Rule 53: Travel Light — But Not Too Light

It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but every so often I actually do manage to take my own advice. Case in point came over the weekend while shooting a play that a friend of mine directed. Not knowing where I’d be able to find seating, and wanting a degree of flexibility in my shot options, I decided I’d pack the camera with the 28-300mm lens attached. All done, right?


Even when I’m traveling light — body, one lens, small bag — I try to be careful not to travel too light. My D600 has two SD slots (each of which usually has an 8GB card in it). My battery, rated for 1,500 shots or so, had been charged that morning. And with an all-in-one lens, it’s not as though I needed to carry my big bag, with my other four lenses. I could easily have shot the entire evening on just two memory cards and called it a day, in theory.

That’s all well and good, except that at some point, theory collides with practice, and that’s when things start to get hairy. In this case, things getting hairy involved my first memory card flashing an error message about fifteen minutes into Act One. Luckily, I hadn’t packed only the camera, lens, and monopod; I also had a spare battery, four spare memory cards, and a cleaning kit. I was able to pop out the defective card (which at least retained the shots I’d already taken, even though it’s now dead as a doornail), put in another, and continue shooting.

I understand as well as anyone that camera gear is bulky, heavy, and sometimes quite literally a pain in the neck to lug around. I don’t necessarily suggest carrying every last piece of your kit everywhere you go. There are times you just don’t need everything. At the very least, however, make sure you have enough. Have “spares,” whether it’s an extra lens if you’re shooting somewhere hazardous (if you fall and clobber one lens, you’ve got something else to shoot with), an extra card (because they can, and do, fail) or a spare battery, even if you’re in the habit of keeping them fully charged (if you’re shooting in the cold, your battery life shortens markedly; you can warm the battery back up in a pocket, but you’ll still need something with which to shoot in the meantime). Cleaning supplies are also a must; it doesn’t even have to be an elaborate cleaning kit. Just one of those lens cloths in a neoprene pouch can be a lifesaver if your lens gets smudged, or if your glasses get so filthy that you can’t see the viewfinder properly.

How ’bout you? What are your absolute essentials when you’re traveling light? Have I left something out? Sound off in the comments!


Rule 52: No Birds!


Although I suppose I couldn’t be blamed if he just wandered into my shot…

What brings this on, you ask? Having had power but no internet for much of last week, I set about cleaning up (read: getting rid of huge amounts of stuff on) my hard drive. Since most of what’s on there is photographs, I found myself going through lots of old — and sometimes not-so-old — photos, thinning the herd. And in folder after folder, I found bird shots galore.

I like birds well enough, provided they don’t poop in my general direction.* But, really, Hitchcock has nothing on my collection. I have scores of bird shots. No, scratch that, it’s probably closer to hundreds. And the thing is, I live in northern New Jersey. Around here, you get finches, pigeons, and sea gulls, and precious little else. I’ve never seen a heron or crane perched on the Hoboken pier (well, not that kind of crane, anyway).

Now, maybe you’ve never taken a bird’s photo in your life. But don’t go getting all smug just yet. My point isn’t (just) the birds.

Here’s the thing: we all have things that we’re drawn to, for one reason or another… things that we’ll instinctively photograph if they’re placed in front of us. For some things (our families, for instance) that’s not so bad. But for others… well, how many birds, or clouds, or sunsets do we really need to photograph?

“But it’s a gorgeous sunset/bird/hood ornament/Shriner’s fez,” you protest. Maybe it is, and maybe there’s a point, sometimes, in taking photos of those things. But if we’re going to go to the trouble of making a photo of something, maybe we should take an extra split second to ask whether it’s worth making the photo. And if the question isn’t worth asking, maybe — just maybe, now — the photo isn’t worth the space it takes up on your memory card or hard drive.

The point, after all that? Well, if you’re in the habit of shooting something just because, perhaps it’s time to rethink, and to come up with a better reason than “just because.” Find a new subject, or the discipline to find something truly different within your usual or favorite subjects. We don’t necessarily need to shoot as though our lives depended on it (hopefully it never comes to that), but it’s good sometimes to shoot as though something of our creativity and artistic sensibility depends on it, instead of shooting something “because it’s there.”

*Especially a bird with an outrageous French accent pooping in your general direction.

Rule 51: Know When To Break The Rules

Rules can be a good and useful thing, within limits. They’re helpful aids to composition (think of the Rule of Thirds), exposure (Sunny 16), and even lighting (how often have we been told to always shoot with the sun at our backs?). Similar to writing, the rules of photography help to set forth a visual grammar that helps the viewer to make sense of the photo even as it aids the photographer in composing a better shot.

But then, we’ve all heard the old expression… “Rules are made to be broken.” In his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell writes: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Trying to shoehorn a photo into a rule that doesn’t quite fit it makes it less a photo or an exercise in creativity than an exercise in form that’ll be less about the subject than about the formal constraints you’ve imposed on it.

Sometimes there are practical reasons for this. For instance, the easiest way to eliminate distortion on a fisheye lens is to keep the horizon dead-center in the photo, which is a supposed compositional no-no. Or maybe the only way to get your shot is by shooting directly into the sun… you don’t want to pass up a shot just because it might not conform to some rule or other. At other times, artistic considerations come into play. If, to your eyes, the photo “works” even if it’s not technically perfect, trust your instincts and your own vision.

I’ll include two caveats to all of the above. If you’re a photographer of a certain temperment, it can be tempting to say — sometimes to yourself, sometimes to anyone who’ll listen — that you’re bound and determined to break all the rules. Nothing wrong with that; make sure, however, that you’ve bothered to learn the rules first, since not knowing the rules doesn’t lead to breaking them as much as it leads to sloppy photography.

