Back to basics
I think the most important thing to learn in photography is the most basic. It is the ability to see - to see things as they really are, or as they could be.
So often, we filter out the information before us. We see a pretty tree - but ignore the lamp-posts and ugly tower blocks surrounding it. We watch a raindrop running down a window pane - but block out the dull scene behind it. What we think we are seeing is really a distortion, often because we have decided what to see beforehand. A camera cannot distort the truth in this way. So we need to focus on what is really there. And, to me, it is one of the hardest skills.
What shape is a coffee cup?
We already have a distorted view of the world around us. We think of buildings as rectangular, the rims of coffee cups as circular, roads as straight lines. But if we actually look, we will see that a cup's rim is only circular when we are directly above it - not very often. All the rest of the time, it is an ellipse. To this day, I have never seen a rectangular building. They are usually experienced as trapeziums. And as we sit in a car, our own experience of viewing a road is not as a line, but almost always as a trapezium or triangle.
Our perspective changes our perceived shape of things - but we don't really take notice. Only when we look at a picture do we appreciate the difference between the geometry in our minds, and that which we experience (I must just add for anyone interested that the only shape that is always consistent, regardless of anything, is a sphere).
So much for shapes. Let's consider sunsets. I used to work for a newspaper, and readers would regularly send in pictures which they hoped would be published on the letters page. Often, these would be of fantastic sunsets, but all too frequently the photo would not do it justice. Lamp-posts, cars and trees would clutter the view. The clouds and setting sun would be dissected with telephone wires. The photographers had ignored what was in front of their eyes, in favour of seeing a pretty sunset. They had filtered out the rubbish. But no matter how interesting a subject, the 'rules' still have to be followed. And apart from these 'rules' of composition or framing, the first rule is that the camera can only show what is there, and is indifferent to what it sees.
It is hard to see the world as it really is. Often I am unable to visualise or imagine - see - what I'm actually looking at. No matter how much I squint, concentrate, mentally create a frame, I can't process the information. In these situations, I have to take a picture first, to see how it looks on the back of my camera. Only then do I get it. But this is for things right in front of me! What about seeing things that are so hidden, that - to most of us - aren't even there?
The art of seeing
Two masters in this art of seeing who spring to mind are Nils Jorgensen (www.nilsjorgensen.com) and Magnum photographer Martin Parr (www.martinparr.com). Good photography is frequently about showing the same things in a fresh way, and this requires really noticing and paying attention to what is around us. It involves real presence. Look at Nils' website and see how often you catch yourself nodding and saying, "Nice..." Go and buy some of Martin Parr's books. The greatest photographers (artists?) are not only seeing in photographic terms (shapes, lines etc.), but in terms of visual puns, cultural nuances, pointed comparisons of entirely unrelated things. It's awareness and presence on a whole new level.
Abstracts are a good example of a photographer seeing. They often involve taking an everyday object or scene, and emphasising an aspect to present it as something at first unreal or unrecognisable. It involves seeing with a further sense of imagination or exploration - a "what if?" - which gives us a fresh view. Silhouettes, close-ups, wayward cropping and composition are typically used to create abstractions.
Learning to see
Happily, there are tried and tested methods which photographers rely on. Similar kinds of pictures come up frequently which use the same ideas and techniques again and again - because they work. Look at newspapers, film posters, magazines, and you'll see a variety of interchangeable, overlapping and mixed elements which are combined to create images with impact.
I am convinced it is not always possible to get something really good from every situation, merely one can work to find the best that the situation offers. The real trick is knowing when a situation contains potential for something really good, and when it doesn't. Hence it is wise to have a few of these 'fallback' ideas to hand as a starting point. For most of us, the best way to learn is to borrow ideas from others. We then try out things for ourselves, and discover if we can 'see' something else.
I would finally add that often the most seemingly interesting thing simply will not work as a photograph, no matter what: there is nothing more to see. And other times the most apparently mundane situation can yield something extraordinary; there is real potential, if only we can find it. It is all about what works photographically. We need to be working always to see things in these artistic terms, then, and not through a filter of our own preconceptions.