The Balance Between Healthy Learning and Analysis Paralysis (Podcast 587)

The Balance Between Healthy Learning and Analysis Paralysis (Podcast 587)

As creative artists and sometimes small business owners, it’s vitally important to continue to learn and grow on many levels, but I urge you to not get so caught up in technical details that you become paralyzed in the field through overthinking every decision.

I love learning new skills and continuing to hone my craft. You might have noticed that I have a relatively good understanding of photography. My friend David duChemin often drops me a line when he has something technical that he’d like describing because he knows that this is one of my stronger areas. My Craft & Vision e-books were born of a need to fill a specific technical hole in their line-up, and my Making the Print book was a direct request from David.

It helps that I have a strong technical background. I was the worst student when I was a kid back in England, but I learned the value of studying after moving to Japan in the early nineties, and I went to college here in Japan from 1995 to learn various computer skills. After getting good grades and passing a few exams I finally realized that I’m not totally stupid, and I went on to study for a number of exams that took me into some great jobs in IT and I continued to build a foundation of both business and technical skills that would help me to wear the many hats that are required to run my company. 

I’d love to hire a few more people to help me cover some of the business processes that I have to cover, but to be totally honest, as a 1.5 person company, just me and my wife who helps out part-time, we still aren’t really in a position to expand just yet. Because of this, I change hats literally by the minute sometimes, as I market tours, deal with customer questions, print and post out my fine art prints, manage our accounts and maintain our server and web site etc. to name just a few of the things I get up to on a daily basis.

Hat #33 – Apple App Developer

There are areas when it would make so much more sense to just hire someone, but realistically it just isn’t possible, so I find myself continually being presented opportunities to learn new skills. For example, for the last week, I’ve spent almost every waking hour working through an intensive online course learning how to develop apps for iOS. I have an app that someone kindly created for me many years ago, but it’s now shamefully outdated, and if I don’t update it soon, it will not run on iOS 11 that isn’t very far away now.

I asked around for a few quotes to get the app updated by a third party, but none of them were realistic from a financial perspective. So, I decided to block out some time and learn how to do this myself. At this point, although it’s going to be hard, I already have a good idea how I’m going to tackle not so much updating my current app, but recreating it from scratch, so that I can not only keep it in the App Store, but also add native support for running on the iPad as well as iPhones.

Learn What You Love

I’m getting side-tracked a little here, but I’m telling you this to illustrate a point, which is that the first rule of learning something new should be to pick your battles and invest time in learning what you love to do, which in most cases with our relationship in mind, is going to be photography related. I love making things, which is one of the reasons I fell in love with photography during my teens, and why it has remained a passion for more than thirty years.

Especially as photography has evolved over the last twenty years with the event of digital I found it fascinating to be able to merge my love for computers with my love of photography. I can say in all honesty that if we had continued with film I would probably not be talking with you today, and I definitely wouldn’t have built a photography related business. It’s not that I don’t like film, I just found the connection between photography and the computer so natural and enjoyable.

It was this connection that made photography so much more fun that I was able to give it my absolute all. How cool is it that we can now trip the shutter and see the image a moment later if we want to look? Being able to change the ISO between every image is another thing that I found totally awesome. Some will argue that we can benefit from the restrictions that film brings us, and I agree, as a learning process, but we can learn in similar ways by setting ourselves assignments, like going out with just one old memory card that only fits 36 images on, or taping a zoom lens to a set focal length to learn about framing. 

Question Every Decision

Personally, though, I don’t do this kind of exercise either. You might recall my episode on The Mental Checklist, in which I described how I learned so much about photography simply by being deliberate in my processes and questioning every step of my shooting workflow until it became a mental checklist that I worked through as I shot a scene or subject. After working in this deliberate fashion for many years, a lot of the things I used to have to mentally remind myself to do became second nature, but the questioning process remains.

