Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Does practice make perfect?

click photo to enlarge
"Travel broadens the mind" people say, and everyone agrees without a moment's hesitation. It can, but often it doesn't: it all depends on the mind. Moreover, tourism shouldn't be confused with travel. "Practice makes perfect", is another of those sayings that elicits widespread agreement. You only have to include it in your sentence to find heads going up and down, sagely, like so many nodding donkeys. And yet, if my life's experience is anything to go by, you're just as likely to come upon someone who regularly repeats a task without any discernible improvement in performance as you are the person who exhibits advancement in their chosen activity.

It seems to me that with some activities many of us achieve a level that we deem to be "good enough", and don't improve further. I recognise this in quite a few of my DIY skills. Take paper-hanging and painting. I've done this activity (with my wife) on and off for more than thirty years. The end result today is better than when I started out, but I don't think it's any improvement over the standard I achieved fifteen or twenty years ago. I'm happy enough with the outcome and don't aspire to any kind of perfection. I could probably say the same, with one or two qualifications, about my guitar playing, though here I do have the desire to improve! The fact is, practice alone is not enough to achieve improvement. For that to happen there has to be the application of rigorous thought, reflection and the careful assessment of one's performance. In a lot of practice, including that involving the hobby and profession of photography, the thinking, reflecting and assessing quite often seems spasmodic or completely absent, and frequently plays second fiddle to carrying out the activity at the already achieved level. For many people practice involves working on areas of weaknesses, and there's nothing wrong with that so long as you don't let your strengths atrophy. No, practice alone isn't necessarily the road to improvement.

The two people in today's photograph, gazing out to sea from the beach at Skegness, Lincolnshire, though they don't look it, are in fact practicing. They are members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and they have just used the tractor and trailer to launch the inshore lifeboat carrying their colleagues on an exercise. Their line of work requires regular practice, and may involve more of it than actual life-saving. Over the years I've taken a few photographs of this organisation at work in activities as varied as doing the Sunday wash and, yes, practising for the real thing.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 300mm
F No: 7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/250
ISO: 200
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On