I’ve recently taken up photography again, to exercise my creative muscles. When I was little I used to have this big analog Nikon camera which was almost the same weight as I was. I carried that camera everywhere and made pictures of everything. When I grew up the camera became my second pair of eyes and I used the camera to find a weird angle to capture a moment in time or an intangible atmosphere. But with the arrival of computers and the discovery of other creative outlets my trusted old camera was used less and less. Now it sits somewhere in a storage and the only thing it captures is dust.
The resemblance between making a good photograph and solving a problem
Sometimes you realise it’s time to move on. And instead of digging out my old analog camera I’m trying to get used to a digital camera, or sometimes use the camera of my smartphone to capture images. With all these new prefab settings and the possibility to shoot an unlimited number of pictures, making photographs has become something completely different and there is much to learn.
But the principle of making photographs stays the same. It’s a question of the right shutter speed, aperture and the right angle. Funny thing though, being immersed in photography again made me realise that there is a resemblance between making photographs and solving problems.
In photography you approach your subject from different angles
If you need to solve a problem it helps to approach the problem from another angle, a different perspective. In photography it is common practice to observe your subject – the thing you want to make a picture of – from different angles. You check from which angle you have the best light, which angle is the most photogenic or gives a dramatic effect. You crouch down to see if an ant’s perspective portrays your subject better or maybe you need to get your drone out to use a birds’ perspective. You consider all the possible angles, and choose the one which is the best to capture your subject.
How do you approach a problem from different angles?
If there is a problem to solve, anything from a design issue to a societal problem, you can actually apply the same method you would use in photography. Just like with photography you want to approach the subject from different angles. Only now you are not a photographer and your subject is a problem you need to solve.
In photography, looking at your subject from a different angle is a simple act. But how do you approach a problem from different angles? When you are making a photograph you can actually walk around your subject or scene to find a better angle, but problems are often abstract and intangible. How do you ‘walk around’ something you cannot touch or see?
Describe the problem as if it’s a landscape
The first thing to do when you want to look at it from different angles is to make a problem concrete and tangible. You want to write out every aspect of the problem, as if you are describing a scene or a landscape. Let’s say you want to describe the sky, you would say something about the colour of the sky, whether or not there are clouds, what shape they have, in which direction they are moving and if it looks like it’s going to rain.
Same with a problem. Describe every aspect that comes to mind. What is the problem you are trying to solve, and why do you see it as a probleem? What is it caused by and what or who does it affect? List all the elements that make up this problem and describe them in detail as well. If you have the skills it is even better to draw the problem or make a collage. Writing down or drawing in detail what the problem is helps to learn everything there is to know about the problem and it also helps you to organise your thoughts. The better and more detailed you can describe or visualise your problem, the better you are able to ‘walk around’ it and find another angle.
Different lenses to capture different views
Something else photographers use are a variety of lenses. With different lenses you can capture different views on your subject. You can capture the whole scene with a fish eye lens, switch to a telephoto lens to capture something far off, and switch to a macro lens to capture a tiny butterfly perched on a flower.
Still borrowing from photography, you can also use lenses as a metaphor when you are solving a problem. Normally we approach a problem from one perspective, which is our own. We often only use one ‘lens’ when looking at the world. How you see the world is influenced by your beliefs, your experiences, your knowledge and your dreams. All this shapes your lens, your view on the world. And you use that one lens to look at everything, from your family and your work to the problems you encounter.
How to use different lenses to look at a problem?
Although it is not that easy to switch ‘lenses’ when you are looking at a problem, there are ways to get a different perspective. The simplest solution is to enlist the help of other people to solve a problem. Everyone has his or her own lens, which will give you multiple views on a problem. Compare the different views and work from them to create solutions.
Another way to create multiple views is to imagine how someone else would solve this problem. Think of someone you admire, whether it is a real life person like Albert Einstein or a fictional super hero from a comic book like Tony Stark/Iron Man. Imagining how someone you admire would solve the problem helps you to ignore your own beliefs and opinions and think about it from another perspective.
Lessons to be learned from photography
Taking up photography again has given me a lot of new insights. Photography helps me to see the world differently, appreciate fleeting moments in time and notice tiny details. I have experienced how the tools we use influence the way we see and frame the world. The weight, manually adjusting the settings and the limited number of pictures my old camera could take, slowed everything down to a carefully poised moment in time. My new camera can shoot multiple images per second, enabling me to capture anything and everything without thinking, and making pictures now almost feels like an ongoing subconscious process.
But what stays the same is the method of looking at the world through a lens in search for a good angle. And while I am walking around my subject to get the best shot, I am beginning to think that learning to solve problems could be just as simple as learning to take a picture, you just have to find the right angle.