After teaching photography for about a dozen years without stopping to take a break, it’s become clear to me that after a year with the camera in our hands, the primary problems for most of us as photographers are not photographic problems at all.
The problem is that we think they are, and so we look for photographic solutions. New filter. New lens. Fast memory cards. Better Lightroom presets or Photoshop plug-ins. All of them might solve one problem or another, but they will not solve problems that are fundamentally creative.
On a technical level, there are things to be done to improve our photographs; things we can do to keep them sharp or retain details in highlights. But those can be learned quickly, and for most of us, a year is sufficient to get the very basics. There are manuals for such things.
But there is no user manual for our creativity, which is a good thing—because if such a manual existed, it would reduce us and our best creative work to formulaic crap.
But that hasn’t stopped me from wishing we all understood our creative process a little more.
Even a simple understanding of how we work creatively would take us a long way in employing even the most basic of our technical skills. It’s not that we don’t know how to use the camera, it’s that having learned those basics, we have no idea what to do with them. It is our creativity that takes us those next steps.
One of the greatest barriers to creativity and to life is fear. That fear manifests itself in many ways but one of the more destructive is the perfectionism so many of us are paralyzed by.
Perfectionism isn’t a good thing because the goal of “perfect” isn’t healthy. It’s toxic. It’s tyrannical. It demands more than most humans are capable of giving, paralyzing us in our efforts to create, to learn, to live more gracefully with the limits and foibles of who we are.
Forgive me for putting it this way, but it’s the bastard love child of a protestant work ethic and the fact that we celebrate the work of artistic genius but never acknowledge the process responsible for that work. We are told, if not by others then frequently by ourselves, “Unless we can create that brilliant thing, and unless we can make it perfect, don’t bother.” And we forget that any good thing is almost always a result of a long, slow refinement of something that almost always starts ugly. Perfectionism makes a god of the flawless and an outcast of the flawed, the imperfect.
But there is a meaning to the word “perfect” that we often forget. Sure, it can mean “flawless,” but it can also mean “done.” Completed. Signed. Shipped. Put out into the world to be loved for what it is.
Our desire for a flawless and unblemished kind of perfection gets in the way of—and so often prevents us from—accomplishing the other kind of perfection: done.
For me, the difference in the two ideas is this: striving for perfection of the first kind means others get to say whether it is or isn’t. Others get to weigh in on what the flaws are and how grievous they might be. People you never met get to say if you’ve accomplished what you’ve worked so hard for. They will inspect it for a lack of flaws, based on god only knows what criteria (they won’t be yours), completely neglecting the content of what you’ve made or what you’re trying to say.
Defining perfect as done means you get to say so: only you get to say it’s done. Complete. Warts and all. Rough edges. And no one gets to take that from you.
And what’s beautiful about that perspective is that it’s incredibly empowering. It places the standard for my work into my own hands and allows me to embrace who I am, and where I am as an artist, and to aim high but according to my own vision.
The Japanese have a concept that honours imperfection, brokenness, and decay called wabi-sabi. There’s an implicit belief that a thing gets more beautiful as it gets scarred from use and imbued with its own story. That’s my own imperfect understanding of wabi-sabi; it too is probably rough around the edges, but I find it beautiful nonetheless.
A rejection of the obsessive pursuits of perfection and perfectionism is not an endorsement of sloppy, lazy work or a rejection of excellence of craft; perfection and excellence are not the same things.
Wabi-sabi seems to be a formal way of embracing that. A way of saying something can be done and can be excellent not only despite the flaws—but because of them.
How many projects have you stalled on or given up too soon because the start was messy and contained no hints of the perfection you hoped for?
How many times have you shied away from sharing your work because it wasn’t perfect and therefore wasn’t good?
How many times have you questioned your process and your progress but it felt like things were getting worse before they might get better?
I’ve come to see my own perfectionism as laziness. It’s cowardly and allows me to abdicate my responsibility to finish my work. It gives us a noble-sounding excuse for never shipping and facing all the fears associated with that. It’s an unwillingness to do the work and see where it goes and wrestle with the nuances, the doubts, and the detours that are not just difficult parts of the creative life, but necessary parts. Because it’s in wrestling with those things, with whatever skill our craft gives us, that our work becomes what it is.
Perfectionism is a childish response, itself imperfect, incomplete. It pouts in the corner when it can’t get something done “right” the first time and so it never learns the lessons of craft and character that come from wrestling the muse to the ground and making something of nothing.
Perfectionism will stop us before we get to the good stuff, which is inevitably a little on the ugly side long before it shows signs of promise. Ironically (assuming you choose to accept the same re-definition of perfection as I did years ago), perfectionism will stop us from ever getting to perfect. To complete. Done. And until it is finished, no work of art can be evaluated by anyone—not even you.
So don’t write it off before it’s finished.
Don’t listen to the voices that tell you to stop because you’re not there yet.
For the Love of the Photograph, David
PS – I mentioned James Victore in this article and his new book, Feck Perfuction!, just came out. In the spirit of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and my own book, A Beautiful Anarchy (for which Victore so kindly did the cover), Feck Perfuction! is a great read to fan the flames of creativity and bust old patterns and beliefs that stand between us and our best work. I have a copy sitting beside me right now and highly recommend it if you need a good creative kick in the ass. You can order your copy here at FeckPerfuction.com
We’ve all been there. Out making photographs with friends, things are going so well. You’ve lined up your composition, the light is perfect, and just at the right moment…there’s a head in your frame! Who the heck? “Frank! Get out of my shot!”
I’m not going to lie; I’m that guy. I don’t mean to be, and I’m sorry. What can I say? I get distracted. Sorry about that. Sometimes it feels like half my life I’m in someone’s way. And the other half? I’ve had a knack for getting in my own way as a photographer.
After 35 years behind many, many cameras, I’ve finally made peace with the fact that I am the bottleneck in my growth as a craftsman and an artist.
Viewed by my ego, that particular reality could be a great reason to start drinking gin from the cat bowl, but flip it around and it’s good news. If I’m doing something that gets in my way, I can also stop doing that thing and clear a path. Craft and art are challenging enough for most of us. So if I can make it a little easier on myself—and help you to do the same—I’d like to do that.
Here then are three ways in which I tend to get in my own way and, if what I see through the window of social media is any indication, there are many of us out there getting hung up and frustrated by the same things.
Getting Feedback Too Quickly
Because of the far and fast reach of the internet, we have an ability to share our work almost as soon as it is made, and to share it with a larger audience than ever before. Furthermore, that audience has the ability to issue feedback immediately: in fact, it’s encouraged. Like it. Comment on it. Up-vote it. Or otherwise. And the danger is that we know what others think of our work (less a full thought, really, and more a knee-jerk reaction) before we’ve lived with it long enough to really know what we think of that work ourselves.
