#906. Learning photography through forms.

By pascaljappy | How-To

Sep 23

If you’re vaguely familiar with karate, you’ll know that it is taught through a set of very distinct exercises. Kihon are basic movements, Kumite is a sort of sparring, and there are many more. Central among those are kata and bunkai. Kata are forms, sets of movements you repeat over and over again to memorise them in your body. And bunkai are practical applications of kata to street fighting.

Behind the veil

I have been working on 6 advanced katas all summer with some friends who started karate long before me. These are way above my pay grade and I couldn’t visually them mentally to save my life. But, when I’m standing in line and start, I manage to go to the end. Stability, style and all other things that matter in a good performance are all over the shop. But the fact is that, through repetition, my body (and brain) have memorised something that I still have trouble conceptualising with the brain alone.

Photography works in the same way.

Which is why learning tips and rules are the worst possible way to (try – and fail – to) learn photography. Cue the obligatory “rule of thirds” that seems to be the photographic starway to heaven for so many wesbites.

Telling a photographer to offset the subect until it sits on the intersection of two arbitrary lines is similar to telling you “if you get attacked in the street, move 17.3 inches to the right and jab”. Do you feel comfortable saving your lunch money from thugs by following the instruction “move 17.3 inches to the right and jab”? I sure wouldn’t. Not any more than tackling photography armed with the absurd rule of thirds. What if the guy’s in my back? What if there’s 2 of them? What if one has a knife? What if he’s super small? Do I punch over his head? The questions seem silly but they ain’t half as silly as the advice itself.

Want street-fighting advice? Run away.

Want good photography advice? Shoot with intent. Then review.

Morning practice

Not convinced? Still in love with the rule of thirds? Check out those Thomas Ruff portraits. Each will buy you a fancy car. One nil for centric composition, right?

But back to karate.

Kumite is sparring between two karate practitioners. High kicks, throws, all sorts of stuff you’ll probably never see in the street. Nowadays, it’s mainly stuff for competitions. Kata, on the other hand, were designed specifically for street fights against thugs and non-experts. Each encodes a series of blocks and counter-attacks and you repeat them over and over again until they become second nature.

Street fighting is nothing like friedly sparring in a safe environment. Stress and torrents of hormones flowing through your body prevent critical thinking and deprive you of most of your energy. Whoever is more agressive, more used to it and strikes first usually wins, even against a highly trained adversary. Professionals who actually have to get into fights (bouncers, bodyguards) learn trigger phrases that signal to their body it’s time to swing into action, because they know their mental abilities will be too impaired by stress to function autonomously!

Photography, in the field, is hard on the brain as well. Not fight-for-your-life difficult, but nothing like the paparazzi pics in a magazine or the repeat-and-rince selfies, either. The world is presented to you in all of its diversity and it’s up to you to make sense of what you are seeing and organise it into a meaningful 2D image. There is no life-threat induced stress. But self-esteem is a pretty powerful motivator in its own right. Which is why walkaround workshops are so reassuring. The pro photographer is our bodyguard. He/she points out the subjects, the compsitions, the little dangers and we get the shot.

Finding the right composition

But what happens whe he/she is no longer around? What have we learned that’s empowering?

Sometimes somehting, sometimes not.

I believe in making mistakes.

Many mistakes.

And analysing them systematically.

Just as you repeat katas for years under the watchful eye of a master, you can take photographs in controled situations then analyse them in the light of specific criteria, such as lighting and composition (the unseparatable twins), depth of field, focus point (front eye, rear eye?), contrast, emotional content, …

Testing the blue rendition of my gear

And here’s where I think 99.9% of the photographic advice you find online gets it wrong. You shouldn’t use composition rules or exposure rules or any other teachings on photography a priori but as a tool for analysing your photographs in retrospect. There are elements of composition, such as frame format, which you can, and probably should, decide on before leaving home. But most others are building blocks for hindisght.

