The Tao of Glass: The Stoic Machine

Cameras, like humans, come in a multitude of models, and each model can vary from its brethren when it is combined with a different configuration of lenses, strobes, memory cards, recording equipment or filters. These unique combinations of innate technology and/or mechanics are set up in such a way that they are able to deliver a suite of results based on software settings and configurations that further differentiate them from one another.

Each camera contains these qualities inherently, and retains them regardless of the setting and surroundings. My Fuji X-E1 is capable of capturing images at 16mb with an ISO setting pushed to an extreme of 25600 with a shutter speed set at 4000. It may not create anything other than a blown out white wash, but it might capture the details of something moving quickly at dusk. The results are up to the interpretation of the third party viewer, but the environment doesn’t have any effect on what the camera itself does.

We have our own built in skills and capabilities, and it is important to remember that our surroundings don’t change that. No matter what is happening around us there are somethings that we will always have no matter where we find ourselves.

The camera doesn’t complain that it is only being taken out to do street photography rather than taking pictures of weddings, or landscapes, or families with squirming children. It will always be focused on executing the skills it was created for no matter what is exposed on the film.

The stoics talk about this as duty. One isn’t usually able to choose the job or position that one has in life, but it is important to attend the to duty that one is given as best as possible regardless of what it is.

If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 3, 12

It is easy to frame the events unfolding around us in ways that seem to shape our lives and our options. At any given point in our lives we may be feeling boxed in, or limited in other ways. However, just because we aren’t in the job that we want, or the place we want to be living, doesn’t mean that we can’t execute the skills that we have to the best of our ability.

Cold as it may seem, the perspective I want to focus on is this: the machine can only perform its function, unaware of the context, uninfluenced by the perceived outcome. The camera doesn’t worry whether the image was over or underexposed, or whether the gallery visitors appreciate the composition of images that it created. It is focused on the execution of its duty regardless of the skill with which it is manipulated.

We can choose ourselves how much we need to be influenced by the perceived outcomes of our work and how it is received by people removed from us. We can choose to focus on aspects of our surroundings and circumstances that we imagine to be limiting factors, or simply not ideal. Or, we can keep in mind the purposed to which we are trying to apply ourselves. Perhaps it is artistry, or being a skilled worker, or being a parent who is present and emotionally available.

Regardless of the situation we can choose to focus on how we execute those actions, rather than worrying about what might come of them once they are beyond our control.

Let any external thing that so wishes happen to those parts of me which can be affected by its happening – and they, if they wish, can complain. I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 7, 14

The Tao of Glass: Manual Focus Lens Qigong

After my initial foray into photography armed only with my cell phone camera, I decided it was time to step up to a “real” camera. I didn’t take this transition lightly, as the next logical step in my photographic journey, or because I was told that one needs to use a more expensive camera in order to take good pictures, or to call oneself a photographer.

My choice was driven by two major factors, and was the result of plenty of research.

First, and not quite as important in the scheme of things, is that I learned that megapixels were not all created equal, and that the 12 megapixel cell phone camera wouldn’t produce the same quality of a 12 megapixel full frame, AP-C or Four-Thirds camera sensor. Having a bit more image processing power allows me to get images that look great even when printed large, which is a nice bonus.

The real reason I wanted to get a manual lens has to do with control and the potential to learn.

Using my cell phone camera I was able to affect two out of three critical functions that go how an image is exposed. I was able to adjust the ISO sensitivity for the sensor and I was able to adjust the shutter speed, or how long the sensor is exposed to light when it takes a picture. What I couldn’t change, however, was the aperture setting, or how wide the opening is that allows light to enter.

With a manual lens I am able to adjust all of these settings on my own in a fluid way. This gives me more control over the outcome of the final image, which is obviously a consideration, but consider this as well.

The lens I have has no automatic parts, so my input in the process is not optional.

To be quite clear, there are plenty of automatic adjustments and features that take place within my camera. I am not shooting film and have immediate access to the results of each shot as it is taken. The digital viewfinder and rear LCD screen show me the results of the adjustments I have made as I make them using the lens.

In the few weeks that I have had this lens and been able to spend some time shooting with it, I have come to fall in love with the process. This is exactly the experience I was hoping for, and one that reinforces my decision to take this path with my art.

Operating the lens and setting up a shot have quickly become a matter of touch and muscle memory, rather than mental calculations. I am not thinking about specific ISO settings or shutter speeds as I adjust the dials, except for knowing whether or not they need to be stepped up or down, and training my fingers to start making these changes without needing to pull my eye away to look at the camera itself.

Taoism has a very long tradition connecting the philosophical ideas to all aspects of life, including nutrition and physical exercises, which fall under a broad and dynamic umbrella of activities known as Qigong, or roughly energy work. Some of these are very simple, gentle and slow stretching and breathing exercises, while other qigong practices range into rigorous martial arts routines, complex Taichi routines and feats of seemingly inhuman endurance.

My limited experience with Qigong, specifically basic Taichi practice and yoga, remind me quite a bit of my time spent with the manual lens while out taking pictures.

I mentioned earlier that using the lens has built up a feel for the practice. Qigong in all forms builds a similar familiarity and “feel” for our own bodies. After having built up only a small sustained practice it becomes easier to notice when things are not in balance within yourself. As your muscles loosen up, it is easier to tell when they become stiff. This awareness is akin to the use of the lens in another very beneficial way. Not only am I aware when things are not exposed within the image the way that I want, I am also able to make those adjustments and corrections unconsciously. Qigong allows us to do the same. When we feel our bodies out of balance we can go back to our routines to help get back on track.

Taoism, in its embracing of this holistic toolkit, helps us to build reflexive and ingrained “muscle memory” as we work to follow our own paths. By spending time thinking about who we are, how we are striving to grow, and how we are feeling physically, we can more quickly identify when things are out of balance, and work to correct them by keeping to our usual practices.

Going manual is not possible in our complex reality in every part of our lives, but I encourage everyone to find at least one practice in which they can “go manual”. Qigong, like all pieces of our unique path in life, isn’t regulated to a strict set of practices, rather it is unique for each person. For me, working the manual lens is qigong, a chance to use my body, mind and subconscious as one, to deepen my understanding of myself, and to set a baseline for balance in my life. I hope that everyone can find something equally helpful.