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Cultivate the casual in your photography

By April 24, 2018 Photography No Comments

One of the shortest creative paths to explain is to lighten up from the usual shooting mode of full concentration and a high level of effort.


Pink Mini, South Kensington, London, 2011.
A cellphone is always at hand, on the many occasions when you might want to leave a real camera at home. The idiosyncrasies of normal street life, even without people, such as this personalised pink Mini parked in a London street, can be turned into a collection of trivia without a second thought.

This is about cultivating a more playful, casual approach. While on the surface it is seemingly at odds with the other paths, it can in fact be complementary to them. A useful way to think of this is as taking a short break and relaxing.

It’s based on an idea that has kept cropping up for decades among writers and critics. The thought is that there’s something special about the camera’s ability simply to deliver a fully formed image that might contain surprises, even to the photographer. The influential critic Clement Greenberg wrote that photography ‘works best… when it calls the least attention to itself and lets the almost “practical” meaning of the subject come through.’

The old word for this is snapshot, which in turn comes from shooting with a rifle and means taking a quick shot without aiming. This has long been used with derision as a way of separating worthless images from great ones by great photographers, but attitudes have changed. Gonzo journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson wrote that ‘snapshooting is not, by definition, a low and ignorant art’, and in its defence, ‘when photography gets so technical as to intimidate people, the element of simple enjoyment is bound to suffer.’

Taking a casual approach and just snapping away is now more relevant than ever before because of smartphones. Technically, most smartphone cameras are now perfectly good for prints and for any kind of display that you might want. No objections there. Bruce Weber—who with David Bailey did a well-publicised shoot for a smartphone manufacturer in Harlem, New York—said that it ‘not only matches the capabilities of many high-end cameras, but in most cases surpasses them.’ If the phone is in your pocket, you have a perfectly good camera for an uncomplicated shot, and the result will be publishable. That alone is reason enough to play it casually. If something takes your fancy, anything at all, a play of light in the corner of a cafe, a dog on a leash trotting by with bootees, a smile on a face across the table, just shoot. No one is likely to notice or care. Raise a top-of-the-line DSLR with a professional lens and you’re announcing that you’re a photographer. Hold a smartphone and you’re anyone. It gives you access to the whole world. As Bruce Weber went on to say, ‘It simplifies creative photography.’


Golden Jubilee Bridge, River Thames, London, 2011.
A few dedicated photographers do always carry a camera at all times, but the vast majority of us have on-days and off-days. It was always natural to make an excuse to oneself about missing a potential shot as a result (variations on ‘it wasn’t important’). With a cellphone there’s no longer any need for that.

You might not think that there was much more to add to this lighten-up-and-don’t-try-too-hard prescription, but it’s worth mentioning the reasons why this is a useful technique. First is the value of being playful and curious, because these stimulate exploration without the need to hesitate over whether or not a subject or a viewpoint is actually worthwhile. Second is the possibility of turning up new and unexpected imagery by breaking with habit. Finally, if you use a smartphone for this path, it’s always interesting in any case to try out a new tool and see where its idiosyncrasies may lead you.

Michael Freeman is Michael Freeman’s guide that provides the reader with 50 “paths” they can explore to think about taking photos, looking at subjects from cliché to zen, so you will be able to hit the right point in surprise, originality, insight and execution every time.

Fifty Paths to Creative Photography, Michael FreemanFifty Paths to Creative Photography
Michael Freeman

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