Practice, Practice and “Know your Ax”

July 8th, 2011 by Jack Graham

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect”. …………….Vince Lombardi

I have a degree in music. I was a professional musician in and around  New York City until 1989. In 1989, I played over 175 “dates” and made a considerable amount of money. 1989 was also when it was “Been there, done that” time in my life. That’s when I really moved into photography and used this medium to express myself, much like music.

To be a good enough musician to make it, one must practice, practice and then practice some more. You had to “know your Ax”, as we musicians used to say. The musicians local 802 directory in NYC was as big as a phone book. You had to be a good player to make it there. I still practice every day, but now with my camera.

Being just OK is not enough in music, or really any art form, to make it. In music, there are lots of great players at every turn, looking to take your job. All the silks you need come from wood-shedding and continued learning. Photography is no different.

As part of my photography workshops I constantly preach that we need to be able to get around our cameras, know each function button and what they do like the back of our hand, that way our right brain or creative side can function at capacity. This takes practice. Unfortunately, I see folk buying expensive equipment, myriads of software, the latest lenses etc., all looking for that “magic pill” that will make it all fall into place. Sorry folks, it does not work that way. It takes practice. I used to enjoy seeing the younger guys coming into the music store on 48th Street in NYC trying out new mouthpieces, thinking that a new mouthpiece was the Holy Grail. When I play my trumpet today; I still use the old Vincent Bach,Mount Vernon 1C (for you trumpeters) that I’ve used since high school! Believe me, it isn’t the mouth piece. It’s not the new gear that we have available today. Its practice and honing your skills.

I was introduced to perhaps the greatest trumpet player to have ever lived at an early age. His name was Rafael Mendez. What a life this fellow had. He was born in Jaquilpan, Mexico 1906. It is told that he practiced more than his father allowed, but he practiced. In 1916 he became the bugler to the famous guerrilla leader, Poncho Villa and was drafted into the Mexican Army. Villa demanded that Mendez stay with the rebels even after the rest of his family was allowed to return home!

Mendez came to American the early 1930’s, taking work in automobile factories in Detroit. He moved to southern California in the mid 1930’s and by 1940 was THE most in demand trumpet player in Hollywood. Decca records offered him a 12 record contract, unheard of for a trumpet soloist during this time.

OK, why an I telling this story?  Mr. Mendez is no different from what successful photographers should be… perfectionists. Please turn up your speakers and listen to what Mr. Mendez says in this short black & white video. Think of how to apply his words to your camera and to photography. There is no difference. You will be a better photographer is you follow his words. ( and does not he play like anything you’ve ever heard?)

Note his opening line. “There are no shortcuts to learning how to play a trumpet. It takes practice”. The same goes for photography. This video says it all. I can not add more. I suggest that we think about what Mr. Mendez says everyday, as we strive to improve our craft.


There is a story, as there are many about Ansel Adams. When he was about 80 years old, one day he was printing one of his “classic” masterpieces. He finally waked out of the darkroom holding the print he made exclaiming “I finally got the print I wanted when I made the negative”  What was amazing is that the image he printed was captured and and first printed by Ansel when he was 30 years old!

He was still finding ways to improve his work.

Though most viewers will never notice, I often find myself adjusting my master files using today’s technology before posting an image or making a print. I am totally committed to ongoing improvement and learning. In addition, my vision in some respects has changed over the years. Conversely, sometimes after working on the image for a few minutes I realize there’s nothing I can do to improve it, for my taste. I’ll leave it as is.

Recently I was working on the image  on the left. This location is looking north toward San Francisco Bay on the cliffs of the Marin Headlands in California. I worked a bit with the color range, and used the eyedropper tool in Photoshop in a separate layer. By adding a very small curve in a separate layer, I was also able to bring out some detail and slight color enhancement not present in the original Ilfochrome  print. I also was able to bring down the color in the water just a bit to balance the colors more evenly. By adding a bit of sharpening, and as usual some subtle “tweaks” offered by Nik Software, I think that I was able to revive this image quite a bit.

I suspect that someday, I will work on it again with newer technology… but then again… maybe not.

Read more about Jack on his website here, and learn about his workshops here.



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