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


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.

Rule 23: Learn the Rules

Rusty Buds

Whether you view photography as art, craft, or some mix of the two, it’s useful to bear in mind that it does follow certain rules. As with the rules that apply to any other part of life, some will view them as inviolable while some will swear that each one’s made only to be broken. The truth probably lies somewhere in between; these rules of photography have lasted as long as they have because they can be very useful, but breaking them won’t lead to your gear being confiscated.

As with anything else, you can pull up Google (or your search engine of choice), search “photography rules,” and come back with hits in the tens of thousands. One reason for this is that there seem to be nearly as many rules as there are photographic genres, and photographers. Some apply to settings (Sunny 16, for instance), some to composition, and others still to things like the ethics of photography. That’s not even counting the things that we devise as individuals, some for practical reasons and others out of a sense of superstition, to keep our process flowing smoothly.

Do we really need all those rules? I’d argue that they’re useful on a number of levels. As photographers, they give us a sense of focus, and a convenient means of learning the basics of composition and exposure. As a viewer of photography, they help us both to read and critique photos, giving us the tools to realize when and why a photo works or doesn’t. It also allows both photographers and viewers to step into the other’s shoes for a moment; the latter get to realize some of the challenges of making a good photo, while the former have an easier way to ensure that the point they intended to make gets across.

When you are dealing with a mature medium, it’s natural to think that it’s all been done (if we’re going to be honest, quite a lot of it probably has been) and to think that we might stand a better chance of doing something fresh or original if we throw the rules out the window. With that said, I’d argue that there’s actually a right way to break the rules, and it starts by knowing them. After all, if you’re not familiar with how and why a photo is put together, you’re not avoiding cliches by “breaking” the rules… instead, you end up with a lousy photo, or you end up with one that’s quite good, but that simply follows rules of which you may have been unaware.

There’s some validity to leaving behind, or actively breaking, the rules of photography, and I’ll have more to say about that this time next week. But for now, start by learning the rules, and knowing what makes a photo “work,” so that you can avoid some of the things that keep your shots from looking half-assed or ill-conceived.

Postscript: There’s a tongue-in-cheek list of 78 Photography Rules for Complete Idiots that combines some practical advice with some that’s just plain silly.