It’s What’s Inside That Matters

You know best what triggers you when you are out photographing. It can be light, it can be forms, it can be beautiful landscapes, it can be ugly, rundown buildings, it can be strong, characteristic faces, it can be cityscapes in twilight or it can people jumping in the air. I don’t know what it is for you. For me it’s certainly people living their regular lives in combination with good, natural light. That is what triggers my index finger more than anything else.

But here is a twist of thought: It’s not what’s in front of the camera that matters – it’s what’s behind. Or to be more specific; it’s what’s inside you as a photographer. Now, how is that for a thought?

My point is; any situation, any subject matter, any moment holds infinite possibilities for creating strong and engaging photographs. Maybe – or surely – you don’t always see them, but someone would. Haven’t you come across a photographer who is directing the camera towards something, and when you look around to see what it is, you think by yourself that’s gonna be a boring picture. It’s no picture at all as a matter of fact. Or so you think – at least I have done it numeral times. But I have also been fortunate enough sometimes later to be able to see the final result from something I first thought would never make a decent picture. And I was no less than astonished. The photographer had seen something I was not even able to get a glimpse of. His or her vision had been able to turn that boring subject matter into a photograph that blew me off my ignorance. Maybe the way the photograph was processed after the fact or maybe just by the way it was framed and focused.

I have come to learn that nothing is without photographical potentials. I have seen it again and again. Throughout my photographic career I have attended many a workshop and taught numerous workshops myself, too, and every time I notice attendees of those workshops coming back with photographs from situations no one would think would be worthy a single capture. What more is the photographers are able to show some amazing results. And they all come back with photographs taking in a variety of locations and in a variety of situation.

What has this taught me? First of all not to judgementally write off any photographer I come across shooting something I can’t see the point of photographing. Ignorance and condemnation has never been positive sentiments in any given situation. Secondly I try to expand my own vision; I try to see pictures where I before never thought a picture excited. By that I am forcing myself to go outside of my comfort zone; I try to challenge myself – which is something any artist wanting to develop his or her artistic expression ought to do.


63 thoughts on “It’s What’s Inside That Matters

  1. I completely relate…I notice when I invite someone to accompany me while shooting they are often bored because they just don’t see what I might see through my lens…

  2. Challenging myself to see the beautiful and/or extraordinary in the ordinary is opening me up more than I thought possible.
    Thanks for great food for thought.

  3. I totally agree with you Otto.
    In the 15 months I’ve had a DSLR, I see potential photos everywhere, and yet, without that camera in my hand, I’m sure I’d miss seeing so much.
    It’s the small details I notice the most though.

  4. So very true; there are times when I watch over a student’s watercolor, and I think, “Ummf; that’s going to turn out horrible,” and I check later and am delightfully surprised at the outcome. Sometimes our students teach us more than we teach them!
    As always, great post. Z

  5. What a striking photo! Your post reminds me of something that happened with me and a photographer friend a long time ago. Monarch butterflies migrate from Canada over Lake Erie, then have to rest on the trees for quite a while before they can move on because that really is a long flight. They are so tired, it’s really easy to walk right up to them to photograph them. At the time, I thought the shots were really obvious and expected my friend and I to have nearly duplicate images at the end of the day, but when we compared, they were completely different. It made me really aware that we each have our own point of observation and to honor that. I’ve tried to remember that when I’m feeling a creative block.

    1. You are very right Linda. I have often photographed alongside colleagues, and we always come back with totally different pictures, even when we literally are shooting side by side.

  6. Wow, what an awesome post! You are so right, and I have experienced this as well, especially with my children who often watch me with my camera and say, “what the heck are you taking a picture of that for?”. To me, photography is an art, and every painter sees beauty in different things, so why wouldn’t it be the same for photographers?

    1. Photography can indeed be art. Thus artists working with camera aren’t different from other artists, except for the tools they are using.

    1. I like your post about the “art” of seeing by the rules of photography. Generally I think rules of for instance composition is a good starting point for any photographer, but they also need to be broken. Otherwise they easily become limitations for your vision and creative work.

  7. Wow and ouch for the person in the photo!
    As the old saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. I really like your lesson to be free from judging other artists and stepping out of our comfort zone in order to grow creatively. Thanks!

  8. Interesting thought provoking post Otto. I loved Linda H’s comment about her friend and her taking totally different photos of the butterflies. We all see with our own eyes.

    But please tell me what’s happening in the photo? Is that a mouth with teeth? My god what happened?

    1. What is happening here is actually on the other side of the head. It’s a surgery of a brain tumor, and it’s actually taking place in Cuba.

      1. You were allowed to watch a brain tumor operation? My word Otto you sure get around!
        I looked at the photo and thought it was a head but couldn’t understand how it could be a head, so I thought what could it be and “told myself” that I saw teeth… heh heh

  9. That is such a wise, insightful observation, Otto. I have noticed the same thing; on a photography course I attended last year, I was amazed to realise that, even when several people are taking photographs in the same place at the same time, the photographs are ALL different. Different cameras, different angles, different framing, different composition, slightly different lighting depending on the effects of cloud, shade, sun and wind, different shutter speed, different filters… it really drove home the point that we all perceive and ‘image’ our world in uniquely different ways. I had also thought that we’d all produce almost identical copies of each other’s images.

    1. Isn’t that really amazing how we all see things differently? It’s so inspiring and results in so many lovely works of arts even of the same subject matter.

  10. Totalmente de acuerdo, cada uno ve cosas completamente distintas en el mismo lugar, nosotros hemos ido un grupo numeroso a fotografiar un lugar en concreto y nadie traía una sola imagen parecida a la del otro, y cuando veía fotos de otros, me decía, “¿como no he visto eso”?, es impresionante lo que es el ojo fotográfico. Saludos

  11. All of the above commenters have identified and articulated beautifully what I’d also like to say.
    I can’t agree more with your terrific post and comments. The only pertinent thing I can add is that I think your ideas can be extended to all of the arts. As an instructor of creative expression, nothing excites me more than twenty vastly different takes on one idea, assignment or project.

  12. Otto, this is why you are such a gifted photographer. You don’t take things for granted, you don’t judge and you are always willing to look at things differently. Although it is nice to have all the wonderful equipment I totally agree that it is the person behind the camera that creates the image that will stay with us.

  13. Very good post. Everything you mention is real, walking through your lyrics always very interesting. Thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge.

  14. Very well written. And what you write is so true. The ability to ‘see’ a picture is not something we are born with nor something that comes easily in all situations. But I am convinced that it is something we learn as we explore the art of photography. The more I carry a camera with me wherever I go, the more images I find. I think I become hyper-observant, more aware of my surroundings. Too many of us I am sure walk around with our eyes half closed with blinkers on and we miss so much. Look up, down, around and especially behind you.

    1. You have a good point. Being able to see a pictures isn’t necessarily something we are all born with. But it can certainly be learned. The more we photograph and the more we train our eyes, the more we will be able to see.

  15. Excellent post and excellent food for thought. I couldn’t agree more. When I looked at your image I thought I would have never thought that this would make a good image and it had me mesmerized. Excellent.

  16. thank you for reminding of being non-judgmental and inspired by what we see as beautiful or interesting. the act of photography is such a good medium to ‘live’ this idea.

  17. Another great bounty of encouragement. You are responsible for my pulling out the camera again and getting on with some very self-indulgent photos.

    I’d love to hear what you have to say about orbs…how they end up on our photos. I captured a huge orb and I was shooting into dark swamp-like terrain. There may have been a shard of light I didn’t notice, but it’s mystical.

    1. I am really happy if my writing here has inspired you to take up the camera again. Now as to those orbs on some of your photos, it’s really hard to say without seeing them. But most likely they cause be some stray light or sharp lights just outside the frame. But why don’t you send some of them to me – or post some here – and I can have a look at them?

  18. Great ideas. Was reminded of authors like Berger (Ways of Seeing) and Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida). A real life situation and a photograph taken thereof- both resemble a text of which the photographer, the person in the situation and also the looker of the photograph (once it is developed) are readers. Looking at a photograph then is like reading a text. It is amazing to think of the interplay between all these actors and their subjectivities. These permutations and combinations are numerous and therefore the process of seeing can never be devoid of an aesthetic value of some or the other kind. This interplay makes every photograph or every photograph-able situation unique. I agree with you when you say that “any situation, any subject matter, any moment holds infinite possibilities for creating strong and engaging photographs”

    Enjoyed reading the post!

    1. Thanks for a very interesting comment. And thanks for pointing to the book by John Berger which I haven’t read (Camera Lucida is a great book by the way).

  19. Very true sir. The eye is different to everyone. What moves the hand for one and not another is a mystery. I’m glad it’s that way. Seeing something in a different way that was right in front of my face is very humbling.

