Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink starts by describing the story of a statue that one group of experts believed to be fake, but that another group, supported by scientific evidence, believed to be genuine. The first group, though relying on nothing more than instinct — what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing” — turned out to be right.
The moral of the story is that a little knowledge can be better than a lot of knowledge, and that sometimes trusting our guts can bring us more success than listening to our head.
What does this mean for photographers?
Trust Your Eye, Not Your Gut
To some extent, nothing you didn’t know already. Photography classes might teach about composition, lighting and depth of field, but no photographer judges the quality of an image by measuring whether the horizon falls exactly according to the rule of thirds.
The same is true of the opportunity to take a good photo. Talented photographers can spot chances in a second that others miss — and grab them.
Gladwell might say that both those judgments happen in a blink. They’re certainly instinctive, emotional and quick. You know in an instant whether or not you like a picture and whether or not you have the chance to shoot one.
That’s what the photographic eye is all about — and there’s no better example of the power of what Gladwell calls “blinking.”
It would be hard to be a photographer without relying on these kinds of instant decisions, but being a successful photographer requires more than putting a good eye behind the lens. You also have to talk to buyers, take commissions and make deals.
That’s where trusting those snap judgments can get you into trouble.
In his research, Gladwell found that leaders of large companies tend to be taller than average. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re smarter than average, but it’s known that tall (and good-looking) people tend to create better impressions at interviews and have more successful careers.
The hirers aren’t making conscious decisions — but these sorts of judgments about people could affect the way a photographer treats subjects. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Young people might be treated with less respect than middle-aged executives, for example, even though both have paid the same fee and have the same potential for future jobs. Similarly, an admirer who spends a long time gazing at a photo might have no intention of buying it, while someone who glances at it for a second might already have decided he’s going to grab it — following his own instinct.
Both of those situations could result in a photographer losing income.
In practice, of course, these sorts of problems tend to be more the preserve of car salesmen and hotel staff who see a stream of customers and struggle to give each the same degree of attention. For photographers, it’s easier to treat every potential client as equal — or almost equal.
Powering Up Your Photographic Eye
It’s tempting then to say that there’s little you can do about your instinct except to trust it when you’re shooting and ignore it when you’re talking. But there is a little more to it than that.
Gladwell also recounts a story of a group of firefighters called to tackle a blaze in a kitchen. After dousing it with water, the fire still wouldn’t go out. One of the firefighters felt, instinctively, that something was wrong and ordered everyone out of the building. Moments later, the floor collapsed into the basement, the source of the blaze.
That firefighter’s instinct didn’t just come from his gut. It came from his experience. The fire was hotter than usual and the flames noisier. Both told him that something was wrong.
The same is true of a photographer’s eye. To spot the difference between an average picture and an excellent picture, you have to look at a lot of pictures. And to see an opportunity that others would miss, you have to take a lot of photos that miss the moment, too.
It is a good idea to trust the blink of your photographic eye, but practicing photography is the best way to strengthen it.