Other voices easily drown out our own before we can really hear it. And this applies whether you hear positive or negative reactions; both are dangerous to us. Positive feedback too soon will stop us moving forward or going deeper. It’ll stop us at the low-hanging fruit and the first, most obvious iterations, and our work won’t have a chance at getting honed. And negative reactions or feedback can stop us just as quickly when that feedback often only means “this work isn’t for me” and has nothing to do with how authentic or good it might actually be.
Please, please, remember that the most important voices are first your own and then qualified people you have specifically asked for feedback and from whom you can have a more nuanced conversation about your work, your methods, your motives, and not just the easy, no-risk Likes that people give online.
You will not learn to listen to or trust your own voice if you’re first listening to others.
The takeaway? Consider living with your work awhile before sharing it.
Stopping Too Soon
Not unlike the risk of early feedback, there is a risk in stopping at our first efforts and calling them done.
It’s too easy to settle for “good enough” or to let ourselves off the hook when we accept as a final print what should be just a sketch image.
It’s too easy not to go back again and again or to stay and work a scene longer. It’s too easy to think that the images we’re looking at now are as good as they get. If you have an idea—if there’s a subject you’re trying to give your own expression to—then it’s worth holding onto and really working at it. There might be gold there, but you’ll have to dig deeper to find it.
That doesn’t mean you can’t love the best of those early sketches for what they are. It might truly be the best you can do for now. But if you give up and stop exploring that subject, you’ll never see how far you could have taken it as your vision and craft matures and evolves.
This is one reason I push you to do long-term projects, and is the same motivator for me to return to a handful of places rather than always traveling to new destinations. New destinations are exciting, but old ones become familiar and allow for greater depth and repeated efforts over time.
Photography has taught me much about life and this is one of the more powerful lessons: keep at it—don’t pull over at the first rest stop and call it done. There’s great freedom in this approach. After all, if you’re open to working on something for a long time and seeing where it leads, those early efforts can be more playful and carry with them less risk of failure and all the pressure that comes with that.
Learning Too Fast
Just writing this one seems wrong. What could be wrong with learning? And if it’s good, why not speed it up, right? I’m not a patient man, so if you guessed that I learned this one the hard way, you’d be right.
Learning happens slowly. If memory serves me right, this was the topic of my last article. We’re in such a damn rush all the time.
But I want to suggest that all this learning, when not accompanied with the needed time to internalize the lessons, without the time to fail and really make the lessons our own, confuses more than enlightens us. And then we’ve got more stuff rattling around in our heads, more knowledge with which to second guess ourselves as we do our work and make our art.
In every aspect of your creative life, I want to encourage you to slow down, to go deeper.
I’ve talked at length about the value of creative constraints. Bringing less gear into the field when you shoot is one way to do that. But so is learning at a slower pace, because it forces you to really stretch and become creative with the knowledge you have now rather than rushing ahead to some new solution that will force you to buy new gear, wrap your head around new principles until you understand them just enough to deal with the problem you’re trying to solve and then it’s off again to some new thing.
I’m not saying don’t learn or don’t be curious; I’m just saying it’s OK to pace yourself and slow your roll. I’m saying you will be less frustrated and more fulfilled in your creative work if you go deeper and slower and really master the fundamentals before you move on to something new.
This craft has a lot of moving parts and you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run. It takes patience and a willingness to ignore some of the more insistent voices out there telling you that you need to learn it all now, buy it all now, shoot everything, post it quickly, and move on. I want to be a voice that reminds you there’s a better way. A more sustainable, less frustrating, and more human way to do this.
You’ll get there. We’re all getting there. Just as long as we get out of our own way long enough to get by.
For the Love of the Photograph, David.
A Long PS – Ten years ago, I wrote the book that changed my life. For those of you who have been along for the ride, this probably seems like only yesterday. Ten years! Within The Frame changed things for a lot of people, and I’m pleased to say that after a brief and painful few months when I learned my previous publisher was getting out of photography and had taken it out of print, it has now found a home with a new publisher, and is back in print in a beautiful hardcover that matches The Soul of the Camera.
The Tenth Anniversary Edition of Within The Frame is out now. So if you were thinking about replacing your dog-eared edition that’s falling apart, or maybe giving a copy to your daughter who just picked up your old camera with that spark in her eye, or you never read this one, now’s as good a time as any (no, wait, a better time than any!) to take a look.
And if you did read it, and if you have anything at all to say about it, I’d be honoured if you’d help me out and leave an honest review on Amazon. With the new edition, the book has lost its 5-star rating (it lost all the ratings) and the reviews that were so helpful in guiding the decisions of would-be readers. You can get your own copy from Amazon here for less than $25.
Have you ever said those words either to yourself or others? Every time I hear “I wish I were more creative,” I want to put my fingers in my ears and run out of the room. La-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear you! It’s a crappy mantra.
You can be more creative.
Being more creative is not something you wish for. It’s something you do. You don’t hear athletes saying, “Gosh, I sure wish I were stronger, or faster.” What you hear them saying is, “I’m going to the gym,” or “I have to train harder.”
Like any other people practicing a craft or making art, photographers must hone their creativity in the same way an athlete chooses training instead of wishing and hoping, to do their best work—and, I would argue, to live their best lives.
There are things you can do to actively become more creative. And when you’re more creative you make better and more meaningful photographs.
If you were sitting beside me right now here in my office in the early morning and sipping a cup of coffee, and you told me you wished you were more creative, I’d have three questions for you. Put the coffee on.
What kind of ritual or structure do you have for your creativity?
If your creative time is ad hoc or crammed into the margins of the day, then there’s a good chance your creativity isn’t that important to you. Sure, it matters, but just not as much as all the little stuff. Or you’ve never made it a priority. For me, creativity needs to be on my calendar. If it’s not on the calendar, it won’t happen. What will happen? A million trivial things. And Facebook. And Instagram. But not the important stuff.
The most creative people—those who create the most—make dedicated time. Two hours in the morning before everyone is up and clamouring for your attention, or three hours after dinner is over, or that block in the afternoon you have a couple times a week. Put a line through that on your calendar with the words “Do the Work.” It is not free time, not play time (though it kind of is), and it is not unimportant. Protect that time. Give it to no one. If you need to move it, do what you can to move something else instead. Creative work needs only a few truly essential resources and the most needed of those is time. Don’t hope you can find it: make it.
Where are your distractions?
The second question follows closely on the first and also relates to resources. If time is so important, so is focus. Attention is also a resource, and we have less and less of it these days. We’re learning to apply our limited attention very broadly, but not deep—and if you’re going to do consistent work that eventually becomes meaningful work, you have to focus and go deep. You need time for that, but you also need to to be undistracted. Phones off, people.
Creativity of any stripe is problem solving, and to solve problems, your brain needs space and quiet to work. It doesn’t work well when checking Facebook every 10 minutes or answering the phone every time it rings. It needs a certain level of boredom—that’s when it chews on things—and we quickly eradicate those longer spans of boredom by looking for that dopamine hit from social media and email. This is one of the reasons I have a social media ban in place during my workshops. You need to be undistracted. It’s why when I need to do my own deep work, I limit my time on devices and turn off all notifications, and I limit my social time because I get peopled-out really quickly, and that depletes my attention and focus.
