Ben Brooks on technology and art →

June 26, 2015 |

Ben Brooks makes an interesting counterpoint to my piece on technology as a substitute for discipline:

(…) Knowledge of the tools is not, in any way, a prerequisite for art. Art, photography, or any other creative pursuit is in no way lessened or enhanced because of the tools used to make it.

If someone takes a gorgeous photo, it remains gorgeous no matter if the camera was set to manual or set on auto. Art is art. It’s the vision to create the art that matters, not the knowledge of it.

He makes a perfectly valid case, and though I was initially inclined to concede the point, ultimately I disagree. To me, the vision is a direct consequence of the knowledge. Perhaps art should be self-sufficient, it should stand on its own merit, but that is hardly ever the case.

I just want to clarify something, because I do feel it was poorly expressed in my original piece: I didn’t mean to refer to knowledge of the tools, but the discipline. You can absolutely create a work of art with a point-and-shoot camera, or with an iPhone, for that matter. It’s not about knowing how to operate a particular camera, but about knowing what makes for a great photograph, which is something entirely different.

The photographic discipline tells us how bodies should relate to each other in a scene, or what makes for a powerful composition. It tells us what to look for in an image, and what to avoid. These rules — this knowledge — are what artists leverage to form their vision. They’re not strict by any means, but they do offer guidance. Some people just intuitively get them — art can be incredibly visceral — which is why they can create amazing photos without being fully aware of how they’re doing it. But they’re doing it just the same.

My point on the long exposures was that they’re often considered special mostly because they’re difficult images to create, which makes them unusual and rare. If technology ends up making them as commonplace as selfies are today, will we still consider them special in the future? I may well be wrong about that, but I think it’s worth considering.

In any case, photography is a difficult medium to use as an example, because it’s fundamentally literal. It’s an objective medium that’s used as a form of visual storytelling. When we say a photo is great, we’re often referring to the scene that’s being captured rather than the photo itself. And in order to create a compelling scene, most of the work usually happens before the artist even touches the camera.

If we look at a more figurative form of art, it’s perhaps easier to see that knowledge and discipline do matter. Discipline is why the Blue Nudes cut-outs by Henri Matisse have been shown at the MoMa, whereas if I were to glue a few blue pieces of paper on a white canvas nobody in their right mind would give me a penny for it. Not all works are created equal. The tools don’t matter, but the knowledge does.

When we say those works have incredible artistic value, we’re mostly saying so because we know it was Matisse who created them. We say so because through his entire body of work, Matisse has proven his skill. We’re implicitly trusting his judgement and recognizing greatness in his work because we already know him to be great. His vision is a direct consequence of his knowledge and experience, as is the case for every artist.

In any case, this is only my opinion, and I’m no more right than Ben is. Perhaps what makes art so unique, and so great, is precisely the fact that there’s no formal definition of what it is, or should be. We all find value and greatness in different places, and that’s fine. To me, art is in the choices an artist makes, it is something deliberate. An accidentally great photo may be art — I suppose a product of chance can have artistic value in its own right — but in my opinion that doesn’t necessarily make its author an artist, if that makes sense. To me, art is all about the conscious and deliberate act of creating something that is uniquely yours and in that regard, discipline is essential.

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Technology is no substitute for discipline

June 25, 2015

There’s a trope I keep coming across more and more often in reviews lately, particularly photography-related reviews. I’m sure you’ve seen it plenty of times, too:

“This [camera/lens or whatever] is special because it inspires me to go out more and take better pictures.”

I mean, where to begin?

Let’s start with the obvious: whatever it is you’re reading about, it has nothing to do with your inspiration. It really, really doesn’t.

Inspiration and gear are so unrelated it really pains me to write this. Every time we read something like that and nod in enthusiastic agreement, we become willing victims of the greatest marketing hoax in the history of technology — and there have been quite a few.

To be clear, I’m as guilty of this as anyone, which is particularly disheartening because even knowing I’m being tricked, I still fall for it hook, line and sinker sometimes. Not always — let me at least preserve some dignity — but sometimes. That’s how powerful and alluring the marketing machine can be.

Take the latest example in the photography world: the introduction of the new and supposedly revolutionary Sony A7R Mark II camera.1

I say supposedly because the truth is, nothing is truly revolutionary in the photography industry anymore. Nothing can really be revolutionary in a discipline we mastered quite a few decades ago, unless we recently discovered some new laws of Physics I’m not aware of.

At the end of the day, the primary purpose of a camera is taking pictures — with the exception of videographers, but that’s a different story altogether. Anything that isn’t essential to the mission of taking pictures falls squarely within the “bells and whistles” category as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, bells and whistles are still important and if you’re going to buy a camera, they’re things you definitely need to consider.

Higher resolution? Great. Sharper lenses? Sure. Better dynamic range? Have at it. Longer battery life? Of course. Built-in WiFi? Awesome. Those are all pretty substantial improvements that are definitely nice to have in a modern camera. As for revolutionary? Not so much.

How much resolution and sharpness is nice to have? All we can get, clearly. How much is actually needed in the kind of photography that you do? Probably about 30-40% of your current camera’s specs.

I’m making it sound terrible, but this is actually great news. It means your equipment isn’t holding you back, creatively speaking. It never was, and it probably never will, so stop pretending you can’t take good pictures unless you spend $3,000 on a high-end “pro” camera.

Next time you get gear anxiety, think of it like this: people have been complaining about their photography gear for ages, and will remain doing so forever. And yet, people have also been taking breathtaking pictures for ages, and will remain doing so forever.

A vast majority of the greatest, most iconic images in history were captured by cameras with laughable specs by today’s standards, and you know what? Nobody cares. I’m yet to meet a person that looks at Ernesto Che Guevara’s iconic portrait and complains because it isn’t sharp enough.

“Guerrillero Heroico”. Ernesto Che Guevara at the funeral for the victims of the La Coubre explosion. Photo by Alberto Korda, 1960. Image is in the Public Domain.

Again, nobody cares about sharpness or specs. All people care about is whether the images themselves are compelling and in this case, I don’t think there’s any doubt. This goes to show there are many, many ways to create compelling images that don’t require owning the latest gear.

Style vs substance

Whenever I discover new artists whose work I love, I feel a natural impulse to peek behind the curtain. I want to learn everything about their creative process and the tools they use to create the work I so love. At that point, one of two things will happen: either I’ll find out that they use the latest and greatest technology, or I’ll find out that they’ve managed to excel at their craft using merely average tools. In some cases, really average tools.

I don’t know about you but more often than not, I tend to prefer the work of those who use average tools. In most cases, those artists somehow manage to create even more soulful, more authentic work. Check out this 16-year-old kid who’s capturing incredible macro shots in his backyard with the cheapest lens there is. Or some of the most respected and renowned artists in history, who got by using centuries-old technology, simply because it’s all that was available to them.

It goes beyond photography, of course. Do you really believe Michelangelo’s David would be any better if he’d used today’s technology to create it?

“David” by Michelangelo, 1501-1504. Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna, 2011. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

I didn’t think so.

Relying on technology to inspire us is missing the point entirely. Better tools are conducive to better output only up to a certain point and in many cases, that point was met a long, long time ago. But that’s only part of the issue.

The real problem is when people try to use technology as a shortcut to avoid learning a new craft.

Skill without discipline

The uncomfortable truth is, most creative disciplines require work. There’s always a learning curve and, until you’ve put in the hours, you won’t be able to grow as a creative person in a meaningful way.

Technology can help, but it’ll only take you so far. Indeed, and going back to the photography example, many popular features in modern cameras are entirely predicated on the notion of removing the need for knowledge and experience in photography. Features like Olympus’s Live Composite Mode completely eliminate the need for the user to know anything about creating long exposures in-camera.

