John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Technical and Artistic Photographers

technical and artistic photographers

For a moment, let’s supposed there are two basic personality types in photography.

The technical photographer

he “technical” type are those people who focus their efforts on and enjoy the technical aspects of photography. They can tell you all about camera equipment. Stretching their budgets if they have to, they themselves continually strive for bigger and better stuff. They want to understand the science of light and optics. In digital photography, they are familiar with computers, photo editing programs, and even the arcane world of color spaces. They probably don’t mind being called “geeks” but would like to be seen as professionals. These are the go-to people when you want advice on buying equipment and dealing with computer hardware or software problems. They are logical, analytical, realistic, and practical thinkers. They believe in order, pay attention to details, and like having control over all aspects of their work. They are the types who think about the most efficient "work flow." As sticklers for rules and procedures, they believe in the right and wrong ways to do photography. For them, authority matters. Other people might find them a bit compulsive and inflexible. Sometimes they might even drive themselves crazy with their own perfectionism. They strive for tack sharp photos, perfect white balance, and no clipping in the shadows or highlights. Realistic images and the control offered by studio photography are attractive to them, as well as the practical challenges and outcomes of event photography. They’re not particularly interested in and maybe even look down on “artsy” photographs. Their photo archive is well-organized, with a comprehensive set of keywords and precisely defined file names.

The artistic photographer

The artistic type are those people who are, in many ways, the exact opposite. They’re not particularly interested in the technical or scientific aspects of photography. They see photography as art, as a vehicle for personal and emotional expression. They think of themselves and want to be seen as artists. They’re more interested in creativity, experimentation, innovation, and play, rather than standards and rules. Indifferent to or even rebellious against authority, they want to be independent, to do their own thing. They like images that are emotional, ambiguous, unusual, idiosyncratic, shocking, or based more on fantasy and imagination that reality. Blurry, strangely colored, and shadow or highlight clipped photos are fine with them, as long as the effect looks cool. In their photography they want to remain open to new experiences, to let go, to be receptive, spontaneous and fluid. Other people might see them as sensitive, moody, unpredictable, introspective, nonverbal, impractical, or disorganized. The artistic types shudder at the thought of doing wedding or commercial photography. Having a well-organized archive of images and a logical system of filenames isn’t on their list of priorities, if they even bother keeping lists. They know when an image "feels right," even though they can't explain why and might not even want to explain why.

Blends of the two types

You might know people who fit these descriptions. If they come from the opposite types, it might be interesting to get them together, although they won’t have a lot in common, even though they’re both into photography. They might not like each other’s work or even agree about what photography is. More likely, however, you probably know people who are somewhat similar to one of these two types, but not exactly. They might have some of the traits of the technical as well as the artistic type. This might also be true of you. I deliberately portrayed these two kinds of photographers in a rather extreme fashion, as two opposite poles on a continuum of artistic/technical temperaments. We might think of all photographers as falling somewhere on that continuum, some towards the technical pole of the dimension, others more towards the artistic end.

We also might think of these two kinds of photographers as “pure” types in the sense that they contain specific but very different clusters of personality traits. These pure types account for only some people. The personalities of most photographers will involve unique clusters of traits that come from both column A and column B. However, as we often find in psychological studies of personality types, certain traits do tend to hang together.

Left and right brain

The differences between the technical and artistic photographer can be explained in terms of cerebral lateralization – what the popular press often describes as “left versus right brain.” The left side of the cerebral cortex tends to involve thinking that is more logical, analytical, objective, sequential, detail-oriented, concerned with reality, and focused on language, facts, patterns, and order. The right side involves thinking that is visual, emotional, subjective, intuitive, spatial, holistic, and based on symbols, metaphors, and imagination.

Of course, these distinctions are a simplification of the much more complex reality of brain functioning. Some research suggests that many brain activities, especially the more complex ones, are spread out across a variety of areas. Even if there is a clear distinction between some functions of the left and right cortex, there’s a large nerve pathway between them, the corpus callosum, that intertwines their activities. Given this interconnectedness within the brain, it’s no surprise that we only occasionally see the pure types of technical and artistic photographers, while most of the time people lean in the direction of right or left brain thinking while retaining some of the functions of the opposite side.

What’s interesting about photography is how it calls for a robust engagement of both sides of the brain. It draws on a variety of brain processes associated with both technical and artistic thinking. The technical photographer might be more concerned about precision in creating an image, while the artistic photographer will rely more on instinct. However, most photography will require us to draw on the visual thinking of the right brain while also employing the left brain to master the technical aspects of working the camera and processing the image. To produce good photos, technical photographers will need to draw on a right brain appreciation of visual design and composition, whereas artistic photographers will need to tap left brain thinking in order to learn the tools of the trade that help them actualize their artistic visions.

Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this article in flickr?

If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

Artistic Voice
Visualizing and Verbalizing
Mindfulness in Photography

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche