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Does Good Photography Come From the Left Brain or the Right Brain?

Perhaps it's an oversimplification, but the left brain is generally characterized as being where logical, analytical thinking occurs while the right brain handles emotional, creative thought. So which is the most important in creating good photography?

It's an interesting question. A modern camera is a computer-controlled technological wonder which, while perhaps simplifying some traditionally complicated aspects of photography, does add an entirely new layer of complexity requiring detailed, rational thought to master. At the same time, photography has always made available a creative avenue for depicting the world around us and how we feel about it. A photographer has to be able to effectively bridge this divide to translate their vision of what a photograph "can be" or "might be" into what it will be.

Good photography definitely involves effective problem solving. Everything boils down to a compromise. Close down the aperture more to get better depth of field and you'll need to use a longer shutter speed that comes with the potential for blurring things in the wind. You get the idea. For everything you want to do you are forced to do something you might not want to.

But good photography isn't limited to forensic rendering of reality and weighing the plusses and minuses of different choices. Good photography is also a subjective distillation of possibilities in order to maximize the impact of what results. Capturing the feeling of being in a particular place at a particular time requires going beyond the use of camera and lens as mere tools. The problem side of photography imposes limits. The creative side finds ways of going beyond those limits, or at least of turning those limitations into creative assets.

The wind is blowing? Use the wind-blown branches to depict the power of nature. The sun is in the wrong place? Render the subject as a silhouette on purpose. Perhaps these could be seen as yet more problems to be solved, but where do such solutions come from? Often such answers just come to you if you are open to them. They tend to result from a holistic view of the situation, not from a sequential, analytical outlook.

In order to create images that realize the full potential of photographer and situation, both left and right brained approaches are necessary. They must work hand in hand. And a photographer must be comfortable with both to achieve their best. Relying too much on the left brain yields competent images that lack emotional impact. But giving yourself over exclusively to the right brain risks creativity that lacks focus and direction.

Approaching a photographic subject usually starts with a right brained approach. There isn't yet a problem to be solved. The goal at this point is merely to find something that interests you to become your subject. But once you find it, the details of what to do with that subject begin to ask themselves and demand answers. Where should you stand? What focal length allows you to crop out the unnecessary surroundings adequately and concentrate on what drew you to that subject in the first place? And remember, for each of these choices there may be consequences that themselves become more problems to consider. Weighing those tradeoffs can cause you to fall back on your creative side for guidance and inspiration. The path to ultimately pressing the shutter often involves an iterative, back and forth process employing first right brain, then left, then each again by turns until both sides of one's brain are satisfied they have done their best.

There's a yin and yang to all of this — an interplay of left and right brain elements that comes equally from a familiarity with the tools of the trade and a passion for going beyond familiar representational interpretations those tools might otherwise be used for.

When the typical aspiring photographer looks at the work of someone they consider to be more accomplished they are often interested in the technical details of photographs. "What was the aperture and shutter speed?" they will ask. "What lens did you use?" "What software was used?" And so on. Rarely is the question asked regarding topics such as what it felt like to be there as the sun rose on an unspoiled wilderness vista. This has always struck me as both understandable and unfortunate. Understandable in the sense that they are likely still trying to master the basics of exposure and camera operation but unfortunate in that they might mistake this as the be-all and end-all of what matters. Yet mastering the technical side of photography alone will never be as rewarding as when paired with a personal investment in the creative side.

I wrote back in 2003 that working to improve compositional skills could be considered more important for a beginner than technical photographic skills since the modern camera could handle "auto exposure" to a degree but that "auto composition" would likely never be possible. I still stand by that. But in the end, arguing which is more important is somewhat like trying to decide whether to start walking first with your left foot or your right. Both are necessary to really go much of anywhere.

Date posted: December 25, 2011


Copyright © 2011 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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