Train Your Muscle Memory

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.


56 thoughts on “Train Your Muscle Memory

  1. The timing of this post was very apposite, Otto! I have just been thinking over the last couple of days that it is time I ‘sharpened up’ and improved my camera handling for quick responses! Yes I can get a shot…but not always a well-exposed shot…I need to ‘think on my feet’ better…train that muscle memory! I shall look up Stanley Leary’s blog, and set myself a project….

  2. Great advice, and I’ll go read the other post too. I know for me personally, the more I shoot, the more I instinctively know what to do. My biggest problem is remembering to remember. When I see wildlife to shoot I tend to focus on them, and not on my settings. I need to learn to do both.

    1. It’s always the hard part. Being consciously aware of both will slow you down in the beginning, but eventually you won’t even notice that you are changing your settings according to what is needed to get the shot.

  3. i think this is true… and though i have changed my modus operandi, meaning i’m taking bad photos now instead of good… my muscle memory remains, as i see the world around me in photographs, and kick myself forever for missing some of them because i wasn’t quick enough

  4. I know that one has to train a lot to become “proficient” but I have certainly never heard that training leads to muscle memory, which means to be able to do things automatically without thinking, like driving a car, I suppose. Thank you Otto for this very interesting post.

  5. “Most photographers have heard the expression «the decisive moment”

    Not me until now. I do know the term ‘kairos’ Greek term derived from weaving/ archery that made its way into rhetoric “seal your word with silence and your silence with the right time (kairos) is one popular maxim.

    Its a perception of time that has an interesting history.

    1. Perception of time does indeed have an interesting history. In photography the decisive moment has a significant place as a tool to understand how we can best perceive a subject when photographing it.

  6. I will never master my camera because the dang thing is just too complicated. Too many buttons to push and dials to turn, sometimes together (Nikon D7000). I have a couple of user settings that I rely on unless I have LOTS of time to set up the shot and experiment. Aside from that I find that the most difficult thing to learn (and I’m still working on it) is seeing what is actually in the viewfinder, as opposed to what I “think” is in the viewfinder…with me, hope often still wins out over reality.

    1. Too many cameras have too many buttons. But then I always suggest to make it simple, as you do. Find some setting that works for you and stick to them. And then it all comes down to practice. 🙂

  7. Being a marathon runner, I think the analogy is a great one because there are different *types of training* which are essential. A marathon runner needs easy runs, tempo runs, long runs, interval training, etc. This develops one’s basic stamina, lactate threshold, energy efficiency, and ‘kick’, respectively. As I do more and more photography, I realize that different types of assignments can be beneficial, too. Just as sticking to only one type of marathon preparation can be counter-productive, so too can it be with photography. Variety is definitely key, over time. I like the idea of hitting the streets with different assignments to help develop skills in observation, composition, anticipation (a key one for sports and street photography) and instinct for technical applications, as your photo of the car with a blurred background demonstrates. What is new and interesting for me here is that X/X/X approach, both over a long period and a short period. I want to try that. Thanks for the inspiring post.

    1. I am glad you are inspired by my post. As a marathon-runner myself, too, I know exactly what you say about varied training, and yes, I think it’s good, too, when you want to develop your photographic skills. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience, Angel.

  8. Great shot of the moving car! I love it. This post is coincident of today I went along of photography meet at a valley ball court. I learned something today and I know that I can not do sport shooting.

  9. Otto, this entry is so appropriate — and funny! I’m sitting here with a new computer, and it’s been like finding someone has come in and reorganized my house. I don’t know where anything is, and the simplest tasks that I could do in a flash on my own computer are going slowly — or not at all. Getting used to a new system is as delightful — and frustrating — as getting used to a new camera.

    I think some new muscles will need to be developed for processing, too. I managed to take a photo in RAW, get it into the computer, open it in a processing program, then save it as a jpg, but my goodness — that little bit took two hours. And I didn’t have a clue what I was doing in the processing program — I couldn’t even find how to crop the silly photo. But that will come — all it takes is some muscle memory!

    1. It’s always a little frustrating to have to adapt to a new environment. But that’s how we grow and develop our capacity—included muscle memory. If we could totally rely on the same routines every day, our brains would shrink, so to speak. So enjoy the learning process, even if it’s frustrating. One thing I don’t understand, though, even if you have a new computer, why don’t you use the same programs (such as a photo editing program)? Then the transition wouldn’t be that hard…

      1. I’ve never used any of the standard programs, like Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, etc. Instead, I’ve relied on a free, downloadable program that’s very basic. Over the years, that program has changed, too, so when I downloaded it again onto this machine, it was quite different.

        It’s time for me to move on to another program anyway, so it’s not all bad. Of course, that will be another learning curve. My brain will be so flexible!

  10. When you sit down to tackle a piece of Chopin at the piano, it seems an impossibility that will ever be able to play it. You cannot read the notes as fast as the tempo demands and you certainly can’t consciously make your fingers move quickly enough. But, as you practice and practice and practice there comes a point when muscle memory kicks in, you are no longer consciously controlling anything other than the subtle nuances of the piece. The important information, the notes and their correct order are stored and being taken care of by another part of your brain and you’re barely conscious of the movements necessary pull off the runs and trills. If you try and think about them, everything grinds to a halt. You need that muscle memory.
    Practice has always made perfect and practicing anything to the point that it becomes a subconscious, instinctive and refexive thing is certainly very useful in photography for capturing those decisive moments you describe Otto.
    As always a very thought provoking and useful article. It reminds us all that the best was to take better pictures is to take lots of pictures. 🙂

    1. Your reference to Chopin is so very relevant as to what I talk about when it comes to muscle memory. I don’t play the piano myself, but know Chopin enough to understand that it’s not a piece of cake to play his pieces. Thank you for sharing this great example. By the way, do you play Chopin yourself? Sounds like you have been practicing him for a long time. 🙂

      1. I used to play Otto. Because of my MS my fingers are no longer as agile as they need to be for Chopin but I still play a little and still enjoy music very much. About the time I started having real problems at the piano, I bought my first DSLR and photography has provided me with an excellent substitute for piano playing. I think as creative people we need to create. If one avenue becomes blocked for whatever reason, we usually find another. 🙂

  11. The same is true for drawing and painting. There was a time I let myself get rusty and starting fearing to pick it up again. I had gotten stuck, or maybe too muscle-bound in my career and needed rest and to be more limber. I was glad to find the muscle memories were still there. Or, sometimes I think people need to remember that anything they learned once, they can learn again, and more quickly because they already know it.

    1. You are very right about that. Just think about bicycling. If you have once learned how to bike you will never forget. You may be a little rusty in the beginning if you haven’t biked for a long time, but it will quickly come back. 🙂

  12. A very useful article, Otto. “To become unconsciously aware of your surroundings” – I have experienced that. It’s great to read you.

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