Back when I was in music college, we liked to ask my friend’s roommate what he thought of certain guitar players around the school. He almost always gave the same answer:
“Very technical, but no feeling.”
It was somehow absurdly amusing to us, mostly because this particular fellow was from a country outside the USA and had an extremely thick accent, and because we were dumb, immature college students who got off on stuff like this.
However, that was over 20 years ago, and I still remember that phrase as if I heard it yesterday. Over the years, I’ve realized that this fellow had it right on. It’s not about how fast you play, it’s about what you play and how you play it.
The same is true with photography. If you can’t take a photo with compelling content that touches your audience in some way, it really doesn’t matter how much technical stuff you know about exposure, lenses, f/stops, megapixels, recovery adjustments, Photoshop curves, white points, gamma, monitor calibration, or anything else.
Like all creative pursuits, photography is both a technical craft and an expressive art form. We often need to be reminded that our left brain’s technical skills are only the support staff to our right brain’s creative vision. Yes, you to have a solid working knowledge of how cameras respond to light, how your lenses portray the world, and how to properly process a RAW file. But in the end, it’s what lives inside your right brain that determines whether you’re a great photographer or not.
Making a compelling, thought-provoking image doesn’t come easy for everyone. Since photography is such a gear-intensive, technical activity, it tends to attract people who are naturally more left-brain-oriented (think retired doctors and lawyers), and who approach it from that standpoint. We also know that having top quality gear does make a difference, and so those who can afford the gear often buy into the notion that having a piece of pro glass or a high-end DSLR will make them a good photographer.
However, there’s only so much analytical brain power and money you can throw into photography before you hit a dead end. Unless you learn to open that door to your creative, intuitive, emotional side, you’re going to have a hard time making anything other than boring, run of the mill pictures.
By contrast, right-brain-oriented people tend to approach photography from the creative side first. They don’t always come into it with any sense of technical mastery, but since they already have creative door wide open, they’re more likely to produce highly artistic images on a regular basis. They might not be technically perfect from the start, but they can learn that stuff, and once they do master the nuts and bolts side of photography, they suddenly have have the potential to be incredibly good photographers.
Not that left brain people can’t learn to be great photographers too, but opening that creative door inside their brains can be harder for those people who are very analytical and skill-oriented. The just have to focus on expanding their right brain processes with creative exercises and artistic outlets. The best photographers have a good balance of both left and right, because while gear and skills do matter, the emotional side of image making matters more.
So go ahead and learn all your scales, but use them to help you play with feeling.
Senior contributor Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, outdoor and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.
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