The Easier It Gets The Harder It Becomes

The writer Arthur Koestler observed that  you could take a cable car to the top of a mountain or you could slog your way up, battling the steepness and the snow. Either way  you got to the summit  – but the view would not be the same.

I thought about that the other day, when I was cycling home. It was freezing cold and dusk. I saw a scene that just screamed ‘winter, cold’. I had my Panasonic GX8 in my bag and not wanting to freeze, put it on iA, (Intelligent Auto) made a quick shot and cycled on. After 5 minutes, I realized that I hadn’t made the best of the scene and cycled back and spent a bit more time on the pic. And froze.


This was pic one, whip it out, point and shoot.


This was on the second go. I don’t make any pictorial claims for these but this one has a much bleaker feel to it and reflects what was in my mind’s eye much better.

How does that relate to Koestler? Because I could and did, at first, just take my camera out of my bag, point it in the right direction and know that the pic would be technically good. That was the cable car pic.

With a film camera of yesterday, I’d have to have selected the best angle of view lens. metered the scene, made a  decision over where to base my exposure and having done all that move around looking for the best angle. Having no camera stabilization, I’d probably have needed to set up a tripod.

I would want to get the best shot I could because I was already frozen and only the best pic I could get would justify my effort and frosted fingers . I’d have taken plenty of variations too, because when you can’t view the pic right after taking it, you don’t know when you have taken the pic you were looking for. So you don’t stop until you are certain you have done everything you could.

And that’s why I went back. Same location, same scene, same camera but the view would be different. The result of all that effort would be the hard slog up the mountain pic.

When no-one is telling you what pictures to take, you only have to please yourself. If you do something for pleasure but don’t please yourself, what is the point? The best photographers I have known have always been their own harshest critics. And the hardest workers. They have also been people who were trained in photographic techniques, who knew what it was to climb the mountain on foot. Their approach to a picture, even using the digital wonders of today is informed by that.

It makes me feel sad for young photographers who want a career in the business.  They are working with photographic tools that have taken away the need for classic photo techniques. The once mocked fully automated point ‘n’ shoot camera is now available in the guise of professional quality cameras.

It started in the late 80’s with the ‘P’ for Program setting on (universally known in Fleet Street as ‘P’ for Pissed) setting on the Nikon F4.  Now, with auto ISO, auto focus, auto exposure and 30 fps stills from video, Mr Silicon Chip has taken over. Why would you learn the techniques of yesterday when Mr Chip does it just a well with no effort required?

Here’s why. The day of the camera operator is over. That job, being done by the camera itself. has devalued the currency. There has always been a distinction between a camera operator and a photographer, just as there is between a journalist and a writer. They are related but one is a learned technique and the other is that technique used expressively.

Where once people were delighted if a photo simply ‘came out’ or was ‘nice and clear’, they now expect lots of razor sharp well exposed colourful images. The digital camera delivers that with consistency. Now, everyone is a good photographer.

The trouble is, when everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. How does a young photographer distinguish himself from the rest, the ordinary nowadays? How does he succeed and make a good living in a world where once knowing how to work a camera was enough for a reasonable career and now is not?

The young photographer today has to be outstanding, he has to be head and shoulders above the rest. He (or she)  must have an attractive personality, be a hard worker and have artistic flair. He must not only shoot the image, he must either originate or help an art editor develop the image. He must know enough old fashioned photographic technique to understand when he can get a better, more personal, more tailored result than Mr Chip.

He must care about what he does and be prepared to work day and night, in these days of ‘interns’ (actually unpaid labour, of course),  for little or no reward. It’s a big ask. Where once the ability to take an in focus correctly exposed picture could be turned into a successful and reasonably rewarding photographic career, you now need a super CV like the one above. The best prevail. The rest fall by the wayside. That’s what digital has done,

And that’s why I say, the easier it gets, the harder it becomes.






16 thoughts on “The Easier It Gets The Harder It Becomes

    1. Post author

      I have never heard that before. It takes a bit of thought but it is very apt. Thanks.

  1. Allan Gould

    Talking about having “an eye”. While I was at university quite a few of us were into photography, but one of use stood out and I remember after he had come out of the lab darkroom he had a stack of 10″x8″ photos on his desk. As he thumbed through them one of them immediately stuck my eye. He had pushed Kodak 400ASA film to 1600 ASA as we were all doing but it was a simple show of a leaf on a bitumen road. The image was simple but really powerful so much so that 40 years later I can clearly see it.
    He had a real “eye”for an image and it’s taken me a while to get there but you have to take your time and before pushing the shutter ask the question ” what made me stop and want to take this image, what’s essential in it?” and then compose and shoot?

    1. Post author

      There are always the off the cuff shots that you just have to snatch and hope for the best but they’re pretty rare. With everything else, I agree, it’s the thought put into it that lifts something from the ordinary. Especially I agree with your remark ‘what’s essential?’ So much of photography is about looking at something that attracts you and then thinking of ways to draw attention to it in the picture by simplifying it. Robert Capa once remarked that if your pictures are no good, you are too far away. I interpret what he meant to be that you have too much extraneous in the picture. I’m always surprised that a medium like photography, at root a recording process, can allow so much interpretation in the hands of a thoughtful photographer.

      1. Phillip

        Maybe Capa meant that the photographer was too far removed from the image David. Not distance wise of course, My interpretation of that remark is if your images are no good then there is no heart or soul in them. Just as any artist can deliver a mediocre performance and the audience will know.

        1. Post author

          I interpret the remark as meaning that having found your subject you should get close so as to exclude extraneous clutter. In other words, simplify and isolate. Both our interpretation bear scrutiny, I think and probably overlap.

