Shooting, Fast and Slow: Two Modes of Thought

Originally published at: https://www.naturephotographers.network/shooting-fast-and-slow/

You may have heard about the best-selling psychology book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It digs into the dichotomy between two modes of thought. “System 1” is fast, instinctive, and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. It intrigued me how these two systems are both active participants in the process of shooting and creating a landscape image. Even before reading the book, I’ve often pondered how photography can be both slow and calculated and also fast and unthinking. Or how some of my best images took 30 minutes to compose while others happened in a matter of seconds.

It’s not uncommon in the world of photography to hear someone say slow down. So often, beginner photographers tend to shoot without much thought. Simply taking the time to slow down to think and be incredibly aware of what you are attempting to capture is critical. That said, after years and years of shooting along with teaching hundreds of clients – I’ve learned that at times, shooting fast, without much thought is equally important. This article will attempt to explain why and when I feel shooting either slow or fast will be advantageous to create a great image.

Shooting Slow (System 2)

As a beginner, everything starts out slow. Memorizing the buttons on your camera with your fingers. Unfolding your tripod into place. Remembering which settings to use and when. Learning about composition and design. It reminds me of learning to play guitar, as one of the most important lessons that you learn is to force yourself to play every riff excruciatingly slow with perfection over and over again until you can slowly speed up, getting faster while retaining perfect technique. Everything you do in photography needs to be done in a similar fashion. Be it on the artistic side or the technical.

Shooting slow is also about being completely aware of a scene even after you get more advanced. This is one of the most critical aspects I teach my workshop students – you have to give conscious and deliberate thought to each of the elements in your frame. How well do the various elements work together? Is one side of the frame more weighted? Is there simplicity? The more time you can spend practicing your awareness, moving the camera around the world, and analyzing everything in it – forcing yourself to identify different parts of the scene, the better able you will be to start doing it faster when the need arises.

All this in mind, I think there is a point in shooting slow where you can reach a plateau or get stuck in a rut – practicing the same techniques or formula over and over again. At this point, I think it is beneficial to experiment with shooting fast, letting your instinct and emotion guide you. Then you can revert to System 2 when it is time to master something new.

Here are examples of scenes that required me to “slow down” and spend time to make sure every element worked together.

Shooting Fast (System 1)

There is a lot stored in subconscious, fast mind. Have you ever been immediately captivated by a potential photo that you saw in the blink of an eye, either while driving or walking by? Many of these types of scenes have caused me to turn around and go back, scenes that end up being some of my favorite images. All because it felt right. It’s been said that feeling is a form of thinking, both are ways we process information – but feeling is faster. This could also explain why we feel connected to certain places.

“Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.”

– Daniel Kahneman
I saw these while driving by and ended up turning around and getting some quick shots from the vehicle. 

As explained in the book, System 1 thinking (or fast shooting) involves associating new information with existing patterns, or thoughts, rather than creating new patterns for each new experience. This would explain why shooting fast is about working what you already have in your knowledge bank, when the hours and hours of deliberate practice kicks in and can react instinctually. Using both the info from the learned patterns but also allowing intuition to guide. This would be why you can instantly recognize the elements that would make a great composition while passing by at 60mph.

When you have the opportunity to stop focusing consciously on the pre-learned formulas, you have more freedom and mental space to be creative and instinctual. Going back to the guitar analogy, after a musician has spent thousands of hours practicing scales and riffs and find themselves playing live with a band – they no longer have to think about what they are playing. They can let go and play with their emotions. They are still using everything that they have learned over the years, but without as many limitations. Using System 1 they are free to improvise.

“Being able to act intelligently and instinctively in the moment is possible only after a long and rigorous of education and experience.”

― Malcolm Gladwell

Tying it Together

Now that you’re familiar with how I view System 1 and 2 as they relate to photography, let’s dig into how we might benefit from using these modes of thought for various types of shooting environments.

An example of a scene that took a long time to set up and get perfect. I started shooting this about 2 hours before the best light and must have tried 30 comps looking for what I liked best. When the light did start I was basically ready. 

For example, even if you have been shooting for years, System 2 (shooting slow) is in full effect when you’re getting out of your comfort zone or pushing past creative limitations to try something new. Consider the times you have tried to compose a complex landscape scene that has multiple elements. You have to stop and analyze the environment and think carefully about what you are trying to create. This is especially true when you are trying to shoot in a way that you haven’t before. Again, if you’re trying to push your limits with a different or unusual design, you pretty much have to be using System 2. These types of scenes just take time.

