Photographer Edward Weston, a pioneering artist and one of the most celebrated photographers in history, proclaimed, “If I have any ‘message’ worth giving to a beginner it is that there are no short cuts in photography.” Similar messages can be found in the words of many other artists of every discipline. While such admonitions do not come as a surprise to experienced artists, most photographers are at a disadvantage, as the photographic industry is rapidly becoming an industry of shortcuts, as evidenced from the plethora of products advertised to improve your photography with just a purchasing decision, helping you ‘shoot like a pro,’ or ‘be like Ansel Adams,’ and countless other resources claiming to purvey easy tips, tricks and services aimed at ‘saving’ the time and labor needed to learn and apply the finer nuances of making images.
The idea that there are no shortcuts in art derives from this simple truth: while a finished image that satisfies the photographer may offer some fleeting pleasure, such anecdotal successes can never amount to the depth, contentment and life-transforming realizations that come not from images, but from the process of making images. Studies suggest that such joys are greatly magnified by the degree of challenge involved. In the words of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the best moments of our lives generally occur, “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits.” In essence, shortcuts may increase the frequency of short-lived pleasures but do so at the cost of ‘saving’ you from experiencing what may be the most powerful and enjoyable things that you are capable of feeling. Sound like a fair trade? Not to me.
Most people who consider themselves artists likely will agree that creativity is an essential ingredient to art. And yet, an outsider surveying the public discourse on photography may well arrive at the conclusion that what we do amounts to just three things – hardware, software and locations. That is partly because these areas are the ones where shortcuts can easily be made and monetized. Want a ‘great image’ from a location you are not familiar with? Look it up. With little work you may reduce your effort to just showing up with a camera at the prescribed time and place; but in doing so, you also will cripple your own creative contribution to the resulting image, the degree of pride and satisfaction you derive from it and the quality of the experience as a whole. This is because a ‘great image’ is not the same thing as an image of something great. A great image is one that has been conceived, created, composed and presented in such way that it expresses the creative and technical skills of the artist, rather than their automated tools or reliance on the efforts of others. More importantly, such an image also requires great investment of cognitive, sometimes physical, effort over a prolonged period of time and thus rewards the artist in ways that an easily attained cover version will never be able to.
My advice is this: let go of creative crutches that produce pleasing results with little investment of creativity and be prepared to put in the hard work. Expect to fail as routinely as you succeed and learn from your mistakes. Avoid relying on formulaic processing techniques, well-known locations, the ultra-wide (or other special effect) lenses, compositional templates, and outright copying the works of others. To the extent that you use them, do so thoughtfully and creatively. When you have sufficient command of your camera and software, shift gears and refocus your attention on their expressive powers instead of their features.
Shortcuts are tempting but they come at a cost – a cost you may not even be aware of. When tempted to take them you not only shortcut your way to some aesthetically pleasing results, but you also short circuit those things that may make the experience of creating images far more rewarding, things like finding joy in experimenting and learning, understanding your subjects, enriching your own inner world, and taking well-deserved pride in something you have created, not just captured and processed.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 51 of Landscape Photography Magazine.