Rule 13: It’s Not The Gear

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

There’s an anecdote (likely apocryphal) that’s circulated among photographers for probably as long as there’ve been photographers. A famous photographer goes out to eat, and is spotted by the chef, who raves about the photographer’s work and says, “Your photographs are lovely. You must have a very nice camera.” A short time later, after a delicious dinner, the photographer asks to see the chef. After being ushered into the kitchen, he tells the chef, “That was a wonderful dinner. I just wanted to see what kind of pots you use.”

That little story speaks to a truism among many photographers: It’s not about the gear. The reasoning is similar to what you hear from artists and craftspeople of all stripes; if you gave a master the most rudimentary tools, they’d still find a way to produce something of worth. It’s not the camera that matters, in other words, but the person behind it.

It’s a useful thing to remember, especially when you’re starting out. It’s easy to fall into a mindset that our photos would be better if we had a nicer camera, faster lenses, expensive software for post processing, and maybe a speed light or three. Admit it, you’ve said – maybe aloud, or maybe just to yourself – “Y’know, if I just had a (fill in the blank with this week’s photographic object of lust).”
The gear isn’t the only thing making those photos. You are. Think of it as a collaboration with your camera; each of you needs the other to get the results you’re looking for. A camera’s not going to be much use without someone to call the shots, and the photographer is likewise at loose ends if she’s got nothing with which to take the photograph. The problem is, any collaboration’s only as good as its weakest link; if your skills aren’t equal to your gear, you’re just going to be taking rather more expensive crappy photos.

McMain Building, Rutherford, NJ

Let’s take this out of the theoretical and into the practical for a minute. One of the photos accompanying this post was shot with my recently deceased Kodak point-and-shoot, and one was shot with my Nikon. Without peeking at the EXIF data, you want to take a good guess at which one’s which? And for that matter, does it matter?

The shot from Sleepy Hollow was the one taken with the Kodak, and remains one of my favorite shots I’ve taken (if I may be so immodest). The other one, taken with my Nikon, isn’t one of my favorite shots, and wouldn’t be anybody else’s either. There’s technically nothing wrong with it; the lighting and exposure are acceptable, the composition at least isn’t awful, but at the same time, it doesn’t really have anything to say. I could have gotten the same shot with the Kodak, and could also have gotten the same shot no matter what lens I’d put on the Nikon. More to the point, any other person could have gotten the same shot; there’s nothing that makes it uniquely “mine” or anyone else’s. But it’s not the camera’s fault it came out that way, it’s mine.

So the next time you’re contemplating plunking down money on some doodad or other, think about it first. Ask yourself one simple question: “What’s the issue here?” Be willing to honestly assess your own skills, since the problem may not be with the camera, so much as what’s behind it. Sometimes we’re the ones that need the upgrade.

Postscript: Next week, we’ll revisit this question from a bit different perspective.

Rule 12: Photograph Like a Beginner

The face rings a bell...

Stick with photography, or pretty much anything else, long enough, and it happens: you begin to understand what you’re doing well enough that doing it becomes nearly automatic. At first, this can be gratifying. After all, you’ve worked your butt off, experimenting, studying, and shooting, all so you could get to a point where you could render what you see in the viewfinder, or your mind’s eye, with some degree of reliability.

However, if you allow it to be something you do without thinking long enough, something else starts to happen: what started as an easygoing familiarity begins to look like you’ve been phoning it in. It’s one thing not to have to sweat the settings, but it’s something else again when you just sit back and figure that the composition will also take care of itself.

Most of the cameras I’ve used for any length of time allowed very little control over their settings. This made them user-friendly, and gave me the ability to concentrate more on composition, but there were plenty of days when I’d shoot just because there was something in front of me, and I happened to have a camera. I could excuse this early on — after all, I was just getting started — but once I had some experience under my belt and a better understanding of what made a better photo, it became a lot harder to justify taking bland photos.

Upgrading to an SLR has made a difference. Granted, there are times I’ve taken a few dozen shots just to experiment with settings and see what happened with the changes I made (something I’d also suggest if you’re new, whether to photography or just to a new type of camera or lens). But I’ve also tried to turn this into an opportunity to look at things with a fresh set of eyes, as it were.

