A Music Lesson for Photography
A man severely damaged his hand after it was crushed in a car door.
When the surgeon came into the operating room to discuss the severity of the injuries with the patient, the patient was desperately concerned about his ability to play the piano after the operation.
The man asked "Will I be able to play the piano after the operation?"
The doctor assured him that the injuries would heal completely and that the patient most certainly would be able to play the piano after the operation.
"Great!," said the man, "because I never could play it before!"
The episode went on and on, with the audience continuously asking "when is he going to teach us, we're waiting?"
Finally, at the very end of the show, Jean-Pierre Rampal comes out, and says "It's simple. All you do is blow here and move your fingers around over these little holes."
The joke is that we all know how to play the flute or piano — all we do is blow and/or press the keys — but actually doing something is quite different from just knowing how.
When I was an even littler boy in the late 1960s, I wanted the same things every other little boy wanted: pellet rifles, high-powered radio transmitters, big telescopes and lots and lots of explosives. Our dad obliged us by always keeping a full can of gasoline in the garage ostensibly for the lawn mower, always ready to fuel our experiments.
Music was also doing crazy things in the late 1960s. The Moog Machine (electronic synthesizer) was exploding onto the scene everywhere from side parts in The Beatles Abbey Road (1969) to being every instrument of the orchestra in Walter Carlos' Switched-On Bach (1968).
How could any kid not want his own Moog Machine, with all its knobs, buttons and patch cords, to make great music of his own?
Of course I asked my dad for a Moog machine. My dad, who taught me everything I know, is an accomplished musician as well an electronic engineer and organ builder; heck, my parents met in a chorus. Dad suggested that since a Moog machine's input is a keyboard, that I first needed to learn how to play a keyboard before it made any sense buying — or building our own — Moog machine. If I could learn to play the piano, then we could think about getting a synthesizer.
Of course we had pianos and organs at home; my mom played and my grandma was and had been Henry Steinway's personal secretary for decades.
I picked up my dad's lesson books and started to try to learn how to play keyboards. We all know all you do is press the right keys at the right time, and any of us can walk up to a piano and make sounds, but holy cow, actually being able to make music come out of it is an entirely different issue.
I tried and tried, but I never got it. I gave up. Even 40 years later, I still can't play at all — except for a chord or two — and still no Moog machine for me.
This taught me the important lesson that you can't just buy an instrument and expect it to play. If you want to play the piano, you have to know how to play the piano; you can't just buy one. Buying a better piano doesn't make you a better player, or make you a player at all.
Getting an instrument or camera accomplishes nothing if we don't already know beforehand what we're trying to accomplish with it.
People ask me all the time what camera and lenses to buy so they can take landscapes like Ansel Adams, or take great low-light shots, or great action shots.
Getting a great camera without already having the skills of an artist and photographer is as pointless as buying a Steinway or Moog machine and not being able to play keyboards.
Almost no one ever wonders about what we're trying to do with our cameras in the first place to create great pictures, or even what makes a great picture. All most people seem to want to do is to buy "the right" camera and lenses and expect that pictures just come out without any thought or creative effort.
It doesn't matter what kind of camera you buy if you don't know what you're trying to do with it. If you're not a photographer, all you'll get out of a camera are snapshots, exactly as people who aren't pianists can get a chord or two out of a piano, but won't be making music.
If you know how to shoot, you can shoot with anything and get the results you want. As Brother Ray showed us in The Blues Brothers, even if an organ has a sticky action, Ray sat down and had the entire neighborhood up jumping, singing and dancing. "Doesn't seem sticky to me," as Ray Charles said, because he knows how to play around a sticky action.
Music and photography are far more than knowing what buttons or keys to push when. I knew how to set envelope generators, oscillators and filters on a synthesizer back in 1969, but I still can't play keyboards. Most people can read-up on how to set the menus in their cameras, but great photos involve far more.
The moral of this lesson is that before you go wanting a new D3X or Canon 5D Mark II to take great pictures, know that until you learn what you're trying to do, which involves far more than learning controls and settings, all you're going to get are the same snapshots you got before, much as a well-tuned Steinway will play a kid's chords with brilliant tones, but there won't be any music coming out of it until a real pianist pushes his stool in.
To learn to play, take music lessons. To learn how to take great pictures, take art, painting and composition classes. Avoid "photography" classes, as they usually only consider technique, and rarely the fundamental artistic aspects of how to design an image and ultimately what we're trying to create. The best book on what we're trying to do to create great images is Bruce Barnbaum's "The Art of Photography."
I wasted my first 20 years of photography learning technique, and it wasn't until 1991 that I looked at 20 years of work, realized that there was nothing there, and finally realized it was time to drop the textbooks, open my eyes and start taking pictures.
I hope my experiences can help you get to great photos faster than I did. I'm still trying!
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