Excellence Is In The Margins

  Post by Guy Tal. Image by David Fantle The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work. –Emile Zola Photographer and writer Guy Tal rises above the whit...


Post by Guy Tal. Image by David Fantle

The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.

–Emile Zola

Photographer and writer Guy Tal rises above the white-noise chatter of the blogosphere with his deeply subtle, radically humane reflections on artistic inspiration. Guy approaches life with a unique-order joie de vivre, and as a photographer, his landscape images lend vibrant and fresh energy into the medium. As a writer about the craft of photography, his profoundly philosophical and measured meditations stir my soul. It’s with great excitement that I present to you Guy’s guest contribution — in this moving, incisive essay, he explores why artists create and, alternatively, why we create excuses for our perceived imperfections. Ego and insecurity have no place in our lives, they are but self-fabricated delusions that only interfere with what’s really important in life: quality experiences endowed with truth and meaning.

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Ever wonder what makes one image “better” than another? In some cases it may be obvious – one may have more compelling subject matter, another might suffer from poor technique, some benefit from fortuitous circumstances (“same place, but with a rainbow on top”) etc. Still, most of these can be canceled out through practice or luck. There is still that “something,” though — that elusive “je ne sais quoi” — that sets off great from good. It is why some can produce great work more consistently than others, even working in the same medium and with the same subjects and using the same tools.

More often than not, the difference comes to something very basic: excellence requires hard work. Those who choose the comfort of motorized access will never have the same selection of locations as those willing to trek on and off the trails. Those who prefer automation to manual control will always be at the mercy of little electronic brains. Those who prefer to work light and fast will rarely produce the same compositional balance and attention to nuances as those who take their time to study, consider, and experiment. Those who are naive enough to believe that clicking the shutter button in the right place at the right time is all it takes to make a great photograph will not benefit from the same versatility of those willing to spend the time studying, and fine-tuning every last pixel in post-processing.

As Thomas Edison put it: genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. In practically every case the better image is a result of more hard labor: more sore muscles, more heavy lifting, more shivering, more sweating, more bleeding, more discomfort, and yes – more posterior-numbing time spent staring at a screen. Better images are almost always the result of commitment and an obsessive drive, of a self-critical state of mind that just won’t settle for “good enough”.

As with so many other things, the law of diminishing returns is very much at play. With some practice, the vast majority of people can consistently make good images. The jump from “good” to “very good” is a steep one, and the one from “very good” to “great” a hundred times so. When you’re close to the edge even small gains come at great cost. That tiny margin at the very height of the game is what excellence is made of. Equipment will only get you so far, even opportunity and vision will only get you so far. That last percentage point is all about you and how far you’re willing to push yourself.

There may come a day when technology allows for visualization, or seeing the finished image in one’s “mind’s eye,” to translate instantly into a great work of art, bypassing laborious trekking, camera controls, and post-processing. Until then, take a long hard look at just how far you’re willing to go for your art. Just how passionate you are, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice.

Call me cynical but when someone protests about the “other guy” having better gear, or using Photoshop, or having more time, I hear excuses. Most of us are fortunate to live in times of opportunity, where our basic needs are met, where information and education are readily available, where almost anyone can do almost anything if they want it badly enough.

Want to explore and experience wild natural beauty but are not comfortable hiking, backpacking, or camping? Get comfortable!

Think your images don’t live up to their potential because you’re not good with Photoshop? Get good!

Want to spend more time outdoors but can’t because of work, or because of where you live? Don’t take the time – make the time!

Passion and hard work and risk and personal sacrifice transform into results. Excuses remain excuses.


Thank you for writing this. It is inspiring.


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