The other thing is, you’ll want to keep in mind not only what rule(s) you’re breaking, but also why you’re breaking them. There’s a certain pleasure to be taken in breaking rules just for the sake of it (Screw it, I’m eating breakfast for dinner. But first, let’s have dessert.), but sometimes all that rule-breaking just means we’re trading one set of constraints for another. Think about it: if you decide you will never again use the rule of thirds/will only use plastic cameras with plastic lenses and severe light leaks/are extremely enamored with lens flare, you’re not avoiding cliches, you’re embracing them (or becoming one). Rule breaking, like the rules themselves, should be something that gives you more options, rather than limiting them.

Rule 50: Learn Some Theory

I’ve toyed with this post on and off for a while now, and I’m finally going to bite the bullet and just write the darn thing. The short version? By whatever means you can — websites, books, college, osmosis — learn yourself some artistic and photographic theory.

Since I can’t very well just leave it at that, let me elaborate.

There are a couple of acknowledged classics in the field, such as Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but the theoretical framework for photography exists from the medium’s earliest days. Some of this theory concerns itself with ground that’s already been trodden by other arts (you can recycle the philosophical questions around esthetics, for instance, ’til you’re blue in the face), while in other cases there’s more of a concern with how the photographer finds meaning in a subject, or how the resultant photo conveys meaning (or fails to). The one unifying thread through the 150-odd years of theory that’s out there is a desire to make sense of the inner workings of photography, and it doesn’t show any signs of abating as time goes on, since the advent of digital has only added not only more photos, but also more writing about them, into the mix.

So what’s the use of all this theory, anyway? For one thing, it gives us a different lens through which to view and interpret what the medium is about, and is capable of doing. In some ways it also fulfills the same role that literary theory does for the written word. Just the same as we can shoehorn language into stuff as mundane as shopping lists and as sublime as, say, Pablo Neruda, so too can photography be approached in as quotidian or as ambitious a way as you’d like. Reading Barthes, the Adamses (Ansel and/or Robert), Rowell or Sontag will not make you a better photographer any more than watching “This Old House” will make you a better carpenter, but using either of those things as starting points and incorporating them into your practice can lead to a different (and sometimes even better) understanding both of what you’re doing, and why you do it.

In closing, however, let me add two very big caveats, in flashing neon lights if necessary:  Let me add to that the thought that the role of theory and the theoretician should be similar to that of the critic and their criticism; that is to say, theory, like criticism, is only useful insofar as it furthers your understanding of something. If what you’ve read only serves to confuse you, or to muddy the waters, you have two options: come back when your practice has taken you further (to see if the theory makes more sense, or holds more water, in light of what you’ve experienced), or decide that maybe that particular bit of reasoning just doesn’t resonate for you, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Second, and even more important, don’t — and I mean do not ever — allow theory to be a substitute for practice. All that theory, all the philosophizing and philosophy and rules and regulations, has its uses, to be sure, but it also has its limitations. Theory can only explain so much, beyond which point it falls (or should fall) silent.

Interested in learning more? (Photography and Theory) is a conference, now in its second year, that covers… well, you’d probably already figured that bit out, hadn’t you. The Photograph In Theory is an article by Elizabeth Chaplin that covers not only photographic theory, but also where it can intersect with the practice of other disciplines (e.g., sociology)… and there’s quite a bit more out there, if you’re so inclined.

Rule 49: Concerning the Proper Way To Eat an Elephant

Twice in a Blue Moon

In case you’re wondering about the title (and whether or not I’ve taken leave of my senses), it’s from an old riddle. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

If you’re just starting out on the photographer’s path, it can be awfully intimidating, what with all the stuff you have to learn. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure, composition, the Rule of Thirds, lighting, Sunny 16… I’m reminded of a bit from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, where Michael Palin’s preacher solemnly intones, “Oh Lord, ooh you are so big…” Substitute “photography” for “Lord” in the preceding phrase, and you start to get an idea of the problem. Photography is so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here I can tell you.

Ahem. Sorry. Got carried away there. Where was I? Oh, yeah, photography.

So anyway, there’s no getting around the fact that photography is really freakin’ large. Lots of moving parts. Many things to learn. And with something, anything, of that size, there comes the temptation from time to time to just throw up your hands and say to hell with it, ’cause there’s just no way you’re going to learn all that stuff all at once.

Easy there. Nobody said you had to. Best of all, there’s no prescribed (or proscribed) order in which all this stuff needs to be learned. You can be as systematic or as haphazard as you’d like. You can invent your own learning system, set your own learning curve… or you can just pick up a camera one day and start shooting, gradually working your way through options and menus ’til you know the thing like the back of your hand (then buy a new camera and start all over again). Or you can shoot ’til you realize there’s something missing, something you’d really like to do, and figure out how to do that thing, moving from thing to thing as you need to, one side effect of which is that there are things you’ll have no idea how to do, but the things you do, if you’re diligent, you’ll do really, really well.

But above all, remind yourself that nobody learns anything — photography, knitting, playing the bagpipes — all at once. Just the same as you can’t swallow an elephant whole*, you cannot reasonably expect to master the whole of your craft in one fell swoop (and if you have, or think you have, congratulations; you’re doing it wrong.) Take it one step — one setting, one shot — at a time. Your photos will be better for it, as will your skills. And there’s less risk of indigestion.**

*Unless you’re a boa constrictor

**I hear elephant repeats pretty badly.

Rule 48: Be Glad For Your Ignorance

At a glance, that probably sounds like the most counterintuitive advice you’ve ever gotten. After all, we have it drilled into our heads constantly that knowledge is power. And as someone who seeks to spread knowledge and understanding about photography, even if it’s only in a small way, you’d think I’d be the last person to advocate for knowing less. But let’s go beyond the title, and the negative connotations of the word, for a moment.

In its most basic sense, ignorance is simply not-knowing. That lack of knowledge isn’t something to wear like a badge of honor, but it’s a necessary part of the process, something that’s worth honoring and putting to good use. As long as it’s a point of departure, it’s a phenomenal tool for growth and something worth having around if you plan to get any better at what you’re doing, whatever that may be.