That’s great if you only ever plan to shoot with Olympus cameras and it’ll definitely allow you to capture some gorgeous images but at the end of the day, you haven’t learned anything, and it hasn’t made you a better photographer because it didn’t take any effort or knowledge on your part.

Worst of all, technology can cheapen the end result. If all it takes to capture a scintillating long exposure is pressing a button, where’s the artistic merit? How is that image compelling in any way?

When you let the machine do the work for you, you’re giving up before the struggle’s even begun.

That’s not to say that you should never use technology in your creative work, of course. Many photographers would kill to have Live Composite Mode in their cameras, but the difference is they already know how to work without it. They have the discipline to know when to use it, and more importantly, when not to.

In the words of everyone’s favorite mathematician and chaos theorist, Dr. Ian Malcolm:

Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it’s your power. It can’t be given away: it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.

Now what is interesting about this process is that, by the time someone has acquired the ability to kill with his bare hands, he has also matured to the point where he won’t use it unwisely. So that kind of power has a built-in control. The discipline of getting the power changes you so that you won’t abuse it.

That is exactly my point. Technology can be a powerful enabler, as it allows people to attain knowledge without discipline. Sometimes that’s great, but sometimes it’s unfortunate. You should definitely use technology as an aid, but not as a substitute for experience.

Dr. Ian Malcolm as portrayed by actor Jeff Goldblum in the film Jurassic Park, 1993.

Now, it’s not all bad, of course. Sometimes technology enables us to achieve things that were previously impossible and in those cases, by all means, go ahead and use it. Go nuts. But even then, I suspect it’ll be the people with previously attained knowledge and discipline who will be the most apt at exploiting it to its full potential.

Simply put, there’s no substitute for doing the work.

Taking the long road

Despite what many will tell you, technology can’t make you better at anything if you refuse to do the work. You can buy Roger Federer’s racquet, but that won’t make you any more of a tennis player. You can buy the Sony A7R II, but that won’t make you a better photographer.

Chances are, the tools you currently own are far more capable than you are to produce great work. By refusing to earn the discipline it takes to explore them to their full potential, you’re only keeping yourself from growing as a creative person.

Stop making excuses. Stop acting as though the lackluster quality of your work is the world’s fault. “If only I had a better camera” only fools yourself.

Experience needs to be earned, and technology is no substitute for it. It’ll take discipline, hard work and yes, time, but if you’re determined to do it, half the battle is already won.

The other half is up to you.

  1. I won’t be using product links in this piece, affiliate or otherwise, because it would run contrary to the point I’m trying to make.

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Josh Ginter introduces The Wednesday Edition →

June 24, 2015 |

I love his reasoning behind this:

I’ve watched others create their own weekly roundup lists and I admire some of the aspects they’ve introduced. Be it pull-quotes, short blurbs, photos, or personal anecdotes, each weekly roundup is unique in its own way. The Sunday Edition, I’d argue, is unique in its simplicity and straightforwardness. I don’t want to entirely change that.

I just want to add a bit more me to the mix.

Without fail, the Sunday Edition is always one of the highlights of my week. It comes as no surprise then, that the first issue of The Wednesday Edition is similarly excellent.

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GORUCK launches new 34-liter GR2 →

June 24, 2015 |

Today GORUCK launched a second version of my favorite travel backpack, the GR2. This new version is slightly smaller, having a 34-liter volume as opposed to 40 liters in the old one, and it’s designed to be more comfortable for shorter people to wear. I love my GR2 to death but I have to admit if I were buying mine today, I’d probably go with the smaller one.

The original GR2 can be a bit too much for some people. My girlfriend, for example, can’t pick it up when it’s full, and I find it a bit tiring after a few hours on my back. I don’t know how much of a difference 6 liters will make in practical use, but if you were slightly put off by the gargantuan size of the original GR2, now you have another choice.

