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What is Holistic Photography?

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Holistic Photography is a way to develop an artist’s appreciation for the visual world. This is achieved by interaction with challenging ideas and technical mastery of the photographic craft.

Photographers, in my experience as a photography coach, tend to gravitate toward two extremes;

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1. Science

I’m misusing ‘science’ to mean technical expertise and measurable results. Craft is closer, but popular usage muddies the meaning.

Photographers attracted by this sphere tend to be focussed on the intricate details of their equipment, photographic rules, precise exposure values and accurate colour balancing. They are very protective of the highlights in the photographs and either use HDR and Photoshop extensively, or take up a ‘no manipulation’ stance (and occasionally use film). Digital noise is the enemy and sharpness is of paramount importance; though lenses with apertures as wide as f0.95 are often favoured.

Typical questions include;

  • ‘How many megapixels does your camera have?’
  • ‘What aperture value should I be using?
  • ‘Which equipment did you use to take this photo?’
  • ‘How do I get sharper photographs?’
  • ‘Is Adobe RGB better than ProPhoto RGB for landscapes?’

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2. Art

Photographers, often buoyed up by Instagram fame and Facebook ‘likes’, believe that the camera doesn’t matter and that one prime lens or super-zoom is enough. They tend to use obvious Photoshop ‘art’ filters and composite images. They may have an artistic background and believe strongly in the importance of a good ‘eye’. Their photos tend to have higher contrast and more saturation.

They ask fewer questions;

  • ‘How can I capture the beauty of this scene?’
  • ‘What’s the coolest colour for light painting?’
  • ‘How do I get a blurry background?’

Therefore, it is either the camera drawing the photographer’s attention, or the subject; seldom both. Holistic Photography aims to correct this imbalance by providing a structure, the Quartet.

1. The Idea:

Photographs without a thought or feeling behind them rarely command attention. Holistic Photography separates this crucial aspect into two parts;

- Preservation:

The camera is a marvellous tool for accurate reproduction of the visual world. It allows us as photographers to capture an impression of a scene or subject, then carry it through time and transmit it across the world. This is the realm of mimesis; show, don’t tell. The subject is enough and there is little creative input from the photographer; although often tremendous skill with the craft is required.

A lot of art used to exist solely to create displayable simulacrum of a patron’s possessions; including people and animals. Now commercial photos normally exist to identify, preserve and sell. There are still some people alive who think that preservation is all photography is, or can be (and maybe even should be?).

Examples;

  • Passport photography
  • Product photography for catalogues
  • A lot of landscape photography
  • Much architectural photography
  • Much school and event photography
  • Much studio, sports, pet and ‘family’ photography

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- Expression:

Some paintings can be photo-realistic and say nothing while others can be deeply moving; we’ll call them Art. Photography can also be an excellent medium creating for Art with a capital ‘A’.

Expression in Holistic Photography is about the transmission of a thought, idea or feeling. First and foremost are those photographs about the Holistic Photographer’s inner life and perspective of the world.

Often the subject is used as a symbol or part of a palette; the photograph isn’t just about the objects depicted. What we know and believe physically effects what we see, so Holistic Photography includes ways of developing the elusive ‘artistic eye’.

Also important are those commercial photographs that go beyond the rational depiction and into emotional content. A portrait says more about a sitter’s character than just what they look like. A car advertisement sells a vision of another life.

Examples;

  • Fine Art photography
  • Conceptual photography
  • Abstract photography
  • Some advertising photography
  • Some landscape photography
  • Some portrait photography
  • Some documentary and editorial photography
  • Some wedding photography

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2. The Light:

Light is crucial for everyone, and especially for photographers. Light is pretty predictable and this section is dealt with by introducing key principles which allow the Holistic Photographer to identify or create the ‘right’ light for their intended photograph in many different situations. The process of looking at Light is divided into three parts;

- Observe: Our primary light source is normally the sun or an artificial flash. This is the Key light. The other light sources, and light reflected by objects in the scene provide Fill light.

We can identify many factors such as the colour content, intensity, duration, character and direction of the lights incident upon our scene and subject.

By understanding the fundamental principles, we can understand how to analyse light and optimise our subject’s positioning to make the most of it. The question is always, ‘Where are my light sources?’

