#819. Plan vs guidelines (and the Wabi Sabi challenge)

By pascaljappy | How-To

Feb 11

Can something be beautiful and ugly at the same time? Well, a brief 1-week tourist raid in Egypt was enough to radically change my feelings about the aesthetics of local dwellings from the cultural shock experienced on arrival.


To a pampered Westerner’s eye, urban scenes in the larger cities can feel like a bit like war zone, with homes without windows or roofs, metal spikes sticking out of walls and paint jobs duller than many a politician’s intellect.


Stick around a couple of days, though, and the logic of it all, swayed by the local climate and taxation rules begins to make perfect sense. More importantly, as chaotic and noisy as urban Egypt is, it can also be very harmonious, both in human interaction and in design (more on this in a coming post).


This contrast between the seemingly random close up and the pulchritudinous whole beautifully illustrates the differences between plans and guidelines in creative activities, which is the topic of today’s post.


A plan provides detailed instructions on how to build something. It reflects the thoughts and work of a design team or architect and leaves precisely zero latitude as to how to assemble the final product. Any creativity in the building phase is in service of efficiency and quality, not aesthetics. 


Guidelines are a set of constraints that have to be met during design and assembly but offer total liberty as to how that is achieved.


The two approaches lead to profoundly different results. One is completely top-down, while the other offers some bottom-up freedom to introduce some personal vision in the details.


One is the creation of single person or team (builders might as well be robots), the other blends the DNA and global homogeneity of a place/culture/company/… with collective creativity.


One is better suited to industrial production, the other to collective art (art being used in a broader sense than painting and sculpture), whether you like the results or not being irrelevant.


Neither is inherently better than the other, both can lead to fantastic creations or terrible fiascos. Apple products are (were?) flag bearers of the plan. They show how good a plan can be when a hard working team of clever individuals spend years eliminating the superfluous and polishing what remains. But plans can also create what architect Rem Koolhaas describes as junk spaces, places of artificial grandeur which feel dry and soulless to most visitors, dehumanized places such as Brazilia or La Defense. Big, expensive and ideological rather than centered on the well-being of humans.


Conversely, the mind boggles at the thought of an airport co-designed by non professionals! And, judging by the industrialisation problems encountered by Tesla, I’m guessing a bunch of togs with a retro infatuation for the Jaguar E-type would make a right old mess of designing the F-type or the I-pace πŸ˜‰


But the whole tourist world flocks to sites such as the English countryside, French and Italian stone villages or other places where individual creativity has been allowed to express itself within the boundaries of rules and guidelines.


In photography (and art, in general) the distinction is important as well and can be used to your advantage. 


Competitions and challenges are often rule based. For the Wabi Wabi challenge, I’m looking for images that create a longing for simplicity, an admiration of gracefully decay, patina … no mention of gear, subject, time of day, location … is made. 


But an assignment given by a tutor or invented by yourself for yourself could be much more specific: send in a photograph of the green flash made looking out at sea, using a 400 mm lens on an m4/3 camera, in landscape format, with the horizon smack in the middle. Chances are the contributions would look much more similar to one another and evaluation would be based on adherence to specs more than artistic merit, because the creative process is already present in the specifications.


Challenges are fun and thought-provoking. Assignments are (can be) technically educational.

Both can make a pot

Where you place the cursor on the plan – guideline spectrum largely helps define who you are as a photographer.


You need assignments to learn the craft. You need challenges to learn the vision. Most of all, you need to understand and fine tune the set of rules that create the boundaries of your photography: what you photograph and why. What it all means to you. In other words, and some will recoil at the very word, an artist’s statement. Ouch πŸ˜‰


Too many photographers blindly follow the plans of others (rules of thirds, ETTR, Instagramable format, egotistical or Like-able content matter …) without working really hard on setting guidelines for themselves. But you need to consider your photography over time as a collection of photographic moments lived in various conditions, locations and mindsets, which can only be turned into a consistent and meaningful whole though this bedrock work. It’s never too late. Have you started ?