  2. Ian

    A long time ago (mid-80’s?) I remember an early Saturday evening Radio 4 programme which had a ‘review’ of the Minolta 7000. The person doing the report summed up the camera as good at taking ’36 blurs in perfect focus’ which I think sums up what you are saying about ‘camera operators v photographers’

    I was in London on Good Friday with some friends from abroad and we took them on the London Eye as the sun was setting and it was fun to glance at the other passengers in the capsule with us who were probably shooting on ‘P’ or ‘Auto’ (with their rather large dSLR’s) and I could occasionally see their screens showing a quite washed out view of the capital, while I’d set my GM1 to -2EV and have some lovely crisp blacks and sharp colours……

    1. Post author

      It’s the problem with automation that it can’t know what’s in your mind so it acts on the information it is fed via the lens. If what the lens is seeing is a washed out scene, it can’t know that it’s not meant to be like that and that you don’t want it like that. So a washed out scene you get. The trouble is, most people don’t know what the camera is doing and why it is doing it, so they can’t know how to correct it. As you say, when you do, the proper scene is available to you.

      There’ll never be an automatic answer to the situation you describe because if they camera corrected to ‘proper’colours, it would be doing the same with scenes where you want to retain the high key effect. In the end, camera operating will never be enough, there’ll always be a need to oversee what the camera is doing. And, as your experience shows that’s what photographers do.

  3. Tommy


    Thanks for the tips on revisiting a location to take a second look for a good photo. Have I not seen the pic one image in the review of the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens at 6:38?

    1. Post author

      You have – I was at the same location (it’s down the road from me, glamorous isn’t it?) doing some night scenes which reminded me of it but this pair illustrated my point better.

  4. Guy Morgan

    And thus we arrive at my photography dilemma.

    I’m technically compentent in Manual and Near Manual (M + auto ISO), but utterly devoid of ‘eye’.

    I’ve watched every composition guide on YouTube and read a stack of books on the subject (if stack is the correct term for ebooks…) and I still have no idea why one of my photos elicits “oohs and aahs” from people who see it and yet a very slightly differently framed photo is flicked past and ignored.

    I seem to get more keepers if I take my time, but I couldn’t tell you what I do differently if my life depended on it…

    1. Post author

      There probably isn’t an answer to why some pix are flicked past and others liked. The people who would know least are the ones flicking through and oohing and ahing, it’s just a gut reaction. But doesn’t the fact that they react positively to any of them militate against your opinion that you are utterly devoid of ‘eye’?

      The only thing I know about my own pictures – because I’be been told it so often that now I can actually see it for myself – is that I make everyday scenes and subject look somehow ‘odd’. I can’t try to do that, however, it has to just happen. But I can see that it is a thread running through my pictures. Why? I have no idea except that I have enough confidence not to worry too much about what other people think and so when I take a picture I am taking it for my own satisfaction. So, presumably, these ‘odd’ pictures are what pleases me and how I see the world around me.

      I’m rambling. The fact that you take better pictures when you take more time over them means that you are seeing pictures. Why? I don’t think you need to analyse that. It doesn’t matter why, the message is that you do. There aren’t any rules. If it pleases you, that’s enough. If it doesn’t, so what? Take some more. As a professional, you have to take pictures that please other people or you don’t get fed. As an enthusiast, you can please yourself. That, ultimately is harder.

      If you just keep taking pictures, you’ll find a style, a type of picture that you like making. It’ll come naturally. You may never be a great photographer. I certainly never will be. But within my accepted limitations, I do like my own work and I think that’s one of my greatest satisfactions. You’ve read and watched enough tutorials by the sound of it and you’ll have absorbed what you are going to by now. Just do it. And don’t analyse it, that’s an order! 😉

  5. Simon Knight

    How very true.

    I have just been through a phase where I fell out with my cameras probably because I was allowing the camera to do to much. My solution was to lock Mr. Chip away for a few weeks and drag my Mamiya C220 out from its bag and load it with some HP5. All of a sudden my photography became more enjoyable.

    I probably should describe whaton earth the C220 is a 6 by 6 film camera which demands the following workflow: advance the film to next frame, cock the shutter, focus subject on ground glass screen, take/estimate light reading, set aperture, set shutter speed and finally fire shutter. HP5 is a 400 ASA film made by Ilford and the C220 takes the 120 size which allows 12 images to be taken per roll]

    1. Post author

      I think the necessity to manually operate a camera, as with a film camera, has the effect of slowing you down a bit and allowing you to think. We are so used to doing everything fast and a forced slower pace can relax you and allow time to think. I’d love it if someone came up with a digital insert for the film plane for something like your Mamiya but apparently it is too expensive to develop for a limited market.

      I had a Mamiya interchangeable lens in the early 60s, it was a Mamiya C with a crak wind, as I recall. I could only afford one extra lens, a 55mm. They were lovely cameras and lenses. I sometimes dream of owning a wooden stand camera. Many years ago, I had a portrait commission and I was asked to use a 10×8 plate camera for it. What a dram that was!

  6. Roy Norris

    Hi David,

    Much prefer the second image, looks natural, the first one doesn’t.
    I still believe one has to have the ‘Eye’ for a shot, the ability to turn nothing in to something special.
    You may have spent time taken the second shot, setting up the camera etc, but the talent had to be there in the first place to achieve that.
    BTW! How is the frostbite.

    1. Post author

      Yes, you make a valid point, Roy. The trouble is, when you know how to do something from long experience, you tend to discount it. You are right in that, without a good degree of innate visual sense you’d never make a photographer. No amount of hard work will give you a feel that you don’t have. I know that from personal experience playing guitar. I have practised hard and long but there is something missing. Yet I watch some young guy who has been playing for three years and he is a lifetime ahead of me.

      The frostbite, well maybe I was exaggerating a bit 🙂


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