The Holistic Method of Photography

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I have now been teaching photography for over a decade, and I have arrived at a method that for a lack of a better word I describe as holistic. I frequently receive emails from photographers who tell me that they started reading this site when they studied photography. So I thought I might as well write about the tools and methods in my approach. You will want to keep in mind that the following is mostly geared towards fine-art photographers. As far as I can tell, specialist photographers — whether they’re photographing weddings, are photojournalists, or make their money with commercial or editorial work — typically know how to go about their jobs. Consequently, for them what I describe below might be pretty obvious. Still, there might be the occasional bit of insight as well.

What do I mean by “holistic”? The principle is very simple. Especially for beginners its repercussions might appear daunting at first. In reality, though, they’re not daunting at all: they merely require a re-thinking and re-arrangement of one’s practice. Let’s start with the process of photography as you might know it. First, you go out and take photographs (please don’t take “go out” literally, if you work in the studio that’s included as well). Then, you edit the photographs. Then, you sequence them. Then, you maybe want to make a book, so you start thinking about a book. Lastly, the most dreaded part: the writing of the statement.

In my view, that’s a terrible approach to developing one’s photography. Treating these different tasks as separate and unrelated complicates what in reality should be much more organic. Crucially, it shouldn’t be a challenge at all to write a project statement after you’ve arrived at an edit (and a sequence). Working on a project should entail coming to a growing understanding of the work, from which the statement then condenses easily (let’s focus on a project, but the following also applies for photographers working on single pictures). The fact that it’s so hard for many photographers to write their statements demonstrates that they’re going about the process the wrong way.

The holistic approach intermingles and unifies the different aspects of photography. Every aspect is important at every stage of the process. Note, though, that depending on where you are in the process, some parts might be more important than others. For example, at the very beginning of a project, you don’t want to spend too much time on thinking about a book. When you’re done with a project, you don’t want to spend time on photographing more pictures. Still, throughout the process, you want to combine taking photographs with critically looking at them. You will want to edit them constantly, picking pictures that work and putting aside those that don’t. Keep in mind, though, that no edit is ever final — except for the very final one itself. A photograph that you put aside early on might come back later, just as your favourite early photographs might never make the final edit. Thus, flexibility is absolutely important. In a nutshell, while you’re working on a project you want to guide your eye towards new pictures by engaging with the ones you already made.

For that to work, you need a number of important tools. The very first and most important tool is your camera. You need to work with a camera that works for you. A huge number of problems my students have encountered arose from working with the wrong camera. The wrong camera will make your life miserable. It will have you spend enormous amounts of time (and usually money) on activities that get in the way of focusing on the most important aspects: taking and looking at your photographs. This problem doesn’t have much to do with analog versus digital. Even as analog photography now is a huge money and time sink, I have had students who struggled enormously with very expensive high-end digital cameras. Whatever camera you use, if it gets in the way of you making work, it’s the wrong camera for you. Obviously, you will have to have spent enough time with your camera to get past the initial hurdles (which are inevitable for any camera).

The reality is that the world of photography attracts a large number of people who are very interested in technical details. The problem with this often obsessive focus on usually very irrelevant technical details is that anyone who wants to merely decide on a camera or solve a technical problem will be flooded with information that’s useless for them. Camera XYZ might have the best or largest sensor, but it still might not be the right camera for someone if it works best on a tripod, say. A view camera might produce really nice negatives, but it might still not be the right camera for someone who isn’t flush with cash or needs to be very flexible. Adding 300 complicated layers in Photoshop might get you a really nice file, but for a lot of people that’s much too complicated. So as a photographer, you will get a lot of recommendations from a lot of really nice people. But you will have to make sure that you pick what works for you. As someone who has a background in the sciences, my inclination is to pick the simplest solution. Always focus on the simplest solutions for the tools you use to take your pictures and work on them. That way, you can focus exclusively on the challenges posed by your pictures.

For a lot of photographers (me included), money (aka the lack thereof) always is an issue. One mental trick I use to help me with this is to equate time with money or money with time. Let’s look at a simple example. Imagine you’re thinking about whether or not to buy an extra hard drive for backups. If you buy the drive, you will get an extra copy of your files, which means if your computer dies (which, after all, might happen eventually) you’ll be fine. This will cost you some money. If you don’t buy the drive, you will lose a lot of data if your computer dies. You will likely spend a lot of time on trying to salvage what there is to salvage. In a nutshell, you need to think about how valuable your time is. In this particular example, it’s the cost of the extra hard drive versus all that time you need to spend when your computer dies. This is a very simple and basic example, but you get the idea.

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