The Heron Wood, 2020

Thought-through or intuitive? Do your pictures depend on your experience or do you just go exploring?

A friend of mine, Neil McCoubrey, in the course of a long-running conversation about photographic motivations, commented on this recent picture of mine:

I love the hi key trees in the background shrouded by the darker foreground ones. Are your compositions like this one thought-through or more intuitive?

My initial reaction was to say that of course, I always think through all my pictures, how could I not, how could you possibly think …. and so on. But then I slowed down and thought maybe there’s a more nuanced thing going on here, with style, experience and good fortune all tied up together.

Late spring light

This image was one of several I took during a recent walk round the local fields and woods down by the mouth of the Eden Water near Kelso. The late April light was exceptionally bright but given the prevailing easterly weather system maybe not so surprising. In the middle of the afternoon, it was difficult to find ways of keeping the extremes of contrast under any semblance of control. But under the shade of the mature beech trees it was a different matter.

I was particularly taken by the shapes of the overhanging branches which created a fringe through which you could make out the area beyond where there had been some felling of the conifers followed by replanting. The short vertical pipes you can see are the tree guards protecting the new saplings from the local deer. The whole area is a work in progress: there are still piles of brash waiting to be dealt with by either time or fire. It’s not an inviting place to walk across, but seen through the gauze of new growth beech leaves it looks quite mysterious.

But back to Neil’s question – did I know what I was doing or did I “just” point and click?

Experience versus exploration

Michael Freeman talks about image templates. He contrasts experience and exploration when approaching image composition. He says:

An experienced photographer, faced with any new picture situation, usually has some immediate idea of the kind of image he or she could make out of it. Situations, lighting, events and moments all trigger past styles and techniques from the memory banks.

Michael Freeman (The Photographer’s Mind, 2010)
The Heron Wood, 2020

The first thing to say about the image (most of my images actually) is that the creative activity doesn’t stop when the shutter release goes down. I get at least two bites at any picture – once when I’m behind the camera, then again when I’m behind the computer. Decisions I arrive at when outside taking the picture may well be adjusted when I’m back home again. This, for me, reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, the role of the intuitive in my photography. Conscious thought versus intuition, or in Freeman’s terms experience versus exploration: how can we pull those concepts apart in a given image?

How about identifying what experience contributed to the picture and how much exploration?

Role of experience

In this image, I’ve used a technique I’ve been experimenting with for a few months now. Where a scene has darker interest in the foreground against a much brighter background, I keep in mind one outcome on the computer is to reduce the highlights and boost the shadows AND whites while also reducing the clarity considerably. This has the effect of emphasising the structure of the near branches while reducing the impact of the highly contrasty trees in the background.

Freeman would call this an image template, and it’s an approach I’ve used a few times to deal with backlit woodland scenes. He would argue the image would fit nicely into his “stacked planes” template where there are layers silhouetted against a background. I think it’s clear this aspect of the picture was completely thought through. In fact, I went out of my way to capture in the camera an image that would be capable of that sort of processing later on – keeping the dynamic range within bounds and closing the aperture down enough to keep everything sharp.

Experience also led me to seek out a particular viewpoint. The frieze of branches provides a complex window through which to view the distant trees while offering some foreground interest to delay the eye. Again Freeman identifies a template (directing the view) for this as well, and it’s a common approach for many photographers.


How about the role of exploration or intuition in the picture? For me intuition might encompass apparently unthinking photography, or put more positively, inexplicable photography. Something you could explain, possibly, in retrospect but at the time you might not be able to put words on how, or even why, you recorded the picture. You might think of it as a “pure”, possibly even a naive, response to a scene.

In many ways, I’m not entirely sure that the act of taking a photograph can ever be really all that intuitive. You don’t work things out from first principles each time. You’ve got all that history of using a camera behind you. There must be something that drives you to press the shutter release and I suspect that if you’re finding it difficult to explain why you took a particular picture, you may not be comfortable with an answer like “it’s what I do”: you may be looking for answers that just don’t exist.

Now specifically, given the analysis of experience above, I’m not sure just how much of this picture involved unguided action. If anything, it might be the particular configuration of the foreground. I can’t remember thinking about exactly how the branches were to be arranged across the image. It was important that there were some but apart from leaving a gap to view some of the distant trees, it didn’t seem too critical to the picture exactly how the branches lined up. In any case, cropping the image to lose a fallen tree in the foreground rather reduces the role of any intuition that might have been present.

I suppose you could argue the subject matter itself is something of an exploration. I’ve walked past this scene many times and have never been able to find a viewpoint that didn’t look like rather ugly devastation. But just trying this particular shot, and I only took one frame, might be called exploration of a sort.

So maybe what was intuitive about this image was the idea that there might be an image at all to be had here. Everything that followed was for the most part based on previous experience. How much of that was conscious thought at the time I pressed the button could be disputed, but since the creative process continues well past that point, does it really matter?

Despite my misgivings about talking too much about camera settings and other configuration matters which aren’t too important, these are the bits of technical information about this picture some folk find useful:

  • Camera: Fuji X Pro-2
  • Lens: Canon 24-105mm f4 with Viltrox EF-FX2 adaptor
  • ISO: 200
  • Exposure: 1/220 at f9.0 (handheld)
  • I use Lightroom and NIK software for sharpening and noise reduction.

Other backstory articles

Time’s Arrow, 2016

There was something about the line of gravestones not just leading to the door but also taking you back in time as you walk along beside them.
Read More

The Fin, 2011

Way back in 2011, I was fascinated by the buildings in Manchester – mainly the Victorian and Edwardian commercial architecture. There was lots to go at, and much that was in an attractive state of dilapidation. But there’s lots of modern buildings too and I regret not photographing more while I was there.
Read More

The Serpents’ View, 2015

Has something just happened? Or is something about to happen? Or perhaps nothing ever happens up here in the waiting room on the roof of the known world.
Read More

Late bar, Venice, 2008

By daylight the scene is nothing to write home about. But at night, nearly midnight, all those extraneous elements and colours just disappeared, and the atmosphere of the Venetian night took over.
Read More

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.