Thinking about thinking… and not thinking

Angels looking on

How much thinking do you do when you photograph? A lot? A little? Somewhere in between?

I’ve been thinking about thinking in photography since I attended the Artists’ Round Table (ART) in Port Townsend, Washington this past June. During our image reviews, I learned that many times I was overthinking my photographs. I was spending too much time making sure things were exactly the way I wanted them in both subject matter and technique, as opposed to paying attention to what I wanted to say. As a result, many of my photographs were, as Ansel Adams put it, “sharp photographs of a fuzzy concept.”

Not all of my photographs, though. So I began to look closer at the ones that seemed to work better to see if I could discover a pattern or at least a clue about why they did. What I discovered were two things: a) even if I wasn’t consciously thinking about composition and sharpness and depth of field and everything else, I still managed to do those things pretty well, and b) these photographs moved me more than the ones I made where the technique was my focus.

What did this tell me? Well, that some of the things I worried about when making photographs could now be relegated to what you might describe as muscle memory. I could trust myself to do them as needed whenever I made a photograph and concentrate on what I wanted to express with the photograph. And instead of worrying about those things, I was free to really think about how the photograph would feel as opposed to how it looked.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to stop thinking about technique or composition, etc., or that you’re “doing it wrong”. What you know about making photographs is essential to your growth as a photographer and the quality of your photographs. But if you’re like me, you might remain focused on that too long after you’ve mastered it well enough to make good photographs. The most compelling photographs aren’t always the sharpest or have the greatest dynamic range.

Hanging onto this limited vision also does something else. It allows us to avoid thinking deeply about what we’re trying to express with a photograph and what we have to say about a subject. That’s a lot harder to figure out, at least for me, and something I still need to think more about. Many photographers—both amateur and professional—end up here, focused on technique, and then never go past it. We keep repeating the same photographs using a particular technique—which we often mistake for our style or voice—or we do it simply because it sells.

So, how do you do this? How do you avoid dwelling on technique? Well, by throwing it away completely. Try this: set your camera on Auto (gasp!) and take a picture without looking through the viewfinder. Don’t just fire wildly, though. Find something interesting; something you would normally shoot—your kids at play, a street scene, even a sunset. Hold your camera over your head or at your waist. Oh, put the tripod away, too. (Nice try, kid.)

Don’t think about the shutter speed or the aperture, or whether you want to use HDR or a limited depth of field. Give up control for a little while. Shoot when things look interesting to you; when you feel the moment as well as when you see it. Maybe even close your eyes. Use the Force, Luke.

After you’ve done this, take a look at the photographs you made. A lot of them could be throwaways, but some of them might not. Look at each of these closely and see if it conveys the feeling of what you saw. Were you successful in showing that? If so, give yourself credit for it, and remember it when you return to your normal style of shooting.

You might just be a better photographer than you think.

13 Responses to “Thinking about thinking… and not thinking”

  • Ray K Says:

    Hmmmm over thinking ?

  • Jeff Says:

    I like to do a little pre-thinking before a shoot, sort of gathering some ideas for shots at a particular location, but, shooting pets I often don’t have time to think, and that’s probably for the better. Like you, if I over think things I usually get worse results.

    • Stuart Sipahigil Says:

      Yeah, I agree that thinking about an approach is a good idea—even a necessary one. But once you have that in mind, you just let it guide you as to which photographs to make.

  • Chris Plante Says:

    Interesting exercise. I will definitely try this some time.

    • Stuart Sipahigil Says:

      Excellent, Chris. I think you’ll find that it’s quite liberating. Another habit to build is to set your exposure manually and then forget about it until you find yourself in a different kind of light. Then you’re only adjusting the exposure when it’s necessary, not worrying about it every time. That’s a habit that I struggle with consistently.

  • Brian Miller Says:

    Nice article, Stuart. I can very much relate to your feelings here and have discovered that some of my personal favorite photographs are one’s made in exactly this way, like this one:

    and this one:

    Both are one shot hail mary’s, done without thinking but just responding.

    • Stuart Sipahigil Says:

      Exactly, Brian. Again, paying attention to your camera skills is definitely important—and one you’ve certainly done—but letting go of worrying about them and paying attention to the moment instead leads to some great photographs. Nice job.

  • Jeff Says:

    I was just listening to TWIP and they quickly mentioned a war photographer who shoots in P mode because he can’t afford to think when bullets are flying. Maybe we all have something to learn from that.

    • Charlene Says:

      Steve McCurry reportedly shoots on Auto everything, so he’s focusing on the image at hand, rather than worrying about the technical doodahs.

      He is clearly an advanced practitioner of the Force ;)

  • Chris Klug Says:

    Well, for better or worse, I shoot reactively. I see something that attracts my eye, I make sure I focus (hopefully, I make sure I focus) and I check exposure, and bang. Maybe I take a vertical and a horizontal, and I move on. I hardly think, or at least I try not to. One problem with this is that I tend to take verything from eye-level, and I fight against that tendency.

  • Ellie Says:

    I love this post Stuart. You’ve articulated something that I couldn’t quite find the words for in the last month. I found that I was playing this way when photographing in Italy…not overthinking things to much, and going for the “feel” of an image more so than overthinking technique points. It’s how I came to love the image “Coliseum Sundown” on my Artful Impressions post the other day. Not a stitch of it is sharp and there’s sun flare all over it, but it definitely expresses a feel that I was going for. :)


  • Michael Rpdx Says:

    OK, I’m a little late to the discussion… When I’m really shooting there’s no “thought”, I’m recognizing and reacting. Walking around with an intent to shoot I can feel a shift in my mental state.

    This is based on working with a prime lens and knowing the field of view. Pre-auto days I’d also hyperfocal and click my aperture in/out two stops as I walked into/out of shade. It got to be a habit. The camera was always ready. I’d just need to compose, maybe tweak focus, shoot. Now with auto controls I can set whatever I want to be constant and go.

    As I re-immerse myself in photography after a long absence I’m happy that I can practice with digital at no cost for tripping the shutter. Hope to have those habits relearned this winter and spring.