In the Heat of Flow

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As mentioned in my post Finding Flow last week flow—or being in the zone as it is often called—is that inspired freedom of creativity when you lose yourself completely in artistic activities. Time, stress and artist’s block melt away, resulting in a unique voice and fully realizing your creative potential. Being in that state of flow in many ways resembles a trancelike state of mind. As Susan K. Perry writes in her book «Writing in Flow»; «you feel challenged, stimulated, definitely not bored. … [When] in flow, you’re often certain you’re tapping into some creative part of yourself—or of the universe—that you don’t have easy access to when you’re not in this altered state».

«Writing in Flow»—as I mentioned in the post—is based on a scientific study that Susan K. Perry conducted of more than 75 best-selling and award-winning authors. In the book she describes how the writers experience the state of flow; she dwells into five key elements of flow that most intimately affect the creative process and finally she writes about specific techniques writers use to make flow happen.

Although the book is about writing in flow, the general concepts and mechanisms behind creative flow is very much adaptable to any creative activity. I certainly found her ideas and suggestion very useful for my photography. As I am writing, too, I know the feeling of being in flow is similar when I experience it as a writer and when I experience it as a photographer.

It’s not possible to go into depth of her book in a post like this, but I will try to at least give an idea of what Susan K. Perry has found out. First, the five master keys that have an effect on the creative flow are partly a part of whoever you are, your whole self and the way of relating to the world. Partly they are concurrent to the actual creative process itself and come into play very near the time you begin the process as well as throughout the whole process. Having a reason to write—or if taken in a broader view; having a reason to do whatever creative work you do—is Perry’s first master key. On its simplest level it means you need something that motivates you to do whatever it is you are doing. It can be both external and internal reasons, although the latter often works as a stronger incentive. For instance I photograph because I want to tell stories about how people live in various layers of the world and the societies. I want to show both the beauty and the cruelty of human existence, and in so doing maybe be able to change if not the world, hopefully one or two persons along the way.

The second master key is to think like a writer—or an artist in any vocation you are working in. As for me, in all my professional life I have tried to learn and read about other photographers and how they think. The point is it’s possible for you to strengthen and bring to the forefront of your personality those aspects that will contribute to making your creative life more gratifying. It may be opening up yourself to new experiences, it may be trying to take more risks, it may be trying to get yourself fully absorbed by your work and it certainly has a positive effect if you are able to build confidence in what you are doing.

The next three master keys are more directly related to the creative process itself and in some ways more self descriptive. Of course there is more to them than that; based on the study that Susan K. Perry did she offers a lot of insights to the hows, but let me just quickly mention the last master keys here. One is loosening up, another is focusing in and the last is balancing between opposites.

Let me end by saying that «Writing in Flow» is a book that inspires and explains. If you are interested in other creatives’ take—and certainly writers’ take—on working in flow, or would like to know how to enter this state more often, this is a must-read.

Finding Flow

For all artists the ultimate creative experience is when you lose yourself in your work, when you immerse yourself so much in some creative activity during which time cease to matter, when you forget yourself and everything else but the task at hand, when the work flows, when you are in flow. I have compared this experience with the feeling of being in a tunnel (se my post Tunnel Vision some time ago), while others call it «being in the zone» or just «in flow». As a matter of fact flow is a term used in psychological studies, of which University of Chicago psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the first to examine. I briefly mentioned him in the blog post last week.

According to the science, flow happens because we make it happen when our mind or body is voluntary stretched to its limits, in an effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. The question is—especially for those who have yet to experience flow—how do we make it happen. In workshops I teach, I often talk about this feeling of flow, but I always find it hard to give concrete advice how to make it happen. My recommendation has been to work hard; that flow will eventually happen if you do the work. I think that is true, but it’s not necessarily a very satisfying answer. And just doing the work isn’t always enough for everybody who is seeking flow, neither. Last time the question came up for me was in a comment to my post Diving into Unconsciousness. I wanted to answer with more than a mere description of experience itself. I really wanted to come up with some thoughts about how to get there.

Imagine my excitement when just afterwards I came across a book investigating in depth what being in flow means. The book «Writing in Flow» by Susan K. Perry is based on a comprehensive study she did on 75 best-selling and award-winning authors for her doctoral dissertation. As indicated by the title of the book, it deals with being in flow while writing, but a lot of what Perry points to is valid for any kind of flow-experience. I certainly recognise her thoughts and recommendations for my own work as a photographer.

