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Left Brain versus Right Brain: Is Photography One or the Other?
by Andy Long

Many people associate a left-brained person as technical and analytical and a right-brained person as creative and artistic, which would tend to lead to the thought that photographers are more right brained. I was thinking of this, putting many parts of photography onto the creative side of the ledger.

Most people go through life with a tendency to be one or the other as it helps make us who we are. There may be some instances where combining the two helps with certain situations and if someone is totally left or right brained some activities might be a bit more difficult. After doing some reading it seems we need to have chracteristics of both and maybe leaning more to the left-brained side to fully take advantage of this art we call photography. Isn't there some aspect of photography that is one or the other, primarily on the right brain side?

The general rule of thumb is there are two different kinds of shooters, left brained which includes aspects such as extreme precision and following rules for things such as composition (rule of thirds, leading lines, etc.) and right brained with shooting from instinct, susbending thought and just taking photos when things look right.

For doing wildlife, at first thought it would seem to lean towards being a right brained activity. While there is a bit of the left brain used when it comes to using the rule of thirds, most of the images taken are based on when things look right at the peak of action or behavior. The more wildlife photography done over time, the more instinct comes into play as to knowing what behavior or action occurs just before something else takes place.

We get a feel for what is right and let go when wildlife is around. We want to get all the shots we can if there is not a lot of time to try and set things up to get the perfect shot. Isn’t it more dependent on what the animal is doing rather than the photographer making sure the lines are good? Who needs to get technical when a bird is taking a bath right in front of you? You see the action and you point and start shooting. How about when a wading bird is in the water hunting for a meal and we just track with it until it strikes and we fire away?

But, with trying to capture the peak of action, the left brain does come into play regarding precise timing in order to get the best shot. On second thought, there are some other rules we try to keep in mind when doing wildlife photography. We try to think about the background so there isn’t a lot of confusion that takes away from the main subject. We also look at the lighting conditions in order to determine what settings are best for a shot as to what shutter speed is needed, what’s the best f/stop, and what kind of exposure compensation is needed. Most experienced wildlife photographers have a magic shutter speed they want to have as the slowest to try and capture fast action, so this is a part of the technical we use but do automatically. For me, that magic shutter speed is 1/1000th of a second.

We also tend to put emphasis on composition rules more than we think we do. If a bird is flying from left to right, we want to make sure it’s placed more on the left side of the frame to give it room to fly and not with its head close to flying out of the shot.

We can go into autopilot when we’ve been doing wildlife photography for quite a while and the technical side is natural, but we can’t disregard the fact that there is a bit of left brain in use for this subject,

Hmm, I guess wildlife photography does need a combination of both left and right brain to be successful and get the best shots.

Waterfalls. Surely, this has to be a right brained subject. We go to an area where there are a lot of waterfalls and we let our creative side some out and get a great composition to show the beauty or the power of the waterfall and just go with the flow. We want to portray some great colors or something nice that’s laid out in front of us and we compose to bring out its beauty. While looking around for just the perfect angle isn’t this all about creativity?

Maybe not. The first thing to think about is whether a fast or slow shutter speed is going to be used to either smooth out the water or freeze the movement to show the power of the running water or the spray being thrown out from where it comes to an end.

Composition is pretty much ruled by the left side of the brain here. The rule of thirds is very important in capturing a quality image with the placement of the falls / cascades in relation to its surroundings. Line can also be used to lead the viewer from one area to the next within the frame and this is fully a left brain activity. And if there’s a rainbow emerging from the light and the falls, knowing what settings to use to enhance then colors are completely on the technical side.

How about with wildflower or fall color photography? These are where the artistic side has to be able to come out and shine to get these beautiful artistic images. We see something we like and set up and take the picture to bring out the essence of the scene.

There is a strong creative side to this, but again the technical side plays a key role. Understanding depth of field and how to implement hyperfocal distance is truly technical. Most of the composition is fully left brained for making sure the foreground and background work together, using line to lead the viewer up and around and making sure the right colors work well together.

Where the right side is helpful is in trying to create a sense of mood in a photo. While some technical is used, this is more about emotions and trying to evoke from the viewers a desired feeling when they look at the final image. Composition and exposure play a role, but a much smaller one than with letting emotions being used to take the shot.

In trying to learn about one aspect over the other, it’s much easier to do so of the technical side rather than the creative side. Too often people have a harder time trying to learn artistic if they don’t already have an eye to bring out the best in a scene while the technical side of photography is where the learning can never stop as there is so much out there to incorporate.

A photographer can lean toward one or the other, but without taking advantage of both sides, a lot will be missed, so it looks like the answer is that photographers have to be both left and right brained in order to capture the beauty of our wonderful surroundings.

Take a look at the following images and think about the technical and artistic components of each. The following 6 images are copyrighted by Andy Long.