I was a professional photographer long before I became a physician.
How long ago? Well, let’s just say I remember when cameras used film. I recall developing my own negatives in a darkroom. I know…ancient history.
But here’s the weird thing—photography has helped me to be a better doctor.
If you, too, are inclined to take “pics,” as they’re called these days, I think photography can also help you be a better doctor.
To help you along, keep in mind the following five key photography variables that I think also apply to medicine:
Photography taught me about looking at things relative to other things. In other words, seeing the big picture—the forest, not just the trees.
Consider any patient’s labs, for example. If the labs are completely normal except for one value that is out of range—and the patient is otherwise healthy—I might obsess over that one abnormal value. Or I could recheck it in a timely manner and reassure my patient that he or she is fine. This is called perspective. And perspective in medicine derives from experience.
Physicians often must assess the seriousness of a patient complaint. For example, are you dealing with an acute abdomen that needs a STAT CT scan and a call to surgery…or just a bad burrito the patient had for lunch? Once you have the right picture of what’s going on, you trip the shutter and make your diagnosis.
Sometimes the big picture is nice enough, but smaller details need to be brought out, too. Some shots require you to focus in to get the best image. Medicine is also like that. Physicians need to be detail oriented and to not let anything escape their eagle eyes. A concerning vital sign, a suspicious looking mole, a symptom a patient reports only casually in passing—these may be critical clues that lead you to the correct diagnosis.
Failing to sharpen your focus on your patient and on what he or she is saying could lead to you finding a man in a grey suit with a briefcase waiting for you in your office several months later. He will be a lawyer for the plaintiff, your patient.
3. Depth of Field
I was trained in family medicine, so I know I received the broadest possible training of all the specialties—but certainly not the deepest. I am not a sub-specialist. Gastroenterologists know much more about the inner workings of the bowel than I do. Psychiatrists know much more about treating bipolar disorder or psychosis. And so on.
If you are a family doctor, certain things may be in sharp focus for you while others are a little blurry around the edges. There will be times when you need to adjust your camera on behalf of your patient and consult someone with a greater depth of knowledge in a particular field.
4. Light and Darkness
Adjusting your camera to compensate for relative light and darkness is essential to taking good photos. As a physician, you must also adapt to light and darkness.
There are certainly light and happy times in medicine. Delivering your first healthy baby as a resident is definitely one such bright, happy moment. And there are sad times, too. Having to tell a family member that, despite your best efforts, a loved one has died is one of the darkest times.
Much of the time, however, medicine is an interplay of darkness and light, a constantly evolving landscape where various shades of grey predominate. You learn to adjust to the dark times by remembering, and hopefully anticipating, lighter and brighter times ahead.
How you see or “frame” your shot can mean the difference between a great photograph and a boring or mediocre one. How you frame things in your communication with patients can dramatically affect how compliant they are with your treatment plans.
Framing involves taking what’s there and interpreting it in a way that will benefit your patient, either physically or emotionally—and, often, both. The best doctors know how to frame it just right.
To conclude, keeping these five key variables in mind will help you to be a better photographer. And I’m confident they can help you to be a better doctor, too.
Note: The photographs shown in this piece are original photographs taken by the author. They are unedited, with no digital enhancement or manipulation (i.e., the original images).