As frustrating as it’s occasionally been (especially when you shoot for an entire night and find you haven’t got much worth keeping), it’s also been very helpful. When you have to stop and think about what you’re doing with one part of the equation, it generally forces you to slow down and think about the other bits as well. In a way, this is one more reason not to shoot in Program or Auto. Having to stop and think — to make a series of choices, and to also consider what each of those choices is going to do to your end result — is a useful speed bump, of sorts, that usually results in you also thinking over your choice of subject (do I really want/need a photo of this?) and how you compose the shot.

If you’ve gotten more experienced, try to find a way to change something. Maybe it’s going to a mode you don’t generally use, or a different type of subject matter; it could also mean trading gear with someone else for a day. You usually use an SLR? Pick up a compact. Committed Canon fan? Grab a Sony. Die-hard bird watcher? Spend a day photographing surfers. You can always find ways to make the familiar just strange enough that those automatic responses now become food for thought.

Rule 11: The Social Photographer

Every picture tells a story, don't it...

The photo that accompanies this post isn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but I love the story that goes with it, because I think it underscores a point that’s easy for us to forget when we’re out there clicking away. Photography can sometimes seem — and in fact be — a bit of a solitary activity. In a sense, you’re alone with whatever’s on the other side of the viewfinder. I’ve previously mentioned that it’s good to engage with your subject, whether or not it’s animate; at the same time, it’s also a good idea to engage with those around you, whether or not you ever intend to take their picture.

The solitude that often comes with photography can be a wonderful, and peaceful, thing. I think it’s one of my favorite things about the craft, because you can have as much or as little solitude as you’re inclined to have at any given time.

Of course, if you’re in the habit of always having a camera with you — especially when the camera that’s with you is a clunky-looking and conspicuous SLR — you’re bound to get some strange looks from people. Get used to that. But also get used to talking to people. You might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but if you look at it from their point of view, it’s probably a bit awkward having someone in their midst with a huge-ass camera.

Also keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a full-fledged conversation. Sometimes just a nod, a hello, or a simple smile can be enough to put everyone at ease. Other times, you have to be as willing to listen as to say anything. While shooting some of the photos that accompanied last week’s post on Hurricane Irene, I came across a gentleman who asked if I was with the press. I answered that I wasn’t, and asked how he’d made out during the storm. He talked a bit about the hard time he was having convincing his father, a World War II veteran, to move to an area where the threat of serious flooding wasn’t always hanging over his head. Before we parted ways, he thanked me for hearing him out (which, under the circumstances, seemed like the least I could do). Were there photo opportunities going on around me? Maybe. At the time, though, my presence as a “photographer” was about the least important thing I could’ve done. I’ve talked before about being present in the moment to be present in your photography, but sometimes, we need to put the camera to one side — whether figuratively or literally — and be present to what, and who, is around us.

Oh, and the photo at the top of the post? One evening, I’m wandering through town, taking shots in the fading light, and I come across this sign outside a real estate office. As I’m snapping away, I see someone beckon to me from the office window. This person, I think, may not be all that happy that I’m shooting outside his building. We meet at the entrance.

“What’cha doing?”

“Getting shots of your sign.”

He, predictably, looks at me funny. “Why?”

“C’mere. Look at this.” I beckon him to where I was standing, and point to the sign. “Look at that light! It’s perfect!”

We both laugh. He’s probably  laughing partly at me as well as with me at that point, but that’s alright, ’cause by then I can’t help but laugh at myself. I’m sure that the longer I shoot, the more stories like these I’ll likely have; every photographer has them. Keep in mind, though, that we’re not the only ones with memories and stories of times like these; you probably don’t want someone else’s stories and memories of you to be what a jerk you were. Don’t be afraid to be social!

Rule 10: Find Inspiration Outside Photography

...Like Dancing About Architecture.

Early photographers – Brady and Stieglitz both come to mind, but there were literally dozens of others – were on one hand liberated by the fact that they were working in a new medium, but on the other somewhat constrained by the limits of the equipment they were using. The older cameras and film processes were as fickle as they were time-consuming, and would not yet give the speed and mobility that later photographers would use to such great advantage. Early photography, therefore, tended to be influenced more than a bit by the other visual arts that existed at the time (especially painting). As time passed and photography evolved, it began to engage in a dialogue of sorts with painting (Chuck Close comes to mind as someone whose style practically anticipated digital photography) and the motion picture (witness Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photos of dogs, horses, and people that attempted to capture a sense of motion long before movies were a commonplace).

As photographers we’re faced with a similar opportunity. While it’s vital that we know the works of photographers we admire (inspiration has to start somewhere) and those we dislike (since it’s equally useful to know what kind of photographer you’d prefer not to be, or the “mistakes” you’d rather not make), it helps to step outside ourselves and our craft from time to time in order to see what’s going on elsewhere, whether that somewhere else is music, sculpture, or even carpentry. Seeing the choices someone else makes to practice their craft and to realize the finished product shows the creative process in a new light, and gives us the means, sometimes, to explain our own craft to ourselves.

Of course, couched in that opportunity is a singular dilemma. We live in a time when it’s possible to have access, at relatively little cost, to more cultural output than ever before; we similarly live in a time when the means of producing and disseminating these artifacts is easier than ever, meaning that we’ll soon reach a point where these artifacts multiply exponentially, making it even more impossible to keep up with what’s being produced as it is to somehow catch up on all of what’s already been done. Find your own inspiration and build your own canon, tracing and building your own artistic lineage like a made-to-order family tree; after all, one of the best parts of creativity is choosing your lineage, and deciding where you will take it next.

From time to time in the weeks ahead, I will be profiling artists outside of photography who I think have something to say to us as photographers, sometimes highlighting parallels with photographers doing similar work. As with any other “list” (albeit one that will unfold, as it were, in slow motion), it’s highly subjective. By no means am I suggesting that you like the same people, or draw the same lessons from them that I did. You may choose to draw the same lessons from different artists, different lessons from the same artists, or you may just say the hell with it and learn something else from someone else altogether. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which of those categories you fall into; what’s important is that you should be willing to engage, and learn from, others both in and out of photography who have something to say.

While it’s got nothing on painting, sculpture, or music, which have been practiced for tens of thousands of years, photography nonetheless has quite a history and heritage behind it. Part of our literacy as photographers – part of the visual vocabulary and syntax we employ every time we compose a shot and press the shutter – necessarily includes knowing at least some of that history. But part of our education also needs to come from outside photography. Just as we, as individuals, don’t evolve in a vacuum, neither has the craft of photography, or the art that’s evolved from it. There’s a sense of communication and community that takes place across different media that informs all that we do. The arts – all of them – give us so much. At different times, or sometimes all at once, they tell us about ourselves and our creativity, as well as providing us with context, inspiration, and instruction. About all they ask in return is that we pay attention, and remember.

Rule 9: Be Culturally Literate

Asbury Park, 8/20/11

I remember meeting someone years ago who, when I asked her what she did, eagerly replied with, “I’m a writer!” Well, okay. What do you write? “Science fiction and fantasy, mostly.” And who or what do you read? “Oh, well, I really don’t like to read…”

I’ll edit my mental response to a somewhat more family-friendly, “Excuse me?!?” Never mind for a minute that I find the idea of cutting reading (or music, or photography or…) out of one’s life about as sensible as cutting off your own kneecaps with a grapefruit spoon. It’s just as much the fact that a life devoid of culture – the arts, the written word – strikes me as being a sad, impoverished place.

The reason why some of us get worked up over things like arts education isn’t (just) because we weren’t terribly good at football. Even if you couldn’t possibly be less interested in creating something on your own, I think that cultural literacy* is a huge part of just getting by in, and making sense of, everyday life. Done right (by which I mean a lowercase-“c” catholic approach, being open to a little of everything), it has the ability to enrich our lives. It also gives us a means to qualify what’s good and distinguish it from crap or kitsch, which comes in handy when you’re trying to detect and/or call out crap and kitsch in other parts of life, like political speeches or paintings by Thomas Kinkade.

But let’s assume that you’re here because by some means or other, you choose to express yourself. From a more practical standpoint, if you don’t have, or are blissfully unaware of, a context in which you’re creating, how in the heck are you supposed to create? If you have no idea what’s been done before, you haven’t much idea of what’s possible, nothing to push back against, nor the sense of support and solidarity that arises even when you engage a work across cultures or centuries. Nor are our raw materials  limited strictly to the media in which we choose to work; they’re the sum total of sensory input that’s swirled around us every day of our lives from our very first days, even the dream material that arises when our subconscious mind decides to have its way with all we’ve ingested during the day. To willfully omit or block out a large portion of that raw material is to acknowledge that we’re willing to draw from a shallower well, and maybe even glad to do so. Or, to put it differently, nobody creates anything of worth in a vacuum.

I know that in many school districts, arts education is viewed as superfluous or frivolous (to say nothing of the ones that treat education, and educators, as unnecessary evils). If that is, or has been, the case where you live, teach yourself. Form impromptu discussion groups, go to libraries, concerts, museums, everywhere and anywhere your feet will carry you. But if you have the option and refuse it, do yourself a favor, and please – I beg of you – do not call yourself an artist (citizen’s enough of a stretch; artist is really straining credibility) if you choose not to be literate in, and outside, your chosen medium.

*By cultural literacy, I mean culture in all the different forms it takes, from lowbrow to highbrow and all points in between. While I think there are qualitative differences between Shakespeare and the Simpsons, I’m also more than willing to admit that life gets pretty dull if you limit yourself to one or the other.

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.

Rule 7: Be the Right Kind of Critic

Probably Not the Ideal Critic.

This time last week, I wrote about our “inner critic.” Of course, the criticism doesn’t stop there. Part of our growth, regardless of whether we’re expressing ourselves with a camera or a Fender Telecaster, is finding someone to give an honest critique of our work; that growth continues when we’re approached to do the same for another person.

To begin with, let’s consider this from the viewpoint of the person who wants their work critiqued. Here, there are a few things to keep in mind: First, it should be someone who knows photography well enough to give not only an aesthetic critique, but also a technical one. On one hand, you may have a perfectly exposed but dull shot; on the other, you may have a terrific subject that’s undermined by poor focus or thoughtless composition. Someone who’s inexperienced might find it perfectly acceptable, or may realize something’s “off” but not be able to tell you what it is. Second, it should be someone who will be honest with you. Your best friend, or your mother, may not want to hurt your feelings;* an experienced critic knows how to give constructive feedback without being unduly harsh about it. Third, be specific as to what you expect from your critic. The criteria for evaluating the artistic merits of something versus its commercial viability, for instance, can be two very different things. The better your critic understands you, and also understands what you’re trying to accomplish, the better they can help get you there.

Having considered the photographer, let’s now consider the critic. Someone respects you, and your work, enough to think that you’d have something constructive to offer them about their craft. So be honest, obviously, but also be constructive. You know what your inner critic is like; you don’t need to externalize yours, or personify someone else’s. Saying, “Wow, that really sucks!” isn’t helping anybody; pointing out not only the flaws but their remedies, however, can teach both of you something. Think of yourself almost like an Olympic judge: you’re looking at technical merit, artistic impression, and giving an overall “score.”

Be encouraging; if there’s something you see someone doing well, whether it’s in just one photo or over the course of a batch of them, point that out, but be specific, since empty praise is about as helpful as empty criticism. Account for differences in communication style. Regardless of your “type,” (blunt, oblique, timid), hash that out ahead of time so there are no rude surprises. Most of all, though, if you’re not sure of something (intent, context, the photographer’s motivation not only in what they did, but how), ask.

One thing that both photographer and critic need to bear in mind is context. A single photo may be great, or awful, on its own merits. It helps, however, to know where this piece fits in relation to the rest of someone’s body of work. If it’s part of a series, does it make sense in the context of the rest of the photos that comprise that series? And if it’s being considered as an individual work, does it mark an improvement over previous efforts, a decline, or someone who’s holding steady? If you’re the photographer, you’ll likely get better feedback if you don’t just hand, or email, someone a single picture and ask, “What do you think of this?” Likewise, as the person giving the critique, it’s not unreasonable to ask ahead of time for works from different times in the photographer’s development to be included, so that it’s easier to give an informed opinion.

There’s an axiom that criticism says as much about the critic as it does the object of the criticism. Bear in mind that your approach to someone, and their work, may be remembered long after the specifics of what you said have faded from memory, and with that in mind, try to be the kind of critic you’d no doubt like to have: constructive, tough, but fair. Also remember that you’re being asked to give an assessment of the person’s work, not the person; you may think the person themselves is absolutely wonderful, but they still might not be doing their best work; conversely, you don’t have to particularly like an individual to see, and commend, the value of what they’re doing. And if you feel you’re not the right person to critique someone’s work, there’s no shame in directing them to someone you feel may be better qualified for the job.

