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?

Nope.

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!

Drummer

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 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 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 41: Walk More

Skygazer

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.

The Photographer’s Ten Commandments

I: Thou Shalt Know Thine Equipment: Thou shalt pore over the works of the Masters, and also of the Technical Writers, yea even of humble Bloggers, in order that thou may know thine Gear. Thou shalt understand that other Trinity, consisting of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and also ISO. Nor shalt thou neglect exposure compensation, or blaspheme thy Photos through the overzealous application of Photoshop. Lest it be forgotten, read thou also the manual.

II: Be Thou Considerate: Thou ought not to go to such lengths to get thine shot that thou elbowest olde ladies, or doth speak rudely to passersby. The Spirit has laid it upon my heart to tell you, “Do not be an Ass for the sake of a Photograph.”

III: Thou Shalt Learn New Things Always: Let thine curiosity be limitless, that your joy may also be, and may thou also not let a day pass without having learned some new thing.

IV: Covet Not Thy Neighbor’s Gear: Woe unto him who speaks evil of his gear, for which he paid many talents. Neither shall he lust after his neighbor’s Leica, nor his Canon, nor even his Sigma, though it be worth a mint and look so very shiny. Nor shall he confuse the talents lavished upon said gear for the talent he’s got.

V: Thou Shalt Not Look Down Thy Nose at Thy Fellow Photographer’s Efforts: You whose work is heralded by the trumpets of angels, who now shoot with charms to soothe the savage beast, whose photographs even now move men to weep and women to rend their garments, were not always thus. Act therefore with kindness toward those whose experience is not as great as yours, that you may help them to learn.

VI: Thou Shalt Experiment: While thou shalt keep these commandments reasonably sacred, thou shalt break the Rules (with discernment) if it will make a better Photo.

VII: Thou Shalt Strive For Simplicity: Whether thou makest photos of the fowles of the air, fishes in the sea, beasts of the ground, or yon Dairy Queen whose dilapidated neon Sign is so pleasing in God’s sight, thou really ought not to cram the frame with that which is not needful.

VIII: Thou Shalt Approach Thy Craft With Sincerity, Curiosity and Gratitude: This great and oft myfteriouf Gift we have been given ought not to be taken for granted. See and Appreciate the beauty of the random, ineffable, and sometimes incomprehensible World, the better to photograph it, and also to be glad for it.

IX: Thou Shalt Remember Thy Roots: Honor those who have gone before you, your great Teachers, as well as the Saints Henri and Ansel and Dorothea, and all others of blessed memory, that your work may honor and be worthy of them.

X: Thou Shalt Shoot Often: I mean, verily, how dost thou expect to be any good otherwise?

He who has ears, let him hear.

Postscript: Maybe these commandments aren’t to your liking (and maybe, for that matter, I should’ve done them in the NSV versus the King James; too late for that now). If so, share thine — sorry, yours — in the comments below. You can also peruse other photographers’ versions at the links below:

Brian Auer/Epic Edits
 Tewfic El-Sawy/The Travel Photographer
Enticing the Light
Photojojo’s Ten Legal Commandments of Photography
A list from RandomKaos

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 32: Don’t Take Unnecessary Photos

Was That Really Necessary?

So you’re finally on your way to figuring out this whole photography thing. You already know you should have your camera with you; you’ve shot photos by the hundreds, if not the thousands, always working to hone your craft; and you’ve trained your eye to look for a photo opportunity in nearly everything you see. All well and good, right?

Maybe not.

Here’s the thing: there is such a thing as trying too hard. Mind you, I’m not talking about the effort that goes into getting the composition you want, or making sure your settings are the optimal ones for whatever you’re shooting — that’s time well spent. What I’m referring to instead is… well, trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Sometimes, whether it’s because of the lighting, the weather, or even just the subject itself, there’s something in front of you, but there’s just no photograph there.

I understand that itch we all get, and the need to scratch it. You know the one I’m talking about; you’ve been walking through a location for what seems like hours, and you’ve yet to see a single thing worth photographing. Everything looks flat and dull, and before you know it, you start to feel a bit flat and dull yourself. Your shutter finger gets itchy, maybe your eye starts to twitch a little because it’s been away from the viewfinder for too long. You’d hate to spend a perfectly good day out with a perfectly good camera only to come home with an empty memory card. So you compromise. You settle on shots that, on a better day, you wouldn’t bother with, or you start trying to compose interesting shots of topsoil.

If you’re really struggling with the shot, to a point where it’s not simply a matter of getting the basics right (composition, lighting, settings, et cetera) as much as it is a nagging feeling that maybe you’ve got your subject wrong, listen to what your instinct is telling you. Let it go. Trying to find the right photo at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, is like trying to find an Eames chair at Wal-Mart. It probably isn’t going to happen, and if it does, it’s probably going to be a pale imitation of the real thing. There’s no shame in leaving the camera at your side, or putting it in its bag. Nor, for that matter, is there anything wrong with waiting ’til something comes along that’s really worthy of your, your camera’s, and your audience’s attention.

