The process is half the fun

Today, the way we learn, interact, and connect around topics we are interested in has radically changed from just a few years ago. Not that many years back, craftsmen of all types toiled away trying to learn as much as possible from what few books they could get their hands on at a local bookstore, or at local user group meetings, or at the supply store for their particular trade. Information, ideas, feedback, and help, was more often than not a solitary activity.

But today, that solitary activity has unfolded into a massively connected adventure. We have resources galore at our finger tips; from books that are cheaper to print and easier to buy to internet discussions that dive deep into details that matter. As I’ve worked on learning the finer points of photography, I’ve leaned on people I’ve only “met” online, books that I’ve ordered off of and downloaded to my iPad, and from asking many, many questions to an audience of distant, kind hearted supporters. I’ve learned more about photography in a shorter period of time than I ever could have dreamed of when I tried learning it 15 years ago.

Today, I read with great frustration Scott Bourne’s latest blog post.

Neil Leifer is considered one of the greatest sports photographers of all time. His picture of Ali standing over Sonny Liston is the epitome of iconic. It’s one of the most memorable sports photographs ever. And there’s a lesson I want to teach from it.

It’s not about the process.

Do you know what brand of camera Neil used back then? We know he shot film. What kind? What speed? What was the aperture and shutter speed? Who developed the film? Did they use any special developer chemicals? Where did he get prints made? What type of paper? What type of enlarger?

These are the kinds of questions most of my audience would ask today – but they’d have a more modern spin. Aperture or Lightroom? What plug-ins? etc.

First off, let me agree with Bourne; taking a great photo is not all about the process. If not for Leifer’s keen eye for composition and timing, this photo might have been a solid, but not at all iconic snapshot. And yes, today it’s fairly easy to get caught up in over thinking one camera or lens versus another.

But let’s be realistic: taking a great photo absolutely includes “the process”. If you look at the Ali photo in question, you’ll notice great color, balanced lighting, a wonderfully darkened background, and other successful “process” oriented elements. What I notice from highly experienced photographers is lack of understanding of what may be muscle memory for them is still a huge struggle for the rest of us. The idea that Leifer didn’t think about those settings, didn’t include them in his capture process, is ludicrous. As is the idea that many, many students of photography (not just lovers of sports) didn’t and don’t have interest in exactly those things settings and details.

Nobody cares which camera or film or shutter speed Neil used to make this image – it’s the IMAGE that counts. It’s about the impact of capturing a moment in time that will live on forever. It’s about a photo that will live on past all of us. The processes used won’t even be known to people generations from now who see the picture. All that they will know is that in the 1960s, a boxer named Ali dominated and the moment was captured for generations that will follow to see.

Actually… I do! As I would imagine a great many aspiring photographers would. For a highly skilled, highly talented photog like Bourne, it’s easy to wave a hand and brush away the importance or interest of the details. They’re second nature to him. But for us mere mortals, understanding details helps us learn. Seriously now, imagine a Tour de France first timer asking Lance Armstrong for advice on how he could be so successful in that race and having Armstrong say “don’t worry about the details, it’s all in your head”. Actually, understanding when the best times to gear up/down are, or how to best deal with the road surface and the hills, or ways to better communicate with your road crew are what help make a win happen!

At no time have I ever heard him [Leifer] talking film stock or developer or shutter speed. Instead, he talks about the relationship he had with the moment and the man – Ali.

Talking with whom, exactly? You, Mr. Bourne, and expert photographer who no longer needs or finds interest in that type of detail? Or with the reporters who have interviewed him about the photo who weren’t interested in details but in historical context? Of course he didn’t.
But even for Leifer, decades ago or today, I’d be willing to bet that he got all photo nerdy with the dudes at the local print shop. Or when he talks to photography students.

I hear the message that Bourne is (I think) trying to get at: stop spending so much time obsessing about settings and equipment choices and start thinking about/shooting/capturing emotion and beauty around you. And this is a great and correct message.

But Mr. Bourne, let me give you a message as well: The discussion you so easily dismiss is what we mere mortals need in order to learn; that discussion is what helps us bond with our fellow photographers; that knowledge and understanding is what helps us gain confidence about our own settings choices. Yes, it’s easier than ever before to obsess about “the process”, but that’s not a bad thing. If we’re learning, connecting, and enjoying, who cares what we’re using as a way to make those things happen?

About the author

Jake McKee: