Rule 8: Photograph What You Don’t Know

Nothing to see here...

Generally the first piece of advice you get as a writer is to write what you know.* It’s a useful starting point, within its limits. One thing that I’ve found still more useful, however, whether it’s as a writer or a photographer, is figuring out what I don’t know, and seeing where that takes me.

The photographs that accompany this post were taken a few months ago in New York City. I’ve shot in Manhattan before, but generally with an eye for the architecture. That’s partly because I’ve been fascinated with architecture for ages, but it’s also because I’ve always been skittish about photographing around a lot of people, much less taking photos of them. What is this person I don’t know going to think of some person he doesn’t know taking his photo…? Well, only one way to find out. And the more I shot, the less I worried, and started instead to look for interesting shots and angles right there in the crowd.

Let’s think for a minute about what a lot of us do as photographers. We identify a safe harbor, and stick to it. Sometimes that safe harbor is a type of photography we know we do particularly well, or maybe it’s a geographical area where every nook and cranny is as familiar to us as our own reflection. We know these things, and these places. Shooting good photos from a safe place is like shooting fish in a barrel… about as easy, and after a while, about as rewarding.**

Sometimes this can also apply to technique. To choose an example from outside photography, guitarists will often change their tunings when they find things getting stale. But you can’t retune a camera. Says who? Try changing your lens to a prime, or pick a single focal length on your zoom and limit yourself to that for an afternoon. Find a function you’ve never used on your camera and experiment with that. Ask yourself what you can change in your settings or your gear that can change what you see in the viewfinder, or how it’s represented.

It’s no accident that “essay”–besides being the short writing form with which we’re all familiar–is also defined variously as proposing, testing, or trying something. In that spirit, what will you essay with your photography? Propose something rash, try something silly, but most of all, be willing to be surprised; take your camera, yourself, and your soul somewhere they’ve never been, with no thought as to where you’re going, how you’re getting there, or what you’ll do when you arrive.

So find something, or somewhere, unfamiliar. Seek out those unknowns and get to know them, and once they start getting comfortable, seek out others still. Your first steps in new territory will be uncertain ones often as not, but before long you’ll find your footing and step with more confidence. Along the way, you’ll find that those unknown places can be a veritable goldmine of new ideas and approaches to your craft. Better still, they’re great training for finding the unfamiliar in that which you already know.

*Not sure what the first piece of advice generally is for photographers. In my case, it was probably “Wait a second. Take the lens cap off.”

**Mind you, when I talk about going somewhere unsafe, I mean going outside that which is comfy in our minds, not taking your gear and yourself needlessly into harm’s way.

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