- Control: If we were content with what the world presented us with, we would still be living in caves. It follows that taking control of the lighting in your scene is desirable.

We can do this by adjusting and refining the light sources already present, or by adding more; usually artificial flashes. Reflectors serve to bounce light. Silks can soften it. Gelled lighting can colour it. If the budget is big enough, there are few effects that the photographer can’t achieve.

- Capture: This sub-section normally provides the majority of material for a ‘complete’ photography syllabus. It covers how the camera reacts to light, including aperture, shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. Understanding the creative application of these three variables plus filter-use is emphasised.

Exposure modes and compensation are taught here along with modifying the camera’s response to colour using the White balance. Techniques such as HDR imaging and in-camera effects fit within this area.

3. The Composition:

Photography is a two dimensional medium which represents the three dimensional visual world. Therefore, we need to rely upon tricks to create the illusion of depth and perspective. We also need to compose the elements in our photographs to ensure that our subject is clear and our intended meaning is apparent.

Fortunately Aesthetics, which aims to achieve this, is well-established, and there are plenty of principles we can learn from and apply. Composition is divided into two parts;

- Command: A camera captures a more objective impression of the world than our subjective experience. Therefore, to make photographs that move our audience, we must take advantage of certain effects created by the camera.

For example, we can control perspective using the Pyramid Technique which covers camera positioning and choice of focal length. Beyond such in-camera techniques as optimising depth of field to communicate our message, we may also be able to direct our subject within the scene.

- Significance: Light is energy and colour is our reaction to predominant wavelengths. Scientific evidence has shown that colour has a physiological and psychological effect on people. Understanding colour psychology is covered in the section on Light, but the composition of colours within the frame also affects their significance.

Understanding symbols, either cultural or instinctual, gives the Holistic Photographer the necessary fluency in the visual language to create metaphors and narratives.

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4. The Timing:

The world is apparently 4.54 billion years old. The average photograph is made in about 1/250th of a second. Why choose a particular moment in time to capture the arrangement of things?

Mountains grow up and erode over millennia while a world-title winning jab may last for milliseconds. Movement can be captured at different moments to create opposite meanings.

The duration of the exposure also affects how movement is shown, and can even be adjusted to de-familiarise time itself. Lighting also changes with time, so an understanding of light requires attention to time. Timing is divided into two parts;

- Moment: Cartier-Bresson the Surrealist street photographer thought that each scene had a ‘decisive moment’ when all of the elements of the picture came momentarily together to tell the story of the whole scene. Different photographers will see different moments because their interpretation of the scene is unique.

However, there are some useful concepts to know. For example, research into micro-expressions says that people’s true emotions show momentarily on the face. High speed film cameras such as those made by RED can capture these. Timing is also linked to composition; a person seems different if they are photographed at different moments when they’re walking. If their legs are shown together they seem like they’re dawdling, and if they’re caught mid-stride they look purposeful.

- Duration: How long is a moment? We are really capturing a length of time. The duration we choose affects how the photograph appears; and therefore its potential meaning. Pictures of bullets in flight use high-speed bursts of flash-light to freeze motion otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Conversely the Ultra Deep Field photograph of galaxies required the Hubble telescope use a shutter speed of ten days.

These are extremes; in this photograph the duration that the photograph was taken for was sufficient to blur the movement of the blacksmith’s arm; but fast enough that the rest of the photograph appears sharp.

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The INs and OUTs:

Separate from the quartet but still important, these two categories look at the equipment required to create the photograph. Inputs include the camera, lenses, tripods, lighting equipment, filters and so on. Outputs include printing options, framing, digital displays, computers, image editing software and those fridge magnets with the holiday snaps on.

So the Quartet – the Idea, the Light, the Composition and the Timing – provides the structure for Holistic Photography and the Ins & Outs take us from capture to display. You can check out the Holistic Photography Quartet video

My experience of learning photography was like a Seurat painting or a Rolf Harris drawing; slowly building up the bigger picture from specific ideas and techniques. Holistic Photography helps accelerate and deepen learning by beginning with the complete outline first, then providing the material for the individual to build his own unique skill and vision and connect previously learned material.

Photography has given me a deep appreciation for the world that I couldn’t even imagine when I started. As well as a way to preserve, it has become a way to see, understand and express; which continues to develop. This is why I created Holistic Photography – to help my own progress and share the process with others. I hope that it is useful.

