Muscle Memory

Watch a professional baseball player swing a bat or a professional golfer swing a club. They aren’t thinking about every action that they take. They have done that action enough times that they perform it without voluntary effort. This is an example of muscle memory. Not only does muscle memory help athletes, but it can be a great benefit to photographers if used correctly. I’ve talked in a previous blog entry about just taking the shot. Build up muscle memory so that you can easily do that.

Why is muscle memory important?

Whether you realize it or not, you are already using muscle memory when you take a photo. Hold your hand out like its gripping your camera and take a picture. You probably pressed the shutter release button without thinking about it, even though you weren’t even holding your camera. This is why we want to train our muscle memory; so we don’t have to think about every photography task that we do. We want our brains to be thinking about the big picture (pardon the pun) and not have to focus on every little detail.

There are also multiple types of muscle memory. We talked about that fact that we want our hands to do what we want without thinking, but what about the biggest muscle in our body: the brain? Not only do you have to take that photo, but you have to compose that photo. You have to think about how that photo interacts with everything you’re doing.

Perfect practice makes perfect

The saying goes like this: perfect practice makes perfect. This means that practicing the correct motions means that your body will learn the correct motions. Pay very close attention to what you are doing while practicing so that you make sure that what your body is learning the right motions.

The biggest things that you’ll want to start acquiring muscle memory for is the act of taking a photo. What I mean by this is being able to make the adjustments you need and press the shutter without thinking about it. Some examples of this are:

  • focus your photo (Most people use the shutter button, but what if you use back button focus?)
  • adjusting your aperture
  • change ISO
  • adjust your shutter speed
  • switching to a manual focus
  • using the exposure adjustment dial
  • bringing up your quick menu

You’re probably thinking that you know how to do all of that stuff, but do you know how to do it without thinking? And if you have multiple cameras, do you know how to do them equally well and automatically on each camera type?

Practice the muscle memory of your brain in the same way. We all have our go-to composition techniques. Whether it be the rule of thirds or leading lines, we all have ways that we like to frame our subjects. The key is to practice that just like you would adjusting your aperture. Go out for a day and focus on taking photos of leading lines. Spend a week focused on textures. Focus on your individual composition techniques so that when you have the subject in your viewfinder, you don’t have to think about the details. You take the shot.

Final thoughts on muscle memory

Just like it sounds, muscle memory is based on memory, and sometimes you can lose that memory. The key is constant practice. A professional basketball player still practices free throws. Its probably one of the first things that they learned and an activity that they have done thousands of times, but they still practice it to keep it fresh. It’s the same thing here. Practice the rudimentary skills over and over again to build up that muscle memory and go back to it on a regular basis. The future you trying to take that photo before the subject walks away will thank you.

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