DaVinci is numero uno when it comes to the Renaissance and there's a good reason, the guy is a genius in many ways. He would have probably loved photography but it was of course way before his time. But that doesn't mean photographers can't learn a thing or two from him, or maybe 7.
First things first, I have to give credit where credit is due, this article is based off the book “How to think like Leonardo DaVinci” by Michael Gleb. The author drew 7 principles from DaVinci's life that outline his approach. I read it and some photography ideas came to mind that I am sharing here. So what can the genius of the renaissance teach us?
“An insatiabily curious apprach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning”
A peek at Leonardo's to-do list reveals that he is a curious man. Here's a peek at his bullet points: “Show why one wave seems more blue than the other, describe the areial regions, etc. Man, that makes my “Clean bathroom” bullet point seem petty, no?
But back to the point. In my opinion Leonardo was not a great scientist. He was a curious man first and that in turn made him a scientist.
He was fascinated by how things work and wanted to understand them. Photographers then should be likewise curious. Maybe not about why certain film developers create a certain pattern of grain, but about LIFE.
See photography is not only about the image, it's also about LIFE. Being curious means being an observer, and that's what photographers are, observers. Go out in the streets and just people watch and you would be amazed at what you will see.
There is so much going on that people, usually too self absorbed, overlook. A smile, a gesture that would go unnoticed if you don't record it.
When I look, I observe everything. As I am writing this I am noticing an old transparent bag that we got from the hospital. In it there is a few sheets of paper and a small bottle. There is a strong light being reflected from the bottom of the floor giving it a slightly red color. There's a harsh shadow on the papers because of the vial and a large shadown on the back of the bag.
Now, am I going to pull the camera for that? No. But I observe everything anyway. My radar is always up and that is why I can make images anywhere I am. Try the principle for yourself, be fascinated by the world and the potential for images will pop up.
“A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes”
Here's a depressing fact for you. Most photography tips are useless. Wait, what???? Let me explain….. it's not because they are in themselves bad, but because they are never put into action.
It's the classic book smart vs street smart thing. Head knowledge means nothing if trough action it's not proven itself to you. I can talk all day and night to you about repeated elements in an image, but until you go out and try it for yourself, it doesn't mean jack.
DaVinci was not only big on proving by experience, he was against lots of dogmas of his time. Photography has lots of dogmas too, they usually start with “Should”. “You should shoot only shoot a portrait with a medium telephoto”, etc, etc. Lots of people set their own photography standards and want you to measure up to it……Speaking of others, here's a quote by DaVinci:
We know well that mistakes are more easily detected in the works of others than in one’s own. When you are painting you should take a flat mirror and often look at your work within it, and it will then be seen in reverse, and will appear to be by the hand of some other master, and you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way.
Simply put, it's easier to see someone else's photographic mistake then it is in yours. So you have to put hedges around yourself to judge more accurately. One of them is to divorse yourself from your images by either letting them sit down first (a month to a year) before looking at them, developping in Lightroom with the the “lights off” (press L key), printing and looking at your photos upside down, etc. These hedges try to put some objective space between you and your work, so that you can judge it better.
For this principle, be a harsh critic (or compassionate if you are too hard on yourself!) of your own work, and make sure you actually demonstrate the tips you have learned, so that they can go from head knowledge to knowledge.
“The continual refinement of the sense, especially sight, as the means to enliven the experience”
This goes right back to number 1, being curious. Did that ever happen to you where you weren't hungry, had a small bite of something and just ate the whole meal? What many do not know is that curiosity is just the same, you can cultivate it.
Once you start looking, you see things you didn't see the first time, and once you do that again, you start seeing more and more. Apply this principle to refine your observation skills, see what others don't see so that you can photograph what others overlook.
“A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty”
Know what I hated as a kid? Getting grades at school. They started with the top of the class and going down from there. Boy did I hate that. It's like every single name *could* be mine but I could never be sure.
Da Vinci embraced sfumato, he didn't really know if his inventions would work, but he didn't anyway. Of course when we see his helicopter design we know that it couldn't have flown but what is shows is bravery, he at least tried.
I was teaching my kid some shapes and I pointed to a diamond. I asked him what it was and he pointed to a neighboring shape that he knew very well: The circle. Instead of risking the unknown he went back to what he knew very well already.
Photographers need to embrace uncertainty too. Sometimes you don't know if what you will produce is good, so you have to test it out. You also have to be brave to put out the shots that you like, even if you know they probably won't get the reception you wish.
This principle then must be kept close when we need to step out in faith. Be brave, your work needs it!
As for paradoxes, photography is full of them. Think about it, the more cameras you own, the less you will use one often. The more you focus on other's work, the less you focus on yours, etc.
“The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination”
Was Leonardo a scientist or an artist? He was both. His art is not only scientific (proportions, etc) but also had artistic and emotional value.
Photography is the child of the beauty and the geek, the mix between art and science. Photographs have a mix of technical and artistic properties. You've probably seen some technically corect photographs that don't do anything for the viewer, that's because it's missing some emotion in the mix.
Other photographs, you see what the photographer wanted to do but it just didn't come out correctly, there was probably something technical missing.
Photography is a balance between the two, so when you shoot make sure your brain thinks in term of not only the technical, but also the emotional.
“The cultivation of grace, ambidextry, fitness, and poise”
Photography, and to a larger extent creativity is linked to your overall well being. If you spent the whole day drinking booze and eating ice cream, you won't feel too hot the next day and your photography will suffer from that.
Exercice, eat right, all of this stuff affects you and therefore your photography. You have multiple levels of energy (like mental, emotional an physical) and when you peak you are setting yourself up to be alert for images.
The latin for this stuff is Mens sana in corpore sano, or a sound mind in a sound body. You know, a lot of people skip the morning exercie routine but it's actually the grease that gets the motor turning!
So, take care of yourself, if photography comes from you, you are by extension taking care of your photography.
“A recognition of an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena” (Systems thinking)
DaVinci was a systemic thinker. He was trying to find patterns to solve problems. That is why he designed some of his inventions after nature, because he saw the links between the two. Check out the wings of his flying machine:
Quite the bat-like device, no? Now that begs the question, what about photography? Aren't we dealing with single images? Yes and no. The thing is some of your images have similarities to them, by theme, by their composition, etc. Basically, just like Da Vinci, you need to find the patterns and links in your own work.
A shot might be a shot, but unless you have a bird's eye view of your images and it's place within it, you might miss the fact that it could be part of a project. Ever seen those flocks of birds flying? Each can't probably see the pattern they form because they can't have a survey view of their flight. That's why going in your catalog and categorizing your images is extremely important.
The thing is, you might even shoot multiple projects without being aware of it. I have these surreal images like so:
It's a new project that Istarted without knowing. The image on top was made 2 years before the second one, it's only after I played around with Lightroom that I realized that I had many shots like that. They were not a few scattered shots as I previously believed.
So think it terms of the one shot in terms of the whole. It is good also, when you are out shooting, to have a mental filing cabinet, orphan shots (no categories), project 1, project 2, project 3, etc.
That will not only give you a direction to go, it will also have you actively searching for potential shots.
From deep observation, to having a more hollistic view of photography, DaVinci has quite a few things to teach photographers. During his lifetime he accomplished many things, so hopefully these 7 tips gave you insight into his mindset to apply to your own photography. Who knows? You might be the next DaVinci 🙂 Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting
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