Finally: What are you reading?
What are you watching? What are you listening to? The quality of your output is related to the quality of your input. That’s where the raw materials for the ideas come from. My most truly creative times are when I’ve got a good book or two on the go, when I’m spending less time online and more time with my nose in a book of photographs or walking through a gallery. Because in a gallery or with a book, not only is it more pleasurable, but it’s a more immersive experience. It sticks. It doesn’t just get ingested, it gets digested. It’s a more fully human, more sensory activity to which we respond in deeper ways.
All of these have something in common: a slowing down. An intentional creation of larger margins in our lives. More time and attention spent on fewer (though deeper) things. And that requires the courage and the willingness to say no. I have this feeling that many of the people from whom I’ve heard the words, “I wish I were more creative,” would discover they could be more creative than they would ever know what to do with if they made the time and space needed to be so; to get their hands on the clay and work it; to make more than a half-assed attempt at the photography project they want to do (for the record, I prefer a full-assed attempt at all things), or to start that novel.
Want to do something really scary?
Take responsibility for every moment over the coming week. Do a time audit. Every hour take one minute to write down what you’ve done with your time. How many times did you check email? How many times did you check texts that are nothing more than chit-chat? I’m not saying it’s all frivolous. But you might find that if you stopped breaking the day into the tiniest little moments and batched those together, you’d have some larger pieces to do your creative work. You might find there are none at all, in which case you need to get creative.
Is it time for the kids to start doing their own laundry? Is it time to ask them to help with meal prep? Are they over-scheduled, turning you into a taxi service? Can you hire a neighbour kid to clean the house or mow the lawn and buy back that time for more important work? Soul work? The reason you find yourself wishing you were more creative in the first place?
However you have to do it, remember this: creativity is not something we are. It is not a talent we have or do not have. That’s a cop-out. Creativity is something we do, and time and attention and slowing down is essential to creating good work: YOUR work. Those things are made; they are carved out of the chaos. They do not magically happen. They are not wished for.
More creative? Here’s the good news: you can be as creative as your heart desires and that should give you freedom and permission, should you feel you need it, to make a little more time for the muse this week.
When I was a kid, new to photography, I poured over magazines lusting over the new gear advertised in their pages, and the photographs I thought that new gear would make for me. I wanted to make the kinds of photographs that would go into those magazines, and win those awards. It made a certain amount of sense to me, at the time, that the gear advertised in those magazines would deliver on their promise. What did I know?
What no one told me was this: craft, and the art we might one day make with that craft, is a long game.
Craft doesn’t do well when rushed.
But tell that to a 16-year old kid and like almost anything an adult tells a kid, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears. As an adult I get it, but it has taken so long to really get it, in part I think because the very notion of a long-game goes against the louder, more prevalent voices that clamour for us to buy the cameras, the gimmicks, the toys, those weird Lens Balls whose bizarre appeal I can not for the life of me understand.
Long games are hard, but if we want to get to a place of mastery one day, they are by far the easiest, least circuitous route.
Seeing this craft as a long game gives us incredible freedom. Freed from the need to make the best photographs right now we have the luxury of making mistakes and learning from them and making better photographs from the lessons we learn.
Freed from the need to buy a new camera or lens every upgrade cycle, we have the time needed to master one set of tools before moving on to another, and the resources needed to make more photographs or invest in deeper learning.
Freed from the pressure that comes from feeling like we’re not getting better fast enough, and that we should be better than we are, we gain the emotional liberty needed to be truly creative, never mind just being happier, less frustrated people.
Martin Luther, when he wasn’t nailing things to church doors, wrote this: “this life therefore is not being but becoming,” a perspective that, once adopted, allows us to stop obsessing about making masterpieces right here and now, and instead on becoming the kind of photographer with both the craft and the vision to one day make masterpieces.
It’s a mental game, but what would happen if our internal dialogue was centered around the idea of becoming the kind of photographer we one day hope to be, and relaxing into that freedom? We’d be less frustrated with our progress because we’d stop believing that everyone else has it together, and we’re the only ones that can’t seem to figure it out. We all take time, no matter how great or how new your camera is. It took me years to become truly comfortable with the exposure triangle. It took me even more to get creative with light. I’ve been at this over 30 years and I think I’m only now really feeling a level of mastery and the resulting comfort I thought should be mine when I was 16 years old with 2 years of practice under my belt.
Why am I telling you this? Because the one thing so many of the photographers I know share, regardless of what we photograph or what cameras we use, is occasional, if not chronic, frustration. Frustration that our photographs aren’t as good as others, that we don’t see things that others do, that the camera doesn’t feel as comfortable in our hands as it seems to for others, or that our compositions aren’t as creative…on and on. Have you ever asked, “why am I not better at this by now?” You’re not the only one.
So if you’ll take a couple words of encouragement and advice from someone who loves you and cares about you and your craft, here are three short reminders. They aren’t clever, but they’re heartfelt and I believe there’s wisdom in them.
First, remember it’s a long game, a life-long study of a craft that will always challenge you, if you’ll let it. The goal is not to make this easy, it’s to gain control over your tools and your ideas, so you can wrestle with using the one to express the other, with a level of comfort and intuition that grows slowly over the years. Don’t focus on being a great photographer or making great images. That will come. Focus instead on what you need to learn and study and create in order to become the kind of photographer you one day hope to be.
Second, stop comparing yourself to others. Your journey towards mastery is not theirs, and vice versa. You have no idea what it has taken for them to get where they are, nor how long. No comparison with another human being is ever made on level ground. The scale is always uneven. Be you. Do you. Slow your roll and then read number one again: it’s a long game. Celebrate the work you make and the work you see others making; envy is poor fuel for creativity and a lousy ruler for measuring ourselves.
Third, it’s not only a long game, it’s a one-step-at-a-time game. Don’t rush the basics. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed because you’re trying to learn studio lighting and advanced composition and how to use filters while also trying to figure out layer masking and advanced selection techniques in Photoshop. Baby steps. One at a time. Pick something. Learn it well. Limit the voices you listen to because there will always be someone telling you the real magic, the thing that will take your craft “to the next level” is in some new thing. There is no next level. There is one step forward at a time, and the more intentional you are about that step, the less distracted you are when you make it, the better. That is how craft has always worked. Focus on the basics, one a time, ignore the distractions. Don’t get overwhelmed.
We have never had so many opportunities to learn, so much access to information and tutorials and the work of other photographers. This is your permission to focus. Don’t let the magazine or the articles you see online convince you that to be a real photographer you need more gear, you need to learn this one special magic technique. Walk before you can run. Pace yourself. Focus on the long, slow, game of becoming the kind of photographer that will one day make masterpieces: a master.
Mastery is not, and has never been, gained through more stuff or gimmicks or shortcuts.
• Read fewer articles that talk about tips and tricks.
• Spend less time on Instagram, make more photographs.
