Improvising in a Spontaneous Flow

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When I started out photographing more seriously (many, many years ago…) I used my camera quite methodical, even orderly, making sure the composition was «right», the exposure was equally so and that everything was in order and «perfect». It was a very rational process. Today I would say that I was thinking too much. I wasn’t able – or letting myself be able – to be loose and reactive to an environment. «Going with the flow» was not my photographic style.

Back then it was all landscape and nature photography – and I could take my time to make everything «right». It all rapidly changed, though, when I started to work more in a documentary kind of style. Suddenly the subject became unpredictable, moving fast one way or another, not giving me time to approach it the previous rational way. Instead I had to adapt to a more spontaneous work flow, reacting to whatever happened in front of me quickly, without thinking. At first it was quite frustrating, but as I got into this for me new approach, pictures started to become different than before, become more interesting, become less predictable and I started to capturing pictures that not everybody else was taking.

I was slowly finding my own way, my own photographic voice. Whereas pictures before had been beautiful lit and with well balanced compositions – albeit being quite boring when I look back on them today, suddenly everything was much messier. But a messy result that was intriguing and over time I was able to handle better and better. The pictures started to be not only beautiful graphical images, but had emotional content and showed moments that could engage the viewers.

Today I solely trust my intuition during the actual shooting situation. Because I know if I let go of my rational self, something impulsive and intriguing may happen, I may be able to capturing something my rational mind would never have been able to. In my workshops I try to emphasize this approach, and make the students let go of their rational mind. For many it’s hard, even difficult to grasp the concept of not thinking during the shooting. Because of course you don’t stop thinking completely. You still need to be aware of exposure time and depth of field, but all this is pushed to into the back of the head, becoming more of an instinctive act. Usually there is also a fair amount of thinking and planning before a shooting session, not to say afterwards in the editing process. But at the moment the shutter is pushed I try to let go of myself self and let the flow take me wherever it does.

True enough it’s a complicated matter to explain, I’ve never really been able to find a good way to fully clarify and resolve the apparent conflict between goals, plans and rational thinking, on one hand, and «going with the flow» on the other. For many these seem like structural opposites. But they are not really. Remember what the great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: «Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph.»

Photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, Wright Morris, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Strand have all demonstrated that work done quickly does not necessarily mean done with inferiority.

Now during a shooting I abandon myself to the project, photographing quickly, loosely, intuitively – photographing every composition my eye can see. I try as best I can to avoid analyzing or judging the images – I just photograph. I set aside my years of training in pre-visualization and control and instead photograph by going with the flow, trying to be responsive to what was in front of me instead of manipulating what was in front of me.

In his book The Creative Life in Photography, LensWork editor Brooks Jensen says: «[…] I learned […] that spontaneity and improvisation are not what I originally thought. They are not mere willy-nilly freewheeling, despite the fact that it might sound like that in the hands of a great improviser like Miles Davis. Improvisation is more like a tension between structure and total abandon. Spontaneity is not structurelessness; indeed it is best comprehended when seen in contrast to regularity – beat and measure against riff and phrase. In music, it is choosing a song, a beat, and then letting go within that framework. In photography – or at least in the photographing process – it is allowing yourself to play while holding to the definitions and limits of the project. It seems framework is a necessary prerequisite to improvisation and improvisation is only possible within such a framework. It seems obvious to me now, but when I think of all those years wandering around the countryside looking for photographs, I realize my lack of framework worked against my creativity. Who’d have thought?»

101 thoughts on “Improvising in a Spontaneous Flow

  1. Great post – I find those moment that I shoot spontaneously (usually street shots happening very fast) are very thrilling, especially if the finished product is any good. I’d like to do more of this but it is a process.
    As someone whose only been working with a dSLR for a year or so, I wonder if all those years of more “structured” shooting are necessary to develop the skills and almost like a form of the “muscle memory” athletes of which athletes speak so that one can shoot in a more improvisational style and still have something that is useable result.

    1. I think those years of structured shooting can be very good, because it gives you the experience and ability to handle technical issues while shooting in a quicker and more instinctive way. But it may also make it harder to let go and trust your instincts. Thanks for sharing your experience, Christopher.

  2. A very good post about your experiences during transition from wanting to have every thing just “right” to more spontaneous or intuitively driven. I think that might explain why pictures that I got from a compact camera (P&S) are more emotional than the big ones give. There are not much preparation be concerned with and its quick to get it into operation.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. So very interesting and thank you for sharing your vision of work. So many of the things you stated are true and have found that though the years .. Not many years but enough to know.. Happy I stopped. Have a wonderful night and start to your week.

