Yesterday I went to my mother-in-law's house in Winston-Salem to take pictures for selling the house. It was overcast for most of the day, and I busied myself pulling weeds and clipping hedges while praying for the sun to come out and give me the light I needed to make the house look good. I guess hunters must feel like this â€“ preparing and planning and waiting, but still mostly dependent on blind chance and forces of nature outside their control to bring them success.
I have no particular skill as a photographer, and certainly no training, other than a few bits of common advice on composition I picked up from old desktop publishing magazines. I spent enough time creating posters and marketing pieces to acquire some vocabulary and concepts for evaluating images: what was too busy, or too boring, too dense or too sparse. What struck me then, as now, is how much the process is one of just looking at something and judging how it makes you feel. Evaluating images is an introspective process; you look at the image, and at the same time you watch yourself watching the image, and seeing how you react to it. Out of nowhere, thoughts occur: "That corner is dark, I can't tell what's back there, and that makes me feel uneasy." "I keep looking at this tree in the foreground instead of the house." "I like that flower, I wish there were more of them." From these random thoughts you devise experiments: change the light, change the angle, pull that damn frog statue out of the frame. And then you compare and conclude: "Yup, that's definitely better." "Nope, didn't make much difference." Eventually you start to recognize patterns and devise simple rules: "Don't include the light source in the frame." "Get as much light as possible into the room." "Windows are interesting. Walls are boring."
I know I'm only rediscovering what people probably learn in the first twenty minutes of an introductory photography class. But what's more interesting is what it says about how we think:
As Dan Ariely pointed out in Predictably Irrational, we think largely in terms of comparisons. Judging whether a picture is "good" or "bad" is complicated, but judging whether this photo is better than that photo can be instantly recognized by most anyone. In fact, the only way we devise broad principles at all is through lots and lots of comparisons.
There is a discrete difference between knowing how we react to something and knowing why we react that way. As Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly demonstrated in Blink, we formulate impressions and opinions long before we are consciously aware of them. And sometimes we never figure out why we react the way we react: "I dunno, for some reason I like this one more than that one."
We like to believe that our decisions are following rational, logical, consistent principles . . . but the logic and the rationale come later, after the fact. Most of the time, we are responding in the moment to gut reactions â€“ warmer, colder, warmer, red hot â€“ which only later we understand.
The one thing I would add to that list is the huge, huge difference between my reaction to something that I have been paying such careful creative attention to, and something that I haven't. I can glance at photographs of houses and tell you which ones I like. But if I took half an hour trying to set up a shot, by the time I was done, I wouldn't have the foggiest idea how I myself would react if I just happened to see that shot. That's what makes it so hard: you have to hold the expert mind and the beginner mind at the same time.