The subject of this article, shortcuts versus real craftsmanship in art and photography, is a subject I have analyzed extensively with my mentoring and workshop students, but I think it will be useful to share it with everyone because it is about how to become better as photographers and artists and how to do it by taking the truly shortest path, the path of quality and craftsmanship.
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They say the fastest route to go from A to B is the one you know best. They don’t say it is the shortest, and there are reasons why what you think is the shortest way to arrive somewhere may not always be the best. One of these reasons is that by trying to take the shortest way, without knowing what you are doing, it is very likely that you will get stuck (I am sure you have been there when trying to take road shortcuts, I know I have, more times than I would like to admit). Another is that by taking what is considered the shortest way you will miss all the experiences that a longer way will offer you, which would have made the journey so much more valuable.
When it comes to art and photography, the shortest way may end up being the longest one, and it may not even take you where you want to go after all. Why? Because art is not about speed, but about meaningful content and quality, and speed was always the enemy of quality. A highway is only good if you want to go from A to B without caring what is happening in between, but a real traveler will never disregard what is happening between two points, and a real artist will never discard the experience they have when creating their art.
Did you ever hear an art critic, when talking about the qualities of a painting, or a sculpture, considering the speed with which the artist painted that painting or carved that sculpture, being a quality? I have read thousands of pages about art, and I have watched hundreds of hours of documentaries about art, and I have never heard speed being mentioned as a quality when it comes to creating a work of art. On the contrary.
THE OBSESSION OF SPEED IN PHOTOGRAPHY
There is a lot of talk nowadays about how to process your images as quickly as possible so you can go out shoot some more. While there’s nothing wrong about working more quickly, the emphasis that some are placing on being out shooting as the most important part of making photography, versus working on the images you have shot to create a piece of art out of them, is an approach that makes you feel that working on your photographs is something that you should be guilty of instead of being happy about and proud of.
If you are wondering, yes, I am against this mentality. Why I am against this mentality is because I see photography as more than just shooting, more than just using the camera or knowing what lens is best for a certain scene, or how to calculate the best exposure, the best aperture, the best hyperfocal distance, the best tilt or shift angle for your tilt-shift lens, the best bellow movement for your view camera, or what is the best tripod, filters, weather conditions, the best subjects, viewpoint, and so forth.
I absolutely love the act of photographing, the act of figuring out all these things that go into capturing the perfect image, everything that has to do with planning your shooting session, with traveling, interpreting subjects, using the best equipment, the newest, the wow-est camera, knowing everything that is to know about all the settings of your camera and how to use them most advantageously. I just love all that. But I also know, that is not enough. You need more to create art.
IS THE SOFTWARE GOING TO THINK FOR YOU?
There is also a lot of talk about using the software that is going to give you the results you dream of in the shortest time, by clicking the least amount of buttons, by applying the perfect presets or the best settings that are going to give you your dream photograph without you even needing to imagine what that was.
The AI intelligence is going to figure that out for you. Or, for lack of AI intelligence, the presets incorporated in the software you are using are going to know perfectly what you want and they will be able to give you that perfect look by, ideally, you only needing to press one button – let’s say, the “Moody Dark Fine Art B&W” button (that sounds catchy, right?).
Of course, what I am describing is a bit far-fetched but, be honest, many of you hope this could be true (okay, maybe not many, but some). And that is where you may lose the meaning of creating, and not just making photography.
You may think that you are gaining time by continually hunting for the software that will give you the quickest result, but I am telling you, you may just as well be wasting your time. If you press pause for a moment on this race of finding ever quicker ways of getting it done with that image, you may just realize that you could stop wasting time by actually taking the “long way” to get to your dream image instead of taking the “short way”, which is, instead of relying on ready-made looks and recipes, just figuring that image out yourself. I can tell you, at the end of the day, this is going to take much less time than using automated tools that, supposedly, do the job for you. What they can do, at best, is give you the vision of someone else. Who wants that?