*Of course, there are exceptions. If you’ve got the kind of friend or family member who not only knows what they’re talking about, but will share it constructively, at least you know they’re not blowing smoke if they tell you something’s good. My mother’s been a photographer for longer than I’ve been breathing, and while she’s encouraging, she’ll also let me know when I could do better, and how to do it. If you’ve got that kind of mother, disregard that last bit.

Rule 6: Tame Your Inner Critic

These flowers weren't shot out of a cannon, just through one.

If you take your photography even remotely seriously – and I hope you do – it’s likely you want to do it well. It’s also likely that you’re convinced that your photography, or at least a fair amount of it, is crap. This is true of many photographers I know (myself included).

In small doses, believe it or not, that can actually be a constructive thing. There are few things worse for your craft than assuming you’ve got it licked. Room for improvement? Pah! That’s for rank amateurs, not an artiste like mysel—oh, cut that out, already. However, it’s equally counterproductive to assume that you’re as good as you’re ever going to get and that, let’s face it, that just ain’t all that good.

That inner voice, your inner critic, when he or she is constructive, can be very useful. After all, that can be who keeps us from becoming complacent about our craft, and keeps us striving day after day to question the why and how of what we do. That internal monologue (or dialogue, if you’re given to replying to yourself) can motivate you, and keep you going on those days you’d rather just say the hell with it.

However, he or she isn’t always constructive. There are times we, and our inner critic, can be our own worst enemy. We find ourselves telling ourselves that our work is awful, which is bad enough; what’s worse is when we think that a bad shoot or a bad day is somehow reflective of who we are as people. At that point, your inner critic just becomes your inner bastard.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “my photography’s a big part of me, to a point where I identify with, and by, what I create.” Good. Just don’t let that identification be limited to all the times you picked the wrong shutter speed, or left the lens cap on. You’re better than your mistakes, and not yet as good as you’re capable of becoming.

Let’s step back from this for a moment. Instead of an internal discussion over your own work, let’s imagine for a second that someone was disparaging the work of an artist you really understood and respected. At the very least, you’d disagree with that person. You might even go so far as to point out where you think this person’s in error vis-à-vis the artist. You could also, if you’re feeling particularly feisty, tell said individual to get over themselves.

Now tell me: do you owe yourself any less compassion than you’d give, oh, Van Gogh?

If you’ve got work that you’re not happy with, hang onto it for a bit. I say this for two reasons: first, you may just come back to it later, and realize it wasn’t so bad after all. Second, let’s suppose for a second that you’re right, and it really isn’t so great. Go back to that same photo six months from now, and compare it to what you’re doing at that time. I promise you, it’ll be a great reminder of how far you’ve come, and how much farther still you’ll go so long as you stick with it, and don’t give up either on your craft, or (more importantly) yourself.

Rule 5: Unplug

Time keeps on slippin'...

One of the biggest challenges faced by any photographer has nothing to do with skills or settings. Instead, it’s the same challenge faced by anybody trying to juggle their passion (and/or profession) with the other demands of everyday life. At one point or another, we’ve all lamented that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all we have to do, much less to try and shoehorn in the stuff we’d like to do.

Okay, so not enough time. End of story, right? Uh, not so fast.

How much time do you “need” for your craft (because, really, this doesn’t just apply to photographers) on a day to day basis, or how much of it would you like to have? How much of a difference would one extra hour per day make to you, and to what you love to do?

There’s no magic involved here, just a little discipline and a pinch of time management. Cut out some of the clutter, and see what happens.

This has been a real issue for me lately. Between day-to-day obligations, getting The First 10,000 off the ground, and trying to learn (and then hopefully pass on) something new about photography every day, something – literally – was going to have to give. I’m sure for each of those things I just mentioned, you can think of one or three of your own. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, though. If you need an extra hour a day, instead of worrying about doing an hour less of something (‘cause you can always find an excuse not to do that), do fifteen minutes less of four things. Then it becomes a lot easier to carve out two, sometimes even three hours of your day (you may decide there’s not much point in watching something if you’re going to miss the first or last fifteen minutes; there’s an hour you didn’t have before).

