Don’t Shoot

Frost on Fence

A hero of mine, Jay Maisel, says “If there’s nothing to shoot, don’t shoot.” This is generally very good advice. He also points out that, if you love your subject, there is almost always something interesting to shoot if you take the right attitude. Inconsistent and contradictory? No more than life in general.

Don’t shoot if you don’t feel it, but try to learn to feel it. Any creative endeavor is part inspiration and part discipline and hard work. Many people say that hard work is the main determinant.

Don’t force it

Have you ever been to a great place but didn’t see anything? Did you feel the need to fire off frames anyway? Me too. But the shots I get are seldom outstanding.

Forced shots like these seldom have passion. You know there is something there and you feel the need to record it, but it is not calling to you. Your shots may be technically good, but they do not convey life or interest. If it wasn’t interesting to you, why should it be to your viewer? If it won’t come, just put your camera away and sightsee. At least enjoy being out and being there. Or use the time to practice your technical craft, knowing you will probably throw away most or all of these images.

But there is a strange and interesting corollary to this phenomenon , at least for me. Sometimes when I’m out for the purpose of taking pictures, I need the first shot as an ice breaker. Something magic happens when the shutter clicks. Now I am in image capture mode. Now I start to see. I suspend judgement and open up my emotions. Pictures start to emerge and form, even though they did not seem to be there before.

I can’t explain it, but I have seen it happen to me enough times to trust it and accept it. It is not a 100% guarantee, but it is frequent.

Flow

Psychologists talk about the state of “flow“. This amazing place brings a real mental and physical change to you and your perception of the world around you. If you haven’t experienced it, I sincerely hope you are able to find it someday. It is a wonderful thing to experience. But you are not going to get there by reading about it.

I used to go there frequently in my technical career. There would be days when I would realize it was 6 pm and I had not had lunch or even gotten up to go to the bathroom . Looking back on the day I was wonderfully productive and felt accomplished and energized.

The same happens in my art too. I may lose track of the time and even where I am. I get in a mode where I see intriguing images everywhere. Where I get in a creative mode and ideas and possibilities are flowing faster than I can catch them. Being tired or hot or hungry don’t matter at the time. It is wonderful and fulfilling.

It is not easy, and it takes getting yourself into a receptive position. This is about as far as you can get from my “don’t shoot” advice above.

Exploring

But how to get into a receptive state like this? For myself, getting into a flow state in my art often requires adopting an explorer attitude. I am naturally curious and am something of a polymath. An explorer attitude, to me, is turning off my preconceptions. I take the attitude that I am seeing these things for the first time. How do I perceive them? How will I capture this new thing to present to others who were not there?

Have you ever traveled to a new location, a different culture? Even the little things you would never pay attention to are interesting. My friend taught me to go into places like grocery stores in a foreign country to see how common and familiar things can be so different.

Capturing that attitude at home, in your everyday life can be a challenge for many of us. But it is necessary. It is one of the mental disciplines that keeps us fresh and lets us see the familiar as different and special.

Train yourself to see fresh. To look at the ordinary things around you as if you were in a foreign country and you had never seen them before. Really look and see. Forget that you “know’ what they are and have walked by them a hundred times; see them as for the first time.

Let me get painfully personal for a minute. Some people are so connected to their cell phones that it is usually in front of their face. Turn it off if that is what it takes to manage it. Your Facebook friends can live for a little while without your input. Work can wait a bit for an answer. You owe it to yourself to give yourself permission to unplug for a while. See the world for yourself.

Beauty in the common

This brings me around to one of my recurring themes, there is beauty in the common.

We do not have to travel to grand, exotic locations to get interesting images. They are everywhere. Our limitation is our ability to see them. They are there, everyday, all around us, but we tend to walk right by them without noticing.

I love grand locations, but even more, I love finding new and interesting sights in familiar haunts. Seeing new in the familiar is very rewarding. And humbling. When I see a great shot lurking in a worn out area I have been walking by it makes me wonder how many other great shots am I passing by. And somehow, it makes it more important to me. As Jay Maisel also says “It’s always around. You just don’t see it.

At a grand location any klutz with a camera should be able to make a pretty picture. But when I discover beauty in the ordinary, beauty I didn’t think was there, it is meaningful. I feel like I have uncovered something special. And it encourages me to keep looking. To keep exploring, wherever I am.

The image at the top of this post is one of these. It was a very cold winter day, probably 0F. My hands were getting frostbit even with gloves on. There was a frost that morning. This fence with bits of construction cloth stuck in it was beautiful in the conditions. Most other times it would be very forgettable.

If you really can’t get into it, don’t bother trying to shoot. But I hope you can condition yourself to be able to discover interesting images everywhere. I often find that when I can’t see good images, the problem is in me. I am distracted or preoccupied or in a bad mood. If I can change my attitude it makes a huge difference in my perception.