That said, I don’t think this is about reducing weight, but increasing comfort due to the way the ruck sits on your back instead. It’s all about the shape of the ruck, rather than the size itself: the original GR2 is a pretty tall backpack, and sometimes it bumps against my butt when I’m wearing it. Personally I never found this to be uncomfortable enough to be a problem in real world usage, but of course your mileage may vary.

Here’s a couple of pictures from my review of the original GR2 over at Tools & Toys, showing the ruck on me and my girlfriend for reference:

Top: original 40-liter GR2 on my back (5’7”). Bottom: original 40-liter GR2 on my girlfriend’s back (5’5”).

The recommended sizing guide goes: if you’re under 6 feet tall, go for the 34-liter version. 6 feet or taller, go with the 40-liter version. That seems a bit extreme to me. I’m 5’7” and I’d say I’m at the limit where the backpack is still reasonably comfortable to wear. Again, your mileage may vary, so please take these comments with a grain of salt.

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I’ve been working on this lens review for a while, and I’m super happy with how it turned out. The Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens is one of my favorite pieces of gear and, in my opinion, one of the best values available for any camera system.

This was also my third time working with a professional model, and the first time with a couple. Sara and Álvaro were amazing to work with and I can’t say enough nice things about them. And as usual, this was also a very formative experience. There were plenty of lessons learned along the way and we had lots of fun doing the shoot. Hopefully the end result reflects that, but also hopefully it’s good work that will stand on its own.

Head on over to Tools & Toys to check it out.

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Shawn Blanc launches The Focus Course →

June 23, 2015 |

Shawn Blanc’s most ambitious project yet is now live. As a subscribing member on his personal site, I’ve been following along Shawn’s progress in designing and building the course right from day one. His unique insight into personal creativity, productivity and focus is something I deeply admire, and I have no doubt the course will be well worth your time and effort should you decide to sign up.

Shawn’s put an incredible amount of thought, effort, care and love into this project. He’s poured his heart and soul into it, and it shows. Today that work is seeing the light of day for the very first time; let’s show him the warmest of welcomes.

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Apple will pay artists during the 3-month free trial of Apple Music after all →

June 22, 2015 |

There was quite a kerfuffle over the weekend, when Taylor Swift posted an open letter to her official Tumblr blog in which she sharply criticized Apple for not paying artists during the 3-month free trial of Apple Music, which is due to launch at the end of the month. In her letter, Swift urged Apple to do the right thing and compensate musicians fairly from the get go:

I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.

Many have acknowledged the music star has a point, and now Apple has acknowledged that, too. Shortly after Swift’s letter was posted, Eddy Cue reacted by announcing on Twitter that Apple will pay artists even during the customer’s free trial period:

This is a perfect example of the huge power some music stars wield over the entire industry. If even Apple was backed into a corner and forced to rectify, where’s the limit?

There’s no doubt huge corporations like Apple are still dictating the terms, but social media has given artists much of their leverage back. This is great news for all music lovers out there, and it paves the way for a more healthy relationship for everyone involved moving forward.

Kudos to Taylor Swift for raising her voice, and kudos to Apple for listening.

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Morning Coffee, issue #3

June 20, 2015

This was a rough week for all American citizens. Another senseless murder was committed, and there are no words to express my indignation and sadness. My thoughts are with those who have been touched by this tragedy. I hope justice is made and steps are taken to ensure such heinous acts can never happen again.

Understandably, the Charleston tragedy has influenced much of this week’s writing and online discourse, with many people arguing over whether this act deserves the qualification of terrorism. There’s no doubt in my mind that it does. Sadly, like all Spanish people, I’m well acquainted with the notion of domestic terrorism and this is exactly what it looks and feels like.

I realize this is a deeply sensitive matter, so I’ll leave it at that out of respect for the victims, their families and all the American people. Like I said, my thoughts are with all of you. I hope you find the courage to rise again, stronger, better and more united than ever.

On a much brighter note, there were plenty of interesting things to talk and write about this week. One such thing was of course the E3 expo, which was jam-packed with cool announcements this year, including several much-awaited releases and some very surprising new ones. The gaming industry is thriving, despite the damage a few misguided individuals keep inflicting upon it.

In the Apple sphere, things were relatively quiet in the wake of WWDC, with many tech writers still coming to terms with Apple’s new announcements. In typical post-WWDC fashion, we saw a few recap articles, as well as in-depth overviews of Apple’s new operating systems. However, the biggest Apple-related news item of the week was probably the Indiana University whitepaper that detailed a series of potentially very serious vulnerabilities found in iOS and OS X. But more on that later. Other than that though, the news stream seemed to give us a much needed break this time around.

And of course, Donald Trump once again said he’s running for President. Because why the hell not.

Anyway, another week, another issue of Morning Coffee, and we’re on to the third one. Time seems to be flying these days.

Issue #3: on bad faith, politics in the face of terror, sexism and violence in movies, Federer’s greatness, and personal writing

Get ready for some deeply personal pieces this week, which I just love. These are not a product of the ever turning wheel of news, but are instead born of reflection and self-discovery. These are the meaningful pieces we should all be trying to write, and I look forward to them every week.

iMore’s in-depth look at the XARA whitepaper | Nick Arnott →

Nick Arnott tells you everything you need to know about the recently discovered vulnerabilities in iOS and OS X. Nick really outdid himself here, as did the entire iMore team during the week. Kudos to them on a terrific job.

Apple Watch: My most personal review ever | Jim Dalrymple →

Just like it says on the tin. I love Jim’s reviews, but it’s true that he rarely ever delves into personal territory. This time around though, he did it big time. Jim’s been taking better care of himself and, thanks to the Health app and the Apple Watch, he’s managed to lose over 40 pounds over the past 10 months. That’s an incredible achievement and I’m really glad he decided to share the experience with us, because it will surely help many others who are still struggling to adopt a healthier lifestyle. More like this, please.

The seven “Prime Directives” of repairing and upgrading tech | Adrian Kingsley-Hughes →

As a general rule, I try to use my gear until it breaks or it’s not really usable anymore. My main Mac is over seven years old, and my secondary Mac isn’t far behind at five. I lasted three and a half years with an iPhone 3G. Yes, I know. Like a caveman.

I don’t like to upgrade my devices if there’s not a compelling reason to do so. And no, “the new one is cooler” doesn’t really count.

That said, there always comes a time when upgrading becomes a necessity rather than a luxury, and these rules by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes provide a useful reference to help identify those times. I may not personally adhere to all of Adrian’s rules, but they’re a good place to start.

Charleston and the age of Obama | David Remnick →

David Remnick, writing for The New Yorker, provides some context on the Charleston massacre and its relation to America’s history of racial violence. A must-read.

You are free, like it or not | David Cain →

David Cain does it again:

As soon as I learned about the concept of bad faith, I started noticing that I am guilty of it all the time. I might delay on a worthwhile-but-nerve-wracking phone call until it’s no longer an option to make, and tell myself the opportunity slipped through my fingers accidentally. I might pretend I didn’t hear a critical comment so that I didn’t have to decide how to respond to it. I often tell myself I can’t do any worthwhile work unless I have two uninterrupted hours to do it in.

Personal freedom can be downright terrifying, and that’s why we make excuses. Being aware of the process is the first step towards finding a way out.

Why freelancers are so depressed | Anya Kamenetz →

Great piece over at Fast Company on the unique challenges of self-employment. Food for thought.

