The what-if game

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In workshops and correspondence with readers over the past six months or so, there’s been a lot of discussion around what constitutes an exceptional image – the kind of thing which (at very least) you remember for the rest of your photographic career, and preferably more than that. It’s the sort of image that stands out as being exceptional by virtue of a combination of things – aesthetics, clarity of idea, and to my mind the ‘just-so-ness’ of every single element in the frame – both subject and background. And this of course assumes suitability of technical execution to the subject matter at hand; sophisticated enough to look deliberate and suit the mood/style/idea, but not over the top for the sake of it. We’ve discussed this before, of course – in the thoughts around the idea of a ‘5’. But I think I may have nailed down one very important element of the undefinable. Or if not that, at very least a technique.

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Logically, it should be nearly impossible to capture any moments of significance at all: the shutter is open for mere hundredths of a second, or less, and though an event may last much longer, the crucial moments are effectively instantaneous. The chances of the shutter being open during that period of time are already vanishingly small, but once you factor in being in the right place at the right time to catch the relevant elements in the right spatial arrangement with visually pleasing aesthetics (including light), then I think we can quickly see just how challenging any form of candid* photography can be.

*By candid, I mean images where elements are not under the direct control of the photographer; studio and still life work would obviously be excluded since all elements are repeatable and controllable.

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You can of course do several things to ameliorate this. Firstly, you get more than one try. Secondly, you can compromise on not having all of the elements – or not even be aware that some elements might be missing. Thirdly, the most obvious is the use of anticipation to prepare your physical position (and thus spatial arrangement of elements in the frame) and reduce the sole variable to timing. In actual fact, I think what elevates an image is none of the above: it’s imagination, which ties in to the second and third items.

Bounded by reasonable feasibility, there are things that can happen and usually do: people walking through the parts of the frame you want, lights coming on in buildings, a red car etc. There are things that probably never will, or not in reasonable time: UFOs, celebrity wardrobe malfunctions, gravity reversing. Therefore, the only way to be ready for that peak moment where all of the elements – expected and unexpected – come together is by having some idea of what might be in your ideal reality. You must imagine what could happen, and prepare for it.

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Any resulting image is limited by the imagination of the photographer. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it translates in two very real ways: you cannot know what you’re missing or you might miss later if you either don’t see it or don’t prepare for it, and you cannot consciously and repeatably create a compositional structure to a certain idea if you don’t know how that structure or end result should look in the first place. Real world translation: you might not hold the camera to the floor if you don’t imagine that might produce interesting results, or use a longer shutter speed, or conscious camera movement, or something else of that sort.

Our imagination is in turn actually governed to a large degree by our experiences: if we’ve seen something happen before (even if we didn’t capture it) then we’re more likely to remember it as being within the realm of possibility of something that might occur again. If we’ve seen an image that uses a certain technique or angle before, then it’s more likely to bias us – be it towards emulation or avoidance. If we know how to get certain results and are predisposed towards those results – e.g. long exposures on a tripod, or dramatic foregrounds with a very wide lens – we’re more likely to consider them in the conceptualisation of an image, and more likely to use them perhaps in situations where they might not ‘conventionally’ be used – to create something different.

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In the field, I tend to condense this into a sort of ‘what-if’ game. More often than not, when I arrive at a scene, it’s possible to see potential in the structural ‘bones’ of the scene, but the little elements are missing or extraneous. (You can of course manipulate the image afterwards, but that both looks different and usually isn’t suitable.). Instead, I find it’s always worthwhile spending some time observing the shooting conditions – and taking note of what changes, and how fast. I’m talking about elements like light, people and traffic flows, clouds, water, etc.; if they can and do change, then there’s a very high probability that you might eventually get the ‘ideal’ image you want – to the limits of your imagination.

The images used to illustrate this article are all good examples of playing the ‘what if’ game: in most situations, I didn’t stay very long; not more than a few minutes, and at most 20-30. The longest was probably on the corner with the dapper man in the hat – I did stay a bit longer afterwards to see if anybody better (or in this case, more evocative of an idea and an era) would come along, but they didn’t. There’s also some benefit to recognising diminishing returns kicking in: no matter how long you stay, you’re not going to get the Loch Ness Monster riding the #38 to St Paul’s. Even so, that that time is enough to significantly increase chances of getting something interesting beyond what is immediately and instantaneously visible.

