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Photographic Psychology: Serendipity | by John Suler's PhotoPsychology
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Photographic Psychology: Serendipity

Some people also call it the Happy Accident. You may or may not have realized it at the time, but something went wrong when you took the shot. Maybe the shutter speed or aperture setting wasn’t what you planned, or you accidentally pressed the shutter button when you weren’t even intending to take a shot, or the flash didn’t’ go off, or someone bumped into you just as you snapped the photo.


But when you later see the image, you like it, maybe even love it. Often these images are unusual and therefore interesting because they break the traditional rules of exposure and composition. The lighting, viewpoint, focus, colors, proportions and balance are something quite different than what we are used to. In fact, by showing us something quirky or radical, these accidents might reveal the habits, even ruts, we tend to fall into when taking shots. They suggest other ways to see things.


In the shot above (previously posted as Sacred Twig), I had accidentally set the ISO to 1600. I was intending a normal exposure, but the background blew out to pure white. In the LCD screen I immediately noticed what I perceived, at that time, to be a big mistake. Fortunately I didn’t delete the shot. When I later viewed that image on my computer, I fell in love with it. Soon thereafter I scooped up my camera and attempted a string of shots with highlight blowout. They all turned out to be duds.


I learned at least two lessons from this experience. First, don’t completely trust what you see in the LCD screen. Delete only if you absolutely must or if you are absolutely sure, and even then think twice. Second, a serendipitous image may show us a new direction to take in our photography, but more learning and practice may be needed to master that route.


We don’t always recognize a happy accident right away. We may automatically and illogically assume that planned shots are good, while accidents, therefore, are bad. Because they usually fall outside the boundary of what we customarily consider good photography, we may need time and more experience to appreciate their strange beauty. We may come across someone else’s photograph that people are praising, and we think to ourselves, “Wait a minute. I have a shot like that!” It’s also a good idea to keep in mind that some serendipitous shots are an acquired taste. They are mysteriously strange and beautiful, only to some people.


Serendipity doesn’t have to be left to pure accident and chance. We can deliberately steer ourselves into a haphazard stream of shooting, hoping that magic will occur. How? Just pick up your camera and shoot. Anything. Anywhere. Forget about settings. Scramble your settings. Don’t look in the viewfinder. Based on a purely intuitive hunch, or just randomly, point the camera and shoot. And here lies the beauty of digital photography as opposed to film. It doesn’t cost you anything.


We once drove to Ashville with our friends during a summer vacation. I took lots of shots, some of them carefully composed. But during our walk back to the car, I decided to, literally, shoot from the hip, from over my head, from down by my knees, randomly, as we walked briskly back to the parking lot. Even in the LCD screen I could tell that one of those shots, of my friend Don, was delightful. Surprisingly, the image even look nicely composed according to traditional standards. The experiment in happy accidents worked, that time. It doesn’t always work. But I almost always learn something from these experiments.


For some people, that kind of purely haphazard shooting may be difficult. It’s a challenge, maybe even a bit anxiety provoking, to let go of controlling the shot. Sometimes it helps to think, “This is a specific exercise with a purpose that I’ve decided to try.” It’s similar to how tidy people often like to have a junk drawer where they store all their miscellaneous stuff.


But the experiment doesn’t have to be completely free-wheeling. Smaller forays into free style shooting – like randomly varying just the shutter speed, or spinning the camera a bit – may work too.


In one of his books, Freeman Patterson recommends an exercise in which you shoot while running as fast as you can towards a parked car. It’s worth trying. No doubt there are an infinite variety of other serendipity exercises, perhaps safer for you and your camera. The only limit is one’s imagination.


* This image and essay are part of a book on Photographic Psychology that I’m writing within Flickr. Please see the set description.


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Uploaded on September 3, 2006