One of the things I hear frequently in response to an image critique or review is this: “But I don’t think about those things when I shoot, I just shoot.” Sometimes we appeal to the intuition as a line of defense, as though to say, “I can’t help it, it’s not my fault, my intuition failed me!” I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve found myself thinking that way. But it is my fault, because whether my intuition is, or is not, well-trained, is up to me.
Some people shoot intuitively (the artists) and some people shoot much more analytically (the geeks). Most of us are a hybrid, a certain percentage of artist mixed with a certain percentage of geek. What is important is not to see these two contrasting sides of ourselves as competitive but complimentary.
In the case of the intuitive shooter, your geek side can be your greatest ally if you’ll just let it. Intuition is not some static way of perceiving or knowing things, it’s a sub-conscious skill that grows as conscious information becomes so ingrained and absorbed that it stops being conscious and begins operating sub-consciously. In other words, intuition can be trained.
The more you consciously work to be aware of why certain images work, how your equipment and settings choices affect the aesthetics of your images, and in general how to express yourself in visual ways, the more this stuff begins to seep under the surface and soon you find yourself setting apertures subconsciously when once it was an effort. Or you’ll start seeing the way your 17mm lens sees without bringing it to your face.
The problem is that most of us intuitive types are so heavily artsy-fartsy that the idea of intentionally training our intuition seems a little like sapping the fun from the whole thing. And that’s where it just becomes another element of craft, and hard work. But the promise that all this holds, and the reason most of us intuitive types work through the geek stuff so intentionally, is that once we get that stuff into our subconscious, it becomes not only fun again, but amazing.
When I was still doing comedy for a living there was a point when a new show was no fun. I’d be nervous, my effort would go 100% into remembering lines and not screwing up. And I’d do 30-50 shows like that, hating it, but getting a little more comfortable each time. And one day, after 100 shows I’d be standing up there having a blast and doing what I really loved, which was not reciting lines, but interacting with 1500 laughing people. And there were times I was so comfortable that the lines became subconscious. I could be in the middle of a show and while I was delivering lines and doing my thing I’d also be thinking, “man, is this ever fun.” or “hey, if I pause here I’ll get a better laugh out of this crowd” or even “I wonder what I’ll eat after the show. Speaking of eating, I wonder if I turned the oven off…” When the show became subconscious I could focus on being the best entertainer I could be – I could get past the lines and to the true heart of the art, which is timing and improvisation and connecting to an audience.
Same thing with photography. Learning something new takes time, but one day it dives beneath the surface and forms part of our bulk of intuitive knowledge, the stuff you do without thinking about it, and then the technology and the skills just fade into the background and you can concentrate on just making a great photograph.
I don’t want to imply that one day you’ll get to a point where it will all be intuitive – that only happens if you stop learning, stop trying new techniques and new technology, in which case you’re probably stagnating and that’s a whole other creativity-killing problem. No, you’ll always have new things to learn, new lines to put into the show, and it’ll take plain ol’ practice to internalize it, but as you do the wealth of intuition you can access as you shoot will grow, and you can just concentrate on chasing your vision and expressing it as clearly as possible.
In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Blink! and I think that there’s some solid stuff in there about the notion of, and value of, thinking intuitively. You can find it on Amazon.com HERE.