Taking Chances

Do chances come your way? When was the last time you had a chance to take an unusual image and you missed it? Do you recognize chance, photographically speaking?

Most of us like to exist in our comfort zones in many walks of life – we are risk averse. Risk is dangerous – things can go wrong when we take a risk. Chance is a bit like a risk, but much less risky – it’s more benign. Chance is offered as an option.

IMG_6876_1When I’m out with a camera in a familiar place I usually have a clear idea of what to shoot. I know the photographic strengths of that place. I may have a specific image in mind: one I’ve taken before but want to re-shoot. We will all have approached a day out with that mindset. The problem with that attitude is that before we even arrive at our destination we have a closed mind: we are wearing blinkers, our vision is narrowed. And what happens if you don’t see what you are looking for? Do you come away rather despondent with an empty card? Or, can you re-think?

IMG_6879_wpChance presents itself to all of us in two guises: firstly as the blink-and-you-miss-it sudden event; and secondly as a result of taking the time and opportunity to see a place anew, in a way that is outside our normal modus operandi. To make the best of chance we have to recognise it first. Sometimes that is best described as riding one’s luck. We need to be open to it, and that requires us to be alert and relaxed at the same time. That sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t.

Chance came my way earlier this week. My wife and I were out in our local city centre. We shopped together for a few minutes and then she said: ‘I want time on my own, off you go with your camera, you’ve got forty-five minutes’. I was like a dog let off the lead! The shopping arcades and their surroundings are a favourite haunt of mine – full of geometry, modern architecture and interesting shop windows with reflections. But on this occasion after wasting quite a few minutes I couldn’t find a single image that attracted me: the place seemed imaged-out, there was nothing new to shoot, and the light wasn’t right. I went and bought a CD instead.

IMG_6903_wpThat break seemed to clear my head of a mild sense of irritation. I checked my watch – thirty minutes left. What to do instead? I paused to look around me, open to suggestions, and I noticed the people rather than the place. And I just started to experiment. I saw possibilities – opportunities – and I grabbed them. My mind had freed up, I felt un-pressured, my eyes were receptive to new images, and I noticed chances. It was a mix of alertness and a process of relaxing into my environment. I moved around, stood still, and waited for something to happen.

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All four images scattered through this post were taken on this walkabout. None of them will win an award. The last one nearly went straight into the trash – shot from the hip along with a few others, over-exposed, and out of focus. But when I looked at it a second time I saw something vaguely impressionistic and I felt it worth processing. The other three are examples where I stopped and waited and took a chance.

In the case of the first image, I shot the graphic and just a few seconds later I saw the lady in red approaching. The shot was instinctive. To make the most of a chance we have to be ready and prepared. Camera in hand, switched on, ready to shoot. And if we walk around like that, camera in hand, observing our environment with an open mind, then chances will always come our way. We just have to see them and take them.

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How do we See?

How do we See? That may sound a very simple question with an equally easy answer: ‘We use our eyes’. And on a very superficial level that is of course the right answer. But for the majority of us who are mastering, or have mastered, the ability to See, the answer is a little bit more complicated than that.

The process of mastering the Ability to See (which I discussed in the post ‘Don’t Look – Learn to See’) involves taking observation to a new level. It results in a heightened state of visual awareness of our environment that enables us to see the world around us in our own individual way. It becomes a skill that we carry with us everywhere we go. Annie Leibovitz phrased it like this: ‘One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time’.

Previously also I’ve written about the role our Creative Self, or our innate Creativity, plays in directing our eye (see my Post: ‘Personal Creativity’). In that post I explained how our Creativity is an evolving aspect of our personality shaped by all the influences, preferences, and visual references that we are exposed to throughout life. Our Eye is driven by our Creativity.

The question I’m posing today is this: What is actually happening in practice when we use our Ability to See? How do we See What we See. What is the mechanism? What’s actually going on upstairs in our grey matter? What I’m going to attempt to do is describe a theoretical model of ‘How’ we See. It’s not a Eureka moment, or a game-changing plan that will suddenly enable you to ‘See’ better. But it might be that by thinking a little about what is happening inside our heads as we observe the world around us, we may be able to harness our Creativity a little better,

Let’s imagine that we are in a very ordinary urban situation or place. Not somewhere where you would normally carry a camera.

In such an environment, an ordinary person, who merely ‘Looks’ (implying a rather superficial, casual way of viewing the environment) will maybe notice – in passing – aspects of that environment. It might include the buildings themselves, glass, reflectivity, lines, geometry, colour, light and shade. It might be something unusual or out of place. Nothing registers on that ordinary person’s visual radar as image-worthy although he/she may spot all those aspects of the environment. The person, who merely ‘looks’, has not yet mastered the technique of ‘unlocking’ that specific environment and therefore he or she fails to identifyBar Chart_1 anything worth capturing.