• Learn fewer things (just one is enough) but learn them deeper.
• Print your work and study it.
• Fall in love with the work of the masters.
• Don’t forget to breathe.
Let that be enough for now.
You’ve got this.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – If you’re looking for something to sink your teeth into, or a way to focus and still take your craft deeper, while still limiting the voices, my online MentorClass course, Master Your Craft, is open for enrollment until the end of March at which point I will very likely not be offering it again. I believe in everything I create so it’s not hard for me to get excited about offering this to you, but in the interest of brevity, if you’re at all interested, I believe it can help you take those next important, and focused steps in your journey towards mastering your craft, and you can get all the details here at MasterYourCraftCourse.com
I spent last month photographing Venice, then London briefly, with the Leica Q—a beautiful full-frame mirrorless camera with a fixed 28mm lens. It’s brilliant; one of my favourite cameras, ever. The sharpness of the lens is astonishing, as are the tonal qualities, the contrast, and the speed of focus. It’s gorgeous. The photographs it makes are amazing, too. And if you’re asking me if you should upgrade in 2019, the answer is yes! Absolutely! But it’s not what you think. Keep reading.
For years I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that it’s not about the gear. And for years some of you have nodded knowingly, while others have pushed back telling me it was easy for me to say; after all, I already had a bag full of gear. But isn’t it exactly the guy with the bag full of gear that you should trust when he tells you it’s really not the gear that matters? The one who says, yes, the gear has its place, but it’s not the thing that will stand between you and the photographs, and I should know because I’ve tried it all?
Isn’t it that guy who has no stake in flogging gear or shilling for one brand or another that you can trust when he tells you for your sake alone, and the sake of your craft, that the gear you already have is enough? That you are enough?
One of my students had last minute doubts as he packed for this year’s MentorSeries workshop in Venice. He wanted to bring it all: two cameras, four lenses, his fancy new tripod. “Leave it at home,” I said. “Go light.” So he brought it all. Of course he did. And at the end of the week I asked him if he’d used anything more than one camera and one lens. He didn’t. Sure, he could have. And certainly—had he left it all at home—there might have been times when the scene just begged him for a different lens: the one sitting at home. But isn’t that always the case? Of course it is. But when that other lens is at home, you stoically accept what you can’t change and get on with solving the problem and making the photographs that are possible right then with the gear at hand. It’s you that makes it happen. Your creativity. Your brain. You can make great photographs with what you have.
I shot my entire time in Venice with one camera and one lens. And not one of those lenses that covers every possible focal length from 18 to 300, either. That’s not what I call a constraint, though there’s nothing wrong with a lens like that. But it wouldn’t have proved my point; I still created work I love. That’s my point (I know, I know, it’s always my point). It matters not a lick that the camera I had was a Leica. It matters that we accept that creativity works within the constraints we give it, so long as we work it. Use a Fuji X100, or a Nikon D5 with a 50mm, or your Canon Rebel with the kit lens that you can’t afford to upgrade. Don’t like the high-ISO noise? Make a photograph that’s so good, so captivating, that no one notices it! If noise is what people notice, noise is not your biggest problem.
Want better photographs? Of course you do. We all do. But it’s probably not our gear, or lack of it, or how old it is, that’s standing in the way: it’s our excuses and lack of creativity. How do I know? Because we have the most advanced cameras ever (even that ancient Canon Digital Rebel the people in your camera club look down their noses at) and we’re still not making photographs that are stronger than those made by photographers from 20, 30, or 100 years ago. It’s not the gear.
Make this the year you never once blame the camera.
Make it the year you embrace whatever constraints the gear (or life) presents you with, and then get to work. Work around it or work with it. But work.
If you want to upgrade, do it. You probably need to. We all do. But don’t upgrade your camera.
And if you do upgrade your gear, you should probably still keep reading, because your better camera will still not make better pictures. That’s still your job.
Here are 10 upgrades that’ll take you so much further in 2019 than upgrading your gear:
Upgrade your skills. Learn a new aspect of the craft. Not seven of them: one. Learn to work with motion or learn to light a portrait. Learn to use the exposure triangle like a freaking ninja. Take a workshop that will challenge you. But really learn it. Go deep with it. Spend the year mastering it and not merely dabbling. We dabble too much.
Upgrade your understanding of composition and visual language. Don’t look at 1,000 images a day on Instagram. Look at one or two and figure out why they work and how you can replicate that effect or feeling. Don’t end 2019 without understanding how to give your images greater depth, energy, balance, or story. I’ll be offering my course, The Compelling Frame, once more in September; that might be a great place to begin your study of visual language.
Upgrade your creative process. The photographer’s brain is her best and strongest tool. Learn to think creatively, not merely technically. Want a great place to begin that study? Consider reading my book about creativity, A Beautiful Anarchy. However you do it, learn what it means to be creative and how to upgrade that process for yourself.
Upgrade your willingness to make more focused work, to go deeper, to shoot a personal project that you push through even when it gets hard or on which you plateau during the boring bits that every creative project has once the initial spark fades and you’re left alone, without the muse, to make the magic yourself.
Upgrade your ability to sit in one place and really see that place. Learn to quiet the voice that tells you you’re missing something by not being somewhere else. Be present. Be receptive. There are a lot of things the camera can’t do, things that are our job alone (ahem, I wrote a book about this, too), and this is one of them.
Upgrade your ability and willingness to make more sketch images—more failures and what-ifs—and less worrying about what others think. Make way more photographs and see where they lead you.
Upgrade the gamut of your craft. Photography is so much more than a digital capture and some tweaks in Adobe Lightroom. Save the money on the lens or camera you were going to buy and get a printer. Learn to print.
Upgrade your output. I don’t mean more posts on Instagram. Do fewer of those and slow down instead: apply your creativity to longer, deeper edits. Make a book. Print a monograph. Get your photographs off your hard drives and into the world of the haptic and the tangible.
Upgrade your mentors. There is a world of astonishing photographers out there and they need not be alive to learn from them. Stop taking advice from that guy who bought a camera two years ago and now leads workshops and cranks out Lightroom presets. And don’t only listen to me, either. Study the masters. Buy a new book of photographs every month or so and really study them. Get books by photographers you’ve never heard of. Ask others what they recommend. Make the Magnum website a place to discover new names, both present and past. My latest discovery is Willy Ronis, and Willy Ronis by Willy Ronis is a fantastic book. Of course, you could also pick up a copy of one of my own books, SEVEN, or Pilgrims & Nomads.
Upgrade your experiences. Forget that new camera: save the money and go to Venice. Or take a week off and make portraits, or go to the coast or the next town over, or go see your kids or your aging father. Do things that matter to you, that stir the wonder in you, that challenge you. Do it at home, or travel, it doesn’t matter—but do it. And then photograph those things. Don’t be seduced by the idea that the better camera will make better photographs; they’ll just be sharper images of the same old stuff. Spend the money on living the experiences your creative soul longs for and explore those experiences with the camera you know.