«Writing in Flow» is a book that gives an exciting glimpse into the creative process. Even more so it gives concrete input and ideas about how to get into flow. Her and now I just want to mention six requirements she believes is necessary to be able to be in flow.

First your activity must have clear goals and give you some sort of feedback. You need to want to do whatever you do for some reason which can be as simple as wanting to show the beauty of nature if you for instance are a nature-lover. In addition it needs to give you some satisfaction of some form, it could be nothing more than just being able to accomplish the task or being praised by the work afterwards. Secondly for flow to happen sensing that your personal skills are well suited for the challenge is necessary, giving you a sense of potential control. Thirdly you need to be intensely focused on what you are doing. Fourthly when in flow your sense of time is altered, with time seeming to slow, stop or become irrelevant. Lastly the experience needs to become self-rewarding.

I can recommend «Writing in Flow» – even if you are not a writer.

Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity

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Diving into Unconsciousness

Andektig morgenstemning på toppen av Green Lotus Hill

The first time I discovered the beauty—yes the beauty, despite the doubt and ambiguity being part of the process—of surrendering to the unconscious mind in the creative moment, was 30 years ago. I was photographing a Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown, New York, during a time when I was struggling with my photographic vision.

Suddenly during the shooting process, I felt like I was swept away and lost completely to the intoxicating and exhilarating activities taking place all around me. The New Year celebration and I became one. I stopped thinking consciously and became absorbed with the energy and power of what was going on in front of my camera lens. It felt like being thrown into a deep tunnel with no exits or alternatives, but to move forward as part of the chaos and madness.

Three or four hours later I was spat out of this tunnel, completely wasted and exhausted. I couldn’t recall my doings or what kind of pictures I had captured through these hours. But I felt extremely good, content and animated. And I knew I had photographed something both strong and personal.

The creative process depends on surrender by the artist on many levels and in different ways throughout the whole process. First and foremost, the artist has to give up the idea that the art he or she is creating is actually his or hers and instead understand that it is simply being channelled through him or her. It’s like a baby; you give birth to it, help it mature and then let it loose on its own as a grownup human being. You don’t own your child.

For me, this concept of giving up ownership in the creative process is closely related to trusting the unconsciousness. As artists, whether we are photographers—like I am—or painters, musicians, performers, writers, filmmakers or express ourselves through any other art form; to be able to create something new, we need to surrender ourselves to our unconscious mind.

According to Rollo May—the American existential psychologist whose work includes “The Courage to Create”—creative courage involves the discovery of new forms, new symbols and new patterns.

Only by connecting to our unconscious mind are we able to bring something new into being. If merely the rational mind is involved in the creative process we will find nothing but what is already known, albeit at first sight it may look new. Two plus two is always four no matter how we turn it around with our rational mind. If we look at the equation without rationalizing though, we might find something completely different and beautiful even in such a simple calculation. The fact is that even math can turn into art—and does do so on a higher level.

Our creative expression is channelled through our unconsciousness. Some call it the work of God, some think it’s a spiritual connection, some see it as an encounter with an unlimited creative well, while others call it inspiration and yet others believe it to be something less tangible. No matter how we see the process, it’s all about bringing something new into being; something most of us don’t even understand exactly where it comes from, but certainly has to be outside of our rational thinking. That’s why I so strongly believe we need to engage our unconscious mind in the creative process.

How we engage is expressed in different ways, too. We talk about getting out of our comfort zone, taking chances with our art, letting go or trusting our intuition—all of these expressions indicates that we need to force the rational mind to step back. As the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said about the photographic process—which I believe to also be true for any art form: “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph.”

Trusting our unconscious mind isn’t always easy. On the contrary, engaging the unconscious mind in the creative process causes lots of doubt among those of us who think of ourselves as artists. I believe that any artist at some point will doubt his or her artwork. Again and again we see this. Paul Cézanne, for example, strongly believed that he was discovering and painting a new form of space which would radically influence the future of art, yet he was filled with painful and ever-present doubt. The reality is that creative commitment is healthiest not when it’s without doubt, but in spite of doubt. In other words, we need to accept our own doubts about what we are doing, and still keep doing it. It’s simply another layer of surrendering.

I always try to recall that special feeling from the Chinese New Year celebration in New York when I am shooting. I try to let myself become absorbed in whatever it is that I am photographing and try to throw myself back into that same tunnel of unconscious awareness.

The Mental State during Shooting

In the moment of capturing a photo lots of brain processing takes place. Depending on the subject and what goes on, I believe in letting the unconscious mind take control, trusting intuition and instincts. Particularly when you play with many balls in the air and when there is plenty of action going on, such as when you photograph on the street, the more you let go of conscious control, the more likely you are to be able to capture something special and out of the ordinary.

In the same newsletter by David duChemin that I referred to last week when I wrote about composition and what is the most important building block for a photograph, he also talks about trusting intuition during the shooting process—or rather not depend on it. DuChemin keenly support the necessity of being intentional when photographing. According to him, it’s the intentional photograph that will grab viewers’ attention, and not the result of the lazy approach of trusting our instinct.

I don’t disagree with him about the need for intention and always asking the question why we want to capture a certain photo. In fact, we may not disagree at all. However, I do trust—and strongly so—instinct and intuition in my photographic approach. Particularly in fast-moving situations, it’s impossible to depend on the slow reaction of the conscious mind.

One of my favourite quotes is by the renowned and ceased Henri Cartier–Bresson. He has stated that thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph.

I live by that imperative. Before doing an assignment for instance, I will reflect upon what it is I want to convey in my photographs and how I can put the story I am working on visually together. Those reflections I will bring along when I start shooting, but only in the back of my head. During the actual shooting, I go on automatic mode or rather let my intuition take control. I stop thinking and open my mind to what may come. It’s a state of sensing and reacting. Then afterwards, when I am back from the assignment, I redeploy my conscious mind in the editing process as well as in learning what worked and what didn’t work in the shoot.

I don’t always manage to leave all conscious thinking behind. The result, then, is rather apt to be contrived and less fluid than images I capture with a more intuitive approach. These photos don’t necessarily have that emotional connection that is so important in any imagery. The danger when the conscious mind is in control during photographing is stagnation and replication. When you use what you already know, you will not be able to break out of the known framework of the conscious mind and thus only photograph what you already have done successfully before. Or most likely.

When I manage to transcend the rational approach and instead enter an unconscious flow it clearly reflects in the final result. It happens when I get more emotionally attached to whatever I am photographing and lose myself in the process. I often compare that to tunnel vision as I lose sight of anything else and my mind is completely locked in on whatever I am photographing. I become what I photograph and nothing else exists. For me this is a much more fulfilling process than a fully controlled approach.

For David duChemin, according to what he writes in his latest newsletter, nothing about photography is instinctive. For him it will be the photographer who masters the tools, the craft and all the building blocks that goes into photography—and use them in service of creating something that is the best expression of the wonder we see before us—that will succeed.

Maybe it comes down to how we define and understand the words intuition and instinct. Are they some kind of a seventh sense that we cannot explain? Or are they results of learning processes and ingrained understanding that we use in processing sensory inputs unconsciously? I don’t know. Maybe both. Or maybe not. What I know is that I use the craft, the visual language, the tools and everything that goes into photography, unconsciously in the moment of shooting. After years of photographing and practicing, it’s all ingrained in my memory muscles. The knowledge and the use of it has moved from my explicit to my implicit part of the brain, which is a known fact about how we learn and get better at things. I use this knowledge, but unconsciously. And I let my intuition—whatever it is—decide how to put it all together in the moment of shooting.

I the end I don’t think duChemin and I necessarily disagree. He states, “An intentional approach to photography is not the opposite of the intuitive approach. It’s the prerequisite.” To that I can only agree.

As I mentioned last week David duChemin has a inspiring and thoughtprovocative blog in which he writes about creativity and the photographic process. You find it on his website David du Chemin.

Finding That Balance


I want to pick up the thread from my post two weeks ago about finding the right balance between the conscious and unconscious mind in the creative process. This time, though, I will try to be somewhat more concrete by drawing on my own experiences in trying to find this balance.

