Vision Part 8
Hard Skills and Soft Skills
by Alain Briot
The man who is enthusiastic will find the scales tipped in his favor. And a man of second-rate ability, with enthusiasm, will outstrip a man of first-rate ability without enthusiasm.
1 - Introduction
Hard skills are factual, technical and quantifiable. Soft skills on the other hand are subjective, artistic and difficult to quantify. This series of essays focuses on the concept of Vision in fine art photography. Vision being a soft skill, a discussion of soft skills and hard skills is therefore appropriate in the context of this series.
Soft skills are underestimated in fine art photography today. This is essentially because fine art photography is a technical medium. However, this does not mean that soft skills have no place in this medium. Because fine art photography is a combination of both art and science, the creation of a successful fine art photograph requires both soft skills and hard skills.
In this essay, number 8 in the Vision series, I will start this discussion by looking at what soft skills and hard skills are. I will continue by looking at how soft skills can be taught, including considerations about mentoring, experience, practice and other topics relevant to this subject.
2 - What hard skills are
Hard skills are technical and specific. They are taught on the basis of fact. They are a way of doing something, either a procedure or a practice. They usually refer to the training and knowledge that a person has in a specific skill set.
Hard skills are any skills related to a specific task or situation. Unlike soft skills which are dependent on one's personality, hard skills are easily quantifiable.
Hard skills are the occupational requirements of many activities. They are the technical or administrative procedures related to an organization’s core business. Examples include operating machinery, computer operations, safety standards, administrative or financial procedures, sales administration, etc.
Hard Skills are left brain dominant.
How Hard skills are learned
Hard skills are learned through study, training and practice. Hard skills are taught in school, starting with general level courses and continuing with advanced level courses.
Evaluating hard skills
Hard skills are quantifiable and measurable. They can be evaluated through the use of standardized tests, or through the direct observation of an individual’s ability, skill level, or performance when asked to perform a specific task.
Because hard skills are fact based, knowledge of hard skills is best tested through the use of true/false or multiple-answer tests. In such tests there is only one correct answer, making grading automatic and impersonal.
Grading is based on the number of questions answered correctly. A grading chart is used. The number of questions answered correctly define which grade the student get.
Hard skills and rules
When hard skills are used, rules are pretty much static and remain the same over time. For example, in photography the process of setting a black point is the same regardless of which image you work on. Similarly, the process of identifying clipping, the presence of color fringing, or the level of noise is the same for all photographs, regardless of subject matter, camera or other variables.
Hard skills in fine art photography
In fine art photography hard skills address the photographer’s technical proficiency. For example, these include knowing how to expose a photograph correctly, knowing how to read a histogram, knowing how to convert photographs using a specific software package, knowing how to set the black, white and grey point, knowing how to sharpen an image for a specific print size and so on.
I like the panoramic format because it allows me to create images that tell a story rather than make a statement. Often, prior to creating a panoramic image, I start by creating a 4x5 ratio horizontal or vertical photograph. Such was the case in this instance. I was driving back to the hotel when I saw this scene. I was tired, and at first I did not want to stop. But the colors, the position of the moon and the shape of the buttes and mesa were so perfect that a vision started forming in my mind. When I pulled out my camera, my first though was of a vertical 4x5 ratio image. While the colors, the moon, the mesa looked as I imagined them to look, the image did not tell the story I wanted to tell. It was too limited, too much about how the moon, the mesa and the sky were visually related to each other. I tried an horizontal 4x5 ratio image, but the outcome was similar, although the horizontal format started giving room for the elements to breath and come on their own.
It was then I realized that my vision would be best translated by creating a panoramic image, a collage of several vertical frames, because doing so would give even more room for the elements to breathe. It would downplay the visual relationship they had with each other, and instead emphasize the ambiance, the feel of this scene. It would be about the emotional impact of the sky colors, and of how these colors faded to black on one side of the frame and glowed bright yellow pink and orange on the other side. It would tell the story of night coming onto the landscape, creeping up from the left side and trying to invade the image while being met with resistance by the glow of the dusk sky in the distant west. The moon, standing still above the butte in the middle of the image, would become a guardian, or a referee, of this combat between light and darkness.
3 - What soft skills are
Soft skills are subjective and associated with personality, individual attributes and personal characteristics.
Soft skills are sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence. In human relations, soft skills are often referred to as ‘people skills.’ In the fine arts soft skills are usually referred to as ‘artistic skills.’
Soft skills are about action, not knowledge. They have to do with how people relate to and communicate with each other. For example, knowing how to listen, engage in a dialogue, give constructive feedback, cooperate as a team member, solve problems or resolve conflicts are all soft skills. Leaders in many fields of endeavors depend on soft skills to set an example, build efficient work groups, encourage personal innovation, motivate employees, make important decisions, delegate and more.
Soft skills are right brain dominant.
How soft skills are learned
Soft skills are not necessarily learned in school. Instead, they are often learned through personal endeavors that promote social activities, emotional learning and ethical behavior. For example, soft skills can be learned at home through family activities, or through peer interaction such as practicing sports and hobbies. They can be learned by observing someone who possesses these skills already, or through trial and error, or through group activities such as sports, community work and team-building activities. In a classroom environment they are often learned during class discussions and presentations, student-centered activities and study groups.
Testing and evaluating soft skills
Because soft skills are personality and experience based, knowledge of soft skills is best tested through the use of questions to be answered in one or several sentences, or in multiple paragraphs or even in an essay. Questions aimed at testing soft skills are usually open-ended, meaning there are no right or wrong answers. Instead, students are free to express their personal views, opinions and personality in their answers. Knowledge of the subject is demonstrated through the narration of personal experiences and through references to other scholars and practitioners who wrote about the subject at hand or who demonstrated a specific approach to the subject through their actions.
Grading is based on the teacher's personal evaluation of the students’ answers. Answers are graded on the basis of their soundness, reasoning, depth of thinking and through the appropriateness of the sources quoted when sources are used. Because answers are neither true or false, a grading chart cannot be used. Grading is therefore done manually on an individual level.
Soft skills and rules
When soft skills are used, rules are dynamic and change based on the situation to which they need to be applied. For example, the proper color balance of a scene in which you want to express a feeling of coldness will be different than the color balance of a scene in which you want to express warmth. The former will be best expressed with a bluer color balance while the later will be more effectively expressed with a warmer color balance. The exact color settings are not specific and can change from one photo to the next depending on how much coldness or warmth you want to express. It can also change depending on the subject represented in the photograph (some subjects may not look better with cool or warm colors) and on your personal feelings ( you may not like cool or warm colors for example).
Soft skills in fine art photography
In fine art photography soft skills address the photographer’s personal skills, essentially from an artistic and emotional standpoint. For example, these skills can include the artist’s vision for his or her body of work, which colors to use in a photograph to create a specific emotional effect, or the ability to imagine different ways of interpreting an image creatively. Soft skills also include the intuition to recognize a potential photo opportunity, the ability to visualize an image among the chaos of nature, and the experience to choose the best time to take a photograph.
These skills also include the self discipline to set specific goals and deadlines, the ability to ‘think outside of the box’ and come up with new ideas, the self confidence to accept criticism constructively, the perseverance to not give up when difficulties are encountered, the communication skills to develop constructive business and customer relations, the integrity to steer clear of unprofessional practices, the empathy to relate to other people’s plight, the critical thinking to find the best approach to unfamiliar situations, the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions, the character to develop a personal style, and more.
4 - Soft skills today
As I pointed out in the introduction, soft skills are not always valued today. In a society that is highly oriented towards technology, it is tempting to believe that hard skills are more important. As a result soft skills often take a second seat to hard skills. The ability to use technology well, to operate machines and computers properly, to use software, to drive vehicles and to perform the multiple of tasks that require the use of hard skills is seen by many as being the key to success. There is nothing wrong with this. Obviously we cannot operate successfully in our society if we do not know how to drive, use a cell phone or a computer, or turn on our home security system to name but a few of the many hard skills we need to use everyday.
However, this does not mean that soft skills are unimportant, superfluous or useless. I believe that when it comes to being successful, the highest level of success hinges on having a vision for one’s work and one’s career. For me, many things starts with vision, whether it is redecorating my office, working on a project, preparing a photography exhibit, assembling a body of work, or deciding which career path to follow.
When hard skills are considered in isolation and no consideration is given to soft skills, the outcome is purely functional. Aesthetic considerations are neglected and so are personality, character, style and, most relevant in the context of this series, vision. The result are objects, products, services or photographs that do what they are supposed to do but whose focus on functionality and technical properties alone make them boring and unattractive. When it comes to career decisions, the outcome are choices made solely for practical and financial reasons, with no attention paid to personal desires, aptitudes, character, or, again, vision.
5 - Teaching soft skills
This presentation brings up the issue of whether or not soft skills can be taught and learned, an issue for which opinions differ. My purpose here is not to join this debate. My purpose is to simply state my position which is that most soft skills can be taught.