Stripped of our ignorance, we’re stuck. We have nothing new to learn, nothing new to see, and nothing new to say. Think about it: some of the worst of what we’ve done, whether they were wars, race hatred, religious extremism, blinkered political systems, or any of the other myriad forms of hurt, hatred and stupidity of which we’re capable, came about because we “knew” something. We knew better than someone, or knew we were better than them.

What do we have to show for our ignorance? Landings on the Moon and Mars, the exploration of the depths of the sea, decoding the human genome, better understanding of our own minds and bodies… we’ve accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge, the net effect of which has been to further illuminate the depths of our ignorance, which in turn spurs us on just a little bit farther.

What we “know” as artists doesn’t turn us into genocidal maniacs, obviously. But it arrests us, stunts our growth as people and as artists. Knowing something, we put it off to one side; it loses its appeal and some part of its importance. It’s barely worth our attention, much less our continued effort. So ignorance (whether we’re calling it that, or giving it some other name like Zen does with Beginner’s Mind) is vital to our progress, our growth, and our joy.

If we can forget what we know — or begin to realize all that we don’t yet know — we have something to work toward.  We don’t know it all. We don’t even know all of a little bit of much of anything, come to think of it. And we should probably be glad for that, because as long as it’s true, there’ll always be something new to learn, and some new surprise, awaiting us at each stage of our learning and putting what we’ve learned into practice.

Rule 47: Adapt

Less than a week into 10,000/365, I’ve come to realize something that I think was always somewhere in the back of my mind, but which is becoming more and more a part of my photographic practice. For one thing, I tend to shoot without any ideas in mind, or any particular agenda. Setting myself a series of small projects as part of a much larger project has been helpful to keep me shooting, and to see opportunities in places I didn’t before.

There’s another side to that, one that can end up becoming a downside if you’re not careful. You think your shoot through; you have an idea of what you’d like to get, and how you’d like it to look. All well and good, because all you have to do now is proceed to make the photos that you set out to make, right?

Uh, no.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it will work that way. You will have planned well enough, and covered your bases well enough, that no matter what the day throws your way, you will be ready for it. But those days will, in the main, be the exception, unless your expectations or planning are such that you really don’t care what you get, so long as you get something.*

Let me give you an example. I thought out what I wanted to do for the third day’s assignment (the view from your window). I knew where my shot would be, the lens that I would need to get the shot I envisioned, and even what times of day would put my subject in the best light. I was, in other words, ready.

And then the subject wasn’t there. Rather than declaring the day ruined and packing the camera, I had a plan “B”, where I’d also decided on the kind of shot I wanted, the framing, the shutter speed, the lens… And then that didn’t quite work out, either. The idea was to use the shapes of my street’s brick crosswalks as a strong compositional element, and to have the lights of turning cars trace abstract forms over the crosswalk, neatly bisecting the segment I’d chosen.

Only that didn’t work, either, since no matter how I exposed, I couldn’t get the crosswalk to show properly while also catching the lights the way I wanted them. Time for Plan C, which involved the same elements from Plan B, but with a different compositional focus; this time I’d play entirely with the car lights, and make those the center of attention.

The photos that I made as a result weren’t anything like I’d envisioned, but they got made nonetheless. It’s easy to be frustrated when you plan something and it doesn’t go according to plan; we know what we want from our photos, and also what we expect from ourselves. However, I’d caution against letting the frustration be the end of it; let it, instead, be a starting point. Just as we talked last week about experimentation, a good part of photography involves being able to adapt. Sometimes that means changing your camera settings in a different light, seeing your subject in a new light, or realizing that what you had in mind isn’t working, so it’s time to get something new in mind.

*Not, as I’ve mentioned before, that there’s anything wrong with that.

Rule 46: Take the Photo Now

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog (or if you’re here for the first time and just reasonably observant), you’ll notice that there’s no photo where I’d normally put one in this post. It’s not by oversight that there’s no photo, and it isn’t as though I don’t have a bunch just laying around. I bring this up, in part, so you don’t think it was an oversight on my part.

There’s actually a photo I would’ve liked to use. It would’ve been… well, not perfect (I don’t do perfect, sometimes to my chagrin). But at least competent, and I would, I’m sure, have found some lesson that I could’ve drawn from it and shared with you. It would’ve featured some interesting patterns, colors, or textures, or some particularly comely side-lighting, or some animal or human doing something particularly funny, odd, adorable or perplexing. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been all that competent — a mess of blown highlights, or a masterpiece of underexposure, or a composition that doesn’t quite work no matter how much I try to rescue it through postprocessing — but it would, at least, have been worth something as a snapshot… something that had sentimental value to me, if nobody else, because this place, or time, or person, meant something to me.

I have — or rather, I don’t have — a lot of those photos. It’s a catalog of missed opportunities, failures and frustrations. It’s the faded and peeling sign by the muffler shop that I passed by hundreds of times, knowing I really should go back there one day with my camera, only to find that it’d been painted over the next time I went past. There’ve been skies and sunsets, street scenes and parties, events of historical importance and events so trivial that even the people involved probably don’t remember much about them now…

It’s one of the reasons that I always encourage people to have a camera. ‘Cause, hey, you just never know. Some things — some scenes, some shots, some times — you only get but one shot. Do the best you can in the short time you’ve got. You, or it, or they  may not pass this way again. Or you might, but something — a painted sign, the way the light falls just so, a fleeting expression, or even just that spark in you that told you that this was the time, this was precisely the right angle, the right photo — might have changed in some small but decisive way that makes that shot impossible the next time out.