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Take the red awning series, for instance. I was initially attracted by the texture of the awning and backing buildings, but started to think Idea of Man and then wondered if we might get another element in the scene, and preferably a distinctively dressed (to a period fitting the building style) by still somewhat anonymous (implying the necessity of a longer shutter speed) individual to both stimulate some audience curiosity as well as add a visual anchor. It was part of a greater matrix of dark windows in a dark building; the chances of action were low. But then a light came on in another part of the building, and I thought it might actually come together – so I set up the camera and waited, only to be rewarded by an embarrassment of choices not too much later. In the end, I settled on the frame with two windows and no bush with a paused waiter as my final curation. I find it stronger than the very first image in the post (the seventh image in the sequence) because the bushes at the bottom of the frame are a non-sequitur and don’t really connect from a storytelling standpoint. In the selected image, the man was in the window isolated by the red frame; because the empty window behind the man (relative to the direction of the stairs) is evocative of a source; because the gesture and costume of the man is instantly identifiable and suggestive of his occupation and a plausible relationship to the viewer.

The really interesting thing about photography isn’t that it’s a literal record of something: it’s that it’s so easily turned to represent our personal interpretation of something but can still almost always only be interpreted as a literal ‘real’ record. I guess what I’m really saying is: have patience. Work the scene. And dare to dream a little – after all, it’d be pretty boring if we all only saw and imagined the same things… MT

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  1. Richard P. says:

    Hi Ming,
    Thank you for another very interesting article. However, it reminds me about something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time (a bit of a tangent thought).

    Given our current capture tools and post processing technology and how much farther these will progress in the coming years, how much “what-if” will be required – will we be able to build / piece-together memorable images without the traditional photographic expertise that used to be required? Where is the line between post processing and altering an image. I imagine the line is a personal choice for each one of us.

    How much more do we (or will we) value the “old” masters for being able to capture/produce memorable images despite using more limited technology? I shudder to think real photography (or photography as we know it) may some day go by the way of the slide rule or vinyl record. IPhone 15S? 😉 Until then I’ll continue learning from and appreciating your work.

    • Authenticity, and spontaneity. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction – and all the better for it. 🙂

      As for the old masters – their value is historical and retrospective. I suspect if you took images from their collections that weren’t so widely known – there’s no way they only produced a few dozen images in their careers – they wouldn’t get a second look posted blind in a Flickr pool.

  2. Praneeth Rajsingh says:

    This article, is in some ways, an essence and the main takeaway for me from Magnum Contact Sheets.

    Of course you talk about the image and what makes it unique or a 5 more explicitly here, but that’s the one thing that stood out to me from the book as well. Contrary to popular belief, HC-B, Robert Capa and the other didn’t nail the image in the first attempt either. I suspect there must have been the same pre-visualization and imagination that you talked about at play when they were shooting too.

    • They shot often a few rolls for one shot – but also notice that they stopped fairly soon after they got the shot – and they knew it.

  3. From my experience, doing everything right, the right camera, lens, light, composition, etc… will get you good technical images.
    But, the really memorable images don’t often happen because of equipment and planning, they just happen.
    Even the best and most prolific of photographers, over a lifetime, relatively speaking, only produce a dozen or two of
    recognizable, memorable and moving photographs, and they are mostly black and white. When I look at those pictures
    the attributes of sharpness, resolution, composition, etc.. don’t come into play. For those photographs that don’t move us
    I think we tend to assign technical qualities to either celebrate or dismiss the image, a mindless endeavor. Some of us only judge an image based on the technical qualities, we never see or are incapable of going beyond; equipment manufacturers depend on that.

    Of course, being prolific increases our odds of producing great photographs. As such, the future of photography may well be with the smart phone users, those millions that now never leave home without a camera.

    • You can’t communicate an idea with imprecise language. Same with photography, but the language is both technical and visual.

      Saying memorable historical images are mostly B&W and we must therefore now shoot that way and not care about quality is rather disingenuous because we can make images today that weren’t physically possible in the past, and in the early days there wasn’t any color to begin with!

      • OK

      • After reading Kadi’s comments I interpreted that Kadi’s was referring to those unexpected gems that we are sometimes blessed with because we are spontaneous. It’s relatively easy. to shoot technically excellent images, coming up with good content is a challenge, Sometimes , spontaneous wins the day.

