The Mental State during Shooting

In the moment of capturing a photo lots of brain processing takes place. Depending on the subject and what goes on, I believe in letting the unconscious mind take control, trusting intuition and instincts. Particularly when you play with many balls in the air and when there is plenty of action going on, such as when you photograph on the street, the more you let go of conscious control, the more likely you are to be able to capture something special and out of the ordinary.

In the same newsletter by David duChemin that I referred to last week when I wrote about composition and what is the most important building block for a photograph, he also talks about trusting intuition during the shooting process—or rather not depend on it. DuChemin keenly support the necessity of being intentional when photographing. According to him, it’s the intentional photograph that will grab viewers’ attention, and not the result of the lazy approach of trusting our instinct.

I don’t disagree with him about the need for intention and always asking the question why we want to capture a certain photo. In fact, we may not disagree at all. However, I do trust—and strongly so—instinct and intuition in my photographic approach. Particularly in fast-moving situations, it’s impossible to depend on the slow reaction of the conscious mind.

One of my favourite quotes is by the renowned and ceased Henri Cartier–Bresson. He has stated that thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph.

I live by that imperative. Before doing an assignment for instance, I will reflect upon what it is I want to convey in my photographs and how I can put the story I am working on visually together. Those reflections I will bring along when I start shooting, but only in the back of my head. During the actual shooting, I go on automatic mode or rather let my intuition take control. I stop thinking and open my mind to what may come. It’s a state of sensing and reacting. Then afterwards, when I am back from the assignment, I redeploy my conscious mind in the editing process as well as in learning what worked and what didn’t work in the shoot.

I don’t always manage to leave all conscious thinking behind. The result, then, is rather apt to be contrived and less fluid than images I capture with a more intuitive approach. These photos don’t necessarily have that emotional connection that is so important in any imagery. The danger when the conscious mind is in control during photographing is stagnation and replication. When you use what you already know, you will not be able to break out of the known framework of the conscious mind and thus only photograph what you already have done successfully before. Or most likely.

When I manage to transcend the rational approach and instead enter an unconscious flow it clearly reflects in the final result. It happens when I get more emotionally attached to whatever I am photographing and lose myself in the process. I often compare that to tunnel vision as I lose sight of anything else and my mind is completely locked in on whatever I am photographing. I become what I photograph and nothing else exists. For me this is a much more fulfilling process than a fully controlled approach.

For David duChemin, according to what he writes in his latest newsletter, nothing about photography is instinctive. For him it will be the photographer who masters the tools, the craft and all the building blocks that goes into photography—and use them in service of creating something that is the best expression of the wonder we see before us—that will succeed.

Maybe it comes down to how we define and understand the words intuition and instinct. Are they some kind of a seventh sense that we cannot explain? Or are they results of learning processes and ingrained understanding that we use in processing sensory inputs unconsciously? I don’t know. Maybe both. Or maybe not. What I know is that I use the craft, the visual language, the tools and everything that goes into photography, unconsciously in the moment of shooting. After years of photographing and practicing, it’s all ingrained in my memory muscles. The knowledge and the use of it has moved from my explicit to my implicit part of the brain, which is a known fact about how we learn and get better at things. I use this knowledge, but unconsciously. And I let my intuition—whatever it is—decide how to put it all together in the moment of shooting.

I the end I don’t think duChemin and I necessarily disagree. He states, “An intentional approach to photography is not the opposite of the intuitive approach. It’s the prerequisite.” To that I can only agree.

As I mentioned last week David duChemin has a inspiring and thoughtprovocative blog in which he writes about creativity and the photographic process. You find it on his website David du Chemin.

48 thoughts on “The Mental State during Shooting

  1. Great post, Otto! I know that I rely on instinct and intuition a fair degree, but I think it is a ‘photographic instinct’….insofar as I have learnt quite a lot about this craft for the few decades that I have been taking photographs. The more I learn, I think, I can draw on that experience instinctively at the time of shooting…. But of course, I am always learning

  2. I get into that intuitive mode when photographing the wild horses. I am moving with the herd, exploring each separate family band, and being present with them.

