Thinking about thinking… and not thinking
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.