So here’s where my long-winded analogy with karate hopefully begins to make sense 😉 You can practise photography deliberately, predicatably, using a similar approach to martial artists. You can use the 3 basic trainings in karate to your advantage rather than bounce in frustration, from top tip to superficial advice to rule of thumb, over a decade-long random walk of little real impact or transformational power.

Finding the good white balance

Practise photographic kihon

Kihon are basic techniques, basic stances, basic turns, basic shifts … Stuff you have to repeat over and over again in order to be able to perform a kata in a fluid, powerful and stable manner. Old masters made students repeat a single kihon for hours. One punch. One kick. One 180° turn. One low block. One high block. …

Finding the good depth of field

And we should all repeat basic stuff for hours too in photography. I take tons of photographs such as those on this page simply to train or learn something. How my camera reacts to highlights, shadows, trees, what blue looks like with my gear, a balanced composition of random stuff, colour balance, PP of a certain type, how to judge DOF through my EVF, what DOF is best looking with a specific lens …

Finding the right post processing

Heck, even the rule of thirds can be a kihon, taken in isolation. Practise the rule of thirds on 30 photographs tomorrow and look at them carefully. Check out a great gallery with famous photographers for some time tocalibrate your eyes, then move back to your rule of thirds shots. Which are rubbish? Which actually work? Which are meh? …

Or the use of the clarity slider, or the texture slider, or … one individual move at a time. Any parameter in your photographic workflow can and should be studied in isolation. Just take a series of photographs of a same scene and alter only that parameter from frame to frame.

A single kihon might be all you need to produce a very satisfactory photograph, such as the one of pots above. But few of those photographs will actually be great. The hollihock photograph above has the depth of field I was looking for but composition isn’t the best.

But greatness isn’t why you make those kihon photographs. By breaking up the complexity of outdoors photography into sub-elements, you can learn when the various rules, tips and instructions you find everywhere work for you and when they don’t. And, through repetition, when the time comes to combine three or four into a bunkai, you’ll be ready and it will all flow intuitively. This is particularly useful for beginners and for whenever more advanced photographers change gear or try a new style or tackle a new long-term project.

Practise photographic kata

A kata encodes multiple sets of blocks and attacks that builds muscle memory sequences for real-life threat situations. This is why you have so few high kicks or accrobatics in traditional kata (the more competition oriented ones are distorted versions intended to be spectacular, as it is impossible to win a competition with traditional kata). Real life fights are very close-range and often end on the ground. A lofty-swirly high kick had better touch its target hard on the first attempt or you’ll soon face bitterly unpleasant backlash. A bit like using a spectacular Instagram preset will generally see you laughed out of galleries.

You need to repeat kata over and over and over and over and over and over and over and … you get the message, but that’s the abridged version. Traditional school had students work several years on just one kata. The instructor showed it and explained nothing and you repeated for however long it took to execute it properly.

Getting exposure right on a mug

So how do you create a kata? In theory you can’t. Only grand masters do. But, if you consider a train of coherent thought between intent and final product (print, screen, instagram, calendar, mug …), I think you can build a meaningful string of reactive and active photographic acts and not incur the wrath of the old martial arts masters 😉

For example: say you want to produce a 12 x 12 (inch) portfolio book of the landscapes of New Zealand (and sadly live 10 000 miles away, like 90% of the world’s population 😉 ) You can find a location quite similar in appearance (yeah right, make that vaguely similar), practise compositions, exposures that will give you the right mood, post processing that gives you consistency of style over 20 prints and printing optimally at the intended size.

The whole sequence from “what do I want to show and in what style” to “what do I want my prints to look like” kinda approximates the purpose of a kata. Repeat that over and over until you are happy with your results at home. Once on location, you will be prepared for the assault of beauty because you will have rehearsed the complete realistic scenario over and over again (and I believe that tip is worth a copy of said book, right? 😉 )


Practise photographic bunkai

Finally, bunkai are short defense / counter-attack bouts that you invent for yourself based on 2, 3 or 4 (usually) movements from the kata to simulate a real world interaction. The “style and spirit” of the kata are there to guide you, but you are basically assembling basic moves (kihon) to ward off an attack and neutralise the opponent permanently.