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for doing less work where that is possible. I am a champion at that, for as long as I know myself. I am using all the pieces of software that can make my life easier when processing my images, just like I am using all the pieces of gear that make my life easier when shooting an image, or all the organizing tools that make my life easier when traveling for photography. But the secret is to know when to use a shortcut and when to use your own mind and sensitivity to create your work.
There is always a place for shortcuts in our life, but should fine art photography rely only on shortcuts? I think you know by now, if you know me, my answer is no.
THE MAGIC RECIPE FOR GETTING IT DONE QUICKLY
I want to share a secret with you. Many of the students who come to me to learn fine art photography, initially come thinking that I am going to give them a magic tool that will change everything for them by the push of a button. Many think that the secret is in post-processing and they come hoping that they will find a shortcut they didn’t figure out but that I somehow figured out, and this is why my images look the way they do. I have to admit, though, that I have no magic spell or miraculous shortcut to do that and that if my images look the way they do is simply because I give them enough time to evolve into what they are. I give them enough time for them to become me and not the vision of someone else who has created a certain look or a certain preset. Yes, that would be quicker and easier, but honestly, it would be so boring. Why would I settle for a boring life? Just to get there quicker?
I can tell you that whoever tells you that there is that magic button that you can press to make an image look like your dream, is not telling you the truth. When somebody tells you that, you should look deeper and wonder why they say that. Believe me, there’s always a reason.
I don’t have magic talents or secret potions, I just treat my art with the utmost respect, and I give it the time and consideration it needs for it to be able to turn into what I dream about.
You may think, if you find the right tool, it is not going to be evident that you used a shortcut to get where you got, but let me tell you the truth, it will. I can tell, with a quite high level of precision, when an image has been processed “quickly” or by using some “fast track” tools, versus when an image has been created with care and craftsmanship and has been given all the time it needed to evolve into what it became. You may wonder how I understand this. It is because I know the shortcuts, and I know how far they can get you, and, actually, this is why I am not using them. I also know that unless you dedicate yourself to the art you are making, what you are making is not going to look like art but more like a fast track object. It will look like someone else’s work, and it will look like the work of all those people who have used the same shortcuts. Is this how you want your work to look like? Is this how little you want from your art?
There is a reason why painters need so long to create a painting, but it takes such a short time to make a replica of that painting. Because the painter who creates that painting has to imagine it from the beginning, they need to try different things to see what works best, maybe go back after a certain path didn’t get them what they wanted and do it again, think some more, imagine some more, then work some more, until that piece of creation becomes their dream. On the other hand, the one making the replica only needs to know how to copy the original vision. Not a very difficult thing to do, thus the speed with which you can create a replica. It is like using a preset. You can use the preset “Mona Lisa” to copy Mona Lisa on a new canvas but, unless your job is to sell Mona Lisa copies in a souvenir shop, would that make you happy?
It is not much different in photography. At times there is a certain look that is trendy, and it may become so trendy that it even becomes a preset one can apply in their image to make it look like the original look. I am sure It is tempting for many to make something look good even if it does not mean anything, but I am asking you again, is this all you expect from your work? To press a few buttons and get done with it? Where is the pleasure in that? And why would you do that? To finish quickly and go post and image on Instagram and watch the likes accumulate? Really? The likes are very nice, I don’t disagree, I love to see my likes go up too, but is that the point? Or maybe the point is the journey, and the more time spent on that journey, the more experiences you will have and the more satisfaction your work will give you? Have you ever considered that?
THE “ART” BUTTON?
There is no “ART” button that you can click to make photographs. There is no “ART” button that you can click to become an artist. It takes more.
This is why my motto is “Create MORE than photography”. This is what (en)Visionography means.
