful travel photographer, you have to become a successful visual problem solver. A visual problem solver takes the existing conditions of where she is shooting, and finds ways to arrange those conditions into a harmonious image.

Like many artistic skills, visual problem solving is actually made up of a complex subset of skills. Here are 10 practical ways to practice your visual problem solving.

 Ways to practice visual problem solving

1. One lens or focal length.

Making images with one focal length is a limitation, but it is a limitation that allows you to free up your creative problem solving skill of composing with a constraint. Constraints like simply using a 50mm for an entire story is something that can help ‘force’ you to compose in creative ways. You have to zoom with your feet with one focal length. You have to move around. What this does is simply get you into the habits that allow for creative visual interpretations of what’s in front of you. If you have a zoom lens on, like your kit lens, don’t worry. Simply tape the lens to the desired focal length you want to work with for the week, and don’t change it!

2. Tell a story using a theme.

Themes can do wonders for your creativity because it is another constraint that you can impose on your image making that will challenge you to discover ways of solving a visual problem. Interpreting the theme you choose can hone your observation skills, composition skills, and all the other discrete skills demanded of a creative shooter. For example, you could shoot the theme ‘blue’ today! There are many ways to interpret this theme. It could be the color blue, the many hues of blue, or it could be the metaphorical blue, interpreted by images that show abandonment, sorrow, etc.

3. Crop in camera.

If you tell yourself that every frame must contain only what’s necessary to tell the story, you are giving yourself an opportunity to become a great visual problem solver.

fallen birch in pond copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

These days with humungous digital RAW files, it’s easy to just snap away and crop your compositions later. But what this does is make for a lazy visual problem solver. If you ever want to be a photographer on assignment, you want to get the compositions right in camera; often your editor will expect the files as they are when it’s time to submit a story. Practicing this composition in-camera skill will enhance your visual problem solving skill and improve your photos dramatically. You might even find that you don’t need to spend hours in post-processing because your straight-from-camera pictures are already breathtaking as they are. Imagine that: less time on the computer, more time to shoot!

4. Look at things in fresh ways.

Take a page from poetry. Wallace Stevens has a great poem called “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” where he explores how to see in 13 very short stanzas. Looking at things in fresh ways means to move not just your feet, but your mind’s eye—what can you see if you look at a subject in a different way? Given a theme, what would be a list of ways you could look at it? Changing up your point of view not just physically but also mentally can change the way you interpret the subject.

5. Using design principles.

Line, form, color, balance—these are always great themes to shoot. Spending some time composing using graphic design themes can inject freshness into your imagery. These are also elements you can find in every setting, so you will never run out of things to photograph.

6. Photograph the light.

There is no more beautiful way to interpret a place than by recording the way the light falls on it. A tree is a tree is a tree, but a tree in great light is a beautiful photo.

morning mist at Tioga Pass copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

 7. Vary your exposure.

Changing your exposure subjectively is a great way to interpret scenes and give them mood and atmosphere. You can try high-key images, or images that are overexposed to give them a bright, cheerful mood. Or you can underexpose to change the mood and give it a bit of mystery. You can spend a lot of time photographing one scene, and vary the exposures with which you capture it. Then you would have a lot of images to choose from, to tell the story. Making subjective exposures gives you a way to bring emotion into your images.

8. Vary technique.

There are some themes commonly used in travel photography that would work to help you vary the techniques you use to capture a place. Panning, light painting, and slow shutter work are some of the techniques you can use to creatively interpret your vision while on assignment. Practicing these techniques wherever you go can give you a variety of images that might give you more insight into a place.

9. Use color in various ways.

Color is everywhere, so this is a great way to explore a new place. But making color work for your image is a skill that can help you move beyond just making eye candy, into making expressive images.

Seeing how colors complement each other, or how it affects the mood of an image, is a great skill and can help you in visual problem solving. For instance, a spot of blue in an otherwise all-yellow-and-green landscape might make a better photo.

storm approaching batanes copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You can also influence color in your images by changing up your white balance settings. (You can change white balance in RAW, so if you shoot in RAW the white balance setting is quite irrelevant. But if you need a visual feedback system for the ‘feeling’ color produces in an image, try shooting in a different white balance just to be able to see the effect on your image on the LCD screen.)

10. Use contrast to add interest to an image.

I’ve discussed some techniques for using contrast in images over at LightStalking. Spotting contrast is another way to add interest to your images. Practicing seeing contrast—in content, color, values, size, lines, texture—hones your observation skills and gives you a whole new way of seeing.

With some patience and perseverance, you can train yourself to be an effective visual problem solver. Practice will make these skills part of your natural workflow, so start on them today!

Which of these 10 have you tried? What have you done to produce an image you loved?

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Confessions of a Photoshop User
Are You Paying Attention?
Finding Good Photos where they Hide
Why You Should Shoot Like Johnny Depp
Sell an Experience, Not Just Photos

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About Aloha

I am a photographer and writer currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. My work has appeared in CNNGo, Canon's PhotoYou magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, Thailand Tatler, and a few photography books including recently Blogging for Creatives, a book published in the UK. I believe there is nothing you cannot imagine that you cannot do.

One Response to “10 Practical Ways to Improve Visual Problem Solving”

  1. Just read your article and must say the I really appreciate the insights given to get my visual problem solving rekindled. Their are times when I struggle in thinking and visualizing a subject. Thank you for the article.

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