Occam’s Razor Applied to Photography


Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.

The principal quoted above was coined by William of Ockham, a 14th century English Franciscan Friar and philosopher.  The principal is commonly known as Occam’s Razor (don’t ask me why it’s spelled differently, I’m just a photographer).  In the science world – and even in the detective world – Occams’ Razor serves as a basis for problem solving – often the simplest explanation is the most likely explanation.  It can be applied when hypothesyzing about an unknown outcome (scientific research); and it can be applied when trying to explain an unknown scenario (crime investigations).  For that matter, it is often used when designing a procedure or a process by eliminating as many steps as possible so as to eliminate failure potential.  Today, we are going to apply Occam’s Razor to photography – both forensically and procedurally.

Occam’s Razor and the Photo Forensics

No, we’re not trying to solve a murder mystery.  Yet the goal of photo forensics is to solve a mystery:  How was a specific shot taken?  To clearly analyze a photograph, you need a little bit of wisdom and some luck.  Truth is, there are several ways in which to achieve an affect – so you have to make some assumptions.  Occam’s Razor helps to some degree.  The principal is not a scientific law – it’s just an exercise in probability.  There is always a chance that someone didn’t perform a task in the simplest of manners.  But chances are – if they were aware of the easiest method, they probably used it – unless they’re masochistic, but we won’t go there.

Lighting is possibly the simplest example, so we’ll use my recent self-portrait as our subject.  Let’s start with a simple question:  How many light sources are there?  Well, there is clearly a light source to the left.  There doesn’t appear to be much evidence of multi-directional lighting.  There is possibly a reflector or a very dim light source to the right for fill, but that might not necessarily be the case.  The simplest scenario is a single light source to the left and a little forward (towards the camera).  Having shot the photo, I can definitively say that this take did use a reflector.  But what I actually did isn’t important as what is possible.  It is possible to achieve the same lighting quality without a reflector in tighter quarters (and I did in this same session – but I blinked).  So if you were to apply Occam’s Razor, there is only one light source as it is the simplest explanation.  Now that is perhaps an over-simplification, and I suppose some would argue that the use of the reflector is simpler…so let’s try a different example.

What is the light source?  We can deduct a lot from the shot without having a clue about the light source.  Directionality is clue enough to tell us it’s not an on-camera flash.  We see hard light, so we know it’s a directional light source and that it’s not diffused.  That eliminates most traditional incandescent light sources as well as umbrellas.  The light is pretty intense (a strong contrast between the shadows and the bright spots), so it’s got to be a fairly powerful light source.  That leaves light sources such as consumer floods (home depot), bare always-on studio floods and bare strobes, among others.  Any of these are equally as simple and when Occam’s Razor is applied hold equal weight.  But again, the process isn’t as important as what is possible.  Since each is equally simple, it doesn’t matter which you assume.  You at least have enough information to reproduce the setup.

The important take-away here is that your goal is to eliminate the most complicated methods.  The actual method might have been the most complicated method possible, simply because the photographer wanted to have fun.  But that doesn’t have to be the only possible method.  What you are striving for is simplicity.  And that leads well into the next discussion.

Occam’s Razor and the Photographic Process

Photoshop has come along and given us a massive tool set to work with in post processing.  It has replaced many of our physical tools like filters – and that’s just scratching the surface.  But is this necessarily the simplest method to achieving an effect?  In some cases, if you’re experienced, it might be.  But in many cases, it might not be, which is why you hear many experienced photographers (myself included) preaching the concept of getting it right “in the camera” – not in post processing.  Exposure, for example, can easily be corrected in post processing.  But if you are able to get it right in the camera, it’s still the simplest and fastest means to achieve a perfect exposure.

In this case, Occam’s Razor is simply a philosophy.  You’re striving to simplify because it inevitably saves you time, patience and frustration.  If you’re a professional, time and efficiency is incredibly important as it impacts your bottom line.  So when considering how to set up a shot, you should consider your options and opt for the simplest – and in turn most efficient – method.

As an example, I share one of my favorite photos from my portfolio:  Happiness in Motion. In theory, I could have achieved (most of) the same effect in Photoshop, though it would be incredibly time consuming to get it right.  Despite that fact, many people consider Photoshop the easiest method.  So when considering this shot, I knew that panning was the way to go.  It’s difficult to do, and it requires some practice and perfect timing.  But with enough practice, it’s fairly simple to do.  I think it’s the practice part that deters people – it’s frustrating and time consuming.  Truth be told, I wasn’t very well versed in this technique at the time.  As I waited in line for my niece to board, I practiced the technique dozens of times on the ride in progress.  In all, I took nearly 100 shots just to get this shot (should I be admitting that?).  But even so, my post-processing was reduced significantly.  All I had to do was reject the ones that didn’t achieve my goal, select from the balance, and run a couple of minor procedures on the winning photo.  In the end, I was able to save myself a great deal of time – at least a few hours (though probably more).  Occam’s Razor serves well as a philosophy to benefit the photo process.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned, Occam’s Razor isn’t a law.  It is simply a principal that can be applied many ways.  My examples here today are simplified so as to help you understand the benefits of the principal.  But if you were to apply Occam’s Razor to more complicated scenarios, you’ll find that it helps you to reach your goals effectively.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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