A Second Note On Modern Photography

I use my point-and-shoot less and less for still photography and my FlipCam more and more. I realize that with the Flip I’m losing hundreds of thousands of pixels and a much better sensor but I’m also picking up a) portability and, most crucially here, b) a couple dozen more frames per second. Technological advances will eventually close the gap in quality but technological advances are useless to close the gap between the photographer I am and the photographer I want to be.

Check this out. Give a photography student less than a second of video. Twelve frames, maybe.

At what point is the composition balanced?

At what point does the gorilla become the subject?

I have found this kind of deconstruction to be a) essential to my growth as a photographer and b) impossible to achieve using a point-and-shoot camera (or any camera) with a shutter refresh rate of more than a second. That kind of lag has you comparing apples to oranges.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. At what point is the composition balanced? Never is a possible answer. I think that little man has to move to the left more. 2nd row, 1st column is the best.

    At what point does the gorilla become the subject? Again, could be never. He is most the subject when that gesturing mans hands look all muddled and he’s looking away. The last two look equal to me.

    I believe there are mathematical formulas for calculating this thing. Or could be.

  2. With DSLR’s you can sometimes achieve a similar effect to that which you have above. If you change the settings to shooting continuously the shutter refreshes far quicker. My Canon D40 would work well in that capacity.

  3. @Northrup, absolutely, “never” is a possible answer. “Never” is a compelling answer to a question that is difficult to even ask because we’re typically talking about two different images, two different set-ups.

    @Pete, right. DSLRs that can shoot in continuous drive mode are more than appropriate here.

  4. I’m quite confused Dan. Your picture(s) above feature two gorillas. So I would say they are both the subject. Is this a trick? A math trick?

  5. Great discussion and examples here! I find myself still torn when I consider my transition from years of film photography to digital.

    When shooting my 4×5 camera… I would climb a mountain and know I was only carrying six exposures of film for the whole day. I would set up a shot, stare at it for a while, recompose, decide not to shoot it and try something completely different.

    Then the Hasselblad… each roll of film only had 12 exposures and took a minute to reload… photographing weddings with that, again, I would make sure the shot was right, then trip the shutter.

    When using 35mm with a motor drive, wow, I had 36 exposures, the freedom was immense, I began shooting so much more… weddings were now 10-15 rolls of film.

    Shooting digital, we’re now talking orders of magnitude in exposures made. And now the thought of raising my frame rate to 30 fps? We could easily talk about the pros and cons of shooting more pictures in different contexts.

    Is it good to think about a shot before pushing the shutter or hitting record?

    Is it better to do your thinking after the fact by choosing the best composition or expression later?

    How does this change effect your editing time after the fact? I had four images to go through with the 4×5, twelve with the Hasselblad, hundreds with the 35mm, and thousands (tens of thousands?) with the digital?

    As time goes on, I find myself in some contexts trying to shoot less and compose more rather than the reverse.

  6. No idea. But am I in the minority here? Begs the same question I asked a while back… If only a select few people have the training or skill to know the answer to these questions or understand their significance, why bother asking them? Sorry if I’m poking my nose in a place it doesn’t belong, but curiousity’s got me.

  7. If only a select few people have the training or skill to know the difference between centripetal and centrifugal force or understand their significance, why bother learning it?

  8. Forces are objective and they affect us whether we understand them or not. No?

    Am I affected by aesthetics whether I understand them or not? If “never” is a possible answer to the question on composition or subject, then isn’t the question is entirely subjective. I’m all for kicking around subjective questions; in fact I think the “why” is way more important than the “what.”

    If I am affected by this without knowing it, then you’re right and I am asking the wrong questions.

  9. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a poor knitting stitch and a good one. I don’t have much desire to learn the difference either and I suppose that’s okay. Everyone doesn’t have to know everything. But I wouldn’t then teach a class on knitting and I wouldn’t offer up a critique on someone else’s knitting. Those seem like humble boundaries to me. And I guess I’m not sure why I’d stop by a knitting forum to say, “Only a small percentage of you know the difference between these stitches. Why bother talking about them?” I can’t really figure that argument out.

  10. You’re absolutely right. I would never drop into a conversation about photography or anything I’m not well versed in and offer critiques.  The only reason that I’m even asking the question is because there’s an obvious connection between your aesthetic and your teaching.  I can’t figure it out and it kills me.  I know you see things that I don’t see and I wonder if that fact is keeping me from being the teacher I am meant to be.  

    So, if there is no connect between your passion for photography and your pedagogy, then I sincerely apologize for sticking my nose someplace it doesn’t belong. But the fact that you post this on dy/dan tells me that somehow you’re connecting this to all of your other posts re: aesthetic and design and how they shape you as a teacher.

    If I didn’t read this with enough of a critical eye, then I suppose I’ll stick to commenting on the stuff that is explicitly related to teaching.  Mea culpa.    

  11. I like deconstruction. That’s the connection, I suppose, between this and that. I like stripping photos (and my teaching) down to its component bits and commenting on the pieces even though I sometimes lose the forest for the trees. That’s all this is, asking the question “which frame is better balanced?” even though all of the frames look more or less the same. That’s my aesthetic, I guess. This detail-orientation isn’t essential to good teaching but it has certainly helped mine.

  12. Am I affected by aesthetics whether I understand them or not?

    Yes. Although it gets to a level that might be called something other than aesthetics.

    Very few enthusiasts of action movies would likely be able to give detail on the shot-by-shot, yet the clarity of action (and hence intensity, hence enjoyment) is affected by the “aesthetics”.

    The reason I shy away from using the word when referring to unconscious effect is it more along the lines of “ease of understanding the intuitive constructive space”.

    (One can artistically deconstruct that ease — see jump cuts — but then one should want to break up the intuitive constructive space in an intentional way, not a random way.)

    In the case of the above, I believe asking about the composition is the wrong question; it seems relatively similar to me across the shots. The poses of the people strike me as the better point of focus. Take the first picture: it is unclear the person in the background is walking forward, it looks like maybe he’s just leaning. Whereas the picture right below that signals the action with great clarity.

  13. Re: the gorilla photos.

    I don’t think the gorilla is the subject in any of them. The issue here is the old art trick of the eye following a pointing hand (and in this case also the person’s gaze).

    In this case I believe the first picture looks the most balanced in terms of where the eye lands, whereas the later ones lead the viewer off the left edge of the frame. (In this case it may be a good thing; is the picture meant to be a “gorilla surprise” like that basketball experiment?)

    If the person on the left side of the image was simply flipped likely in at least one of the examples the gorilla would become the subject.

    Returning to the “does it matter if we don’t understand aesthetics” question, this photo set is like how a magician distracts an audience with their hands without them even realizing it.

  14. Attacking the problem this way is interesting, but I feel like you’re doing yourself a disservice. Instead of freeing yourself to create a wide variety of images with different angles and f-stops and shutter speeds, you’re obsessing about one second of time in order to get one shot correct.

    In other words, this is a very inefficient use of your time. You are spending just as much time shooting one second of footage and breaking it down into separate images and obsessing over them as you would if you shot 20 different images or more.

    As for taking photos from video, it has happened with Esquire where the cover shot is a still from video footage.

    The difference is that the photographer already has the shoot planned out and knows what he’s looking for. He’s already at a good spot to drill down.

  15. If the point of this exercise was “one correct shot,” I’d agree. But the point is an examination of composition and balance and how easily they change. “Obsessing” over details like this is one way students learn.