        Of course, color didn’t come about with the advent of digital photography. For example, Kodachrome was already available in the 1930’s. Color and B&W have coexisted for a long period. Yet, most of our best known images are B&W. Of course, we can come up with technical reasons why this so. B&W film is much more forgiving then color. But, still, some of the most beautiful color photography showed in National Geographic, when Kodachrome was a staple. More, recently, photographers such as Michael Kenna continue to produce beautiful work in B&W. Most of the worthwhile photography periodicals that I see in the library are dedicated to B&W. My point is that photographers have had a choice for a very long time.

        I agree with Kadi’, the best photographs draw you in because there is a story to be seen. But, when there is no story, people will say, I love the colors, etc… I have a very old color photo hanging on my a wall that I acquired by luck, that I look at often and discover something new. Not a technically great photo, but a source of endless amazement.

  4. richard majchrzak says:

    didn’t Henry Lartigue , Andre Kertesz do sth like this most of the time with stunning results….history…old stuff…. Kertesz’s pic of the locomotive running over the viaduct…took him ages

  5. So timely.

    I was thinking back the other day when I had my first camera, a film Nikon N80 (ca. 2002-ish). I had traveled north to Monument Valley, AZ in hopes of capturing some keepers. I missed sunrise by a few hours, and the photos were terrible. Not because I had missed that ‘critical’ timing for capturing sunrise, but because I was shooting like a tourist. I *was* a tourist. My expectation was to arrive with a name brand camera, leave with a full roll of film, and develop a post card, or something that could be printed in Nat Geo or Arizona Highways. It was ridiculous.

    I would see a photo by a Ming Thein, a Peter Lik — whomever — and think ‘these cats just show up with their gear — et voila! — photographic magic.’ The man in the dapper black hat just conveniently appears on the corner, you click, and off you go to your MBP and ACR.

    Patience was the key. I learned to linger. The light at 12:00 is different than at 4:00. The crowd at 12:00 (businessmen on lunch break) are different than at 8:00 (bohemians and lovely deviants). Overcast, sunny… so may variables.

    My what-if game became ‘if I had my camera.’ I begin ‘stalking’ a place, for lack of a better term. I like to watch and listen. Would start to think, if I had my camera, how would I shoot this? How would I see it, how would I frame it? And as soon as I think I have something, I mentally drop that, and maybe turn 180°… what did I miss when I was framing that imaginary shot just a moment before? Sometimes I’ll allow myself an iPhone as a ‘sketch pad’ of sorts. It can be frustrating but revealing, too. And when I *do* take my camera, it’s like an autopsy afterwards. At first, it was the particulars… why did you shoot this at f/4? Why this shutter speed, why this ISO? Now I find myself leaning more toward framing questions as I photo review. I’m always scolding myself for using more ‘comfortable’ FOVs vs challenging ones. I’m almost tempted at this point to toss all my teles and spend a year shooting nothing but 28 or 35mm.

    Your “bones of the scene” hit me like a wet sack of cement. Yes!

    Photography for me is so much different than it was in the beginning. Now it’s simultaneously relaxing yet mentally kinetic. I never understood the game of golf. I suppose this is my way of swinging.

    • Hah! Actually no. We sit and wait and a lot of the time, if it’s not good enough – it doesn’t get shown, even if we’ve been sitting for hours. That discipline and emotional divorce is always fighting with the passionate side of any photographer. It’s also the reason the best shots are almost always by the locals, if the place has a decent-sized population.

      I don’t get golf either, but I often want to walk the more spectacular courses to photograph them 😛 I guess that’s why my bag would contain a tripod instead of clubs. 😛

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    And the illustrations, I like nr:s 3, 4 and 5 especially!
    ( And I think the last photo is made stronger by the similar appearance of the staircase in both windows.)
    – – –
    I had a different good lesson on this subject earlier today:
    I saw an exhibition of Vivian Maier’s photos in Helsingborg.
    I tried to imagine how she arrived at many of her photos and this article elucidates all that.
    ( Or, put the other way, a second good illustration to this article.)

  7. Nice work. Really liked your explanations here: (pre-)visualization and imagination are central.
    One of my favourite photography quotes is by Garry Winogrand: “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.”
    Another I really like is by the French semiotician/literary&cultural theorist Roland Barthes (in his excellent book Camera Lucida): “‘For me, photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable. This longing to inhabit, if I observe it clearly in myself, is neither oneiric (I do not dream of some extravagant site) nor empirical (I do not intend to buy a house according to the views of a real-estate agency); it is fantasmatic, deriving from a kind of second sight which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or to carry me back to somewhere in myself: a double movement which Baudelaire celebrated in Invitation au voyage and La Vie antérieure. Looking at these landscapes of predilection…’ (pp. 38–40, italics original).” For Barthes there’s something essentially poetic and lyrical about great photography – far beyond simple description or transcription of a scene.