And it’s also why I’ve taken so many pictures of you, and you, and you (the whole lot of you, some of whom may see this, others not, know who you are). Times change, we change. And maybe I didn’t always get your good side, or caught you with a goofy look on your face, or maybe that’s not the most flattering thing in your wardrobe. It’s one thing — and a silly thing, at that — to worry about missing a sign or a bird here and there. But the day will come, hopefully a lot farther off than not but probably sooner than either of us or any of us would like, that those pictures that you or I have taken may be all that one of us has left of the other, so I hope you don’t mind too much.

And if you’ve read this far, whoever you may be, I hope you don’t mind terribly either, and that you’ll take this one small bit of advice: Get the photo now. Sometimes that imperfect timing, that imperfect composition, and all those imperfect photos of all the things and people we love for all their imperfections, is the best we can hope for from this imperfect life we’ve got.

Rule 45: Experiment!

Every once in a while, I’ll read over what I’ve written on this site and realize that my average post leaves out about as much as it leaves in. Sometimes, in fact, it leaves out much, much more. There are a few reasons for this, not least the fact that I’m covering something in blog form that has, often as not, been covered in a much longer article, a chapter of a book, or sustains a book all on its own.

More importantly, however, there’s the process itself. I think sometimes that it’s important to leave stuff out. For one thing, I don’t think there’s a single, objective way to shoot any given photo. Each step in the process — setting up the shot, choosing your particular combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed, whether or not to use flash, using a filter (or not) — can be taken any number of ways, some of which will expose your photo identically, but others of which will lead to drastically different outcomes.

I could probably give photographic “recipes,” along with very specific steps to arrive at that specific photo, but what use is that? I don’t even like taking the same photo over and over again, and I’m not sure that I’m doing you or anyone else any favors by showing you how to do that one thing. When it comes to my own learning, I’ve sometimes lucked out and found exactly what I needed in a book, on a website, or at the elbow of another photographer. Sometimes, though, I’ve been just as lucky to find out just by trial and error. Lots of trial, and — God knows — plenty of error.

I can hear the question coming, if it hasn’t already. Okay, your point?

Here it is. Experiment. Lots. Experiment with subjects, trying out as many different things as you can think of. Experiment with the rules, to see how they work and what happens when you break them. Experiment with your gear, seeing if you can find its limits and yours, and whether you can push just a little bit further.

Experimenting means that your process becomes your own. It also means that what results from your process won’t be mine, won’t be your friend’s, or that guy at your camera club who won’t stop yapping about his D4 and all his 1.4 glass, and that’s okay. It’ll be something that’s uniquely yours, which, at the end of the day, is rather the point of this whole thing.

Rule 44: You Are Your Competition

We hate it when our friends become successful. — Morrisey

A bit of friendly competition can be a good thing if you’re photographing among friends. Seeing who can get the best shot out of a day’s shooting can keep everyone on their toes, and motivate you to do some of your best work.

But what happens when that spirit of collegaility and competition finds itself side-by-side with (or, worse still, replaced by) jealousy, envy, and resentment? It can be all too easy when you see someone else you know succeed at the same thing you’re trying to do to resent that success, but that’s lousy for both your craft and your reputation, since both will suffer. And I’d add, by the way, that this is something I’ve seen just as much among amateur photographers as among professionals, so whoever, and wherever, you are, this means you.

You want to know what to do about your competitors? Forget them. Forget their gallery opening, their cover shot on Popular Photography, their day rate. What have you done? Is your photography better than it was last year, last month, last week or last night? That’s all that matters. Odds are better than even that the photographer you view as you “competition” isn’t looking over her shoulder at you; she’s looking at her last shoot, and wondering what she can do to make the one that follows it better.

Don’t look over your shoulder either, or worry about nipping at someone else’s heels. Look in the mirror, and on your hard drive. What are you doing to improve your craft? What are you doing to make sure you continue to grow and evolve, and to make the kinds of photos that you can be proud to call your own regardless of what anybody else says or thinks about them? If you can’t do that, you run the risk of being that one photographer that everyone knows (and we all know, or have at least met, one of them) who begrudges others their successes, no matter how great or small they are. You probably give that person a wide berth when you see them, so don’t be that person.

Here’s what I’d suggest. If someone succeeds, celebrate them, and what they’ve done. If they’re in the mood, celebrate with them. If you’ve been a photographer for any length of time, you already know that alongside the joys that the craft brings with it, it also has its share of frustrations, whether it’s those days when you feel like you’re regressing ’cause you’ve shoot a hundred photos and don’t think you’ve got a single one worth keeping, or it’s a shortage of clients, crappy weather, equipment issues, general malaise… you and I between us could probably spend an hour coming up with a list, and some third photographer — even if they just picked up a camera for the first time yesterday — could still add another few dozen items to the list. So whoever your “competitor” is, they’ve got the same set of frustrations you do, plus a whole raft of their own you probably don’t even realize. And on top of all those things, they’ve got your sorry ass sniping at them from the sidelines.

Again: cut it out. Success isn’t measured by money alone, nor by Twitter followers, site traffic, accolades, or any other single thing. Nor, more importantly, is success somehow finite. Someone else doing well — even if they’re in the same town as you, even if their studio is cheek-by-jowl with yours — doesn’t mean that your photgraphy or your chances are somehow worse than they were before. Their success does not diminish you. Only you can do that, and I hope for your sake that you’ve got better things to do with your skills, your talent and your heart.

Rule 43: Be Thankful For Other Photographers’ Work


What fuels your photography?

Just as we don’t photograph for ourselves alone, we also shouldn’t learn from ourselves alone. There are countless photographers who’ve preceded us, to say nothing of our contemporaries (who, at last count, are legion). And even though there are times that, as I mentioned this time last week, it feels as though someone else has beaten us to darned near everything, that’s actually something we should be glad for.

For starters, it can be very intimidating to blaze your own trail. It’s always helpful when someone’s been there first; their work acts as a roadmap or a compass into what’s essentially uncharted territory when you’re first starting out. Be grateful that someone else’s work, and experience, is there to light your way, whether that person’s name has gone down in history, or isn’t known outside your camera club.

Others’ work can also be a good indicator to you of what you would, or would not, like to do or become as a photographer. If you’ve read much of what I’ve posted here, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of the photographers who inspire me… names like Cartier Bresson, Lange, Doisneau, du Chemin, and Orwig, for instance. Their photography, along with countless others’ photos, have given me a sense of what’s possible. Your list will probably be much different than mine. That’s okay. But I’d definitely suggest that you make one. Pay equal attention to photographers whose stuff you don’t like, and don’t appreciate them any less; they, too, have quite a lot to teach you if you let them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you will come across photographers whose work and style you appreciate even if it’s 180 degrees from what you do, or would like to. Be especially thankful for those photographers. I’m reminded of this almost every day when I look at the work of someone like Annie Liebowitz, whose photos show the touch of someone who’s just as much an auteur as a photographer. The same thing happens with, say, a really good wedding photographer. That takes a kind of talent that I haven’t got, and what’s more, a talent that I’m not all that interested in cultivating (the thought of photographing someone else’s once-in-a-lifetime event scares the shit out of me, to be completely honest). But I appreciate that talent, I appreciate the time and effort that someone’s put into their craft to arrive at the point that they can make those kinds of photos, and I especially appreciate that they’re generous enough to share them with the rest of us. I’m half tempted to call or email them and thank them for doing that kind of photography so that I don’t have to!

That’s just my take. What about you? What can you find, or have you found, to appreciate in other photographers’ photography?

Rule 42: It’s All Been Done

“Well,” said the Inspector, “I’ve seen better.” (Photo by kind permission of Dan Phelps)

As you read this, you’re probably no more than an hour’s drive from some kind of major landmark. Maybe it’s something world famous, like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Maybe it’s something better-known within your state, or just to the locals. Whatever it is, you may very well have despaired that it’s been photographed to death. And this isn’t something that’s limited to landmarks, either. No matter what your bailiwick is, whatever your subject of choice may happen to be, you probably feel that it’s all been done.

In a sense, you’re right.

Nearly every genre of photography, until someone goes and devises a new one, has been done, and then done some more. How many views can we possibly get of the Grand Canyon, of cars, people, products, or any of the thousands of other things we’ve put in front of the camera?

As if that’s not bad enough, if you’re just getting started and you’re even reasonably visually literate, you start to realize pretty quickly that it’s not only been done, but someone else’s done it really, really well.* Yes, you can always find someone whose work isn’t as good as yours, but really, what good is that? We should never aspire to be as good as, or better than, someone who’s not that good to start with, ’cause that’s not setting the bar very high.

So anyway. Here you are, realizing that someone else has beaten you to your favorite subject. If you let it, this can be discouraging, to say the least. So don’t let it. Yes, Ansel Adams made breathtaking photos of landscapes. Sure, Herb Ritts did fashion like nobody’s business. Hell, even if you want to photograph toys, there are people out there who make Legos look like high art.

The essentials are all packed. (Paul Bogan/The First 10,000)

And at some point, they probably had the same thought you did. Somebody else got there first. And damn, they’re good. Then they went ahead and did it anyway, and proceeded to find their own way of working, their own voices, and their own vision that made what they had to say stand out from the rest of the pack.

Photography didn’t end with your favorite photographer. Hell, it didn’t start there either. Rather than letting those antecedents — your ancestors, artistically speaking — be a source of frustration, be encouraged that someone else could start off on the same well-trodden path and still find ways to take it in new directions. With time, patience, and practice — all of these things — you can, and will, do the same.

*A phenomenon that is by no means limited to photography, by the way

Postscript: Thanks to Dan Phelps for permission to use his photo. To see more of his photography (which is great, and which is also much more than Lego), visit his site ( or his Flickr photostream (

Rule 41: Walk More


This is probably neither the first advice you’d expect to hear after several days worth of 90-plus degree weather — nor, under those circumstances, is it likely to be the first advice you want to hear. But it’s already said, and I can’t take it back now, so we’d might as well both make the best of it. When the weather’s bad — rain, snow, intense heat, freezing cold, plague of locusts — it can be very tempting to say the heck with shooting on any given day. On those rare occasions that we do brave the elements, it’s usually by hopping a train, bus, or car so that we can at least get to our shooting destination in some semblance of comfort. That’s all well and good (and it’s also better to shoot than not to shoot). However, I’d suggest dressing yourself and your camera for the weather, and setting out on foot more often.

There are a few reasons for this, not least of which is that it’s challenging to shoot from a moving vehicle. There are ways around this, same as with nearly every other photographic dilemma, and I’ll be covering those in a future post. Suffice to say for now that when you’re traveling in a vehicle, it’s often as not a matter of dumb luck trying to get a decent shot.

Leaving that aside, there’s also the issue of finding, and really seeing, your subject matter when it’s hurtling past your window at 65 miles per hour. Sometimes, in fact, it’s as though someone “up there” has deliberately decided to screw with us, putting all sorts of tantalizing things in front of us (all the more so if the photographer’s the one doing the driving). You will see strange, wondrous, and seemingly impossible things just as soon as there’s nowhere to safely pull over and get the shot.

Then there’s simple fitness. Photography’s not the Ironman Triathalon, but unless you shoot exclusively with a camera phone or a compact, the gear tends not to be very light. If you’re not in shape, carrying that stuff around all day can leave you a bit winded. Getting in better shape means having (but not necessarily taking) the option to have more gear with you, and also means having more endurance on a long day’s shooting.

More than anything else, however, the reason I suggest walking more is to reinforce something I come back to time and again in The First 10,000: the simple act of slowing down. Look, life is fast-paced enough the rest of the time. At some point in our day, or at least our week (and I don’t suggest longer intervals than that), we really do need to take the time to consciously slow the ebb and flow of life to something more manageable, more human. It’s hard to tell your eyes, or your mind, to slow down when the rest of you is traveling at or above the speed limit. Sometimes taking all the steps necessary for a good photo really does mean… well, taking steps. Photographing one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.

At the risk of sounding vaguely new agey, a good walk lets you harmonize your eyes, mind, and body, getting them all on the same page, and the same pace. I’ve mentioned before that we need to photograph with more than just our eyesight. Slowing down certainly helps the act of seeing, but it also expands our perception. You photograph differently when you can feel what’s under your feet, whether it’s an uneven gravel path or the gentle settling of your shoes into the soil; you photograph differently when you’re reading the light just as much by the warmth on your skin as by your meter; you photograph directly when your soul is as much in the moment as your body, when it’s moving with you at a pace not dictated by a clock, but measured out by the rhythm of your own heartbeat when it’s quickened by the sights in front of you.

Rule 40: There Is No Shot Clock

Leonard Furniture Company

Even if you’re only casually acquainted with sports (which in my case is being entirely too charitable), you’re probably familiar with the shot clock. Once the ball’s in play, someone on the court/field/pitch has only a set amount of time in which to do something with it. In basketball, for instance, this is probably a good thing, since it helps to keep things moving. In photography? Not so much.

The problem is, I find myself shooting from time to time as though the clock is ticking. You’d swear there was a referee standing over my shoulder with a stopwatch, and that I’d be somehow penalized if I didn’t get a certain number of shots within an allotted time. I don’t always shoot like this, but I’d be lying if I said I never did… and I’m sure that you do, or have, as well.

Mind you, I’m not trying to discount the times that the tick of the clock can be heard very loudly over what you’re doing. Maybe you’re trying to wring the most out of the golden hours; maybe the model’s only available for fifteen minutes, or the client needs the shots in thirty; there might be storm clouds on the horizon and the car’s a twenty-minute walk away; maybe you know that toddler or pregnant mom you’re shooting is going to have to make a beeline to the bathroom any minute now. In each case, then yes, you’re going to have to work quickly.

In either case, however — whether you’re under time constraints, or you could get yourself good and lost and it wouldn’t matter to anyone but you — it can be both frustrating to you as a photographer, and also end up hobbling your end results, if you’re shooting as though your hair’s on fire.  Be mindful. And if you’re in a rush, be twice as mindful, since you won’t have time to re-stage or re-shoot because you’ve done something silly and utterly avoidable.

Here’s the bottom line: whether you’re shooting for someone else, or for nobody but yourself, the “client” (your art director, your editor, yourself) isn’t going to care about the sheer volume of stuff you dump on the desk or the drive at day’s end. If you’re shooting for someone else they’re just going to want to see your best work. But guess what? If you’re shooting for yourself, you don’t want to see your worst work either. That’s just frustrating, especially when you’ve done better, know you can do better, but haven’t done it through nobody’s fault but your own. Slow down and take your time. You don’t have to punch the clock, and you won’t be penalized if you take your time in taking the shot. If you can find your “zone,” you’ll find that you had more time than you thought anyway.

Rule 39: Beat the Block

Lend me your -- Wait a Minute, Get Back Here!

As a writer and as a photographer, I’ve experienced dry spells (the dreaded writer’s/artist’s block). I don’t mean a few minutes spent staring at a blank (or sometimes even partially-filled) page or into a viewfinder waiting for the right subject. In fact, maybe “block” is a bit too coy. That makes it sound like a speed bump or a DUI checkpoint, instead of a friggin’ wall in your path, something that seems too high to go over, too low to get under, and too big to get around. I’m talking anywhere from a couple of weeks to even a couple of years at a time of having any and all creative sense feel like it’s left you. And that, let’s be blunt, is one shitty feeling when who you are is tied up in or even just informed by what you create. It’s like a part of you has gone missing and left no forwarding address. Your Muse, that fickle and capricious being, has headed for parts unknown and didn’t even invite you along for the ride. How insulting!

At that point, you’ve got two choices; wait it out, or attack it head-on.  Every so often someone, usually trying their level best to be helpful, will tell you that it will “pass.” Well, yes, it does, and will. But if you’re of a certain frame of mind — impatient, wanting to create but finding yourself frozen in place — waiting may not seem like (or, if you’re on a deadline, may well not be) an option.

What to do, then? Whatever it is that you’d normally do (writing, photography, pottery, balloon animals), keep on doing it. But we’re going to add a little twist: before you begin, you have to do one very important thing. You have to give yourself permission to be mediocre, or even terrible. Switch off your usual critical voice. Forget your technique, screw the rules, say to hell with even your craft. Your only mission, for one day or one hundred or however long it takes, is to “fake it ’til you make it.”

And when I say to ditch all your usual methods of working, I mean it. Put it — all of it — aside. Change up the times at which you work, your usual subject matter, your usual judgments and preferences and gear.* You only shoot landscapes in medium format at sunset? Not now you don’t. Remember, doing your “usual” was what got you into this rut in the first place. Shoot cars at high noon with your camera phone. Shoot cat pictures on your lunch hour with disposable cameras from the drugstore down the street. Take snapshots — yes, snapshots — of clouds or hot dog vendors or that lady at the greeting card store who looks like maybe she does whippets on the store’s helium tank. Take anything you want except landscapes with your medium format at your appointed time, until you have a very clear idea in your head of what you want — maybe even need — to shoot.

So. Wait it out, or attack it head-on? I’ve tried it both ways, and I can tell you from experience, I will not wait again, nor do I suggest that you wait. The facepalm-inducing feeling you get when the block finally lifts (or when you finally figure out how to lift it yourself) and you realize all that you could’ve been doing, could have been creating, in that lost time just ain’t worth it.