I believe most people often find it hard to combine the two forces of the mind. Some have a problem using the rational part in the creative process. Instead they flow over with inspiration without thinking too much about craftsmanship or technique—the conscious part of the process. For others it’s the other way around, they know all the ins and outs of using a camera (if speaking about photography), but lack the creative vision to bring a picture into being something more than a plain reproduction without any depth or emotional or visual interest (this is by the way where I started out long time ago).

In a more general perspective I think most people are able to somewhat easily learn the craftsmanship, the technique, how to plan and execute an idea—and yes, just learn. Some might find an inner inhibition or a lack of interest for this conscious part of the creative process, but they would have no problem doing it, if they decided to do so. On the other hand finding inspiration or opening up for the unconscious mind at will is much more difficult; it’s like being consciously unconscious. So let me start here, with some strategies for opening up the unconscious mind.

It’s all about letting loose, not letting the rational mind take control when creating. One trick to boost the unconscious part of the process is—again if we talk about photography—to put your camera on all automatic and let it handle the technical parts by itself. Then go out on the street or in Mother Nature or wherever you feel drawn to and start shooting without thinking. Whenever something makes you react, photograph it in that same moment without any analysis or considerations as to composition or technical aspects. Just do it. Or pick a colour and go out and shoot anything with that colour that makes you react—and shot the same way as just mentioned. Plain reactive shooting. Or go to an event where lots of activity is going on and again react with the camera. And don’t ever look at the screen on the camera to check what you have gotten, that turns on the conscious mind! Of course you will come home with lots of unsharp, badly exposed and uncomposed pictures. But by carefully looking through the whole bunch you will most likely find jewels and strong emotional loaded pictures that you would normally not have taken. Takes these and put them in your mental notebook for later use.

The more you do it, the more you train your unconscious mind to take control during shooting. How then do you get the rational mind to play alongside so that exposure and composition will actually be part of the picture? By training of course! But now you only practice the craftsmanship without worrying about necessarily making inspiring pictures. The more you shoot practising this part of the photography process, the more it will become ingrained in your backbones, too. And the more you learn and put into practise the more you will improve upon your craftsmanship. The point is to get the rational part of the shooting becoming almost as unconscious as the reactive part of it. Whenever you need to stop the flow of photographing to think about lens or aperture or composition or light, you break the flow of the unconscious mind and you lose that very important part of the creative process. So if you are starting out as a photographer you will have to train each mindset separately and let time and practise make them merge together.

For writers, doing morning pages is one way to boost unconscious writing, but it’s also good training for photographers and everybody else who is creating even if they don’t believe they can write. It’s not necessarily about writing, but about getting those unconscious processes to flow and becoming an integral part of creating. For painters, starting to paint on the canvas without any prior planning and just paint whatever comes to mind is a way to practise using the unconscious mind. Again it most likely won’t end up being a masterpiece but it’s all about training to be unconscious almost at will.

This is often the hardest part for most artists, being inspired at will. We have all experience the agonising vacuum where inspiration seems to have vanished. And the more we try to make it happen, the more it just slips away. Inspiration is a play by the unconscious mind and you can’t really force it to happen. But you can make circumstances favourable for inspirations to come (for more about this I recommend the book The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry). And to some extent you can push on by just starting to photograph, write, paint or whatever you do. I often experience when I am photographing and I feel uninspired, that if I still start shooting, at some point if I just keep going, the inspiration or the flow will come.

To round it up: My usual way of working and balancing the powers of the unconscious and conscious mind is like this: I will start to plan the project by doing as much research as possible. I will think about what kind of pictures I need to get and just pick up ideas from anywhere about how to resolve the challenge in a best possible way. This part is mostly conscious. Then the shooting starts and the unconscious mind takes over. I might have to force the shooting process into momentum by conscious control, but the sooner I can let go of the rational control the better, and usually when I get caught up in the shooting process, I lose this control. At this stage I don’t think about technique or light or composition, but trust my backbones so to speak. I don’t even think about all the research I did but let my unconscious mind play with it at the moment of shooting. It’s really all instinctive play at this stage of the process. Afterwards when the editing starts, I turn to my conscious mind again. Now it’s about analysing the result, to understand what worked and what didn’t work, so I can do better next time—and of course to pick out the pictures that will become the take of the shoot and sent to post-processing. And here again the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind starts all over again. But that will have to be for another time.

