Zen and the Art of Photography

Cool rider, Flatirons, Boulder, Colorado (Jason Schlosberg)

Cool rider, Flatirons, Boulder, Colorado. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF-L 17-40mm, 1/50, 18, ISO 100.

There’s a great book from the ’70s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  The author, Robert Pirsig, purportedly knew nothing about such engineering, but used the storyline to promote a rather insightful philosophy: that to enjoy something fully, you must embrace its classical and romantic attributes.  In other words, appreciate the creative and technical side of everyone.  Become an artistic accountant.

Using the motorcycle as a metaphor, the narrator–who takes a 17-day journey from Minnesota to California with his son and others–describes a romantic as one who lives “in the moment,” just enjoying the ride by experiencing the speed on the open road with the wind blowing in his hair.  He hopes for the best while choosing not to learn how to maintain his expensive new motorcycle.  The romantic faces problems frustrated, turning to others, such as professional mechanics, for assistance.

The classic person, however, seeks to learn the intricacies of the bike’s mechanics.  Paying attention to detail, he is continually focused on the situation.  He is enthralled by how the pieces fit and work together, causing the machine to go vroom.  While his motorcycle may be older, he is usually able to diagnose and repair it himself through the use of rational problem solving skills.  In contrast to the romantic, he is less likely to live Zen-like, in the moment and just let it go.

Initially, the narrator represents the classic view while one of his friends is the ultimate romantic.  By the book’s conclusion, he understands that it is necessary to understand both viewpoints.  While a romantic might find motorcycle maintenance dehumanizing, dull, tedious, ugly, and repulsive, he should see the beauty of technology with maintenance necessary “to achieve an inner peace of mind.”  The classic should seek to enjoy the motorcycle as a pleasurable pastime.  Either way, one should embrace a perception that includes the rational and romantic, including the basics of science, reason, and technology and all “irrational” sources of wisdom and understanding such as creativity and intuition.

This philosophy equally applies to photography.  Unlike most other art forms, photography makes use of modern technology to achieve its end.  To truly embrace photography, and to reach one’s full potential as a photographer, one must pay attention to the beauty of the subject and the mechanics of the camera and the physics of light.

On the romantic side, one must understand the beauty of the subject and the art of composition.  The decisions made by a romantic photographer include how to choose and frame a subject, when capture a moment, and which compositional elements should be included or avoided.  Whether a subject should smile or be in motion.  Whether to use warm sunlight or cool tungsten light.  Bird’s-eye or worm’s-eye view.  Being impetuous, the romantic photographer will take photographs as the moment suits.  To a purely romantic photographer, it doesn’t matter what camera he or she uses, since it is what is within the viewfinder (or LCD) that matters.

Photographing the surreal, Lower Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona (Jason Schlosberg)

Photographing the surreal, Lower Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona. Canon 5D, 36mm, 1/10, 5.0, ISO 100, -2/3 exp. comp.

The classical photographer tends to be more of a techie, obsessed with figuring out how the camera works to achieve the best sharpness, tonality, and exposure.  He or she may learn more about the film or sensor to see how they react to light or be more interested in f-stops and shutter speeds, ISOs and white balance.  More focused and patient, the classical photographer may wait to the proper time of day to achieve the best photographic conditions.  Eventually, a classic photographer may become more of a gadget hound, hording accessories to accomplish various photographic tasks such as a tripod remote trigger to maintain sharpness.


Clearly, either type of photographer would be stunted from reaching her greatest potential.  The pure romantic shutterbug may capture interesting subject matter, but possibly at the cost of blurred or underexposed images.  The classical photographer, while able to create crisp, clean, perfectly exposed photographs, would more likely have results void of compositional interest.

While combining romantic and classical traits should help solve this disparity, doing so takes practice and time.  Some people may be born with both skills, but others may be more right- or left-brained.  Thus, challenge yourself to hone your weaknesses and see through the other lens.

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