This is not some fancy term I am using to “brand” myself, but it means something. It means you respecting your self as an artist and putting into your art the energy and time it needs to be “more than just photography “, more than just using a camera, more than just clicking a few buttons, more than just replicating a certain look. It means you being born again in each and every one of your photographs. It means you expressing a facet of who you are as a person in each of the images you create. That takes time, it takes dedication. It takes more than 20 minutes of work to make an image.
There is a frenzy these days with everybody offering presets, filters, looks, styles, or any other automatization tools for photography that should make your images look professional without you even needing to know how to, so to say, open up Photoshop. There is a lot of effort and marketing tools used to convince you that automatization is the new “be-all and end-all” in art. It may be, if you want to make art on an industrial scale, and you need to make a piece in a few minutes. But it is debatable if making art on an industrial scale can truly be called art and that spending less time creating what you love just to generate more quantity is what art is about. However, you’re going to hear this wherever you turn these days, and I am sure that I am going to annoy some people with what I am saying. But I am still saying this because, despite the mainstream belief about photography being “more and quicker is better”, I still believe in the power of using all the tools, no matter how long it takes and no matter how difficult it is, to create a piece of art that represents yourself and that you are happy about.
You may argue that, despite me talking about those who promote presets, I am myself offering a set of fine art presets on my website. I do that, indeed, but you may not know exactly why I do that. One of the reasons I do that is for people who have less experience to see the possibilities of fine art photography and be inspired to learn, and another reason is for people to see the limitation of presets. It may sound counterintuitive, but it is a good way of showing somebody the limitations of the mainstream belief.
Yes, you can create “nice” photographs by using a preset. But is this you, as in YOU, the artist? Or is it the person who has created the presets? And what if you want to go farther? What if it is not enough? What if you feel differently? That is the main point of why I am sharing the presets I am sharing on my website. To encourage people to think, to trigger curiosity, to make people wonder “what if”? What if I go farther? What if I feel differently? What if I am not the same as others? Is that okay? Can I really be different, and can I really show that in my work? When you get to ask yourself that question, I believe you are an artist. And I believe that the moment you feel that you are an artist, you deserve to give yourself the time to express exactly who you are without needing to use the tools somebody else has used to express who they are.
YOUR UNIQUENESS. EXPRESS IT.
You are unique. There is nobody else in the world and there has never been anybody else who ever was who you are. Isn’t that an amazing thing to discover? Isn’t that worth you giving everything you have to create work that is going to express who that person is? Wouldn’t the world miss so much if you wouldn’t do that? Wouldn’t the world be an emptier place if you kept that for yourself? And would you be able to do that by just applying a preset to your work? Would your soul be happy when you do that?
Sometimes I feel so strongly that I have to share with everyone the things I believe and feel, even if they do not follow the mainstream opinion. I just need to do that because the way I think helped me so much in expressing myself, and it brought me so much happiness, artistic happiness, that I just cannot keep that for myself only, and I have to share them with others.
Some other times I am thinking maybe what I really feel will not be understood and if It is not understood then will anybody believe me again when I say something? That is one of the reasons I am not always sharing what I think. It is not because I don’t think it is valuable, it is because I am afraid it may rock the boat too much sometimes, and it has done so at times. So maybe I am just scared. But then I am thinking that, even if the mainstream opinion may be different and I may be misunderstood or criticized for what I am saying, there will inevitably be some people who will understand what I am talking about and who can use that to be happier artists. And I know there have been people who became happier artists because I shared what I thought even when I didn’t know if that was the ultimate answer and even when it went against the mainstream belief.
I am not only talking about photography here, I have done that in my career as an architect too and, I can tell you, at times some have looked at me as if I was coming from another planet. I can tell you, sometimes there’s just too little space for thinking differently and It is much easier to follow the mainstream belief instead of trying something different. And many times it is not easy to convince others that what you say or do is legit, possible, doable, acceptable, … (fill in the blanks).