A Balance between Eros and Logos


The creative process, when it blossoms into its most fruitful expression, will always be a play between the conscious and unconscious mind. We need both when we create. We cannot force creativity into being by pure conscious force—just as we cannot solely depend on the unconscious mind when we want to express whatever we envision.

The conscious mind helps us with the craftsmanship, with planning, with execution of the idea, with knowledge, and, yes, at times also with forcing the creative process into its initial stages. But the conscious mind will never spring into life the new idea, the new expression, the complete new vision; it will not be the creative force as such. That’s where the unconscious mind comes into play. The unconscious mind will suddenly make us see things in a different light, it will act through our instincts and make us do something we otherwise wouldn’t have done, it will make us do errors that might turn into expressive and complete new work of art; the unconscious mind is the creator within us, but it needs the conscious mind to bring the idea into life.

We have all experienced how our unconscious mind can help us solve a problem we have been struggling with. We can bend our mind over without finding the solution, but then when we give up and go to sleep, next morning the solution suddenly appears out of nowhere. That’s when the unconscious mind has done the work for us—while we were sleeping. First time it happens it’s quite a revelation—and a delightful such.

As artists or creative beings we need to find a balance between these two paired processes. And we need to acknowledge both as inseparable elements of the creative process. For me this is another example of the polarity between Eros and Logos from the Greek mythology. I have previous used these terms to describe the creative process; such as in the posts Like Roots to a Plant and A Tool for Our Heart and Soul. Here and now I use Eros and Logos more in a Jungian understanding, although the first Greek origin is still valid. According to Platon Eros motivates all living beings to act upon their desires. The original understanding of Eros is «love» although Eros has also been used in philosophy and psychology in a much wider sense, almost as an equivalent to «life energy». Logos on the other hand was by Greek philosophers, especially Heraclitus and Plato, used to mean something akin to the rational structure and order of the universe. In the psychologist Carl Jung’s approach, Logos vs. Eros was represented as «science vs. mysticism», or «reason vs. imagination» or—as I use it here—«conscious activity vs. the unconscious».

In his book «Widening the Stream» David Ulrich view Eros as passion and Logos as the discipline required to cleanly embody our insights. He writes; «as soon as our attention can expand to embrace these opposing, alternating forces—our passionate longing and our disciplined intent—we come into a greater alignment, activating our creative energies and attracting a new quality of heightening being».

Talent Doesn’t Matter

It’s hard to accept that talent hardly matters. I know—particularly if you thought you were benefiting from a special talent yourself. We have become ingrained with the idea, not the least from media, which likes to push the idea of superhuman talents far beyond any reasonable credibility, if for no other reason than because it sells. Be as it may, numerous contemporary studies do indicate that talent has been overly overrated for too long.

As I wrote in last week’s post, Matthew Syed in his book Bounce refutes the, in my view, outdated idea of special talent being necessary to excel it in sports, business, school, arts or any other endeavour that requires more skill-sets than we all are in possession of. The illusion of talent arises because we only see a tiny proportion of the work that goes into the construction of virtuosity. If we were to examine the incalculable hours of practice, the thousands of baby steps taken by world-class performers to get to the top, the skills would no longer seem quite so mystical, or so inborn. That’s exactly what Syed does in his book; he deconstruct all the work some of the world’s biggest “talents” have had to put into becoming the success they have become, whether it’s Tiger Woods or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The belief in talent is not the least a natural derivation from a Darwinian believe-system. I certainly don’t oppose Darwinism and won’t discredit the fact that, at least part of the variation in ability in young people in everything from math to football is determined by generic inheritance. Some start out better than others do, there is no denying that. But, the key point revealed by the science of expertise is that the relevance of these initial differences melts away as the number of hours devoted to practice escalates. And why is that? Because over time, and with the right kind of practice, we change so much in ourselves. It’s not just the body that changes but also the anatomy of the brain. The region of the brain responsible for controlling fingers in young piano players, for example, is far larger than the rest of us. But pianists were not born with this, it grew in proportion to the years of training. Similarly, the area of the brain governing spatial navigation in taxi drivers is way above average—but it developed with time on the job.

And then think about this: It takes generation after generations for humans to adapt the genetic composition to new environmental conditions. How would it be possible for natural selection to change genes for kids growing up today and make some of them excel in computer gaming? A generation ago, nobody even knew about computer gaming. Two generations ago, computers hardly existed.

