Technical Skills vs. Artistic Eye

Photography is an interesting hobby/occupation: there is so much to learn to simply take competent photographs. Some (ok, including me) believe that learning the basics is key to eventually being able to express yourself artistically. But some come at it the other way around – using their artistic nature to develop their photographic eye, then learning what is needed to express it digitally, often through trial and error.

I grew up in and worked in very technical arenas – my parents worked in fields where following the rules was paramount and expected, and where training and development were necessary to be able to work in their fields at all. I then spent a career in an engineering company (an electric utility) where “creativity” was not really encouraged and could have devastating consequences.

Then I retired…

So it was natural that once I began to explore photography, I would approach it from a technical perspective first. And I jumped in with both feet. Bought a camera, read the manual. Yes, I really did. Cover to cover. Bought a tripod, read the manual. Oh, come on you say. Bought a flash, definitely read the manual. Do you sense a pattern developing? The interesting thing about manuals though is that they are not written by artists – they are written by engineers. So my comfort zone was not being challenged at all yet.

I went back to school – into a program that taught me about photography. It was designed to be balanced. Skills and creativity both had equal emphasis. I did good on the former; not so good on the latter.

I began to study the physics of light, the properties of lenses and sensors and the way the camera converts light to digital information. That of course was followed by all of the available information on converting raw data files into finished images, with no focus, pardon the pun, on the artistic quality of the images.

That came later. It had to. I could not finish school without it. Once I was comfortable with the buttons and dials on my camera and somewhat albeit less comfortable with the software that would process the images, I finally turned my attention to learning to see like a photographer.

Even there though, process took over somewhat. There was an investigation of the interplay of light and shadow. There were deep dives into tutorials on the “rules” of photography. Converting what is so naturally seen in three dimensions to something meaningful and interesting in two dimensions was a puzzle for me, part of which could be solved by more technical learning. For example, cameras have smaller dynamic range than the human eye (although that will soon disappear), making many scenes far less tonally interesting than what they are in real life. And the mysteries of representing depth in a meaningful way in a flat image have taken the longest time to understand.

Most challenging of all though was the introduction of artificial light sources into a scene that already had light illuminating the scene. Our eyes and brains do not separate out light sources – we blend them into a balanced result. But when we introduce artificial light and hope to photograph the result, we have to understand exactly how each source is contributing to that result and how our camera settings can affect that result.

Many photographers when publishing their biographies will either identify a formal path they have taken to that point – art major in school, formal training in photography, apprentice or assistant to a pro photographer or work at a publication. These paths are becoming less and less referenced, not in the least because everyone today is a photographer because of their smartphones. More often than not now, young up and coming photographers are self-taught, getting to a place of recognition through experimentation and trial and error. “Let’s just try this” is the new mantra of this cohort.

At the end of the day though, even they eventually reach a place where they understand the power and the limitations of the technical aspects of their gear and methods. We just get there in different ways.

It does mean though that we might evaluate our own work and the work of others with different lenses (again, pardon the pun). In the last 8 years, I’ve concentrated on confirming how I feel about a photograph through the rules. Is the exposure right, is focus where it needs to be, is the composition supportive of the message of the photograph, does your eye know exactly where it should go, is the colour treatment appropriate, etc., etc. This approach has taught me a lot about separating good photographs from bad. Yes, there is in my view a dividing line between them.

But recently, that line ain’t so clear anymore. Many of the photographers we host at our local camera club speak to and show images that flaunt everything I know. And those images are stunning. I connect with them emotionally, not logically. I connect with them. I want to do what they do.

I feel like I am going through something of an evolution right now, about to emerge newly transformed into a different lifeform. I do hope to spend this arriving spring seeing things differently, presenting those images to the world differently too. That would be amazing. Wish me luck.

4 thoughts on “Technical Skills vs. Artistic Eye

  1. Coming from a working world of numbers, where there is no other correct answer for one plus one is two, I know exactly what you mean. I was thrilled to learn I had a creative side after retiring but also dismayed by how quickly I lost it. And more dismayed by how difficult it is to get it back, since Cindy’s passing. I continue to believe it will come back but I do get frustrated in the meantime.


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