Zen and the Art of Photography Maintenance

I started riding motorcycles before I even took up photography, way back in 1972. Both riding and photographing require a lot of practice to achieve mastery. Both pursuits can be rewarding (or frustrating) as that expertise develops (or fails to.) Both involve complex technology with numerous opportunities to spend more and more money. Both are frequently enjoyed outside. Both involve disciplined vision and constant awareness of your surrounding environment. Thankfully, in only one pursuit can a mistake result in injury or even worse—death. While I was riding recently, I was reminded of what is arguably the most important similarity between the two, at least in the eyes of a photographer.

(This blog entry appeared originally on the B + H insights page four years ago. Since summer is here, I recently sold my motorcycle and everything I wrote about is still true, I thought I would re-post the blog entry.)

Long-time readers of my blog know that I ride my motorcycle during the warmer months as often as work and the weather allow. They will also know that, for the five coldest months of the year, the motorcycle is parked in my garage. It sits in a form of suspended animation, with the battery removed, the oil freshly changed and the gasoline specially treated to withstand the cold. Regular readers will also know that the annual de-winterizing of my motorcycle usually coincides with the start of the peak season for my outdoor work doing street photography.

A couple months back I started riding again, and as expected, it took me a few weeks to get my skills back in good working order. This past week, I have been taking photographs (and more recently recording audio) during my rides, for a podcast I am making. The finished piece will be a time-lapse animation, showing thousands of still photos very rapidly. It will look and sound like one short but frenetic motorcycle ride, assuming all goes well.

Setting Up

While gathering the images and the audio, I had the different recording devices on a tabletop tripod which was locked securely in place on my motorcycle with the help of a series of elastic bungee cords. For recording in both media, the procedure was the same. Fix the recorder in place. Take the cycle for a test ride to verify the security of the bungee cords. Do some basic recording tests while parked and then do another test drive to evaluate the settings on the two different recorders. Then check the results and recalibrate those settings. Once everything was in place, I turned the recorder (of images or sounds) on and went for a pleasant ride.

Setting Out

When I was riding (and recording the sounds of my motorcycle) I was struck by how automatic, how unconscious the actual process of driving had become. I went up or down in the gears, clutched, accelerated and braked, all without thinking. What I was thinking about was the audio recorder securely bound in place, just like the camera had previously been. In this case, the audio recorder was behind me, nearer the exhaust pipes to get the best possible sound. By comparison, the camera had been positioned in front of me where I could see it. The placement of the audio recorder behind me made me unusually nervous as I rode. My attention was split between my driving and thinking about the security of the recording device.

As I was riding and worrying about the unseen audio recorder, I approached one intersection with a stop sign. Completely unconsciously, I eased off the throttle, down-shifted, applied the brakes and came to a full stop with my left foot on the ground for balance. After a brief moment, I then accelerated again. Only when I was moving did I realize how completely subconscious that entire process had been. My brain was thinking about the audio recorder but my hands were thinking about operating the motorcycle.

Setting Autopilot

That state of intuitively operating the required technology without any conscious thought is the state that every photographer should be in when they go out photographing. When I am at my best as photographer, my hands subconsciously work the controls of my camera, while my conscious brain is working on the composition, evaluating the light, considering the angle, etc.

The operation of your camera needs to become as automatic as the operation of your car (or motorcycle in my case.) Long-time automobile drivers know that they do not need to think about the act of driving, they just drive. Using a camera should be no different. Becoming as in tune with your camera as you are with you car requires practice, practice—and more practice!

Setting Priorities

Finally, let me offer two thoughts to guide that practice. Do not keep buying new gear in the hopes that some new technology will improve your photography. Each piece of new gear takes time to learn. It also sets you further and further back from the subconscious mastery of the gear that is the hallmark of any great photographer.

Don’t limit your photography to only “important” subjects, because if you do, you may photograph only once a week, if at all. Photograph anything and try to use your camera every day. You need to get to the point where you know intuitively where the controls/settings are positioned.

Right now, my motorcycle riding skills are being ratcheted back up to their annual mid-summer peak. Then as the autumn approaches they will slowly wind down. By comparison, my photography skills never get fully out of use since I am practicing them constantly, just like any good photographer should be.

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