Yes, it would be anti-Darwinian to deny the existence of talent, defined in terms of the initial skills we inherit from our parents. However, it is in no way anti-Darwinian to deny the importance of talent. Given the adaptability of the human body and brain, it turns out that pretty much all healthy individuals can accumulate the knowledge that creates excellence, regardless of where they started out from. The evidence also tells us that we learn at pretty similar rates, at least on the long term. Certainly, there is no shortcut to excellence.

It takes a lot of work to excel in any field. Studies of grand masters of chess, top golfers of the world and top scientists—just to mention a few areas that have been studied—show that ten years is the magic number for the attainment of excellence. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of five books, he points out that most top performers practice around one thousand hours per year, so he re-describes the ten-years rule as the ten-thousand-hour rule (as some comments in my previous post about talent already pointed out). This is the minimum time necessary for the acquisition of expertise in any complex task. Ten thousand hours is a lot of devoted time. It means practicing around three hours every day—for ten years. Most people are not willing to pay this price, but it’s what it takes.

However, it’s not only the quantity of training that matters, but also the quality. A study conducted at a music academy in Berlin shows that top performing violinists had not practiced more hours than the lesser violinists had. The top performers had pushed themselves harder for longer. The others had not. That was the crucial difference. Anders Ericsson, a leading psychologist at Florida State University, calls it deliberate practice, to distinguish it from what most of us get up to. In Bounce Syed calls it purposeful practice because this training of aspiring champions have a specific and never-changing purpose: Progress. Every second of every minute of every hour, the goal is to extend one’s mind and body, to push oneself beyond the outer limits of one’s capacity, to engage so deeply in the task that one leaves the training session, literally, a changed person.

Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside of comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure.

This can be translated directly to us who perform in the arts. If we do the same kind of work time and again, we will be good at this, but we will not otherwise improve. If we want to become better photographers or better painters or better writes, yes, we must do the work, but we must also step out of the comfort zone—all the time. Same with exercising. I run and exercise quite a bit. Sometimes I get frustrated because my shape doesn’t seem to improve. Every so often, I run a marathon. When I do, I always want to improve my personal best. It rarely happens, though, and if so only marginally. For me to improve, I need to train harder than I already do, and if I want to keep improving, this is a never-ending upward spiral. I am just not willing to do so and have finally accepted this conclusion.

There is more to excel in any task than training enough and training right. It’s also about mindset, of course. Otherwise, you won’t be able to put in the 10.000 hours and keep pushing yourself out of comfort zone. Yes, clocking up thousands of hours of purposeful practice ultimately determines how far we make it along the path of excellence. However, it’s only those who care about the destination, those who are motivated enough, who are ever going to get there. There a ways to sustain the motivation, for instance through encouragement and through internalized belief. This will have to wait to another post, though, as it could be a book on its own. I just wanted to mention that there are more to the equation than enough and right exercise. Talent hardly matters, though.

I have written these posts about how we tend to overrate talent, not because I think we should all strive for excellence. For me it’s just important to know that I can get as far as I want to by my own will and willingness to go the necessary distance. My talent or lack of it is not going to be hindering me. As Syed writes: “The talent myth is not just widespread but it is also powerfully destructive, robbing individuals of the motivation of change.” I encourage you to take this to heart, and just do whatever you feel like doing—and enjoy the journey.

Let me end this rather too long post with my own experience starting out on a photographic career. Well, it’s actually before I even got started, professionally that is. In my teens, I really thought I had a talent for photography. I had won some prizes and I won a few photo competitions. However, just as with my exercising these days, at some point it stopped. My photography wasn’t going anywhere anymore, and I didn’t get the recognition I had started to get used to. What happened was, I had too much trust in talent, and didn’t put in the work. Thus, I stagnated. It was only after some years working professionally that my photography began develop again, simply because you cannot work professionally without doing a lot of work and you get pushed into situations that you have no control over. I didn’t know then what I know today. The moral: Don’t trust talent.

On a different note: When you read this, I have located myself to Park City, Utah, for the annual Sundance Film Festival. This week I will probably be seeing 20-something movies and be covering the festival. Unnecessary to say, it’s going to be work around the clock. But all fun and pure joy.