From time to time, I’ll be sharing some tips and strategies that have worked for me in getting past my own blocks (in fact, I’ll be sharing a personal favorite tomorrow), and I’d appreciate if you’d share yours too.

*This also applies to any non-photographers/writers who might’ve wandered here accidentally, by the way.

Rule 38: Shoot With What You’ve Got

Little Torches

As much as I like having an all-in-one zoom in my kit, I’ve been making a point lately of keeping it home. At first blush, that might seem like a downside or an inconvenience. While it’s not as though I worry about the other lenses feeling neglected, I do worry about my skills going soft if I’ve always got that much range at my fingertips. So the last couple of weekends have seen me shooting with my compact, and with an 18-105.

Of course, as soon as you step out of the house with one camera, or one lens, you will almost certainly come across a shot that requires precisely the piece of equipment you haven’t got. I’m surprised that a flock of pigs didn’t go flying past just out of spite. But I digress.

The first “missed” shot or two was frustrating, to be honest, and I started to second-guess my choice of lenses. But then that little voice in my head reminded me of a few things:

1. You don’t want to settle into a rut. All-in-ones can be great at those times when you have no idea where you’re going, or what you’ll find when you get there. On the flip side, however, they’re like a bulky, heavy glass crutch. If you keep that same lens on your camera all the time — and this applies equally to anything else in your kit, whether it’s a fast prime with which you’re particularly enamored, or a speedlight — pretty soon you might find yourself settling into a certain type of shooting without realizing it. Changing one variable has an interesting way of creating a cascade of other little changes, sometimes in composition (especially when you find you have more wiggle room at one end of the spectrum and less at the other), and sometimes in something as simple as shooting with your feet versus your zoom.

2. You took this thing — this camera, this lens — on purpose, whether for the optics, the pocketability, or to challenge yourself. Stick to your guns. Again, this is your habits trying to reassert themselves. We can be the nicest, most accomodating people, but when it comes to our own bad habits, we can be positively intractable (just ask my wife). That applies double, I think, to how we shoot, because all of us at one point or another have mistaken technique for vision. So, just like giving up chocolate for Lent, it’s going to take some discipline in the beginning to redirect that habit energy.

3. You have a camera, don’t you? Quit complaining! At some point, I reminded myself that my first camera when I really started to “do” photography (my beloved, and now-deceased, Kodak) couldn’t do a lot of what either of my current cameras can do. I had some of the same complaints then as now from time to time, but I learned that complaining about it wasn’t helping things any; time spent complaining, essentially, is time not spent making photos. So at some point early on, I familiarized myself as best I could with all those limitations. Sometimes it was so I could work around them; sometimes I got creative enough to use the limitations themselves. The funny thing about doing this long enough is that it becomes a perverse point of pride when you’ve found some new thing your camera can’t do. I figured that I must’ve been getting better on some level, or I wouldn’t have known I couldn’t do that!

And when it’s all said and done, that’s probably one of the healthiest things you can do. Don’t curse the limitations. Embrace them if you can, work around them if you must, and if you’re really lucky, you may find yourself hitting some other quirk or limit. Let it send you off in some new and unpredictable direction like you’re in some kind of giant pinball machine, and have some fun with it.

Rule 37: Use It or Lose It!

The Ballerina Revisited

If you’ve ever attempted a workout routine, stuck with it for a while, and then stopped (injury, bad weather, loss of motivation), you know how hard it is to get started again. You also know, as you start to get back into the swing of things, that you start to ache in places you never knew could ache. While photography doesn’t have that many aches and pains to go with it (though with heavy gear, that’s also a possibility), you still need to keep your skills sharp through plenty of practice.

This is especially true when you’re trying something new, like a different compositional technique or a camera setting that you don’t use very often. The first time or two, you may have to take mental — or literal — notes, or even refer back to the camera manual. Do it often enough, and it becomes second nature.

But if it’s something you may only be doing every so often, it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned. Yes, I know, some smartass is probably going to say that it’s just like riding a bike. If that’s the case, I’ll have to be extra careful not to fall off my tripod. But I digress. If you haven’t used a skill in a long time, it’s easy to forget how to do it, or even not to do it quite as well as you would have if you’d been in practice.

I was reminded of this comparing some recent shots to an older series taken in the same place. The more recent batch was better in a number of ways (I hadn’t been shooting that long the first time I’d gone), but I noticed in that earlier batch that some of my shots used things that I liked (and still do) but that I’d let fall by the wayside, like using frames within my shots.

Now, that’s a pretty minor thing, all things considered. With that being said, the skills and little tricks that we bring to bear on our craft are a language unto themselves. They have their own vocabulary, their own syntax. As with your spoken/written vocabulary, the more you’ve got, the more options you also have to express yourself. Imagine yourself trying to express something, but you’ve forgotten the word or words that go with it. Your photography’s like that, as well… it becomes just a little bit harder to express the things you’d like to express without the right “stuff” with which to do it.

So. If you’ve picked up some new skill, be sure to dust it off every so often. Leave yourself a reminder, or go back over some of your older work. In either case, it’s a good way to ensure that your skills stay sharp (or at least don’t get too severely blunted) for when you need them later.

Rule 36: There Are No Shortcuts

Hamilton Gothic

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: let’s say you tell a story about someone you came across in your travels. It’s funny, totally random, and if you weren’t there when it happened, you’re not altogether sure you’d believe it yourself. And at the end of the story, the person to whom you’re telling it tells you you’re “lucky,” or that things like that would “only happen to you.”

Well, no… Things like that happen every day, and could happen probably to everybody. It isn’t like it takes all that much. It’s being present to the experience; taking the time to listen to someone, or see something, that someone else would just pass up. It’s that one extra detail you took a few seconds to zoom in on, or the person you chose to hear out when someone else would’ve walked away or just passed judgment.

