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No Words: Right Brain / Left Brain Photography

Albert Smith , Apr 28, 2003; 11:11 a.m.

I was looking through some old books on my shelf, and rediscovered one called “Right Brain / Left Brain Photography…the art and technique of 70 modern masters” (1994 AMPHOTO ISBN 0-8174-5717-8).

The basic premise is that there are two kinds of shooters… Left brained: extreme precision, following “ the rules” for things like composition (rule of thirds, leading lines, etc…) and Right brained: shooting from instinct, suspending thought and just “doing it” when things “look” right. The book has many famous photos and photographers and divides them into one of the two categories.

Post a photo (or two) and decide which part of your brain the choice to hit the shutter release came from.

left brain; tripod, lens choice (35mm), hyper-focus and shutterspeed used to blur water.


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Albert Smith , Apr 28, 2003; 11:15 a.m.


right brain: saw the dress, saw the flowers, and shot from hip with zone-focused 35mm lens. Cropped later to clean it up.

Peter Lück , Apr 28, 2003; 11:22 a.m.

whats that? (R8 + 1,4/50 (E60) + Delta 400) Peter


Mark Salkowitz , Apr 28, 2003; 01:38 p.m.

Very interesting dichotomy, I never thought of it in those terms. When I first started with photography, and started shooting seriously, I was a BIG left-brainer. Where I took two formal classes at my university, I had major clashes with the Prof., as he (Costa) was a “no rules” street shooter but left-brained when it came to the darkroom, and more specifically printing. I’ve never been fond of darkroom work but love gadgets, and super technical theory. Costa on the other hand was a minimalist street photographer, one camera, one lens, that being a M6 and a 35mm summicron. Compared to my big SLR and set of lenses, desire to use a tripod, and incorporate all the crap I read about in sophisticated photo books, Costa and I butted heads a lot over the year or so we spent “together”. I would constantly try to pick his brain about technical stuff and he only wanted to talk about pre-focused FAST shooting and strong composition. It wasn’t until the end of the second semester where on a little field trip downtown with another well known street photographer and friend of Costa’s did I finally see the light. Since than, I have traded in my big F3HP and my bag of lenses for a rangefinder and 35mm lens. One camera, one 35mm “normal” lens, as Costa would say, pre-focused as much as possible and strong composition. While it is my nature to be left brained about things, (I still am when it comes to the darkroom )-: ), I have shifted my photographic style to right side only! Below is a link of some of my work, but just a little since I don’t have as much time as I would like to spend in the darkroom. I still frame critically when I bring the camera to my eye (I know shooting from the hip is a Winogrand no-no), but it is second nature, not at all a product of conscious thought.


Ollie Steiner , Apr 28, 2003; 02:18 p.m.

This is a fascinating topic and one that interests me very much in its application to my hobby (photography) and my profession (violinist). A book which is exactly on this topic is: "Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards. (available in paperback at most book stores.) The author has simple exercises you can do to train yourself to turn on the right brain processing. One of these is to make a drawing of what you see when looking at a photo of someone's face, but with the photo held upside down! I was amazed at the result. I, who can't draw to save my life, copied an upside down photo of President Kennedy. I started with the eyes. When I was done I had drawn them well enough so that most people, when shown my drawing of just JFK's eyes, and asked: "Whose eyes are these?", answered JFK!! This was absolutely amazing to me who, until then, was pretty much restricted to drawing stick figures. A basic premise of this book is: when most people (who can't draw well) look at the eyes, in a photo of a face, they don't really draw what they see, they draw a kind of stored-in-their-memory cartoon of eyes. However, when they look at the *inverted* photo, although they can tell that they are seeing eyes upside down, they do a different (and more correct) mental process: they see what is really there, and kind of "trace" what they actually see on the paper. The results, in my case, were quite dramatic. I think that "Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain", by Betty Edwards is a Must Have book for photographers, and anyone interested in the mental processes of producing Art. I imagine that HCB himself was employing this process in a most deliberate way when he said that he liked to use a certain view finder which inverted the image. I believe it helped him to see the scene before him as an abstract design, in exactly the same way that inverting the photo helps readers of the Edwards book to make a better drawing of JFK than they ever thought they could. Edwards makes a very convicing case that left brain processing (or "verbal thinking") is the thing that, for the most part, blocks peoples' brains from doing the right brain process which (by and large) produces the art. I see this happening in music too.

Mike Dixon , Apr 28, 2003; 02:40 p.m.

Mark, I'd advise you to stop thinking of it in those terms immediately before you develop a nasty habit. Seriously, refering to these different approaches as "left brained" and "right brained" is about as accurate and sensible as refering to them as "hooha" and "joojoo." There are some differences between the ways the two hemisphere process information, but calling the "right/left brain" labels for the different approaches described a gross oversimplification is a gross understatement. Using such labels doesn't provide any further understanding of the difference between the approaches, it simply muddles an understanding of brain function.

(Personally, I'm more a joojoo shooter.)

Ollie Steiner , Apr 28, 2003; 02:56 p.m.

Mike, Of course the "Right" and "Left" labels are oversimplifications, as you say. But I think that the discussion of mental processes (as done in the book I described above) is a very good thing, and of practical help as well. I would be interested in knowing what you think of this book. I imagine you would like it.

Mark, Your photos took a jillion hours to load on my dial-up connection, but it was worth it. They're great. I especially liked the cowboy hat photo and the American flag baloon photo.

Donald Largo Jr. , Apr 28, 2003; 03:40 p.m.

I can second the recommendation for Betty Edwards book.

Ralph Barker , Apr 28, 2003; 04:06 p.m.

I like to use hooha during the planning stages, and joojoo during the shoot.

Mike Dixon , Apr 28, 2003; 04:07 p.m.

An understanding of some of the basics of brain function relevant to picture-taking would certainly be helpful in providing a context for sensible discussions about the subject. (Most of the times I've seen cognitive function brought up in online discussions about photography, it's been the case that the person was simply inventing "facts" that supported his view--stuff that anyone who had studied beyond Psych 101 would know was nonsense). The reason for my objection to "left/right brain" terminology is that it confuses rather than clarifies. Terms like "analytical" vs. "holistic" might not be perfect, but at least they would serve as sensible labels. The only reason "left brained" and "right brained" aren't entirely arbitrary (like hooha and joojoo) is their relationship to an inaccurate and misleading concept of brain function.

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