Seeing light. Yes Blair, that's exactly what it's all about. (click for the comment that prompted this)
When we are growing up and learning to make sense of our surroundings, for some reason most people seem to learn to look at the objects around them and see only the objects... as if reading about the objects or seeing objects as if they were symbols of their function... like words lined up on a page in front of them. For a really good basic grounding in this stuff, read the book "Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards. When I read that many years ago, scales fell from my eyes. She explained to me why everybody else couldn't draw. What could be easier? Look at it and draw what you see. Most people need to be trained to do that because they have learned to make drawings that are symbols of the things they represent, rather than representations of what the eye sees. The way that most children draw has more to do with learning to read than learning to draw. "This is the way we draw a house... make a square... put another box up here for the chimney.. this curly-cue is the smoke coming from the chimney." This sort of drawing is destructive to artistic talent.
I have said many times that when I'm composing a photo or a painting, I'm not looking at the stuff around me... I'm quite literally looking at the light that is bouncing off of or coming through the stuff. It's the light that makes the picture, not the stuff. No light, no picture. Wait a few hours and the light will be all different and thus the picture will be all different... either better or worse. Look the stuff from the opposite side and the picture is completely different... better or worse... even though you are looking at the exact same stuff. Raise your head up a few inches or lower it a few inches... the stuff is all in different relationships. Why shoot everything from your normal eye level? What could be more limiting?
Most people have no concept of working a subject. If I see some neat light coming through some glassware in a store, I don't just take out the camera... point it at the glassware... push the button... and put the camera away thinking "what a nice shot". I shoot a picture... try to compose it a little tighter and shoot again... try angling the camera differently... try moving around from side to side... I'll shoot many, many different shots of that subject... working and refining... working and refining. Does each element add something to the composition? If not, can I move it out of the way?... or crop it out or move the camera till I can't see it? Working the subject... I can get really wrapped up in it. A couple of minutes later I'll think... "well... I've beat that to death... better move on". See the images below to see the process in my mother's kitchen that led to the shot of curtains posted earlier today.
Later I'll look at the photos in the comfort of my home and weed out the crap and save a few good shots... try different cropping... try making the shots a little lighter or darker... it's not done until I say it's done. The camera is stupid. It's just a computer program. You are the human being and only you know subjectively if it's too light or too dark... too blue or too yellow... too flat or too contrasty. There is no such objective reality.
UPDATE: Ann Althouse has more on this subject. Welcome Althouse and Instapundit readers!