Photography is Curiosity, Creativity, Math, Science and Imagination

 In Newsletter, Picture

One reason that I love photography is that it combines many different engaging elements, including some of my favorite aspects of life: curiosity, creativity, math, science and imagination. While photography is much more than just curiosity, creativity, math, science and imagination, when you start to practice and use these elements in your photography, your images will improve and you’ll make a breakthrough to the next level.

Curiosity in Photography

smoky mountains streams

For example, in this fall color photo from the Great Smoky Mountains Photography Workshop, I was curious how I could make a photo from inside this crack in the rock. As I was there, that curiosity drove me to hang my camera upside down from my tripod to make the shot.

One of the primary drivers of good photography is curiosity. That is wondering “what if?” and “what is?” It’s the innate human emotion for a thirst of knowledge and the desire to explore and learn more. I think the best photographers are often the most curious and they’re those that you’ll often find poking their heads down holes, hanging off the side of cliffs and asking themselves what if I do this or what will I find here or how will it look if I do this. For a photographer, the more curiosity the better.

Curiosity in photography works in many ways, but I find these two elements most important: the desire to explore the subject and the desire to learn more about your subject. Exploring the subject often involves asking the question of “what if?” What if I do something this way? What if I change my angle? What if I hang my camera upside down into this narrow crack and suspend it in the air with my tripod? What if I jump across this stream and shoot it from the other side? What if I change my composition? What if I come back with the light is better? And on and on and on.

Learning about a subject often involves asking “what is?” Such as what is this ice formation? Are there other types of ice formations? How do they form? You can expand this question to anything that involves learning more about your subject. In the cliché, the more you know about something, the more you realize how little you know about it. That can drive your curiosity even further. When you get even more curious about something, it opens up even more questions, which can further your exploration of a subject. For example, over the years, I’ve been learning more and more about the sea ice that forms on Lake Superior. That curiosity has lead me to try and find and photograph new forms of ice, such as stamukha (plural is stamukhi), pancake ice, ice caves, brash ice, grease ice and more. Curiosity in ice has also lead me to learn new skills, such as how to ice climb and kayak safely around ice. Here are pictures that I’ve taken over the years that have helped satisfy my sense of curiosity. Click a picture to see it larger.

Creativity in Photography

Creativity is using all the tools and training and knowledge and curiosity at your disposal to come up with new and valuable creation. The act of photography is almost always creative, because each new picture is a new creation — something that didn’t exist before you took the shot. Mostly, people think of creativity in photography as creating a photo that’s unusual, unique, mind-blowing or unusual, but I think creativity is more of a process that arrives at the result of a new photo. And I also believe that creativity is an emotion that artists experience — an innate drive that creates a thirst to create art. Something that I’m sure we all feel and one of the reasons that we took up photography.

Creativity involves the tools of photography, such as the camera body, different lenses, filters. The choices you make involving these items can easily change how the image you create appears. For example, in the following photo, I simply changed one filter. I added a Singh-Ray 10-stop Mor-Slo filter which changed the color slightly and caused the water to blur to the point of smoothness. That act was not only curious, asking “what if?”, but it involved creativity, because I used the knowledge of my tools to create a different look.

The curiosity involved in asking "what if?" changed how the photo was created.

The curiosity involved in asking “what if?” changed how the photo was created and resulted in an act of creativity.

Creativity also involves knowledge and training, because if you lack the knowledge on how to do something, your creative tools are limited. That’s why I always recommend photography instruction as an ideal way to learn versus the typical self-learning process in photography. With instruction you gain confidence, learn to make more effective photos and shortcut the learning process. Once you have the knowledge of composition techniques, of how shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance works, of how different filters look, of how focal length can change the look of the photo, you can creatively use that knowledge to come up with a new, unique photo. For example, in the following image, I changed the look of the photo simply because I knew that different focal lengths change the relationships between foreground and background objects. As you view the photos, compare the foreground which stay about the same in each photo and look at the island which grows larger. The middle section of the scene as compresses. The knowledge of this happening can change your creative process.

background and foreground relationships by focal length

Math in Photography

For those of you that don’t like math, I’d hate to break it to you, but photography is part math. The main way we experience that math is in the fractions and numbers involved in the amount of light let into the camera via shutter speed and aperture and the sensitivity the sensor or film is to light.

