An Often Overlooked Factor In Great Photographers – Muscle Memory

If there’s one benefit to sharing a passion for music AND photography, it’s recognizing that muscle memory plays a significant role in the success of both.

As a guitar player, I play scales up and down the neck of my guitar for 10-20 min a day, seven days a week. Why? Because the muscle memory I develop doing that exercise makes it easier for me to accurately, and quickly articulate the various notes I want to play and it makes it seem effortless.

Read on to see how this applies to photography. First let’s define muscle memory. Muscle memory is the act of committing a specific motor task into memory through repetition.

How does this apply to photography? In lots of ways, but the simplest is this. Handle your camera EVERY day – every single day – no exceptions. Get it out of the camera bag, into your hand and make a few pictures of literally anything.

The mere handling of the camera, pressing of the shutter, raising your eye to the viewfinder, etc., these are all easy things to do but if you do them daily, when you’re in the field (where it counts) and that once in a lifetime shot of a grizzly bear playing games with an eagle unfolds in front of you, your fingers and thumbs won’t be running into or over each other to get the picture. Handling your camera every day is building muscle memory.

Muscle memory also impacts how quickly you can wield a long lens; how quickly you can focus, how quickly you can adjust focus points or exposure.

All of these things can be sped up and made more accurate by PRACTICE! I know, I know – we all want the magic camera that just knows what we want it to do and then it does it. If you see that camera let me know. I will buy it. Until then, I will practice.

The pandemic has reminded me how important this lesson really is. For most of my adult life, I’ve made at LEAST one photograph per day. Every day. But when Covid hit, 98% of my assignments were cancelled, all of my workshops and personal appearances were cancelled and all of the travel I usually do to get to the locations where I work was cancelled. This led me to breaking a very longstanding routine of handling the camera every day.

I went out to my backyard one day to try to photograph hummingbirds after a few weeks of lockdown and I noticed my camera-handling was a bit awkward. I was bumbling around like a drunk. It only took me about three weeks to see a negative difference.

Imagine what “workshop” photographers go through. I call people who only use their cameras when they take a photo workshop, “workshop photographers.” They are easy to spot. Their portfolios all look amazing but also all contain the same images. With big gaps in between their shooting sessions. And they fumble around with their cameras on the first few days of a workshop because it may have been months since they picked up their camera.

This is very common and very easy to fix. Just handle your camera every day. Make a photograph of SOMETHING (ANYTHING) every day. I don’t care if it’s a beer can or a coffee mug. Be sure to make a photo every day.

When it dawned on me that poor muscle memory was impacting me, well that’s when I decided to build a product photography studio in my home. I started making pictures every day and within three or four weeks I was back to full strength.

Your nervous system is a miraculous thing. It helps your brain recognize patterns and the regions of the brain that are in charge of motor skills react very positively to repeating patterns.

Muscle memory is just learned motor skills, repeated often enough that they become routine.

CONCLUSION

During the pandemic, I am practicing my modal scales on the guitar every day and I am handling my camera every day. I see the benefits right in front of me. Both my musical ability and my photographic ability have improved. The flip side of this is that these are perishable skills. If you do not use them you will loose them.

So give this a try. Grab your camera and your camera manual. Open any random page in the manual and then whatever it describes, do that with the camera. Not only will your muscle memory improve, your knowledge of your specific camera will improve and then all that stuff will simply go away and drift into the background while you use all your brain’s conscious processing power to SEE and compose the next great image.

I am rooting for you.


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