No photo truly succeeds unless it triggers strong emotions. The same holds true for all visual arts. However, photography is special in that its very creation is very much technically depended. So much in fact, that many photographers don’t venture beyond the technicalities of the photographic process. It might even be what draws them to photography in the first place. A technical perfect image is for them an absolute requirement. With this approach they miss the point, though, which is that a captivating photo needs more than technical perfection, it needs the emotional connection more than anything.
Photographs that we find most meaningful are those that ooze human endeavour and symbolize the meaning of our world and our lives. Images that hold the most power for us tend to focus on loved ones, those who inspire us, those we detest, tragedy and beauty. Whether they are completely sharp, properly exposed or perfectly composed is of less importance. Of course, we use those technical variables to tell the story as best as possible—as part of the visual language, but in and of themselves they are completely uninteresting. An emotionally loaded but technically poor photo trumps a technically perfect photo lacking emotional content—any time.
The fact that the photographic process is so technically depended can get in the way of creating those strong images we all aspire to capture. This goes even for those of us who are less attached to the technical side of things.
Because photography is such a technically depended art, at least some technical considerations are always needed before taking the photo. The way our brain works makes this a problem. If you have to focus your attention too much on the settings of the camera, you may not be able to connect with and capture the emotional content that triggered you to wanting to take the photo in the first place.
Let me use an illustration to make this clearer. One of the most famous illustrations shown in psychology books appears to be either a vase or a pair of faces in profile (see beneath). A person not familiar with the illusion sees only one aspect at first. When the other aspect is seen, the first one disappears. Though it becomes ever easier to go back and forth between the two apparent realities, no amount of familiarity will allow both subject to be seen at the same time.
Exactly the same process is at work when we try to juggle between the technical aspect and the emotional aspect of taking a photo.
When our attention is drawn to technical aspects, we disconnect from the emotional content as surely as we stop seeing the vase just as we see the face. As we begin to see a subject in terms of shutter speed, depth of field, light and other technical considerations, our brains shifts gear. We lose the emotional power of the process in that instance. We lose the ability to see and capture the emotional content.
That is why the technical handling of the camera must become instinctively. Given, this doesn’t come by itself. It’s something that will only happen after long practise. The more you photograph the less you need consciously be aware of how to capture a subject that has triggered your curiosity. At that point, you are better able to connect emotionally to whatever you are photographing, and make this radiate through the final image.
This goes back to the fourth stage of learning, what I called unconscious competence in the post The Rollercoaster of Learning here on my blog last November. At this stage, you are at a point where the tools in your hand no longer get in your way.
Imaging you are a writer—or maybe you even are one. If you had to search out every single letter on the keyboard when writing, it’s not hard to imaging what that would do to your flow of writing. Only when you don’t need to think about where you fingers go on the keyboard can you write fluently, right out of your mind. Only then will you be able to enter the state of being in flow.
So it’s is with photography. When you need to concentrate your mind with technical considerations you won’t be able to enter the flow. Your camera literally gets in the way.
Let me end this post with a quote by the great, now diseased, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: «Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph». He knew that thinking about technical aspect would pull us off from what is most important in the actual moment of capturing a photo.
On quite a different note: Last month I announced I would admit one person free of charge to my online workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» starting up at the end of May. Quite a few people signed up for the draw, which has now been carried out. However, instead of drawing one, I decided to admit two of those who sign up for the draw, to the workshop. The winners of the draw are: Ann-Christine Påhlson and Colleen Briggs.
Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and a 16-35 mm lens set at 16 mm. Shutter speed: 1/250 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop with the plug-in Nik Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversion.