Photographers should experiment with entropy

The amount of time spent shooting among the streets is crucial, along with the number of shots taken. We can spend time working on the scene or exploring other places continuously moving around: several strategies could help us in making the best use of our time when going out for shooting. Building on top of this, photography is also something very personal and related to our identity, and our identity can shift and can bend depending on the context. For example, I’m not the same person when I shot in my hometown or when I shot where I usually live.

I hope you will understand what I mean, by looking at the photographs here below.

So, along with the identity shift and how we co-evolve with cameras (that will be a topic for another post), there are many other factors contributing to a good shot that I’m planning to explore. Especially here, I would like to focus on the nature of the disorder in the context of street photography.

Please consider that these posts have an exploratory nature, so I’m playing here with concepts and things at the meta-level to learn how to be a better photographer not only taking photos but also thinking about how to take photos.

From a complexity science perspective, we can say that a good shot (qualitative speaking) is an emergent property of time, space, and the number of shots taken given the amount of disorder in the scene. In other words, it is a product of the synergies between many elements that cannot be observed locally as isolated sub-systems.

For example, a good subject alone is not enough for a nice photo, you may also need the right timing for your shot. But is it the right timing enough? Probably you may also need the right light as long as you need the right camera configurations being sure your shutter speed is properly set while your subject is entering into the frame, depending on the effect you want to achieve.

If there is a direct relationship between the number of shots taken and a good photo while the surrounding conditions are optimal, there is no direct relationship between the coincidences and the casualties you can capture through your lens and the time spent exploring the streets. What I mean is this: sometimes you go out and you take tons of photos that are useless, even if you spend hours in the same location or wandering around. Some other times you go out and you take a bunch of good shots in a shorter amount of time. Why is this? Because of entropy. Entropy is the degree of disorder in a system. That’s why the nature of the disorder (in a scene, a city, a neighborhood, or an object) is important in the context of the kind of photographs you want to take.

An expresso and a cup of milk before they get mixed together have a lower entropy state. So we can say that a latte macchiato has a higher entropy state rather than an expresso or a cup of milk alone.

Now consider this concept from a photography perspective.

Low entropy and high entropy state boxes.

So I asked myself what is the amount of disorder we are looking for in a scene? As with anything driven by common sense, the answer is: it depends. Playing around with the amount of disorder and the entropy in a scene is I think a good conceptual framework and may lead to interesting results.

Probably in the 3rd photo I was looking for a very small degree of entropy because I wanted to take a shot of that building, late at night, trying to communicate a sense of desolation and emptiness along the street. In the 4th photo instead, I was looking for people moving because I wanted to capture some silhouettes in front of the shop. And what if I tried to experiment with a different approach considering a higher level of entropy in the 3rd photo and a lower degree of disorder in the 4th one? Probably the 3rd one could have looked more interesting with a silhouette walking in front of the Louvre Museum while the 4th one was more boring because it was just a flat shop front.

Well, these kinds of reflections are what I mean by thinking about photography at the meta-level.

But let’s expand this concept a little bit more: when the entropy goes up also the connections between the elements of a system increase. In a low entropy system, molecules are slower and there is less movement while in a high entropy system molecules are faster, and there is more movement and dynamicity. In photography terms, this means more interesting things to capture if you’re interested in action or interesting street photography connections and coincidences.

For example, when I shoot black and white, I crave high entropy places: people, noise, absurd stuff, strange faces, dogs barking, a shattered window, a milkshake splattered on the concrete near the stoplights, and so on. That’s why I like crowded noisy and big cities like Paris, Tokyo, Naples: because I can capture interesting things. But if the amount of disorder in a place is too low, I will probably go back home with only a few interesting shots, no matter how much time I spent out there, because simply in a low-entropy state place nothing happens most of the time. The amount of entropy that a place can produce and its own degree of disorder generates interesting things to capture my eye.

On the opposite, when I shoot at night, I look for places with a low degree of disorder because I want to focus on the mood emerging from low lights and quietness along the streets rather than on the people interacting with the environment. So empty streets or places where there is not so much movement (for example with people seating and calmly talking) are good subjects for me in that context.

Now forgive me, but I have to go back for a second to the beginning of time, when our universe started. We know that in its own early stages our universe was in a very very low entropy state: a singularity in which all the molecules were extremely hot and dense and extremely organized. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy in a system will always increase over time, and as the degree of the disorder increases, complexity and interesting things will emerge as interactions between the elements in a system. We also know that our universe will keep expanding and since its entropy will continue to increase over time, inevitably the sun will burn out and the distance between molecules will be stretched so much that the strong nuclear force that holds atoms together will vanish and consequently the atoms will fall apart. At the end of time, there will be (again) a low degree of disorder in the state of the universe. So for now, we can consider ourselves lucky because we live exactly in the sweet spot where life can emerge: entropy broke the initial barrier to making this happen and didn’t cross (yet) the final barrier to making all of this disappear.

This is true for our universe, but it is also true for cities and scenes (of course with minor implications and less unsettling conclusions). When the city sleeps the amount of disorder and the complexity goes down, while during the day the disorder goes up until people go back to bed again.


Our sweet spot as a photographer in all this messiness depends on the kind of photography we want to achieve.

For example, a sweet spot can be during the early morning (green area) when the sun is still rising and the streets are still empty. This is a low degree of disorder that I choose when going out to shoot in my hometown, a very crowded and noisy place in the most lively hours (the yellow area). The reason why I don’t think the yellow area is my sweet spot in that context is that when I go out and take pictures is that during the most lively hours of the day people are more aggressive and suspicious if they see someone with a camera. On the contrary, I do not choose to shoot during the early morning when I am in Milan for reasons of personal safety but I prefer going out during the most lively hours for some black and white shots. So everything depends on the kind of photography you want to achieve and again, the context, like the place you are in and how the amount of disorder in your location can create a “sweet spot for making interesting things happening for your eye”. Some people like shooting during the blue hour and some others are night owls. All of this it’s up to them but since photographers experiments with cameras, films, lights, locations, and subjects, why shouldn’t we also experiment with the degree of disorder of a system?

Last but not least I found this conceptual framework useful to study other photographers. Still playing with it but here you are a quick example:

For me, Percoco’s style of photography is reflecting a lower degree of disorder: calm scenes, full lights, morning shots, and calmer places compared to Shibuya where Suzuki takes his shots. And even if both Percoco and Suzuki interact a lot with their subject Suzuki is more aggressive (increasing the degree of disorder with the system he interacts with). After all, not by chance his superb works are also condensed in a book called “Friction” which reminds me of a high entropy system in which the particles collide and bump each other causing energy exchanges through, of course, friction.



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MattCarella photo

MattCarella photo

Taking pictures is a form of meaning creation.