Thursday, December 01, 2011

Steps Can Be Misleading

I regularly see posts, articles, and other sorts of advice provided in a multi-step format. It seems to me that breaking things down into steps somehow infers near-guaranteed results will result from following the steps listed. Steps might contain five steps to accomplish this or ten steps to get you to that. Five-step advice and ten-step advice seems the most popular number of steps to break things into, step-wise. Three-step advice probably comes in third... naturally.

Generally, and regardless of the number of steps provided, the stepped advice I most regularly see all cover the same subjects over and over: Better exposure, better lighting, better composition. The steps all, we're told, equal better photographs. But the question remains: Better than what? Better than photos that suck? Better than photos that look amateurish or were shot by a 5 year old? I should hope so. From those perspectives, steps help... possibly a lot!

There's nothing inherently wrong with breaking things down into steps. They often accomplish (to varying degrees) the results they claim. But breaking advice down into steps, in my opinion, isn't generally conducive to realizing distinctive photography. Same holds true for most other art forms. While "sorta" nice paintings (sorta not, actually) can result from paint-by-number kits, paint-by-number kits don't produce outstanding paintings. Same holds true for photography. Shooting by the numbers doesn't produce an abundance of distinctive work. If anything, it produces an abundance of work that mostly looks the same. I'm certainly often guilty of doing that. But I do it on purpose. I get paid to produce an abundance of work that mostly looks the same. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Most of you have probably seen many of these steps regularly offered up. Interestingly, I keep seeing the same steps listed by a multitude of different step providers. Sometimes, the various step-providers alter the order of their versions of the steps. They do that, of course, when the steps don't need to be connected in a chronological or particularly orderly fashion. I suppose that's why many purveyors of steps prefer stand-alone steps: Mixing up the order of the steps helps make the step-providers look like their steps are original or unique. Leastwise, I assume that's why step-providers often change the order of the steps they list.

Personally, while I appreciate receiving advice, good advice, I take some issue with calling them "steps." I know it sounds like I'm complaining about semantics here, and I guess I am, but semantics are important to me. Semantics are all about meaning. Words like "steps" infers a guarantee: If you follow these steps, success is guaranteed. That's what steps sorta mean.

While most of the stepped advice I see includes relevant and factual information, there aren't any guaranteed steps to great photos. Much like joining a 12-Step program doesn't guarantee someone will become or remain sober, following various photographic steps doesn't guarantee you'll become a good photographer or produce great photos. Generally, the steps offered are steps in the right direction but they're not guaranteed steps to success as they seem to infer. Good photography is a result of much more than following simple, recipe-like, steps.

Take things like lighting and composition . The steps someone might provide, while probably being good steps, aren't guaranteed steps to great composition and lighting. The best they might be are guaranteed steps to varying levels of competent lighting and composition. Nothing wrong with competent. But transcending merely competent photography is, I assume, something most photographers aspire to.

Sure, I can give advice, make suggestions, offer tips, and try to point people in the right directions. But advice, tips, and suggestions aren't bullet-proof. They include plenty of gray area not covered in any of the steps I, or anyone else, might offer. Advice, tips, and suggestions are soft and flexible. They're subjective. They're neither hard nor fast and they're certainly not guaranteed to always work. leastwise not in exceptional ways. While advice, tips, and suggestions might be worthwhile, they don't, by their labels, infer guarantees. Following steps, on the other hand, seems to claim following the steps are guaranteed ways to get to wherever the steps lead. Unfortunately, they don't. Not always.

Those who rigidly follow exact steps or photographic recipes are likely to capture plenty of competent, although mediocre and pedestrian, photos. Yes, following steps and recipes can be great ways to begin learning. And, they'll occasionally produce awesome photos. They also might produce technically perfect photos. But technically perfect photos, while being technically perfect, can easily be boring as hell. Following steps and recipes are good ways to begin one's photography education, but to continue unwaveringly sticking to them, once a certain level of competency is achieved, doesn't lead photographers further up the stairway to photo heaven.