Alongside is a graphic way of explaining this idea. I’ve drawn a bar chart of a set of characteristics that might apply to an urban environment. The person who merely ‘Looks’ will notice all those characteristics but he/she will look aimlessly around unable to see anything that ‘stands out’. In other words – that person’s vision will not attach any weight to, nor show any particular interest in, any characteristic of that environment. They will all rank the same – of insignificant value.

I will walk through that same environment, and I will notice all the same things that the ordinary person notices. But as I walk, what my brain, via my eyes, is actually doing is searching for visual triggers, and as a consequence I will find images that the person who looks never spots.

Bar Chart_2Those of us who have mastered the Ability to See have developed the ability, driven by the preferences and visual likes/dislikes stored within our Creativity, to actively seek out images that ‘conform’ to a set of characteristics (or criteria) that we have subconsciously collated and stored as representative of a style or content that has visual appeal to us in that environment. (see second chart alongside).

In other words we subconsciously apply a ‘weighting’ (as shown visually in the second bar chart) to some of the characteristics of that environment. We could describe these ‘weightings’ as the visual triggers or the ‘hooks’ that drive our photography.

Over time we will develop a large number of different ‘sets’ of criteria that we learn to employ as aids to Seeing in all the different environments that we are regularly exposed to.

That, I’m happy to admit, is a gross simplification of a complex process; but I think it is a valid way of attempting to describe and understand how individually we employ our own Seeing Eye, and how that results in each one of us seeing things that others don’t see. And so long as we continue as active photographers, that process of finding images that have personal appeal will always be functioning as a feedback loop at a subconscious level, reinforcing the appeal of what we See and like, and embedding those preferences in our Creativity.

What are your thoughts on this complex idea? Join the conversation – do make a comment.

Foundations

Creativity cannot be taught, but the foundations – the building blocks that assist the Creative process, and facilitate the cultivation of a Seeing Eye – those can be described. Understanding those foundations, and incorporating them into your daily practice as a photographer will free up your mind and allow your Creativity to flow.

This process starts with familiarizing yourself fully with your camera. And the best way to do that (apart from reading the user guide more than once) is to use it. Carry it with you wherever you go. Many activities require practice and Photography is no different. The more you carry your camera, the more you will use it. And the more you use it in unfamiliar environments and conditions the more familiar you will become with the settings and how to change them.

Carrying a camera implies an intention to find something to capture. But there’s no point hiding it at the bottom of your rucsac – you’ll forget it’s there. Carry it, if it’s safe to do so, so it’s ready for use. The simple act of cradling a camera in your hand will encourage you to look for ways to use it.

It may seem rather pointless carrying a camera in mundane situations. But the point is this: the skills you acquire and the ability to ‘See’ and identify images in one environment are transferable to any other environment.

IMG_5461_wpLearn from your images – don’t just delete the failures without a thought. Every image is a learning experience. Look at them and work out what went wrong: think about why the image failed. Very often images fail because we use the wrong settings, and very often that is because we fail to check them before we press the shutter. Become systematic about shooting. Pause and think before you shoot. Another common cause of failure is cropping too tight. Allow a little extra space in the frame and consider the crop back home. After a while you will notice what your common mistakes are and start to correct them.

The next batch of foundations relates more to how you view your environment. The key principle here is to expand your vision. Lazily we tend to see only a 180 degree arc at eye level. Look around you. Look down, look up and always remember to look behind you (the light will be different). Learn also to see the environment as if through a sensor-shaped frame – in rectangular bites. Look for potential compositions.

Experiment with different focal length lenses. Go out with just one lens and use it at one focal length. Notice how different the world looks through a wider or longer lens. If funds allow, consider buying a significantly wider or longer lens.

_DS78443_wpDon’t overburden yourself with equipment when you go out to capture images. Do you really need a third lens? Do you really need a bulky tripod? The simpler your kit is the more you can concentrate on creativity, rather than spending time changing lenses with all the risks that process entails.

I mentioned learning from mistakes. The flip side to that is to learn from other photographers successes. When you plan a trip, Google the place you are visiting, or use another research tool to view images that others have taken. Critique those images and pre-visualize your own trip. A consequence of planning, and being clearer about your objectives, may mean you are able to slim down what you choose to carry because your ideas will be more focused.