In photography, you can let the project (your NZ book, eg) and associated kata guide you while practising, without going through the full visualisation, composition, exposure, aperture, processing, print loop. You can simply work on a subset of the whole process, yet still guided by the final project.

Consider the two photographs of the same flower below. The first could have been made for a series of square flower portraits in a platinum print portfolio. And the second, in the context of a study on composition, or a work on colour theroy. Same flower, exact same gear, different goals.

Bunkai 1
Bunkai 2

If you consider your photography in terms of projects, you can consider the complete process for each (subject choice, composition, … to paper choice, print process choice) as similar in spirit to a kata. You can learn this kata through some sort of repetition. This will allow you to chose the style of the photograph you want to creat and achieve consistency in your progress towards your specific project. And, while shooting in real life (unless you work in a studio), you will be faced to situations where only sections of the kata are applicable (subject selection, light conditions, composition, depth of field, speed, focal length compression, type of rendering …) Unlike in martial arts, the kata will be a theoretical framework you define and refine through bunkai such as the two photographs above.

Incidently, let me slip in a quick – and shameless – plug for our coming workshop: three expert coaches (artist, curator, galerist) will be there precisely to help you define your own kata and bunkai. They will examine your portfolios and the photographs you admire and guide you towards a routine that helps you achieve your photographic goals (having first helped you express those photographic goals). That is the main value proposition of the coming spring workshop in Saint Paul de Vence.

Instead of being handed down a kata created by a grand master and defining your own bunkai from sections of it, you will think of a complete process (kata) corresponding to the project and work on sections of it through work in the field, work in the print shop, work on your computer. All these “encounters with reality” will help you alter and refine your kata until it is optimal for your project. This is where the similarity between martial arts and photography end. In martial arts, the philosophy of a kata is determined by a master (most of those we learn today were altered from the traditional forms to become a sport for the masses, that’s a very different philosophy to the much more combat oriented originals, for instance). And the creativity of the practitionner is used to interpret the kata and create their own bunkai. In photography, it is your job as an artist to define the philosophy of a project and the best process (kata) to support it. Your bunkai are there as feedback and reality checks.

Scotland. Close enough?

Yes, it’ll take time. But the road will be mapped and fun and far more pleasant than the random walk through the inept advice that so many click-factories peddle to juice up their affiliate channels.


Enjoy. Hajime !


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  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    This article is very interesting. It pushes back on that near-sighted formulaic mantra that is a honeypot trap for the unwary; and, to me, in essence, also reveals that there’s a practised component to the art and craft of photography – the practice of honing ones competencies, just as in karate. Sure, there are the basics, but then there’s the other bit that goes well beyond this perimeter. It’s the bit where a person practices their knowledge, skills and experience, so as to own and express their own style. A style that sits on top of that cornerstone built on the basics. I also sense Piaget should be pleased with reading your words too, and I quote “… through repetition, my body (and brain) have memorised something that I still have trouble conceptualising with the brain alone….”. Your words seem to resonate with what Piaget alludes to in his theory of how children learn – they discover through repetition, via play for want of better words; so as to hone their own style that’s expressed through their competencies in a task, or a past-time. I think this aligns with the repetition in honing both competencies and technique in photography, that, at times, also benefits from the guidance from those who more competent in photographic art and craft.

  • philberphoto says:

    What a fascinating post! And a subject that lends itself to so many interpretations. Learning how to learn. Until one ascends to learning how to learn how to learn how to shoot….:-)
    How about un-learning? Just being one with your subject and camera until the shot basically takes itself? Like the rose of Angelus Silesius:
    Die Ros’ ist ohn’ Warum, sie blühet weil sie blühet,
    Sie ach’t nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht, ob man sie siehet. (I, 289)
    What if photography weren’t a technique, after all?
    Again, fascinating! Kudos and thanks!