Certainly certain soft skills cannot be taught. Talent for example is innate. You have it or you don’t. Similarly, having a vision for your work is not something that can be forced upon someone. Again, you have it or you don’t.
What can be taught however is the importance that soft skills play in expressing talent and in developing vision. For example, being able to express vision and talent is highly dependent upon the presence of soft skills such as self confidence, perseverance and the ability to handle criticism constructively.
What can also be taught is what vision consists of. This is the goal of this series of essays for example. Art is not the result of ‘divine intervention’ or the outcome of a ‘mystical event.’ While some aspects of art cannot be explained rationally, most of the concepts that underlie the creation of a work of art can be explained and taught.
The problem with believing that soft skills cannot be taught is that when someone believe this, they usually believe that no soft skills can be taught. In other words it is an exclusive belief. Therefore, while talent cannot be taught because it is innate, one can teach how to acquire and develop self confidence and perseverance, two soft skills that will further the expression of talent if it is present. There are talented people out there who are not using their talents because of a lack of self confidence, or because they do not persevere when their efforts are met with challenges and difficulties. Similarly, one can teach how to handle criticism, something I did in a series of 3 essays published on this site, and in doing so prevent discouragement due to misunderstood criticism. Something as simple as learning how to differentiate between fact-based and opinion-based criticism can make a huge difference in an artist’s career, potentially going as far as deciding this artist to continue their career rather than end it because of misunderstood criticism. This situation is not uncommon in an artist’s life because of the conflict between most artists’ desire to do their best and please their audience and the harsh criticism bestowed upon artists by those who do not appreciate their work.
Sierra Lake Dawn
This image also started as a vertical 4x5 ratio composition. This first image was taken in pre-dawn light and was very successful in expressing a dramatic and colorful vision of the scene. However, as the ambient light level increased, reds, yellows and mauves faded away and were replaced by cool colors. Clouds moved in bring soft light typical of overcast conditions.
The soft light brought with it a new vision of the scene. One of immensity and vast expanses. This was a vision I never had here before, even though I had photographed this location several times in years past. At first I thought of doing another vertical 4x5 ratio image, but this quickly proved unsatisfying. Just like with my previous example, Navajoland Moonrise, the outcome was an image which contrasted several elements of the scene . What I wanted was an image that told a story, a narrative that unfolded from one side of the frame to the other, a story about how the mountains, the clouds, the cloud reflections, the lake, the evergreens and the aspens in fall colors related to each other. Once again the solution was to take multiple captures of the scene, covering the entire horizon, to create a digital panoramic collage.
6 - Learning through immersion
An important way through which soft skills are learned is immersion. Learning through immersion means learning by being in contact with people who are doing what you want to do, by observing what they do, by listening to what they say, and by asking pertinent questions.
Because soft skills are rarely taught in school, most people learn these skills through personal experience, on the job, or through other informal means such as mentoring, pier contact or direct observation. In art, soft skills are learned through contact with professional artists and art instructors. They are also learned by regular and extensive museum visits, visits conducted for the purpose of studying the work of a specific artist, or the approach of a specific art movement. They are learned by attending gallery openings and by talking with the artists and the patrons who attend these openings. They are learned by having meaningful conversations with gallery owners and museum curators. They are learned through conversations with other artists and by exchanging views about the art we like or dislike. In short they are learned through the immersion into the world of art, the world that artists live in.
Soft skills at the Paris Academie des Beaux Arts
This is true of the education I received at the Academies des Beaux Arts in Paris. At the Beaux Arts I never took a class on ‘the language of art’, a class in which we would have learned the specific terms that artists, art galleries, patrons, museum curators and other art professionals use to talk about art. I never did because such a class was not offered. In the beginning, as a newly enrolled student, what would be a Freshman in the American university system, I found the language of art to be foreign and largely incomprehensible. I understood the words but I did not know what they meant. I had no background in how, why or when to use these words. They were words used by others who had far more experience in art than I did. However, as time went by, I not only learned what these terms meant, I also started using them myself.
Eventually, through immersion and practice, these words became part of my everyday vocabulary. I did not learn how to use them through formal study. I learned by being there. By being a student, by listening to my teachers and by listening to students who were more advanced than me. I learned by immersion, by having this language become part of me. As it became part of me, so did an entire culture of the arts, a culture that included not only language, but an overall understanding and appreciation of what fine art was, what it meant, what I needed to look for to recognize it, how I could evaluate it and so on.
