conscious vs unconscious

27 December, 2005

Two schools of thought about How To Take The Best Photos, I’ve noticed.

First: practice. Take a bajillion and then take a bajillion more. Keep the best, toss the rest. Learn by doing: learn your equipment, learn your own eye, learn how to use light, just get the heck out there and do it. When you look at all that and see which you like and which you don’t, you will be learning, and the point of the process is to be able to reproduce things you did that produced results you like.

Second: mindlessness. take pictures with as little thought as possible. Aim and shoot. Or, don’t aim. Toss the camera in the air. Give it to a toddler. Click before you have time to compose anything. You’ll never see this thing again, don’t think too hard about it, it’s already gone. You can’t teach art, you have an eye or you don’t.

In my experience both approaches work very well. I’ve taken over a thousand pictures in the last two weeks. I now have a much firmer handle than ever before on what my camera can and can’t do and how I can make it see what I want it to see. I also have a strong idea of what is going on when I see something that I want to photograph, I know better what it is I’m attracted to, and that comes from talking to people and from seeing patterns in my own bajillions of shots. Were I using film, that’s 40 rolls! It’d have taken me months, and tons of $$ AND time, to learn what I’ve learned in the last few weeks.

Yet many of my favorite (best?) pictures are completely spontaneous. I attended a Hanukkah party tonight and took dozens and dozens (no really, around 75) shots of our dreidel game, trying to capture the mood. I was kind of That Girl about it (I didn’t bring my new tripod though). At one point I fumbled the camera and the data card read “corrupted.” Aaaaigh! All that lost?? Hastily I switched over to picture mode, focused on something, and snapped to make sure the actual camera bits were OK. Here is that picture, with absolutely no postprocessing:
nes gadol hayah sham

I fucking love this picture! I wish I had the language to say why. I don’t know what makes it a good shot or if it is to anyone else, but it captures the mood so beautifully and so much better than any of the other ones do. So this would seem to be a vote for zen photo-taking. Every now and then I’ll hand the camera to my niece (5) and the portraits she can get of people are just amazing. She captures who the person wants to be. I’d consider that another vote. Maybe half of the shots I’ve ul’d to flickr are of that unconscious/subconscious type.

However I don’t think I could have gotten this dreidels shot by approaching the whole party in that sort of way. My experience, short as it may be, held the camera in that particular place. My monkey mind was worried about material things and someone in there–someone else–snuck in and pressed the shutter.

Maybe this is a long way to say that maybe I’m going from novice to intermediate with this, neuroscience-wise. I read an article an age ago that looked at some aspect of this with Unix ability as the metric. Intermediate was a user who could easily use pipes and such, and advanced would be a user who uses stuff like sed/awk/perl to do more complex processing on the command line. I thought that was a brilliant way to delineate levels of skill and often think of that as an analogy when I find myself on a continuum of skill for something.

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3 Responses to “conscious vs unconscious”

  1. mary anne Says:

    Also, composition and artistic technique can be taught. Artistic vision, however, cannot be. It can be nurtured and developed, but must come from within or from wherever the cosmos dictates.

    Yes, you must take a lot of photos to get good at it, but that goes for anything. Taking a class in anything always helps, as you get instant feedback from professionals and learn shortcuts.

    I do like your photos.

    Mary Anne

  2. mary anne Says:

    If a professional gets one good print from a roll of film, that is considered successful. The same goes with motion pictures. I forget what the shoot-to-cut ratio is, but, generally, you shoot a lot of film and keep a small fraction of it to get the results you want.

  3. mary anne Says:

    Yeah, Zen picture-taking. It’s great when you get to that point.

    I also think it’s great that you’re helping your 5-y.o. niece to learn how to take photos. Kids love that stuff.

    Mary Anne


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