Controlled Abandon

Beauty in age

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 Csíkszentmihályi, 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.

Subjects Choose You

red truck in red barn

Subjects choose you. The Canadian photographer Geoffrey James said this. It has stuck with me because I see it happening in my work. Despite my intent to work a certain project I often find myself taken by subjects I did not anticipate.


Most of us have been there. We set out intending to shoot a certain subject or work a certain project, but we find ourselves sidetracked,

I know some photographers are totally disciplined and do not do anything without a plan. And they seldom do anything off the plan. Of course, if you are doing a corporate shoot and you have hired models and a crew and rented a venue and arranged lighting and equipment, insurance, permits, etc. then you have to make sure you complete the assignment and make your client happy.

I am happy that that is not the world I live in. It is great to have the luxury of being completely self-directed. I pursue what interests me, so I am very vulnerable to getting sidetracked. I love it. 🙂

But even I sometimes go out with intent to pursue certain subjects or projects. If I keep my focus and actually work the project, I may get some images I like. But if I come back with almost nothing I set out to do, is that a wasted day? Usually not.


I usually characterize myself as an explorer. But even so, it is not necessarily completely wide open exploration. I am often focused in a certain direction, say a project I am working on.

Human psychology is such that when you fix on an idea or you are looking for something particular, most other things are blocked out. An extreme and humorous example of this is called the “invisible gorilla” experiment. Watch the video before reading the article. You can learn something interesting about perception.

These perceptual blinders are true of almost everyone, even “professional” artists. I don’t claim to be immune. But I do try to examine what is going on sometimes and see if I have blinders on and if that is bad.

Since I am exploring I try to look around and allow myself to be drawn to new ideas or to perceive new stimulus. Quite often these take me completely out of the mode of the project I was working on. I actually enjoy that! It means I was drawn to something that interested me more.

Can’t control our mind

The mind is amazing. It is constantly taking in the stimulus around it and filtering and analyzing it to make associations and meaning. This is not artificial intelligence, it is actual intelligence, and is much better.

Sometimes your mind tries to help you by filtering out things you don’t seem to be interested in, like we discussed before with the invisible gorilla. But if you loosen the restrictions and allow it to associate over a wider range it can recognize interesting possibilities we did not consciously see.

I like to work in this more free, wide ranging mode. I have spent decades training my mind to recognize possibilities I might want to pursue. After all that time I should have the confidence to give it the chance to run free and do its best. It is not unusual for my mind to bother me with a recognition of something I want to see, but am overlooking.

I should let it go, because it will anyway.

The subconscious is strong

“The force is strong in this one”. Actually, that is true of most of us. If you have examined your art and the work of others you admire, if you have spent a long time training yourself to recognize scenes of interest to you, your mind will do it subconsciously. You actually have to work to shut it off.

One common model of competence has 4 stages as we progress up the scale. When we are operating at the unconscious competence level, we are not even consciously aware of what we know and what we are doing. It is “second nature”. We operate on an instinctual level.

This is awesome for someone like me who relies on an instinctual recognition of scenes and compositions and possibilities. My subconscious is always analyzing my surroundings in the background. Sometimes it triggers a recognition of something I should see. I can’t describe the how or why. It is just that, without giving it direct thought, a light or something goes off and I realize there is another scene I should investigate. This is subjects choosing me.

It is very related to a state of flow. That can be a great place to be. The art just seems to move through me. I can’t explain it and then is not the time to analyze it. If I have time, if the stimulus is not coming too fast, I can try to being my conscious mind up to speed by expressing to myself why I was drawn to a scene. Sometimes there is no time and it would kill the flow.

Go with it

If I am smart I will recognize what is happening and just go with it. Let my subconscious lead me to things I know I am interested in but didn’t see. I almost feel guilty calling myself an artist. It seems I am just a vehicle for something larger that is expressing itself through me.

But I am not claiming any spiritual or supernatural basis to this. I recognize that my incredible mind, after long training, is just doing its job. This wonderful machine is helping me recognize things I would have wanted to know about, even if I was not consciously paying attention.

