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This is something I’ve talked about many times in my books and workshops, yet it bears repeating often—we are all susceptible to short term tactics over long term strategies. Who doesn’t like the rush of immediate success? I sure do.

Yet formulas often leave us without a good “why,” whereas a deep understanding of the principles lets us evaluate decisions and determine what works best for each of us.

Shane Parrish, from one of my favorite blogs, beautifully describes another way of thinking about it especially when it seems everyone is an “expert.”

“Generally, the people who know the most about something talk in terms that involve uncertainty (e.g., generally, if, but, yet, possible, unlikely). People that know the least, tend to talk in absolutes (e.g., always, will, never). The language you read and hear, be it online or in person, is a proxy for quality. While we have a tendency to seek out certainty, nuance is generally more accurate. Rich sources of information like good journalism, detailed books, or websites that require time and effort are rarely free. When you find them, support them by following, sharing, and/or paying. ” – Shane Parrish

While this applies to any information you come across, it’s especially useful in visual art and digital photography where it’s so difficult to avoid all the noise.

This is equally true in traditional art as well. As many of you know, I’ve been learning to paint over the past five years, and YouTube has been an invaluable source of information. Yet I quickly realized that if I didn’t learn to curate and judge the quality of the information, I would soon drown in formulas and techniques.

I now deeply appreciate the fact that regardless of whether I’m holding a camera or a paintbrush, learning from my failures—which means observing them closely rather than running away from them—IS the best way to master any skill.

That’s because instead of relying on formulas, I rely on understanding the principles that ultimately contribute to success. For example, intuitively understanding the exposure triangle has contributed more to my creative vision than any “prescribed” norm, like 1) using wide-angle lenses for landscapes at maximum depth of field, or 2) bracketing images where the dynamic range is very high.

There is nothing wrong with these “strategies,” except when they become default ways of approaching a scene. This creates a nice “comfort zone,” which can lead to repetition and eventually stagnation. Use maximin depth of field when your vision for the image depends on it, otherwise question every decision you make, and please, disregard what others say or do.

If you are developing your vision, then, of course, suggestions and feedback are crucial. As Twyla Tharp says, “You have to have a box before you can think outside the box.”

But for me, the path is towards developing my vision, not repeating what everyone else is doing. I strongly suggest you explore this possibility as well. Yes, this is difficult, but the beauty is that you can develop and learn to rely on your intrinsic motivation, which is the only reason to make art over the long term.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. The comment by Shane Parrish about knowledge and language is reflected in another area which is graduate education. The trilogy of knowledge goes from the bachelor’s degree to the PhD. We generally tell all PhD students that “when you realize you know nothing” you’ll get a PhD. No matter how much I’ve studied various subjects over the years, the one thing that is always constant is that I still don’t know everything. Whether science or art, the only thing to keep in mind is that learning is a life-long process.

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