photography and photographs understood

Staying Creative: An Argument Against LCDs

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: Jun 2018; revised: Aug 2018; readers past month: 290

When I’m writing the first draft of an article, I try not to make corrections until I’m finished. To do so would take me out of creative mode and put me into editorial mode. When that happens, the quality of my writing diminishes and the text reads as belabored.

In the same way, I take better photos when I stay in creative mode and don’t get distracted. However, since digital cameras allow for a tremendous amount of configuring, it’s too easy to slide out of creative mode and fall into editorial mode.

Dependence & Distractions

It may not be evident, but the LCD screen significantly effects creativity. Not only are the menus on the LCD a distraction, but we come to rely too much on the image of the photo just taken. You may be skeptical, so let me present an example.

Suppose I take a picture of a church while standing in front of it. I then look at the image on the LCD screen and notice I’ve chopped off the top of the steeple because I’m too close. You might think that this proves the LCD makes for better photos. However, I shouldn’t have chopped off the top of a subject which wasn’t moving. Since my brain knew that I could check the LCD image, I didn’t concentrate as much while taking the photo.

The result of relying on the LCD image is that we make several attempts at the same shot. This makes photography more of a chore and less enjoyable. Were it not for the LCD, we’d learn to make sure we don’t chop the top of a subject. We will eventually look closely at the composition—whether through the viewfinder or on the LCD image afterwards—so we may as well do it when we’re taking the shot the first time.

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Leica M-3 Camera

Saving Moments

More important than saving time and bother, getting the shot right the first time reduces the chance that the photographic opportunity will be lost. This is particularly important when photographing people or a moment that might pass quickly.

The famous photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about the value of the decisive moment. He said, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Notice that he makes no mention of a camera and its settings. He later added, “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

With a typical digital camera, if you take a photo, scrutinize the image on the LCD, maybe change the settings, and take the shot again—possibly repeating this process several times—the decisive moment will probably be lost before you can get the photo the way you want it.

When taking a photograph, watch the scene and the subject, not the camera. By this method, your photos will convey the moment to others. Otherwise, you’re just slapping together snapshots with no feeling to them.

Keeping it Simple

To stay in creative mode, use one lens and one camera, and make as few adjustments as possible. Henri Cartier-Bresson used one camera for decades: the Leica III and then the Leica M3. He took almost all of his photos with one lens: a Leica 50mm fixed lens. This allowed him to know the camera and lens so well that he didn’t have to look at them take make minor adjustments. He also knew what to expect when he took a photo. He didn’t need an LCD image.

You don’t need to make many adjustments for every shot. The main concerns are exposure, composition, and focus. Set the ISO and leave it, unless you go inside or out. Put the shutter speed on automatic, except when photographing a subject that’s moving quickly. The only exposure setting you’ll need to adjust when taking a photo is the aperture—but not for every shot. Incidentally, on a good camera, exposure settings are made with manual knobs and not through an LCD menu. With exposure set, compose the shot and focus the lens and press the shutter release button.

That may have seemed a little complicated. It’s actually very simple, but I mentioned too many caveats. So let me give you an illustration and then say that again in context.

A Decisive Moment Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Any fiddling with the camera would have lost this shot: the boy may have passed by, the girls in the background may have walked out of the frame or looked away. The old lady behind the girls might have been too close. A second shot would have been impossible: all of the subjects would have disbursed and the scene would have decomposed.

First, the scenario: I’m outdoors taking photos on a sunny day. So I set the ISO to 100 and won’t change it all afternoon. I put the shutter speed on automatic and not touch it again. As for the lens aperture, I’ll set that to 8 to start and adjust it for some shots based on whether it’s much brighter or much darker, or to change the depth of field. That’s the scenario, the starting point, and all I do with exposure.

Now, the decisive moment: I’m walking around—not fiddling with my camera—and looking at people and scenes. I see some people interacting and think it’s a nice moment. The only exposure adjustment I may make is the lens aperture—that takes one second, just a quick twist of the lens. I raise my camera and calmly compose the scene, focus the lens, and then press the shutter release button.

As long as you don’t think about tweaking the camera and just look through the viewfinder to make sure the composition is good and the people are in focus, the shot will be good. You don’t need to take the shot multiple times. It probably won’t get any better and by the second shot the people will have noticed you or walked away.

One more time: set the lens aperture, point the camera, focus, and click. Think only about the scene and moment, not the equipment. If you have an artistic sense, if you know a good photo when you see one, you will make good photos. If you don’t have an artistic sense, adjusting the camera excessively and relying on the LCD image won’t help. Staying in creative mode and taking plenty of photos over a long period of time is what will help.