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 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 3: RTFM

You're being watched.

For the handful of you unfamiliar with the acronym, RTFM means, “Read The F’ing Manual.” Tech support people use the term pretty often, especially when they get a call (“How do I turn this thing on?”) that could be solved within seconds had the caller bothered to even skim the documentation that came with the product. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have, what your level of experience is, or how you plan to use it, RTFM.

Some cameras are relatively self-explanatory, but others, like bridge cameras and SLRs,offer a plethora of buttons, controls, and menu options that are anything but self-explanatory. Some things you can teach yourself through trial and error. Sometimes, though, whether because of your own limitations (and I don’t just mean the limits of your knowledge; patience and time, also, are finite) or those of your gear, it’s best to know how to make use of the settings. Taking the time before you start putting a camera to heavy use means less time spent in the field fiddling with settings (and cussin’) trying to figure out how to make something happen.

There’s another good reason to RTFM: Sometimes it’ll help you to push at the limits of a camera’s capabilities (especially if, like a camera phone, those capabilities were pretty limited to start with); other times, they’ll give you a suitable workaround for the times you’ve gone past them. I’d venture to say that I don’t use most of my automaic compact’s scene modes, but some of them (macro mode, for instance) I use very frequently, and a few of the others (like the Sport mode, which on my Kodak boosts ISO and tries for the fastest shutter speed practical for the lighting conditions) have proved invaluable at the times I’ve needed them.

And let’s say you’ve got a system camera. While there’s nothing wrong with shooting in Automatic (and God knows I’ll get flamed for saying that), the point to having a camera with all those controls isn’t so you can compare notes with other camera owners about how much you spent. It’s to give you creative options and opportunites you would not otherwise have had. Navigating that maze of buttons and menu options can sometimes be daunting for even a seasoned user; if you’re still a greenhorn, there’s a pretty significant temptation to just say the hell with it and pick a scene mode. Don’t. RTFM.

In another post, we’ll be covering how and when to put your Auto and Scene modes to best use. For now, though, regardless of whether you plan on working your way up to full Manual, or you’d rather just put it on full Auto, know your camera. Know its limitations, its capabilities, and how best to use both. Like learning anything else in photography, it can be as brief as you’d like, or something you revisit and refine for a lifetime. Done correctly, though, it’s not only the camera that’s put to better use, it’s your talent.

Rule 2: Always Have Your Camera

You never know when a photo opportunity will present itself...

Sooner or later, it’ll happen — if it hasn’t already. Maybe it’s a gorgeous sunset, maybe it’s a funny-looking beachgoer, or your kids/nieces/nephews/grandkids doing something silly or adorable… and you think to yourself, “Y’know, I really wish I had my camera.” And you might even try to recreate the image for friends and family, telling about the vivid colors, the breathtaking lighting… ’til you sound like someone trying to describe this great song they heard, only they can’t remember any of the words or hum any of the melody.

While it’s better to be mindful about your photography, and to take the time to properly frame and expose a shot, you can’t even do that if you haven’t got something with which to take the picture. This should be too obvious to have to mention, but anybody I know who’s even halfway serious about photography (including me) has missed one or more great shots because they didn’t have their camera with them.

And listen: we’re photographers, not fishermen. Fishermen have it easy (seasickness and the occasional accident with fishhooks aside); they can always talk about “the one that got away.” It’s part of the allure (pardon the pun) of fishing. But if you miss enough photos, after a while it feels less like something to brag about than it just feels like a drag.

There’s really no excuse for you not to have your camera with you. As I mentioned last week, nearly everyone has a camera now, whether it’s on your Crackberry, it’s an automatic compact, or it’s a DSLR. If you’ve already got the camera, have it with you.

As an aside: if your only camera is a DSLR, do yourself a favor and invest in something smaller. It doesn’t have to break the bank, nor does it even have to have all the bells and whistles. It just needs to take a good photograph, and be reasonably portable, since you’re not always going to want the bulk of a system camera hanging around your neck, tiring you out or drawing attention to you at times you may want to be a bit more discreet.

Just the same as a writer should always have a pen (you can always find something to write on) or an artist should always have a sketch pad, don’t wander out into the world, where all those photos are just waiting for you to notice them, without something — anything — to capture them. If you allow them to, images will never fail to sneak up on you and surprise you. But if the only place they exist is in your memory, it becomes much harder to share them later… and after all, the sharing’s the point, isn’t it?

Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand

Not exactly my best work.

“Your first ten thousand photos are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson knew a thing or two about good photography. From the late 1920’s ’til his death nearly eighty years later, he was responsible for some of the most iconic images in photographic history… all of which is rather a longish way of saying, the man knows whereof he speaks.

Your first several (thousand) photos won’t be your best work, and that’s okay. Photography, from the act of making an individual photo, to the learning curve associated with being a photographer, is a learning process that, if you’re lucky, never ends. That’s not to say that you won’t have some keepers, and maybe even an image somewhere in that batch that knocks the socks off nearly anyone who sees it. What it does speak to is the discipline and sheer repetition you’ll have to go through to be any good at photography.

That’s the good news. The better news is that technology is still growing at a dizzying pace (well, it’s better news unless you’re the type who absolutely must have the latest and greatest everything; in that case, prepare to be broke more often than not), with the end result that photography is now a more democratic medium than it’s been at nearly any point in its history. Continue reading “Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand”