On Shortcuts

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David22 Comments


Garibaldi Lake, B.C. Shot this the other day on my hike, trying to make the best of a spectacular view in harsh light at noon and the smoke of nearby forest fires. Shot with my G9 and a 2-stop graduated ND filter. The image has nothing to do with shortcuts per se, but for the reality that there are none to this spectacular place. Want this view? You have to hike there. (Can’t wait to go back for a couple days to shoot this place in softer light!)

I was just in Oscar’s, my favourite art book store in Vancouver, picking up Greenbough’s Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Expanded Edition, published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It’ s a massive tome of a book that would break your foot if you dropped it, and I can’t wait to dig in to it. But it got me to thinking.

As I dig deeper into this craft a couple things happen.

The first is that I love it more and more, increasingly believing in it as a means of expression and art.

The second is that I’m pushed to look back towards the so-called masters (I’d call them masters, they’d probably reject the term outright) and to study their work, how and why they created what they did, hence the book.

The third is a growing, increasingly stubborn rejection of the notion of shortcuts. In fact, I find myself thinking about a line from the movie Himalaya when the brother, a monk, says he was taught that when two paths diverged in front of him he should take the harder of the two. Robert Frost would say the one less travelled. I suspect it’s less traveled because we’re all looking for shortcuts and forsaking the harder path. But here’s the thing, the shortcuts won’t get us there. And the harder path is what makes us better artists.

Shortcuts in art lead to cliche and propaganda. They lead to artists more concerned about the product than the expression, and they lead to art that denies a basic truth about humanity, and that is: there are no shortcuts. No shortcuts in love, in health, in spirituality, or even the wildly pragmatic world of business. Sometimes there are shortcuts to the local Starbucks, but that’s about it. A pursuit of shortcuts creates shallow art, if it’s art at all.

A pursuit of shortcuts does something else. It deeply discourages the growing artist who tries them, and finds them leading nowhere. The shortcut drops the earnest artist in the middle of nowhere, with no map or water, then vanishes. It leaves us with a sense of “now what?” and in the end we’re forced to walk back to where we started and make up for lost time on the path we ought to have trod from the beginning.

Art is pretty hard to define, but I don’t think you can separate the product (the end) from the process (the means). So what am I saying? Well, on the one hand I’m back to reminding you – and myself – that it’s just plain hard. It is. There’s no secret to success or photographic virtuosity, and if there is one it’s this: it’s a long, hard, but glorious road with no shortcuts. On the other hand I’m trying to encourage you – if you’re feeling frustrated about your craft because it’s taking a while, and it’s proving to be harder than the camera makers and the Shoot-Like-A-Pro websites told you it would be, that’s good. It means you’re in the same boat as all of us. The difficulty and challenge of the craft, the way it stretches you and demands more of you than you expected, is not an obstacle to getting where you want to be, it’s the path to getting there. What’s in the way is the way, to quote Lao Tse.

Don’t give up. Keep at it. Take baby steps if need-be. But keep taking them. Daily. And in time those steps get a little more sure, a little wider and faster. Trip, fall, get back up. And in the mean time, find a way to get out of yourself, out of your niche, and look at other photographers for a while. See how people like Cartier-Bresson, Karsh, Avedon, Arbus, or Frank – to name a very few – or contemporaries like McNally, McCurry, or Leibovitz, for example – pursue their craft. Look forward by looking back, or through the eyes of others. Just lay off the shortcuts, because they’re only sabotaging your journey.


  1. Wow this blog is worth every penny!

    Thanks again for some insight – you’re right, often we think about the 22 year old hot-shot photogs that are natrually gifted (but likely did a helluvah lot of work too) and think “I’m older than that, past my prime…”


  2. Very well said my friend. I have a phrase that I say to my kids – just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Life experience tells me that what often looks like the easier route is rarely so. However, if that’s the case would the monk from Himalaya then have to take the seemingly easier route at the crossroads because in fact it’s actually the harder? Keep up the great work David and thanks for all your honesty, your sharing of experiences and ideas and of course your inspiring images.

  3. I just found you recently and you are an inspiration , what you are saying above can be applied to anything that we do in life….thank you .

    I only recently got into photography as a hobby , I never realized how involved it is, but also how rewarding the journey is in learning about this great craft.

    I recently got Frank’s “The Americans” from the local library and found it inthralling.


  4. Just this week I was saying to one of my friends that this is the hardest I’ve worked at something but strangely enough it has felt the most satisfying. You always give us such great advice and insight for this journey–thanks David.

    I’m pleased to see this image here too–I just love it!

  5. Gotta stop you a second in the hallway here, and counterpoint this “roads” idea. A chosen “road” is just that and not any guarantee towards an intended outcome. Taking a “less travelled” road might be a metaphor for the “personal – or wholly mine” approach. Understanding that opens us to the experience, which, in-turn, may help discern the nature of the path. Maybe photography is a shortcut for painting, and multiple portable strobes are a shortcut to waiting for the light, maybe not (and I don’t care), but the chosen process should reflect the intent rather than the difficulty. Personally, I’d rather have a conversation with someone who’s choice reflects their understanding of themselves, rather than anyone whose choice boasts their willingness to struggle.

  6. Hey Rob, two things…

    People who claim to understand themselves usually don’t.