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  • Philberphoto says:

    Wow, what a post! Only you can transmogrify a one-week holiday into a full cosmogony!! I can only speculate what you would have written, had you gone to India instead. Another great country with yet another Weltanschaung… Just one question: when did you start planning for this post, and what guidelines did you follow? And your pics get better as the post unfolds. The last one is abfab. Was that, too, planned?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Philippe. The post came to me on the return trip from Aswan to Luxor. I realised how much my point of view on the houses had changed in just a few days and wondered why. As for the guidelines, I guess my interest in architecture and obsession with all things perception probably helped a lot πŸ™‚ The last phot is interesting. It wasn’t planned because we chanced upon these alabaster workers during a visit. But it was at a point when I was getting more comfortable with the camera and had decided not to use the smartphone for everything fleeting. It still feels a little rigid to me, but getting there πŸ˜‰

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    You know perfectly well that I have started. Whether I ever finish is like asking how long is a piece of string. All of this is journey which began on 7th August 1950 and has been wandering all over the world, at all hours of day and night, ever since – with the occasional break for exercise, sexercise, liquid replenishment (my father was a winemaker!), and REM sleep. I don’t imagine reaching “the end” – just being finally brought to a halt, by forces greater than mine.
    In the meantime, I do as I please. Plans? – that’s for getting approvals to add on a granny flat. Guidelines? – blinkers to constrain people into producing something at least half respectable. Competitions? – siblings always differ – my eldest bother used to lock himself away in his study or his office, while life drifted past the door – no. 2 son was HIGHLY competitive (and actually did better than either of no. 1 or me, till his untimely demise) – and I’ve always done as I damn well please, so “competitive” would be someone else’s glad rags.
    But I guess I do give myself “assignments” – for kicks – experimentation – self education – raising the bar – curiosity – whatever. Monet, for instance, has inspired me into a seemingly never ending study of light, colour and tone. Sheer idiocy and a perpetual tendency to do something different has inspired me into other areas, and still looking for more! And then of course there’s another idol – Van Gogh – who apparently succeeded in producing his life’s work without ever selling any – instead, he unfortunately only rose to fame upon dying. At least that’s the popular legend, although I don’t think it’s altogether 100% quite true. But he provides my excuse for lurking, and rarely exposing my “creations” to the public gaze, let alone “scrutiny”.
    I did jump backwards when working through this post, Pascal, and found I’d stumbled upon l’arche de la defense among the slums of Cairo. Next time these icons decide to uproot themselves, they should give at least some prior warning.
    One puzzlement – “the creative process is already present in the specifications” – is that intended to mean that the upcoming assignments are set by a tutor who has extracted all the creativity from the process, reducing the project to a set of technical exercises? While on the one hand that might test my ingenuity in finding a way (regardless) to “do my own thing”, I suspect I will lean towards “guidelines”, where I feel encourage to believe all the “blinkers” are meant for someone else, and (as always) I can do as I please. πŸ™‚
    I don’t know if this will qualify as “bedrock” – after an absence of half a century, I have gone back to “printing” my photos. Worse – I’m going to create albums with the ones I want to keep. So even if they end up as a series of short stories (as they probably will), there’s a thread – and a sense of purpose – and an urge to create a permanent record of something, no matter how ezoteric or bizarre or pedestrian and just plain bloody normal.
    Sorry about the length of this rant. My whole day has been spent in chaos, so I thought I should share some with the rest of you. My ISP (my nephew tells me that means the morons who connect my computer to the web and the telephone system) has plunged everything into darkness. After a non-stop session of 4 hours with my old-fashioned “tradies” model “dumb” phone stuck in one ear, with the charger constantly falling off it and having to be plugged back in, to make sure I didn’t get cut off, the useless blasted modem they supplied 12 months ago has been replaced by a new one (at my expense – AUD$200 so far, and counting), which we FINALLY managed to get to operate – but so far, only for the purposes of my own computer. So I am without a telephone system in the house and nobody can ring us except on our mobiles. With another session tomorrow, I hope to have everything sorted and be allowed back to gardening. I HAVE to do some gardening! – but I also have to have a house phone. WHY is it so difficult? This was all supposed to be “plug and play”.

