Episode 3

03. Enhance your photographic Spidey-sense

You can never let your guard down when it comes to seeking out images. You need to embrace a new heightened sense of awareness -- the ABC Rule.

Show Notes


Hello and welcome to Photo 365, a podcast about how to be a photographer every day.

My name is Andrew Haworth, I’m a South Carolina-based media producer and occasional photography educator. A couple years ago I completed a photo-a-day project, so I’ve decided to pass along some of the tips and tricks I learned to hopefully help or support other photographers who take on similar projects.

In this episode, I want to discuss a fairly basic concept that is key to taking on a photo a day, or any type of long term photography project. I call it the ABC Rule: “Always be composing” -- my apologies to screenwriter David Mamet.

You may recall the scene in Glengarry Glen Ross, when Alec Baldwin’s character tries to motivate his salesmen with his own version of the ABC rule -- Always be closing. Not simply selling, but always pushing to finalize -- or close -- a sale. In some ways, this is similar to what I discussed in episode one in regards to visualizing the end of a project before you start it.

But in this case, my version of ABC refers to the act of always looking for photo opportunities. Always be composing a shot, either through a viewfinder, or in your mind’s eye. I think we as photographers do this naturally. Our eye is drawn to interesting light, graphic compositions, or unique faces. You probably already have a focal length or the depth of field in mind before you even lift the camera. You know what the shot will look like before you take it.

This is the art of previsualization. It comes with experience, both in taking photographs and from studying them. As with many disciplines, you don’t know what you don’t know. And what I’m trying to emphasize here is that, it’s difficult to make a great image, unless you understand what a great image is to begin with. What are the design elements of a certain image? How does the lighting work with the composition, and subject matter, to transform these individual elements into a unified image that has some aesthetic value that you find interesting.

So, essentially, if you want to know how to MAKE compelling images, then you need to LOOK at compelling images. I can’t stress enough the importance of looking at the work of others, especially photographers that inspire you. I would even encourage you to seek out actual photo books if you can, as the printed image tends to resonate in ways that a tiny picture on your phone or computer screen never will.

Ultimately you need to practice making compelling images. Always. Be. Composing. Everywhere you go, you should be surveying your surroundings, mentally taking snapshots with the same level of focus as you would if you were actually using a camera.

Now, if you’re working on a photo-a-day, chances are you have a camera with you, whether it’s your smartphone or a Nikon D series SLR, and you can go ahead and take the shot. That’s why it’s so important to always have your camera with you. Photos that you see in the moment are rarely reproducible later.

Even photographers who work in more planned or pre-produced ways, can benefit from the ABC method because it keeps the visual and creative processors in our brains active. Our photographic “Spidey sense” if you will. Just because we don’t have a camera in our hand, doesn’t mean we stop taking photos.

Initially you may have to make a conscious effort to practice ABC, but at a certain point, you will do it without thinking, and you will be in a heightened state of awareness almost all the time.

This skill is important for completing a photo a day for obvious reasons: One, it’s a lot easier to shoot a photo a day when you can see photo opportunities with a certain level of fluidity. Two, maybe you aren’t able to take a photo because you’re driving or otherwise preoccupied, but you’re able to take that photo with your mind, and hopefully add it to your project shot list. Go back and listen to episode two for more information on that.

During my own project, there were many instances where I’d see an opportunity, previsualize the shot, and have to make a note to return later when I had free time. I’d estimate a large portion of the images in my project were a result of this method. Being hyper aware of your surroundings ultimately trains the eye to see details that you might have missed otherwise.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that your mind gets bored with repetition. Sometimes you have to use a different piece of gear, or explore different surroundings to enter that hyper aware or ABC state.

Here’s an example. I really enjoy walking, and while I was shooting my photo a day, I would often carry a camera with me on a 3-4 mile walk. I generally always returned from these walks with usable shots, but one day, they just weren’t coming. Everything looked boring and felt played out. Feeling desperate, I decided to tack on an additional mile or so, and head up a route less traveled.

It was like the veil had been lifted from my eyes, and suddenly, there were photographs everywhere. I came back home that evening with some of the strongest shots of the project, all because I took an alternate route that woke up my mind.

As humans, we tend to constantly seek comfort, avoid strange or awkward situations and oftentimes, take the path of least resistance. As photographers and artists, we often thrive when we get out of our comfort zone. In fact, I’d say that’s a requirement if you want to be successful in any discipline. A little pressure and even a little fear isn’t a bad thing.

That’s a topic we’ll actually discuss in a later episode, but it’s relevant in regards to our ABC discussion, because it puts us on alert and aids us in achieving that hyper aware state.

I’d been shooting photos for more than 20 years by the time I started my photo a day project, and I thought I already had decent previsualization skills. I discovered I was very wrong about that. I do feel like that by the last third of the project, I’d developed in such a way that I could find meaningful images in nearly any situation. The extreme example of that was leaving work one night at 11 p.m. and having only an hour to track down an image.

I’d had 10 months of photo a day practice at this point, and the late hour meant the midnight deadline to get my shot of the day was fast approaching. I was able to use that discomfort to my advantage.

Suddenly, photographs were everywhere, from the darkness of a parking garage to the grimy pipes in a stairwell. These are things I’d seen before, repeatedly, while at work, but only then, in that moment of feverish composing, did I see photographs.

On the next show, we’ll talk about why it’s so important to keep pushing forward to the end of a photo a day project, and ways we can hold ourselves accountable.