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Left Brain vs. Right Brain: Creativity vs. Technique in Photography

by Dan Bailey on May 16, 2011 · 69 comments

Young Buddhist lamas, Diskit Monastery, Ladakh, India

Back when I was in music college, we liked to ask my friend’s roommate what he thought of certain guitar players around the school. He almost always gave the same answer:

“Very technical, but no feeling.”

It was somehow absurdly amusing to us, mostly because this particular fellow was from a country outside the USA and  had an extremely thick accent, and because we were dumb, immature college students who got off on stuff like this.

However, that was over 20 years ago, and I still remember that phrase as if I heard it yesterday. Over the years, I’ve realized that this fellow had it right on. It’s not about how fast you play, it’s about what you play and how you play it.

The same is true with photography. If you can’t take a photo with compelling content that touches your audience in some way, it really doesn’t matter how much technical stuff you know about exposure, lenses, f/stops, megapixels, recovery adjustments, Photoshop curves, white points, gamma, monitor calibration, or anything else.

Like all creative pursuits, photography is both a technical craft and an expressive art form. We often need to be reminded that our left brain’s technical skills are only the support staff to our right brain’s creative vision. Yes, you to have a solid working knowledge of how cameras respond to light, how your lenses portray the world, and how to properly process a RAW file. But in the end, it’s what lives inside your right brain that determines whether you’re a great photographer or not.

Making a compelling, thought-provoking image doesn’t come easy for everyone. Since photography is such a gear-intensive, technical activity, it tends to attract people who are naturally more left-brain-oriented (think retired doctors and lawyers), and who approach it from that standpoint. We also know that having top quality gear does make a difference, and so those who can afford the gear often buy into the notion that having a piece of pro glass or a high-end DSLR will make them a good photographer.

However, there’s only so much analytical brain power and money you can throw into photography before you hit a dead end. Unless you learn to open that door to your creative, intuitive, emotional side, you’re going to have a hard time making anything other than boring, run of the mill pictures.

By contrast, right-brain-oriented people tend to approach photography from the creative side first. They don’t always come into it with any sense of technical mastery, but since they already have creative door wide open, they’re more likely to produce highly artistic images on a regular basis. They might not be technically perfect from the start, but they can learn that stuff, and once they do master the nuts and bolts side of photography, they suddenly have have the potential to be incredibly good photographers.

Not that left brain people can’t learn to be great photographers too, but opening that creative door inside their brains can be harder for those people who are very analytical and skill-oriented. The just have to focus on expanding their right brain processes with creative exercises and artistic outlets. The best photographers have a good balance of both left and right, because while gear and skills do matter, the emotional side of image making matters more.

So go ahead and learn all your scales, but use them to help you play with feeling.

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Senior contributor Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, outdoor and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.
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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mindy Veissid May 16, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I totally agree! Great article.

Jford9899 May 16, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Great article! It's not something that we are often conscious of, but makes a big difference in our approach to photography.

Michael Russell May 16, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Ewww scales.

I wonder if the “left brained” types are the ones we mostly hear going on about gear instead of composition etc.  I heard another Nikon vs Canon discussion/argument at a park the other day but I wonder how interesting their resulting photographs were.

Margaux May 26, 2011 at 3:45 pm

I agree with the general idea of your article, that the best photographs require both skill and that j’ne sais quoi “emotional side.”

However, it’s unfortunate that you’re propagating a fallacy about creativity in the brain, and specifically the notion of left- and right-brain-ism. Those ideas came out of experiments from the ’60s, and since then neuroscience has come to understand creativity not as specifically located processes (especially in the right hemisphere), but in terms of a completely different whole-brain model. “Creative” thoughts are now seen to be random new combinations of information already stored in the brain, and they happen automatically everywhere in the brain (not just in the right). Instead of the idea that a person has to develop the capacity to generate “creative” thoughts, it’s the other way around; everyone is already generating these thoughts all the time. But some people (presenting as more “analytical” by nature), have a stronger inner critic that shuts down irrational, non-sensical, unfeasible ideas more thoroughly than other people (presenting as more “artistic” by nature). This inner critic is necessary to prevent people from taking action on random thoughts that are harmful (say, when you stand on a subway platform and wonder what it would be like to jump in front of the oncoming train), or inappropriate, or otherwise unproductive. But this critic is also responsible for filtering these random thoughts for ideas that might be considered “creative.” So an analytic person doesn't have to learn how to generate new ideas, they have to learn to quiet the inner critic in order to allow some of those random ideas to come through the filter and allow themselves to act on them.Sorry to get all sciency, but the analytical side of me likes to get the facts straight. I am a science major, but I am not a technical, gear-head photographer.

Brideofchuckie May 29, 2011 at 3:57 am

Hahaha!  There is nobody who loves scales!  Thanks for the article.

ohno studio June 12, 2011 at 6:17 am

I can't take the gear forums too much anymore. I concentrate more on the creative and try to figure out how I can put a new spin on an old and tired subject. It's harder than you think.

I have my share of technical clunkers in the archives, but I hold onto a bunch of them because they evoke emotion  for some or good memories for me.

Kelly Bridgwater September 5, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Right on! Thank you for this article. I refer to creative pursuits that are technically full but lacking in essence as ‘flat’. Left and right should mesh and for those that find challenge from either side of the house; delve into the areas in need of improvement and never, never, never give up.  

David Hewitt November 4, 2011 at 2:26 am

I was explaining this to my Mom 2 days ago because I am left/right balanced (very technical guitarist too, but somehow still manage to move people). Very spot on.

Dorian Spence January 25, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Hi Dan, I especially like this article as its easy to lose ones creativity after a while, or at least that’s what I have experienced. The only problem is that it seems there is no follow up article on ways to access or tap into one’s creative side?

Dorian

Dorian January 25, 2012 at 7:35 pm

It seems you are totally left brain!

Margaux April 7, 2013 at 1:26 am

What a remarkable thing to say, considering what I wrote. Personally, I like to think I have exceptional capability with both sides of my brain, not supressing the use of any of it in order to impress other “artists” who are so proud of being primarily half-brained.

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