Here’s the thing, though. Some people have an experience or two like that and they get to thinking they’re somehow special. If you’re one of those people, let me clue you in on something that’s likely to be disappointing: the universe didn’t conspire to give you that shot or that experience. Your wishing about it didn’t make it so; your doing it did. Odds are better than even that all that stuff would’ve been there whether you’d been or not. The point is, you got your ass up off the sofa, went out, met it, and got its photo. Cause and effect is a matter, much of the time, of being there. Whether we’re creating the circumstances or just happening across them, the point is the preparedness and the action.

I bring this up because a few days ago while working on an unrelated thing, I came across a truly miraculous system that’s just guaranteed to make you thousands of dollars on your photography, with practically no effort. </sarcasm>  All you have to do, with this and other, similar, “systems” is plunk down an untold (well, it’s probably told, but I was too cynical to click through) sum of money, sit back in your pajamas, and watch the money roll in. The same faulty reasoning, in short, that underpins everything from The Secret to the Prosperity Gospel.

I’m calling bullshit.

There is no system, no secret. You want a foolproof system? Learn hard, then work hard, then when you think you’re done, work and learn some more. Luck? You make your own. Karma? Neither good nor bad. It’s simple cause and effect. Things happen — you get, or miss, the shot, have an awesome conversation, run into someone you haven’t seen in a decade or two — because your actions set in motion the things that made them possible. Act, and things happen based on those actions. Take no action, get no results. It’s that simple.

Nobody’s going to tell you everything they know. On one hand, it’s impossible. Unless it’s something that’s really simple (how to do one very small thing with a discrete number of steps), the process itself doesn’t lend itself to teaching every last little thing. You’re always forgetting things, leaving things out. And there’s that pesky habit most of us have, if we’re any good, of always learning, always pusing back at the boundries of our ignorance; we know we don’t know everything, but we’re damned if we’re not going to know just a bit more today than we did yesterday. It’s the difference between teaching someone how to make rice pudding and teaching them how to be a chef; those cookbooks and culinary classes leave out a hell of a lot more than they include.

On the other hand, some people wouldn’t tell you all they knew even if they could; to them, knowledge is not only power but also profit. if they told you everything you needed to know all at once, what would they possibly sell you later? (never mind that if they were really that good, they wouldn’t worry, ’cause they’d know that in a year’s time they’d have added enough to their knowledge and skill set that they’d have new shit to sell anyway).

But both of those things end up obscuring a larger point: not for nothing is it said that experience is the best teacher. Anything that anyone can tell you, whether it’s Joe McNally, or Thom Hogan, or even little ol’ me, is just so many words. They’re starting points, signposts along the way. They’re pointing a way forward, but they’re the map, not even a vehicle and certainly not the destination. Our practice is the vehicle, and the destination’s always changing; we don’t always know it, and it’s not always what we think it is, either. Honor that process, and the work that goes with it. It may take longer than you expected, but if anyone asks, you’re taking the scenic route, and you’ll have some awesome photos to show from along the way.

But that’s just my $.02 worth. What’s yours?

Rule 35: Fail Better


Just ask this guy about the other 574 that got away

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. — Samuel Beckett

I hope you’re not afraid of photography, or of failing at photography. Let’s be real about this for a minute. Think of all the things you can screw up in your life: dinners, relationships, work projects… we could, between us both, probably come up with a list that ran into the hundreds of items, and that’s just the things we’ve already screwed up, not to even mention that which we haven’t yet gotten our hands on and turned to shit. A good many of them, if not most or all of them, have consequences a lot more weighty than your picture of a swan having blown highlights. Why is it, then, when we often wouldn’t give up on those more important things, we’re willing to bag it all when we’re faced with something relatively trivial?

And it’s not like you’re going to screw up once and be done with it. Even — no, especially — if you say, “Well, I’m never going to do that again,” you’re going to. And you’re going to screw it up. Not even the same way. With our wonderful creativity comes a propensity for finding new, and ever more creative, ways to fuck up. Life’s like that, and photography isn’t exempt from it, either.

Be encouraged.

There’s an adage in public speaking, but I think it holds true elsewhere as well: your audience is rooting for you. They want you to succeed, and will be with you no matter how far short your efforts fall. People talk all the time, but it’s not the same as putting yourself out there publicly; for that reason, many people can’t imagine speaking in public. Similarly, people take photos all the time, but I don’t know that many of them do it as though it matters, or as if there’s anything at stake. Granted, it’s not something of earth-shaking importance if we’re going to be honest about it. But if it matters to you — matters enough that you want to do it well, matters enough that you want it to matter beyond just a simple image on a screen or a piece of paper — that fear of failure is always an ingredient in the process.

Taken by itself, there’s nothing wrong with that fear. Like anything else, it’s what you do with it that makes it a good or bad thing. If you let it paralyze you, then, yeah, it’s not a great thing to have around. If, on the other hand, you allow it to motivate you to do something more than you did the day before… well, now you’re onto something. That’s also when your art really begins to resonate with other people beyond the level of being something pretty that goes on your wall or in your stereo. We may not understand color theory, or the how and why of a chord change that turns your heart to jelly, but all of us, on some level, recognize what it is to try, and to fail… and to get back up again, to try and keep trying, ’til what’s left is still far short of perfection, but just as far from those earlier, worse failures.

The best part (even though it often doesn’t feel that way at the time) is that those failures are a good thing. The only way not to fail, after all, is to do nothing. To risk nothing, and therefore to gain nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. The upshot of all this failure, on the other hand, is that we keep getting closer — sometimes frustratingly so, with the goal just as frustratingly just out of reach — to what we wanted, needed, or just intended to do. What you see now as failure isn’t; it’s just part of the process, a point on your learning curve. Learn from it, grow in it, and see it as a beginning or a continuing rather than an end. Once you’ve stopped — stopped learning, doing, growning, trying — then, and only then, have you failed.