The gear you have is enough and probably will be for quite some time. Upgrade the photographer instead. It’ll be cheaper, less frustrating, and here’s what matters: it’ll be the one upgrade that changes both your experience of photographing and the photographs themselves. I hope you’ll give me a chance to be part of that in 2019, but whether or not you take one of my courses, read one of my books, I wish you a deeper, more creative, and more rewarding 2019.
This is a long list. Don’t try to do it all at once. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Just pick one thing for now, and enjoy the freedom of doing that instead of freaking out about whether you should get that new 35/1.7 because it’s faster than your 35/1.8. What you have will get the job done if you will. But getting overwhelmed is a great way to get stuck. Give yourself the freedom to do one or two things and do them well, not all ten. 365 days is a long time. Pace yourself.
In the now classic comedy, City Slickers, veteran cowboy Curly says to Mitch (played by Billy Crystal), “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Mitch says, “No, what?” And Curly holds up his finger.
“Your finger?” asks Mitch.
“One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh*t.”
“That’s great but what’s the one thing?”
“That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.”
My earliest and best lesson in photography wasn’t much different. I can’t tell you what that one thing is; photograph by photograph, it’s an exploration that only you can make. But I can tell you this: the best photographs are about one thing. The job of the photographer is to make a choice about that one thing and how to give it its best expression.
Where so many of us struggle in our early days and years with a camera is making choices about that one thing. We want to cram it all in there, not excluding anything. But photography by its very nature is an art of exclusion; the frame shuts out anything we don’t put within it. The shutter, both when it is opened and for how long, does the same: choosing one moment to the exclusion of others. Focus is also a tool for inclusion or exclusion depending on where we focus and how deeply. And there’s more. Long lenses exclude by virtue of their tight angle of view. Wide angles can so exaggerate closer objects and so diminish background objects that the effect can be one of near exclusion.
Every tool we have in our hands is capable of excluding anything but that one thing. Whether we do or not depends on the choices we make before we press the shutter. But before we make decisions about what we do with those tools of exclusion, we have to be conscious of that one thing. We have to decide what’s in and what’s out—what helps the photograph and what dilutes it.
To do otherwise, or to leave it to chance and abdicate your responsibility to take out the unnecessary, is to create photographs with no priorities, no sense of what the subject is. Images that confuse. Pictures in which the potential message is jumbled and the potential impact is so diluted that they’re soon forgotten.
This was the missing piece for me for a long time. I had all these tools: depth of field and faster shutters and angle of view and different perspectives. I knew what the tools did, but no one taught me what they could be used for. It took me a long time to figure out that they are merely ways to show my own thing and to do so much more powerfully than I had been.
The question I started asking myself was this: how much can I exclude from this scene before it’s too much? And I could only answer that by trying, making a lot of sketch images, getting closer, moving, trying different lenses and apertures and shutter speeds, until I got to the point where I had removed a little too much. And then I’d put that thing back.
To do that, I needed to know what that one thing was. Was it a duck? Was it the colours of the duck? Was it the duck on the pond in morning fog? Was it the duck landing on that pond? These are just four possibilities but if you know it’s specifically one of those and not another, your choices will be different in how you make the photograph, which frame you choose in the edit, and how you treat the image in the digital darkroom. You will make different choices about how much you include and what you exclude. You’ll make different choices about the light and the timing of the moment. Those choices depend on you—or moving toward discovering—that one thing.
If there’s one question I ask most frequently of the photographers I mentor, it’s this: what one thing are you trying to show me or express? When they can articulate that, the follow-up question is this: what could you have done to make this clearer, to give that one thing a stronger expression? It’s not always exclusion that’s needed. Sometimes a little missing context is what makes the image weak. Sometimes the image doesn’t need more or less, but different; a stronger moment, for example. So this isn’t an argument to whittle every image down to almost nothing. Some of my favourite compositions are more complex than they are simple. But they remain about one thing and are stronger because of that.
My friend John Paul Caponigro wrote that focusing a lens is not the same thing as focusing our attention. We learn the former relatively quickly in this craft, but unless we learn to use that tool, and all the other devices of our craft, to do the latter, we’re likely to create images that feel aimless and do so much less than what they’re capable of.
Before you press the shutter, think of me giving you the finger. No, not that finger. The other one: the Curly finger. What’s the one thing this frame needs to show, and how can you give it its strongest expression? If you know, then start making choices that do that. And if you don’t, as is often the case for all of us, then pick up the camera and make sketch images until you narrow it down. We often have to use our cameras to explore a subject before we can use them to express it.
Want to make stronger photographs?
Show us one thing.
This is the last article I’ll post until I’m back in January. In a few days, I’m off to Venice for the month to pursue my one thing in the foggy alleys and piazzas of the city that’s had my heart and my imagination for close to ten years now. I’m spending my birthday (December 24) and Christmas there, and a week in London over New Year’s. Wherever you are and however you celebrate, I wish you much light and love. Thank you for letting me be a part of your photographic journey this past year.
A couple times a month, I get on the phone or Skype with some wonderfully talented photographers to mentor them and nudge them forward in their craft. Almost every time the concerns are the same, the questions are similar. Is my work any good? What are my next steps? How do I grow? Of course every conversation is different, but the end result is often the same and I find myself saying some version of these words that I’m hoping you’ll consider for yourself:
Your work is technically fine. You don’t need help there. You have an eye and visual taste enough that you know what you like. I can’t help you there. But you’re all over the map. You shoot this. You shoot that. And that’s fine, but that approach won’t take you deeper.
Deeper matters. Deeper requires time and focus. Deeper brings new ideas the more you work on something. Deeper gets you past the obvious and the low-hanging fruit. Look, there’s nothing wrong with the low fruit, but it’s the same as others are picking. Unless they also go deeper.
Deeper is what we resonate with when we see the work of someone who has photographed the same subject longer than others might have; that time and attention—that focus—has given them the opportunity to see what others have not. To see possibilities and to become more aware of their own reactions to what they are seeing. It is seeing those things and then having the time to work on finding new ways, specifically our ways, of expressing those things with our craft, that will make our photographs, and our experience making them, so much stronger. Deeper.
Very few of the people reading my words need hard lessons in craft. Some, perhaps, but if you can focus and expose, now is the time to begin to go deeper, not later. You’ll learn your craft as you go deeper. The reverse is rarely true. In fact, it’s often the manic pursuit of craft, new tools, and techniques that prevent going deeper.
Broadly speaking, we have a choice: to go shallow and do it all, to play the dilettante with every subject, or to channel our time and energies. Rare is the human who can do both.
Look at the acknowledged masters of this craft and you will see large bodies of work that focus on specific places, subjects, themes. Do masters only focus on a few things? No. Focusing on a few things is what gives us a chance at becoming masters.
Mastery isn’t the goal, but do you see what I’m getting at? Focusing brings depth. And it is depth and knowledge of the subject and how the photographer expressed that over time to which we respond in the greatest photographs. Rarely do we respond merely to their mastery of craft in the technical sense.