A heat oil tank near the old Grand Marais, MN power plant.

Photography involves numbers and math.

The number on our apertures, i.e. 2.8, 4, 5.6, etc… are all fractions. These numbers are know as f-numbers, which is the ratio of focal length to effective aperture diameter. We call them f-stops, because each physical stop on a lens with an aperture ring is the location that the f-number can be set to. We write f-stops with the “f” followed by a “/” followed by the number, i.e. f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, etc. As an example of this concept, on a 50mm lens, an aperture of f/2 is 1/2 of the length of the focal length of the lens, so the actual opening of the aperture is 25mm wide (50/2=25). At f/4, the opening is 12.5mm wide. As the aperture decreases, the opening gets smaller. At f/22, the opening of a 50mm lens is only 2.3mm wide. When you close down the aperture, i.e. make the opening smaller, you let in less light and increase the depth-of-field, which is how much of the image appears in focus. An example of closing down, also known as stopping down, the aperture is changing the aperture from f/4 to f/5.6. In terms of depth-of-field, it’s easier to think about the f-stops outside of the world of fractions and imagine that they’re whole numbers. When thinking this way, you can know that the higher the number, the more depth-of-field that you’ll have.

The number designating our shutter speed is how long the shutter is open compared to one second. If the reading is 1, the shutter is open for one second. If the reading is 2, the shutter is open for 1/2 of a second. If the reading is 500, the shutter is open for 1/500th of a second. If the reading is 2″, the shutter is open for two seconds. If the reading is 30″, the shutter is open for 30 seconds. This controls how motion looks in the scene, a faster shutter speeds — think fractions of a second — can stop action and a slower shutter speed — think full seconds long — blurs action. There are in between shutter speeds that may stop action and may not depending on how fast something is moving. These usually range from 1/15th to 1/125th of a second.

When thinking about these numbers, we talk about “stops” of light. A stop is a mathematical concept used to describe how much light is coming into the camera at one setting compared to how much light is coming into the camera compared to another setting. One full stop of light is either one-half as bright as the next brightest or twice as bright as the next darkest. In terms of aperture, f-stops are given is full stops of light. The standard scale looks like this: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22. Each of those numbers is one-half as bright as the number to the left and twice as bright as the number to its right. So when you go from f/2.8 to f/4, you let in half the amount of light at f/4 as you would at f/2.8. When you move from f/5.6 to f/4, you let in twice as much light at f/4 as you had at f/5.6. On your camera, one stop of light is usually three clicks on the dial.

Perhaps the 777 registration number saved this old fishing boat from complete destruction and rot. It doesn't have too many days left. You can see the stands holding the boat up are pushing in on the hull.

Learning photographic math will help improve your photography. Perhaps the 777 registration number saved this old fishing boat from complete destruction and rot. It doesn’t have too many days left. You can see the stands holding the boat up are pushing in on the hull.

The reason this happens is because the area of the opening doubles or halves. For example, on a 50mm lens, the area of an aperture of f/5.6 is about 62mm. The calculations to get there are: 50/5.6 = 8.9mm; 8.9/2 gives us a radius of 4.45mm. The opening of an aperture is approximately a circle and you get the area of a circle by multiplying the radius squared by pie. So, we get 4.452 x 3.14 = 62.2mm. The approximate opening at f/4 on a 50mm lens is 123mm, which is just about twice area as the opening at f/5.6. So, because it’s twice the area, it lets in twice the light.

It works the same way with shutter speed. Our typical shutter speed scale goes like this: 30″, 15″, 8″, 4″, 2″, 1″, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, 4000, 8000. If you take any number on the scale, the number to its left captures twice as much light because it’s open twice as long. If you take any number on the scale, the number to its right captures half as much light because it’s open half as long. For example, if we look at 1 second, the number to the left is 2″, or 2 seconds which is twice as long as one second, and the number on its right is 2, or 1/2 a second, which is half as long as one second. Just like with aperture, a stop is equal to each time you double or halve the amount of light that comes into a camera.