    Life is full of struggles; people who can accept that struggle less.

    – Yoda

  7. Author

    Rob – I think the shortcuts you refer to are only seen that way in retrospect, and in that case I agree with you. What I am talking about here has nothing to do with how predictable or unpredictable life is, it’s the willingness to knuckle down and take the journey – where ever it leads – instead of pursuing apparent shortcuts for the sake of truncating the journey and getting only to the assumed destination.

    This isn’t about who I’d rather have a conversation with and instead is about who we are becoming, and you can’t shortcut that. That’s all I’m saying.

    But thanks for stopping me in the hall, nothing I write can’t be better expressed or further explored. I write these to make a point that resonates, not usually one that will withstand the scrutiny of academia, so the metaphors get mixed, or fall short. I’m ok with that.

    Yoda – Additionally, I think people that willingly embrace the struggle come to understand themselves more. 🙂

  8. Very timely post. I just became a member of the Photo Society of America and immediatley signed up for a photography course so I can finally learn the basics (hard way) of photography like shooting using manual exposure and manual focus, which has me visably sweating because I cut my teeth on auto everything (short cut) on my camera. The resutlts of my work will tell in the following months and I have a feeling they are going to be good.


  9. One of the best things I did for my photography was to put a dozen rolls of 120 film through an old Mamiya. Manual everything (helped that I shot a Minolta X700 in High School). Got me more comfortable with what my camera is doing for me, and when I take control again.

  10. I like the concept of this but….

    I’m not so sure that taking the Road less travelled, or not taking a short cut is always the best idea in photography. Sure there are lessons that need to be learnt, but sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel. Many times it’s better to take the experiences of others (the short road) rather than just following other down a road often walked.

    For example, apart from the sunny 16 rule, I’ve forgotten nearly every standard exposure level that I used to know by heart. Every camera I own comes with a very accurate exposure meter. There is absolutely no need for me to know what the approximate exposure will be indoors on an overcast afternoon. All I need to know is what subjects will fool my camera’s exposure meter and how to compensate that. And spending a month with a camera that has no inbuilt meter will do absolutely nothing to improve my level of skill or the quality of the images I create.

    Certainly, some lessons need to be learned and you need some level of understanding of what is going on behind the scenes, especially when it comes to the automated settings in modern cameras. But often, it’s better to take a shortcut so we can get to the next road, the one that really will make a difference to our photographic creativity.

    After all, if we as a species hadn’t spent the last 20,000 years taking shortcuts, and had to relearn it all every generation, we’d still be living on subsistence agriculture and communicating by smoke signals.

  11. In french, we have that famous saying : “Tout vient à point qui sait attendre”. It roughly means : “if your are patient enough, everything you desire will come anyway. Just keep walking hard and one day you’ll see the top of the ridge”.

    I just keep it in mind all the time and work on my craft as hard as I can, no matter how long it will take to do it full time. I’m just happy doing it the best as I can, taking the road less traveled…

    I’m sure that’s what make this job so exciting and I’m sure shortcuts ain’t such a good thing for you satisfaction…

    Thanks for this post david

  12. From time to time, I will process an image with what is referred to as the Orton effect. If I like the results, then I keep them. Otherwise, I don’t. When I was first researching the particulars of this method, I came across a site that was selling the PS action for, like, $25 or so. I then came across detailed instructions and put them into practice. I even made my own PS action.

    Buying the PS action would have been a shortcut that taught me nothing. I took the more laborious approach that offered results through effort, and I learned something to boot. QED.

  13. Good food for thought. We love to take the ‘road less travelled’ but I had not thought of it as the only way to get there in truth.
    Your photos for us just over two years ago and still great treasures.

  14. I think some shortcuts are not shortcuts. I chose to start studying photography not because I was too lazy to draw the subjects that caught my eye but because there was something about photography that called to me in a way that drawing did not.

    And in a way (echoing the comment above from Gordon Cahill) many of the aspects of digital photography can be seen as shortcuts for the more time intensive (and money-sucking) aspects of film photography. I would much rather dodge and burn in Photoshop or Lightroom with a digital brush than in a real darkroom. And I don’t think that makes me less of a photographer, although some would argue with me.

    But I think your main point is excellent, that all good things are worth striving for, and every endeavor must be undertaken with the expectation of hard work at some point. And I’m right there with you on all of that.

    So, well said. Thanks for getting me thinking (again). I love this blog.

  15. When people say “pursuit of shortcuts” I can’t help but think of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs where the main characters believe that if B-B-B-ill at MS campus sees someone take a great shortcut on the campus terrain to get from A to B, he’ll be promoted. There’s no proof in the book that this is true, though. 🙂

  16. I’ve been to that exact spot before, beautiful! Just caught myself up on you recent blogs. Always and enjoyable and inspiring read.

  17. Pingback: On Shortcuts – David duChemin (pixelatedimage) @ Photo News Today

  18. But doesn’t the ‘road less traveled’ , oftentimes turn out to be the scenic route? We stand on the shoulders of giants who had nothing but inventiveness, determination and pure genius as a tool for creating photographic icons; they pioneered long before technology’s short cuts. Emulating, or at least admiring their passion for the art-form, can add to our own skill and enjoyment, as well.

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