Music and Photography

As a person whose first artistic love has been music, I find myself often comparing photography to music and looking for the lessons from the latter that I can apply to the former.  Along the way, I've made several, mostly subjective, observations about how photography compares to music.

Music Is Harder

Like music or any other art, you never really "master" photography in the sense that you know everything. There's always more to learn and room to improve.  But I do think that it is easier to get to a level of "basic competence" with photography than music.  It often takes years of focused practice to just to develop the physical dexterity or technique necessary to play a musical instrument competently.  Photography doesn't really have that particular hurdle; there are skills that must be developed but they're more about technical knowledge (which also exists in music) and not physical ability.  And with digital, photography's learning curve is now a lot less steep than it used to be.  It used to take a whole lot more time to build your photography chops because film processing meant hours or days between when you took a photo and when you could assess how it came out.  With digital, that feedback loop is instantaneous and iterative, allowing you to immediately try again if the photo didn't come out right.  I also find that music theory is a lot more complicated than photographic theory, at least what is required to reach functional literacy.  Especially for an improvising musician - in live performance, you have to be able to apply music theory in real-time to melodies that you're making up on-the-fly as a reaction to the music.  That's pretty amazing when you think about it.  But as I said, I'm talking about getting to a basic level of competence here.  Expert level mastery is a whole other matter.  Both music and photography can take a lifetime for that.

Photography Is Particularly Well-Suited to Working Alone

Although music can certainly be done successfully alone, there are many types of music that work best when performed in teams.  Musical teams are a fascinating thing.  The whole is often more, or less, than the sum of the parts.  A group of musicians with modest individual talents can make an extraordinary band (say, REM), while a band comprised of tremendous individual players can be a dud (say, Asia).  It's a little bit mystical, but when a band clicks it's a really marvelous thing.  But it ain't easy.  To assemble, organize, launch, and sustain a group of passionate artists under a common vision is difficult.  Really damn difficult.  For every band that creates magic, there are literally millions of others that dissolve quickly, acrimoniously, and having accomplished nothing.  The effort required to be in a band has really worn on me over the years.  One of the things I love about photography is that it works so well as a completely solo endeavor.  With photography, I can do an enormous amount of art on my own without having to beg, plead, fight, cajole, babysit, or compromise with other people.  It's truly special to be part of a great band and photography can't duplicate that, but it's also nice to be able to realize an artistic vision without all the mental and emotional overhead that comes with a band.

Photographers Are Knowledgeable About Their Craft

Musicians can be a very superstitious and willfully ignorant lot.  In my experience, photographers generally try to learn as much as they can about their craft.  Many musicians wear their lack of musical knowledge as a badge of honor.  Photographers tend to know their cameras, equipment, and software inside and out.  Musicians often have a very superficial knowledge of their tools.  I've observed photographers to be voracious readers and continuous students.  Musicians often think they'll kill their muse if they examine their craft too closely.

Photographers Are Savvy Business People

If you read the online discussions of professional photographers, you'll see a lot of talk about things like branding, pricing, cold calling, cross-selling, product diversification, social media, taxes, copyright law, invoicing, etc. I rarely hear/read musicians discuss such things, and when I do my impression is that their understanding of it is rudimentary.  What's alarming about it is that business is every bit as relevant to musicians as it is to photographers.  I speculate that it's due to the historical business models.  There's a long history of photographers as freelancers or photography service providers, where you have to develop a business sense to stay afloat.  Whereas the historical business model for musicians has been getting signed to a record label that handles all the business aspects on behalf of the artist (often in ways that put the artist at a tremendous disadvantage).  What's even more ironic is that the label/artist business model has really dwindled over the last 15 years, creating a lot of opportunities and challenges for musicians who have the business knowledge to navigate the new world.  Professional photography is undergoing similar changes, but my observation is that photographers are generally better equipped to adapt.

Photography Allows You To Be Artistically Prolific

This is especially true for me, but perhaps less true for others.  It takes me a lot of time to write a song and record it in a way of which I can be proud.  Weeks, months, or even years for just one song!  But I can create a nice photo in literally minutes.  Of course not all of my nice photos are truly great, but the productivity rate means I'm going to have more successes.  If, say, only 1 out of every 20 photos or songs is really good, the fact that I can produce 20 photos in a week (as opposed to the year it would take me to produce that many songs) means I'm going to be able to create a lot more quality work over the course of a lifetime.

Music Is Conjuring

One reason why it takes so much more time to produce a song is that it's just harder.  For me it is, anyway.  If you point a camera at something beautiful, you're already halfway there to a beautiful photo.  No amount of pointing my guitar at something beautiful is going to produce a beautiful song.  With photography, you necessarily start with something external - the scene - and then build an image on that.  With music, you often start with something considerably more abstract - an idea, a phrase, a couple chords - or maybe nothing at all.  It's up to you to create an initial spark that lights the fire.  It's more like conjuring something from the creative aether.  There are a lot of tricks and techniques people employ to help out with that, but I just find it a lot easier to develop a concept inspired by scenes that I can actually see than to conjure a musical idea from an abstract concept.

A Lot of Musicians Become Photographers

I'm continually amazed by how many photographers I read about are also musicians.  At this point it's probably become a bit of confirmation bias, but I really do think there is a disproportionate number.  The thing is, many of the traits you develop as a musician are highly beneficial to being a photographer.  I know in my own experience that the disciplined and structured way I learned music really accelerated my learning of photography.  And that's just with the free time that a typical, middle-aged guy with young children can muster.  If I were single and in my 20s, I'm confident I could hyper-accelerate things.  The mistakes I've made in music have also helped me. For example, I spent an awful lot of time when I was learning music focusing on instrumental technique.  If I could do things over again, I would re-focus a lot of that effort on songwriting and singing, which I think would have been a lot more useful and fulfilling in the long run.  So I've tried to apply that thinking to my photography and not allow myself to invest too much time in technical stuff and spend more of it on soft topics like composition and storytelling.


  1. very interesting - a lot to chew on!

    What about songwriting would you train in?

  2. All kinds of things. I'd learn how chord progressions worked much earlier in my life. I'd keep a journal of interesting phrases or lyrical ideas that I could draw from and develop. I'd dissect more songs (rather than guitar solos, which is what I did): How/why does the melody work over the chords? Any interesting chords or progressions? What lyrical devices did the song use? What was the general song structure? What makes the song compelling? How could it be improved?

    I'd make up songwriting exercises, such as: Write a song about a X. Write a song that expresses frustration. Make up lyrics based on the next thing somebody says to you. Write a song that uses a particular chord. Fit these pre-existing lyrics to a new melody, etc. I made up exercises like these for addressing weaknesses in my guitar playing quite a lot when I was living in other countries and had tons of free time.

    But mostly, I'd have spent more time just writing songs rather than practicing guitar.

    There was a point back in Las Cruces when we had our band that I was on what I'd now consider a better path. I was writing a lot. Most of it was complete crap, but it was the right thing to be working on and if I'd just kept at it the quality would have improved as a result of simple repetition

    I think if I were as good a singer/songwriter now as I am a guitarists, I'd be more content. That's because I've come to realize that what makes my favorite artists so brilliant are the songs, not the instrumental prowess. I wished I'd clued in on this when I was younger and had more time to apply that wisdom.


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