Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How Much Does Technical Skill Matter?

British mathematician, Sir Erik Christopher Zeeman, once said, "Technical skill is mastery of complexity while creativity is mastery of simplicity." Sir Erik is someone I quoted in my e-book, Zen and the Art of Portrait Photography, using his words to drive home some lessons I've learned and shared, hopefully in helpful ways.

While Sir Erik wasn't talking about photography when he spoke those words, his observation is very applicable. When the digital revolution first began conquering the world of modern photography, photographers were faced with ever-increasing needs to master technical skills of greater complexity. Do you recall the first time you shot with a dSLR?
Did terms like color temperature, pixel, and histogram send you scurrying to the web to figure them out and what they might mean to your photography? How about the first time you opened up Photoshop and began using it? I'll bet it was more daunting than taking a roll of film to a lab for processing.

Lately, it seems we're returning to more simple ways of capturing images which generate viewer interest. Instagram is a good example. Simply pick up an appropriate mobile phone device, one with the Instagram app installed, snap the image, apply the treatment of your choice to the picture and voilá!
Instant creativity! Or so it would seem.

If you're like me and you make your living, all of it or some part of it, with cameras in your hands, you already know that doing so is going to take more than a mobile phone with Instagram installed. Leastwise, in terms of gear and equipment as well as creativity and technical skill. That knowledge takes us back to Sir Erik's observation about technical skill requiring mastery of complexity and creativity being a product of simplicity.

Technical skills matter. They matter a lot. In spite of camera and other hardware manufacturers, as well as post-production software developers, all trying their best to make the technical side of photography as no-brainer as possible, the vast majority of those no-brainer applications are more limiting than freeing. They're often designed to mimic creativity rather than enhancing it. The person most responsible for making the technical complexities of photography no-brainer is you, the photographer. How do you do that? Through practice and repetition.

I used to play golf. When I first started playing golf, one of the first things I' realized was the importance of the golf swing. A golf swing is technical. It's not some free-form swing you can get especially creative with. Sure, there are variations to the golf swing but not too many of them. How does one master a golf swing? By doing it over and over and over: practice and repetition. Same holds true for photography. How do you master the technical elements of photography? By applying those technical elements and performing them over and over and over, just like you do with a golf swing. It's only then, after much practice, that things as diverse as golf swings and snapping pictures becomes something close to no-brainer. They become automatic.

It's not enough to learn by reading and observing the technical elements of photography just like it's not enough to read about and observe a technically proficient golf swing. You have to do it. You have to do it often. And once it becomes automatic and akin to being no-brainer, you can better focus on mastering simplicity and increasing your ability to realize your creative powers.

The pretty girl at the top sporting a 70's style Afro wig is Marie. I snapped it about 5 years ago. Five years! Sheesh! I wish I could master time, leastwise master it enough to slow it down.


Bill Giles said...

The technical skill that matters is knowing how to use your equipment. Knowing how to use it comes from using it. That's probably more true now than it has been in the past. I have been using an Olympus PEN E-P3 recently and it is about as alien to me as any camera I have used. Only when I'm using it do I find that I don't know how to do something, like setting the white balance. It isn't intuitive.

jimmyd said...

Bill: When I get some new gear, unless it's something I'm very knowledgeable about using (like a new monolight, for instance) it's a learning experience and it's a while before I become skilled with it. I've recently purchased some old film cameras: an early 60s SLR, an early 60s Diana-like 120 toy camera, and a late 60s rangefinder. They're all going to have a learning curve for me and it will be a while, assuming I shoot enough with them and practice my skills with them, before using them becomes automatic and nearly no=brainer

Bill Giles said...

I agree, It takes a while to get familiar with new equipment. The thing that has me most excited about the E-P3 is that it is Infrared sensitive. With a Hoya R-72 filter, I get infrared images that convert to black and white really well. I need to learn a few details about the camera before I go out shooting, like how to preset focus so the camera doesn't hunt while I'm trying to shoot. IR exposure times are looong.

Rick said...

My fist camera had one sheet of paper showing me how to load the film and move the slider between the three settings. My D300s came with an instruction manual with 403 pages.

Mastering all 403 pages isn't going to make me a better photographer. It just means I know how to use the camera.

Knowing how to use my equipment is like being in grade school. I get a firm grasp on the basics but then I have go onto higher school to learn the rules and esoterics of what makes a good photograph, then onto college to learn how to screw with the two to become a good photographer.