Chuang-tzu, a Taoist philosopher, described the difference between “Great Understanding” and “Little Understanding.” He said that, “Great Understanding is broad and unhurried; Little Understanding is cramped and busy.”
Little Understanding includes knowing things like when the bus arrives or what the keyboard shortcut is for “copy.” In the photographic world it includes things like knowing how the aperture, shutter speed and ISO can be adjusted for the proper exposure or how to manage those elements to achieve a specific effect.
In contrast, Great Understanding includes notions such as openness, receptivity, artistic vision. These are concepts that can be vague and difficult to understand, but are vital to a deeper understanding of the nature of things leading to a more fulfilling life.
At first blush one is tempted to reject the “cramped” Little Understanding in favor of the “broad” Great Understanding. However, Taoist philosophers would reject that notion. The Tao is, after all, about balance. So a sage is one who can maintain a proper balance between Little Understanding and Great Understanding.
The renowned photographer, Ansel Adams, was a master of applying precise techniques to achieve a photographic goal. While looking at a landscape, he “previsualized” the appearance of the final photograph and would apply his detailed knowledge of the photographic process to achieve that goal. This was a man who, while driving towards the town, calculated the proper exposure for the famous photograph “Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico” based on his knowledge of the precise luminosity of the moon (in foot-candles). He was a master of Little Understanding. But he used his knowledge in service of his artistic vision. He realized that (if he drove fast enough) he would arrive in Hernandez in time to include the sunset’s reflection on the church cross at the same time that the moon rose over the town – an image that popped into his mind before he arrived. Balancing his technical knowledge with his artistic vision, he was able to make a powerful and moving image in the few moments between the time he arrived at the town and the time the sun set.
So, what did Adams think about this balance between Little Understanding and Great Understanding? He was reported to have said that “technique is unimportant, unless you don’t have it.” Now, that’s balance.