So, before we get into ISO, lets think about photography in terms of stops. If we have the correct exposure for the picture we want to take, but we want a slower shutter speed and we adjust the shutter from one second to two seconds, or one stop of light brighter. Because we let in twice the amount of light with this change, our exposure now changes. Basically, we made our exposure one stop brighter by changing the shutter in this way. If our exposure was right before, then it will be overexposed now, so we need to subtract one stop of light to get back to the correct exposure. We can change the shutter speed back or we can make a change to the aperture. If we subtract one stop of light by changing the aperture, we get back to the correct exposure. So, if our aperture was f/8, we change it to f/11. This subtracts one stop of light.

The clouds above the tombolo on Lake Superior look like rays spreading across the sky. Winter, Cook County, Minnesota.

I used math to calculate the correct exposure after I added a 10-stop ND filter.

Lets look at this via math. Let call our exposure an exposure value (EV). An exposure value of “0” is going to be our correct exposure for this example. So we start with:

EV = 0

We add a stop of light via shutter speed, i.e. doubling the length of the exposure by going from 1 second to 2 seconds.

EV = 0 + 1

EV = +1

Then to fix the problem of overexposure (+1), we subtract a stop of light via aperture by halving the amount of light that comes into the camera. The change we make goes from f/8 to f/11.

EV = +1 + -1

EV = 0

We’re back at the correct exposure.

The stops-of-light calculation works with ISO as well. A typical ISO scale looks like this: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400. When you reduce the ISO it makes the sensor less sensitive to light. When you increase the ISO it makes the sensor more sensitive to light. To halve how sensitive the sensor is to light, you move one number on the scale to the left. To double the sensitivity, you move one number to the right. This subtracts one stop of light (-1) or adds one stop of light (+1), respectively.

Where this gets really fun is when you start to add filters. A popular filter is known as a Neutral Density filter (ND). It is basically a dark piece of glass that you put in front of the lens to reduce the amount of light coming into the camera. One of the most popular types is a 10-stop ND filter. This means that it reduces the amount of light coming into the camera by 10 stops (EV = -10) — over 99%. So, to account for the filter, you need to add light back into the picture until you reach EV=0. You can do that through ISO, shutter speed or aperture. Most photographers add EV by increasing the shutter speed 10 stops.

For example, if you start with a shutter speed of 1/125, you end up with a shutter speed of 8 seconds. Here’s the math:

  • 1/125 to 1/60 = +1
  • 1/60 to 1/30 = +1
  • 1/30 to 1/15 = +1
  • 1/15 to 1/8 = +1
  • 1/8 to 1/4 = +1
  • 1/4 to 1/2 = +1
  • 1/2 to 1 second = +1
  • 1″ to 2″ = +1
  • 2″ to 4″ = +1
  • 4″ to 8″ = +1

If you add up all those +1s you end up with +10. So,

EV = -10 + +10

EV = 0 (correct exposure)

There’s more to the math of photography and luckily for photographers that don’t like math, you don’t need to always deal with the math. The computer in your camera does a good job of dealing with it for you.

In the following photos, I used math, curiosity and creativity in the field using the tools and knowledge of composition and equipment that I had. On the photo on the left, the sky looked too light, so I added a filter to darken the sky. The center photo shows the image with the filter, but then I wondered, “What if I added a 10-stop ND filter?” I added one and then adjusted by shutter by 10-stops (-10) to account for the darkness. My shutter speed started at 1/2 a second and ended up being 120 seconds (+9) and I boosted the ISO by +1 from 100 to 200.

Science in Photography

The full moon rises near Split Rock Lighthouse and over Lake Superior. Minnesota.

Created with the use of science.

I think we can all agree that there is science in the manufacturing of photography equipment, the designing of lenses, the computer programs in our cameras and the arrangement of bits in our image files. In the darkroom, we can also feel like mad scientists by exposing paper to light, dipping it in multiple chemicals and then magically watching an image appear on paper right before our eyes. There is also science in our everyday practice of photography.

Science is a way to organize and build knowledge, and test that knowledge in order to use it to make predictions about the world we live in. In the terms of photography, as we build knowledge and learn how to organize it , we can use that knowledge to make predictions about how our creative output will look. For example, if we know that a polarizing filter increases saturation, because we’ve seen it happen, and we know that it removes reflections because we have seen it happen. We can go out into the field and come up with a bunch of tests to see under what circumstances it happens. Does it happen when it’s sunny out? Does it happen when it’s cloudy out? Does it happen on rainy days? Does it happen pointed into the sun? Does it happen when it’s 90 degrees to the sun or 180 degrees from the sun? After we perform the experiments, we can take that new knowledge and organize it (most likely in our memory), and then when we’re in a situation, we can make a prediction from the knowledge on whether or not to use a polarizer. So, if we know, because of our experiments, that a polarizing filter doesn’t really work when pointing it into the sun, then we can predict at sunset that the filter won’t do anything for us, so we can keep it off. Testing this way takes lots of time and photography workshops can help you reduce the times as long as the instructor has done the tests before. If he or she has, then he or she can teach you the results.

The Wolf Moon rises over the cliffs on Clearwater Lake near the BWCA, Minnesota.

Created with science.

We can also use science for predictions. For landscape photographers, the science of astronomy helps predict when the sun rises and sets and when the moon will rise and set. It also tells us how long dusk and dawn will last, when twilight will happen and we can use it to predict when the golden hours (the best time for landscape photography) will occur. In the two images of the moonrise, I used astronomy not only to predict when the moon would rise, but where it would rise from my vantage point and how high it would be in the sky at what time. I wanted to make sure the sun was still shining on the cliffs and lighthouse, so I had to learn which date the moon would be high enough to reach the level of the lighthouse or clear the cliff while the sun was low enough to cast golden-hour light onto my subjects.


night photography workshop location

I imagined this shot of the Milky Way over The Tombolo before I went out of the house to take the shot.

Which brings us to imagination, which is the ability to experience and create new senses and ideas not experienced directly. Imagination is what many photographers call “seeing in our mind’s eye.” That is, dreaming up how you want a photograph to look before you even see the shot. My favorite story of imagination comes from Art Wolfe, a landscape and nature photographer. On a flight to Hawaii to photograph volcanos, he imagined a scene of a volcano erupting below the night sky. It was specific enough that he sketched it out. When he got on the ground, he went out and found a place where he was able to take the picture that he imagined.

I think imagination when combined with curiosity, creativity, math and science helps tie everything together, because you can use all of your knowledge to dream up a shot in your imagination and then go out and explore using your curiosity to find the right location and elements to make the shot, you can use your creative drive to create the photo, use math to make sure that all the tool and craft of photography come together and science to make sure you’re there at the right time. While you might not end up with an image that matches your imagination exactly, you’ll end up with something that was close.

You don’t need to imagine something at your house and go out and make the image to use imagination, you can use it in the field. When you’re facing an environment, it’s much easier to imagine how it will look with different lighting conditions or weather conditions or imagine how it might look for a different perspective or how it might look using a different piece of equipment. Your imagination can inform you about the potential of photos before you commit to the time required to get the shot. I use this technique often when scouting a location. I imagine how it will look under different clouds, lighting, weather, seasons and at sunrise and sunset and I make notes about how I think it will appear. Then when the conditions match those that I imagined, I can return and get the shot.

Curiosity, Creativity, Math, Science and Imagination

While photography is much more than just curiosity, creativity, math, science and imagination, when you learn about and practice these five elements, your photography will improve. If you need help, you should come to one of my photography workshops.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Shirley A Page

    Thank you for sharing those gorgeous photos, Bryan. Looks as though you have had some
    really cold weather there too. Happy New Year to you also!


  • Sue Braum

    Your artistry leaves me in awe. The combination of the beauty of Northern MN and
    your skills iin portraying that beauty makes me shake my head in admiration. Thank you.

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throwing boiling water to watch it turn to snowStanding on fast ice next to Lake Superior. Minnesota