Creativity requires an untroubled mind. Sometimes that means being out there on your own, with no distractions, with no deadline to meet, with your mind relaxed. If your photography is always in the company of family and non-photographers it is likely that the quality of your output will suffer.

Finally be inspired. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum. Creativity thrives by exposure to the work of like-minded individuals. That’s why this blogging community, to which we all belong, is such a valuable resource. Use all opportunities to see other people’s work. Visit galleries and exhibitions. Read books and magazines. All work will inspire you and give you fresh ideas. And don’t limit yourself solely to the work of photographers – exhibitions of sculpture and painting can also be sources of inspiration.

This Post contains a lot of individual points. I’ve drawn them all together in this post as a list of what I consider to be some of the essential building blocks to the development of our Creative abilities. It’s not an exhaustive list and I’m sure there are other key principles that you can think of to add to this list.

A number of them are covered in far greater detail in articles in the Foundations category visible in the right sidebar. Do explore those articles.

Photography is a good walk spoiled

Mark Twain said: ‘Golf is a good walk spoiled’. But can photography have the same effect? Can we also say: ‘Photography is a good walk spoiled’?

How about debating that at your next Camera Club meeting? If we are being serious and honest I suspect that many of us would answer that question with the initial words: ‘It depends…’

I’ve posed the question so I’d better answer it. In a word – Yes. Photography can most definitely spoil a good walk but it really does depend on a number of factors. There are walks and then there are Walks. So it depends on what sort of walk we are talking about and importantly who, if anyone, is walking with us.

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Getting left behind again

I go out walking with my wife. They tend to be shortish walks – just a mile or two, no further than that – at a leisurely pace. And there’s always a camera taking a walk too. My wife and I have reached an under-standing about walking with a camera. I stop for a picture; she carries on walking. Generally she walks at a slower pace than me, and so I take a picture and catch her up, and the process repeats itself again, and again, and again. Occasionally she will spot an image for me. We are like the tortoise and the hare.

Usually I give her the car keys at the start of the walk, and she will make it back to the car at her own pace and I will follow. I’ll find her having a cup of tea in a café perhaps, or reading a book, or doing The Times crossword (the easy one). If anything, we walk better than we used to because Photography has slowed me down a bit. Without a camera I would always be getting way ahead, standing waiting for her to catch me up. So these walks are not ruined by photography. We have a coping mechanism you might say. It works.

But going out walking with friends or wider family, none of whom are photographers, is a different matter. Then photography can be disruptive. What are your friends to do when you stop for a picture? Hang around and wait for you, or just carry on regardless? Do you become the outsider to the conversations because you are always dropping out of the group? Are you being a bit anti-social? Isn’t the walk in danger of being spoiled by your repeated absences? And, particularly if the object of the walk is to reach a particular place, then a self-centered obsession with photography may put the target of the walk in jeopardy. Your friends may not remain your friends indefinitely if including you in their activities results in them being disrupted by your photography.

And your photography will not fulfill its potential if your mind is focused on conversation, or divided between being with your friends or stopping off for an image. A constant juggling of competing interests will do nothing for your creativity. There are times to walk, and times to be a photographer. Sometimes Photography is a pursuit best indulged on our own.

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Descending Meru – Kilimanjaro on the far horizon

A short story to end with. I climbed Kilimanjaro in 2006 on a trip organized by Jagged Globe (a first class company that I highly recommend). To acclimatize for Kili, we climbed Meru first (see the image at left) – another dormant volcano about the same height as Mont Blanc. On the first day climbing Meru, after about an hour, one of the party spotted a flower he wanted to photograph a little way off the trail. I hung around to see what he would capture. Out came his tripod and he fiddled around for about five minutes, adjusting his tripod, trying out different viewpoints, struggling to get a single image.  One of the leaders was obliged to wait for him, along with me. We spent the next quarter of an hour catching up the group.

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On the descent from Kili’s summit

The tripod was never ever used again, although it had to be carried to the top of Meru and back. It got left behind completely on Kili. And although, after the trip, most of us exchanged digital images vie email and Flickr, none of us ever saw a single image from the guy with the Tripod.

Click on any image to view a higher quality enlargement.

Come back next week for Going Solo in High Places.

For images of my expedition to Kilimanjaro on my other Blog click here.

Personal Creativity

How do we define Creativity? Is it innate or learned? Can it be taught? Is it static or does it evolve?

Most of us will associate Creativity primarily with The Arts: music, poetry, writing, crafts and of course the Visual Arts (including Photography). But it also plays a critical role in so many occupations and businesses. For example: Architecture, Auto Design, Technology, Furnishings, Horticulture, and Advertising – to name a very obvious few.

