A Delicate Balance

A photo without emotional content is a dead photo
A photo without emotional content is a dead photo

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.

En klassisk illusjon som ofte brukes i psykologi-bøker

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.

69 thoughts on “A Delicate Balance

  1. Such a wonderful post Otto and I completely agree with you. It’s the emotion behind both the photo and the words that are written that truly engage and captivate. That can’t be learned but only felt.

  2. This post resonated with me. I am an engineer and I have been taking a very technical approach to photography. I recently realise that my images were lacking emitional appeal. This is something I plan to work on this year.

  3. All of this is so true. The only thing I’d add is that we need to be active on a regular basis. I was out with my camera yesterday for the first full day’s session since coming home from my trip, and I was surprised at how my skills had eroded.

    Even the muscular strength needed to hold the camera and lens steady had lessened. On my trip, I was to the point that I barely felt the weight of the camera. Yesterday, holding it tired me after a couple of hours. And of course my muscle memory had eroded along with my strength. All of that made it difficult for me to really pay attention to the land around me, and to engage with it.

    It’s interesting that the body somehow is the link between the purely technical (the camera) and the emotional. It’s rarely spoken of (at least, I haven’t read much about good health and strength as an important aspect of photography) but without that physical bridge, emotionally complex photography would be impossible.

    1. You are so right, being creative isn’t like riding a bike, in which once you have learned to bike you can easily pick it up any time later again. You do need to keep both muscles and muscle memory constantly in shape, just as your need to keep you vision and voice in shape. You do raise an interesting connection which I might have to venture into at some point. 🙂

      1. This experience is true. I had the same impression that this would be the skill as bicycling or swimming. You will never forget but that was wrong at least for me. I think at one point I forgot to adjust ISO or aperture to compensate for slower SS.

    2. I agree with you totally.
      As an amateur photographer with a severe heart condition and chronic pain/fatigue, I find it hard to do some hand-held shots while out walking, as well as wobbling holding the camera when I’m really fatigued.
      I do arm/shoulder/back exercises each morning (since my latest round of spinal surgery 20 mths ago) and find them helpful in Photography too. I can no longer bend down low or lay on the ground to do photography.
      Otto makes good points with this post, but I hope he’ll go on to further talk about physical strength and flexibility (and the need to practice photography regularly). A few words about changing left brain to right brain function would be helpful too.
      Non-photographers assume you just hold up a camera and press the shutter button (to get an interesting image).

      1. In a way you do that, just hold up a camera and press the shutter button. But, of, course, it’s all that can’t necessary been seen that makes the difference—and all the hours, days, years of practicing that goes into it before getting an interesting photo. Thanks for encouraging me to explore new areas of the photographic process. I will just have to do so, no?! 🙂

    3. This comment resonates with me, too. One of the prime reasons I joined a gym last summer and began attending a fitness class regularly was to maintain my strength for photography! I want to be able to carry my camera comfortably, go for long walks, and stand up again after squatting down for a shot! Of course I know exercise is good for my overall health, but it was photography that really motivated me to do something about it.

  4. I’ve always heard, “First…forget everything you’ve learned and just feel it”. You don’t really “forget” it. It just becomes second nature and you do it without really thinking about it. Then you can feel whatever you are creating, whether it is a photograph or a story. Great post, Otto. Thanks for reminding me of this.
    Congratulations to the two very lucky winners.

  5. So many times I see I photo that needs to be taken quickly, a fleeting moment with wildlife or something. Only to realize the photo is blown out, or too dark because I didn’t pay attention to the camera. I am getting better at this however. Great article Otto.

  6. I want to be that kind of photographer, one that will show the viewer the unspoken words and emotional feeling. It is that delicate balance I am striving to achieve, I know this takes time and perseverance. Thank you Otto for sharing this beautiful message about being in flow, you are truly In Flow with your words and photos. It’s always a pleasure to read your post.

  7. Colleen Briggs here: I am positively over the moon with excitement about being able to attend the workshop “Finding your Photographic Voice.” Thank you so much for this opportunity, Otto.

  8. I have a weekly exercise where I just use my mobile, and just take shots of something I notice that invokes a feeling, just forget about ‘settings’ for a day, it carries through does that feeling, that way I practice technicalities and using emotions separately then try to pull them together. I’ll get there one day!

  9. I have not thought of taking photograph is highly technical dependent before (at least from a DSLR camera or camera that lets you control aperture, shutter speed and ISO etc.). I am still struggling to get technicality straight during taking the picture 😐 Emotional connections got lost for certain.

  10. Your posts always give me so much to think about, Otto. It’s difficult to find a balance between technical excellence and artistic depth sometimes, isn’t it? When I find myself at such a crossroads — if I have the time — I try to explore different titles for the image. It’s surprising how differently I will see things sometimes if I can transcend “dead animal on the beach,” for instance, and instead see “nature’s cruelty,” or maybe “beautiful even in death.” It’s a time-consuming exercise, but it can help clarify what it is that draws me to a scene, and how it makes me feel.

  11. Totally agreed…it is a very delicate balance. My aunt and I were just talking about this, but in reference to the increased demand on photogs to be able to do everything (write, video, etc). We were talking about how difficult it is to shoot good video and good photos at the same time. Nearly impossible. Maybe because of what you’re saying here…switching between the two allows little space for emotion.

  12. Oh to find that innate balance between the emotional, intellectual. I know I have a long way to go. And to master this balance to the degree that it becomes instinctive. I can’t even see it.

    But what a delicious destination, and thus far, the journey hasn’t been too bad either.

    So glad I found your blog and I’m looking forward to following a veteran.

    1. Thank you for visiting, Gabe. As for the journey all we creative undertakes, I wouldn’t worry too much about the goal of having full control. After all the journey is in itself why we do this. 🙂

  13. Great article … and from my own experience very true.
    When I stopped ‘obeying the rules’ and started taking photographs of things that appeal to me, in the way that I want to, they have a stronger appeal. Maybe only to me – but at the end of the day it’s something I do for my own pleasure anyway; if others like it that’s wonderful, but if not, I’ll carry on regardless!

  14. Your photo at the beginning of this post is a perfect example of capturing emotional impact. I was responding to it emotionally from my first glimpse, before I even knew what your article was about. Excellent post.

  15. I agree totally with the views you express, but personally I often create images to reflect an inner feeling or mood rather than rely on an external object/subject to evoke a response.

  16. Well thank heavens that i took 3 years of full time photography when i was very very young, coz if i had to do it now, i would probably end up throwing a camera against the wall… lol and YET, i still insist on taking bad photos lol

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