Photographers often love bandying about notions like shooting, "outside the box." I sometimes do so myself. Unfortunately, there are no steps to shooting really cool, "outside the box" photographs. If there were, I suppose those photos wouldn't enjoy having an "outside the box" status.

I think the multi-step advice spread around by photographers to photographers should be labeled in ways that better reflect what they actually are: Ideas, suggestions, tips, and advice. That way, it doesn't sound like they include guarantees. Again, I know I'm arguing semantics, and possibly trivialities as well, but meaning (for that's what semantics are all about) is important to me. Meaning, in my opinion, is not trivial.

Okay. I'm off my "semantics" soap box. The pretty girl at the top is Cytherea. I went a tad "artsy" with this one which meant my client (not the model) hated it. (Click to enlarge.)


Anonymous said...

Okay, here is my view on the item broken down in a couple of points:
1. Divide and conquor is a techique often applied to quickly get an overview of something. It's also used for other practices, but that's got nothing to do with pretty girls. Or maybe everything.
2. Psychology tells use that our short term memory can hold 7 plus or minus 2 items. So the best procedures have less than 9 items.
3. When learning something new, you need structure. Without structure it is hard to connect pieces of information that seem to have no relationship at first.
4. The funny part about thinking outside the box is that everybody has his/her own box, and nobody can explain to me where his/her box begins or ends.
5. Okay, I'm pulling your leg here with these points ;)

The point I'm actually trying to make is that photography-wise you are on a different part of the learning curve than most bloggers are writing for. At the start of the learning curve, a good procedure broken down in steps can seriously improve someones work. But there comes a time when you hit some kind of ceiling. And with that ceiling comes frustration. That is the point where no broken-down procedure helps. That is the moment where you have to dig deeper. And the further you come on the learning curve, the more this seems to happen. So, photography-wise I can understand where your rant comes from.

BTW Talking about semantics, you shouldn't turn things around. Steps, either in a procedure, or actual steps IRL are supposed to bring you somehwere... as long as you have a goal. When reading a blog, the writer wants to lead you somewhere and maybe learn you something (and recycling information is easiest to generate new content). But without any focus all your steps bring you as far as a headless chicken. And that poor creature can't learn much anymore.

BTW 2: I've got a one step advice to seriously improve your website: replace that friggin' comic sans font in your header. A caligraphic font may seem corny as well, but at least it's better than comic sans. Yes, I've got an opinion about that font. Suffice to say that I don't think *that font* matches the content of your blogs nor the stylish pictures of pretty girls shown here.

jimmyd said...

@h3: You're right. Especially where you said, "But there comes a time when you hit some kind of ceiling. And with that ceiling comes frustration. That is the point where no broken-down procedure helps. That is the moment where you have to dig deeper."

My rant stemmed from Twitter where I so often see many links to multi-step advice which seem to constantly be providing the same advice over and over. It's almost always "5-Steps to Better Composition" or "10-Steps to Better Exposure" over and over and over. I keep thinking, can't these people think of anything else to write about? Other than some new piece of gear or a Canon or Nikon rumor? I seriously rack my brain for ideas to write about without being redundant. A certain amount of redundancy is unavoidable but some of these people are incredibly redundant! It gets harder all the time to come up with post subjects, especially after 5+ years and almost 800 updates. The comic-like logo is actually going to be used for something else that will makes more sense being comic-like. I just thought I'd throw it up there for a while for shits and giggles. I see my blog every day and get tired of the layout.

Paps said...

"It's almost always "5-Steps to Better Composition" or "10-Steps to Better Exposure" over and over and over."

You underestimate the power of marketing. If everybody is screaming for the same readers or marketshare, you need to be different... but not too much. Too much difference drives readers away. Hence the recycling. But recycled crap is still smelly in any way you try to sell it.