I call it sharpening pencils: the things that you do to get ready to do the real work. Writers used to actually sharpen pencils. Painters still clean brushes. And photographers? Photographers do a lot of things: test film, mix chemicals, calibrate light meters… Sharpening pencils can be a good thing; if you write with a dull pencil, it’s going to be hard to read. Similarly, many things in photography take advanced planning. If you’re going to make platinum prints, time spent studying and doing tests will yield better final prints.
Some people are impatient with the preparations for photography. I’ve known landscape photographers who couldn’t be bothered with film and development testing, and their photographs suffered for it. I sympathize; I find taking pictures of gray cards excruciatingly dull, but sometimes you’ve just got to be bored in the service of a worthwhile cause. Sometimes the urge to just get out there can be disastrous: I’ve seen people buy a new camera or lens, immediately take it on a long trip, and return with poor results, or even no results, because of a manufacturing defect or a lack of understanding of the instrument.
But sharpening pencils can be taken too far, and then it turns into a bad thing. Time spent getting the pencils sharp is time not spent on the real work.
True confessions. I have at one time or another done the following: bought a new lens for some project, played with it for a few months, and never started the project; learned a new process, and then never used it for anything that hung on any wall for more than a few weeks; started a project with some photographic sketches, had them come out looking ordinary, and shoved the whole thing aside, never to be revisited again; taken a workshop aimed at some aspect of photography, then come home and never used what I learned.
Why do people over-sharpen their photographic pencils? For me, the reason is that sharpening pencils isn’t as risky as trying to do real work. If I’m trying to do something important, I’m investing a lot of myself in the project, and that makes failure more significant. It’s the same psychology that turns a speech that you’d be perfectly comfortable giving to a roomful of friends into a cotton-mouthed, cold-sweat horror when delivered to 5000 people in a big auditorium with bright lights shining in your face.
Many years ago, a co-worker walked into my office and remarked upon the photographs hanging on the walls. We got to talking. He told me about his antique Rolleiflex, and his fascination with the Zone System. Over the years, we had many conversations about photography. I’d talk about photographs, and he’d talk about technique. One day he announced that he really had the Zone System down: he could consistently make negatives that printed on number 2 paper in 8×8 size at f/11 for 12 seconds. I was doubtful for two reasons: I didn’t think such a feat was possible for a broad range of subjects, and I didn’t see much benefit in such fanatical control. Over the years that I knew this person, I kept asking him to show me some of his pictures. He always had some excuse. I never saw one. After a while, I came to suspect that virtually his entire photographic output consisted of studies aimed at improving his technique. Now, maybe this guy was a Minor-White-scale talent afflicted with extreme modesty. Or maybe he spent his entire photographic lifetime sharpening pencils.