Muscle memory, match fitness and second nature

Whatever you do for a living, for fun or out of necessity the general rule is that the more you do it, the better you get at it. Like a very large number of people I have been doing what I normally do a lot less through the COVID-19 pandemic and I have found that has caused me to stop and think a lot more.

I haven’t been into a single school for almost a year and a half and I haven’t shot a large set of corporate headshots for almost as long. I haven’t been asked to photograph retail spaces, conferences or the work that takes place inside hospitals. That’s a massive chunk of my core photography work missing from my life and the relatively few editorial and news jobs that I’ve done certainly haven’t made up for any of the regular commissions.

The same can be said for the editing work that I do – much of which is on big sporting events. You’d have to have been on a deserted island to not realise that almost all of the high profile stuff just didn’t happen last year and hasn’t got back to where it should be in 2021 either.

Muscle memory is something that has been talked about in sports for a few years now.

Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort.


Related to shooting pictures it’s the way that you hold the camera, adjust controls, move, review and generally act with camera in-hand without having to concentrate on those bits of the task. Editing has its own tasks that are far easier, faster and more productively handled when your muscle memory kicks in. Bluntly put, I am having think that little bit harder and work that little bit slower because I sometimes have to stop and think about something that would have ‘just happened’ in my career before the pandemic came along.

Match fitness is another sporting term that gets borrowed for other purposes.

Match Fit | adjective | having the level of physical fitness necessary to take part in a match: you need to train to be match fit and he’s not had time to do that | the manager is currently down to three match-fit defenders | figurative :  you need a digital makeover to get your business match fit.

Apple Dictionary App

The take-away from this in our profession is that you can go out and practice all you like but until you are working on real assignments and commissions against real briefs and deadlines you just don’t have the level of match fitness that you had when you were.

Second Nature is a subtle combination of the other two terms above with an adding something that I like to think brings some sub-conscious creativity into the mix.

Second Nature | noun | If something is second nature to you, you are so familiar with it that you can do it easily without needing to think very much about it: I used to hate computers, but using them is second nature to me now.

Cambridge Dictionary

That’s muscle memory plus match fitness plus instinct plus talent all wrapped up in familiarity. Second nature is what I have always talked about when discussing photography and editing to students and new entrants to the profession. You don’t absolutely need it but it makes your work easier if you do.

Further evidence that doing something repeatedly brings muscle memory, match fitness and second nature into play has been the things that I have been doing instead of work. For a start there’s my cooking. I have been doing way more of that than I ever did and just about everything has got better, easier and meals actually happen on time rather than being a bit of a timing-moving-target. My scrambled eggs have become something I’m really proud of and my chicken and bacon risotto has developed into a household favourite that I can’t wait to share with friends and family when we can once again entertain them in our home.

I was always OK at painting and decorating in and around the home but I’ve got quicker, more accurate and all of the processes involved from working out what materials I need to cleaning brushes and other implements afterwards have become slicker and easier.

Throughout the last year and a bit I have kept on shooting pictures and I have kept up my computer skills. I did my first series of twelve-hour-plus editing sessions in over six months over the last few days and the speed and accuracy I got up to by the end was almost back to where I was before we talked about coronavirus on a daily basis.

My work assessment would be that muscle memory comes back pretty quickly, match-fitness take a while and second nature just needs a bit of encouragement to come back. The major conclusion from having had several months of due to a back injury in 2017 and having had drastically reduced amounts of work in 2020/2021 is that it is completely possible to work (and to do good work too) but that it takes more effort and that it is genuinely less enjoyable.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s still the best job there is and my egg-based-cuisine is just a bonus

One comment

  1. Great article that resonates with my own experience. Muscle memory is incredible. I last processed a black and white film in anger, using a Paterson tank and film spiral, in 1998 but just prior to the first COVID lockdown I was asked to help a young student who was struggling to get the hang of loading 120 film onto a spiral. With the lights on (using a spare roll of film) I demonstrated how the film slips onto the spiral, I weirdly and without thinking closed my eyes and the film went on just as if I was still loading films everyday. Once the student had seen what to do, I asked her to replicate the process, she closed her eyes and the film slid onto the spiral without any issues. Even with a gap of 20+ years the brain still kicks in and went into auto pilot. The same happened when I loaded a 120 film back for a Blad. I didn’t need to look at the back, everything just happened. shooting and processing dozens of films everyday for a dozen years really imprints on the brain.


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