Facebook did it to me again. A headline promised me I could master photography easily. It sent me (I couldn’t help it, I was curious) to an infographic about apertures and shutter speeds and focus modes and rules of thirds. I read it all. And when I was done I knew exactly what I knew when I was 15 years old, after a year with a camera in my hands. Nothing more. And nothing anyone would mistake as mastery. So what in the name of Nikon have I been doing all these 30 years since then, if those things alone don’t lead to mastery?
Learning. Learning about what vision means to me. Learning about my own aesthetic tastes. Learning how others do things. Not learning to become a master, but learning for its own sake, knowing that learning is the journey itself and mastery isn’t a destination.
I think that we are learning is often more important than what we are learning.
When you learn something new, doors open, and those doors lead to more paths and more possibilities.
I know so many people, and mentor so many students, that are stuck. And when I ask them what they’re reading, well, they aren’t. When I ask them what new things they’re learning or exploring or playing with, they aren’t. We move forward when we push against the unknown, try things we’ve never tried. We used to call it “play.” It used to come so much more naturally.
“I think that we are learning is often more important than what we are learning.”
We used to be curious and hungry for new experiences. We knew we didn’t know things, as children, and we seemed wired to peek into corners and behind things to find out. We knew we didn’t know, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know so we learned it all.
That same approach can still work. The problem is that we think we know what it is we don’t know. We think if we want to master landscape photography that we should study only that, unaware of what new place we might go if we spent time spent studying great painters or the way portrait photographers use light, or how the impressionists did their work.
“Stuck? Learn something new. The moment you stop actively learning, is the moment you get stuck. The joy, the meaning, the life, is in the forward momentum and the discovery.”
Can you focus your camera? Can you expose? Perfect. You’ve got the start on the technical stuff. You’ll keep learning that, I promise. But what you probably need now is…well, that’s the thing. Most of us don’t know. But I guarantee there’s a good chance it will come from the creative process. It’ll be a mix of this and that, and it’ll be unexpected and the more unexpected it is, the more interesting the results will be. That’s where the path to mastery begins, friends. Mastery is not that you can do something, it’s how and what you do with the something.
And if mastering the technical stuff is your goal, you’ll still do that better while you play with new ideas and try them on for size.
There are a million ways to learn, and to play with new ideas and techniques and see where they lead you. This past week we’ve been pimping the Complete Photography Bundle III (for more info, click here) in partnership with the 5 Day Deal. For $127 you get over $3000 worth of education. Some of my products are in there. I’m only involved at all because for this kind of money you’re not going to get exposed to more variety in photographic education anywhere. And all these ideas, when you play with them, go somewhere. This is about learning mastery, by which I don’t mean “learning how to gain mastery.” I mean mastering how to learn. From there the options are infinite.
Stuck? Learn something new. The moment you stop actively learning, is the moment you get stuck. The joy, the meaning, the life, is in the forward momentum and the discovery.
This big sale is over at noon, Pacific time (PDT) on September 15. Once it’s over I’m going to get quiet for a while. I’m heading up to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest to photograph the Spirit Bears and whales for a week. Then I’ve got a quick assignment with The Nature Conservancy in Clayoquot Sound, before packing my bags and heading to the Isle of Skye. That’s the first stop on a 2-month personal project in the UK and Italy. I’ll take you along as I can, sending postcards to the blog, and posting new episodes of Vision Is Better. If you did participate in the sale, thank you. We’ve raised $80,000 for some great charities so far and I’ll be adding a portion of my own profits as an affiliate as well. Thank you for being part of what I do. Always grateful.
Don’t forget that anyone that picks up the Complete Photography Bundle following my links (click here) get entered to win a day, expenses paid, with my in Victoria, Canada, and there are 10 chances to win signed copies of The Visual Toolbox.
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I think your thoughts on constantly learning something new are spot on. I enjoy the unique circumstances of every location shoot that force me to take previous experience and techniques and to adapt them to a new environment or challenge. Gaining ideas that can be adapted to photography from other areas of art or society is a good point – we can all suffer from inertia if we don’t consciously develop our skills.
