Controlled Abandon

Practice controlled abandon.John Paul Caponigro

Different people have different styles of working. I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach. Some people seem to need a very detailed, planned shoot. That is not best for me. I find out more and more that throwing out most structure is what works. Mr Caponigro calls it “controlled abandon”. Not a bad description.

When I get into it, it is instinctual, reactive, “shooting from the hip”. My subconscious recognizes scenes I would like and guides me to frame them best. I trust the process because my mind knows what I like and I have trained it to recognize interesting opportunities.

In a workshop one time Bob Rozinski, who was, among other things, winner of International Nature’s Best photography contest, told me “you think too much”. Well, I think I have solved that problem. Maybe it’s time for someone to tell me I should slow down and think more. 🙂


I like to be surprised by scenes I find. If things turn out to be exactly what I anticipated, it is usually fairly boring. I don’t like to be bored by my art.

It is far preferable to me to find something that gives me a shiver of excitement. That awakes a sense of wonder. If that is my reaction maybe I can convey it to my viewers. When I’m editing a set of images I can definitely tell the ones I was bored with. They may be perfectly exposed and well composed, but there is no thrill there.

Surprises often become the start of something new. A surprise may being a new insight on how to see something. It may open up some possibilities I had not recognized. I view a surprise as being a potential growth opportunity. Being stopped by a surprise makes you ask questions of yourself. That is always good.


Time, or at least its perception, is a variable. It seems to flow at different rates for different activities. Remember those classes you could swear lasted for hours, even if the clock said they were only 45 minutes long? On the other hand, think of times you’ve been out with good friends and you discover you have occupied 3 hours, and you were surprised because you thought it had only been about an hour.

We can have the same distorted sense of time when making images, or editing. If you’re lucky you will learn how to get into a “flow” state. Mihály CsĂ­kszentmihályi, who popularized the term describes it as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Have you experienced it? I have, many times. I got practiced at it in my Engineering career. When caught up in an interesting problem there were times I realized it was 6pm and I forgot to have lunch and hadn’t even been to the bathroom for hours. It was wonderfully satisfying, and productive, addictive, even.

The same can happen in a creative, immersive activity like art. Approaching it with controlled abandon helps. In another quote Mr. Caponigro says: “Time did not seem to move as it ordinarily did. The world grew quiet. I was absorbed by beauty. I had no idea what I was going to do with the images. I simply made exposures as a sign of recognition, recognition of beauty. 

Critical thinking

Is there a place for critical thinking? Of course. The mind is marvelously complex and multi-layered. We are always processing from several perspectives. If you are a responsible adult you are aware of many factors, even in a “flow” state: don’t step off that cliff beside you, don’t put your hand there without checking for rattlesnakes, get off the road there’s a car I hear coming behind me.

Many of us, though, let the critical thinking control too much of our creative life. It is easy to come up with good reasons to not take a picture. Sometimes to our detriment. Or to analyze a scene too long and miss the moment. Over thinking can be worse than under thinking.

French photographer Alain Briot, who lives and works in the Southwest US deserts, described an ideal shoot as “shooting fast and leaving critical thinking aside were critical to get the shot. It was all about getting immersed in the subject, shooting away and not seeking perfection.

Don’t see, FEEL

This brings me to what I believe is critically important to good creative expression, at least for me. Trust your feelings before your head. Your head, the critical thinking aspect, will try to talk you into safe, logical, not very creative choices. Your feelings may pull you to discover something different.

I love the part of the previous quote by Mr. Caponigro where he says “I had no idea what I was going to do with the images. I simply made exposures as a sign of recognition, recognition of beauty..” Seeking beauty for it’s own sake as opposed to only shooting for a definite commercial interest. We don’t all have the freedom to do this, but I strongly recommend you do it some. It’s good for the soul.

It is best to go out empty, the great Jay Maisel says. By avoiding preconceived notions of what we intend to find we are more open to seeing and reacting to what is really there. It is the learning to see that is difficult for many. By “see” I don’t mean just having the visual acuity to be able to resolve the details of a scene before you. I mean we actually consider each element and what it looks like and how it could be photographed. How do the things around us cause us to react? Do you feel something for that old rusty car hidden in the bushes that nobody else pays any attention to as they go by? Maybe, at just the right moment, in the right light, from the right angle it is beautiful.

Channel your creativity

So to me, I interpret “controlled abandon” as a type of channeled creativity. The channeling is the control. We focus our consciousness on being open to perceive our environment. The abandon is to put aside preconceived notions and logical processes and get down to our feelings and instinct. We allow ourselves to just react to what we find.

Instinct is a fuzzy term I use, because I don’t know a better description without writing a book. I believe our creative instinct is a combination of inherent vision and years of training to refine that vision to a set of decisions that happen below the conscious level.

Get out and let yourself go. React. Follow the beauty. Controlled abandon. You might discover a new side to you that you didn’t realize was there.

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