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Patting Your Head and Rubbing Your Stomach at the Same Time

It's a curious thing that most people find it difficult to pat their head with one hand while rubbing their stomach with their other. If you don't believe me, give it a try. Doing either by itself isn't at all difficult, but the combination can be more difficult to master. Succeeding at photography, too, can benefit from a degree of multitasking coordination.

It has long been noted that photography is both an artistic pursuit as well as one that depends on a mastery of certain technical skills. While modern cameras can and often do handle many of the technical issues for you, there's really no way for them to relieve you of all of such decisions. And I doubt any camera will ever be able to figure out what visible subject is most photogenic, where best to shoot itself from and how best to compose a shot to portray that subject. I mean, if it could do that, you might be able to just stand there and watch it do so, but you probably could just as well stay home with your feet up watching Netflix and let your camera drive itself to that destination by itself. But while companies are already testing self-driving cars, it's a huge leap from following Google Maps and the contours of a road to being able to find and take good photos.

And even if cameras could someday master the needed skills, would you really want them to? Whose photography is it, anyway? Yours, or your cameras? Is your part done because you bought a really good, expensive camera? A big part of the motivation for trying your hand at photography has to relate to a desire to record your own vision, not someone else's. Even considering the technical automation modern cameras are capable of, will they really pick the same exposure, aperture and so on that you would? Unlikely.

To the extent that you can, you are generally better off controlling as many of the variables involved in the photographic process as you can yourself. Of course, some variables you may deem more important than others in particular situations. For example, given the quick reaction times needed to capture fleeting events, you may gladly let your camera handle the auto-focus chores while you concentrate on other matters. But in the end, that too should be your decision to let it. Don't just leave your camera on fully automatic and assume it knows what's best.

All these photographic decisions can be lumped into two broad categories, technical and artistic. And like patting your head with one hand while rubbing your stomach with the other, the two realms of technical and artistic decision making can be harder to master at the same time than you might think until you try it. It's basically a "left brain" versus "right brain" dichotomy. You can have a well exposed, perfectly focused image that isn't very compelling, or you can have an amazingly creative composition that fails in execution due to technical problems. But it's hard to have it both ways at the same time, in the same image.

The adage that "practice makes perfect" sets a somewhat unrealistic goal, but practice certainly can make for better results, even if purely through trial and error. There's no shame in learning from your mistakes, so long as you are learning, and thereby improving. There aren't any magic answers to juggling all the variables, both creative and technical, needed to create good images, but I can heartily recommend spending some time thinking about whatever it may be that is holding you back so you can prioritize it more highly the next time you are out shooting. You want to develop competence in both sides of the equation so you can freely jump back and forth as needed in the moment.

I've found that many photographers can also be placed into one of two categories based on this same division. Some photographers do a very good job of taking technically good images that record whatever may be going on in their lives but have never really considered the question of what makes for a "good" image beyond that. Others set their cameras on fully automatic and spend all their energy on being in the right place at the right time, pointing their camera just so, and waiting for the decisive moment before snapping the shutter release. One kind focuses on the technical at the expense of the creative, while the other does the reverse, trying their best to be creative while assuming their camera can handle the technical decisions, perhaps even better than they could if they did take such matters into their own hands.

Even if you do decide to let your camera deal with all those technical decisions on your behalf, your path to success creatively isn't assured. There's still a problem of a similar nature whose mastery is necessary to reliably achieve good compositions.

There are two ways to approach the task of composing images. The usual way is by emulating patterns and following rules for composition learned from others. The assumption here is to benefit from others trial and error efforts so you don't have to. If someone tells you that placing your main subject on one of the "rule of thirds" intersection points can yield a better composition, you do your best to follow that advice. If you've read that when repeating a design element in an image, odd numbers of objects are better than even numbers as this avoids the tendency for the viewer's eyes to "ping pong" between elements. Sound advice proven out by generations of good photographers, so it makes sense to keep this in mind when creating your own photos of grouped elements. Following such rules is generally considered as a "recipe book" to arrive at creative and compelling images more quickly than one might otherwise be capable of. Some look at this as the only way since they've never considered any other approach.

But this leaves out what things actually look like to you, personally. Following the rules doesn't include consideration as to whether you like a given shot better than the alternatives or not. How you feel matters though, and if you find an image compelling, the likelihood is that others will as well, even if you can't point to a particular rule that led to that result.

These two ways of looking at composition are at odds with each other because rule following is proactive, while liking something is mainly reactive in nature. You can't really know if you like something until you see it and make that judgement. Following the composition rules may lead to good images, but recognizing good images when you see them is of crucial importance too since you would otherwise not know if you followed the right rule, or whether this was an occasion to dispense with rules completely and trust your feelings.

It might be tempting to abandon rules completely as being limitations on creativity. But magical light is often fleeting, and some subjects themselves move quickly. At least a degree of reliance on rule-based composition can help reach good results before the opportunity vanishes completely. In a perfect world, perhaps you could try every permutation and combination of shots, pointing your camera this way and that, changing lenses, changing framing, and so on, as you iteratively work your way in a step-wise fashion to better and better compositions until you find what you really like. But such luxury of time is rarely the case, and even when it might be, those efforts can hardly be considered an efficient strategy. But if you rely solely on the composition rules you've been taught, you leave out room for your own creative impulses to guide you. Again like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, it's important to master both skills at the same time. Start with the rules when they make sense, but don't feel locked into them.

As a child, most of us learned about simultaneously patting their head and rubbing their stomach. If you've already gotten good at it one way, try reversing hands and see if you can still do it the other way. Not so simple, is it? I can remember kids at school all standing around attempting this feat, laughing at others difficultly only to find myself uncontrollably rubbing my head and patting my stomach, or alternately patting or rubbing both to the jeers of my school age peers. But with practice, it can become relatively easy to master this trick. All it takes is a bit of practice to see the improvements in your dexterity. In a similar way, good photography can require a degree of coordination and mental dexterity that benefit from practice.

Date posted: September 18, 2016


Copyright © 2016 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Technical Skills versus Composition
Iterative Composition
Your Composition Toolbox
The Relationship of Composition Rules to Good Composition

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