In business environments, creative thinking may lead to that eureka moment, it’s often associated with problem solving, and it’s also critical to ‘thinking outside the box’. In such scenarios it will often be a team effort: the result of brainstorming, the work of a focus group, or lateral thinking. In business terms, we may well agree with Jonah Lehrer who wrote in the Wall Street Journal: ‘Creativity is not a trait that we inherit in our genes, or a blessing bestowed by the angels. It’s a skill. Anyone can learn to be creative and get better at it.

However, when we come to think about the Arts and Photography specifically, I think it is clear that Creativity is firstly a personal concept and secondly the idea that anyone can ‘learn to be creative’ is an oversimplification.

Creativity is a nebulous concept. It’s difficult to define. The dictionary defines it unhelpfully as ‘the quality of being creative’. Here are some attempts by others:

  • A concept characterized by originality, expressiveness and imaginative concepts and ideas.
  • Defined as the ability and power to create
  • Home grown, nurtured
  • An expression of ‘You’
  • Stimulated by the work of others
  • Defined as the ability and power to create

Ultimately it is Personal Creativity that makes my photography different from yours. It is Creativity that steers our ‘Eye’.

When we talk about the Ability to See or ‘Learning to See’, we may ask the question: Why do I see things that you don’t, and vice versa? I think we are asking the wrong question. The real question is this: Where does our Creativity come from? What shapes our inner Creative Self? I don’t believe Creativity can be taught or learned in the traditional sense. I believe it is an amalgam of all the many things that have shaped our lives and made us who we are: our genes, our upbringing, our experiences, exposures, influences, preferences, ideas, and vision. It’s a subconscious drip drip process from the day we were born. In other words I think a little of it is innate but much of it is developed through life. To quote a well-known phrase: it’s a combination of Nature and Nurture.

Otto von Münchow’s blog ‘In Flow’ is notable for the quality of Otto’s writing about the creative side of Photography. Otto writes:

Our artistic work – or creative work – is a mirror of ourselves. It reflects who we are, our interests, what is important in our lives. At best your creative expression becomes an extension of yourself.’

If you don’t yet follow Otto’s blog, you are missing out on something special.

Creativity thrives on exposure and interaction. We continue to acquire new threads to add to it throughout life as a result of our experiences, through our appreciation of other people’s art, and from shifts in our own vision. In other words our Personal Creativity (our inner Creative Self) continues to evolve. In the past year, in London, I have seen exhibitions of the work of Ansel Adams, Sebastiao Salgado and the painter L S Lowry. The inspiration I gathered from those images is now incorporated subconsciously into my Creative Self.

Here’s a clever quote from Alain Briot, American Professional Photographer, writer and teacher: ‘Creativity is an input-output, import-export business. You have to be in contact with other artists … in order to foster creativity’

Our Creative Expression is the output or visible product of all those inputs that combine to form our Creative Self. And that is why we are all unique. Fundamentally it’s what made Picasso different to Dali, or Henry Moore different to Hepworth. And it makes each one of us different too. You can’t define Creativity, and I don’t think it can be taught or learned – certainly not in the traditional sense.

What’s the driver behind both the inputs and the outputs? It’s our ‘Eye’. Our Ability to See.

The Seeing Eye is Creative Expression’s eyepiece. It’s brilliantly expressed in the next quote by Joseph Campbell – American writer, author and mythologist: ‘The eyes are the scouts of the heart.’

Every time we use our personal Seeing Eye – whether it is viewing an exhibition, or taking images – there is a subtle feedback loop working in the background that over time leads to an adjustment to what we seek out when we use our Seeing Eye. It becomes re-defined, its focus shifts. And it will continue to do so as long as we remain active photographers.

That is why our Personal Creativity is constantly evolving. It’s a journey with no discernible endpoint. The direction of travel will change as our Creative Self continues to be attracted to new visual ideas. It evolves as a result of our ongoing experiences. You cannot force a Seeing Eye upon yourself. It is a slow process. If you start carrying a camera everywhere you go (as I recommended in my earlier post FaCT), you will start to find images, and those images over time will have a number of themes to them that will resonate with you, because they will become an expression of who you are.

Three final contributions from other people to end with:

From Edward de Bono [Writer and renowned expert on creative thinking]: ‘There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.’

From Maya Angelou [American Author and Poet]: ‘You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

Finally, I encourage you to sign up to Otto von Münchow’s blog. As an example, read this Post – Unlimited – to get an idea of how well Otto writes about Creativity.

If you have something relevant to add then do make a comment.