In everything we want to excel, we need to train our muscles. You want to become a marathon-runner? Well, you need to train your leg muscles as well as your cardiovascular muscles. You want to become a good swimmer? You need to train all muscles in your body. Want to become an archer? Then you need to train your brain and what is called muscle memory.
The same with photography. You want to do well as a photographer? You definitely need to train your muscle memory. Now you may ask; what am I talking about—muscle memory? Muscle memory isn’t something stored in your muscle but your brain. It is a form of procedural memory, learned by practicing something over and over slowly and as you pick up the hang of it are able to perform more quickly. It’s a way of getting an action imprinted in the memory so it becomes an instinctive move.
As a photographer, for one, all the technical handling needs to be done automatically and unconsciously. If something quickly happens in front of you, you don’t have time to figure out what exposure compensation you need to use because the scene is back-lit, you don’t have time to consider what focal length would render the subject in a way that is suitable for you, and you don’t have time to figure out the best point of view. You just need to shoot and trust your muscle memory. All the technical adjustments need to be instinctively handled, and the only way to get yourself there is by practising.
Muscle memory is also something you train to be able to see, I mean see as a photographer. It’s a way of becoming unconsciously aware of your surroundings even when you are not necessarily looking for anything to photograph. But then, if something occurs you will still be able to captured whatever it is.
Most photographers have heard the expression «the decisive moment». To be able to capture a decisive moment, which originally was defined by the renown Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, you need to train your muscle memory to be able to detect it and respond to it.
We train our memory muscle by practising over and over again, starting slow and then increase speed when we get better at it. Have you ever photographed sports events? As for myself, I am not a sports photographer, but there have been times when I had to shoot sports for some of my clients. I remember one of the first assignments was shooting a volleyball match. I lost all the peak moments, plainly couldn’t capture them. Not because I didn’t know volleyball—and I practise a lot of sports myself, too—but because I couldn’t get the timing right. I simply didn’t have the mind set in a way to handle the fast moving sport (and you think volleyball is a slow sport? Try shooting the action with a 500 mm lens, then…). Unnecessary to say, that client never asked me to shoot sports again.
So as a photographer, how do you train your muscle memory? The simple answer is by shooting a lot. However, there are also more deliberate ways to train your muscle memory. One is to take on a long term photo project, where you have time to be slow and simply train your muscle memory by going back and reshoot the same theme over and over again. This is one way that Stanley Leary recommends in his blog post How to develop muscle memory for photographers. Look up his post for poignant thoughts about using a project to train muscle memory.
In the post Leary writes: « Professional photographers need to take on projects that they can move at slower paces to help keep those muscle memories sharp and accurate. If you practice over and over the wrong way to do something then when you tap into your muscle memory you will perform poorly. One of the best things I have learned to help me stay sharp is shooting photo stories on my own time. It maybe me shooting a self assigned project or taking on an assignment that gives me the luxury of time verses a quick deadline.»
Another way is suggested by the photographer David la Spina in the book The Photographer’s Handbook. He writes: «Within the next twenty-four hours, take twenty-four rolls of photograph on black and white film. Develop the rolls and select twenty-four images from which you make twenty-four prints. Be prepared to share your work at this time tomorrow.»
This is quite the opposite approach than Leary’s with a short time limit and a lot of work to be done within that short time limit. I think for la Spina’s exercise it’s best to shoot on film, but of course, you may shoot it digitally as well. And, as he writes, this assignment can be modified as eight/eight/eight or twelve/twelve/twelve, depending on the commitment you are willing to put into the assignment.
Both suggestions are good practices for training the muscle memory to be used photographically. Are you ready and willing to do the necessary training?
Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Canon EOS 1D with a 28-135 mm zoom set at 28 mm. Shutter speed: 1/15 of a second. Aperture: f/13 and a exposure compensation of -1/3 EV. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.