Seeing, part two: the anxiety of infinite composition

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Ripples

In part one of this pair of articles on seeing photographically, we examined our mental expectations of art, and considered whether it was a product of nature or nurture, and if it could be taught; in part two, we’ll approach seeing from the opposite end of the continuum: what if you can’t stop seeing? The images used to decorate this article are a series of perhaps non-obvious compositions that may not have appeared immediately apparent to the unconscious observer.

Although I touched on this somewhat in the article dealing with the stages of creative evolution of a photographer, I think there are several ‘levels’ to seeing; and by seeing, I mean the ability to create an aesthetically pleasing and balanced composition that conveys the meaning or message intended by the creator, lit in a way that enhances the presentation and makes the subject obvious. Firstly, one needs to be aware and conscious of any available opportunities, interesting subjects or potential frames present in one’s surroundings. Next comes awareness of light and the quality of light; where the shadows fall and how harsh/ hard those shadows quite seriously affects the overall balance of the composition. Such shadows must be thought of as additional shapes within the frame, not extensions of their parent objects – they can overlap their parents (thus reducing apparent size) or be projected onto other parts of the frame, thus requiring space in their own right to ‘breathe’.

_6002053 copyGrab a puddle

After that comes the ability to create a composition using available subjects, elements and light; I like to think of it as the ability to find a frame, or create some semblance of order out of chaos. The photographer isn’t so much creating something as isolating and presenting something that’s already there in a way that makes it stand out to the audience. This in itself is not an easy thing to accomplish, and most photographers never pass this stage; our world has so many potential images from so many perspectives which change as the light illuminating it changes, which means that it’s more than possible to never exhaust this source of composition. It’s related to but not the same as the idea of a strong image being constructed of a near infinite number of smaller sub-compositions – and you can read about that in my article on the subject here.

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The curve

The  next step is perhaps best encapsulated by the motto of one of the higher end Swiss watch brands: “Inventit et Fecit” (F.P. Journe) which roughly translates to ‘invented and made’. The photographer needs to not only be able to see and create a composition from what’s already there, but also to imagine what could be. In the simplest way, this could take the form of changing the light through selective metering or flash (which of course changes the shadows in the image, and changes the balance of the composition); it can increase in complexity by degrees to the point where you not only engineer the various elements of the composition through subject/ object choice and positioning, but also light; taken a step further, the artist/ photographer envisions things that aren’t quite physically possible to achieve, but must be accomplished with the help of some postprocessing. I suppose that becomes borderline digital illustration, and this ‘final state’ ties in quite nicely with the final stage of creative evolution.

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Echoes of a man-made flower

At some point, after taking enough photographs and looking at enough of other people’s work, I found myself basically seeing frames everywhere I looked – it was a compositional awakening of sorts. I was no longer tied to the situation, the subject or the equipment; I could make images that satisfied me at any time. This was an incredibly liberating feeling. I was making images in more or less a stream-of-consciousness fashion; I’d shoot literally hundreds of frames a day, most of which – barring technical errors such as camera shake or over/ underexposure – would be compositionally sound. And then came the point when I had to process them. Whilst I enjoyed being prolific for several months, the sheer amount of time required to get through that many images was becoming a challenge. Sorting, editing and completing my output was draining, and as a result, the quality of my work took a bit of a hit.

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Diminishing returns

This ‘awakening’ actually came about because of an equipment switch; I went from the D3 and a full slew of pro zooms to a Leica M8, one lens, and one point and shoot. It wasn’t the equipment per se that made me open my eyes, but the process imposed by that equipment: the Leica was manual focus, and for the most part, used with manual metering; it forced me to either slow down, think and be deliberate (static subjects), or be highly observant, anticipative, and always ready – I would constantly change focus distance and exposure settings based on my surroundings. The single lens (initially, at least) forced me to previsualize one focal length, and become accustomed to its properties, leading to stronger compositions. The point and shoot, on the other hand, forced me to decompose every scene into form and consciously think about subject separation by every means other than depth of field – since there’s no way to achieve isolation this way with a small-sensored camera. I experimented with light, color, texture and motion, reaching a point where the objects and subjects in a scene decomposed down to pure form. I suppose I shot so much and analysed my images so intensively through that six month or so period that something clicked, and it all made sense.

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Intersections

The demands of my day job then forced a several month long hiatus from photography; when I returned to the rangefinders, none of it felt intuitive anymore, and I was missing shots and unable to previsualize the scene. (With everyday practice, I could zone focus at f2, compose from the hip, and compensate fairly accurately for the frame lines.) I returned to the DSLR fold, but fortunately managed to retain the ability to see, and would land up working on visualizing the end result.