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Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Ben Evans is a best-selling photography author of Photography: The Few Things You Need To Know *click here to get your copy * and English photographer based between London and Barcelona. He specialises in fine art portraits, fashion and commercial photography. He teaches photography courses in Barcelona and Holistic Photography workshops in London and worldwide. He shoots Hasselblad, Nikon, Apple ;-P and those little waterproof film cameras with the plastic lenses.

  • http://richardkeeling.zenfolio.com/ Richard Keeling

    Excellent article and I wholly concur with your analysis and philosophy. I can easily trace the improvement in my own photographic art to my own realization of the principles you lay out here. Not only the improvement, but a noticeable increase in the visceral pleasure of taking pictures.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Thought provoking. I would think of bits and pieces like composition or lighting but not of all the 4 together. Time to have a more complex mental mode!

    https://www.facebook.com/traveltalesfromindia

  • http://www.brentseamons.com Brent Seamons

    Ben, thank you for sharing. It’s good for me to be reminded of things like those found in your post as it becomes very easy for me to get caught up in the camera settings for example that I then forget about composition; or maybe I get caught up with lighting that I forget about composition. The one thing that I practiced this past weekend was taking the time to slow down.
    Brent

  • http://www.floriansphotos.com Florian

    Hello, I find your article interesting, but somehow I do not fit to either of your two extremes. I have a scientific background but do not really care about megapixels. I am also completely uninterested in art filters and composite images but do ask myself how to best capture the beauty of a scene.

    Maybe this is a good starting point for holistic photography ?!

  • Scottc

    An interesting article. Though many would “categorize” themselves differently I think that many photogs out there may be closer to Holistic than they think…perhaps becuase they’re following their instincts and not thinking. Great photos, BTW.

    No idea where I stand personally.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5897831890/

  • http://www.myfiveby.com/harry Harry Marshall

    Really amazing article Ben and great to see the video.

  • Juan

    I haven’t read the article yet but the image of the old man watching TV is really good.

  • Juan

    Hello again. I agree with scottc. Most photography is about instinct. Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” in my understanding refers to that: instinct. And I think that’s what you have dissected in your article. The decisive moment is when all those four elements you address fall into place and make the photographer aware of what should be included and excluded, sometimes successfully and others unsuccessfully. There’s always a trade-off. Could holistic photography be considered as the first stage of the learning curve, as we are enchanged and disenchanted by the opportunities and limitations of our equipment and skills and slowly build photographic awareness and awake our visual instinct?

    Very insteresting topic. Many thanks for posting!

  • http://www.charlesrstafford.com charles

    great article.

    to the editors: I thoroughly enjoy these types of articles.

  • http://www.naveeddadan.wix.com/photography Naveed Dadan

    Nice in-depth article.
    I am a street photographer from Mumbai, India and have just come up with my facebook page
    http://www.facebook.com/NaveedDadanPhotography

  • http://www.guigphotography.com Guigphotography

    I think using the name “holistic” is clever, as the structure described is nothing new. However, that’s certainly not a criticism. Any structured approach to photography (or anything else for that matter) and the consideration of its component parts can only be a good thing. Ultimately what commands attention depends on your terms of reference and your audience (or customers), but there’s no doubt an all round appreciation of the elements described above can only improve what you do before during and after a shot.
    I think it’s more of an advertising article, but by all means a good one!

  • http://steveboer.smugmug.com/ Steve

    Wow, Rolf Harris, I haven’t heard that name in years. I used to watch his TV show all the time when I was a kid, over 30 years ago.

  • http://www.heargrassgrow@blogspot.com Ken
  • http://www.facebook.com/robinoberg Robin Öberg

    All the examples pics have high contrast…

    Anyhew. This is all about style. You cannot tell anyone how to do their shots. So just keep on taking photos and ignore holistic photography.

  • http://www.EnglishPhotographer.com Ben

    Thanks Robin, I completely agree that a lot of people are fine with Instagram for snaps of their meals etc and don’t need to think about Holistic Photography!

  • http://pr.starsimage.com/userinfo.php?uid=14002 lose weight

    What is Holistic Photography?