People power: the secret to Montreal’s success as a bike-friendly city | Peter Walker →

Over at The Guardian, Peter Walker tells the fascinating story of how Montreal’s own citizens were responsible for creating a strong bicycle culture despite facing many external difficulties. I particularly loved the bit about Robert Silverman, also known as “Bicycle Bob”:

Now 81, he was among the founding members of Le Monde à Bicyclette in 1975, a loose collection of mainly artists, activists and anarchists who, styling themselves the “poetic velo-rutionary tendency”, pioneered many of the direct action tactics common to modern protest movements.

Jurassic World’s mother of a problem | Lesley Coffin →

I quite enjoyed Jurassic World when I saw it on Tuesday, although admittedly I was wildly predisposed to love the film long before entering the theater. Much of that has to do with the indelible impression of sheer awe that the original Jurassic Park left on my ten-year-old self over two decades ago. However, after the initial rush of adrenaline wore off, I started to realize Jurassic World doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the original under scrutiny.

Apart from several dumb plot choices that I was happy to rationalize within the context of the film — any excuse to see raptors hunting, really — there’s a big sexism problem going on here, and it’s especially unfortunate in a franchise that has always featured strong female characters that often kicked as much ass — if not more — than their male counterparts. Lesley Coffin does a great job of calling the makers of Jurassic World out on this specific issue, and it’s a sobering piece that adds some much-needed perspective for those who, like myself, sometimes fail to notice these problems in movies.

Scorsese’s achievement with “GoodFellas” | Richard Brody →

Violence has been one of the most important themes throughout Martin Scorsese’s entire career as a director. In this piece for The New Yorker, Richard Brody analyzes the filmmaker’s take on violence through the lens of one of his most acclaimed films, “GoodFellas”. It’s probably not what you expect.

Team Federer: How the tennis ace became the world’s pre-eminent athlete | Richard Evans →

Probably one of the best pieces I’ve read on Federer’s stature and relevance in the sporting world beyond tennis. And I’ve read a lot.

On writing | Ben Brooks →

This is a fantastic article, and a very useful resource for anyone who writes, either as a hobby or for a living. Read the whole thing, give it some time to sink in, then read it again. So great.

Esplanade Riel and The Forks | Josh Ginter →

Have you ever wondered how your city is perceived by tourists? Do you know all there is to know about the place you live in, and its history? Josh Ginter takes a stroll around Winnipeg and reflects on his province and the people who live in it. I really enjoyed this honest, personal piece.

Flying with my dad | Jason Kottke →

I love Jason’s take on life and parenthood. What a beautiful story.

A journey through darkness into moments of bliss | Erin Brooks →

In another deeply personal article, Erin Brooks shows us a very different — but similarly authentic — take on parenthood. It takes a huge amount of courage to write something like this, so I won’t spoil it for you. Thanks for sharing, Erin.


It was a week of great writing, and what better way to celebrate it than by curling up in your favorite couch with a hot beverage. My coffee is already gone, but that just means I have to start thinking about the next cup.

It was also an intense week for me, personally, with some quality writing time that I hadn’t managed to find in what felt like ages. It feels great to once again be able to write without distractions for hours, and now that I’m starting to get into a rhythm I have no intention of taking my foot off the gas.

A few days ago I wrote a piece about sharing pictures from your dedicated camera on Instagram. It’s something I’ve been doing more and more often these days and I find it irksome that the process is a lot more cumbersome that it needs to be. I realize Instagram was designed with a different purpose in mind, but the service has become so popular that they really need to start making some changes to reflect the way people are actually using it.

I’m also looking forward to next week. Right now I’m hard at work on finishing up my next review for Tools & Toys, which will be about the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 Micro Four Thirds lens. This is one of my favorite pieces of gear and I was really looking forward to reviewing it.

Since it’s a portrait lens, I arranged a session with Sara, one of the models from my photography course, to illustrate the review. I’m really happy with how it went, and I can’t wait to show you the end result. For now, I’ll just leave you with a small sample from the session. Consider it a teaser for Tuesday.

Now, If you’ll excuse me, I must get back to work and yes, you guessed it: that’s what the coffee is for.

Have a great weekend.

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