Let me mention the image with this post. I was searching for great scenes on a beautiful fall afternoon. I was racing through the forests, surrounded by peak color leaves in upstate New York at sunset. Suddenly I was compelled to screech to a halt and turn around and backtrack. My subconscious had recognized this scene even though I thought I was only interested in leaves. I’m very glad I did. This was the keeper. I do not remember any of the leaf images.

It is joy. It is instinctual. Letting go and following the flow often leads to things I love. Subjects choose you, and it can happen in the most wonderful ways

Go with it.

Don’t Shoot

Frost on Fence

A hero of mine, Jay Maisel, says “If there’s nothing to shoot, don’t shoot.” This is generally very good advice. He also points out that, if you love your subject, there is almost always something interesting to shoot if you take the right attitude. Inconsistent and contradictory? No more than life in general.

Don’t shoot if you don’t feel it, but try to learn to feel it. Any creative endeavor is part inspiration and part discipline and hard work. Many people say that hard work is the main determinant.

Don’t force it

Have you ever been to a great place but didn’t see anything? Did you feel the need to fire off frames anyway? Me too. But the shots I get are seldom outstanding.

Forced shots like these seldom have passion. You know there is something there and you feel the need to record it, but it is not calling to you. Your shots may be technically good, but they do not convey life or interest. If it wasn’t interesting to you, why should it be to your viewer? If it won’t come, just put your camera away and sightsee. At least enjoy being out and being there. Or use the time to practice your technical craft, knowing you will probably throw away most or all of these images.

But there is a strange and interesting corollary to this phenomenon , at least for me. Sometimes when I’m out for the purpose of taking pictures, I need the first shot as an ice breaker. Something magic happens when the shutter clicks. Now I am in image capture mode. Now I start to see. I suspend judgement and open up my emotions. Pictures start to emerge and form, even though they did not seem to be there before.

I can’t explain it, but I have seen it happen to me enough times to trust it and accept it. It is not a 100% guarantee, but it is frequent.


Psychologists talk about the state of “flow“. This amazing place brings a real mental and physical change to you and your perception of the world around you. If you haven’t experienced it, I sincerely hope you are able to find it someday. It is a wonderful thing to experience. But you are not going to get there by reading about it.

I used to go there frequently in my technical career. There would be days when I would realize it was 6 pm and I had not had lunch or even gotten up to go to the bathroom . Looking back on the day I was wonderfully productive and felt accomplished and energized.

The same happens in my art too. I may lose track of the time and even where I am. I get in a mode where I see intriguing images everywhere. Where I get in a creative mode and ideas and possibilities are flowing faster than I can catch them. Being tired or hot or hungry don’t matter at the time. It is wonderful and fulfilling.

It is not easy, and it takes getting yourself into a receptive position. This is about as far as you can get from my “don’t shoot” advice above.


But how to get into a receptive state like this? For myself, getting into a flow state in my art often requires adopting an explorer attitude. I am naturally curious and am something of a polymath. An explorer attitude, to me, is turning off my preconceptions. I take the attitude that I am seeing these things for the first time. How do I perceive them? How will I capture this new thing to present to others who were not there?

Have you ever traveled to a new location, a different culture? Even the little things you would never pay attention to are interesting. My friend taught me to go into places like grocery stores in a foreign country to see how common and familiar things can be so different.

Capturing that attitude at home, in your everyday life can be a challenge for many of us. But it is necessary. It is one of the mental disciplines that keeps us fresh and lets us see the familiar as different and special.

Train yourself to see fresh. To look at the ordinary things around you as if you were in a foreign country and you had never seen them before. Really look and see. Forget that you “know’ what they are and have walked by them a hundred times; see them as for the first time.

Let me get painfully personal for a minute. Some people are so connected to their cell phones that it is usually in front of their face. Turn it off if that is what it takes to manage it. Your Facebook friends can live for a little while without your input. Work can wait a bit for an answer. You owe it to yourself to give yourself permission to unplug for a while. See the world for yourself.

Beauty in the common

This brings me around to one of my recurring themes, there is beauty in the common.

We do not have to travel to grand, exotic locations to get interesting images. They are everywhere. Our limitation is our ability to see them. They are there, everyday, all around us, but we tend to walk right by them without noticing.

