Left Brain versus Right Brain In Photography

Many people associate a left-brained person as technical and analytical and a right-brained person as creative and artistic, which would tend to lead to the thought that photographers are more right brained. I was of this thinking, putting many parts of photography onto the creative side of the ledger.


Most people go through life with a tendency to be one or the other as it helps make us who we are. There may be some instances where combining the two help with certain situations and if someone is totally left or right brained some activities might be a bit more difficult.

With doing some reading it seems we need to have characteristics of both and maybe leaning more to the left-brained side to fully take advantage of this art we call photography. Isn’t there some aspect of photography that is one or the other, primarily on the right brain side?

Two different Kinds Of Photographers

The general rule of thumb is there are two different kinds of shooters, left brained which includes aspects such as extreme precision and following rules for things such as composition (rule of thirds, leading lines, etc.) and right brained with shooting from instinct, suspending thought and just taking photos when things look right.

bird bathing
bird bathing

Taking Pictures Of Wildlife

For doing wildlife, at first thought it would seem to lean towards being a right brained activity. While there is a bit of the left side of the brain used when it comes to using the rule of thirds, most of the images taken are based on when things look right at the peak of action or behavior. The more wildlife photography done over time, the more instinct comes into play as to knowing what behavior or action occurs just before something else takes place.

elk with attitude

We get a feel for what is right and let go when wildlife is around. We want to get all the shots we can if there is not a lot of time to try and set things up to get the perfect shot. Isn’t it more dependent on what the animal is doing rather than the photographer making sure the lines are good?

Who needs to get technical when a bird is taking a bath right in front of you? You see the action and you point and start shooting. How about when a wading bird is in the water hunting for a meal and we just track with it until it strikes and we fire away?

But, with trying to capture the peak of action, the left side of the brain does come into play regarding precise timing in order to get the best shot. On second thought, there are some other rules we try to keep in mind when doing wildlife photography. We try to think about the background so there isn’t a lot of confusion that takes away from the main subject.

We also look at the lighting conditions in order to determine what settings are best for a shot as to what shutter speed is needed, what’s the best f/stop, and what kind of exposure compensation is needed based on the color of the subject, particularly a white bird.

Most experienced wildlife photographers have a magic shutter speed they want to have as the slowest to try and capture fast action, so this is a part of the technical we use but do automatically.

Which Shutter Speed?

For me, that magic shutter speed is around 1/2000th of a second but sometimes I will allow for it to be 1/1000th.

We also tend to put emphasis on composition rules more than we think we do. If a bird is flying from left to right, we want to make sure it’s placed more on the left side of the frame to give it room to fly into the frame and not with its head close to flying out of the shot.

We can go into autopilot when we’ve been doing wildlife photography for quite a while and the technical side is natural, but we can’t disregard the fact that there is a bit of left brain in use for this subject,

Hmm, I guess wildlife photography does need a combination of both left and right brain to be successful and get the best shots.

bird flying

Waterfalls And Moving Water

 Surely, this has to be a right-brained subject. We go to an area where there are a lot of waterfalls and we let our creative side come out and get a great composition to show the beauty or the power of the waterfall and just go with the flow. We want to portray some great fall colors around a stream or something nice that’s laid out in front of us and we compose to bring out its beauty.

Maybe there’s some water rolling in over the rocks on a beach and we try to figure out an interesting shot. While looking around for just the perfect angle and setting isn’t this all about creativity?

Maybe not. The first thing to think about is whether a fast or slow shutter speed is going to be used to either smooth out the water or freeze the movement to show the power of the running water or the spray being thrown out from where it culminates.

Composition is pretty much ruled by the left side of the brain here. The rule of thirds is very important in capturing a quality image with the placement of the falls / creek / beach in relation to its surroundings. Line can also be used to lead the viewer from one area to the next within the frame and this is fully a left-brain activity. And if there’s a rainbow emerging from the light and the falls, knowing what settings to use to enhance then colors is completely on the technical side.

water flowing over rocks

Filters add a whole new dimension to moving water. Using a variable neutral density to allow for a very long shutter speed to create some very smooth water movement or even an abstract for water drifting up between the rocks has to be from the creative side. Or so we think.

The technical side comes into play with determining the precise amount of time to have the shutter open to create the proper effect. Sure, a hit or miss can be done with taking a bunch of shots at different shutter speeds and then picking the right one but this doesn’t help with knowing what to do for a given setting and advancing the technical know-how.

Knowing what scenes this filter will work with is also a part of the left-brain process.

WildFlower And Fall Color Photography

How about with wildflower or fall color photography? These are where the artistic side has to be able to come out and shine to get these beautiful artistic images. We see something we like and set up and take the picture to bring out the essence of the scene.

There is a strong creative side to this, but again the technical side plays a key role. Understanding depth of field and how to implement hyperfocal distance is truly technical. Most of the composition is fully left brained for making sure the foreground and background work together, using line to lead the viewer up and around and making sure the right colors work well together.


Where the right side is helpful is in trying to create a sense of mood in a photo. While some technicality is used, this is more about emotions and trying to evoke from the viewer a desired feeling when they look at the final image. Composition and exposure play a role, but a much smaller one than with letting emotions being used to take the shot.

Using Both Sides Of The Brain

Looking at abstracts, there are several ways to incorporate this into either or both sides of the brain. In terms of what to do, the artistic side will be used – a focus stack, a pan, a zoom or whatever other effect is preferred. Implementing it, though, is somewhat technical. How many stacks for a good result?

How long of a shutter speed for a good panning blur? Do I stop the pan before the shutter closes to have a partial freeze of something in the shot? Again, some of each side comes into play even when doing a fully artistic shot.


In trying to learn about one aspect over the other, it’s much easier to do so of the technical side rather than the creative side. Too often people have a harder time trying to learn artistic if they don’t already have an eye to bring out the best in a scene while the technical side of photography is where the learning can never stop as there is so much out there to incorporate.

A photographer can lean to one or the other, but without taking advantage of both sides, a lot will be missed, so it looks like the answer is that photographers have to be both left and right brained in order to capture the beauty of our wonderful surroundings.

Author:  Andy Long

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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