Rule 31: Smash Your Idols

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. -- Lin Chi

I got to thinking recently about many religions’ prohibition against idol worship. Judaism and, by extension, Christianity both caution against idolatry (the Ten Commandments explicitly warn against graven images. Islam takes the prohibition so far that neither Allah nor Muhammad may even be depicted in art. What’s this got to do with photography? Well, hold on a second. I’m getting there.

The Buddha was famously supposed to have said to one of his disciples, “My teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t mistake my finger for the moon.” Some photographers, unfortunately, engage in this sort of idolatry all the time.

Let’s start with the gear worshippers, shall we? Never mind that your average photographer wouldn’t think, even for a second, of waxing rhapsodic over a ratchet screwdriver, cordless drill, or even one of those little rubber thingies you can use when the lid on a jar of pickles is too tight. A good many photographers* get a little woozy when they talk about the gear they’ve had, have, or have yet to purchase. The virtues of bodies and lenses are debated as though their spec sheets were an arcane form of scripture.

Then there’s an even higher echelon of gear worship, wherein the penitent swears fealty to only a particular type of gear. One may “only” shoot with primes, or certain speedlight setups, or with the proper medium format back. All others are proscribed, and must be forsaken.

Then, of course, we have the photographic Calvinists. Digital, to this lot, is an abomination. To them, film is the only medium worthy of consideration by a “serious” photographer. Certain subsects will take this a step further, and insist that the sacrament of film must be placed in a Holga or other suitable plastic vessel, preferably with duct tape affixed to keep out the light leaks.

And lest we forget the fundamentalists of style. They know all the rules for their genre of choice, and they are thoroughly convinced that no matter what your intention, if you’re not doing it their way, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t think they’ll neglect to call you out on it, either.

Gear, ideas and techniques are belabored as if they’re fine wines, with the unspoken assumption a little too often being that these things aren’t what they are — tools — so much as objects of awe and veneration. If you’re going to focus on something, focus on the simple act of making a good photo. No more, no less. If you fall into one of the above categories, here’s a clue: you’re a photographer, not a freakin’ Gnostic. Get over your obsessions, get over the mistaken assumption that gear makes the man, and most of all, for the love of all that’s holy, get over yourself.

Ahem. Sorry, got a little carried away. Let’s circle back to the original point. All the talk of idols doesn’t just apply to worshipping objects in stone or wood. It also means the idolatry of our own ideas and fixations. This isn’t an altar call; I don’t expect my comments section to be flooded with sudden remorse over gear obsession, or the fact that you told someone on a street photography forum that they’ve violated the spirit of Bruce Gilden by not getting close enough to their subject to constitute adultery in 35 out of 50 states. All I’d like to suggest is that if your photography is a labor of love (and really, it ought to be), make sure that love’s going in the right direction.

*Mostly male photographers, to be fair.

Rule 30: Show Yourself!

Sharp Shooters

A short post for today, since this is a pretty self-explanatory rule. I’m going to repeat myself (which I hate doing), since this bears repeating: photography is a social activity, and a social medium. Yes, there are plenty of times that it’s solitary, especially at those times when it’s just you, your thoughts, your camera, and a bunch of inanimate subjects. However, photography doesn’t end when you’ve packed your gear and gone home.

If you’ve been doing this for any length of time, it’s likely you have thousands of images stored on your hard drive, memory cards, CD’s and DVDs, as well as in albums, envelopes and shoeboxes. All of those images — all that effort, all of that love — shouldn’t be left to gather dust. Share your photos!

You may not be comfortable yet with the idea of selling your work, or putting on a gallery show. Honestly, though, you don’t even need to do anything that drastic. You don’t need an audience that numbers in the thousands, hundreds, or even dozens. A person or two can be quite enough to share with, and the people with whom you share might change from time to time depending on why you show them.

Whether it’s sharing your vacation snaps with your Uncle Zbigniew, or maybe you’re not sure how your skills are shaping up, or would like advice on how to perfect a certain type of shot, finding the right audience can be a great experience for both you, and your viewer(s). Finding an experienced and sympathetic person with whom to share your photos can be an invaluable resource to get your craft where you’d like it to be.

So. Enough out of me for today. How do you share your photos, and with whom?

Rule 28: Go Back To An Old Passion

I suppose it applies to escalators too, but c'mon, that's not exactly rocket science.

If you asked me twenty-five years ago whether I thought of myself as a photographer, I’d have looked at you funny. If you asked me now whether I could see myself on stage, giving a speech, or sitting behind a mic on the radio, I’d probably look at you just as funny. My interests have changed over time, and I’d wager that yours will soon enough, if they haven’t already. You might not still do all the things you did when you were younger — maybe time, money, or a bum knee won’t permit it — but don’t turn your back on them altogether.

I bring this up because I spent a good couple of hours yesterday shooting at my niece’s school musical. Granted, there’s the usual photographic business — figuring out the best sight lines, fiddling with settings and exposure, keeping fingers crossed that you’ve brought along enough memory cards — but beyone that, it was the chance to revisit something I’d done a few times in my own past.

It’s a good challenge to go back to things you’ve done in the past. For one thing, you have a different (and, I’d dare to say, somewhat deeper) understanding of something having done it yourself, even if you’re far short of an expert. Let’s face it, someone who’s been on the inside of something can bring an understanding to photographing it that an outsider might take a bit longer to pick up. 

For another thing, it’s easier from a photographer’s point of view to “read” the goings on. There are rhythms, or at least a kind of internal logic, to how certain things unfold. It’s a lot easier to settle into that groove, to find or even predict the best shots, when you know how something works. It’s a bit like following a score or libretto, in that you can skip ahead a bit to anticipate what comes next, wait for it, and capture it versus sometimes shooting blindly and hoping for the best.

I’ve written before about cultivating interests outside of photography. Those things, besides being a break from photography and something that can give you a respite from shooting, can give you new subject matter and a new perspective on your photography, even if that isn’t why you took them up in the first place. However, it’s not all about looking ahead to the next new thing; sometimes, it’s just as productive — and just as much fun — to go back to something you may not have given a second thought in a very long time, just to see what develops.

Rule 27: Teach

Quills

When I came to teach, I was obliged to make precisely clear what I did for the most part unconsciously. –Paul Klee

It might be years since you’ve set foot in a classroom. You may not have given as much as a second thought to education, much less being an educator. But one of the best ways to do something better — no matter what it is you do — is to teach it.

I think Klee is getting at two very distinct, and important, things here. The first comes from making something “precisely clear.” I remember someone saying once that in order to teach something, you generally have to break it down to a level that’s so elemental you end up understanding it better yourself. There’s a lot of truth to that. After all, you can’t hope to pass on your understanding of something if your own understanding of it is foggy at best. I’m also reminded, time and again, that the steps I take for granted in doing something, whether it’s making photos or organizing those photos on a computer aren’t as self-evident to the person to whom I’m explaining something as they’ve become to me.

Which brings us to the other half of Klee’s little aphorism. When we do something long enough, we’re taking steps without consciously realizing that we’re taking them. Making a single photo can happen in only slightly less time than it takes to swing the camera in the general direction of your subject and press down the shutter button. If we look at the photo later, we can reverse engineer the steps we took to arrive at that photo, but we may not have been taking those steps very mindfully.

Therein, I think, lies the advantage of teaching. It’s one of the reasons that I write this blog, even though I’m by no means a professional or an expert. It’s a reminder that at the end of the day, when the camera’s had the day’s dust blown off it, the battery’s on the charger, and it’s time to look over what I’ve shot, I’m going to have to explain this stuff to someone. It’s a good means of holding yourself accountable, and of reintroducing mindfulness to your process.

If you’re not a teacher — even if you’ve never been much of a student — don’t worry about it. Wherever you are in your journey, however little experience you may have, and however much your knowledge has only served to let you know how much you have yet to learn, remember that someone somewhere is just taking those first steps. Since you’ve already been where they’re going, it can be an interesting and rewarding challenge to share some of your experience with them. As a fringe benefit, it can also send you off in directions you couldn’t have anticipated when you started.

Rule 26: Never Spend As Much Time Reading About Photography As You Do Photographing

You talkin' to ME?

Wow, that’s a mouthful.

It’s also the reason that The First 10,000 has been on something of a hiatus. Between the winter months, and life just being what it is, I haven’t been doing as much photography as I had been when the weather was warmer and I wasn’t quite as busy with… well, stuff. Which brings me to a broader point:

I find it hard to justify writing about photography when I haven’t been photographing much. And therein lies a nugget of wisdom (hey, humor me) that I’d like you to take to heart. Most of us have “day jobs” and other interests outside of photography. With that said, since the only way to be a photographer is by taking pictures, at some point you either have to start taking pictures, or put that whole calling-yourself-a-photographer thing on pause for a bit. It’s not the writing about, or reading about, something that makes you that thing; it’s the doing of that thing.

It’s all well and good to read up on your hobby (or profession, if any professionals actually read this thing). But without the craft itself, you’ve precious little about which to write, and the reading… well, again, it’s not the reading that’s going to improve your craft, since at some point the stuff you’ve read has to be realized — that is to say, made real. Why spend time reading about the great photos someone else is making? Get your ass out there and make your own!

With that said, and now that I’m out in the wild* again with my camera, I think it’s safe to say that we’re back, and will be posting on a regular basis again. Thanks to those of you who’ve been patient during the break, and those who’ve been kind enough to send encouraging thoughts in my general direction. Those little pokes — and the little reminders that someone does, in fact, read this stuff, are a great source of encouragement.

*If by “the wild” you mean “New Jersey.” There are those who’d argue they’re one and the same.