Parsimony: You Will Most Likely Miss The Mouse

The Brass Band © Knut Skjærven

The Brass Band © Knut Skjærven


Parsimony is the name of the game. I am not trying to be smart  here. I really mean it.

You should take account of that when you take your fine street pictures.

I picked up this strange terms a couple of months ago, and in the beginning I did not understand what it was all about.

Parsimony comes together with another term that is more common: orderliness, which we will call simply order. Order is not concerned with what you shoot, but the way you arrange what you shoot.

Parsimony is used within science where it means that if a set of hypothesis’ are competing the more simple should be accepted. It is called The Principle Of Parsimony.

The principle also works in art and, as I see it, could be a great gain also in photography and street photography. In street photography it is suggested to mean that of competing readings of a photograph the simpler will win.

I phrase myself with some delicacy here since the term parsimony is not normally used in photography. Hardly ever in street photography.

Look at it this way: Human perception is very different from camera perception. Under the right conditions and with the rights settings you camera sees everything. Every detail is rendered.

Not so with human perception where much of the reading in a natural attitude relies on knowledge and past experience. What you actually perceive in any situation is just enough to make things work.  You economise.

If I am on the highway driving to a familiar place I do not perceive every single detail along the way as a camera would. I just pick up enough information to get me there safely.

So also with the reading of photographs. You just pick up enough information “to get you there safely”. Even if the photographer’s intention was that you should see all that is included in his/her fine picture, your probably only pick up the most distinct pieces. Readings can go terribly wrong.

Parsimony in street photography tells you that a) you need to know something about how human perception works, and b) you have to take that into account when you take your street photographs.  It might be easy to control things if you are in a studio situation or if you are a painter, but it is pretty hard to do in a street situation where both you and you objects could be moving.

If your photograph is of an elephant and a mouse (not a likely street scene, though) that photograph will not work if you let the elephant take up most of the frame and hide half of the mouse under a mess of leaves in a low corner (order).  The camera will see both, but most likely you will only see the elephant. Parsimony will suggest that it is an photograph of an elephant since that hypothesis is more simple than one including a half hidden mouse.

If you want this different you need to change  the order of things. That can be done with size, placement, lights, direction, etcetera. Another matter and another time.

It all comes back to simplicity does’t it? Parsimony is the name of the game in human perception and thus in perception of photographs. If two or more interpretations are possible your reader will most like go for the simpler one. Human perception economises. As a street photographer you need to know this.

Good luck with your future handling of parsimony. And with the order of things.

Terms to memorise:  parsimony, orderliness, order, human perception, camera perception.

August 19, 2013.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved.

This post has been inspired by Rudolf Arnheim.

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  1. #1 by flyfishertc on August 19, 2013 - 10:16 pm

    Ockham’s Razor no less.

    • #2 by Knut Skjaerven on August 20, 2013 - 12:08 am

      I agree. Same thing. Thanks for seeing this :-).

  2. #3 by bob of course on October 8, 2013 - 5:37 am

    I thought Parsimony was what pastors had to pay their wives when they got a divorce?

    I’m kinda gettign what you’re saying- simplifying hte scene via angle, light, colors etc as best you can to give the viewer a sense of ‘Hey, that’s cool’ when glancign at the photo- Am I close?

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