    • pascaljappy says:

      What I mean is that, if you receive a very tightly specified assignment, then all the creative thinking has been done by the person writing the specs and you only have to follow them. Whereas if the rules are pretty loose, then it’s up to you to be creative.

      A thread. I like that word πŸ™‚

      Ah, the underbelly of the Internet. I’ve just been on a 30 minute wrestling match with the company that hosts DearSusan and was asking for a 35% hike in hosting fees … Ah well, maybe I can add a DONATE button and a Patreon link to cover a few percents of the costs?

      • John W says:

        Seems to me that what you have is a “short order” for a specific image … here’s the recipe, now cook it. I generally follow a recipe once. Anything after that it’s whatever moves me at the moment … don’t like restrictions I love creme caramel, but I’m lactose intolerant; so I figured out how to make creme caramel that’s never heard of cows and with flavours like white chocolate or hazelnut. My dinner guests love it and can’t tell the difference.

        The same thing seems to happen with “Art”. Both Monet and Van Gogh shattered the conventions of painting at the time. The most interesting things seem to happen when you use your tools in ways they were never intended to be used.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Hi John, I agree entirely with everything you say, but … Van Gogh and Monet are the type of minds Earth bares only a few times in a generation. They had an inner drive and raw talent that allowed them to power throught the (considerable, for Van Gogh) obstacles and keep at it constantly until they became the art superheroes we know today.

          I think that, in order to improve, most people focus on the craft (the plan, the creme caramel recipe from Chef Watson) and not on the vision that gives us the ability to depart from the plan and build our own plans. It takes a lot of work to reach a level when you produce consist results (such as yours) in a variety of situations. And that work is best framed with an understanding of what we want to photograph, and why.


  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    PS- the problems were worse – the computer is a MAC – just lately, I haven’t been able to do updates, because Apple wouldn’t let me into their APP store. Then I started finding I couldn’t download upgrades or updates to other software. And finally I was going to purchase a new post processing software program, downloaded it just before their promotional ‘discount’ ceased, and found I’d only downloaded a downloader, which had to go back to the software people for the actual program. Emailed them frantically to avoid being hit with the full post release price. And God bless them! – I’ve ended up with the new product, free! USD$80 I did NOT have to spend this month! When the coast is clear, I will provide them with a glowing testimonial that they can use to promote their product! πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      You do that. Too often, we only rant online. It’s good to write the positive stuff as well !

    • John W says:

      JP – How old is your Mac? If it’s more than 5 years old you may be the victim of a change in the BIOS. Something similar happened to me a few years back when my Mac desktop started grinding to halt every 15 minutes. Turned out the new software update was incompatible with the old BIOS. New computer required … unless you happen to have a model that can be up-fitted with new boards and processors.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Pascal, lots of food for thought…
    I think I disagree, partly.
    Or, perhaps, I didn’t read you rightly.
    I’m thinking of your last two paragraphs.

    I find that understanding and knowledge often hurts, as it can make the object loose its magic and become more commonplace.
    A rainbow, say, looses the wonder of its colour sequence once one has assimilated the effect prisms have.
    ( But it can still be a wondrous thing as a whole with its place in the environment even if the colour sequence now seems a matter of course.)

    Now photography.
    Yes, making (or accepting) limits and rules can often be good for creating.
    Yes, for developing one’s *skill* at any kind of photography I see what you mean by “..consistent and meaningful whole..”; but for developing one’s *photography* I think I see it differently.

    I do occasionally go back to my older photos, and then I can learn from new mistakes or faults I now find in them, or I may refind ideas or combine (new with) old ideas.
    But better not too often, as self-criticism needs distance.

    Occasionally I then suddenly understand why and how a (certain kind of) photo “works”, and so I loose it and/or its kind of photography.
    ( I could, of course, still practice it, but it would have become a craft.)
    Now if the lesson is strong, I may remember it well enough to (unconsciously) apply it to other kinds of photography.
    So for me I can’t see the “consistent and meaningful whole”, or?