The first post about talented being overrated was published last week. Go to Don’t Trust Talent to read it.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-104 mm lens and the zoom set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/640 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Don’t Trust Your Talent

I have always been a strong believer in talent being overrated. Over the recent holidays, I read a book that largely confirms my assumption. Yes, talent may set some limits to our abilities, for instance creatively—or for that matter and more specifically photographically, since that is the field I am working in and writing about in this blog—but I really think it’s only of marginal impediment. In particular when talking about creativity, I think it’s something everyone of us inherently possess, we just don’t use it to our full capacities. In growing out of childhood, the society, our peers and ourselves most often discourage our creative development, so much that we end up losing trust in our abilities. What may seem like a lack of creativity is never due to shortage of talent, as far as I see it.

The book I have read is Bounce, written by Matthew Syed, the British number-one table tennis player in the late 90’s, a two-time Olympian, today a columnist for The Times and a commentator for BBC. His book is challenging the prevailing idea that success—whether in sports, business, school, arts or whatever—is determined, in large part, by the skills we are born with. In doing so, Syed pulls on recent scientific studies from around the world on the subject and makes for a convincing argument (well, I guess he never had to convince me in the first place).

When we see—of if you could see—“natural talents” like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, or for that matter Picasso or Mozart, in action, they seem to be in a different league than the rest of their equals—certainly compared to any of us regular mortal beings. What we forget and what we don’t see, is all the work they have put in to become extraordinarily good at what they do. Tiger Woods, for example, was considered a miracle golfer when he became the youngest ever winner of US Masters in 1997. Now, consider that Woods was given a golf club five days before his birthday, that by age two he had played his first round and that by five he had accumulated more hours of practise than most of us achieve in a lifetime. As Syed writes: “Far from being a golfer zapper with special powers that enabled him to circumvent practice, Woods is someone who embodies the rigour of practice.”

Practice is really what makes the difference. If you put in the work, you can excel in anything you want. Do you want to become a master photographer? It “only” takes some work, albeit a lot of hard, consistent and always pushing yourself kind of work. This much say, skills that are more based on pure physical strength may nevertheless have a component that is dependent on our heredity, such as for instance runners. However, not even the best runners in the world can compete at a top level without a lot of training. The genetic composition may have some saying, but medical science still haven’t found any “running gene”, which of course doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

For undertakings that are more complex, involving using more parts of our brain and body, Matthew Syed is adamant about how little talent matters. In achievements depending on fast reflexes, creativity, judging of multiple inputs and even intuition—without going into any definition of the word—we can only excel after hours and hours of hard work. Take a tennis player or a soccer player, he or she will not only have to be good a sending the ball over net or kicking a football and dribble, but he or she will have to be able to judge the movement of the opposition, weather conditions, the conditions of the field or the court and other variables. In many situations during a game he or she will have to make instant decisions. For instance a tennis player at the highest international level must be able to understand where the ball goes even before the opponent has hit the ball, judged upon how the opponent attacks the ball, being able to read even the smallest of muscle changes. This is not something that is God-given.

Syed calls it “combinatorial explosion”; tasks that requires a combinations of abilities and skill sets. As he writes in Bounce: “It is the rapid escalation in a number of variables in many real-life situations—included sports—that makes it impossible to sift the evidence before making a decision: it would take too long. Good decision making is about compressing the information load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience. […] it must be lived and learned. It emerges through practice.”

What Syed is saying, is that in practices that require “combinatorial explosion”, our skills need to have been ingrained in our backbones. We need to be able to apply them reflexively without having to think consciously. To get to such a point takes thousands and thousands of hours of training. Take photography once again. If you are doing street photography, you need to react fast and get your settings right at first try. If you need to think about how to set the camera, how to compose, when to push the shutter button and so on, the subject will have long been gone. You really need to be able to handle your camera without having to think about it at all. Again, this is something that takes long practice. It’s nevertheless achievable—even at the highest level—for anyone who is willing to put in the work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” is not depending on some inherited talent. However, in Bounce Syed is referring to plenty of research that clearly shows that more than anything such proficiency is not a result of heredity but rather environment. I am not going to recount some of the studies; if you are interested I suggest you read Bounce. Of course there is more to excel in whatever endeavour you are engaging in than being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” and put in a lot of work, but let me stop for now. In next week’s post, I will take up the thread and reflect on other aspects of the dichotomy of talent vs. practice.

