The Long Game of Craft

When I was a kid, new to photography, I poured over magazines lusting over the new gear advertised in their pages, and the photographs I thought that new gear would make for me.

I wanted to make the kinds of photographs that would go into those magazines, and win those awards. It made a certain amount of sense to me, at the time, that the gear advertised in those magazines would deliver on their promise. What did I know?

What no one told me was this: craft, and the art we might one day make with that craft, is a long game.

Craft doesn’t do well when rushed.

But tell that to a 16-year old kid and like almost anything an adult tells a kid, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears. As an adult I get it, but it has taken so long to really get it, in part I think because the very notion of a long-game goes against the louder, more prevalent voices that clamour for us to buy the cameras, the gimmicks, the toys, those weird Lens Balls whose bizarre appeal I can not for the life of me understand.

Long games are hard, but if we want to get to a place of mastery one day, they are by far the easiest, least circuitous route.

Seeing this craft as a long game gives us incredible freedom. Freed from the need to make the best photographs right now we have the luxury of making mistakes and learning from them and making better photographs from the lessons we learn.

Freed from the need to buy a new camera or lens every upgrade cycle, we have the time needed to master one set of tools before moving on to another, and the resources needed to make more photographs or invest in deeper learning.

Freed from the pressure that comes from feeling like we’re not getting better fast enough, and that we should be better than we are, we gain the emotional liberty needed to be truly creative, never mind just being happier, less frustrated people.

Martin Luther, when he wasn’t nailing things to church doors, wrote this: “this life therefore is not being but becoming,” a perspective that, once adopted, allows us to stop obsessing about making masterpieces right here and now, and instead on becoming the kind of photographer with both the craft and the vision to one day make masterpieces.

It’s a mental game, but what would happen if our internal dialogue was centered around the idea of becoming the kind of photographer we one day hope to be, and relaxing into that freedom?

We’d be less frustrated with our progress because we’d stop believing that everyone else has it together, and we’re the only ones that can’t seem to figure it out. We all take time, no matter how great or how new your camera is. It took me years to become truly comfortable with the exposure triangle. It took me even more to get creative with light. I’ve been at this over 30 years and I think I’m only now really feeling a level of mastery and the resulting comfort I thought should be mine when I was 16 years old with 2 years of practice under my belt.

Why am I telling you this? Because the one thing so many of the photographers I know share, regardless of what we photograph or what cameras we use, is occasional, if not chronic, frustration. Frustration that our photographs aren’t as good as others, that we don’t see things that others do, that the camera doesn’t feel as comfortable in our hands as it seems to for others, or that our compositions aren’t as creative…on and on. Have you ever asked, “why am I not better at this by now?” You’re not the only one.

So if you’ll take a couple words of encouragement and advice from someone who loves you and cares about you and your craft, here are three short reminders. They aren’t clever, but they’re heartfelt and I believe there’s wisdom in them.

First, remember it’s a long game, a life-long study of a craft that will always challenge you, if you’ll let it. The goal is not to make this easy, it’s to gain control over your tools and your ideas, so you can wrestle with using the one to express the other, with a level of comfort and intuition that grows slowly over the years. Don’t focus on being a great photographer or making great images. That will come. Focus instead on what you need to learn and study and create in order to become the kind of photographer you one day hope to be.

Second, stop comparing yourself to others. Your journey towards mastery is not theirs, and vice versa. You have no idea what it has taken for them to get where they are, nor how long. No comparison with another human being is ever made on level ground. The scale is always uneven. Be you. Do you. Slow your roll and then read number one again: it’s a long game. Celebrate the work you make and the work you see others making; envy is poor fuel for creativity and a lousy ruler for measuring ourselves.

Third, it’s not only a long game, it’s a one-step-at-a-time game. Don’t rush the basics. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed because you’re trying to learn studio lighting and advanced composition and how to use filters while also trying to figure out layer masking and advanced selection techniques in Photoshop. Baby steps. One at a time. Pick something. Learn it well. Limit the voices you listen to because there will always be someone telling you the real magic, the thing that will take your craft “to the next level” is in some new thing. There is no next level. There is one step forward at a time, and the more intentional you are about that step, the less distracted you are when you make it, the better. That is how craft has always worked. Focus on the basics, one a time, ignore the distractions. Don’t get overwhelmed.