Mentoring, teaching and learning through example
This leads us to mentoring. All successful people have had several mentors. I had several myself. It started with my painting, drawing and art teachers at the Beaux Arts, and it continued with my photography teachers in Paris first and in the United States afterwards.
All were teachers and all were mentors. I say ‘teachers’ first and ‘mentors’ second and you may ask why not just say ‘mentors’ and leave it at that since this section is about mentors. The reason is that I did not see them as mentors until after I studied with them. To me they were teachers teaching me hard skills: how to paint, how to photograph, how to sell my work. But in retrospect the lessons I received from them went far beyond learning hard skills.
Certainly I learned what they taught me directly and what I was tested on through formal testing. However, I also learned what they taught me indirectly, through their actions. This was not tested because it was not part of the curriculum. All my teachers were professionals who were doing their own creative work in addition to teaching. At the time I did not realize how important this was. I just saw it as a fact, as an inevitability. Today as see it very differently. I now understand it as being how I acquired the soft skills I needed to be a successful artist. It is the acquisition of these soft skills that allow me to continue to grow and move forward. It is these skills that I value the most.
Today I think of why my teachers did what they did more than how they did what they did. I think of their motivations for creating art more than I think of the techniques they used to create their art. The technical aspects have become second nature to me by now. However the personal motivation remains elusive to some extent. This is where much of my current growth comes from. Knowing why they did what they did --knowing what their purpose was-- helps me shed light on my own purpose.
This knowledge, these soft skills acquired in-between classes, are the root, the origin, the seed of purpose. When you do something for a long time, purpose becomes essential because without purpose you stop enjoying what you do and you start doing things because you have to rather that because you want to.
7 - In fine art, soft skills and hard skills are combined
When creating art, one uses a combination of both soft and hard skills. One needs to be inspired, have the intuition to recognize a potential photo opportunity, and develop the ability to visualize an image among the chaos of nature. At the same time one needs to acquire the technical skills to execute his or her idea correctly by selecting the proper gear and by mastering the technical aspects. These two sets of skills are inseparably intertwined. Creating art and making fine art photographs is not a matter of waxing poetic or having abstract ideas without any intent of turning these ideas into concrete works of art. Neither is it about following a precise, step-by-step technical recipe that will lead to the creation of a technically perfect photograph. Instead, fine art is the combination of both inspiration, vision, technical proficiency and the use of the proper tools.
For example, let’s see how hard and soft skills play out when selecting a lens for a specific photograph. Hard skills are necessary to find out the optical quality of a specific lens. This is important when planning a specific enlargement size, or in regards to sharpness when a high level of detail is wanted, or in regards to distortion and optical aberrations when one wants to prevent lens defects from being visible in the photograph.
Soft skills are necessary in regards to the feelings, or the emotions, the artist wants to express in the photograph. If one wants to express immensity of the landscape, the all-encompassing view that a wide angle creates will be helpful. On the other hand, if one wants to express intimacy, a short telephoto, such as an 85 mm, will be more appropriate to creating this effect.
Lens color and rendition also fit in the soft skill category. If the goal is to express the glow of sunset over an immense landscape, a sharp lens with a warm color rendition will help by representing the details of the landscape faithfully and by increasing the warm feeling of the scene. On the other hand, if the artist’s goal is to express intimacy, using a lens that creates a soft, diffused look can be helpful. The technical aspects are controlled by hard skills, while the artistic aspects are controlled by soft skills. This shows how closely intertwined both set of skills are in the creation of art.
We naturally focus on our strengths
The natural tendency is to focus on our strengths, whether those are soft skills or hard skills. We do this because it is enjoyable. Individuals that have strong soft skills find enjoyment in creating imaginative images while individuals who have strong hard skills find enjoyment in mastering the technical aspects of the medium. However, while doing so is certainly enjoyable it is also short sighted. Focusing on the areas we are naturally good at does little to help us become well-rounded individuals. To be successful we need to learn both soft and hard skills. This means stepping our of our comfort zone and engage in activities we find challenging in order to learn and to grow.
For example, individuals with strong soft skills may be able to visualize many possible artistic renderings in a specific scene. However, they may be unable to capture this scene correctly because they struggle with camera functions and other technical aspects of photography. On the other hand, individuals with strong hard skills may fully control all the technical aspects of the medium, but may have difficulties imagining the scene any other way besides what their camera captures.
For both groups the goal is to develop the skills they lack in order to become well rounded fine art practitioners.
