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Stop Collecting Tips and Start Practicing Photography

Young photographers are often better at digital photography than older photographers. This article will explain why this might be, and how you can improve your skills faster. You may be surprised to hear that IQ (Intelligence Quotient) apparently peaks at age fourteen.

Now, IQ is a deeply flawed measure of intelligence, and fourteen year olds certainly shouldn’t take over the world; but the young brain has incredible processing power.

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As we age, we lose this raw speed and (hopefully) replace it with shortcuts, experience and ‘wisdom’. This allows us to make better choices and retain the illusion of intelligence, but it also limits our creativity. Incensed? Read on…

Knowledge versus understanding

A quick mathematics question; what’s 8 squared? Ask a child and they’ll have to work it out. You probably know it’s 64 without thinking. This is knowledge; remembered facts.

Remember Pythagoras’ Theorem? Maybe you even know the same explanation, ‘the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides’. This is knowledge; a tool. Ask a mathematician and they’ll be able to prove it and explain why it’s true. This is understanding.

art-photography_1712Ask a layperson about the white balance setting on your camera. They’ll probably have no clue what you mean. Ask an average photographer and they’ll be able to tell you it controls the colour cast. Ask a physicist and they’ll understand far more deeply what’s going on and why.

Knowledge is very useful. It’s quick to learn by rote. How else can a young child pick up concepts that took the greatest geniuses years to develop? Most education equips us to slot into a role in a business. Understanding isn’t normally necessary. It’s enough to know that e=mc2 – only a few people need to understand the implications of this equation. Some of them for work; and others to satisfy a yearning to understand.

Precisely because our society values superficial understanding, it doesn’t occur to us to make knowledge our own, to transform it into understanding. We think that by knowing the name of something that we understand it. A brown-throated thrush. Satori. Light.

Make the leap from words to visuals

Words are useful; they allow us to communicate. But they’re really quite limited, and the language you speak tends to limit what you can think. Philosophers are acutely aware of this. So are mystics, and as artists, we’re always seeking to move beyond the cage that words present. Try defining love – or even the smell of fresh roses.

To communicate understandings, ideas and feelings, we have to package them up into sentences (parcels of knowledge) and share them with others, who then unpack them in the light of their own unique experience to create their personal understandings. I normally teach one-to-one, but when I teach bigger classes there’s a tendency for students to just collect the parcels and never unwrap them.

We are particularly prone to this, because Holistic Photography is both a craft and an art. We can certainly learn the first bit; apertures, shutter speeds, the inverse square law; but we often falter with the latter. The Golden Mean? That’s just another technique.

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Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, from a different point of view

What ends up happening is that our head becomes so filled up with knowledge that it blinds us to the world around us. We’ll visit the famous cathedral that we read about in the guidebooks and have such a strong preconception about what it must be like that we fail to notice how it looks at the specific time that we’re there. When I’m teaching photography courses in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia is a major attraction; but there are a myriad ways of photographing it that are overlooked. If we’re photographing people, we may get so stuck in our heads thinking about lighting ratios or the half-remembered tips of a ‘how to pose your model‘ article that we’re not available to make the human connection which leads to the poses that look best. We get stuck in our heads and cease feeling or seeing.

Stand in front of Rothko’s multiforms in a gallery if you get the chance. You can’t quite explain why, but they move you, if you let them. Van Gogh isn’t treasured (now) because of his technique, but because of the way he expressed his internal world, which happened to match our own at moments. Because while we’re all different, we’re also all the same.

There is a visual language. You can learn it in art school. Complementary colour schemes for emphasis, how different shapes can give different meanings, and where to put things in your frame and why. But to understand how to create, you’ll have to feel in your own body what works for you, and let your own mind tell you what’s right or wrong.

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Theory versus action

Young photographers look for knowledge online. They have access to more information than they can ever read. Most are open to learning, so they progress rapidly. Like the zen master said, your cup can’t be full if you want to put more in it.

But they also have the benefit of few responsibilities, short attention spans and huge amounts of time. They underestimate the importance of learning from others. So they read a bit, get bored, and just play with the camera. Digital is free to experiment with, so they make thousands of mistakes and try things we never would. Then, when they reach a barrier, Google instantly provides the answer. It’s no wonder that they learn far faster.

imageCompare the contrary method. To get a big stack of books and methodically work your way through them, supplemented by overpriced photography magazines. Let’s not forget the millions of photography articles online as well. It’s addictive. Our brain rewards us for learning. We feel like we’re improving. But content is a trap, and too much information atrophies or paralyzes us.

Information with application is different. If we can immediately use what we’re learning, we’ll assimilate it faster and retain more. I studied French for almost a decade and can hardly hold a conversation, but speaking Spanish with my Peruvian girlfriend makes it much easier to learn.

There needs to be a balance. I see some photographers who learned a few techniques back when film was still popular, and have just stuck with them. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, they reason. But no, you need to be constantly evolving, learning form others and letting your photography keep pace with your own evolution.

But chances are if you’re reading this, you’re taking in too much information without applying it. Get a little bit of relevant theory and then practice, practice, practice until you understand it well enough to integrate it with your vision. Then seek out another bit of knowledge to turn into understanding.

The takeaway from this is that we’re really not as capable as we might imagine. Nor do we understand how to best work with our psychology to make the most of our energies. We try to learn the ‘right’ settings by looking at the aperture, shutter speed and ISO used in photos we admire. But our brain hasn’t evolved to memorize numbers.

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It can however tell you if a drinks can is full or not just by picking it up. Far better it is then to develop the muscle memory associated with changing the settings on your camera. Work on specific areas until they’re second-nature and you’ll find your photography will improve far faster.

Go forth and practice!

So that’s enough theory for now. Here’s a test; set an alarm to ring in a couple of hours then carry on with whatever you were doing. Try and remember what this article was about. If you can’t remember what you read, then there was no point in spending your time to read it. There’s a wealth of knowledge available that can push your photography to the highest levels; but only you can unpack it into understandings. Make it applicable. Make it stick. Use it. Make it your own.

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Ben Evans

Ben Evans is a best-selling photography author of Photography: The Few Things You Need To Know *click here to get your copy now* and English photographer based between London and Barcelona. He specialises in fine art portraits, fashion and commercial photography. He teaches photography courses in Barcelona and Holistic Photography workshops in London and worldwide. He shoots Hasselblad, Nikon, Apple ;-P and those little waterproof film cameras with the plastic lenses.