If you could somehow gather all the various classifications of photographic disciplines, toss them into a big metaphysical centrifuge and switch it on, what would happen? My theory is that all these photographic fields would separate into only two distinct styles: active and reactive.

Every photograph is a mixture of two ingredients: planning and impulse. Add x percent premeditation to y percent spontaneity and you’ve got yourself an image. The only thing separating the various photo disciplines from one another is the relative value of x and y.

Pure product photography, for example, is almost 100% premeditation. The photographer controls nearly every element of the photograph — having the ultimate say over lighting, camera position, angles, and set decoration. Fashion work also tends toward intent. But here, the presence of a live model increases the equation’s spontaneity percentage.

Skewing decisively toward the “reactive” component are such disciplines as reportage, concert, street, and wildlife photography. Within these classifications, the photographer places himself into an environment that he cannot control — only respond to.

Both wedding and event photography fall somewhere between these extremes — requiring similar amounts of both premeditation and spontaneity. Photographers in these disciplines often define and distinguish themselves by the amount they gravitate toward one of the two ingredients.

All of us, no matter how stylistically ‘ambidextrous,’ have an innate leaning toward one style or the other. If we’re naturally premeditated photographers, we need to find ways to inject a little impulse into our photographs. And if we’re a more instinctual sort, our photography can always benefit from a little procedure.

I fall into the ‘instinctual’ camp. Don’t get me wrong — I love it whenever a job affords me the opportunity to conceive, construct, and control every nuance of a shot — but it’s the thrill of the wild that drives my pathological need to photograph. That’s why, in controlled shoots, I still like to leave a few things to chance. For me, injecting a little uncertainty (to which I must then react) will produce a better image. This is why street photography is so exciting for me — it’s nothing if not uncertain. But that doesn’t mean it can’t benefit from a little structure.

I touched on this, indirectly, in the article called The Positive of Being Negative. In that article, I discussed how I sometimes establish rules for my photographs, forcing myself to find new and creative ways to view a scene. Looking for the ‘negative’ of an image (as I described in that article) is but one way I do this. Another is to constantly scour a scene for some kind of ‘distorted reality.’ And the most literal way to distort reality is with glass.

Windows, by their very nature, have both a reflective and transparent quality. One of my little tricks, which adds structure to street-shooting jaunts, is to pay attention to windows — looking for interesting shapes or juxtapositions between what’s happening behind a glass pane and what’s reflecting off of it.

The above shot is taken directly into the front door of my downtown condo. It causes both confusion and uncertainty in the eye of the viewer. How many bodies blend together? Where’s the focal point? Is the photo taken inside looking out, or outside looking in? I tend to like photos that ask more questions than they answer, and windows provide an excellent means toward this end.

The following image attracted me because each of the framed windows either reflects or transmits a completely different scene. Even though it’s a single environment, the individual panes become separate pictures, almost like a self-contained ‘gallery.’

And, as a final example, the following picture caught my eye one evening. The transparency of the glass allowed me to photograph a waiter who stood inside a restaurant looking out. Meanwhile, the glass’ reflective properties enabled me to also photograph the street scene upon which he gazed.

Every now and then, we all need a little extra inspiration. Reactive photographers can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that ‘nothing is happening,’ and therefore think there’s nothing to photograph. But by actively looking for photographs in non-standard places, an improvisational photographer can always find something worth reacting to.

©2009 grEGORy simpson
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