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At the cinema

At this point in time – shooting something pretty much every day, but actively trying to discipline and restrict myself into not shooting something unless I think the results are going to hit all four of the critical criteria* or the image is necessary strictly for documentary purposes (or client satisfaction, I suppose) – I see compositions everywhere; I see both what exists in situ without interfering with the object or subject, but I also see what could be with some mild intervention on the part of the photographer, whether it be changing light, adding or removing elements, or postprocessing. This applies to both complete scenes and objects – the former would be photographing in a reportage situation, the latter would be in studio, with an object or watch and full control of the process. I look at objects and see abstractions to pure form brought on by the shape of the object, and the way light interacts with its surfaces and textures; I see in color and black and white, and generally know when to use either – though in some situations, both can work. I’m aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my equipment and the various formats that I use, and I think generally make the right choice to present my intended image in the strongest way possible, though I could probably make do with whatever camera I had at the time. In short, my images look the way I intend them to, and I can see those images in the real world before  they exist in the camera.

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The wave

*Quality of light, clarity of subject, balance of composition and transmission of the idea

The problem is that it’s actually getting to the point where my ‘photographic eyes’ are affecting the way I see the world even when I’m not photographing. I can no longer seem to see in any other way; there are times when I want to switch off that vision and just enjoy the scene, but instead I’m seeing floating frame lines and imaging how many millimetres I need, what format might work best, or how things would look if only the light were from this angle and of this color (i.e. at a certain time of day)…I actually sometimes wonder if I see things that don’t exist, or can only exist through the fixed point of view of a camera. I actually suffer from the anxiety of feeling like there’s always something I have to capture; it’s a compulsion that becomes quite uncomfortably acute at times.

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The definition of anxiety is seeing frames even when your head is down

It’s not the same as wanting to carry all of your gear with you all the time in case you miss not having the 300mm or 12mm; the problem is that I can see a workable composition with 300mm, 12mm, and everything in between. And I feel almost pathologically driven at times to lift a camera to my eye – any camera – to record it. It can be tiring, and stressful; when travelling in a foreign city, I almost can’t stop shooting – I have to literally force myself to slow down and absorb, enjoy, think - rather than just shoot. If I didn’t, I’d probably produce thousands of images in a single day. As it is, a productive day will probably yield at least a hundred I’m pleased with.

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Spot the face

Dorothea Lange once said “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera” – and in many ways, perhaps this is true. The quest to become a good photographer forces you to be aware and curious: aware of what’s around you, and curious about how it might look projected into two dimensions. Returning to the initial discussion on art, however: I personally believe that photographic images still need to have some sort of visual anchor to help the observer place what they are seeing: either in terms of scale, orientation or simply something familiar to relate to. Anything lacking this – must be so completely abstract as to completely avoid distracting the observer into trying to identify it, but rather simply appreciate the balance of form, light and texture. Unfortunately, the photographer that produced that picture – assuming they can consistently create work of a similar level of quality – probably didn’t really appreciate the scene, but instead saw light and was trying to figure out how to map the tonal range of that scene against their sensor. I know I probably was. You’ll notice that almost all of the images accompanying this article are of the ‘abstraction of form and light’ kind – it seems to be a common theme for me of late. Don’t read too much into it; does the cigarette butt bottom-center in the image above hold any significance or particular meaning? No, it’s just there; the rest of the frame was composed to a pleasing balance, and the details are just a sort of visual garnish.

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Seeing only the highlights

Where do we go from here? I think that this ‘continuous seeing’ isn’t much use if you can’t focus and control it; I suppose it’s a bit like having the ability to speak coherent sentences – even discourse that makes logical sense and is well-reasoned – without knowing the value of silence, or that a few well-timed words can make a much greater impact than a deluge. As always, self-awareness and self-assessment are both highly useful traits for not just the photographer but the person, too. Spending some effort in curating one’s own though process is probably a good way of tightening the quality and consistency of one’s output. Personally, I want to recover that sense of wonder and discovery and somehow convey this in my images; I need to find new ways to see, but at the same time, even further strengthen the part of me that serves as editing gatekeeper – both immediately before capture, and after. I don’t want to create images that my audience can’t relate to; whilst there is a niche for this, it isn’t what I do and probably will never be. I want to find and share the extraordinary in the ordinary; I suppose that hasn’t really changed since through the years I’ve been photographing, but the method and the output has hopefully evolved somewhat. Here’s to the journey – and to not forgetting to stop occasionally and appreciate the view without the camera. MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Stewart James says:

    A wonderfully insightful article clarifying the mental processes some camera owners need to adopt in becoming ‘that’ photographer.

    • “That photographer”?

