Jack of all trades, …

For various reasons, I haven’t found time to post something fresh lately. It’s not that I ran out of ideas, or topics I care about. But some of those ideas need a bit more time to mature. Some need me to spend some time actually making photos. Others need me to straighten my thoughts a bit more.

I know the hodgepodge of postings so far do not make it seem like I ever straightened my thoughts, but usually there is some level of effort to that before I start writing. Not always, sometimes I prefer more to jump on a train of thoughts, and go with it. Editing that afterwards is a pain, and it never ends up being terribly coherent.

Anyway. This morning, I was catching up with some blogs that I like to follow. One article on The Online Photographer sparked some reflection. For this post to make sense, it’s best to read it first I guess. And hopefully come back too 🙂

TLDR for the lazy 

First of all, I frequently like the posts on that site. Often enough, the thoughts and considerations shared there help me better frame my own thoughts. While I don’t react often on the postings there, it’s definitely one blog I value and read regularly.

This posting touched on something that has been on my mind on and off too. 

For those who couldn’t bother to read it, in very very short (but oh, come on, read the original): coming from a technical discussion on film, experience learnt that trying to extrapolate more generic results from a test with certain chemicals, paper or film was pretty much impossible – you’d have to take the tests as-is, for the materials used in that test, and no more. Even comparing results between two different persons, even with all possible variables taken out (same materials, temperatures etc), comparison still showed differences. As a reaction, Mike Johnston lists two ways to cope with this uncertainty:

  1. Adjust and Adapt Method: just go with what you have, and make it work for you as it comes (and/or goes).
  2. Master the Materials Method: reduce the materials you work with to a minimum, and master those by continuously experimenting and learning about them. Get up to such an intimate level of knowledge that you can cope with whatever it throws at you.

Again, better to follow that link and read the full post.

Hmmmm….. that rings a bell

My first reaction was thinking about the recipes I’ve shared here so far, and the fact that lately I’ve been using none of those in favour of some new favourites. In a way, those recipes are a way to try reach the second method, but deep down I just follow the first method. I don’t think I’m tenacious enough for the second one.

Learning and Mastering

Contemplating a bit longer, though, it’s actually about a lot more than film photography or darkroom printing. They’re not only two different methods in that area, but actually two different approaches to learning photography. Or learning in general, really.

A lot of photographers I know aren’t committed to a single type of photography. They’ll be happily making landscape photos and switch to a macro, wildlife or a portrait during the same walk. Architecture and street during the same city-trip. And others are actually much more dedicated to a single type of photography. Same when it comes to commit to only colour, or only black and white. Or to only one type of film indeed.

In the same way we start out learning in school about a wide range of topics (languages, mathematics, physics, history, geography and so on). And the more we progress, the more we specialise in one specific topic. Up to university degrees in extremely specialised topics like economic history of  medieval Western Europe, or a medical doctor, specialised in specific skin conditions only.

The more we narrow down, the more we move into mastering the topic. Getting so intimately knowledgeable about that one specific topic makes that little in that area that can catch us out.

Good versus Better?

First of all, learning is a good thing, so there is no “bad” in this story. But it also makes me ponder the saying ‘a jack of all trades, master at none‘.

Perhaps I perceive this saying wrong, but I never saw this used as a compliment. The jack of all trades knows how to do a lot of things, but none of them really well. Better get a specialist in to get a job done properly. Again, might be my reading, but I cannot shake the feeling this is normally how it is seen.

Now funny enough, for those who read the post on The Online Photographer, that is not a conclusion there. Quite the opposite, the shortcomings of the Master the Materials Methods are clearly shown too. A change in the chemicals which you’ve mastered can set you back to square one.
I think as an allegory, that’s again true for many types of learning. Deep thorough knowledge versus a more shallow flexibility and adaptability. Suddenly, a jack of all trades doesn’t sound that bad.

Know, or understand?

Another risk with being very specialised, in my view, is loosing sight of the fundamental basics. Understanding core basics will make you understand lots of situations. You may not have the knowledge like a specialist has, but the basic understanding will help you find the right direction. Not as quick as the specialist, not as aware of the exceptions and quirks, but generally, it works.

In photography, you sometimes see articles or courses where you get guidelines like “for a landscape, always use a high f-number”, or “for a portrait, use the lens at open aperture”. Most courses, though, get it right: learn how depth of field works. And once you understand that, you could make up those guidelines yourself. Better still, you’re armed to make your own choices.

For some skills, it is a bit harder though. The challenges of sports photography, a wedding or journalism are pretty different, and if you want to have some consistent decent results there, apart from understanding fundamentals, you’ll need plenty practise too. Which will drive you to become a specialist, as time is always limited.

What is the goal?

The goal of this post…. to think about what the goal is, and how the way we approach learning changes with it. What? If the goal is to be a professional, learn to become an expert at what you’re getting paid to do or deliver. If the goal is a hobby, the choice is all yours.

While I have no data, I expect most to read this to be amateur photographers, as am I am. Amateur in the sense of not charging for images, not structurally making photos on request of somebody else (in exchange for money, goods or whatever). An amateur can still be ambitious and strive to be as good as possible. But much more on own terms than the professional: there is no customer who needs to like what we do. That’s the freedom a hobby provides.

Being a jack of all trades in such a context? Sure, why not. It is about doing what you love, not about what others think about it. So if you’re unwilling to commit to one type of photography, fine. Do it all. If you feel like using a different film with different developer every time… why not? It doesn’t make you better or worse, but of course you should accept not achieving the same level of excellence in a structural, reliable way as a master would be able to.

And that’s the point maybe. Most of us naturally strive to be as good as possible at things we do. But that’s something we impose on ourselves. We can be perfectly happy being incredibly mediocre too. It’s a hobby; enjoy yourself. And perhaps something resonates with you, you dive in and become increasingly expert. Or not. No pressure.

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