There’s a Lifetime of Thinking Squeezed into Every Camera Click
“What is your thought process before you take an image?” This is one of the most commonly asked questions I receive. It’s a very valid question. It presumes that people think I’m capable of thought (I like that assumption). Is there thought that goes into each photograph or perhaps more importantly, is photography purely an intellectual endeavor? The question hurts just thinking about it. Is there thought involved in the creative process of making a photograph? Before getting to that thought, I want to step back a moment to see if thinking can’t begin sooner and have more of an impact on our photography long before the moment of click. I would suggest that the thinking process might be more pure subconscious rather than conscious in a successful photograph. It’s the result of a natural reaction to the visual stimulation rather than one that’s thought through. Man, that’s a lot to think about for just a silly click!
“Engage your brain before your mouth.” My dad tried to the very end to get that through my thick skull and while I’m doing better at that in verbal conversations, I know I’ve always done that in my visual communicating. I do think prior to pushing the shutter release, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thought most presume must occur. I’m not thinking f/stop and shutter speed. When it’s a landscape photo, I don’t think through the post processing anymore. I don’t even think about who that photograph should be sold to anymore. Nope, the most common thought this year when I’m behind the camera is simply, “How lucky I am to be here and behind the camera.” Luckily the photo making process is so conditioned the body and camera take over for the lack of thought.
I was incredibly fortunate when I started out in this photographic pursuit to have thoughts and ideas placed in my mind that guide me to this day. I had an instructor way back when who had a weekly assignment. We had to go into the library and just look at photography, photographs that were in print in books or magazines only. First, we had to find those that appealed to us. They didn’t have to be killer images, just ones we thought were cool. Then, and this was the heart of the assignment, we had to back engineer the photos and think through how they were created. For example, if you liked a product shot of a gulf club, you had to determine from the reflections what was lit with lights and what was lit with subtractive light (don’t know that term, looks like you’ve got some homework to do). We had to engage the brain and our knowledge of light in order to get an “A” on the assignment.
This exercise started to create a roadmap in my mind of the thought process that goes into the back end of a photograph, a studio shot where we are in control of the lighting. But my arena of photography is not in the studio and I’m anything but in control of the light. But light is light, that’s a novel thought. You place a light, be it a flash in a studio or the sun outdoors in front of a subject, the subject will be lit (I think). Get that light close to a subject and it wraps around it, move it far away and it becomes a spot. Thinking this through and applying what we learn when lighting a human face to the facial disk of a grizzly bear, how can we take the sun and have it mimic a SB-900 going through a 3×3 Lastolite? Think about it, how do we take the biggest spot light on the planet, the sun, and turn it into a giant softbox? That’s right, overcast or clouds or snow or sand or a combination of all of the above. What’s the common denominator? Light and thinking.
You watch someone like McNally light a subject, scene or story and you might assume he’s thinking it all through. He’s not thinking; he’s reacting. He’s not planning, but rather responding to the light. The thought came long ago, the thinking through of the problems occurred a lifetime ago. The magic of his craft (and it is a craft and he is the highest form of a craftsman) is the subconscious thought to the light and what he wants to communicate to you. He paid his dues and thought it through so long ago that now when his wild imagination goes to work, the light just naturally follows. Yeah, when he’s teaching you hear his thoughts, but I’ve been there when he’s making magic and it’s a magical experience as the light just simply comes on and the subject is born.
And that’s how the thought process should be. I do all my thinking before the camera ever goes to my eye. The stalk of the critter is based on the background, the f/stop selection based on that background and the story I want to tell. And exposure compensation is dialed into the camera in route to the subject. When the camera meets the eye, there is no thinking just reacting, watching the subject and making subtle changes to the position of the camera, doing the dance. Personally, if I had to be thinking and not reacting to the subject, I wouldn’t get the shot. I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
So what am I thinking about when I put the camera to my eye? I’m not, that part of the photographic process is already done long before the camera comes up. It occurs when I have a new piece of gear and I figure out if it solves a problem and is worth buying in the first place. The thinking occurs still when admiring those photographs that catch my attention and imagination and I figure out what elements excite my vision. The thoughts fly through my mind when I look at my images each day that I captured that day. I think through what I did wrong and what I did right and, most importantly, think through what images I need to still capture to tell the story. There is no one thought going through my mind when I’m shooting. There’s a lifetime of thinking squeezed into every camera click.