  • Jacqui Antoine

    Beautifully written and interesting article that makes me feel more hopeful and secure in my journey to be the best amateur photographer I can be. Thankyou

  • Christophe Broult

    I enjoyed this article and its holistic view. Thank you.

Some older comments

  • lose weight

    September 14, 2013 03:14 pm

    What is Holistic Photography?

  • Ben

    April 6, 2013 08:54 am

    Thanks Robin, I completely agree that a lot of people are fine with Instagram for snaps of their meals etc and don't need to think about Holistic Photography!

  • Robin Öberg

    February 22, 2013 08:40 pm

    All the examples pics have high contrast...

    Anyhew. This is all about style. You cannot tell anyone how to do their shots. So just keep on taking photos and ignore holistic photography.

  • Ken

    February 19, 2013 08:29 pm

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-6ofvUCxg2eA/UGh4iCIpYVI/AAAAAAAABFE/oc3WOxudWMU/s1600/IMG_2764%5B1%5D.JPG

  • Steve

    February 17, 2013 05:22 am

    Wow, Rolf Harris, I haven't heard that name in years. I used to watch his TV show all the time when I was a kid, over 30 years ago.

  • Guigphotography

    February 15, 2013 11:00 pm

    I think using the name "holistic" is clever, as the structure described is nothing new. However, that's certainly not a criticism. Any structured approach to photography (or anything else for that matter) and the consideration of its component parts can only be a good thing. Ultimately what commands attention depends on your terms of reference and your audience (or customers), but there's no doubt an all round appreciation of the elements described above can only improve what you do before during and after a shot.
    I think it's more of an advertising article, but by all means a good one!

  • Naveed Dadan

    February 15, 2013 07:14 pm

    Nice in-depth article.
    I am a street photographer from Mumbai, India and have just come up with my facebook page
    www.facebook.com/NaveedDadanPhotography

  • charles

    February 15, 2013 10:06 am

    great article.

    to the editors: I thoroughly enjoy these types of articles.

  • Juan

    February 15, 2013 02:54 am

    Hello again. I agree with scottc. Most photography is about instinct. Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" in my understanding refers to that: instinct. And I think that's what you have dissected in your article. The decisive moment is when all those four elements you address fall into place and make the photographer aware of what should be included and excluded, sometimes successfully and others unsuccessfully. There's always a trade-off. Could holistic photography be considered as the first stage of the learning curve, as we are enchanged and disenchanted by the opportunities and limitations of our equipment and skills and slowly build photographic awareness and awake our visual instinct?

    Very insteresting topic. Many thanks for posting!

  • Juan

    February 15, 2013 02:13 am

    I haven't read the article yet but the image of the old man watching TV is really good.

  • Harry Marshall

    February 14, 2013 06:59 pm

    Really amazing article Ben and great to see the video.

  • Scottc

    February 14, 2013 09:46 am

    An interesting article. Though many would "categorize" themselves differently I think that many photogs out there may be closer to Holistic than they think...perhaps becuase they're following their instincts and not thinking. Great photos, BTW.

    No idea where I stand personally.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5897831890/

  • Florian

    February 14, 2013 09:42 am

    Hello, I find your article interesting, but somehow I do not fit to either of your two extremes. I have a scientific background but do not really care about megapixels. I am also completely uninterested in art filters and composite images but do ask myself how to best capture the beauty of a scene.

    Maybe this is a good starting point for holistic photography ?!

  • Brent Seamons

    February 14, 2013 07:28 am

    Ben, thank you for sharing. It's good for me to be reminded of things like those found in your post as it becomes very easy for me to get caught up in the camera settings for example that I then forget about composition; or maybe I get caught up with lighting that I forget about composition. The one thing that I practiced this past weekend was taking the time to slow down.
    Brent

  • Mridula

    February 14, 2013 03:53 am

    Thought provoking. I would think of bits and pieces like composition or lighting but not of all the 4 together. Time to have a more complex mental mode!

    https://www.facebook.com/traveltalesfromindia

  • Richard Keeling

    February 14, 2013 02:52 am

    Excellent article and I wholly concur with your analysis and philosophy. I can easily trace the improvement in my own photographic art to my own realization of the principles you lay out here. Not only the improvement, but a noticeable increase in the visceral pleasure of taking pictures.

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