While shooting in the Galapagos Islands a few years ago, a friend said to me, “Dennis, you shoot from the heart.” We had been traveling together for several days by then and this was the beginning of one of many conversations we had about photography. Although I had not thought much about that idea until then, I was touched by his observation and I have thought more about it since. “Shooting from the heart”, what does it really mean?
He did not mean that I was oblivious to the technical side of photography, but rather that I was not a slave to it. He also meant that that I was deeply engaged in truly seeing what was going on around me. I know this because we talked about it. He, on the other hand, admitted that he did feel a bit enslaved by the technical aspects of shooting. Don’t get me wrong, the know-how is absolutely necessary, but a photograph that only has technical merit is almost always flat and uninteresting, at least to me. I strive for something deeper, more meaningful – something to spark an emotional reaction, first in myself, then later, in others. In striving, I occasionally succeed and when that happens it is most joyful and satisfying.
Like writing, photography is usually an isolated pursuit. Although it can be a social time for some, it rarely is for me, unless I am teaching. My best work emerges when I am alone. Part of the reason for this is that I need to be in touch with myself, while also being open to the moment. I turn inward and outward at the same time. When this happens well, and it doesn’t always, the imagination meets the environment and creativity is the product.
I think the idea means that the best images should evoke feelings and express something about the photographer. As Freeman Patterson says, “the camera points both ways.” It means that in addition to the subject, a strong image should capture mood and atmosphere, action and gesture, compelling light and colour. It should also show what the photographer cares about. All these things need to come together in a composition that communicates quickly and clearly. Strong photographs should reveal something about the places where we live and travel. They should shed light on them as well as on the photographer who made the images.
So how do you do this?
Well, first you must be comfortable. If you are cold and wet, strong images are unlikely to happen.
You need to know your gear—what combination of lens and settings will do the best job. But you cannot be so preoccupied with these choices that you let the camera rule you instead of the reverse. You need to familiarize yourself with the essential controls much like driving a car. If you are thinking too much about the car’s controls, you will not be paying enough attention to the road ahead of you. You gain familiarity with your gear by shooting, studying your results, and shooting some more. In other words, you practice. Then practice more. If significant time has lapsed since you last shot, you will feel rusty when you resume. Time to practice some more. It never stops.
You need to be free of fear and anxiety. You cannot be worried about looking foolish, being judged by others or about failing to meet your own expectations. Fear paralyses.
You need to pay attention. If you are thinking about personal worries, relationships, what you have to do tomorrow or last night’s movie, you are not “in the moment”. You are not engaged by the place and what you are doing. Better to immerse yourself in the process and let everything else fall away.
You need to follow your instincts and emotions. If something catches your eye, stop and process what it is and why it caught your attention. Chances are there is a photograph there. As I have written before, we are capable of discerning a great deal of visual information in a very short time – as Malcolm Gladwell says, “in the blink of an eye”. Learn to trust that and use it to make stronger images. The subconscious is a powerful tool.
You need to play. Don’t make the process arduous. Be a child. Let yourself go. Open yourself to discovery. Once you make a discovery, then photograph it. Make mistakes, laugh at them, learn from them and make some more. If you are not making mistakes, you are doing nothing new. You are working only within your comfort zone and not pushing yourself.
You need to put the experience first and the results (strong images) second. In other words, enjoy where you are and what you are doing and the images will arise more easily than if you are fretting about “getting the shot”.
You need to shoot close to home. We sometimes think we have to go to exotic places to make good photos – the lure of the exotic. But if you are from Kenya, then Canada is exotic. Good photographs can be made anywhere. So try to look upon your home area with fresh eyes, as though you are a tourist. Exercise your sense of wonder about what you see in your everyday life. You have an advantage over the tourist because you can go back to a scene as often as you like. As an assignment, try to make one meaningful photo in your home area every week for a year. Or, once a month walk around your home area and make 10 new images. Younes Bounhar said, “new subjects can definitely breathe some creativity and freshness into your work, [but] a deep knowledge of your subject can put your images over the top.”
And you need to learn as much as you reasonably can about your subject. There is a reason that some of the best wildlife photography is done by those who have spent time, often years, studying the animals. Learning about your subject informs you on what to shoot, how to shoot and when to shoot. You have a better idea what stories to tell through your images, what nuance or behaviour is critical, what light provides the best mood. Also the more you know, the more you will care. That care you feel within yourself as you are engaged with your subject will also be evident in your images. This is the “heart part”.
These are just some of the notions that come to mind when I contemplate the idea of “shooting from the heart”. As the great wildlife photographer Moose Peterson said when quoting a wise man: “A good photographer makes an image by holding the camera to his eye, but the great photographer makes an image by holding the camera to his heart!”
About the author: Dennis Minty is a self-taught photographer and eco-tour leader with more than three decades of both local and international work to his name. You can find more of his work and words on his website. This article was also published here.