Overthinking and Other Dangers in Photography

Tangled Tableau Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Tangled Tableau
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Some degree of self-awareness is a good thing in photography.  By this, I mean an awareness of who you are as a photographer, what it is you want to photograph, and why you pursue photography.  Taking some time to reflect on these points is a good thing, and revisiting them from time to time can help keep you focused and grounded as you pursue this discipline.

Unfortunately, photography is an area that seems to lend itself to overthinking.  Perhaps this extends from the technical nature of the subject, which certainly encourages research and study when one is looking to improve their technique.  Or it may be the manner in which photography fits into the larger world of fine art, where the traditions of art history and art philosophy provide a deep pool of study upon which to draw.

Whatever the cause, it seems to me that overthinking can be a dangerous and destructive tendency if not kept in check.

Overthinking can take many forms.  It can be an obsessive compulsion to learn and follow “rules” of composition, camera operation, printing, and the like.  It can be slavishly following and imitating the work of others, be they old masters or contemporary social media stars.  It can be adopting inflexible philosophical or procedural approaches, such as rigidly using specific alternative processes or producing only photographs that have methaphorical or other kinds of secondary meanings.

The end result when photographers succumb to overthinking – and I believe I have seen more than a few photographers affected by this – is that their work becomes stilted and straight-jacketed.  It’s not enough to produce a good image anymore, rather, all images must adhere to whatever mental agenda they carry around in their minds as a result of their overthinking.  Their work begins to suffer because of artificial obstacles they create for themselves – this image can’t be good because it is composed incorrectly, that image can’t be good because it’s not enough like the work of an admired photographer, another image can’t be good because it fails to carry a metaphorical message, and so forth. In the end, the photographs they produce indeed may meet all the compositional rules, or have all the elements of a sought-after style, or may communicate a metaphorical meaning, but they often lose the dynamism and vitality of simple and strong visual communication, which is hard enough to achieve as it is.

The simpler – and I daresay better – approach is to practice photography with a degree of spontaneity and open-mindedness.  There comes a point where it can be beneficial to throw caution to the wind, engage the process with feeling more than intellect, and proceed by doing rather than rationalizing.  It avoids the perils of overthinking, and is a lot more fun, too.

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  1. Rick G April 8, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    Sorry I’m late to the party, Misha, but I think you’ve touched upon one of the most common obstacles to growth for any artist. Once we get locked into a thought process, an artistic identity, or a need to achieve a particular result our creativity starts to become static. Certainly there is a place for the study of composition, technical processes, etc. in the development of every photographer, but speaking for myself, once I had a basic knowledge of gear use and visual design, nothing improved my images faster than undaunted experimentation followed by serious analysis of the results. Working intuitively in the field prevents gumming up the machinery with expectations, concerns about external judgement, and self-editing. There’s plenty of time for mental heavy lifting during review:
    Which images stood out and why?
    Which techniques were most effective in a given situation?
    Which gambles payed off and how can I use that knowledge?

    Finally, I think you said it all in your last line. Overthinking in the field is one of the fastest ways to take all the fun out of photography.
    Then it’s called work.

    • admin April 10, 2015 at 3:04 pm #

      Not late at all, Rick, I appreciate your comment. My experience definitely is similar, especially regarding undaunted experimentation in the field. The best path to improvement in pretty much most things about photography – technical skills, development of artistic vision, etc. – is practice and lots of it. Which is why one should be having lots of fun in the process, because otherwise, as you pointed out, it would just be work!

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