      • Stewart James says:

        Well spotted Ming. Please delete the extraneous letter ‘a’. Thank you.

        • Actually, I didn’t notice that – was more curious to understand what you meant by that statement…

          • Stewart James says:

            Putting the self-declared casual hobbyists and well-healed ‘snappers’ aside, I suspect, that around 20% (using the Pareto principle) who’ve researched, and subsequently invested in quality glass will, to a greater or lesser degree, aspire to develop the necessary insight and awareness, needed to journey the road to becoming ‘that photographer..’

            By ‘that photographer’, I’m talking about someone who’s style of photography is unquestionably unique – thought provoking, spiritual, – someone who regularly produces imagery that transfixes the viewer attention far beyond the cursory glance typically given to a competent photographers work.

            Your image ‘The Curve’ symbolises (to me) the clarity of mind required to communicate the strongest possible visual link with viewers. Few, maybe 4%, of the very best photographers ever manage to attain such a high standard in photography.

            Oh, to be – ‘that photographer’.

            SJ.

  2. pinklightsabre says:

    Wow – just read a handful of your posts Ming, and really enjoyed your voice, your photos, your honesty! I’ve been writing a bit lately about the nature of art, and “seeing” (inspired by some Carlos Castaneda text), and reopening my senses to write…and at the same time, enjoy life without a camera, to paraphrase you here. I can relate to the flip-flop with corporate, too, and share desires to do something that’s more “me,” as you have. You grabbed hold of me for a good span here on my recliner, so thanks…best to you and I admire your work. – Bill

  3. Jorge Balarin says:

    Funny. What happens to me is that in my mind I’m always erasing any face’s blemish of the people that I see.

  4. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    Excellent, excellent article. I hope to get within 100 kilometers of where you are, some day. For me, there are also questions of, “what do you want the work to say?” “What does it mean to me, the photographer?” “How do I use subject, composition, and all of my technical knowledge to transmit knowledge, mood, etc, to the viewer?” Seeing frames is the way to a vocabulary, but putting the words together is something that a lot of photographers stumble over.

  5. Incredible work!

  6. George Gravett says:

    The Curve – an absolutely fantastic image, Ming. Sublime.

  7. Dear Ming,
    I have been reading your blog for the last 3 months and it is articles like this one that make me come back to it again and again. I love your vision and your approach to photography. I started truly looking through a camera 6 months ago and I am far far away from creating anything near the quality you produce on such a consistent basis. One thing about photography that is different for me compared to other creative outlets I tried in the past (e.g., painting) is that I pursue it more for the process of shooting than the outcome. It forces me to look around me and be actually present in the moment rather than be in my own head. Sure I want my pictures to look great and show them to others but I love the moment of recognizing a frame or composition more than looking at it later – I never saw my world like this before I started photography. You have captured this feeling so well in this article. Anyway, I thought it is time to say ‘thank you’ for being such a great mentor to me through your blog.

    • Thanks Theo – and you’re welcome. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the process – I’m sure plenty of people do it solely because of that – I know enjoy it. Otherwise, it would seem a bit pointless to do it as a recreational activity. But if one doesn’t bother with the outcome, then they might as well take photos with the lens cap on.

  8. Your comments in this article and prior article discussing sub-compositions within a composition prompted me to suppose that you might enjoy reading “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” (Doug Hofstadter) … if you’ve not already. I believe Douglas went in some incorrect directions when he applied his thoughts to theology but nevertheless I do recall having found the book entertaining when I read it long ago. Thank you for the lovely images and thoughtful discussion.

  9. Vanessa LoPierre says:

    Awesome article!! Thank you!!

  10. …you are a little bit the “Bobby Fischer” of Photography, but a much more handsome guy! Thank you for sharing your ideas!

  11. Franco Morante (Adelaide, South Australia) says:

    Superb images as usual Ming. Just wondering about your ‘perspective-correct’ architectural shots (the ones in previous posts where tall buildings do not taper backwards). Do you normally use a shift lens for these images or do you mostly correct the perspective lines in Photoshop?

    • Thanks Franco. A mix – sometimes I’ll use a TS, other times it’s just a minor PS tweak. Really depends on how much correction is needed, and if I have a TS that works for that. A lot of the time, it’s just preferable to find a better vantage point.

  12. I started photography 1 year ago (minus 2 weeks). I carry a camera every single day of the year (usually a D800 or an X-Pro 1), my favorite subjects are street, nature, and abstract, in a single city : Toulouse (France).

    I’m being forced to “see” because i’m walking the same streets every day (going to, or coming back from, work). I’m not bored yet.
    I have a tilt/shift lens (very very hard to use for a beginner), a macro lens, and a 50mm, the possibilities still seems to be infinite (in a finite world). And i haven’t explored the possibilities of color yet, i’m shooting B&W.

