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Mastering photography: What does it mean to you?

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs)

Keywords: mastery, art, bgs

In this new series of articles on "mastering the art of photography", I want to discover any of the processes and methods supporting photographers interested in achieving more consistent, better results.
I should be able to draw some conclusions, hopefully together in direct interaction with you. We can discuss the topics raised in these articles in our "Café", which is as good place as any, while being open enough to let as many as possible take part, or at least read anything that they might find interesting or pertinent to their own photography. After you have read this piece, please do jump into the discussion in the Café and share your thoughts with me and the others there.
"To master the art of photography", that sounds big, maybe ominous or even impossible to achieve, right? Is it a level, an outmost goal, a high or the highest plateau of skills, knowledge and execution one can reach, probably with substantial effort invested? Or, is it rather the road itself, the path that we hopefully are on and that might never end?

What does "mastering the art of photography" mean to you?

I know, or believe to know, that for me personally mastering the art of photography has the meaning of being (on) a path, traveling a road that it feels like I have just started. It is a beautiful, long road, sometimes decorated with alleys providing shade on sunny days, where I can simply enjoy the nature in her various facettes. At other times, it is a strenuous uphill hike in a thunderstorm, with cold rain hitting my face and soaking my clothes, where I have to convince myself that any goals I have in mind, any visions in which I have achieved somekind of mastery, are worth the current effort.

Ballet dancer - By Pascal Baetens

Hard work and lots of training is the typical life of a ballet dancer until a certain level of mastery in the artform is reached. What are the less obvious similarities and differences between the two art forms of ballet and photography? Image taken by Pascal Baetens (pbaetens) in the old town of Bratislava, Slovakia, on the cobblestones where once members of the Habsburg dynasty were coronated. 
Will the road be leading me up the mountain, maybe with treacherous cliffs and narrow bends? Will I be able to cross the pass ahead with all the gear in my overloaded backpack? Do I have enough courage and will to muster the energy required to keep my long legs continue pondering the gravel road ahead for another full day?
Just as I cannot claim to know what will happen, if anything, to any consciousness of mine when I die, I do not know what will happen on my road or what I will experience, but I am very keen to find out. 
If one never really reach an absolute level of mastering photography it might all be about traveling the road, which would further signify the importance of process over events. Mastering the art is then not an event of photographing that breathtaking landscape, engaging portrait or explosive wildlife scene, but rather a process consisting of gathering knowledge, potentially wisdom, which is then applied consistently using tools we know well to increase our chances of achieving results we emotionally connect with, and executing it in such a way that we are able to consistently reproduce pleasing results above chance.
Hopefully, with enough knowledge and skills acquired, we are able to transfer the emotions we've experienced to the audience of our work, letting them relive what we've felt, or what we wanted them to feel.
To an outsider, oblivious to the path we are traveling, the single event of taking and showing a "great photograph" seems to be magic or "mastery", whereas we as travelers probably know that the process applied, the knowledge and skills acquired, plus any good tools we might have in our toolbox lead us to the results.

Why should I bother about mastering photography?

So why then should I even bother to reach some level of mastery in photography? Especially when the road might be rough and there seems to be a lot of shortcuts missing increasing the potential of me spending a significant time on it? In my opinion a good reason is that we should try doing our best because time is precious.
Even if some of us might argue that we have an eternal life through an reincarnating, infinite soul thus making any time-is-limited argument redundant, or that our super-efficient tools and templates made by specialists will take care of nearly everything without requiring much or any effort to be invested, I believe that these arguments still are moot and miss the point.
Not only do I believe we must do our best of the time we spend in this now and here, while we are able to breath, to create using our brains and hands, to laugh, cry and sometimes feel desperate in our undertakings. I also believe it is helpful to think about a good life being one of continous learning, where a network, or a grid of roads are available for us to discover and that this learning truly never ends. Learning and executing the learnt are key to feel satisfaction of and with oneself. I do not want to waste my time doing something half-baked, to deliver a partial solution, achieving an "ok result", since the only thing we cannot extend are the number of days we have to our disposal, and not trying to learn in-depth, fully would be wasteful.
I am having an objective of reaching a level of mastery where I envision myself enjoying the results of my creativity, to such a degree that I want to share it with many others, which in turn is nothing but me asking others to reflect upon me as the person I am, hopefully sharing my joy in the created. This vision is not limited to photography per se either.
It means I need to learn and figure out how to ensure I enjoy each stretch of the road, not only the easy, enjoyable alleys and mountain passes, but the rough ones, the ones where I need to leap above and beyond myself. I need to find methods that I apply, which support me when I need to be focused and maybe disciplined to execute even if a nagging voice tells me to give up, or that the work is boring, menacing. These methods then help me to leverage any acquired skills to successfully travel the road, or bring enough understanding to support a decision to take another turn, or a completely different road for whatever reason.

But, mastering photography is not for everyone, right?

I think the idea of mastering the art of photography is very helpful to include in a vision, to have as an objective and goal. I mean, why should you NOT be bothering about it, why should you decide to potentially stay mediocre or to outsource the efforts to achieve results which factually others, the specialists, made possible? I hear you say "But, time is precious and I want to consume as much as I can as fast as I can because tomorrow I am gone". Well, consuming is not the idea here. Far from it. I would say consumption is not the reason why we exist.
Having mastering of photography as a key element in my personal vision might help me to decide what to do, when and what not. It can become my guiding light, giving me hints on what I should do and what I should rather ignore.

OK, I would really like to get on the road towards mastery, but I am not sure I can do it!

You know that where you are today is based upon who you were, but what you become is all based upon who you choose to be starting now. So, if you truly put your mind to it, it is possible to achieve astonishing growth and results. With the help of others, improving results tend to get easier and the road is definitely turning more enjoyable. You are not falling into the outsourcing trap by including your peers, rather you are "calling upon the collective" where you both give and take, it is a win-win.
This article tries to be a part of this win-win. Next week I am looking at how to get on the road towards mastery.
What kind of meaning does the word "mastery" encompass for you personally? Let me know in the Café

Part 2 - Give yourself a gift

if you don't want to give feedback or your thoughts on this topic in the Cafe, you might want to move on to part 2 of this series.


(9 Votes )

Originally written on October 14, 2017

Last updated on December 30, 2020


Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on June 11, 2018

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

@MKHurder, thanks for the kudos :-)

User on June 8, 2018

Hi Bo: Great article...I'm finally getting to these "how to" articles. As usual, you've provided another invaluable lesson in the art with this series. Thanks. See you in the cafe.

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on November 1, 2017

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

@Nathan, yes knowing that we can improve our photographs is an important realization and then getting on to the road achieving that. Sounds like you are using manual settings on your camera a lot, like manually setting the aperture and shutterspeed, maybe also manually focusing.

NATHAN FRISBY (natpat) on October 31, 2017

Good article, I guess you could say that I have never given much thought to Mastering Photography but want to have photos as good or better than others. I joined a local camera club about 3 years ago and I know that my photos have improved since doing so, I think maybe because my equipment is costing me more money and I have gone to 90 % useage of Manual shooting.

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on October 15, 2017

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

Thanks, Gary! Glad you liked it. What is your personal take on "mastering photography"? Please do let us know in the Café & have a very good Sunday!

Gary Worrall (glxman) on October 15, 2017

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Great Article Bo, Well thought out and presented ........Gary