I tend to question all of my decisions, just to keep myself in check, and although I know that I’m not getting every single opportunity available to me, I am making work that I’m mostly happy with, and feel that I come away from most situations relatively happy that I’ve capitalized on my opportunities.

Gems on the Shore

Gems on the Shore

The point here is more about being deliberate. If taping a lens at 50mm will help to force yourself to think about composition, get to it. If simply asking yourself if the current perspective which comes from your focal length and distance to the subject is the optimal perspective for what you are trying to say in your photograph, that may well be enough. I feel that staying conscious of this kind of decision is more important than forcing oneself with physical restrictions, but we are all different and need to find our own best way to evolve and grow.

Trust Your Instincts

One thing that I am very conscious of when deciding how to grow though, as I mentioned earlier, is that I always create goals that lead towards results that I will enjoy. To be honest, the last week has been hard, and I probably have another week of going through my course before I will be able to really start to work on my app, but I have always enjoyed creating things, be it physical objects like a fine art print or canvas gallery wrap, or redesigning my web site. 

I find great satisfaction at sitting back and looking through my final selection of images from a trip, or an update photography portfolio. I know that I’m going to be over the moon when I’m able to update my own iOS app, and it never hurts to have an extra skill. Even if I’m able to grow my company to the point where I hire a dedicated app developer, having the knowledge and ability to talk to them on a deep level makes working with people so much easier.

It has to feel right though for me to take a plunge like this and dedicate such a large chunk of time to learning something as complicated as a new computer programing language. I trust my instincts a lot when making these decisions. I have to be excited about the prospect of adding this new skill.

Deciding Your Photography Genres

In my photography, this is similar to how I decide the sort of photography that I will invest my time in. Living in Tokyo, a city of thirteen million, I have endless opportunities around me to do street photography, but it doesn’t excite me. I love looking at street photography, but I don’t enjoy doing it enough to prioritize my own time to go out and shoot street.

I get infinitely more pleasure out of photographing nature and landscapes, and my travel photography is also very special to me. I think it’s partly because it’s so removed from my everyday environment, but when I look at work in the genres that I have chosen it feels more natural and more me. This is probably a strong indication that I’ve found the genres in which I excel and in turn, I prioritize my time to concentrate more on these genres that I want to continue to grow in.

Studying to Stay Engaged

When I first started to learn photography, before we had access to the Internet as we do now, I read books on the basics.  I learned about apertures, shutter speeds, and the exposure triangle etc. I learned compositional theory and everything I needed to know to get out with the camera and start to experiment.

Most of the studying I did was great to help me build a strong foundation, but the main reason that I would study back then, was to keep myself engaged in a hobby that I had become so passionate about, that I wanted to be doing something photography related for as much time as possible. I’m recalling when I first got to Japan now, back in 1991, when I would get home from work and study Japanese for a few hours, but then with some free time to kill, I’d pick up a book on photography.

I’m sure you’ve felt the same. You become so fixated on something that you love, that you start to look up as much information on that subject as possible, just to quench your thirst for whatever it is that you’ve fallen in love with. This is a wonderful driving force that we can use to absorb lots of information that really help to drive us forwards.

Studying is Not The Goal

Herein though lies one possible problem that I’d like to talk about a little more. As I come into contact with photographers in the field and in teaching environments, I’m running into more and more people are obviously totally overwhelmed with information and the desire to consume every bit of photography knowledge available to them.

This drive and momentum can be a huge enabler when it comes to learning more about our craft, but it’s leading to two very serious problems, which are the main reasons I decided to share my thoughts on this with you today. 

Firstly, I’m seeing people that are spending so much time online studying every aspect of photography, that they are cutting down on the time that they could actually be out with the camera. The act of studying photography for some people becomes the goal. If you find yourself more excited by the act of studying photography than actually doing it, you might want to consider your motivations. 

I know that I’m seen as a bit of an authority, thanks to the detail that I put into my posts and podcasts, which is also helped by my engineering and technical background. But, you might be surprised to hear that I’ve not studied much of what I talk about in order to learn what I know about photography.