    The extraordinary in the ordinary … this is a glass of water : https://keru.jux.com/957608
    Before trying photography i was exploring the (really) infinite world of fractal (including coding fractal software) which is hard to explore because one of the main feature of fractal is “auto-similarity”, it’s pretty much always the same thing, with a difference.

    That’s what i’m doing, photographing the ordinary with a difference.

    https://keru.jux.com/940023

    https://keru.jux.com/864530

    https://keru.jux.com/877474

    https://keru.jux.com/801329

    https://keru.jux.com/732157

    Of course, i’m just a begginer learning to see, shoot, post-process, so keep posting please, i need you :)

  13. I think I’m also on the abstract moment. I particularly like the spot the face photo. As always, a great article and thanks for sharing with us how you see the world.

  14. the first link “part one” is a 404 error

  15. A fantastic pair of articles that surely challenges photographers to walk through many aspects of their own photography. It dovetails nicely into your previous articles about the differences that different cameras bring for a photographer and their work and why we should make use of those differences. You certainly reinforce this message through the many images you present each week. The request to go for a walk is usually answered by I’ll just get the camera. The silence can drag on. Great shots as always.

  16. William Jusuf says:

    I wish one day I would achieve that vision eyes and mind…

    Sincerely
    William Jusuf

  17. Awesome article Ming! Very thought provoking and the pictures are awesome of course.

    Best Wishes – Eric

  18. Fantastic write up. I can completely relate with what you mean by seeing frames wherever you might be. Sometimes I’ll be walking with friends and just come to a stop looking down an alley or something thinking it might make an interesting shot. I get the same thing watching some movies as well. I think to myself “now they’re using a slider…I wonder what lens or aperture this was shot at…” etc. It can be hard to turn off at times and becomes distracting trying to immerse yourself back into the film. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as always and I love your image of “the curve” that was my favourite of the lot. Happy shooting :)

    • Haha, I thought it was just me! I suppose in some ways it adds to your appreciation of a difficult-to-execute shot, but then leaves you cringing when there’s something obviously very off…

  19. I really like “puddle” and “spot the face”.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Sometimes, we are stunned into inaction by too much freedom; I’m not talking about the anxiety of infinite composition, but more an overwhelming sense of not knowing where to start. Setting arbitrary limits – if […]

  2. […] My guess is that the majority of amateur, hobbyist and even professional photographers go for a period of varying duration where they’re trying to force the shot in every scene; I know because I see lots of people do it, I can see the results in competition entries and the email school submissions, and I’ve experienced it personally. You’re experimenting, searching for the composition that causes everything to fall neatly into place; rarely you get it; more often you think you got it, but know you didn’t when you evaluate the results later or see the work of others; or worse, you leave frustrated and unfulfilled. But there comes a time – how long this takes is dependent very much on how much practice you put in – after which somehow, everything just clicks into place; the compositions naturally form themselves, and you experience the anxiety of infinite composition. […]

  3. [...] The good news is that this barrier keeps coming down; the top end compacts have similar technical photo quality to DSLRs of not that long ago (though their compromise is in the optics and depth of field control), so the penalty for carrying isn’t as high as it used to be. Unfortunately, working against this is us: we’ve now become accustomed to a much higher baseline. I used to be happy with smaller files, but I admit now that I see everything as ultimately having commercial potential, I do have a preference for more resolution. (You won’t have to push me very hard to extract a confession that I’ve become accustomed to the D800E’s files.) Even more of a problem is psychology: if you’re a really serious photographer, then there is no such thing as a non-photo outing. There is always a photographic opportunity somewhere; I’m sure I’m not the only one with the anxiety of infinite composition. [...]

  4. [...] Seeing, part two: the anxiety of infinite composition [...]

  5. [...] Seeing, part two: the anxiety of infinite composition (mingthein.com) [...]

  6. [...] In part one of this pair of articles on seeing photographically, we examined our mental expectations of art, and considered whether it was a product of nature or nurture, and if it could be taught; in part two, we’ll approach seeing from the opposite end of the continuum: what if you can’t stop seeing? The images used to decorate this article are a series of perhaps non-obvious compositions that may not have appeared immediately apparent to the unconscious observer.  [...]

  7. [...] In part one of this pair of articles on seeing photographically, we examined our mental expectations of art, and considered whether it was a product of nature or nurture, and if it could be taught; in part two, we’ll approach seeing from the opposite end of the continuum: what if you can’t stop seeing? The images used to decorate this article are a series of perhaps non-obvious compositions that may not have appeared immediately apparent to the unconscious observer.  [...]

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