  • Pascal B. says:

    Dear Pascal,
    Your article, if only for the great pictures, is extremely interesting. I am sure I’ll want to come back to it time and again to get all the substance of kata and bunkai.
    Two mottos come to mind: that of Apple a long time ago “wheels for the mind” and that of Porsche “surpass yourself, a never ending race”.
    Thank you for this thought provoking article.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Pascal. Inspiring quotes from those legends of design and industry. I believe life is over the day you stop challenging yourself. Not physical life per se, but the human component of life. All the best. Pascal

  • Bob Kruger says:

    I do believe this is the longest metaphor I have ever read 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Sorry Bob! I hope it’s more than a metaphor, though. It’s really possible to train purely technical aspects in small bites, develop a complete workflow for a project and let that guide you during real life encounters that require a few of the technical moves combined in the spirit of the program. Cheers.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Bad luck. I can’t apologise for this – you brought it on yourself!
    1 – Can anyone teach photography by handing out one or more sets of instructions – “how to” lists? – certainly not – but it could lead to a flood of contributions to Instagram et al.
    2 – What is the importance of the “rules” of composition? – a journey has to start somewhere – and the first “how to” book on photography (a book I still have, BTW) was a book on “composition”. After I read it a couple of times and used some – not all – of the ideas in the book, I realised it was just a starting point. Nothing more than that. Nevertheless, I think everyone should be aware of these so-called rules. They didn’t materialise out of thin air. They do summate experience. And anyone who ignores experience is either a genius or an idiot.
    3 – Your fault – QUOTE – “Want good photography advice? Shoot with intent. Then review.” That is precisely why I print all the photos I want to keep. Well, it’s one of three reasons, anyway. Review “on screen” takes you a little further than chimping. A proper review starts with post processing. And if you make it to the end, with no adjustments, you can call it SOOC. If not, keep trying – sooner or later you might bag one! (ROTFLMHAO – I couldn’t resist that one!) Some of us shoot B&W – some shoot colour and convert selected photos to B&W – others shoot colour, full stop. In each case, composition needs to be reviewed – tonal range needs to be reviewed – clarity, depth of field and all the other aspects of a “good” photograph need to be reviewed. Colour masks tonal range, but IMHO you need to ensure that the tonal range would be “right” for the shot, whether you keep colour or convert to B&W – or the result will weaken.
    And if you keep colour, you have to be aware that in nature there are trillions of colours, but in photography our colour gamut is extremely limited – so colour “corrections” or substitutions are often necessary, to present a reasonable end result.
    4 – Pause – because the reason for so much twaddle in 3 above (and even then, it only skims the surface) is that learning photography is essentially (4.1) learning about light, (4.2) learning to “see”, as you’ve never seen before and (4.3) practice – practice, practice, practice. All three play off against each other. You won’t learn about light, or learn to “see”, without practice. You won’t learn what to practice, without learning to see, and learning about light.
    5 – Another pause – so far, I think, Pascal and I are running on parallel tracks. But this brought me up with a jolt – “why walkaround workshops are so reassuring” – because every time I’ve tried them, I soon found I was wandering off on my own, getting lost, and doing my own thing – then meeting the mob back at the start, for the journey home. I think it’s more because I’m partly autistic and have never been good at conforming, or doing what I was told – I certainly don’t claim it proves I’m a genius! But it does offer me the opportunity to at least TRY to be creative, however bad at it I might be – and conformity leads to pastiche, which fills me with a deep seated loathing. I’d rather take the dog for a walk, instead.
    6 – Here, we diverge – “There are elements of composition, such as frame format, which you can, and probably should, decide on before leaving home. But most others are building blocks for hindsight.” I’m afraid frame format needs consideration in the field, and again once you return home. In some cases it can be decided on in advance – but how, unless you’ve already explored the scene? – in which case it wasn’t. A lot of modern cameras offer the option to adjust frame format in the field – I wonder how often anyone uses that option?
    Most of us crop on the computer. And the other rules of composition actually define format, in a majority of photos, at the time when the shutter button is pressed. Perhaps that’s something that shouldn’t happen – but it’s something I believe does happen.
    Whatever – I think this is a distraction, and that 4 (above) is where most of the improvement occurs – coupled with what we can learn by printing our photos.