I’ve learned pretty much everything I know through getting out and doing it, then most of the time guessing what I need to do to overcome issues. For very complicated topics, I will research specific areas online, but generally do just enough to set myself back on the right track, and figure the rest out for myself.

Doing and Achieving

I think perhaps one of the problems might be that we are surrounded by information, and with the Internet, we have access to people that know their stuff. Maybe for someone that feel there is still a long way to go on their learning path, there is a certain amount of pressure to try and suck up as much information as possible.

I guess what I’m saying is that it comes down to confidence. It’s natural to study harder if you don’t feel confident in your ability to go out and make beautiful images. But, that assumes that the problem is a lack of knowledge of photography, but I’d propose that this can also come simply from not providing yourself with enough opportunities to make beautiful photographs. 

Maybe it’s because you aren’t visiting locations that really strike a chord with your own creative desires, or possibly you are not able to translate what you know you want to create in your mind’s eye to your actions as you photograph your chosen subject, and that leaves you feeling inadequate, and that drives you to study and study. 

Only by actually creating work that at least gets close to what we’d like to create gives us a feeling that we have achieved a certain amount of mastery. We don’t feel as though we’ve mastered something by reading a book or doing an online course. We only feel that confidence after putting what we learned into practice, and have images that we feel happy with, or at least start to edge closer to that state.

Continuous Learning

Of course, even once you feel that you have a good technical grasp of photography, and you are happy with your composition and creative decisions, there is always room for improvement. Even people that have mastered every aspect they require to do their work continue to learn. I’d propose that this learning is not about the effects of aperture and focus distance on depth-of-field, or trying to wrap their head around the circle of confusion, but more about the struggle with how they can continue to create even more beautiful photographs.

One thing that I want to make totally clear is that I’m not saying that there is no need to study photography. It’s absolutely necessary to build a solid foundation, and then continue to bolster your knowledge with continuous top-ups. What I am saying,  is that we have to achieve a balance between the time we spend learning about photography and the time we spend doing photography and putting what we learned to practice, building success experiences or identifying the areas that we need to spend more time thinking about.

Analysis Paralysis

In addition to the first problem of studying become the goal rather than getting out with the camera, the other problem that I’m seeing as more and more information becomes available to us, is that some people develop a serious case of analysis paralysis. 

People sometimes get so wrapped up in thinking through formulas and trying to implement techniques that they’ve learned, that they stop asking themselves the important questions that would otherwise lead them to figure out the problem for themselves. What’s often worse, is that they are no longer able to simply enjoy the moment and what I consider to be a meditative experience when making photographs.

Martin in Landmannalaugar

Martin in Landmannalaugar

On my workshops I’ve been called over for advice, and before long find myself having to just ask the participant to stop thinking about all of the stuff that they’ve learned and take a step back, and just think about the problem at hand. The knowledge that you’ve learned academically only starts to become your own when you apply it to achieve a specific goal or overcome a specific problem that you personally are encountering.

This academic knowledge is useful and necessary, but people get so wrapped up in other peoples’ reasons for applying it that it stifles them, effectively causing a type of analysis paralysis in the field. This stops you from being open the scene and removes you from the moment, which is a shame because we can only capture what we fully appreciate. We need to be there to have any kind of chance of really capturing the essence of the moment in our photographs.

Knowing Your Gear

Let’s consider a few other points that will hopefully help to maximize our opportunities in the field. One thing that will remove you from the moment is fumbling with your gear. Learn your gear, and buy into a camera system that doesn’t fight you. I’ve seen people on my tours that spend time trying to figure out how to do some very basic things, like turn on Auto-ISO or enable continuous focusing.

Of course, I help with this when I’m there, but you aren’t always going to be on a workshop with someone that can help. You need to know how to change at least the commonly used settings, and quite often this requires you to just set time aside and sit down and read the manual. As well as I know my Canon cameras, whenever I buy a new camera, I sit down for an evening with the manual and make sure I understand all of the new features and what’s changed over the previous generation of that camera.

And at the very least, make sure you put the PDF of your camera’s manual on your phone or iPad or even drop the paper manual into your camera bag before going on a trip so that you can figure out how to do something while you are out and about. Ideally, you don’t want to be looking stuff up in the heat of the moment, but having your manual with you can prevent some very vexing situations, especially on multi-day trips.

Ultimately, as we’ve already discussed, the only way to really understand your camera is to use it a lot. If you only shoot for two weeks a year when you travel, you’ll lose all of the muscle memory and it all feels very rusty. We have to keep the gears oiled by shooting regularly, even if it’s just by slinging your camera over your shoulder when you go out for a walk. It’s not always about creating killer shots. For me, just the act of raising the camera to my eye, composing the photo and releasing the shutter is a relaxing, therapeutic action, and this helps us to keep our shooting muscle memory in shape.

Identifying and Solving Problems

As we gain a grasp of the basics, it’s vitally important to get out into the field and start to find real problems that need solving. We only really understand how to apply what we’ve learned by overcoming problems that we face in real life. 

You might for example photograph a mountain stream or a waterfall and find that you don’t feel the results are as aesthetically pleasing as you’d hoped, and you need to identify what it is that you want to change, and what you have to do to make that change. Identifying and then solving problems, again and again, is what makes use better photographers.

The more problems we solve, the better we get at solving problems. One way to bring your waterfall shot closer to what you were hoping to create might be to use a neutral density filter to allow the water to move during your exposure, creating that beautiful silky effect that I’m sure you’re familiar with.

Choushi Ohtaki Waterfall

Choushi Ohtaki Waterfall

The next question is going to be which ND filter to use to get the results you want. Quite often between a half and, one second is a great shutter speed for shooting waterfalls, and depending on the amount of ambient light, might require a three-stop ND8 filter. You might also learn through experience that photographing waterfalls in direct sunlight doesn’t really work. It’s best to shoot them on heavily overcast days or when the sun isn’t shining directly on them.

Of course, if you don’t even own any neutral density filters yet, this would be your prompt to buy some. Personally, I don’t like or use gradual neutral density filters, and the large square filter systems are too bulky, difficult to use in inclement weather, and I just feel that they are unnecessary. I’m now buying my circular solid neutral density filters from Breakthrough Photography. Their X4 ND filter series is amazing!

Develop a Visual Database

One of the best ways to understand that we can do better is to look at the work of others. Buy books of photographs from masters in your chosen genres. There are way too many to name them all, but I have books from people such as Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna, Nick Brandt, Michael Freeman, Paul Kicklen, Tony Sweet and the amazing Sebastiao Salgado. We don’t have to mimic these photographers or compare ourselves to them, but I think building a mental database of visual possibilities is vital to help us to question our own work and see where we might be able to do better.

The more visual possibilities you memorize, the more likely you are to identify and hopefully avoid a potential problem with an image as we create it. Even after we get home and start to go through our images though, it’s really important to ask why some images didn’t turn out as well as we’d hoped, and commit the answers to these questions to memory to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Always Room for Improvement

We all have to go through this, and the cool thing is that it never really stops. It doesn’t matter how accomplished we become, there is always room for improvement. Although I am often happy with some of the photographs I come home with, I go through very natural phases when I think my work sucks. Thankfully once my emotional rollercoaster ride is over, I’m generally happy with my final selection, although I always know that as I grow, I will be able to do better.

I think this is important to drive us forwards. We have to continue to look for areas in which we can improve, and if my process of questioning myself in the field doesn’t help me to improve as I shoot, I store the insights that I gain from my image editing process in my mental database and try to implement these ideas as I continue to shoot. It would be great to be able to simply think through the next twenty years and just be amazing right now, but I believe this has to be an iterative process. We have to grow in stages, to ensure that we have a firm foundation on which to grow.

