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Is there such a thing as a “Photography Muscle”?

“Exercise the brain” - Does it work that way? Is it possible, exercising the brain with certain tasks, to make it more robust and have faster reaction times? And will this also apply to photography, ie is there a "photographic muscle"?

I will take, as an example, someone who goes to a gym. It starts by using small loads and, with regular practice, good nutrition and a lot of persistence, after a year it's possible to almost double that load. Amazing, isn't it?
So what happens if you stop for a season, say a year? The setback is not total, but almost. Returning to the gym, our body will recognize the exercise but will certainly not be able to work with the same load it had reached before stopping. It will probably not be necessary to return to the starting point, but the whole process will have to be restarted before signs of progress can be seen again.

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With Photography exactly the same thing happens, or at least we can make this analogy because the effect is similar. Allow me to explain.

In my youth, and until early adulthood, I was always interested in photography. At that time with an analogue camera - so, for obvious reasons, shooting much less than in the digital age - but for the purpose that I would like to illustrate here, that is not relevant.

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Walking with the camera in hand, viewing potential photographs wherever I turned, resulted in a constant mental exercise of composing, framing and observing the available light. And when I finally pressed the shutter button, waiting moments followed until the film was developed and finally I could confirm that all my assumptions were correct, resulting in a good picture… or not! Sometimes, many times, the photograph obtained didn't work as expected. Whether for technical reasons, such as incorrect light measurement or improper shutter speed. Or, quite often, because the image I had mentally envisioned, in practice had not been transposed into a photograph the way I had imagined it. New roll, 36 new opportunities to be able to combine the technical with the creative component in each frame.

Of course, with digital photography this process is faster, allowing the moment after the capture to obtain confirmation that, the mental image we made of that photograph, was successfully materialized into an image.

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With practice the technical errors will decrease but, even more importantly, we'll be constituting a huge database of these mental images. Time, experience and especially the regularity with which we practice photography, allow us to develop this database. In such a way that, in a fraction of a second, when looking at a particular scene, we can immediately identify a set of key elements that make us ring a bell inside. For example, the way trees fade over the horizon during a foggy morning or the gentle way that warm sunset light strikes a person's face, the geometric shapes drawn on the pavement by the shadows of buildings on a street. The possibilities are endless. Each of these thousands of memories in our brain is a mental trigger that prompts a reaction in our minds, allowing us to identify the factors that will come together in the materialization of a good photograph. All this, thanks to that huge database.

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Going back to my path into photography, or what led me to pause. The conclusion of my university degree, the beginning of a professional career, the birth of my first child, etc… obviously those were priorities that were interposed and photography gradually lost its importance until the camera was eventually forgotten in a drawer.

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A few years later, in 2010, the passion for photography was rekindled and I used my old Pentax K1000 again. I also bought a DSLR, which I used until 2012 when I made the full switch to mirrorless systems, and Photography was back in my daily life.

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From a more “technical” point of view, the previously acquired knowledge was all there. Everything needed to make a photograph properly exposed and perfectly focused. When I was shooting on film I even developed my own rolls. All the basic technical knowledge was there, but that huge database I mentioned above… was almost completely gone. The ability to look at a landscape, or a street scene, and quickly identify key elements that can make a good photograph… had disappeared. This whole process had to be restarted, the development of such "brain muscle", which is merely creating a mental image archive and which, in the presence of a similar scenario, triggers a reaction that leads us to seek a better result. If we don't use it often, this database will gradually fade or be stored in the deepest memory of our brain, not so readily available to be used.

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Using the same analogy with sports, some people are more likely to develop physical abilities than others, or in less time. I could even take this analogy further. For example, a marathon runner would have a bad result in a 100m race. An excellent swimmer will be mediocre in a high jump event. With Photography, exactly the same thing happens. In the early years, we want to do a little of everything: landscape, macro, portrait, street photography, sports, everything. And as time goes by, we drop certain genres of photography and focus on others until we finally devote ourselves to just one or two.

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The images from the genres of photography that least interest us will eventually fade from our brains and we gradually form a powerful database of what really interests us. This essentially happens with practice, through trial and error, but also with the tools currently available online. Be it blogs, galleries, social networks, whatever allows us to enrich our visual culture, or in other words, our “photographic muscle”!

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This article was also published in the October edition of the Olympus Passion magazine:

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