  4. Overthinking is one of my biggest problems.
    I keep thinking of how to make everything better – look better, colour better, contrast better, composition better – and, as a result, I miss some great shots. It’s got the stage where I’m so critica,l that I can’t even decide which images to share on my PhotoBlog these days.

    But those (relatively rare) times I do shoot quickly and without thinking too much, I notice more emotion or depth in my resulting images. Especially street photography (or primate photography at the zoo).

    1. Don’t worry – it’s a process. It takes time to be able to start unthinking in the photographic process. The more you get the technical part of it under your skin the easier it is to let go. Just keep at it!

  5. Wonderful post. I have to admit that I have never been one to set up a shot. I would rather move around and take 100 shots at slightly varying angles rather than setup for the one perfect shot. I may delete almost all but usually get an angle I like.

  6. Wonderful post. This is my favorite line:
    “The pictures started to be not only beautiful graphical images, but had emotional content and showed moments that could engage the viewers.”
    I have no formal training in photography. I’ve been shooting from my heart for about seven years now. I’m hoping to move from primarily nature photography to street photography.
    I’m thinking that maybe in a couple of years, I’ll take a class in photography! I want to get as much time as I can “shooting from the heart” – especially as I move to street photography. I’m afraid of cluttering my mind with the technology of photography. I worry I’ll lose that sense of hovering somewhere between my body and the subject of the shot if I know too much about the camera.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Awesome.

    1. I don’t think creativity – shooting from the heart and being technically proficient are opposing forces. On the contrary the more technical control you have, the easier it is to let go of it. But I understand your worries, because in the process of learning, it may take over the creative process. Thank you for the feedback, Mary.

  7. I really appreciate you putting this into words…and so eloquently…my photography teachers always told me “leave your flash in your car.” And I prefer to use my knee as a monopod instead of worrying about the equipment. And I usually think of myself as a lesser photographer when I walk by photogs with the great lenses all set up on their tripods. But as much as I doubt myself, my first shot is usually my best. Thank you for encouraging me to stop doubting myself, and use my passion for the moment, but continue to build my technical knowledge. Really appreciate it. 🙂 Can’t wait to hear what you have to say next!

  8. It’s uncanny how many of your blogs address just what I need to hear and just at the perfect time. Self doubt trying to be so perfect (and never believing I measure up to others) is a character defect I have lived with my entire life. Trying to be perfect or like others is keeping me from knowing who I am, honoring who I am and how I was made. I was told once that my competitiveness, as in trying to be like others, is denying the divinely unique way I was made.
    Thanks so much for sharing so honestly and freely. I learn so much from you.

    1. As I have said to others, this self doubt is something we all struggle with. We just have to keep going in spite of it. I certainly know how limiting this idea of perfection can be to our creative process. But better to give it a try and maybe fail, than never do anything because we are afraid it won’t be perfect. I am glad my words resonate with – and thank you for the wonderful feedback.

  9. I do have to smile when I think of what you’ve shared here, Otto. You do know that you have impeccable instincts? Your “going with the flow” of creativity does appear to be really exceptional. You have great instincts. I completely understand what you’re saying here, and I do think it gives me hope that in my lack of knowing all the complex “dos and don’ts” I can creatively produce lovely photographs and make my own individual statement. But I sure don’t have that much confidence yet. I’ll keep at it, though. 🙂

    1. That’s the only thing we can all do; keep at it. And I certainly believe that any lack of knowing everything shouldn’t hold anyone back – even if we feel doubt about ourselves or lack of confidence, as we all do. Creativity is not depending on technical knowledge.

  10. Very interesting, Otto.. I like the idea of a framework working towards creativity ….”allowing yourself to play while holding to the definitions and limits of the project”. I think I’m noticing that when I set out with a particular idea and stick to it.

    1. The idea is really to have the brain work and keep working in the background on this framework and then let you spontaneity take immediate control. The yin and yang as Sally spoke about in a later comment. Thank you for you thoughts, Susan, always appreciated.

  11. A great post…… trusting oneself to be tuned in and present to what is there in front of you ….to see beyond or behind or differently and be able to create ….its such a joy. It really resonated how you described your evolving process. For me some of it is really about allowing my mind to be interested in something and then acting on it. Thank you muchly Trees

  12. I’m a fairly new photographer and have been doing landscapes because I love color but I’m feeling an urge to move on. Thanks for the inspiration.

  13. Great post. It took a long time for me to give up “perfection” and let messy things happen in my artwork. It annoyed me a lot that people liked the messy things better because no one really likes “perfect”. Now I don’t have time (or the eyesight) for that kind of fussiness and I think my art is better.

    1. Perfect can be so many different things. But when it starts to inhibit your creativity, it’s definitely counterproductive. But it’s hard to let go of that urge for perfection… Thank you, Linda.

  14. The Henri Cartier-Bresson quote is brilliant: “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph.”
    Your title also intrigues me…”Improvising in a Spontaneous Flow”. Sounds like life, don’t you think?

  15. Of course, your commentary is much about the way the brain and mind work in a yin/yang rhythm. For me, the creative process works the best as I allow myself to be in the moment with my intuition rising to guide me. Serendipity plays a major part in that flow–the ability to let the brain and mind see what is before me and push me over the edges of the obvious to the unnoticed. Otto, a well thought out post as usual.

  16. Hi Otto,
    I’ve been away from here for sometime…but it was so nice to find your post right away…and I do love the spontaneity of this…it’s ironic but my post today after many months is one of those beautiful landscapes you talk about here that I took in 05…much different than my recent more fluid abstracts, that yes, are done quickly. But they do come more from feeling and not thinking. Something I’ve been working on lately.

    1. I am glad that this post resonates with you, Meryl. And I agree with you, your recent pictures speak much more from the heart than from your rational mind. And I think they are much stronger. Thanks for sharing you thoughts,

  17. As ever, Otto, you have produced a thought-provoking post. Clearly any response has to be based on personal experience. I think that once we become serious about photography we all set out to produce the perfect picture. But what happens next can often depend on circumstances outside ourselves. If, for example, we decide to earn a living from photography the ‘agenda’ is set to some extent by commercial or commission constraints not wholly within our control’ At the other extreme – perhaps many years later – the point of total freedom is reached. we are free to respond to and interpret whatever captures our attention. We are not audience dependent – we are free to express your personal feelings and thoughts.

    1. Of course your are right, Louis. The reason for taking pictures does have an impact of how we go about shooting them. It’s definitely different to shoot for a client than for yourself. I still think you can combine your photographic vision with an assignment, but often it’s hard. But generally speaking when shooting for ourselves, we should do exactly that, and not think about our audience or anyone else’s opinion. We are free, as you say, to express our personal feelings and thoughts – and ought to do so, at least if we want to make images that speak to others (as strange as that might seem since we shouldn’t think about our audience…)

  18. I think you’ve explained this very well. I also think that those years of trying to make “perfect” images gave you a mastery of the “rules” and your equipment that allows you to do the work you do now. One of the things I love about your photography is that it does have a spontaneous quality to it – an emotion that connects me to your subject.

  19. A very well-written piece of writing. So true too. We can over-think too much and when we do that then I think we lose some of the creativity. Creativity is a spontaneous free-wheeling spirit and we do need to let it take over and run with it.

  20. Very interesting. I don’t think your initial training was wasted in any way – it has just moved into the spinal cord. If you are going to be good at anything there is just one way – do a lot of it.

    1. No, I don’t thin the initial training was wasted. On the contrary, it probably contributed to setting me free on a later point when it, as you said, moved to the spinal cord. And you are absolutely right, you can’t get good without doing the work.

      1. Yep you can’t get good without the work. That is nice – your initial training has just moved to your spinal cord- whether it is music, painting, dance, photography or other creative pursuits.

  21. Great post, Otto. Over-thinking is one of my biggest problems right now with the new camera. Maybe I need to relax and have fun? Thanks again for another way of looking at things. 🙂

  22. I have a problem with sticking my camera in somebodies face .. I love street life photos – but I don’t feel comfortable with take any – because personally I hate when somebody put a camera against me. Also I think when it’s about photos of people … in action, it’s not that important if the photo isn’t perfect – I suppose perfect is all in the viewers eyes. But if it’s not totally focused.
    Great post again, Otto.

    1. Thank you, Thea Maria. We certainly don’t all have to make street photos. Whatever makes us tick, whatever makes us curious is what we should photograph – as I believe you do yourself.

  23. You are right–a sense of spontaneity and having the mental and emotional freedom to follow it really does change the flow of work and creativity even though it doesn’t necessarily change the direction. While there really is something to be said for having a studied approach to photography, there is also a real point of value in being able to break into that “free dance” mode and capture nuances and one-of-kind moments (such as your photo above). The deliberate approach is safe; that “open-wings” style is much more risky. Perhaps that’s what we need just to keep ourselves closer to the cutting edge.

    1. I think you make a good point. The more we are taking chances, the more we challenge ourselves, the more likely we are to produce or capture something genuine and engaging. Thank you for your comment, Phil.

  24. Uday, your response is so much more elegantly stated than mine. (I didn’t read any of the responses before I posted mine. Apologies for the double post.)

  25. All such excellent thoughts, Otto, and I so appreciate you sharing them here.
    I don’t think I’ve ever been one to set up a shot, and I can say, that sometimes I wish I had, but those times are few and far between. I find that more often than not, I lose something when I do that.

