Why Designers Should Take Up Photography

Some Background

Some of you who follow Design Instruct religiously may also be aware of the fact that, apart from my work here as the chief editor, I’m also a professional photographer.

Over the past couple of years since I first started shooting photos more seriously, I’ve learned a few things from it that I’ve found to be very advantageous in my work as a graphic designer and co-founder of a site that deals with design-related subjects.

What follows are some reasons why designers would benefit greatly from learning photography.

You Become More Sensitive to Composition

Composing a photograph within the four corners of a camera’s viewfinder is very much like laying out a poster or creating an illustration for a client.

Just as a designer uses the principles of balance, flow and focal points to produce an effective design, so too must a photographer use the same principles in order to get a visually striking photo.

Furthermore, just like a good designer, a good photographer must strike that perfect balance between the purpose and function of an image alongside its aesthetic qualities.

What I found very enlightening about working as a photographer is that, after some time, I started seeing the world around me in terms of balance, placement and flow, as though I was taking a photo and constantly composing a scene in my mind.

I started paying attention to movement. I became more observant of color and lighting. I automatically scanned my surroundings for possible subjects and points of interest, even when I didn’t have a camera with me.

I started making all of these considerations without really being conscious about them. As a designer, you probably do this sort of thing too, studying the typographic composition of a poster you saw while walking to work, or the layout of a beautiful web design you happened to stumble upon while reading your RSS feed.

This ability — this spatial awareness — transferred well to my work as a designer. I noticed that I wasn’t second-guessing most of my layouts anymore. I also got better at judging scale and the space of various design elements I was working with, becoming a more productive and effective artist as a result.

You Become More Observant of Things Around You

Photography, at least in my experience, forces you to observe. It requires you to have a perspective, your own point of view.

There’s a sense of deliberateness and urgency associated with taking a photo. A photographer studies the subject, checks his exposure, waits for the moment, and he presses the shutter release only when he gets the urge to do so. No photo gets taken without that need for it.

A photo, then, is the by-product of a long chain of contingent events that surround the photographer. There is a well-defined process. It might be different for everyone, but there is a process nonetheless.

The beauty of photography, especially with today’s digital storage capabilities, is that it allows you to go through that process thousands upon thousands of times. Therefore, almost instantaneously, you have the opportunity to learn something new, improve and develop your work thousands upon thousands of times as well.

Anything from the subject and content to the composition and color is at the mercy of the photographer when going through the act of taking a photo.

That’s why the more photos you take, the more in-tuned you become to the subtle nuances of these elements. And these elements also happen to be the fundamental building blocks of most visual arts, whether we’re talking about designing a website or creating billboard advertisements.

Color and Light Take On a Whole New Meaning

I hope I’m not assuming too much when I say that most of you reading this — designers, illustrators, visual artists and so on — are people who have chosen to pursue their interests in a creative/visual field. And, because sight and vision are large parts of what we do, I also assume most of you already have a respect for, or are at least aware of, how light and color relates to visual mediums.

Those of you who understand how our vision works will know that it’s made possible by light passing through a clear, lens-like membrane onto a group of light-sensitive nerves in our eyeballs that, in turn, converts the different light frequencies and wavelengths into electric signals sent to the brain.

This process results in what we would call the sense of sight.

Photography is built around a very similar process. Light passes through a lens and is recorded onto a light-sensitive medium (e.g. film, photosensitive emulsions or light sensors).

In either case, the sense of sight and photography are really just two different ways of interpreting or recording light.

After having taken thousands of photos, I found myself being more sensitive to changes in color temperature, such as the warmness or coolness of light sources. I became a stickler for accurate colors in LCD monitors and printers. I’ve even made enemies of a few local printers after they delivered botched print jobs due to equipment that was improperly calibrated.

The point is this: When you start seeing the subtleties of color, every shade suddenly takes on a different meaning.

For any artist dealing in the visual side of things, an understanding of color can be a very valuable asset to have in your work because it affords you an invaluable tool for your creative endeavors.

It’s Practical

Beyond the artistic merits of photography or the advantages it can bring to your work as a designer on a theoretical level, taking up photography can be extremely beneficial in more practical terms.

First, if you’re already a digital artist, designer, illustrator and the like, then you’ll probably already have the basic skills and the fundamental knowledge needed for creating a visually pleasing composition. Photography might just be a great fit for you.

In terms of complementing your work as a designer, photography grants you the ability to make your own graphic assets — textures, stock photos, reference images, etc. — exactly as you want them.

A camera is also a way you can keep a visual diary of the things that inspire you in the real world. For designers, a camera — just like a notebook — can be an invaluable tool for keeping track of ideas and exploring them later on. You can take photos of typography found in storefronts, of street art, of architectural wonders in your city — the list of potential inspiration points is nearly endless.

From a monetary standpoint — and I know that must sound like a completely sell-out thing to say — being a good photographer is also another service you can provide your clients and is a great way to supplement your earning potential.

Parting Words

After all is said and done, the real value of photography to a designer — or anyone working in a creative field — is that photography is, in itself, a creative endeavor and is thus another outlet for creative expression and exploration.

As designers, I think most of you would agree that learning and continually adapting to the fast pace of the creative industry is just part of the job.

Photography is just one of the many ways we can explore our ideas and develop different ways of thinking about visual mediums.

From my own personal experiences as a photographer, I’ve found taking photos to be a great tool in understanding my own preferences in art and design.

Hopefully, those of you who decide to start shooting will find the experience as illuminating and rewarding as I have.

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