"A camera teaches you how to see without a camera" - Dorothea Lange

"The digital camera is a great invention because it allows us to reminisce. Instantly." -- Demetri Martin

A couple of years ago, Peter Bergman wrote an article for Harvard Business Review entitled "How Gratitude Can Help Your Career". Bergman argued that rather than focus efforts on improving areas of our lives or careers we dislike or struggle in, we should focus on areas we already enjoy or excel in. Similar to Paul Jackson and Mark McKergow's now classic Solutions Focus guide for coaches, the idea is that it is very difficult to make even small gains in areas we don't enjoy, but usually much easier to do more of what's already working and making us happy.

Here's the hiccup. Some people -- if not most people -- are much more detailed in their observations of things that bother them or cause them difficulty than they are about things they believe are working. And, it's not uncommon for some of those same people to be surprised about how unobservant they are in their gratitude.

One way of compensating for this tendency is to spend some time photo-documenting what's working and what's appreciated. Seeing like a thoughtful photographer involves a higher level of concentration on the details than we typically spend. And, it also can be a lot of fun.

Here are five tips to help encourage better vision.

Create a Frame from the Surrounding Environment

Is there anything through which you can shoot through in order to frame your subject(s) for additional interest or meaning?

Like most questions of composition, this forces the photographer to look not only at the subject, but also at it's environment and how the two interact.

Need more examples, here are 25 photographs, which make good use of the environment around subjects to create a frame for the composition.

Fill the Frame

When you look at something pleasing to the eye or beautiful, your eye tends to focus in on it -- often to the exclusion of everything else. In photo composition, filling the page works in a similar way. Zoom or step into a subject until it feels about right and then go in closer to fill the frame with exactly what you focus on. Do you love laughing with friends or family? Fill the frame with smiling eyes and real, authentic laughing.

Do you love the way way your chair feels at the office? Don't take a photo of the whole office with the chair in it. Fill the frame with the chair.

Choose Accessory Subjects Wisely

One of the differences between casual snapshots and thoughtful photography is that the latter carefully considers all the objects that are featured in the frame and their relationships. It often doesn't make sense to include another object in the frame that is random and unrelated to the main subject of your photo unless your point is to communicate randomness or disassociation.

For this purpose, though, you are trying to build specificity about what's working and what you love and want to do more of. The selection of all objects in the frame should be about that or provide supporting meaning or perspective.

Anticipate the Viewer's Eye with Geometry and Lines

What part of the photo is the viewer's eye drawn to first and where does it move to? Lines and other geometric shapes can help guide the eye and influence how a photograph is experienced.

Play with the Rule of Thirds keeping balance with other objects in the scene in mind to see if you can better capture what you appreciate. Look at the most important details in your scene. Place the focus of your appreciation in one of them and see if you can make it work.

Crop or Filter

Most smartphone applications allow users to add exposure and color filters to change the mood or feel of their photos. They are usually inappropriate, but it doesn't hurt to go through the process of thinking about how some looks compliment what you are trying to capture and others do not. The goal here is to highlight or emphasize what's loved or treasured.

Take the best photographs of what's working and choose three in the following areas:

  • Career / Work
  • Relationships / Family
  • Spirituality / Higher Learning

Maybe its the result of living in fallen, distracted times, but most people find the last category to be the most difficult and the least susceptible to easy definition -- even in photographs. If necessary, keep trying to find photographs that move you in this area.

After you create and identify your "keepers" in each of these areas, you should feel free to display them near your desk. One idea might be revolving imagines on a screen saver for your desktop computer or laptop. Another is one of those digital picture frames, which were all the rage a few years ago.

Finally, take a couple of minutes every week, simply looking at the photos, appreciating what's working, and brainstorming how you can build on what's working in these areas of your life. Ask yourself: "What's the next step?" or "The next little step?" I would add that it is perfectly fine for the next step to be appreciation and enjoyment of what you have.

Add new "keeper" photos as you take and select them.


Note: The point here isn't too learn about photography through your smartphone. Rather, the goal is to think about the details of what is working and what isn't in life, so you can do more of what's working. Sometimes people have trouble being honest with themselves about what they enjoy the most or, even more often, why they enjoy something, but choosing photos, as an artistic process, can break through that reluctance. And, of course, simply learning to take great photos can be very rewarding, too. If you want to learn more about that, I recommend this video prepared by B&H for beginning smartphone photographers. For those shooting with a DSLR, check out John Greengo's Fundamentals of Photography over at CreativeLive.