    Thank you again, and I hope you’re having a wonderful week.

  26. I completely agree Otto, that “letting go” is critical. HCB said to shoot vicerally and it took me years to fully grasp what he meant, and most of all actually do it. Even now, I still struggle with it sometimes; that desire to control and over-scritinize everything I’m doing while shooting, and even the circumstances I’m taking aim at.

  27. Hej Otto, som vanligt ett mycket intressant, tänkvärt och lärorikt inlägg. Försöker fortfarande lära mig att hantera kamerans manuella inställningar och raw hantering för att förhoppningsvis kunna känna frihet att fota det jag egentligen vill fota. Vill bara inte fastna här och inte hitta vad det egentligen är och hur jag vill fota.
    PS. skickat mailsvar till dig igår, hoppas du fått det om inte hör av dig.
    Bästa Hälsningar
    Monica A

    1. Takk for flotte ord, Monica. Det er ingen dum idé å lære seg å håndtere et kamera manuelt. Det gir helt klart en bedre forståelse. Samtidig ser jeg at det også bremser en under fotograferingen. Derfor har jeg mer og mer anbefalt at folk bruker noen av de automatiske innstillingene. Men raw anbefaler jeg virkelig at du lærer deg å bruke. Det er egentlig ikke så vanskelig å fotografere med, men krever mer etterbehandling.

      Og, ja, jeg har mottatt din epost.

  28. Tack Otto för dina konstruktiva rader, givetvis ska manuella inställningar inte bli ett självändamål. Ska testa lite AV och TV igen men de få gånger jag gjort det upplevde jag det svårare än helt manuellt.
    Bra, då väntar jag lugnt tills du hör av dig.

  29. There’s a lot to chew on in this post. But the first thing that comes to my mind is that all that time you spent controlling everything lead to a near instinctive ability to get the technical details at least in the ballpark. NOW you can look at a scene and w/o thinking it through, make appropriate settings that account for the available light, the dof you are visualizing, and a host of other factors. This innate knowledge is pre-programmed and automatic which allows you the freedom to let it flow. (This is my theory anyway.) 😉

    1. I think you theory is quite right, at least in my case, but I also see other artists just throw themselves into it, and getting amazing result. I think you can do that, too, with less control of course then, but that is part of the goal. But yes the duality of control and letting go at the same time, is probably how you can get the most out of your creativity.

  30. once again, you always have something wonderful to share with your readers, Otto. i like how you reflected back to when you first started and noticed the progression you made over time. i think because you went with your heart’s passion early in life, you are now able to let go and it’s like giving birth to your creative self…in the form of your images. that’s how i see it anyway. 🙂 great post!

  31. Otto, this blog post encouraged me so much! I’ve had access to amazing places in the world to photograph, but I am really a from-the-heart photographer so I’ve often felt guilty that maybe the opportunities were wasted on me. My technical knowledge is pretty limited, and I always wrestle with a lot of self-doubt. This post encourages me to keep growing in knowledge, but that there is also value in a from-the-heart approach. Thank you!

    1. I am glad you found encouragement in my words. There is no reason to feel guilty about anything. We all try to do our best and improve as much as we can. Thank you for the lovely comment, Colleen.

  32. Thanks for the enlightening post, Otto. Like many of your commentators above, shooting spontaneously has helped me move past capturing “the perfect photograph”. Ideas are not born from plans, but from playfulness. You summarized it beautifully when you said:

    “I set aside my years of training in pre-visualization and control and instead photograph by going with the flow, trying to be responsive to what was in front of me instead of manipulating what was in front of me.”

    The only thing conclusive about any work of art is interpretation. And we can’t interpret if we don’t go with the flow.

  33. Going with flow creates the most natural, amazing of images. It is harder too since capturing those fast moments make us miss some aspect of those moments. The reward though is that because of our pics, we and others can relive those unforgettable memories.

  34. I’m new to your site, and new to the blogging world (again) but I was one of those who thought “I don’t have talent” and while I’m still finding my way as a photographer, it was through the lens that I could find and start to grasp what, if any, creative flow I have. This sentence struck a Chord with me “I try as best I can to avoid analyzing or judging the images – I just photograph”, I’m trying to find a balance, or maybe I shouldn’t? This was so well written, and thought provoking, I’m happy came upon your site.

  35. Liked your analogy to improvisation in music. This all gives me something to reflect on, as I tend to tighten up & simply think way too much when taking a photo. I realize I need to know the technical aspects of using my camera better so that I have more of a framework from which spontaneity can arise.

  36. I’ve learned that following intuition is one of the most important parts of creative process! Our minds sometimes play tricks with us…listening the inner voice is what essentially makes creatives shine. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post!

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