There Are No Shortcuts

When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence

– Ansel Adams

Before I start I should say this blog post does not contain any photographs, hopefully the words are clear enough.

I recently watched a very well known video blog (vlog) with some interest. I dip into these every now and again when I’m stuck for something to do. Often they are quite enjoyable and informative, most presented in a reasonably professional manner. This particular vlogger is quite clear that like many amateurs and recent professionals, no in fact all photographers,  he is on a journey. I hate the expression, ‘journey’, but it fits and I don’t have a better expression. He is learning, just like the rest of us. How we learn tends to be from making mistakes. That is as true for photography as it is for everything in life. The human race makes mistakes, often big ones. We learn from them, we reflect and refine, and we move on. As individuals and as a race. We get knocked down, we get back up, and we keep moving forward having learned to avoid what it was that knocked us down the last time, mostly.

However, the essence of this particular episode of the vlog was that mistakes, clear as day mistakes, were ok. In fact they enhanced the image. To a certain extent this can be true. Happy accidents occur. Spray and pray ‘can’ render us with something sublime. I emphasise ‘can’. More often than not it doesn’t. The vlog also went on to say that we should shoot for ourselves and not for others, which I agree with wholeheartedly. In the context of shooting for ourselves the mistakes that the vlog shared were ok. We all have images like this in our image libraries, somewhere. Usually with a ‘1 star’ against them.

In my case it tends to be a case of import, look through the images to the one that looked great on the back of the camera…and, oh bugger. “Should have used a faster shutter”. “Needed to use a wider/shallower depth of field”. “Damn, didn’t see that bird fly through the image”. “Gah! Should have wiped my lens”. “Crikey, didn’t see that ugly rock on the edge of the frame”. “Bugger, wasn’t Image Stabilisation on/off?”…or most commonly “What the hell was I thinking?”. I dare say the majority who read this have similar moments of exasperation. That is learning. Each one makes an imprint on our consciousness. Each one reinforces the basics. Each one creates a building block towards perfection. Not the perfect photograph and not the perfect photographer, but perfecting the oh so subjective image in the circumstance.

I began taking pictures in the natural world to be able to show people what I was experiencing when I climbed and explored in Yosemite in the High Sierra.”

– Galen Rowell

In this instance though, the vlog attempted to persuade us (a somewhat hungry audience), and thus inadvertently inhibit those building blocks, by suggesting that such mistakes make the image work. If all things were equal, if the exact same situation occurred, the photographer wouldn’t change anything. The photographer has stopped learning. I quote Galen Rowell above because I think this is what the vlog was attempting to say as justification for the mistakes. It was delivered in such a manner that the mistakes added ‘atmosphere’. The mistakes enhance the images in such a way that enabled the viewer to connect with the experience of being there. The smudges caused by water droplets, the missed focus giving a sense of the strength of the wind, the blurred subject matter emphasising the bumpy ride. There are images that give a sense of atmosphere and there are images that are mistakes. Rarely do the two meet.

If I have any message worth giving to a beginner it is that there are no short cuts in photography

– Edward Weston

Why does this all bother me? Why do I care? Frustration with my own progression perhaps? I had to ask myself these questions before I raised my hand, but raise my hand I have. I’m happy with my answer. The vlog in this instance is a disrupter in the market. Vlogs have ruffled the feathers of the ‘establishment’, for want of a better word. Vlogs have become influential. There are those that have embraced the change and those who are going to be left for dust. Vlogs have given a voice to those who until recently were in the wilderness. They are easily accessible, easy to digest, fun. No longer do we have to refer to books preaching ‘the rules’. Workshops are less relevant and now seen as decidedly expensive. Even the common as garden ‘traditional blog’, such as this one, is relegated to the ‘too much effort’ bin. To a certain extent I welcome it, when the content doesn’t dumb down the art. Ultimately though, Weston (quoted above) is right, there are no short cuts. Mistakes happen and they happen regularly. If every viewer of the vlog in question accepted the things said, verbatim, where do we end up? The mistakes no longer become mistakes. They become the norm for all who follow that narrative. They accept that they need not strive for something better. This I find most troubling. I’m not saying an image needs to be technically perfect, it does not by any stretch, but neither should we just satisfy ourselves with the low hanging fruit either.

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed

– Ansel Adams





4 thoughts on “There Are No Shortcuts

  1. Nice one Greg, interesting reading.
    I look at what I produce and there are more duffers than keepers, those ‘what was I thinking shots’.
    In my head I think the likes of Joe Cornish & Charlie Waite go out and only take perfect classic shots with nothing wasted.
    I would like to think this is not the case but I convince myself they do not take the ‘what was I thinking shots’ because they can see its not a great composition and therefore do not have the urge to take the shot.
    I still take the shot only to look at the monitor later for confirmation of what I already knew but pressed the shutter anyway!


  2. No, there are no shortcuts. But technical perfection can also become an unhealthy obsession very quickly. Camera club contests are notorious for this – discussions of sharpness and rules of composition overshadow artistic merit and emotional response to images all too often. Technique is something all the great masters of art, whether painters, musicians, or any other bent, have in common. They are all masters of their technique, but it seems to me that only after technique becomes second nature is the inner artist allowed to flourish and express themself. Mozart or Beethoven could not have composed their scores if they were still thinking in terms of the relationships of basic musical notes. Monet could not have painted the way he did if he was still agonising over the rule of thirds or brush sizes. There comes a time when all great artists, performers, practitioners of any fine skill, transcend technical considerations and begin to really express themselves. Technical proficiency becomes automatic. That’s what we need to strive for. No, there are certainly no shortcuts, but if it means you intended to leave water droplets on your filter out of artistic choice, then more power to you!


  3. Nicely written. And I tend to agree; mistakes are mistakes. Sometimes they are so minor the image survives (it doesn’t have to be perfect to be out there), sometimes we’re lucky and it does enhance the image (the ‘I wish I’d intended to do that’ moment, from which we learn) but most often they are just annoying and frustrating mistakes. Of course it’s not always easy to determine in someone else’s image what’s a mistake and what’s intentional (is that soft focus deliberate). Ultimately we have to be honest with ourselves if we want to improve. And if we choose to share the image…well whether you confess to the ‘happy accident’ is a personal choice I guess.


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