One concept I like to talk about on workshops is visualizing a scene graphically, not literally. Claude Monet summed it up in one quote: “In order to see we must forget the name of everything. By labeling, we recognize everything, but no longer see anything.”
Here is an example. A few days ago I was photographing fall yellow aspens in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. One scene had acres of yellow trees on a rugged mountain. My first inclination was to photograph the entire big mountain scene. In other words, I just took a tourist snapshot. But where was the real photograph in this scene? I started to focus on the graphic qualities on the landscape. I was shooting with a 500mm, so I was looking for tight shots in a large scene. And then I saw it. A beautiful S curve of scrub oak surrounded by yellow aspens. Strong line, shape and color. Now I took a much better photograph, a simple image with strong graphic elements.
Wandering along a stream the next day I encountered a similar situation. Mt. Sneffels towered over a beautiful valley with the first rays of sunlight raking across the scene. Not bad graphically, but I still felt there was a better shot in the scene. Wandering along a stream in the meadow below I found incredible aspen reflections in the water. All I needed to do was add a stationary sharp object in the scene to ground the shot and give the eye a place to rest. Two small rocks worked well, and added some tension to the abstract yellow reflection. Now I had a photograph, not a snapshot.
This principal applies to all types of photography. A few weeks ago in Portugal I went up a tower in Lisbon to check out the view. Once again I was presented with a big cityscape scene, a nice snapshot but not a strong photograph. But when I looked straight down from the monument I saw shapes and colors in the form of people, shadows and blue tile on the ground. This was a beautiful graphic scene using human shape to break the pattern of the blue tile.
Think about this concept the next time you go photograph. You are not looking at spruce trees and aspens; instead you are photographing green triangle shapes surrounded by yellow color. Think graphically, not literally.