    Although I take photographs, I don’t consider myself a photographer.
    ( They say, if one can’t help oneself and one just *has* to do X, then that’s what one should pursue – but not otherwise. And that’s not so with me, I have too many interests..)

    I find that when I try to make a defined kind of photos, my keeper rate is very much lower – I may learn from experimenting though.
    My keeper rate is rather higher when I just stay open minded and try to photograph what *makes itself seen* to me. If I then have any guidelines, rules or limits, they are unconscious or implied by what is – or happens to be – in my bag (which depends on what camera I happen to own..).

    The bag is mostly a conscious limit though, I prefer a handy shoulder bag and (very) occasionally a “travel” tripod in a sling across the other shoulder.
    – – –

    For a photographer who might (?) have agreed more with your statements in the last two paragraphs, Pascal, consider
    PΓ₯l-Nils Nilsson :

    ( I think of him now, because l’ve seen a lot of his photos as he for many years was the main photographer in the Swedish Tourist Association’s yearbooks.)

    He had a way of photographing landscapes so that they always appeared three-dimensional and gave the impression to have great space around them.
    * * *

    Another “Rem Koolhaas junk space” is, sadly, the center of Stockholm.
    Luckily the wider “junking” that was originally planned didn’t occur!
    ( …but there are, of course, more junk spaces around.)

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Kristian, I think we’re just using parallel roads to reach the same goal. Studying your past photographs is really a form of instrospection that lets you understand what it is you like about your work and why. This lets you focus on those positive aspects and eliminate the others from your future photographs. This lets you converge towards a consistent vision that escapes the pre-baked rules that so many try to force feed us πŸ™‚

      Thanks a lot for the link and sorry to hear Stockholm has junk space. I’ve never been (yet) and imagined it to be full of charm and meaning everywhere. Damned tourist brochures πŸ˜‰

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Yes, Pascal,
        except to me to “converge towards a consistent vision” isn’t what I want – not in the way I understand those words.
        Doesn’t development mean that one’s vision evolves and can change?

        So I suppose we use those words differently?

        • pascaljappy says:

          Vision and style definitely can change. Picasso is a great example of this. But that can only happen in a meaningful way, I think, if every stage is deeply grounded. Otherwise it’s just a random walk. Even Picasso, with a level of genius found in one every billion people, and an exceptionally long carreer, only had a few phases in his life. And each was very clearly defined and identifiable. To refine and simplify his bull pencil drawings, he went through many published versions and I can’t imagine how many countless variations we never go to see because he didn’t feel they fulfilled his vision. But that’s just my way of thinking, not a general rule πŸ˜‰

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Thanks Pascal for clarifying!
            ( I seem to have read a wider meaning into your words than you intended.)

            Re. your example with Picasso:
            I think the more dedicated the artist, the longer (and therefore fewer) these phases might be.

            I’m mostly a “just random walking” amateur, but I enjoy enough of that walk…

            • pascaljappy says:

              Hey, that’s the most important thing, right? πŸ™‚ If you enjoy it, the rest is perfectly secondary. All that matters is that we get the appropriate dose of creativity in our lives! Asking everyone to do that in the same way would be terribly at odds with the goal πŸ˜‰

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                Very true!
                Especially for those of us not blessed/cursed (choose one or both) by the *necessity* to create.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Another interesting post πŸ™‚
    I am sensitive to that since my youth… in maths, they like to call it “the emergence of complexity”, or how a single pattern (or set of rules) can produce the beautiful organisation (or the mess, depending of your inclinations) we see everywhere. Fractals are sometimes involved, of course.
    About this, specifically in urban architecture, a must see documentary movie, produced in Canada by Nicolas Reeve (the son of the astrophysician…): “Bidonville”, available with French and English narration. You discover that, without any way to see their life from the sky, hence unconsciously, poor people all around the globe build giant slums with global strdtures that exhibit their own mental symbols… spectacular.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Ah, sorry, wrote to fast… the movie “Bidonville” is produced by Jean-Nicolas Orhon, and Nicolas is the narrator. I remembered him, having met him when he designed a Lidar instument, modulating music with the passage of clouds detected by a lases… funny people πŸ™‚

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