Photography, The Giving, And The Taking Away

In a previous life I trained as a coach and the subject matter aside, it helped me learn better about how I learned better.

In other words I understood more clearly the ways I absorb new information and function more effectively.

One aspect of this was becoming aware of the differences between an additive versus a subtractive approach.

Think about a writer for example.

Generally they start with a blank page, then add words, sentences and paragraphs that convey ideas and stories. It’s a process of addition, beginning with nothing and putting more and more there, until it’s enough.

Conversely, a wood sculptor sets out with a chunk of wood.

What they ultimately want to end with is already there within that wood. They just need to remove enough to discover it, to shape it. This is a steady whittling down, subtracting the extraneous until you’re left with what you want, and nothing more.

Photography on the surface feels much more like this subtractive approach also.

You essentially move the camera into a position where the only things remaining in the frame are what you want to be there, nothing more.

A subtle shift of a few millimetres can significantly alter the photograph, depending on what you leave out or include.

But in some ways photography is an additive pursuit too.

Virtually all of us have some kind of growing body of work, those images we like best and want to keep.

We’re curating a personal photography portfolio, adding only what we feel with enhance that, and leaving out anything that won’t.

Perhaps even more interesting to me is the learning arc of photography.

We start with nothing, no knowledge at all, then begin perhaps with the absolutely basics – if I point the camera this way and press this button, it makes a picture.

Our discoveries accumulate as we learn – from an intentional study process, trial and error experimentation, or both – and we steadily become more experienced.

But then, for me at least, I hit a saturation point.

I had learned enough, I knew what I needed to know to be able to make photographs I loved consistently.

And then comes a kind of unlearning.

I began to put aside all the things I didn’t need – in terms of knowledge, and just as crucially in terms of the features my cameras had (and the number of cameras I had) – and found more joy and freedom in a simpler form of photography, with fewer cameras.

Having started out with my first “proper” camera making high contrast black and white close ups of things I found beautiful in nature, it’s what I’ve come around full circle to, over a decade later.

I’ve stripped back the unnecessary, and what remains is enough.

The fairly simple and older digital cameras I favour (all about 10-15 years old) have enough capability to capture what I want with them.

Plus I have enough knowledge and application of the core techniques I need to make the kind of pictures I enjoy most too.

I can’t see how any camera with more bells and whistles, or any particular new knowledge would make my photography any more enriched. They’d just get in the way – as the dozens of cameras and lenses I’ve owned in the past often did.

So, with photography, sometimes you need to give a little more to get where you want to be. And sometimes you need to know when to take something away.

How about you? What are your thoughts on adding and subtracting with photography, the giving and the taking away?

As always, please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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6 thoughts on “Photography, The Giving, And The Taking Away”

  1. In my photographic journey trying to understand which filter and which tool would help me to get photographs as those I liked my knowledge comes from Ken Rockwell. Among the many articles he has written there is one about FART, I laugh while writing it but I cannot avoid to just recall it even after years or having read it xP Is substractive, and I am akin to it, to not only get to the essence of what I photograph but trying that its message is said in a strong voice. I think I only believe in adding when there is a simple pattern, like blades of grass, or scattered enough clouds that they are individual texturing the sky, so I get more comfortable with 35mm focal length to telephoto, wide angle lenses make it harder to me (and I admire the photographers that work with them) to say something.

    1. Thanks Francis, I checked out that article and it echoes much of what I was trying to say here, especially about sculpture versus painting.

      I agree that wider lenses make it more difficult, in that there is more in the frame, so you have to work more to make it all count, and work together ass a composition. With a longer lens, and especially into telephoto focal lengths, it’s very easy to hone in on one thing and literally blur out everything else.

  2. I’m not that great at the “taking away” part, if I was, I would own less gear… that’s true both for my photography and for my music.
    But I see your point, and ideally, I would concentrate more on creating and less on taking care of the things I have… let’s see if I can make some changes this year.

    1. The fundamental trouble with any kind of gear – and this can be cameras or shoes or guitars or books or whatever – is the more you have, the more have to maintain. Not just physical maintenance and upkeep, but I believe there’s a kind of associated mental upkeep too. For every item you have, there’s a place in your mind you have to keep open for it. The fewer things you have, the more breathing space there is in your mind to make better use of what remains.

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