The Sketching Photographer

September 17, 2021

The one thing that is stressed in the lifelong ongoing education of painters, draftsmen and animators alike is to sketch...always, anywhere, any place, any time. Sketching sharpens the vision, it focusses the eye onto everything that is of value to conveying the emotion of a scene, the essence of it. 

The Sketching PhotographerThe Sketching PhotographerA photographer's success rate can not be measured in a percentage of successful images, but in the times he or she is willing to accept failure. Growth comes from being prepared to try new things even if they might fail

Photographers though often put down their tripod, preferably at eye level and then shoot a scene and walk away. Most of the time in a hurry to catch that ever elusive light. Most photographers want to get the shot and move onto the next one, because time is limited, good light is rare and so photography becomes a rush job. I would argue that making the most of the light, might just be a question of staying in one spot and to go beyond that first obvious shot of a scene.

The way towards more knowledge and therefore being a better equipped photographer is by building on this first shot. How can you be sure it is the best one if you have not tried other viewpoints, lower or higher angles, other lenses, different focal lengths? Can you know for sure that this is the only image worth creating without having given it plenty of your time and attention?

In photography it almost seems to be a bad thing if someone were to approach it as some kind of sketching. Sketching though is a necessary step in the process for painters and draftsmen. I know it was for me when I was a designer. I would have thought through a new design extensively, but everything started with sketches...Profile sketches mostly, in which figures were like silhouettes, trying to establish the right posture, the best shape and balance.

The SpellThe Spell

This image was taken with a fixed focal length lens (the Lumix S Pro 50mm F1.4) just because I had once again told myself that fixed focal lengths don't work well in a forest. This image is the unedited version, nothing has been done to it except for adding the watermark in Lightroom.This was the second image I took of this tree that day....the first one from a slightly different angle. This one turned out to be the better one. I kept shooting this scene and have several 28 mm shots and verticals of this one as well.

This is how I approach photography as well. Something draws my attention, I try to figure out if what I see can be translated into a good picture and sometimes it just is not. Something that looks incredibly beautiful to us, simply can't always be translated into an image that works. It happens and if it does not work I let it go. If there is a promise of a successful photograph in there I will look at it from many angles and then decide where to put up my tripod. Even after setting up, I will move it a few centimeters to one side, or the other side, adjusting the height of the tripod or the angle of the camera. I can spend quite some time fiddling around with my tripod until I find something that works. I take sample pictures, my sketches, decide it they convey what the essence of the scene is and stay with the scene whilst asking myself if perhaps another lens might tell the story better or a different aspect ratio.

I build on the sketch pictures and learn from them. I therefore can't understand that some people like to measure a photographer's success by the amount of keepers as a percentage of the amount of pictures taken. The more time I spend with a scene, the more I start to understand it and get in tune with it and the better the results will be. I don't care if I have 20 keepers of different scenes from a morning's photography. I care about learning, evolving and I do this whilst sketching with my camera, making drafts. I am quite sure that by putting down my tripod in 20 different locations I might get pictures that to the outside world might look like keepers, but to me they might be superficial. I like to experience one scene in depth and only move on until I think I have at least given it my very best. I might after all be wrong about the best angle, the best lens....I might have become prejudiced from years of experience of photographing similar scenes. 


A scene that I thought I knew how to photograph to its advantage.... until the light was working against me in the direction that I thought this scene worked best. I spent 20 minutes trying to find a spot where the tree was backlit and was not showing specks of light on the trunk. Then faint sun rays started appearing. I would not have even shot this scene like this if I had had the voice of experience take over and if I had gone home, because the light was too harsh. 

I might have convictions that limit the possibilities that are actually there. "This is always the right angle, this is usually the right lens, this is the right light, this is how this works best". How can I ever be sure unless I approach each scene, even those that are very familiar to me, that I have photographed time and time again, with a fresh perspective as if I see it for the first time. Experience is a wonderful thing, but it can make you put self-inflicted limitations on the options that you really have. You might think that experience simply helps speed up decisions, but I dare say that experience taught me that speeding up decisions leads to stagnation in creative growth. Dare to prove yourself wrong once in a while. If you find yourself thinking : "I don't have much time to begin with, so I want to make the most of it photographically speaking in the sense of shooting as many keepers of different subjects in the little time I have", I do understand. I was there, I rushed around for a while to get as many keepers into my Lightroom catalogue as I could. These days I am happy to approach things more slowly, more thoughtfully. After all, I live the life of an artist and an artist wants to pour herself or himself into her or his work. How can I do this if I am in a rush to get the highest amount of keepers? I might be able to photograph a successful image within a minute especially on foggy mornings, would be superficially successful. It would be a "this is how I know I should photograph a scene like this" image. I want an image that is the result of a challenge which is always, always better than staying in the comfort zone. Growth comes with failures and successes, but failures that are the result of challenging oneself are most definitely more successful to me than a so-called successful photograph that I was able to take on auto pilot. 

Art is a process, one in which the artist meets the subject and the evolving artist sees the subject with new eyes and dares to not play it safe, dares to question his or her convictions, dares to disagree with one's earlier choices of how to approach a scene. Don't let experience become the reason you start limiting your options and never let knowledge gained be the reason to not develop any further. 

Sketching is a way of becoming acquainted with a scene, approaching it loosely at first, working on the best possible way to convey one's story at that particular time....until the artist has changed, has evolved and the story that is to be conveyed becomes different as well. 

If you enjoy my essays and work, please consider supporting me by buying my eBook The Magic of Forest Photography.

Today I am super pleased to also be able to announce new workshops and there some dates left for individual workshops as well. More information on my workshops page and for my Dutch spoken group workshops you can visit this page

Join Newsletter BannerJoin Newsletter Banner