Just fresh out of High School, jumping into college with both feet ready to land and take off.
Starting college, I knew there would be lots of paper writing, projects, and hours of homework. I knew it was going to be a lot harder then High School, where you get a grade for just showing up to class. David, it really hit me hard when you said, “Stuck? Learn something new. The moment you stop actively learning, is the moment you get stuck. The joy, the meaning, the life, is in the forward momentum and the discovery.” I couldn’t help think about my photography classes in high school. I fell in love with photography Softmore year and took every and all the photography classes my high school offered. Taking my first picture, it wasn’t that great but I kept at it. Soaking in everything I could about aperture, leading lines, rule of thirds, lighting, framing, and falling in love with Photoshop and light room. Photography is my love, my escape.
Now to flip it a bit. My favorite quote from you, “I think that we are learning is often more important than what we are learning.” I like how you related it not just to photography, but to everyday activities. Being able to learn something new out of every trial. Whether good, but especially the bad. Looking for the bright out of every dingy moment. Just like cameras do, they focus on the light even in the darkest room, making it the focal point excluding the back ground. Anyway, I really enjoyed looking at your work and reading your memories behind each one.
This is so inspiring and heartfelt. Thanks for this.
Well said David! I know my biggest periods of growth as a photographer have come from exposing myself to new situations, experiences and approaches. I think every now and then we all need a small kick in the rear reminder!
This is just to affirm what you wrote.
The day before our US holiday, Labor Day, I went to the beach with an old Nikkor Q attached to my D700. I’d had it modified to act like a nikon AIS lens. After looking at the pics that I was inspired to challenge myself with a mini-project, a picture a day for seven days with only the 135mm. After seven days the 135mm never left my camera and I posted a pic a day, not great photos but pics I was comfortable posting and on the eighth day I posted my take aways. On the ninth day I took a pic that excited me. And today, on the 16th of September I am still wrapped around everything I learned.! And btw, I’m an “old guy” still in love with learning.
This is a wonderful post, David. I’m glad you mentioned that as artists we should never confine ourselves to our own media. I totally agree with what you say: “We think if we want to master landscape photography that we should study only that, unaware of what new place we might go if we spent time spent studying great painters or the way portrait photographers use light, or how the impressionists did their work.” And to the visual arts I might add poetry. By reading poems you can learn something about concision, about the power of white space, about juxtaposition, and a myriad of other things. Thank you.
Personally, I don’t think anyone should ever stop actively learning – something, be it photography, some other art form, science, whatever they choose. I’m a lifelong student: internet, library, books, wherever I can find to learn. Although I’ve had a camera in my hands for more than four decades, I love your books and your writing style! Regardless of experience, there is always something more to learn. Anyone who doesn’t know that is missing out, in my (sometimes humble) opinion.
“I think that we are learning is often more important than what we are learning.”
I emphatically agree 100% with the above statement you made. I teach digital photography to high school teenagers and try to get this ideal across to them all too frequently… I try to provide them a role model, showing them I am always learning both while I am teaching as well as while I am out in the field capturing scenes with my camera…
One of my favorite quotes to live by is, “A wise man knows he know nothing.”
D. ” Bodhi “
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I like “The joy, the meaning, the life, is in the forward momentum and the discovery” a lot. I guess it is intentional that “forward moment and discovery” includes learning, but also applying what has been learnt and many more things … Absolutely perfectly true, in my opinion (and not exactly what is often described as the meaning of life).
What you say is so true, and anything you learn will help with anything you are going to learn…
Have a great trip(s), be safe and I look forward to seeing the images from your adventures.
Thank you for the passion, David. Brave to let our world of experts see you for who and what you are to the enormous extent you do. In doing so you successfully inspire many, many others to better themselves as both picture makers and people. Keep on doing what you do.
PS Enjoy the Isles. I’m to Lewis next week and then home to Rome. Contact me if you are near.
Great stuff, David. Looking forward to watching your Created Image videos, including the ones on Mastery, from my 5 Day Deal downloads. Holy 30+ GB of learning and inspiration.