Turn off the television, the MP3 player, and the e-reader. From time to time, step away from the internet, the email, Angry Birds, and the text messages. Hell, if you want to stop reading this right now so you can turn off your computer and get out your camera, I won’t mind a bit (but may I suggest that if you come back tomorrow to read this again, you start at this bit, so you’re not re-reading the same several paragraphs for the next few days).

It’s hard to have something nattering in the background, whether it’s having your iPod on, or just the mental chatter set up by doing too many things at once. People pride themselves on being able to multitask, not realizing that all “multitasking” means is “doing a bunch of things half-assed simultaneously,” rather than devoting your full attention to something. But taking a few minutes’ time away from each of those things to devote to something you love is worthwhile. You’ll have more time than you did before, and the quality of what you do will improve as well.

Postscript: I started this post on the 21st and wrapped it up the next day. On the 23rd I came across something on David duChemin’s Pixelated Image that covers the same ground, and much more eloquently than I’ve managed. It’s called “45 Days,” and you can read it here.

Rule 4: The Photographer in the Sensual World

I can just about taste it (the lettuce, that is, not the turtle).

To start today, let me don my Captain Obvious uniform, right down to the special hat and epaulettes. Let’s begin with a blindingly obvious statement, and then work our way to the somewhat-less-obvious: photography, being a visual medium, relies a lot on the eyes, not only in its consumption, but also in the making of a photo.

Now the less-obvious bit. We spend so much time thinking about the photograph as pure visual that there’s a tendency to forget the other senses play a big part both in making a photo, and also in its eventual perception. You’ve got those other four senses lying around, as it were, so it’d be a shame not to use them just ‘cause there’s a camera in your hand.

Think about all the associations tied in with our senses. They aren’t just a way to interact with and process our environments; they’re a conduit to a vast storehouse of memories. All those tastes, smells, textures, and sounds are also how we interpret and understand the world and what’s in it. When someone looks at a photo – yours or anyone else’s – they’re not just looking; they’re unpacking all the other “stuff” that’s present in the photo.

Now, let’s look at it from the photographer’s point of view. The question becomes how to take all of that stuff – the associations that go with a lifetime’s sensory experience – and convey it in a photo. It’s one thing to snap a photo of, say, a Thanksgiving dinner; it’s quite another to be mindful of it to a degree that you can convey something of it through your photos. How do you take all those sounds, tastes, textures and smells and somehow squeeze them onto a 4”x6” piece of paper?

For practical purposes, it’s hard to get a single photo that’s going to impact all the senses equally. Since we all perceive things differently, one person looking at a picture of a Thanksgiving dinner might be drawn to the texture of the cranberry sauce, while another might be “hearing” one of the guests saying grace over the meal. I’ve mentioned being present in the moment when you take a picture, and here’s another reason to do that: besides the visual, what’s the next thing having the biggest impact on you right then, and how might you incorporate that into the photo? Challenge yourself; how can you convey those non-visual elements of your scene? How do you pick up on the stray bits of conversation, the feel of a linen tablecloth, the taste of the turkey and stuffing, the bouquet of the glass of wine you just drank?

Brian Eno once lamented that too much of music comes from, and is aimed at, the head. It neglects the feet, the heart, and so much else. He said that music should never make the listener ask, “Well, that’s nice, but what’s the rest of me for?” Photography’s like that, too, both for the person viewing your work, and also for you as you’re making the photo. Giving your other senses a space in the photo, even if you just choose one other sense on which to focus for any given scene, adds a dimensionality and depth that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Photography can be a wonderful feast for the eyes, but it shouldn’t starve the rest of you.

Postscript: As I was milling over the ideas for this post, researching, writing, and rewriting, I came across two great articles that I’d like to share with you. The first comes from Sara Healy, whose writing and “story photos” are great prompts for art, writing, and just thinking about creativity. The other comes from Mel and Philip Tulin’s Outdoor Eyes, a ridiculously comprehensive site for outdoorsy types, some of whom may also happen to be photographers. “Seeing With Outdoor Eyes” says some of what I’ve said above plus a whole lot more.