 Conclusion

To wrap this up, I’d just like to ensure that you understand a few of the points I’m trying to make here. The most important thing is that I am not saying that we shouldn’t study. If you are using your spare time to suck up information, and simply find that enjoyable, that’s great! Indeed, if you have a strong desire to do an online course to learn something new, and the weekend is the only time you have, by all means, do it, even if it means skipping your weekend shoot. It will hopefully help you to overcomes problems that you are facing. 

What I strongly urge you to do though, is consider your motives. If you are trying to build your confidence as a photographer, please don’t give studying the theory preference over getting out with your camera and making photographs. Ultimately that is the only way you’ll get better at making photographs and solidifying the theory that you’ve learned.

I really urge you to also just check that the act of studying itself has not become the goal. There is no point in studying every aspect of photography if you prioritize this so high that you never pick up your camera and go outside to use it, or if it stifles you in the field. We can become infinitely better photographers by being deliberate in our actions and decisions as we make our photographs.

I’d even propose that we can be so much more by poring over books of photographs from artists that we respect and nurture our visual database of possibilities while honing our problem-solving skills to overcome issues that prevent us from creating the sort of work that we long to create. 

Lean On Me

One last thought is that if you have any specific areas of photography that you simply cannot grasp or would just like to know more about, feel free to mention this in the comments below or drop me a line via our contact form. Of course, I don’t know everything, but I have a good handle on lots of stuff, and I can always queue up a topic to talk about as time allows, so don’t be shy. Also, just take a moment to hit the search button at the top of the screen, and see if I haven’t already covered what you are interested in.


Show Notes

The Mental Checklist episode: https://mbp.ac/498

Get Breakthrough Photography Filters here: https://mbp.ac/x4NDs

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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Are You Still in Beta? (Podcast 429)

Are You Still in Beta? (Podcast 429)

Lately I’ve been thinking about where we are on our photographic journeys, and wondering if we ever really come out of beta. They say it takes 10,000 hours to really master something, but does that mean that you have to hide in a closet until you’ve done your time? Hell no! Let’s get our work out there, and learn from that experience too.

This episode is brought to you by Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website, portfolio or online store. For a free trial and 10% off, go to squarespace.com and use offer code MBP.

I was looking back at some of my old work recently, and chuckled as cringed at that work, and thought to myself that I was still in beta back then. Even if you don’t work in a software related environment, I’m sure at some point, you’ve come across the word beta as a term to describe software that is not yet finished, or polished enough to become the full release version. Beta software has most if not all of the final features developed, but we expect there to be some bugs still in there. Basically, it works fine most of the time, but not all of the time.

I feel as though with my early photography, it worked most of the time, but there was much less predictability. The result was that I would produce some work that blew my socks off, and other work that would fall flat. That got me thinking about which was the real me? The competent photographer producing reasonable quality work, or the one that could go out for an entire day and come back pretty much empty handed?

I recall conversations in our old sadly missed forums, where we discussed how being professional was more a statement of our productivity and quality standards, rather than simply differentiating between a photographer that it paid for their work, or not. When I ditched my old day job almost four years ago now, I foolishly said that I was now a professional photographer, and was quickly both chastised and praised by my friend Landon Michaelson, as he replied, “No Martin, you’ve always been a professional. It’s just that now you do it full time.”

Looking back at this exchange, I feel that even though I was well into my career as a photographer, and I had indeed been getting paid for my photography for more than 7 years at that time, in some ways, I was still in beta.

We had also discussed how we can kind of gauge our skill and ability as a photographer by our ability to produce consistent results in our work. I managed to break away from my desk a few days ago, and went for a walk in our local park with my wife. It was literally more a walk than a photography session, especially as we’re still in the rainy season here in Japan, and apart from the promise of some past-their-best hydrangea, I knew that there wouldn’t be much to photograph, although I did know that the lotus plants would be flowering, and there are a few planters with lotus in near where we’d probably stop for a sit down for a few minutes before making our way towards the exit of the park.

Because I knew what to expect, and because this was more a walk than a photo session, I took with me my 5D Mark III and a 70-200mm lens, and my 100mm macro lens, and nothing more. I shot a few images of the trees, moving my camera upwards as I made the exposure, creating some intentional camera movement shots, really just exercising my photographic muscles, shutter therapy as they say. But when we got to our rest point, after a few minutes sit down, we went over to the lotus planters and found a couple of flowers that were starting to open, and I shot this image (below). Nothing to write home about, I know.

Lotus Flower Interior - Original

Lotus Flower Interior – Original

But as I shot this, I already knew that I was just gathering materials for a final photo, and that final photo would be black and white, as we see here (below). Bear with me here, I’m just using this as an example to make a point.

Lotus Flower Interior

Lotus Flower Interior – final

The original image is nothing special, but the black and white image feels much more polished, and dare I say it, artistic. This got me thinking further about my analogy of being in beta, and indeed, what my current version number as a photographer with going on thirty years of experience might be?

You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in-depth in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell basically says that to excel in any field, you have to practice in that field for 10,000 hours. The more I think about this, the more I think that we might even consider ourselves to be in beta until we’ve got that first 10,000 hours under our belts.

Does that mean that we will produce crap photographs until we’ve practiced for 10,000 hours? Absolutely not! But I do believe that our successes are more sporadic, and less predictable. Happy accidents if you will. We return home with a bunch of photographs, some of which we really like, and feel that they work, but put in a similar situation again, can’t necessarily reproduce the same quality of results. We’re like beta software. We basically work, but still not as reliably as full version software.

Developing Your Visual Toolbox

To help us get out of beta, I think it’s vitally important to develop our visual toolbox. The Visual Toolbox is in part our database of image possibilities, in the form of images that we’ve stored based on our own work and looking at the work of others.

From our own work, we learn from our mistakes, during that 10,000 hours of shooting. We get home all excited about our shoot, but then look at the images on the computer, and instantly feel deflated as we look at our results. I hear from a lot of people that are in this state. The images we’ve captured don’t match our recollection of the scene or subject that we photographed. When we do this, it’s important to try to envisage what we would like to have created, and add that vision to our database of images to draw from in the field as we continue to shoot.

The other part of the Visual Toolbox is literally the tools that we use to take our images to their optimal state. Remember that your camera was developed by engineers who’s only interest is capturing an image as close to what the scene looked like as possible, but within the technical and financial restrictions placed upon the product. If you shoot raw, you will also be saving an image to your memory card that will although look nice, is actually not considered a finished image.

It’s up to you to tweak that image, and the point of that tweaking is to create your final piece of art, and art, by definition is not necessarily an exact replica of what you saw in the field. We start to change that the moment we select a focal length to make our image. The aperture dictates how much of the scene or subject will be in focus, and how much will not. The shutter speed can either freeze the subject or background or capture longer slices of time allowing the recording of movement. We might use light modifiers or a multitude of other tools to change what we include in our image in the field. The same goes for what you do to the image in your computer later.

With the lotus flower example, I knew as I made the photograph that I would convert it to black and white. I also knew that I would make the distracting background totally black, isolating the flower in the frame. This comes from years of practicing my art and craft, and from an understanding of the tools that I have at my disposal.

I use Silver Efex Pro to convert to black and white, and I know that by darkening some colors and lighting others I can create that much contrast between the two. I also know that I can use Control Points to selectively darken areas of the frame. I know that I can use Lightroom to reduce the grain that I was introducing by shooting the image at ISO 3200 because it was a heavily overcast day and the breeze was blowing the flower around so I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze it.

Looking at this another way, if I was not aware of the tools at my disposal, I might have left my ISO too low, and gone home with a blurry image that disappointed me. I might have taken one look at the background, either in the field or on the computer, and decided the photo was crap, not worth keeping, and instantly deleted it from my computer.

Your 10,000 Hours

Before we move on, let’s put this 10,000 hour theory into a realistic time scale. If you shoot or do something to improve your craft for 5 hours on a weekend, it’s going to take you 2,000 weekends to put in your 10,000 hours. That’s the equivalent of 38.5 years. Of course, there are incredibly talented people that become amazing photographers in just a few short years, but you know what, I’m pretty sure they don’t get there only practicing their craft 5 hours a week. Most people that get really good at something live and breathe it. It’s all they think about!

When you really live and breath something, you might even be able to put something like fifty hours a week into it, but then it’s still going to take four years to reach 10,000 hours. When you think about it, many trades that carry an apprenticeship term last about four years, so this is starting to make sense, right?

Seth Godin talks about the necessity to “ship”. That we have to at some point actually push our ideas and creations out of the door into the world. It’s important to note that I’m not saying that we should wait until we’ve completed our 10,000 hours and really mastered photography before we ship. Don’t let fear of ridicule or negative feedback hold you back.

Start to show your work to others, create a Blurb book, try to sell prints, do an exhibition or start looking for paid work as a photographer. Set yourself a goal, and start to do whatever it is you decide to do with your photography. These are our acts of shipping, and you don’t have to fully master your craft before you make a start. Indeed, any and all of the above will help you on your journey, adding to the future photographer that you’ll become.

The important thing, is deciding what you want to do with your photography, and setting a goal, a date, and actually doing it. You will never be perfect, and you will never be fully satisfied with every photograph you make, so cut the cord, and let it out into the world.

A Moving Target

You could of course argue that the instant feedback that we now get from digital photography can really help us to become better photographers much more quickly than we could in the film days, and I agree with that, but another thing to keep in mind is that everyone now has that instant feedback. So just as how you feel about your photograph is relative to your current location along your own personal path, people that are putting in the time and advancing their craft are also arguably now producing much higher quality images than before as well, so again, it’s all relative. We’re chasing a moving target, and that, I think, is a good thing. It’s what helps to keep us on our toes.

What we want or expect from our photography will vary from person to person too. I think even within each of us, our feelings about our photography can vary daily. One day I can throw up a body of work in a slideshow, kick up my feet and feel really happy with myself for making such beautiful work. But then the next day, I can look at the same images, and think that most of them suck. It’s all relative.

I’m at a point in my photography where I know that I can produce decent work with my experience and visual toolbox, but you know what? I felt that way 10 years ago too. I felt as though I was consistently producing quality work, but now looking back, I realize that even though I was creating some nice work, I was producing a lot of crap still too.

I recall how confident I felt in my work four years ago as I handed in my notice and gave up a perfectly good job to pursue my photography full time, but I look back at that work, and although I still like a lot of it, there are images in my old portfolios that I kind of cringe when I look at it now.

I imagine—in fact—I know, that this trend will continue. I think if we ever become fully happy with our work, we would stop trying to push the boundaries, and improve our craft. We should remain open and never stop learning. Keep up with new technology and the possibilities available to you in working with our images to create masterpieces from your raw images, and continue to develop our visual toolbox.

I also think it’s important to look at the art of others as a means of extending the possibility database in our toolbox, and by art, I don’t just mean photographic art. I love visiting museums and art exhibitions of all kinds. I can be inspired as much by a piece of sculpture than I can a by a photograph. In fact, I’d say that it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a visual art. A good book will fire our imaginations and cause us to conjure up all sorts of images and ideas that may influence our photography. After all, it’s no coincidence that the word imagination describes the act of creating an image.

Do We Ever Really Leave Beta?

OK, so let’s think about where we are on the photographer development road map. What’s after beta? Well, knowing that what we chase is a moving target, and knowing that in another few years I will be looking back at my current work and cringing just the same, I’m not sure that we ever really leave beta. I think we “ship” in the Seth Godin sense, but this doesn’t mean we’re bug free, and I think that’s OK.