    The rest of #906 is in Japanese, and all I can do is accept what you say, since I have no asian language skills. I will have to tender my apology for non-attendance at Saint Paul de Vence – it’s a little out of the way for me – I’ll have to continue to pursue Salvador Dali’s approach. When his father – who couldn’t understand or appreciate his son’s paintings – muttered sarcastically that his son was “playing at being a genius”, young Salvador (who was very confident of his talents) retorted “if you play at being a genius, you then go on to become one!” Sigh! – I’m still trying – time is beginning to run out, but hope burns eternal. 🙂

  • richard stretto says:

    i like the karate analogy. i think one cannot develop a muscle memory for composition (if so, which muscle would that be?)

    but there are many other aspects in photography that you can train like karate.

    previsualizing the field of view for different focal lengths (on the same format of course) – after years of practicing i know pretty exactely what a 35 or a 50 mm lens on 35mm film/FF sensor will frame i.e. i can mentally compose the picture before even rising the camera to my eye.

    or focus – instead of relying on AF, decide where the focus should be, guess the distance and zone focus; this helps tremendously in street photography… (and the accuracy of your guess can easily be checked and verified by lifting the camera to your eye) again, it takes a lot of practice to look at a scenery unfold and set the focus blindly *and* accurately.

    the third trainable aspect is exposure. we all know the sunny-16 rule. but do we know it in the sense of “i’ve heard of it” or “i have mastered it”?

    digital cameras make this kind of training so much more easy and less costly than wasting film. but in the same time, we have become so trusting and dependent on the wizardry of the computers inside our cameras.

    once you have your muscles trained to set focus and exposure instinctively w/o actually thinking, your mind is free to observe and catch that … uhm … moment décisif. (this training also very effectively cures GAS because switching camera bodies means you’ll have to re-train your muscles. and it has been my experience that muscle memory is a very stubborn trait…)

  • Michael Fleischer says:

    Hi Pascal

    Another great article about (and into) a blow for personal development through
    honing ones skills, each person being their own instrument and playground for
    continuous discovery – rather than www formalised quick fix 10 popular rules!
    This applies even at later stages in life if the natural curiosity/intimacy line
    from childhood is kept and continued and not betrayed. 😉

    There’s no getting around self disciplines and analysis of what works and WHY
    ad infinitum if one wishes to truly improve – be that in seeing, light, composition,
    colour, tonality, contrast, format, feel, communication of idea, pp and much more…!

    Bruce Barnbaum wrote in The Art of Photography; An Approach to Personal Expression!
    “The 3 Pillars of Creative Succes”; Enthusiasm – Talent – Hard Work!
    You need minimum 2 out of 3, and one of them has to be Enthusiasm!

    The long way around is the best way around and most rewarding too. 🙂

    Bunkai 1 + 2 demonstrates it so well, an object can have many fascinating
    photos hidden – our privilege is to creatively unveil those and bring them into light!

    With inspiration,

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Another interesting post, Pascal!

    Personnally, considering all the choices we have, I often just remember the old say: “The light is the master, the photographer is the tool” (variants: the pupil, etc…).
    If the light is great, which in my case doesn’t happen often in South-East Asia (moisture is everywhere too often…), then I mostly follows the way it “sculpts” things.
    Otherwise, it is “free bar” 🙂

    “Finding the good depth of field”… yep! I find it such a subtle but vital choice… seems simple, but the impact is so big… daunting.

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