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.


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

  1. How true this is Otto. My best photos have been captured in an unplanned moment, after something has caught my eye. Seeing the result can be delightful (“What a good shot, perfect light, warm colours, caught that expression perfectly”) or disappointing (“Wish I had got his feet in, the shadow detracts from the image, it’s not what I thought I saw through the lens” etc). That’s the joy of photography! 🤗

  2. A very thoughtful post and I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this great topic.
    As a student of iPhone photography, I capture anything and everything even those subjects that may not be obviously photogenic. But some of my best have been the ones where I thought ‘ah, this won’t work’ and my landscapes where I put time and thought into it, not worth posting.
    So, yes, I totally agree with your philosophy as you described at the end of your great post.
    Thank you ✨✨

      1. Hello Otto,
        It was my pleasure and yes, that’s probably a good way to summarize it.
        Have a lovely week ✨✨✨

  3. My sister in law always used to say ‘just ignore her, she is always taking pictures of nothing’ lol i took it as a compliment because one time looking at my photo albums she said to my brother ‘how come you can’t take interesting pictures like Elaine?’… my brother said ‘duh, she had 3 years of photography education’… i think my sister in law may not be a nice person lol

    1. I don’t know about your sister, but it’s sure is an interesting and I would say ignorant comment. Keep taking pictures of “nothing” that connects to your heart. 🙂

  4. Very well said. I find myself looking at different things, in a different way with my camera. Stuff that I would never give a second glance suddenly turns into a great texture, or nice shadows. One of my blog readers mentioned the other day that she has started taking her camera on her morning walks, and is seeing and appreciating her neighborhood more because of it.

  5. I agree with you and Mary above. If I take my camera on my walks I always always always find something interesting. Even along walks that I’ve done hundreds of times before. And if I don’t take my camera there will be something AMAZING that I wish I could have captured. Every time.

    1. When the latter happens, I think we should just enjoy the moment and the fact that we actually have been able to notice something amazing. We don’t always have to capture everything we see – as hard at it sometimes feels.

      1. Annie Dillard talks about the great difference that exists between walking with a camera and walking without. As she puts it, when she walks with a camera, she captures the world in one way. But without? Then she herself becomes the lens and the film, and the world imprints itself directly on her soul.

  6. It’s what’s behind the camera, yes, and the more we pay attention – to what is around us, to the work of other people, and to our own work – the more we can hone our way of perceiving and express what is different about it.

  7. That is amazing isn’t it when you see a photographer takes a picture of something such ordinary you could not imagine it can look so good. I’ve seen these often times too and they make me thing why wouldn’t I see those too 🙂

  8. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Some photographers seem to have the gift of capturing the ordinary in extraordinary ways. And I think those shots are the ones which draw me in every time. I feel as though I should step more out of my comfort zone these days, but keep falling back into old habits and vision. Maybe I need to choose a old subject and challenge myself to capture it in a new way (as opposed to looking for new subjects captured in the ‘old way’).

    1. I think most of us tend to fall back in old habits. However, I think your idea about go back to old subjects and photograph them in a different way is a good way of stepping out of the box.

  9. I agree. That is a thought that came to me when my 6 y.o. granddaughter held her Nikon Coolpix above a fallen leaf in the park. She said “farmor, look, that leaf is special”. I couldn’t see it, but she did. It is wonderful to gradually learn to see “more”, even when you’re already farmor 🙂

      1. Yes, I’m still Swedish citizen, my son was born in Stockholm and speaks fluent Swedish too, hence ‘farmor’. My mom’s family is from Sweden and dad’s from Finland.

  10. Important post! Isn’t it in the nature of perception? To make a grid for seeing things in familiar ways, and to sort out what’s not necessary for immediate survival. Which is how we create the comfort zone that helps us go about our daily business without unnecessary effort. Of course there’s nothing wrong in relying on such quotidian vision most of the time, as long as you’re aware of the fact that this isn’t all there is – and as long as you’re enough awake to notice when there’s something new coming into view. I think it is my reliance on these habits of vision that makes it such a thing of beauty when I happen to step out of these doors of perception to see appearances great and small that are usually shaded or hidden from my sight. A source of beauty, yes! But being thus awake and prepared for the extraordinary – isn’t it also an ancient capacity for survival? And perhaps also for experiencing the universe in a grain of sand.

