Saturday, September 12, 2009

Active photography

When I was in college I took a class called "Introduction to Music" as one of my liberal arts electives. The class was about learning all the different genres of music, their history, etc. I've been a fan of music my whole life but I had never studied it, so I thought it would be interesting.

On the first day of the class the instructor explained the principle of "active listening" to the class. The main theory of it is that when you really want to appreciate music in a more engaged way, you don't just put it on as background sound and go about your business. To actively listen you have to sit down and pay attention to the start, middle, and end of a piece. You listen to the instruments, which ones are playing when, how they're playing, what they're contributing to the piece, how they interact. Listen to and appreciate the nuances of the music. You get the point...

I had never really thought about music that way. I appreciated it and certainly understood what was going on, but I don't think I can really say I was an "active listener" in the sense described above.

The instructor went on to explain what our final exam would be. We would need to listen to a twenty minute symphony performance, identify what time period it was from, identify the instruments playing, how many of them were playing, and describe the milestones of the performance (shifts in mood, who was instrumentally controlling the piece at what time, etc). I thought he was out of his mind! I thought it would be impossible.

So, guess what. I went through the whole semester, learned what he was talking about, and really enjoyed it. I took the final exam and got an 'A'. Imagine that!

The reason I tell that story is to draw a parallel between "active listening" and "active photography".

Many people will never take more than snapshots with their cameras to capture a moment. And you know what? That's fine if that's what they want to do. To each his own...

But other people want to take photographs that have a very intentional composition and convey a story, a message, a purpose, etc. Some people want to make other people think about an image. They want it to linger in someones memory. I remember pictures from 20 years ago that seem like I saw them yesterday. Those are photographs!

For those people, I believe that you have to get actively involved in your photography to achieve your purpose. There's little chance of achieving these types of goals if you walk up to something and simply go "Click!" to take your picture. You have to become engaged, find a good angle, find good light and proper exposure, emphasize the subject, set your depth of field, and ensure that these things combined will achieve your goal. You have to pursue "active photography". Like active listening, it's a lot to think about and it takes time to learn.

The next time you're out somewhere taking pictures and you see something that you stop to take a photo of, try to practice active photography. Think about the subject and message of your picture and what you can do to emphasize and achieve it. If you put some thought into it, the first few times you succeed in this type of advanced photographic goal and "get it right", I think you'll be startled by the results. This kind of realization is what will draw you deep into the hobby of photography. Enjoy!


  1. good post. could probably be a little longer and supplemented with some pictures to show some of your efforts and how you got them. "a picture is worth a thousand words". goes along with the principle of always using a tripod to intentionally slow yourself down to think. peace.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yes, that's a good point. I want to structure my posts with good photo examples, I just haven't gotten around to thinking in that frame of mind yet. Right now I'm just writing stream-of-consciousness posts...