Shanghai, 2008

I’ve been trying to figure out why I keep going back to this image.

Was it because I took this photograph with a Canon G9 and was amazed at the output?

Was it because I was quite intrigued with the girl standing by the window?

Was it because the colors and the highlights accentuated her form at just the right places?

I don’t really know. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things plus… I’m almost tempted to say that it was because of the seemingly interesting conversation that we are, unfortunately, not privy to that made it just a bit more special. Having said that, the other girl was just an incidental part in my composition. I did not see her when I pressed the shutter. Or at least, I don’t remember. And yet that supporting role makes all the difference between a picture and, well, an image.

Which brings me to a related topic on instinct that I’ve been discussing off and on with a couple of hobbyists. What people may rightly attribute to fast reflexes or, on the extreme end, luck, I would ascribe to something more basic. We always talk about the art of “seeing” but never really dwell on the other side of “seeing” which is “thinking”. The mind is the one that makes heads or tails about what we’re seeing. The eye is just a conduit to this experience. What then needs to be done is to understand that part better.

To what end? For one thing, it’s a step nearer to being confident about one’s work. If you find yourself looking at a series of images that have some element of luck to it but has some eerie similarity that you just can’t shake… Or when you’re in the zone, pressing the shutter without really thinking, but getting consistent results, then I’d hazard to say that it’s not just luck that’s at play here. Our mind is a product of experiences that we can only attempt to be aware of when we shoot. Most of the time, a lot of things are happening at the same time and you don’t exactly have the luxury of time to “think” through the action. Even when you’re waiting for something to happen, there are days when you don’t exactly know how you want it to happen but that you just know when it does… Consistently good composition in uncontrolled environments cannot be a product of luck. Your mind processes all these things faster than your finger can press that shutter button. Everything happens in an instant and I’m of the opinion that the mind is already on the lookout for those set of criteria that you’ve consciously and subconsciously perceived as that which makes for a personally gratifying image. When all those things come into play, bam! the instructions are transmitted instantaneously from your mind to your finger, pressing that shutter button to capture that image of a lifetime.

But surrendering yourself to that instinct takes practice and a bit of confidence to rely on it when the moment comes. Sometimes we second guess ourselves and it only takes a fraction of a second to lose it.

Secondly, understanding how your mind works makes you understand yourself better and I think that’s one of the more important aspects of photography, more than trying to help the world through pictures. Ever tried sitting down and really wondering why certain photographs appeal to you more than the rest? Ever tried doing that over a series of photo trips? Ever tried coming up with those handful of images that somehow speak to you from those various photographic forays? Ever find out similarities on each one of them? Ever tried asking yourself why? You’d be surprised. It can be quite liberating. Knowledge of oneself forms the basis for being more confident in one’s work. This exercise will make your shooting more meaningful, make you understand why you’re this way and that. Because in a certain sense, you are what you shoot.