Sunday, 14 March 2010

Ma O Shimeru... eliminate the space between... or how Photography and Karate are exactly the same.

Tim, leading kihon
On a Saturday morning I teach, along with two other instructors; Pal and Julianne, Shotokai Karate to children aged about 6 and up. Recently we had a grading and everyone was practising extremely well and I am pleased to say all did very well. Tim, a 5th dan came to the club to grade the children. He was impressed. And I wanted to say thanks to Tim for giving his time and experience to us.
Tim and Pal
When we practice karate and particularly when we practice Shotokai Karate; we are practising a traditional martial art. It is at all times real. And we strive to make it real for all who practice. Each punch is a real punch, each move a move to defend or attack. But before any of that is though, we first teach about the space and distance. 
 Thomas and Katy
Distance and movement are fundamental aspects of karate. There are three basic distances: the first; where no attack on either side is possible; simplistically because both people are too far apart. The second is when both people are at the right distance to launch an attack. And thirdly when one takes advantage of this correct distance and attacks; eliminating the space between; ma o shimeru.


This got me thinking about my photography and how I take a photograph. I think about it, I set it up and then I take it. three actions, three distances. Or, I just take it.
Reflection at Brooklands

We have all heard about the 'decisive moment' in photography. In karate it is the moment that the attack takes place; it is at that very moment that you become one with your attacker and the duel is over. You have won or you have lost, but it is over. If you delay for even the blink of an eye; it is over and you will have lost. If you delay clicking that shutter then you will have missed the photograph. This moment is fleeting and is so brief that so many will miss it. You don't think it, you feel it.
The Dance
And this is how I take my photographs; just like I practice and teach karate. First we have to learn technique. We drill for hours and hours, we read books, study manuals, go on courses and practice. We get it wrong (digital helps out here) we try again and again. The dojo, the place where we practice karate, is just like digital; there we can be figuratively killed over and over to perfect and learn without coming to real harm, (though I have picked up a few injuries along the way!) digital can show us where we are going and how better to get there.

In karate to take advantage of the 'distances' we have to gain harmony and rapport with ourselves and our opponent. In taking a photograph it is exactly the same; if you do not have an affinity with your subject then forget it, the picture will not work. Gaining this harmony and rapport will naturally eliminate the space between me and the subject; the photograph; to read the moment as one; to be a part of it but not be apart from it.

To achieve this you have to throw technique out the window. In martial arts terms the successful measure of a conflict is whether you are still alive at the end of it. The successful photographer is the one that takes the decisive photograph with whatever technique or camera is at hand, in whatever situation. It is the picture that counts; not the technique. Don't think about it; just do it.

The Shotokai College has been teaching karate for many many years under the guidance and excellent teaching of Colin Reeve, their website is here , Winkfield Shotokai Karate, led by Pal Kalsi, where I teach, is affiliated to The Shotokai College and their website is here.


  1. Fascinating read Noel and very interesting how you compare the decisive moments in both Karate & Photography.

    Chase Jarvis' Mantra is one of 'The best camera is the one you have with you' and I'm guessing that this too relates to what you mean when you say 'It's the picture that counts; not the technique'.

    My chain of thought is that this is very relevant to 'reportage' or 'on the fly' photography as opposed to commissioned work when the final image is very much dictated by the camera and lighting techniques employed; and also when the client knows what it is they want and we as photographers have to design the lighting to replicate it.

    I'm totally with you where you mention about having an affinity with your subject cos as you say, without it the picture just will not work.

    A great read mate and some really great photographs.

    All the best to you,

  2. Thanks for the comment Glyn, I think what it boils down to is no matter what the set up it should be second nature.
    I'll let you know when I get to that stage (if ever)

    I wonder what other photographers think...

  3. I'm with you on this one Noel, all technique can get thrown outta the window if you are not in the right place at the right time... I've seen some shots in the local papers that, in my mind, could have been shot better, but, because the 'tog' was in the right place at the right time the shot gets in the press. You have to 'break the rules' and get into the space to get 'that shot' but also you have to avoid getting in the way all together as this can spoil the mood.

    Jon W ;^)

  4. You're absolutely right Jon, right place right time. I should have added that there is a threshold of quality or technique rthat tyou have to be able to shoot above, but once you do that then technique is secondary And thank you for the comment, its always great to get them!

    Noel :-)


  5. I love this post! As a retired cop and new found photographer I REALLY appreciated the comparison between the fight with your attacker and the decisive moment. It's SO right on. What a great read!
    Agreed that as a cop we train and train again so our response becomes muscle memory, just as in photography we train and train in technique so that when we she the shot the rest is muscle memory...

  6. Kelley, thanks again for the kind words.

    I couldn't agree with you more. I find that when I just practice karate without thinking or worrying about it, the muscle memory just kicks in (pardon the pun) but as soon as you analyse it, thn forget it some part of the brain takes over that just wants to be in control and it all falls to pieces!

    In my photography this is where I want to be at; effortless shooting, not worrying about a shot, just doing it. Just enjoying it.

    take care