So getting back to those I mentor. Here is my near-universal suggestion to them: take the one subject you are most excited about right now and spend a year on it. If it’s the meeting place of ocean and land at dusk then spend a year exploring that. If it’s the tradespeople in your neighbourhood or it’s your aging parents, give it a year. Be intentional. Make hundreds and hundreds of photographs. Take the time to know what works and what doesn’t and to dig deeper into how you can give that one subject its best expression. And make it your aim to create a body of work of 12 images, maybe 24 or 36. But no more.
Your success will not be measured by how many images you can cram into the final expression of this project. Don’t put pressure on yourself to create some vast body of work. Instead focus on going deeper, to playfully explore the subject knowing you can fail spectacularly on most days and turn those so-called failures into lessons, and still have plenty of time to make your 12 images.
And by the end of the year, it should be painful to edit down to 12 or 24. To quote Stephen King about the way writers must edit out some of their favourite pieces of writing to make the book the best it can be, it should be like sacrificing your darlings. Editing is also part of the creative process and even then, the easy path is going broad and simply choosing all the images that “don’t suck” rather than forcing yourself to choose the best of the best. Rather than going deeper.
This approach, far from being limiting, is tremendously liberating. It doesn’t limit you from photographing other things as you see them, and as the muse calls. But it gives you a project.
It gives you discipline.
It forces choices upon you.
It demands more of you.
That is where we find growth. Not doing more of the same by pointing your lens at everything that moves, where it’s safe in the shallow end and you can put your feet down whenever you choose, but by pushing us into the deep end where our hearts beat a little faster and there’s something at stake.
This is a call to go deeper and to focus. What would that look like for you? Here’s one approach. Pick a subject or a theme. Spend one year exploring that, making thousands of sketch images, and flailing through the chaos of the creative process, to a specific goal: 12 or 24 final images by the end of the year, printed in a book or assembled as a monograph just for you in a box of 8×10 prints. Give yourself permission to focus.
Scary? It should be. Of course it is. But less frightening than waking up in a year to find you haven’t grown or stretched yourself, and that you’re still making the same ad hoc photographs of every new thing that catches your eye.
Easy paths rarely lead us to the kind of joy we find in looking at a hard-earned body of work that one year ago we would never have foreseen or dreamed we were capable of. You might not even be capable of it now. That’s why we do it. The work makes us as much as we make it.
And if you do take me up on this, please send me a link so I can see that work. I know how hard it is to move forward in a creative endeavour about which you care deeply and I’d love to celebrate that with you.
PS – The only way I know to teach is to share what I myself am learning. Over the last ten years, I’ve been learning about this kind of focus and depth myself through projects like Pilgrims & Nomads. You can still get one of 500 copies, signed and numbered and delivered to your door. It would make a wonderful holiday gift for your favourite photographer, even if that’s you. No, especially if it’s you. We learn to make good photographs by studying good photographs, and I hope you’ll consider my own efforts worth learning from. You can order Pilgrims & Nomads here. Thank you for your support.
Everything you touch turns to gold, and ideas come faster than you know what to do with them.
Other times you’ve got nothing.
Standing there in the middle of one of those places that’s so amazing you can’t make a bad photograph and feeling like an idiot because the only thing you’ve made is bad photographs, feeling empty is about the worst feeling for an otherwise creative person. I love being on fire. I don’t mind fighting through the times I’m challenged.
But empty? Shoot me now.
The creative life is a cycle of ups and downs, a rhythm of ideas and execution that has, at its low points, a trough in which there is nothing.
Zilch. Nadda. Goose egg. Big Fat Zero.
It’s here we doubt anything we ever thought we knew about ourselves, our potential, and our work both in the past and in the future. It can be a dark, frustrating place that feels like our creative deathbed. We will never make another good photograph. We will never again write anything worth reading.
We close our eyes and think really, really hard to summon the muse and are rewarded only with light-headedness and the feeling that perhaps it’s not too early for a drink. It’s 5 pm somewhere right?
Know what I mean?
I think it’s important to remind you that this is normal. More than normal, it’s necessary. It’s important that with some frequency we look in the coffers and find we’ve used up all our previous ideas and inspirations. It means we’ve been squeezing the sponge dry and holding nothing back. And it means there’s now room for new ideas.
That emptiness signals a hunger for more. It’s not the feeling of being hungry that we don’t like: it’s the fear that there’s no meal awaiting us. Creatively, it’s a signal to freak out and start posting your gear on eBay. Maybe you should learn to juggle instead. But the thing is, there’s always a meal on the other side. It’s there. We just can’t see it.
Here are five ways I use to reliably find it, or at least catch the first glimpses of it.
Go with It
Who says you need a great idea to begin a great work? Begin with a lousy idea. One of the most important principles of creativity for me is Start Ugly. We all want to begin on an idea that’s halfway grown; one that already shows promise. But ideas don’t come into the world like that most of the time. Like newborns, they arrive with a wail, covered in cream cheese and jelly and wrinkly skin. Don’t wait to fill the empty with a good idea, fill it with an idea you can play with, an idea that will grow and become something. If you wait for the good ones to arrive all grown up, you’ll wait forever.
Go exploring with your camera, with no preconceived ideas. Just play. Too often our creative efforts focus on the something that we’re making and don’t give enough room for the playfulness of process or serendipity. When you try too hard, your brain freezes up. Take some of the pressure off.
Increase the Inputs
The brain is an idea factory and no factory (least of all a metaphorical one) can make anything without raw materials. If you want more ideas, then increase or improve the raw materials. What are you reading? What photographs or visual art are you studying? Are you filling your brain with the same old, same old stuff? Are you following truly interesting people on social media? Are you watching films that challenge you? Do you only read articles that reinforce what you already believe, or are you open to being challenged?
Want to stir the paint? Read a novel that’s far outside your usual preferences, or watch some documentaries about great artists, or read something instructional that’s outside your genre. If you’re a photographer, read a biography about Picasso or On Writing by Stephen King. Your output is only as good as your inputs. And if you’re dry, perhaps it’s time to dramatically increase the inputs. I average two books a week, and when I stop reading I always feel myself going dry.
Look to the Overflow
When you’re in the flow of things, perhaps in the days or weeks leading up to your current dry spell, there is often a surplus of great potential ideas. You’re always being forced to go with one or two of them, casting others off for one reason or another, most often because they aren’t a fit for this project. But that ill-fitting idea now might be a perfect fit later.
I keep a little black notebook and pen with me all the time. It holds my overflow. It takes discipline; if you haven’t been doing this, there’s no value in checking the pages of that blank notebook now, but you can begin today. The most creative and prolific people I know all keep a notebook or journal and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
My notebook has some symbols that mark new ideas (a scribbled lightbulb) or questions (a capital Q), something I see with immediate potential or something that excites me (three exclamation points) or ideas to execute or take action on (small square/tick box). As new ideas come in, separate from my journal entries, I make these marks so I can find them again later.
