Observation – The Holy Grail of Photography

Forgotten Memory, X100F

On the surface the photographic process appears to be easy and straightforward. You grab a camera and capture whatever you like. This is true for someone who doesn’t aim at creating a photograph but rather performs the mechanical task of pressing the shutter button to take a snap.

However, if you are interested in creating a photograph, the process is much more complex. Among other things it involves emotions, observation, connection, evaluation, composition, light and some technical considerations. Today, it appears that technicals have taken a central role and occupy the minds of photographers. If I could point to one area that has been the most ignored it is the art of observation.

Elliott Erwitt described it this way: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” While it may sound simple, for many people it is incredibly difficult to do.  

As humans we are naturally wired to focus on important things and filter out all the rest. While such an approach has served us well over the ages, in creative photography it’s a major obstacle. In addition, our education system and our daily routine push us to see and react in a certain way. Have you noticed while walking around the city how your brain filters out the noise and visuals? We usually stroll around town without challenging what we see or how we see it.

In order to find “something interesting in an ordinary place” you must challenge your seeing. In other words, you need to break your seeing patterns and go for something new, uncomfortable and different.

While such a plan of action sounds great, it is incredible difficult to execute. The key ingredient of breaking our own seeing patterns is to go after visuals, which we miss. For example, while shooting on the streets of Vancouver, I usually include the human element into the frame. In the meantime, there are many scenes, which has no people in them but somehow they imply human activity. Another example would be shooting portraits or scenes with people but showing them in a new perspective and/or harmonizing them with the background.

There is a plethora of similar examples, which we discuss in-depth at our education and mentoring platform, Simplicity-In-Seeing. We also include specific exercises we use to break our usual seeing patterns.

What are your ways of breaking your seeing patterns?  

Here are our latest visual explorations from the streets of Vancouver as seen through the X100F viewfinder.



2017 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Observation – The Holy Grail of Photography

  1. Inspiring words and photographs Olaf! I think what you have described here is important and is a challenge I know I face each time I walk through the city with my camera but it is a challenge I relish as I force myself to try and see what I may have missed before:)

  2. Great post Olaf!

    As always you offer intense artistic photography, also, I like seing your photographic journey/progress in seing things. The emtpy chair/desk is one of my favorites in this post. It clearly implies human activity and its absence.

    My way in seing is to observate. I live in a small city in Germany, Ulm. 90% of my street shots are from there. It is incredible difficult to see a place with the eyes of a “tourist” when you’ve seen the sample place like a 1000 times before. When I hit the streets in my hometown I could easily happen that I do not “see” anything at all. Sometimes I get lucky and start seing things.

    Keep up the good and inspiring work Olaf!


    1. Kevin,

      Thank you so much for your kind comment. You are right that sometimes it is incredibly difficult to see places known to us with new eyes. It is especially difficult in small cities where “supply” of visuals is limited. However, such places offer quite unique elements, hard to find in big cities. Kudos to you for trying to do just that. Please keep us updated.

      All the best,


  3. ough id been planning a wander round my town specifically with the aim of looking at things. Ive noticed im so used to the place im not really looking at things. To me its like when you are on holiday. That first two days everything is new. Towards the end of the holiday you have become familiar with the place and can slip (partially) into aoto pilot mode again. As you say its difficult to stay aware

    1. Jonathan,

      I like your expression “auto pilot mode” – indeed, it is so easy to do that especially in places we are familiar with. We just have to try to stay awake and observe, observe, observe…

      Great point!. Thank you for visiting.


  4. These are amazing photos, and as much as I like b&w in street photography I love the colour ones even more here.

    To me it was never a question that photography is about seeing. If it’s not, what it is about at all? Though if I remember correctly Sontag wrote about people snapping away on holidays that it’s just their way to cope with time and reality in general.

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