On Being Present And Being Absent
There's a certain elusive knack to capturing the best images. We all strive to find it. Occasionally, it finds us. The secret has something to do with being present, and with being absent.
To begin with, it's no doubt obvious that you can't take a picture if you stay home. That is, unless your subject is there at home with you of course. My point is, you have to be where your subject is. You have to be present where and when the picture is taken. If you're not there, no picture.
There are also any number of decisions that have to be made. And while your camera can do a plausible job of making some of them for you, many of them are unavoidably your responsibility alone. That's what makes you the photographer and not simply a passive observer. It's up to you to bring all your knowledge and experience to bear on making the best decisions you can, often under pressure of time constraint. And always under the limitations of circumstances and the tools you have available. If it's dark, it won't make sense to stop your lens down to f/32 unless you're shooting with a flash. If you don't even have a wide angle lens with you, you'll have a hard time taking in a wide angle of view.
The more you understand about the art and science of photography and what your gear is capable of, the better off you will be at making good decisions. And it takes presence of mind to think things through and make such decisions. You have to be there both physically and mentally. You can't be absent or daydreaming.
But there are limitations to everything. All that knowledge and experience we possess can also get in our way. Each of us has our own way of looking at things, and we carry that wherever we go. Some of it we're not even aware of. We think we see the world objectively, but the truth is, the only way we have of looking at the world is through the filters of our own experience.
This isn't a bad thing, it's just a fact of how we exist in the world. It's the only way we have of dealing with the complexity of the modern world. The fact that we can learn about the world around us is what allows us to learn to use our cameras in order to be photographers. It's what allowed a whole bunch of smart people to design and build that camera in the first place. We benefit significantly from carrying around all those facts and ideas and experiences.
Yet we have ideas and experiences involving so much more than our cameras. When we look at a tree as a possible photography subject, we see it based on trees we've known in the past. It may bring to mind sitting underneath a tree with a cool drink on a hot day last summer. It may remind us of the blisters we ended up with on our hands years ago after raking the leaves from the trees in the yard as a kid. There are any number of memories it might bring up from our storehouse of experience. The majority of those memories are unlikely to be consciously brought to mind as you stand in a field deciding how to photograph that tree. But they are nonetheless there with you, in that field. Influencing you, at that moment as you hold your camera, considering the possibilities.
But sometimes that tree may remind you of something else entirely. A tree can look like a person. A rock like the face of a person. Heck, if people can see the face of Abraham Lincoln in a grilled cheese sandwich, then clearly we can be reminded of all sorts of things if we're open to the possibilities. If you insist that the tree in front of you is a tree, you limit yourself to photographing it as a tree. If let go of what you know it to be though, who know what the possibilities are. You could frame the tree so as to accentuate whatever it may have reminded you of and end up with something much more powerful. Sometimes it can help to get out of the way and allow the tree to tell you what it looks like. Tree or otherwise.
This is entirely normal. People look up at the clouds all the time and see the shapes of familiar objects all the time. Look, that one looks like a rabbit. That one looks like a space ship. And that over their looks like a grilled cheese sandwich. This isn't a recent phenomenon either. Where do you think the constellations in the night sky came from? There really isn't a big dipper or a hunter with a bow and arrow up there you know. It's just that the star patterns reminded early people of those things. Maybe they didn't really know what all those twinkling lights in the sky were all about, but we do today. And they still look like those shapes if you allow your imagination to wander.
Sometimes daydreaming can be exactly what's called for. Those lights in the night sky would lose their character if I we saw were the stars and not the constellations. If all you ever see standing in that field with our camera is the tree and not the person it reminds you of, your images probably won't have the same character as they could if you allowed your mind to wander. Objective photojournalism has its value, but so does artistic expression. It all depends on what you want you want to aim for. Personally, I embrace the creative possibilities of photography.
Sometimes I find that I end up with a really cool image that captures something I wasn't even aware of when shooting it. The photograph reminds me of something I didn't consciously see at the time. Maybe I framed it that way instinctively, maybe I'll never really know how it works. I'm just thankful for when it does.
The truth is, the knack of capturing the best images is elusive indeed. In some ways, you want to carefully think things through, bringing all your skill and knowledge to bear. In other ways, you want to get out of the way and allow your mind to wander. Both can be necessary.