I love grand locations, but even more, I love finding new and interesting sights in familiar haunts. Seeing new in the familiar is very rewarding. And humbling. When I see a great shot lurking in a worn out area I have been walking by it makes me wonder how many other great shots am I passing by. And somehow, it makes it more important to me. As Jay Maisel also says “It’s always around. You just don’t see it.

At a grand location any klutz with a camera should be able to make a pretty picture. But when I discover beauty in the ordinary, beauty I didn’t think was there, it is meaningful. I feel like I have uncovered something special. And it encourages me to keep looking. To keep exploring, wherever I am.

The image at the top of this post is one of these. It was a very cold winter day, probably 0F. My hands were getting frostbit even with gloves on. There was a frost that morning. This fence with bits of construction cloth stuck in it was beautiful in the conditions. Most other times it would be very forgettable.

If you really can’t get into it, don’t bother trying to shoot. But I hope you can condition yourself to be able to discover interesting images everywhere. I often find that when I can’t see good images, the problem is in me. I am distracted or preoccupied or in a bad mood. If I can change my attitude it makes a huge difference in my perception.

I would love to hear about your experiences.

Hunting the Image

Street vendor, Paris market

Certain types of photography have a lot in common with hunting. At least some types of hunting. This can heighten the experience for many artists.

Some of the ideas for this article come from Michael Freeman’s excellent book The Photograper’s Eye. I encourage you to read it. It is part of a series, all excellent. And no, I get nothing from recommending this. I seem to base a lot of ideas on Freeman’s writing. He is one of the most articulate and insightful photography authors I know.

Street photography, wildlife photography, even portrait photography have the characteristics of having a “decisive moment”, as the great Cartier-Bresson said.

He also said: “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. ” He also said “once missed, the opportunity is gone forever“.

In my opinion, street photography is perhaps the highest form of this art. It is done in the chaos of busy, uncontrolled scenes. The photographer does not influence or position the subject or typically even ask for their cooperation. He has little control over lighting or crowds passing by. All the many decisions of recognition of an interesting scene, composition, exposure, framing, and the trigger of the decisive moment must take place in the artist’s mind in an instant. One second is a luxury in this field.

And when the moment passes, it is gone forever. Forget it and go on the the next opportunity.


The artist can do some important things to prepare for street photography. One of the simplest is to become so familiar with your equipment that it is an extension of your mind. Adjustments must be instantaneous, automatic. If your camera requires traversing through menus to adjust required settings, that will probably not work. You should be able to set up your camera in the dark.

Another thing to do to learn to be good at this is developing an enhanced ability to observe and be aware. In flying this is called “situational awareness”. It really just means you are constantly attentive and alert. The US Marines would say your “head is on a swivel”. You have to be aware of everything going on around you. The more quickly you can recognize a developing scene, the better chance you have of capturing it.


This brings me to the hunting analogy. I used to really enjoy bow hunting. Stalking through the woods tracking a quarry really focuses you and heightens your senses. I was successful in never actually shooting an animal. Eventually I realized I enjoyed the process of hunting much more than I wanted to kill something and I would be much happier hunting with my camera than with a bow or a rifle.

Cartier-Bresson also said, in an uncharacteristically Zen-like statement, “In whatever one does, there must be a relationship between eye and heart. One must come to one’s subject in a pure spirit.” I choose to interpret is as meaning that when you go out seeking images, you must focus your whole mind and attention on what you are seeing. You must have all your skill and concentration turned up full. All your spidey senses tingling and ready to pounce.

It is best to go out empty, as the great Jay Maisel says. He means do not bring preconceived ideas of what you want, because that is all you will see. Instead you must be completely open to what is going on all around you. It may be totally different from what you thought would be happening, but that’s OK. Embrace what is there and make the best images possible.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I love street photography. It takes me out of my comfort zone. It gives me intense practice in mental focus, fast reaction, decisiveness. I may not be great at it, but I enjoy it and I think it helps improve my other photography.

This awareness and tension and flow becomes almost a spiritual state. Hours can pass without you being conscious of the time. Like with any state of flow, it can be euphoric We are called by instinct and intuition to be intensely aware of those peak moments that define our subjects.

The hunt is on!

Let me know what you think!