I will just like to add one thing: Think about how our understanding affects our mind sets. If we believe being able to become good at something depends on talent, what will happen when we fail a couple of times with our endeavour? Of course, we will give up, thinking there is no point in continuing since we don’t have the necessary talent. Rather, failing shows the opposite, that we are on the right track. As Matthew Syed says; to be able to get better at something we need to push ourselves close to what we can possibly handle. That means failing—a lot—before we get the hang of it.

A Delicate Balance

A photo without emotional content is a dead photo
A photo without emotional content is a dead photo

No photo truly succeeds unless it triggers strong emotions. The same holds true for all visual arts. However, photography is special in that its very creation is very much technically depended. So much in fact, that many photographers don’t venture beyond the technicalities of the photographic process. It might even be what draws them to photography in the first place. A technical perfect image is for them an absolute requirement. With this approach they miss the point, though, which is that a captivating photo needs more than technical perfection, it needs the emotional connection more than anything.

Photographs that we find most meaningful are those that ooze human endeavour and symbolize the meaning of our world and our lives. Images that hold the most power for us tend to focus on loved ones, those who inspire us, those we detest, tragedy and beauty. Whether they are completely sharp, properly exposed or perfectly composed is of less importance. Of course, we use those technical variables to tell the story as best as possible—as part of the visual language, but in and of themselves they are completely uninteresting. An emotionally loaded but technically poor photo trumps a technically perfect photo lacking emotional content—any time.

The fact that the photographic process is so technically depended can get in the way of creating those strong images we all aspire to capture. This goes even for those of us who are less attached to the technical side of things.

Because photography is such a technically depended art, at least some technical considerations are always needed before taking the photo. The way our brain works makes this a problem. If you have to focus your attention too much on the settings of the camera, you may not be able to connect with and capture the emotional content that triggered you to wanting to take the photo in the first place.

Let me use an illustration to make this clearer. One of the most famous illustrations shown in psychology books appears to be either a vase or a pair of faces in profile (see beneath). A person not familiar with the illusion sees only one aspect at first. When the other aspect is seen, the first one disappears. Though it becomes ever easier to go back and forth between the two apparent realities, no amount of familiarity will allow both subject to be seen at the same time.

Exactly the same process is at work when we try to juggle between the technical aspect and the emotional aspect of taking a photo.

When our attention is drawn to technical aspects, we disconnect from the emotional content as surely as we stop seeing the vase just as we see the face. As we begin to see a subject in terms of shutter speed, depth of field, light and other technical considerations, our brains shifts gear. We lose the emotional power of the process in that instance. We lose the ability to see and capture the emotional content.

That is why the technical handling of the camera must become instinctively. Given, this doesn’t come by itself. It’s something that will only happen after long practise. The more you photograph the less you need consciously be aware of how to capture a subject that has triggered your curiosity. At that point, you are better able to connect emotionally to whatever you are photographing, and make this radiate through the final image.

This goes back to the fourth stage of learning, what I called unconscious competence in the post The Rollercoaster of Learning here on my blog last November. At this stage, you are at a point where the tools in your hand no longer get in your way.

Imaging you are a writer—or maybe you even are one. If you had to search out every single letter on the keyboard when writing, it’s not hard to imaging what that would do to your flow of writing. Only when you don’t need to think about where you fingers go on the keyboard can you write fluently, right out of your mind. Only then will you be able to enter the state of being in flow.

So it’s is with photography. When you need to concentrate your mind with technical considerations you won’t be able to enter the flow. Your camera literally gets in the way.

Let me end this post with a quote by the great, now diseased, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: «Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph». He knew that thinking about technical aspect would pull us off from what is most important in the actual moment of capturing a photo.

En klassisk illusjon som ofte brukes i psykologi-bøker

On quite a different note: Last month I announced I would admit one person free of charge to my online workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» starting up at the end of May. Quite a few people signed up for the draw, which has now been carried out. However, instead of drawing one, I decided to admit two of those who sign up for the draw, to the workshop. The winners of the draw are: Ann-Christine Påhlson and Colleen Briggs.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and a 16-35 mm lens set at 16 mm. Shutter speed: 1/250 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop with the plug-in Nik Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversion.

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.