“When we become expert in something, our tastes grow more esoteric and complex.”

– Malcom Gladwell

I find that I use System 1 (shooting fast) far more abstract, simple type scenes or more “classic” old school landscape photography. These images are typically much less complex in terms of the number of elements and objects that, for example, would pull you from a very close foreground all the way through the scene to a middle and or background element. I also think System 1 type images are generally based on form, colors, and the way the overall design works. Again, think of the times you are walking or driving through the wilderness and a combination of elements “struck” you as a great photo. Sometimes it’s just the way a group of trees lines up just right. Or a pattern on a rock. That’s where System 1 comes into play.

A couple examples of images that I would call classic. They are grand landscapes, but very simple in terms of design and composition. 

The other obvious benefit of “shooting fast” with System 1 is how much time you physically have to work with. In a perfect world, I have all the time I need to scout a location. I can spend hours finding the perfect composition, exploring numerous ideas, and making sure that all my gear and settings are 100% perfect. Of course, that situation does actually happen part of the time – but if this slow, relaxed style is the only way you know how to shoot, you are missing out on hundreds of shots over the course of several years that don’t give you that much time.

Another image taken from the car. 

Using Both Systems

Of course, there are many situations where I end up using both System 1 and System 2. For example, when I approach some landscapes, the basic idea of the scene will come to me quite quickly or with very little thought. But these initial thoughts are just the building blocks of what makes a scene, tapping into subconscious knowledge. Once that initial idea comes to mind, if I have the time available, I will often then slow down to focus and concentrate on every element. If I can keep the original thoughts in mind at the same time, I am then able to hone in on those emotional elements while also eliminating distractions that take away from the design.

This is a great example of using both systems. I had never been to this area before, and literally showed up at this spot randomly as the light was already changing. I got a good idea of what I wanted instantly as I ran up to scene, and then spent a few critical moments on slow deliberate thinking to get the final design of the image.

In terms of learning, we can also use both systems to push us forward in a circular way. Slow down for learning until we are comfortable. Then Fast to break out of the comfortable rut. Then more Slow to learn a more complicated formula until that becomes comfortable… then we need Fast again to push past the new state of comfortable and so on.

Shooting Slow (System 2)

  • Learning & mastering new skills
  • Putting together complex scenes
  • Using challenging techniques that you’re uncomfortable with
  • Pushing past creative boundaries to try new things

Shooting Slow (System 1)

  • Allows the brain to get out of the way and focus on instinct & years of training
  • Uses the subconscious to identify scenes
  • Allows you to physically work faster
  • Enables creative freedom without focusing on the technical aspects

Both Systems

  • Allows us to break away from doing the same things
  • Be both emotional and calculated while creating images

Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas on the topics in the comments below! 

4 Likes

Hi Dan,

An interesting and thought provoking essay. The way I understand Kahneman’s view of systems #1 and #2 is that #1 is intuitive and #2 requires reflection. Because reflection takes more time than intuition system 2 is slower than system 1. If I apply this to photography I find that using my intuition (#1) is what gets me to create images that break the mold, images I never created before, because I am not reflecting on what people might say. Instead of wondering what people might think of my work I focus my energy on creating images intuitively. This prevents me from thinking about potential future criticism. Since criticism is what stops my creativity I am able to be fully creative. I also work faster because I am not wasting my time pondering what people might say about my images.

Regarding #2 (reflection) I find that I use it when I have a specific image in mind and I am trying to capture that image in the field. This requires reflection because of the differences between what I see in my mind and what the scene is in reality. The differences between the two, which are significant because the image in my mind is idealized, are what forces me to slow down and think about how I can find the best compromise. I have to say that this is not when I am at my best creatively. Because of that I have pretty much abandoned using #2 and now focus as much as possible on following my intuition (#1) when I create art.

Let’s talk about how this applies to new photographers for a second. By definition learning is a discovery process so for someone learning fine art photography everything is new. There is therefore a period during which one must get familiar with the equipment and with every other aspect of the process. However this is only temporary. After that new photographers can decide to use intuition or reflection even though they do not have years of experience yet. This is because this decision is not related to experience.

In my view if the goal is to create art intuition is the way to go. However if the goal is to create documentary photographs, or re-create images done by other photographers, then reflection is better because it allows one to account for the differences between what our mind sees and what the world really is.