  20. I’ve thought about this a lot about understanding my own eye and how to shift that eye to seeing other possiabilities. :+) One fun thing I have stumbled onto is what I call it drive by shooting, Photography that is. It’s not to get a sharp picture but to shift my perception a little. When somone else is driving I sit in the passengers seat with my little camera. roll down the window and watching the sceens fly by I look at what I “think” might be interesting and start to click. What’s interesting is when I look back at what I’ve taken I get shots that I would’t have considered maybe a stray pole or different shapes of landscape random boo boos maybe. Sometime I get blurry colors like an abstract painting or maybe colors that I’m not normally attracted to. It’s shown me that when I look at somthing my eye lines up things that I may “think” are interesting but, like you pointed out there is a lot going on in any particular situation.

    1. I like this idea, drive by shooting. Any way that breaks up our routine of shooting is so worthwhile doing. Because it always brings a handful of new ideas to our mind, and by this increases the amount of tools we have in our creative toolbox.

  21. It took me a moment to discern just what I was looking at. Once I did, I was grossly awed and intrigued. If I missed it, I apologize, but anywhere in this post do you profess to have been the one snapping this picture? Is there an ancillary story to coincide with the picture?

    I do not know enough about photography to weigh in here, but I like what you have to say. I think this translates into other artful mediums. As a writer (and actually I had planned to write about this today!), I tend to leap ahead to assumptions, dismissing that which I could not possibly know or understand. What I deem as “boring” is often not boring, but a slow-burn, which, in turn, proves to be thought-provoking prose once all is said and done.

    Thank you for the deep thoughts.


    1. I might not have said it anywhere, but all photos shown on this blog is taken by me, included this one. And, yes, there is a story behind it, of course, and I will get back to it a little later. Besides I think you are right; in any arts it’s very easy to leap to dismissing assumptions.

  22. You certainly chose an interesting photo with which to begin making your point! Wow! I completely agree with what you’re saying, but then also note that some of us just don’t naturally have the eye to frame the most interesting photos. I often wonder if with more experience that will come! Debra

    1. Absolutely, Debra. Being able to frame a picture does come down to experience. I think there are three ways to become better at framing. One way is to learn about traditional rules of composition, which can only take to you so far. Secondly watching a lot of photos of masters and trying to deduct what makes the so good, is always very helpful. But in the end – and thirdly – practise and practise and practise is really what makes a difference in the end.

  23. Thanks for sharing your wise thoughts; very inspiring!… and that little reminder of the ego talk (judgement and all) is always useful 🙂
    Thanks for your latest comment.

  24. As always, your post never fails to inspire me. You follow what your heart tells you and try to see what goes beyond the exterior of things, persons and events. I agree when you said, “For me it’s certainly people living their regular lives in combination with good, natural light. That is what triggers my index finger more than anything else.” People have so much to offer and what goes behind the camera is even more interesting. Going around the countryside of the Philippines reminded me what human suffering and poverty looks like. I hope someday, things will change for the better. Have a great weekend.

  25. I frequently ask myself, ‘Why have I stopped? Why do I want to take THIS picture? What feelings does it evoke in me? How can I express them?’ If I can’t answer these questions satisafactorily I don’t have the creative energy to produce a meaningful picture. I think your piece sums up the situation very well. Thanks.

  26. your blog is inspirational and not only on a photography level, your words encouraging, your photos needless to say are exceptional….a great source for a beginner with no inherent talent for taking good photos but with a desire to learn….

  27. I am not into photography, but I come to your blog to dig the little nuggets of wisdom I find in your posts. like this one: ‘Ignorance and condemnation has never been positive sentiments in any given situation.’ How profound!

  28. hello, munchow,

    there maybe a lens or lenses on the camera but there’s another one inside the photographer’s being, huh?… such that each onlooker or photographer sees an object or a subject matter differently or from a different angle. he merely uses his cam and his technical skills to capture what he saw. maybe… ^^

    i think you somehow discussed it in your previous posts? that each photographer lends something to his subject, that he somehow marks or imprints his perception of reality onto the subject matter. did i recall it right? ^_^ btw, thanks kindly for the visit and the comment. 🙂

  29. Excellent post and great tips! I agree. Two photographers can take a photo of the exact same location at the same time, but the results can be totally different from each other, and evoke a variety of interpretations from different people. That’s the beauty of individuality.
    I so appreciate your kind comments on my postings. You have noticed some things in my photos that I hadn’t noticed originally. Thank you!

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