But the truth is, in art, in photography, you don’t need to justify yourself. Whatever you do, whatever the result of your work is, as long as you know you have done your best to express yourself, you don’t need to justify it in front of anyone. Whatever they say. No matter how much they push you. Art is free. You, as an artist, are free. There is nothing in the world that can give you the freedom that art is giving you. This is why I am so much in love with art.
THE ARTIST AS A “PROPHET”
One of my favorite contemporary authors, Leonard Shlain, in one of the best book I have read about art, “Art and Physics”, says something along the lines that what artists are imagining at one moment in time, the scientist will discover to be true centuries later. I have always felt that and it struck me when I read it written by Shlain. I think this is one of the most amazing and insightful statements about what art means. It is the definition of creativity and of what being an artist means. Being an artist means trusting yourself completely, trusting yourself so much that you are willing to create work that you will show others, based on what you feel and what you think, based on your intuition and insightfulness, and that you will be willing to let that work be interpreted by others through their own personality and beliefs. It takes a huge amount of courage to do that, and that can courage only come from the deep insight and belief that artists have, that they can touch the truth by trusting their artistic self. It is about intuition and about feeling what everything is about, despite the fact that you cannot prove it just yet. But the fact that, when time passes by, and science catches up with artists’ creativity and imagination enough to challenge their beliefs, and when science finds that artists’ beliefs were true in a scientific way, then you cannot help but wonder “why don’t we trust artists from the get going and we need science to prove them?”. The answer is: we are afraid. We are afraid of art.
We are afraid to let ourselves go and give ourselves the freedom to experiment and to go somewhere where we cannot imagine what will happen. This fear is actually what holds us back. Generally, fear is what holds people back in life, but in art, fear is much more damaging. Fear is what makes us search for certainties before creating instead of risking to just create. Fear is pushing us to search for something that can do the work for us and can guarantee us that the result is going to be acceptable – something that can guarantee us that a certain look is going to be “successful”. Why risk doing the work ourselves and maybe making a mistake, if we can use a tool that can think for us? But is this really so? Is that tool going to really think for us? Is that tool really going to think the way we would think if we let ourselves think for ourselves? Is that how artistic freedom looks like?
MAKING ART MEANS ASKING THE QUESTIONS
I know, these are a lot of questions. I know that answering these questions is not easy. Actually, answering these questions means making art, in my opinion. Making art does not only mean making an object that looks in a certain way, but it mainly means asking the questions. Asking the questions is the most important part of creating art and fine art photography. The object that results, be it a painting or a photograph, a novel or a symphony, is only the answer to those questions. And there is nobody who can give us that answer if we don’t find out ourselves. There’s no such thing as art without risk. There’s no such thing as art with a precise answer. There is no such thing as a preset that can create a piece of art.
If you talk to one of my students, they will tell you that you are not going to hear me saying it is fine to finish an image in two hours. Two hours may even sound like a long time for some, but what I am going to tell you is that it is too little for you to create a version of yourself in that image. If you are willing to go on this journey, you will see that photography can truly be art, and it is not about shortcuts and cutting corners to get more quickly to a catchier result that does not mean anything. There are, of course, ways of doing that if that is the only thing you want, but that is not what art means for me, and this is not what you are going to hear from me.
The happiness I have seen in my students when they became able to express themselves in their work does not compare with anything, and this is what I aim to do with my students. Help them find a way of expressing themselves while using all the tools in the box to do that. All the tools, not only the quick ones.
We only live once. Why would we hurry up to get to the finish line? Why would we hurry up to do everything we want to do as if life was a racing contest? Life is about enjoying living. Enjoying living was never about rushing to get a photograph done so you can post it on Facebook or Instagram. It was always about living in the moment and mindfully experiencing what you are doing, for as long as it takes for you to get to that point, that will make you happy. Photography is another way of finding your meaning in life.
You can do that whoever you are. You don’t need to be a professional photographer to be an artist. You can practice any other profession that you love, and still be an artist using photography to express themselves.
