To learn what you think about something, write about it

I’m growing as a photographer. I can see it in my photographs. It satisfies me deeply.

But I don’t know what I think about photography.

Self-portrait (crop)
Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.7 F.Zuiko, Fujicolor 200, 2011

I originally wrote “I have no idea what I’m doing” in the previous paragraph, but as I typed those words I knew they weren’t exactly true. I have learned the mechanics of using cameras, even fully manual ones. I have picked up decent composition skills. I have a growing understanding of which camera and lens to use with which film to use to get a look I want. I have learned how to show you what I see in a few kinds of subjects — old cars, for one.

Yet I lack two key things: knowledge of what makes a photograph great, and a solid understanding of what I see that most others don’t.

I know that learning what makes a photograph great means studying the work of other photographers, especially the great ones. I’ve done a little of it. I bought a book of Ansel Adams’ Polaroids some time ago and spent a lot of time in it. Time and again, Adams layered three intersecting horizontal planes. I liked the effect, and ran right out and tried it myself. I need to keep practicing it.

Canon T70, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD, Fujicolor 200, 2014

But to understand what I see that others don’t, the only thing I know to do is keep writing about my work. Writing about something I don’t understand almost paradoxically helps me come to understand it.

I think this is true for a lot of us. We think we believe a thing strongly, but struggle to articulate why. Or we have a whole lot of disjointed thoughts about a subject, but struggle to say exactly what we believe about it. The process of writing can help us reason through and understand what we think, and then express it clearly.

This process can also clarify and even reveal flaws in our thinking. Writing even this post has helped me come to understand something: that knowledge of what makes a photograph great is separate from understanding what I see that others don’t. When I started writing this post, I hadn’t yet separated those ideas. It took a lot of writing that I have since deleted from this post to come to understand that.

This kind of writing is hard work. For me, writing camera or film reviews or expositions of a photographic subject takes time and effort, but is not terribly hard. I do some research, I think about my experience and impressions, I organize all of this information, I write. It’s a well-worn, familiar path. It feels sure.

To write a post of original thinking like this is anything but sure, anything but easy. I write and rewrite. Sometimes a post like this one languishes in my drafts folder for weeks while I think about it. Then I’ll come back to it and write four paragraphs and later realize they’re not genuine, and cut them. Along the way, I’ll realize something important that changes my thesis and causes me to start over.

It’s a wrestling match. It consumes hours and hours. I can write five camera reviews in the time it takes me to write one post of original thinking.

But when I’m done, I’ve thought deeply about the subject and know very well what I think.

Do you find yourself to be a clear thinker, someone who can process and synthesize information and feelings in your head? Or do you think you might benefit from writing to discover what you think?


14 responses to “To learn what you think about something, write about it”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    I agree that writing helps to clarify thinking. Many times have I started writing and after two or three paragraphs realized that what had seemed so clear was really a jumbled knot of an idea that must be untangled and sorted before I can continue writing about it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yup. Exactly. For me, continuing to write helps me sort.

  2. Seekers Avatar

    I enjoyed that, it is so true that you tend to actually learn the topic when you write about the topic. Yesterday i began writing on forgiveness and never finished because I realised that they were so many things I hadn’t or couldn’t forgive, including myself. Now, I have in the midst of writing the poem, I can see where my path lays. Good luck with it all, I hope to return and read more.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That is perfect! I’ve written about forgiveness here too, trying to figure it out for myself. I ended up writing a two-part series on it!

      1. Seekers Avatar

        I thought your piece of work was well written and so interesting. It just shows how important how much FORGIVENESS is vital to growth. to to forgive oneself is as important as to forgive others. Hope to read more. Yvette

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Thank you for saying so!

  3. George Denzinger Avatar
    George Denzinger

    Sometimes what you think you know, is what you think you know.

    I started a new job in December of last year, since it was in an allied field I thought I would pick it right up and have smooth sailing. It had been 20~ish years since I spent any time in this field, but it’s like riding a bicycle, right?


    I’ve had six months of learning what I thought I knew…

    BTW, love the OM-1. I still think it’s one of the best cameras, ever.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oooh, that feeling of having your ass handed to you on a plate. But that is what sparks growth.

      I have TWO OM-1s! And I don’t shoot either of them remotely enough. They really are wonderful.

  4. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Keep writing…I enjoy reading because you’re a guy out experimenting and learning film and film cameras…If I were 18 years old today, I wouldn’t be a photographer, digital has turned it into computer work…because of this, I don’t know what I think about photography either. I loved photography when I got into it in 1966, I loved film, I loved processing, I loved how much of a “black art” it was. Now every “shutter mom” can get an acceptable technical result, and the fact that people don’t look at content as much as presentation, cheapens the business and avocation!

    I love driving around and looking at stuff, and I can tell, so do you, and I love film, and so do you! Just keep doing what you’re doing!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Andy! I got into photography in 1976 with a Brownie Starmite II that I got at a garage sale for a quarter. 127 FTW! In the early 80s I did a tiny bit of processing in my high school’s lab. Now I’m thinking about buying my own gear and doing it at home, to save on sending it out for processing. It’s the scanning that holds me back — so time consuming.

      I’m happy you’re along for the ride here!

  5. retirizer Avatar

    There’s that old saying “I know you think you know what you thought I said…” It’s the way my mind works. But you are so right, writing about it makes your mind sort through things that you might not otherwise. I liked this post a lot. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s my experience as well: writing about a thing makes me examine it in more detail. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Mike Avatar

    Nice to see some thoughtful writing about photography. There is some available in a lot of places, but it tends to get buried in the avalanche of “likes” that dominates on-line photo sites. I learned a lot about writing about photography from Terry Barrett’s Criticizing Photographs. I thought his best piece of advice was to start the process by simply describing the photograph being examined. That process often will bring up useful ideas which are a big help in developing a useful critique. Your comments on Ansel’s technique reminded me of that advice.

    Regarding scanners, I’ve been using an old Epson flatbed for the last ten years or so. Works fine for me, though I can easily spend a full day turning a single roll of film into digital images. The thing is, I’ve been retired for about fifteen years now. If I had to fit in film scanning around a full-day work schedule, I’d likely feel somewhat differently about the scanning process. Probably a good idea to research the possibilities thoroughly as there are scanners available which will let you zip through a roll in minutes rather than hours. A new one will cost real money, but I would think there would also be some used ones available given where photography has gone in the past few years.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m shifting this blog to be much more about photography, and less about the other things I’ve historically written about. It’s been staring me in the face for two years but I’m just now recognizing it: photography-related searches drive most of the casual visits here, and most of my regular readers and commenters at least are interested in photography. So look for more (hopefully always thoughtful) writing on the subject from here on out.

      Thanks also for the tip about Barrett’s book.

      I have hedged on processing and scanning my own film for two reasons: learning curve on processing, which I know I’ll overcome sooner or later — and the enormous amount of time scanning takes. I have a passable flatbed film scanner but seldom use it because I seldom have that kind of time.

      I’m in a bind. I’m trying to economize here, as I’ve got one son at Purdue and another going to college somewhere starting in 2017. Those bills hurt! I’d like to cut my processing and scanning costs, but you’re right, I lack the time to scan my own. Yet I also am reluctant to invest right now in a faster scanner, even used.

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