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.
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.
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.
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.
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, …
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.
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. …
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 …
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.
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.
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? 😉 )
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.
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.
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 !
Never miss a post
Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.