Look at the way software and even hardware is being designed and shipped these days. More and more software companies are shipping what used to be considered as unfinished or flawed software, knowing that their customers will find the remaining bugs pretty quickly, and let them know. This used to be a total no-no, and for sure, it reduces the customers’ perception of quality overall, but it’s probably still cheaper than hiring hordes more testers and finding many more of the bugs before shipping the software.

The same is happening with hardware. Look at how many recalls we’re seeing now in our cameras for example. Whether you agree with this practice or not, hardware manufacturers are spending less money fully testing their products, knowing that the general public will let them know what they didn’t get right pretty quickly after the product hits the streets. I hate it when I have to send a camera back to Canon to fix an issue that they introduced in the first place, but I’m still using Canon products, right?

So, let’s ship, put ourselves out their, be as good as we can at this point in time, but let’s also not pretend that we have arrived. We are all still on our journey, and I like that. You might remember the wording that I have on the back of the USB memory sticks that I give to my workshop participants. I’ve actually changed this for the next batch, which will read “Let’s not rush to ‘arrive’. It’s all about the Journey” and I think that state of mind is so important.

MBP USB Memory Sticks

MBP USB Memory Sticks

The Importance of the Trusted Critic

One last thing that I wanted to touch on, is the importance of the trusted critic. As part of a new role that I’ve undertaken as a Master in The Arcanum, over the last week I completed a critique of eleven of my apprentices work. One thing that I always find in critiquing others’ work, is that it really helps me to think about photography and art on a deeper level, but it’s really difficult to actually get someone to put the time and effort into the critiques that they give us without doing something like joining The Arcanum, or paying a professional for a critique session.

When you post something online, you will either get a string of “love it”, “great capture” remarks, or you may just hear crickets. Unfortunately, if all you hear are the crickets, that doesn’t mean your work is crap. It most likely means that you aren’t engaged in the community that your posting to enough to have people take the time to comment. Many online communities are just exercises in back-scratching, as in, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. There are very few communities out there that will give truly constructive critiques of your work.

You are much more likely to get constructive criticism of your work from a member of your family or a friend that has an eye for art. They don’t have to be a photographer. In fact, I’d say that sometimes it helps if they’re not. Photographers can sometimes get too hung up on the technical, and fail to see the beauty of an image because of some technical flaw that a non-photographer would not care about. Photographers also tend to overlook issues that they know are difficult to work around, such as halos in an over-processed photograph, but you can bet that a non-photographer will point that out to you in an instant, as just not looking right.

You can of course also go to portfolios reviews, and have professionals give you an impartial critique of your work, and I think this is one of the most valuable aspects of The Arcanum to the apprentices that each master is taking the time to really do a quality critique.

This isn’t an advertisement for The Arcanum though. The point here is that it’s vitally important to find someone whose views and advice you trust, rather than listening too much to the often faceless or nameless comments of online communities. These can be crippling despite you not having the slightest idea of how qualified the person is to be writing those comments, and pats on the back feel good but aren’t really going to help you to improve your craft.

Power in Persistence

Finally, I want to add that at the end of the day, it’s your art, and people don’t necessary even need to get it. If it makes you happy, and even if your most trusted critique thinks it stinks, if you don’t agree with them, I don’t think you need to change a thing. There is power in persistence.  If you do something often and long enough, you’ll build a body of work that cannot be ignored, especially if it’s coming from your heart.

And as you work on your craft, you’ll gain invaluable experience, build your visual toolbox, and gain that 10,000 hours that you need to really become a master in your chosen field. I don’t know if I’m still in beta or not. Some days I feel as though I’m Martin version 30, and other days I feel like I’m barely out of alpha let alone beta. Maybe it’s better to adapt the year as version that some companies use, and right now I’m Martin 2014, and I should be happy with that, but looking forward to Martin 2015, 2016, and so on.


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Craft & Vision 2 – Another Great Free eBook!

Craft & Vision 2 – Another Great Free eBook!

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