    One other thing I would add, though, is that very often the most satisfying aspects of one’s own successful images are the details that the images reveal that you had no idea about at the time of shooting: those little extras that take the shot over the edge in a way that only photography can do. I had one of these moments myself recently, when I realized, after the fact, that in my Chicago image of the geometrically skewed skyscrapers with the thin blue shard of sky, there’s a framed photograph visible in one of the office windows.

    • Thanks – it could also be a desire *not* to inhabit. Both like and dislike are equally valid emotions, but all of us frequently tend to gravitate towards one over the other.

      As for detail we didn’t know about – I’m going to take the opposite camp on this one; if I didn’t see something it can just as feasibly be an image breaker as an image enhancer…

      • Cheers: good points well made! My last point was about the serendipity when things work out: ideally we’d all have control over *everything*, but you can’t rule out the unexpected completely, since that’s not how the world works.

  8. Winn Halverhout says:

    Ming, this is a great analysis of your thought process and decision-making at this location. I was standing behind you in Chicago when you were taking this red awning sequence. I couldn’t see what was at all interesting about shooting a window with a red awning on a bland white building, so I was focused on other photo ops in that location — none of which produced anything close to what you produced there. Thanks for sharing this !

    • No problem. 🙂 it’s precisely why this article exists – part of photography is seeing what’s there, the other part is imagining what could be…

  9. Thank you for this Ming. I’m also an aspiring amateur photographer and using visuals to explain your red awning series makes a whole lot more sense 🙂

  10. jimaustin says:

    One more thought: what are other translations of “just-so-ness” . I’ve found Shizen. The Japanese word SHIZEN, or naturalness, evolved from the Chinese word ZIRAN, or “just so,” one of seven aesthetic qualities of the Zen arts.

    The concept came from Chinese Taoism. The Chinese word is a two-character compound of ZI (自) “self; oneself; since” and the word RAN (然) meaning “right, correct, just so.”

    • Interesting…thanks for sharing.

    • Martin Fritter says:

      Also Wabi Sabi. Photography is especially suited to capturing the just missed, the transitory, the moment of absence, things departed and arriving. Falling asleep and waking up. The accidental and the forgotten and the remembered.

      • I’ve always understood wabi sabi to be a sort of wear, patina or entropy – but maybe I have this wrong?

        • Martin Fritter says:

          Well my understanding is congruent with yours – a sense of passing away, worn out – so patina and entropy – but also of new birth. But definitely transient and somewhat accidental. Old cup in tea ceremony. Echt Japanese. Or so it seems from my slap-dash Zen studies. Strongest link to your work, I think, would be quotidia. You know, one of the original appeals of photography was supposed to be its ability to reveal the unseen. To capture the strange and exotic (including erotica and porn but also spirits and ectoplasm), the tiny and the gigantic and preserve memories of the dead. Incidentally, I was just looking at some original issues of Camera Work yesterday: basically pictorialist and mysterious – very soft focus. While the paper was yellowed and cracked, the pictures, which were printed separately and attached to the page somehow, were fine. Over 100 years old!

  11. jimaustin says:

    Outstanding MT. I’ve been thinking about “what if” for a long time, and you express it so eloquentley. Immediately shared your article with the film group on Facebook.

  12. Good article Ming but sometimes the hardest part is choosing the right shot, curating is almost as hard to do as shooting.

  13. Very inspiring read. I have progressively grown better at really working a scene I think I have something in. It can be incredibly frustrating as well as rewarding!

  14. Hi Ming, I have to say that seeing your whole “red awning series” and the image you chose in the end was great, simply because it kinda shows that even you don’t always get it “right” /are satsified with your first try.

    For an aspiring amateur that is very reassuring.

    • Thanks – I think none of us ever get it right on the first try when we don’t control all the elements, and even if we do, there’s always some benefit to iterating and developing an idea…


  1. […] to the narrative sequence of events. Finally, there’s dumb luck: both working with us (think of the ‘what if’ game) and against the observer: the chances of the image being viewed by somebody who did really observe […]

  2. […] to the narrative sequence of events. Finally, there’s dumb luck: both working with us (think of the ‘what if’ game) and against the observer: the chances of the image being viewed by somebody who did really observe […]

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