Alain Briot

1 Like

Hi Dan,

Excellent, thought provoking article.
I find myself shooting slow more often than fast when taking landscapes in my older years. When I was younger I shot film of course, (I’m 69 years of age), mostly APS, 110. and later 120, 220. I shot pretty fast in those days it was actually before I knew much about composition or even exposure. Believe it or not when I finally got my first TLR then SLR that’s when I took classes to learn about composition and exposure and darkroom work. As I also began to get more into studio portraiture.

It was then I began to slow down. I remember thinking my landscape photography was actually getting worse. I blamed it on shooting too slow and thinking too much about composition and exposure instead of just going with instinct.

It took a while for me to blend the two shooting speeds and appreciate the virtues of being methodical.

Your article has helped me remember those lessons learned. Thank you.

Sincerely,
GEJr

Many thanks Dan for this fantastic essay!

Really appreciate you applying Dr. Kahneman’s cognitive psychology research to photographing the landscape. Nice also that you mention “deliberate practice” from Dr. Ericsson’s research on peak performance.

Appreciate you pointing out the benefits of both systems, shooting slow and shooting fast and how both systems can contribute to creating stronger images.

Your analogy to music is also a good one. And I would add sports to that. Through deliberate practice and other tools, you can get into a “flow state” during performance and let intuition take over. This is critical to high level performance in most sports. But as you point out, in order to try a new direction or maybe break out of a creative rut, then going back to a slower, more deliberate approach can help.

Nice job Dan, thanks for sharing!

—Dusty Doddridge

Hi Dan,
This is outstanding, thank you. You have articulated for me a lifetime of experiences in not just my photography but other areas of my life and my how I approach things. I have sensed the fast/slow but now I understand the why behind it. Thank you for the new and refreshing perspective.

Thanks Dan, for the excellent articles and lessons. Also, your images are superb. As one who has done a lot of travel photography, I often wish I could use System2 more often. When in new areas under the pressure of time and moving along, one loses the luxury of time to wait for desired light or does not know enough to know the best shooting spots or to create a strategy. So, I use System 1 often. I also employ both systems. PP with well composed images offers time to really use System 2 to tweak images into ones mind’s eye. Thanks again for sharing this terrific article.

Great essay and how true on all fronts.

Just a sidebar. Being able to shoot fast also applies when you are with a group, so you don’t drive them crazy. LOL The more you become instinctive on prepping a shot and camera settings, the faster you can be. Custom settings can help a lot. This might be your settings for a landscape, portrait or flying bird available through a quick dial setting or button.

1 Like

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s only in the ‘fast’ “system one” mode that one can be creative; or that only in the ‘slow’ “system two” can one handle the complex or the new. But both are true to a degree. The really important message though is that we need both - and to practice both. I always tell my students that we should aim to internalise a lot of the process of making a strong image, so that the conscious process becomes unconscious, freeing us to to work faster and (more importantly) to spot the new and the unexpected.

The point is that we need both “systems”, and consciously practicing both never stops being valuable. This is also part of why I encourage everyone to analyse their own images, successes as well as failures. An image made partly by use of internalised, unconscious, principles can be analysed after the fact, asking oneself “why does this image work so well?”

The process of answering that question brings the unconscious process back into the foreground, helping us to understand it and at the same time strengthening and ‘broadening’ it. By “broadening” I mean that the more we reflect on why a particular image works, the better able we become to take the principles that made that image work, and instinctively apply them to making new, successful, images in other situations.

As visual artists we never stop learning. By being aware of how we function when we make images we get better at that learning - so we make more and even better images.

Dan, beautiful images and explication and application of both “system 1” and “system 2” concepts to photography. I read Nobel Prize winner, Kahneman’s, book a few years ago and a bio by Michael Lewis titled “The Undoing Project” about the friendship and acdemic lives of Kahneman and his colleague Tversky. I was expounding on the Lewis book around a table in the student union at Stanford University while in the throws of finishing the book when a doctoral student friend of a friend overheard and stopped to educate me. She was a psychology student at Stanford and VERY familiar with the work of these two giants in the field. She informed me that subsequent to the Nobel, their work had come under criticism for lack of “power” in the experiments they had cited to support their conclusions and their reputations had suffered as a result. I only tell you this because you might want to know - or maybe you don’t. I always wan to know. It has no bearing on the story you just told not the application of the concepts as you chose to describe them. Just a point of pedantic info. I am impressed that you knew of their work and understood the points they made and were creative enough to see how it might apply in photography. Lots of creative brainpower there! Thank you.