  3. I trend to agree with you. My original intention does not always end up with the final picture. So I don’t depend on to much attention or another strong intention in all cases.

    1. I can only answer for myself. First of all I see no contradiction. During the editing I look for the strongest images and try to detach myself mentally from the shooting process. I often don’t know what photographs will turn out good until after the fact, during the editing.

  4. Otto, I could sign every thought and word written here in this valuable post. Intuition and instinct are my guides in my work, my senses are on target when shooting. Well I have to say it depends if I do a wedding, portrait session and such, or if I do travel photography, even in my later work as floral photography, it might be all a bit different, because of having a different vision in the beginning. But in the end it’s what my drives me is my intuition and vision as well. Have a great week.

  5. Great post (as usual), Otto, but when I saw the ‘subject heading’ in my gmail inbox, I thought you were going to comment about the recent mass-shooting in the U.S.

    Just goes to show how minds can shift in a few seconds to something totally unrelated to the real subject at hand.

  6. Very interesting Otto. Especially with the photo of the nuns. My first thought was that I would not photograph nuns, because I had bad experiences with nuns at school in my childhood. The nuns were definitely not friendly and harsh in an old-fashioned, strict way. Even though you have photographed the back of the nuns here, they seem friendly in their attitude. They must be modern nuns.
    Behind every photo is a photographer with his own experiences, interests and perception. That means that all eyes look and see differently. Often there is recognisability. That makes photography so fascinating.

    1. The nuns were cheerful and happy, quite different that I would expect. So, yes, maybe modern nuns. 🙂 We do indeed bring our personality and our previous experiences into the photography we do. That is what makes one photographer photograph the same subject differently than another.

  7. It is though, no good buying a DSLR for the first time, going out to photograph and expect your intuition to bring you back a great shot. You have to put the work in first, know what your camera can do, and understand how to use it and also understand the elements of what makes a great image. I like to think I use intuition when I’m out with my camera, but it is a gut feeling based on experience, practice and prior learning.

    1. You are absolutely right. Experience is absolutely necessary, you need to know your craft and understand what goes into making strong images. When you combine that with you intuition, that’s when the magic occurs.

  8. Yes, yes, yes, even though there are times that intention plays a role for me (for example, knowing what I want to capture and then creating a still life), but for me a great percentage of the time a photo shoot is driven by instinct, intuition and spiritual quest.

  9. Many years ago, in the only film era, I oft noticed my best photos were the 3 or 4 photos I did just to finish the 36 frames film. Why? Simply because i was making that photos in a very free wheel mode, I knew it didn’t import if they had come out ok or not. They were made just to finish the film. And this allowed much more freedom. It took me time, years maybe to realize it.
    And more time to practice, to train myself to enter in that mental mood when photographing. I experienced sometimes it helps to have headphones with a special music to feel more free…a good friend, professional photographer (unfortunately no more with us) suggested me that trick ! And I found it works!
    And it is why I like to use simple camera, very oft only one fixed lens on it.
    Great post Otto, thanks for it


    1. I often noticed that either the first frame or the last couple of frames of a film would be my best images. Probably for the reason you points out. I like your idea of putting music in your ear to “distract” your rational part of the brain. I will have to try that. 🙂

  10. I practice a different craft, but I think the same principles apply. We have to intentionally learn skills and practice them, yet once we’ve got them imbedded in our brains those skills are at work even when we’re doing things intuitively. Great post. DuChemin seems very quotable. Thanks for the link to his site.

  11. I”m not a photographer, but I enjoyed your essay very much. I think most of us do as your described, in some way. We train and analyze our motions in sports and maybe handicrafts, but in the moment, we rely on muscle memory. We are instructed how to do things, and practice doing it exactly as we’re told, so that some day, we can ignore the rote teaching, and do as the spirit moves us, but using the skills we learned mechanically. And sometimes, we are just doing what pleases us. I like an English flower garden, with the tall flowers scattered randomly, better than a formal regimented bed, and how would we ever have a good joke, without an element of surprise and inappropriateness.

    1. You are so right, in the learning of craft of singing or a new language, we train so that the knowlegde and experience can move from the explicit to the implicit part of the brain. Like you a not a photographer, I am not a gardener, but I also like the unruly beauty of an English garden. 🙂

  12. I may have told you this before, but a part of how i run on intuition is to choose my photographs that i want to publish, from the THUMBNAILS lol… i figure that subconsciously i can see the entire effect of the photograph when it is out of my full conscious vision. for me, it works!

  13. I wonder how far we actually think about the distinction between intuition and intent when we are taking photographs? It is easier to analyse the process we have followed when the photograph has been taken than to be conscious of what is happening mentally at the time.

  14. When I try and bring a “technical” approach to my photography whether in the subject of my interest (today I will shoot hats etc) or in the camera settings (today I will use a low shutter speed only) I find that I don’t make as many shots and end up somewhat dissatisfied with my day?

    But if I just let my mind “float” along with my legs…the shots become more intuitive, more risky and always at the end of the shoot period better with more “keepers”. I don’t tend to chimp as I shoot…so I keenly anticipate what I have got when I get home to load onto my PC.

    As an aside, ocassionally I meet friends and we have a few beers. I sometimes take my camera and after we Part I will wander the streets for a bit. With my inhibitions down THAT is when I get some great shots. (Some are in focus too – but that’s a different story 🤣).

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    1. Inhibitions come in many ways. And they do inhibit the natural flow of creation. If we can discard those inhibitions, just trust the process and at the same time use our craft, that, I think, is when we capture the strongest images.

  15. Great post … I can relate to a lot of what you are saying here. I feel I use both intuition and intention when I am out shooting a landscape or abandoned subjects. Perhaps there are times I am fueled more by intuition and other times intention.

  16. The phrase that caught me here was the one about being “emotionally attached to whatever I am photographing.” I’ve found that developing a relationship with a subject, however briefly, often ends in better photos. It might seem strange to think of developing a relationship with a flower, a frog, or a building, but it can happen. In any moment of pure attention to the subject at hand, both intuition and intention fall away, and only the relationship matters. I wonder if that might be what Cartier–Bresson meant by thinking before and after, but not in the “decisive moment.”

    1. I don’t think it’s strange to find a relationship to a frog or a building. It’s based on something different when connecting with human beings, but nevertheless just as real. I like your interpretation of Cartier-Bresson’s quote.

  17. This makes a lot of sense to me. I think “thinking” and being in our heads so often inhibits creativity on any level. I admire people who live without so much overthinking, and I suppose I just need to keep working on that. 🙂

  18. Enjoyed the post. I remember when I was just beginning to take images how surprised I was to find out many photographers would pay people to be in their images and how many objects were placed in strategic places to create a certain impression. Makes me wonder how much of what they shot is instinctive or intuitive and how was planned ahead of time. I know there is always some instinct that goes into just taking an image, but there seems to be a big difference in how a photo is created in the mind ahead of time. Is this really being lazy when a shot is taken as it develops?

    1. People have different approaches to photography. Some are meticulous, others are quicker and less attached to control every detail. One is not necessarily better than the other. Laziness can be found in either camps. 🙂

  19. I enjoy Du Chemin but I haven’t read that particular post – I’m behind! In any case, I like your description of the process of thinking about what you’d like to do before you begin shooting, then letting go of discursive thought while shooting. That sounds perfect!

  20. This is an excellent and thought-provoking essay, Otto. I often have a sense of time being suspended and being immersed in the moment when photographing. I think intention is something different.

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