What Malcolm Gladwell Taught Me About Photography

January 05, 2011  •  Leave a Comment
Baobab Tree at Sunset, Tanzania
Baobab Tree, Tanzania, shot from the back of a moving pickup truck.

A couple of years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful book "Blink". It makes the case that we should put greater faith in our instincts, especially our initial, intuitive responses to a person, object, or event. Even though these assessments might happen in a few milliseconds, they can be, and often are, better than those based on more protracted deliberation. According to Gladwell's research, this ability is based on the way the human brain has evolved to assess stimuli (largely visual) subconsciously  and render trustworthy judgments very quickly. Of course, this is not always true, and Gladwell also talks about certain factors, like biases and prejudices, that can impede our subconscious ability. Nonetheless, he makes a very strong case for the power  of quick, intuitive assessments that can happen in a "blink".

 

So what does this have to do with photography? Just this: your first visual impressions are important and reliable. The photographs you make based on them may not be your best shots in any given circumstance, but they might be. So, I say, "shoot first and ask questions later". Rather than thinking very much about why you like something, just dive in. We have all heard or said "I know what I like, but I don't necessarily know why".  That's OK. To record your first impressions, you don't necessarily have to know why something attracts you, but you do have to recognize that it does. You have to feel it.


Brown Pelican and Surf, Espanola Island
Brown Pelican and Surf, Espanola Island, Galapagos

 

I believe our visual instincts can be very strong and quite trustworthy. When we analyse, especially with words (even if they are just in our heads), we can loose sight of our first impressions, what it is that attracted us in the first place. Seeing and feeling come first. Words can even impair our vision because they are part of our conscious minds, whereas  visual recognition is much more closely associated with the subconscious.

 
Does this mean that you shouldn't bother to study a subject more closely, to "work it" and try to find the best position or manner of shooting it? Absolutely not. Applying good camera skills, strong composition and use of light will help you create stronger images. The more you practice, the more automatic these skills become, the more subconscious they become. If the tennis player is thinking about how to hit the ball, it's almost certain that the shot will fail. The process needs to become mindless, subconscious, automatic. How do you do this: practice. See, feel, shoot, evaluate and do it all over again...and again and again. So trust your first impressions and hone your visual instincts by practicing your craft. Then trust your first impressions. The best shot, might be the first one.
 

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