    1. In able to survive in a world full of inputs we need our brain to be able to sort out every bit of information that we take it, and do it quickly. For that reason we don’t “notice” what isn’t necessary to relate to. As a photographer, though, we need to take notice of what we usually don’t need to compute. Thank you for a very poignant comment, Arletta.

      1. And isn’t it highly interesting, Otto, how our consciousness works in sorting out what seems unnecessary for the moment. As I experience it, no single “sorted-out” piece of information is ever scrapped but stored. Whenever there’s a new or unknown input, the brain (my brain) scans through the almost infinite storage of received information to find whatever there is to help you identify what you see. Such identification, I think, involves some guesswork, which makes our pictures of reality a mixture of fact and fiction. I’ve been accused of being a nihilist by people thinking this means I do not believe in truth. I’m nothing of the kind, I’d say. Just that all facts and truths need to be tried and explored again and again.

          1. And then, I wouldn’t take it as an ABSOLUTE truth that ALL depends on the eyes and the context. I need to think a bit more about this, because I do not want to say something now that’s not grounded on rigorous reflection and analysis.
            However, what I want to say about truth is perhaps already legible in the phrase “rigorous reflection”. Because although it is true that all depends on context and perspective, it is the rigor with which this dependency is tried that decides whether we come up with truth or just with a relativism.

                1. I am not sure what you are asking exactly, but at least, as far as I can see, photography can help us open up our eyes to the world around us. At the same time whatever we capture isn’t all that we are able to perceive, the world is infinitely richer, and all of this richness is there whether we photograph it or not.

  11. And we have to be brave enough to follow our vision — literally, sometimes. This past weekend, I was at a wildflower farm for a time. Everyone was in the huge fields of flowers, taking the usual photos of children and other family members — and of course there were plenty of selfie takers. But, I was captured by a beautiful, large snail clinging to the underside of a wooden fence post. There was only one way to get the photo I wanted, and that was to shoot up. Of course, that required lying on the ground.

    There was a time in my life when the thought of lying on the ground in the midst of a crowd would have remained just that — a thought. This time, I got my photo. When I turned my head and saw the dozen or so people staring down at me, I just laughed. One fellow asked, “Have you fallen, and you can’t get up?” “No,” I said. “I haven’t fallen, and I don’t want to get up.” Then, everyone laughed, and I spent some time pondering exactly how much photography has changed me.

    1. A beautiful comment, Linda. Yes, we all have to pursue our own vision and sometimes it costs some wondering and some laughter from people around us. The willingness to step out of line becomes easier with age – I believe.

  12. I love the positive approach you espouse, Otto. That you refer it for both the photographer and a viewer of a photo or even for an observer certainly deepens the thought. You’ve shared a fine article and the comments show that your readers “get it.” Now, that is positively positive for everyone! Thanks!

  13. I like your thoughts Otto. Aristotle expressed a similar philosophy when he said, ‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’

  14. I think nothing supports your conclusion more than assigning a group of people to shoot the same subject and then to see what each one did with that subject!

  15. I have always thought that every photographer sees something different for any given subject. That’s why we can look at pictures all of the same subject and they appear to be totally unrelated. Photographers put a lot of who they are, how they feel and what they see in their photos. Just as every painter has a different stroke so does a photographer. It’s why they photograph.

    1. Exactly. And that’s also why I shrug of comments that state that everything has already been photographed. It hasn’t, by the next photographer or whoever does it again. Thank you for the comment, Michelle.

  16. A timely article for me Otto. I’m in a bit of a creative vacuum right now. I know I just have to get out there and take photographs, something will click, excuse the pun. Having been so privileged to photograph some amazing locations, home seems just too ordinary but of course the photographs are out there and I just need to get behind the camera and put my stamp on the photographs I take. You’ve given me something to think about as you always do. 🙂

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