Human beings are so complex. You cannot just put them into small boxes and put labels on them. You can be anybody and at the same time be an artist expressing yourself through photography. Just make sure that you use this tool, photography, to really make yourself happy and not just rush through living just to get to the finish line with more photos under your belt.
Who cares how many photos you have made? There are only around 15 authenticated paintings of Leonardo da Vinci but he is one of the greatest painters and one of the greatest minds of all times. With only 15 paintings known. Just picture that. You can hang them in a small apartment and still have room for some more. There are others who have thousands of works in their portfolio, yet nobody knows who they are. This is another way of me telling you that quality will always beat quantity. Always! Don’t ever doubt that. Don’t ever doubt that, next time you think that you have to create more, more, more, quicker, quicker, quicker.
THERE IS NO SHORTCUT FOR CRAFTSMANSHIP
There is no shortcut for craftsmanship. Either you want craftsmanship or you settle for automatization. You need to be aware of this. You need to be aware that we live in an era that is mistakenly trying to convince us that faster is better no matter where faster is happening. Faster is amazing in every aspect of life. Except for art. Faster and art do not go together. Don’t let anyone tell you anything else. You know that already, and this is why you try to find faster ways to do it, because you understand that it takes time, and it is not easy to accept that. But accepting that is a fundamental step to becoming a real artist and to unleashing that artistic energy and creativity you have inside you. Just accept it and go for it. It is so liberating. Artistic freedom is the single most liberating and fulfilling thing you can experience in life.
THE PASSING OF TIME AS AN ARTISTIC EXPERIENCE
If you want to understand the concept of how the passing of time enhances the creation of art, the best way is to study ancient Chinese and Japanese art. The way ancient Chinese and Japanese artists were creating art can teach us so much about dedication to our work and focusing on creating a result that will convey a deep and powerful meaning to the others. Taking your time to first experience your art in order to create a visual representation of what you feel is fundamental in creating art. Ancient Chinese and Japanese artists were focusing on the experience much more than on creating an explicit result. The world is fleeting, and a material embodiment of art is going to last just as long, but the meaning and experience are going to last forever inside the inner world of an artist.
Even the way you “read” a traditional Chinese painting has incorporated in it the concept of time. The traditional Chinese paintings were made on handscrolls and were meant to be experienced while unfolding the scrolls and going through the different stages of the story. The painting was meant to be read in sections and not by looking at everything at the same time. This way time becomes a fundamental component of the work of art.
If you want to get a better idea, here is a short video made by The New York Times where Maxwell Hearn, well known for his study of Chinese painting, is scrolling through a Chinese scroll painting from the 14th century. Look at how the story unfolds and try to be mindful of what time means in this process. Then try to use this experience in your photography work. It will give you a different perspective over your work and over what time means for you when creating it.
For some time now, I am working on an essay (maybe it is going to become a book) that, among other things, talks about how we express ourselves through art and photography throughout centuries and, hopefully, I’ll be able to get back to this subject with more ideas soon. But I can tell you already that, once you start expanding your horizon to more than just photography, and you start delving into what art and artistic expression mean, that is going to bring so much inspiration to your photography. It is going to give you such an immense reward, such tremendous satisfaction as an artist. You do not need to be a Rembrandt or a da Vinci to be a happy artist. A happy artist is the artist who embraces everything that making art means. From the exhilarating feeling when you finish a piece of work, to the deep frustration when it does not turn out the way you expected. Everything is part of real life, everything is part of art. Because art is life. And, if you ask me, life is art. You do not need to live thinking about art all the time. But you can let art be present in your life all the time by accepting it as part of who you are and by living up to the ideals you have as an artist.
And when you do that, you will understand that time is a fundamental ingredient in creating art. Time and the experience of that time passing. Don’t deny yourself that experience by taking shortcuts. Don’t deny yourself the act of living by trying to condense it as much as possible, only to get there more quickly.