This is really just me belaboring the same old themes. Perhaps with a slightly different angle, though. This is everything I know about Art-Making.
Many photographers, many experienced and skilled photographers, approach the problem of taking a picture as one of selecting the right treatment from a fixed box of available ones, and then executing that. I have my style for landscapes, portraits, still lifes. Or perhaps I like some other fellow's method, and want to apply that. When my picture pretty much looks like the archetype I have in mind, I've succeeded.
Here's the other way to do it. Examine your subject, forget about photography. How do you feel about it, what do you imagine it could be, what's your fantasy of this subject? It's not a bowl of apples, it's a bowl of apples in the lair of a mad scientist. Or it's a bowl of magical apples. Or it's a bowl of very very delicious apples, and I love apples. Or it's a bowl of poisoned apples, or mealy apples.
Having developed that you then proceed to find the right photographic treatment. You struggle with it. Perhaps you realize that you can't shoot this today at all, you have to come back in the morning when it is raining. Or you need different apples. Or a bunsen burner prop.
You take breaks from struggle, you talk a walk, you sleep, you spend a week in France or 10 minutes in the shower. You return and ponder the problem some more.
If you're lucky, the answer appears after a while, usually unbidden, and you see how you should approach this landscape, this model, this bowl of apples.
Then you execute that.
This is what Snowdon and Tuck are doing when they spend hours with the model. This is what Adams was doing when he drove by the same tree every day for a year.
At the end, the landscape might look like a 500px ready photo, your portrait might look like a knockoff Karsh, but it doesn't matter because it's right, that is what your vision, your dream, demanded.
This is a learnable process. It never becomes reliable, but by practicing it, you get better at it. So, practice it. Exercise those mysterious subconscious muscles.
Once you get the hang of it, you're never going to be satisfied with excellent execution of pre-existing ideas. You're going to want to struggle and find that right idea, for everything.
I'd like to say this is the final plateau, the last level. When you can do this, you've arrived.
I am, just barely, smart enough not to. For all I know, this is a step on the way to somewhere even more involved and satisfying, somewhere I can't even imagine.
I'll be sure to let you know, though, if I find out.