8 - Perfected practice
This brings the issue of practice. Practice is important and practice can be constructive in regards to refining our existing skills. However, to acquire new skills practice needs to address both our strengths and our weaknesses. This is where mentoring is useful, as we saw above, because a mentor sees what we don’t see and will prevent us from avoid difficulties by motivating us to practice the areas we need to strengthen.
In a previous essay I discussed the concept of the 10,000 hours, a number often used to define the ability to acquire mastery. The premise is that if you practice for 10,000 hours you will master your chosen medium. There is no doubt that intense practice will generate reflex-based knowledge and will allow the acquisition of second-nature skills. However, it is also true that one can practice the wrong thing ad infinitum and thereby acquire the wrong skills. It is also possible to practice the same skill over and over again without making any significant progress. When this happens the student develops partial skills. To achieve mastery they will need to ‘fill in the blanks,’ so to speak, by acquiring the skills they lack later on.
The question is how do you know if you are making these mistakes? The only way to tell is by having a knowledgeable person watch you practice so they can identify areas where you need to do additional work. This is what a mentor does.
I practiced a lot when I lived in Chinle, at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly in Navajoland. I had nothing else do to. However I did not improve much because I did not have a defined purpose for this practice. Why I was practicing was unclear to me. There was no end goal, not final destination, no ongoing project. I just wanted to photograph what I saw because I liked to photograph what I saw. It was a circular rhetoric, a snake-bite-its-tail approach. It led to ever more photographs, today stored in a pile of boxes that I hardly look at, and nothing else. No project was completed, no goal was realized, no big idea was achieved. All it amounted was the accumulation of documentary photographs.
As an ancient proverb says, Better to spend one day with a master than 10,000 years of study. This brings into question the issue of mastery acquired by years and years of practice. It also brings up the importance of mentors. Eventually, it is not practice alone that leads to perfection. Rather, it is perfected practice that leads to perfection. Perfected practice is practice that focuses both on our strengths and our weaknesses. In the context of this essay, perfected practice is practice that focuses on acquiring both soft and hard skills.
This brings up the question of what matters most. In a fine art print, is it the technical excellence or the emotional quality of the image that prevails ? In my experience, having sold fine art prints full time for 17 years now, I learned that emotion rules. If a client has to decide between a technically perfect image with a low emotional content and a technically deficient image with a high emotional content, the high emotional content image wins every time.
As a case in point my best selling photograph, when I sold my work at Grand Canyon National Park, featured a large area of blurred trees, something that from a technical aspect qualifies as a deficiency. Before I started using inkjet printing I sent this photograph out to labs to get it printed. Lab technicians would regularly call me after they received it to ask if I really wanted this photograph printed because ‘a large area is out of focus.’ My answer was always yes of course, but I had to ‘sign off’ on the fact that in their opinion this was not a good image to print, especially in large sizes.
The most interesting aspect of the story is that no collector ever complained about this ‘defect.’ Some mentioned it, and if they did I explained that it was caused by the windy conditions on the rim of the Grand Canyon the day I took the photograph. However, most never paid attention to it so captivated were they by the emotional content of the photograph. I had other, technically-perfect photographs displayed in the same show, but those hardly received a second glance. Of course, the goal is to have images that are both emotionally powerful and technically perfect, but when that is not the case it is good to know that, when it comes to print sales, emotion wins over technical perfection. To me this makes the point about the importance of soft skills in fine art better than any other example.
9 - Conclusion
Soft skills are important for the successful development of an artist’s work and career. While one cannot teach talent or the ability to have a vision, one can teach what talent and vision consist of, why they are important and how to foster them.
Achieving success in fine art, and by extension in all creative endeavors, also calls for acquiring a combination of both soft and hard skills and for knowing when to use them. There are times when soft skills should be used, and there are times when hard skills should be used. Knowing when to use which set of skills is the key to success.
When a customer makes the final decision between two photographs, the vast majority of viewers prefer the one with the highest emotional content. This shows the importance that soft skills play in our appreciation of art. It also shows the important of soft skills as a whole.
10 - Next vision essay: from color to black and white
My next essay in this series will focus on the how to as well as on the vision behind the creation of a specific photograph: White Mountains Bristlecone Pine. While primarily technical and therefore focused on hard skills, this essay will also incorporate a discussion of the soft skills used in the making of this image, thereby exemplifying the discussion introduced in the present essay. Until then, this series continues to be ‘a suivre.’
11 - About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available in eBook format on my website at this link: http://beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3.html
You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com . You will receive 40 free eBooks immediately after subscribing.
I welcome your comments on this essay as well as on my other essays. You can reach me directly by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.