In my dry times, I pull a couple notebooks from my shelf and flip through them, often coming up with several ideas I’d forgotten. These ideas become my ugly starting point and I’m off. If you keep a journal, take an hour and look back and see what kind of ideas are just sitting there. If you don’t keep a notebook of some kind, consider starting.
You know that notebook you just got? Make a list every day.
The brain is an idea muscle, and the exercise of making lists is a powerful way to force it to mine for new ideas. Remember, they don’t have to be good ideas. Just ideas. Make a list of ten things you could photograph today, or ten creative things to do with your next portrait session, or ten articles you could write, or 20 ways you could make $100. To begin, maybe you should make a list of 50 lists you could make.
The first few ideas will flow. They’re the obvious ones. The next will be harder. The last few will be torture. Your brain will be screaming, “This is stupid; these ideas are stupid!” Ignore your brain. You’re empty, remember? If your brain had anything better to offer, it would have spoken up by now. Your brain had its chance. It’s way easier to criticize a bad idea than to shut up and finish the list.
Remember this: ideas are always combinations of other ideas. The more you can come up with—the more you can exercise your brain—the stronger it will get and the more able it will be to drown out the censoring voice. My last list was about new ways I could make more money. I’m not ashamed to tell you it included some absurd things. Toward the end of the list I wrote something about selling drugs to school kids, and harvesting my own organs to sell on eBay. Am I ever, ever, going to act on either of those? Of course not. But the exercise helps me think more obliquely, ruling nothing out. You can sift out the real stinkers later, but if they shake you up and get you to the good stuff, they’ve served their purpose.
When you go to the gym and get on the rowing machine is it because you want to get really well-practiced at rowing? For most of us, the rowing is not the point; it’s the exercising of the muscles we use for other things. Making lists is a way to train our ideation muscles.
Identify a project or idea that you do love, something you’ve seen someone else do. Make that your starting point. Don’t try to replicate that work, just use it as a starting point.
There’s no shame in finding something you love and beginning there. Make a list of ten photographers you love and find one of their ideas and begin there. If you’re an author, begin with the broad premise of the last book you read (a clown terrorizes a midwestern town) and take it wherever you like. Maybe the clown becomes a magician and the midwestern town becomes the Vatican. I don’t know where it will lead, but I know if you don’t begin somewhere and aren’t willing to start ugly when you do, you won’t get anywhere.
What you must not do is take it personally. Every creative person ever has wrung the sponge dry once in a while. So you’re dry. Big deal. Have you written something good in the past? You’ll do it again. Have you made some photographs previously? You’ll make them again.
The ideas that led to those projects in the past weren’t pulled from a limited and dwindling supply, handed out by the capricious muse like some demented Santa Claus based on how good you’ve been. They come from your astonishing brain, an idea factory you can control, whip into shape, and whose output you have much to contribute to. Keep the raw materials coming in, expose yourself to good art, read some books, make some lists.
One More Thing
You are in process; it’s important you remember that. One of the next resources I’m creating is a much larger undertaking than I’ve done before and after wracking my brain over a name and enlisting many of you to help, the name that best reflects what that resource is all about is Making The Image. The only problem is this: I already have an eBook and companion video called Making The Image.
So on Saturday morning, November 03, I’m taking the existing resource off the Craft & Vision shelves forever. It’s still a great resource, but in the interest of clarity and not confusing things, and because I really, really want to use that name for the new project, it’s getting recycled.
If you’re interested in the questions that go through my mind when I make photographs and want to dig into the process of making photographs, this will be the last time you can get it in this form from me. Making the Image addresses why we choose the settings and the compositions we do, the perspectives and the lenses, and all the other choices that determine those choices matter. Process matters.
The new resource, the NEW Making The Image, will be launched in April and I’m already hard at work at, but it’ll be a completely different thing, so don’t hesitate to get this one before it’s gone. I know many of you have it already, I just wanted to give a chance to those of you that don’t and might find it useful.
The responses to that image and the resulting conversations were intriguing to me. Some responded to the image as I do, finding in the image a sense of idyllic calm. Some were very uncomfortable with the image and the thoughts it prompted in them.
I saw a child resting in Eden, in a state of nature and innocence. Others saw a crime scene. Still others seemed to struggle to snap their interpretation of the image to the photographer’s intent, and unable to do it, got frustrated. And still others “just didn’t like it.”
I worry sometimes that we have mistaken art for a quick meal whose chief value is that it tastes good and pleases us, better still if it pleases us all simultaneously. Look. Like. Swipe. Move on.
But what if, as I strongly believe, art is not always meant to please?
What if it is not always even meant to be understood?
I think it’s certainly true that art need not make you feel good in order to be good. Nor do we need to “get it” in order for it to speak to us.
Art can be good by being many things and, in so being, make us react in many ways. It can make us angry. Scared. Nervous. It can create tension that remains unresolved for us. It can remind us of painful pasts or make us long for that which we do not have. It can raise questions. And, yes, it can make us hopeful or happy, too. It can make us see things in new ways. It can be a puzzle with which we play. It can be so many things that it’s a little embarrassing we settle so often for a simple binary judgement. Good or bad. Like or dislike.
It seems to me the best response to art is not to like but to listen. And when I say listen I do not mean only that we should listen to the artist, though it would be nice if we all took the time to try to do so. I mean to listen to ourselves. What is our reaction to a photograph, a piece of writing or music, a dance, a film? Why do we feel so strongly one way or another? Why don’t we? What if our first reaction isn’t the only possible reaction and we took time to ask if, perhaps, there’s something to learn?
As I’ve thought long and hard about my own responses to art I’ve come up with a couple suspicions:
The intent of the author matters greatly in the creation of his or her art. And it might help me understand a work in a cerebral way. But it is not necessary in order to experience that art. Writing-off a piece of art before allowing ourselves to react to it, to experience it and to listen, is a missed opportunity. Yes, it helps to study the work and the context and some insights into that context can be enlightening, but you can experience art on its own merits and that is one of the wonders of art. I need not “get” Kandinsky, Pollock, Rothko, or Monet, to experience them and to allow them to act as a mirror to me, giving me a chance to learn something of myself in the reaction they cause.
Art is not about consensus. We need not agree over our reactions or our interpretations. Art that forces itself upon us and has as its chief goal our submission to it is not art, it’s propaganda. Art can be bigger than that. It can be larger than we are. Popular photography culture is wildly culpable of encouraging or desiring our consensus and the only thing that’s going to lead to is homogeny, mediocrity, and a narrowing of thought and experience. We must be challenged and art can do that, but only if we let it. To be challenged we must first listen to it.
Photographers are often encouraged to “shoot what they love.” I have said these words myself. I still say them. But we can do more. To create from that place of love is to draw from only one emotional well. It is only one human experience, and it must be explored, and celebrated. But why should we not consider photographing that which we fear, that which angers us, that which confuses and puzzles and stirs ambivalence in us? Why should art not be a means by which we explore those things within us that we neither understand nor like? Art is not always a statement or an expression. It is, or can be, just as often a question or an exploration.
