On the edge of seeing

In the last few months I had the privilege of meeting many interesting photographers and visual thinkers – some well-known, others pioneering new ideas and imagery away from the spotlight of social media.

One theme that often entered our conversations was the idea of “destination” or “balance” in photography. In other words, we tried to answer the question whether it was possible to reach a state of photographic being, when one felt the most creative, productive and satisfied with their work. Does such a place exist? If it does, is it a good place to be?

There are two distinct viewpoints.

First, some photographers argue that the best way to approach photography is to find a sort of balance. That would be a state of mind which is comfortable and attuned to seeing and enjoying photography. It is a place, once reached, that a photographer doesn’t want to leave. Some go even further and argue that once a photographer achieves such visual bliss, it should be embraced and nurtured. Imagery produced in this state is in the comfort zone of the photographer and is usually popular and well-regarded by a wide audience. There is no question that such an approach has a broad appeal and a sweetness to it which is difficult to refuse.

The second way of approaching the craft of seeing is much more tumultuous and difficult to define. For the sake of argument let’s describe it as out-of-balance. Interestingly, as I talk to many great photographers and observe their work, it appears to me that this state manifests itself in visual risk-taking, trying new ideas and even encompassing photographic genres. It is a constant struggle within and without. It is a much harder way forward, as the rate of setbacks and failure is significantly higher than in a more balanced approach.

Those of you who follow my work will probably guess where my seeing belongs, or rather where it wants to belong 🙂 There is no question that sometimes I feel my photography is balanced and healthy – and it feels good. However, that’s just the problem. – at least for me personally. Every time I enter this sweet zone, my seeing becomes muted, repetitive and flat even though the images may well be popular. It feels as though I am experiencing visual suffocation. The longer I linger in this stage, the more the lack of creative oxygen gets me lots of approved and well-regarded but insipid imagery. The other way to think about this conjecture is to imagine walking along the edge. On your right, you have the firm ground of great, known and popular imagery and on the left, you are on the edge of an unknown abyss. You want to explore but you must do so carefully or you will fall. Somehow, I have been enjoying walking on this edge with all the consequences and fears. Yes, those who prefer this approach stumble more often than others who walk on more solid ground but they often find visuals that can only be found on the very edges of seeing. This is exactly where there is a small opening for creativity.

Please don’t confuse creativity with the process of taking an image. Just by holding your camera and pointing in certain direction doesn’t make us creative, as much as some photographers like to call themselves creatives all the time. Creativity happens rarely and usually becomes apparent long after the process of seeing and crafting the image is completed (on a personal note, I’m rarely able to craft an image which I could comfortably call creative).

To summarize, these two approaches are quite distinct. Can you identify your visual approach? What’s your favourite? Are you feeling safe and secure in your seeing? Have you ever tried to walk on the edges of seeing?


Today, I would like to share with you some imagery taken during my recent trip to Washington, DC, where I was shooting with Patrick Malone, a noble man and a dear friend. All imagery was taken with the X100F.

…and some in colour


Thank you to all who purchased my book “Seeing Simplified.” I am really overwhelmed with your positive response. I am also grateful for the reviews so many of you have sent me. Feel flattered!


2018 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “On the edge of seeing

  1. In the words of John Free “don’t take EVER the easy shot” Tough call Olaf it’s kinda of an infinite cicle. You need to be somehow popular to validate yourself and your work otherwise what’s the point? Somewhere along the path maybe one can say I don’t care I’ll do my thing and I’m welling to loose followers or friends or whatever.

  2. I’d really like to be able to enter this space more frequently; I find it helps breaking out of standard patterns and ways of seeing. Part of the problem may be from too much familiarity with your own home “grounds”…traveling to new places probably helps to see things in a fresh way and let you explore the edges of seeing without being biased by what is “familiar” and therefore, nothing new to see.

  3. When I am at a social event or company event, there is not too much room to be creative. If I understand this blog entry right, it is not about those events where one aims to get nice photos showing happy people.

    On special events, or special travels where I want to not only make nice photos, but good ones, I use two methods: Impulsive shootings, resulting in a lot of misses but some hits, and considerate photography. Taking time to explore and experience and think. The latter gets me useful photos with some consistency.

    The hard part is to show things other recognize, but in a new way. I didn’t expect how helpful the X100F is in order to force me me to not just use what comes to mind first.

    I find it tempting to get into a comfort zone. A good composition helps, which shows an important part of the scene and perhaps some surrounding in order to provide content for the viewer’s fantasy of being there, but not showing everything in order to leave room for the viewer’s imagination.

    Sometimes I use use what I know so far, because I want results. Sometimes I try something new. Every time I try something new, I find that there is still more to try later.

    1. Arne,

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the subject. You are right saying that “every time I try something new, I find that there is still more to try later” – I can relate to this great observation.

      Looking forward to our future discussions and interactions,

      Warm Regards,


  4. Perhaps one needs the balance of both.
    That is to enjoy both being in the familiar zone and also to explore the “Other”, the latter being more exciting and unfamiliar.
    Surely both are good and indeed reflect life as it mostly is.

    1. Jane,

      I like your “one needs the balance of both” idea! Strangely enough, almost all photographers I know usually go one or the other way. I don’t know why.

      Always appreciate your perspective.

      Warm Regards,


  5. Greetings everyone:

    Exciting article. Personally, when I reach that edge is when some emotional connection happens and causes me to look for stronger, different approaches. Walking on the edge without that connection usually leads me to nowhere.

    Again Olaf, thanks for your imagery. Your images are strong and have changed the way I imagined DC before.

    Best regards

Leave a Reply