All art can be, for both creator and audience, a means of digging around in the dirt of being alive. A way to discover what we’re looking at and how we look. It’s a way to be more alive in this world. It should not, I don’t think, be clean, and free of nuance. Because life might be many things but it is never that.
Art doesn’t care if you like it or not. It is not diminished by your response, either way. But we ourselves miss an extraordinary opportunity to expand into the unexplored places and experiences of our lives when we do not listen.
So what of Wynn Bullock’s Child in Forest? What of any piece of art that doesn’t first appeal to us? I think, as others before me have observed, that our reaction to a piece of art says more about us than it does about the art. I think we owe it to ourselves, if not also to the art, to listen. To wonder. To be curious and to remain curious in the absence of answers. To let it remain unresolved for us. To let it eat at us a little.
We need to be free to not like it at all and to plumb the depths of that reaction for why. And we need to be free, in the context in which I showed this image, to learn from each other’s reactions. To listen to them. To encourage discussion not agreement. Agreement puts a tidy little bow on the art and we move on, never to think of it or learn from it again. Puzzle solved.
I think we owe it to ourselves, if not also to the art, to listen. To wonder. To be curious and to remain curious in the absence of answers. To let it remain unresolved for us. To let it eat at us a little. We need to be free to not like it at all and to plumb the depths of that reaction for why.
I think this approach to art can not only change how we experience art but how we make it. When we make our art, whatever it is, from a wider gamut of emotion and motivation, we explore the deeper well of who we are. We live more deeply. We become softer in our judgements towards our art and toward ourselves. We become more open to leaving questions unanswered, and in so-doing become open to the possibility that our art might ask more questions than it answers, which is probably good because life is that way and questions, I’ve found, are infinitely more helpful in taking us to deeper, more interesting, and more human, places.
Art doesn’t care if you like it or not. It is not diminished by your response, either way. But we ourselves miss an extraordinary opportunity to expand into the unexplored places and experiences of our lives when we do not listen, and listen deeply, rather than rushing to Like. Want to become a better photographer? Learn to get past like, to listen, to learn, to challenge your assumptions and tastes.
Thoughts? I’d love to hear about your own journey with art. The comments are open.
Many of you know that I published my most recent limited edition book, Pilgrims & Nomads a couple months ago. Someone recently said they hadn’t ordered their copy because they assumed it had sold out. I still have about 100 copies of that limited, signed and numbered book and the accompanying print and it would make a wonderful holiday gift (December is coming!) for your favourite photographer, even if that photographer is you.
I know: you have this one friend who got lucky back in 1986. One shot. Nailed it. You might have done so, too—that one time you raised the camera to your face, made one frame and it’s now your absolute favourite photograph and it hangs on your wall to this day so take that, duChemin. I know. I have a couple like that as well. Two or three images that defied the odds.
The others, the hundreds or thousands of images that are my best work, all were made after sketching them out. Every photographer you look up to has a process, and almost every iconic image you love is a result of that process, flanked on the contact sheets or Lightroom libraries by many others that never made the cut.
I call my own process “sketching.”
Sketch images are the photographs I make to see what it looks like. I try different angles, make the photograph and see what it feels like. I change the angles until I get it feeling the way I want it to. Along the way, I might change a lens because it wasn’t my perspective at all, but the lens that wasn’t really working the way I had hoped. And I wait for moments, sometimes realizing my subject is better expressed with a slower shutter speed, so I try that, and I evaluate the results. I do it quickly, but I let those images give me feedback. And slowly, bit by bit, I get closer to the magic. Bad images slowly get stronger and lead to good images.
Other people just bang off a bunch of shots until they get it right and they look back at those first frames and think they suck. And they might. But they aren’t crap. They aren’t garbage. They’re necessary steps to get to the better frames. Sometimes I need only 2 or 3 of them to get myself firing on all cylinders. Sometimes I need 20. And sometimes I sketch something out for a year or more, returning, never quite getting it but getting closer.
This shift in perspective, from seeing your preliminary images as junk to seeing them as important and valuable, allows you to be more playful with them. It allows you to be less critical of them and instead to let them lead you. What do you like about one particular frame? What could you do differently? What doesn’t work for you and how can you exclude those things? What changes can you make to give your subject its best expression? Do you need to wait for better light? Better moments? Do you need to change your perspective, your lens, your shutter speed?
See the difference in approach? One, the “everything I’m shooting is crap” approach, leads to frustration. The other, the “everything I’m making is getting me closer to a better final image” approach, leads to creativity, play, experimentation, and—ultimately—to stronger photographs.
It also makes me a happier person. I have terabytes of sketch images. They are the grease that got me to my growing handful of photographs I do love, the ones for which I am proud. They show me my progress in ways terabytes of “mistakes” or “crap” would not. I am progressing. So are you. And you’ll do so faster if you learn from your early efforts.
No writer sits down and writes a novel or a screenplay or even an article in one easy draft. They make plenty of false starts and unreadable first drafts. But those drafts are necessary stepping stones. They are way stations without which the final book or play never happens. That’s how I see sketch images. I do not mean pray and spray—I do not mean mindlessly mashing down the shutter button. But most of you are not in that category.
I don’t worry you’re making too many images; I worry you aren’t making enough images.
I worry you’re stopping at a couple frames, shrugging and putting your camera down because “it’s just not working.” I worry you think it’s a lack of talent or you just don’t have “the eye” that others do. Nonsense. You’re just not working the process. You’re giving up too soon.
I came home from Varanasi this spring with 9800 sketch images that I will never show the world. But I needed to make them in order to get to the 24 that I love. The screen shot at the top of this post? I made 335 sketches to get to the one I love. I’m not trying to make myself feel better about the ones that didn’t work; I feel great about them because without my sketches I never would have arrived at my final photographs.
Your so-called failure rate doesn’t matter. Mine gets worse over time as I loosen up and become more willing to experiment and try new things, caring less about each individual frame and more about where they might lead me.
There is no badge of honour for the artist with the cleanest, tidiest process. There is no reward for using fewer memory cards. No one will judge you for the images you’ll never show them.
The only thing that matters is that you make your best work and that you trust whatever process—messy or otherwise—that gets you there.
Earlier this month I launched The Traveling Lens course, and there were many of you who emailed me to say you were hoping I would open my composition course, The Compelling Frame. I will be doing just that next month, but only for four days and ONLY to those on the waitlists for either The Compelling Frame or Master Your Craft. On October 03, I will email everyone on those lists and invite them to enroll. No Facebook marketing, no inflatable gorillas: just an invitation.
This will be the last chance to get either course for the 2018 pricing ($295 for The Compelling Frame, and $249 for Master Your Craft). If you aren't sure you're on the list(s) and you want to enroll in either course, or you want more information, go to TheCompellingFrame.com or MasterYourCraftCourse.com and be sure your name is on one or both of these mailing lists.