I would love to hear about your experiences.

Ordinary/Extraordinary

An ordinary, familiar scene (to me)

I think most of us try to avoid the ordinary and instead seek the extraordinary when we look for subjects to shoot. It’s almost like we equate ordinary = bad; extraordinary = good. This may be a limiting approach. Changing our attitude may open important new creative experiences for us.

This is something I have believed for a long time. The travel restrictions from the Corona virus have made me re-examine this issue. I came back around to the attitude that the ordinary is potentially our richest source of inspiration.

Extraordinary can be great

Don’t get me wrong. When you encounter an extraordinary experience, live it, soak it up, revel in it. Those things happen rarely for most of us. Maybe it happens for you on a special trip to a “bucket list” location. Maybe it is an event you have planned for a long time.

Whatever it is, be there, be in the moment, enjoy it. You might even make some great images.

But don’t think an experience like that is a requirement for you to make great images.

Not all scenes need to be grand

Do you really need a grand scene to inspire you to your best work? Why? Are normal scenes not worthy of your effort? Is a scene in New Guinea inherently more worthy than one down the street from where you live?

There is a strong argument that the ordinary, everyday scenes you are familiar with are some of our best opportunities. Familiarity might breed contempt, as the old saying goes, but actually, familiarity more often leads to intimacy. Getting to know a subject, knowing its moods and looks, finding its real character can lead to images that have a special depth. Even love.

Some would even say that a steady diet of grand scenes is kind of like eating junk food. It might taste good at first, but it doesn’t have the substance you really need for a balanced life.

Beauty in the ordinary

The ordinary can be beautiful in ways that extraordinary scenes can’t compete with.

Almost all of life is lived in the ordinary. I wanted to honor what we see every day, our shared experiences. Rain. Street workmen. Coke bottles. The more I looked, the more I realized there are wonderful shapes and colors and beauty to be found everywhere.
Dianne Massey Dunbar, in Fine Art Today magazine

As Dianne says, there is wonder and beauty to be found everywhere. Monet did most of his work in a narrow slice of western France along the Seine River. Van Gogh did most of his best work in Provence. Ansel Adams worked mostly in California. Georgia O’Keeffe is strongly associated with New Mexico. Even though all of them occasionally lived or traveled other places and did great work, the point is that they thrived best “at home”. The “ordinary” everyday scenes they loved inspired them to greatness.

Their love of the place they lived gave them a special relationship to it. They were excellent enough artists to express that relationship in their work and help their viewers to see the world through their eyes.

Find what inspires you

We are each drawn to the world around us in different ways and for different reasons. Some are drawn to faces, others to grand landscapes, still others to intimate landscapes, while some relate mostly to wildlife. Others may reject looking for particular subjects and view the world as objects for abstract expression or black and white.

The point is that we usually become drawn to certain things or types of images. More often than not, these are things we know well and see often. Things that are ordinary for us because we live with them. Things that other artists may walk right by without noticing, because they are not inspired by it.

But when something inspires us it can produce magic. Like Monet with a Lilly pond. Or like Van Gogh with crows in a wheat field or with a night sky.

When we are drawn to something, it becomes extraordinary. The magic happens because or our relationship to the subject or scene. It is the artist’s subjective expression of that relationship that transforms it to art.

I encourage you to learn to be more open to the ordinary around you. Learn to really look at those common things you normally pass by. It can be the greatest source of inspiration you will find.

Intimacy

I believe a lot of it comes down to intimacy with your subject. A grand, once-in-a-lifetime scene may be fun, but it is a “one off” experience. It probably is exciting at the time, but there is no real intimacy or depth.

I have been married a very long time, and I can say with assurance that long term relationships are far more rewarding. It is similar with your subjects.

When an artist creates an image, he is revealing his subjective relationship with the subject. This is one thing that makes one of Monet’s lily pad pictures much better than anything I could do with a lily pad. He developed a special love for them over time. I do not have any strong feeling for them.

Intimacy is defined as familiarity, friendship, closeness. I believe that when we develop such feelings for our subjects, it comes through as deeper and more meaningful images. We are most likely to develop these feelings with the ordinary world around us than by waiting for a once-on-a-lifetime experience. Familiarity really does lead to intimacy.

Stop. Look. See. Really see. Look again. Think. Visit with these things. Learn about them.

Open to the Unexpected

Gorgeous thunderstorm almost unseen

When you go out to shoot do you know before you leave exactly what you want to find? Many people do. I feel sorry for them. I greatly prefer to “go out empty” as Jay Maisel would say and let the amazing world around me surprise and delight me. Learn to expect the unexpected.

This is absolutely my opinion and my photographic style. I am a fine art photographer who works primarily outdoors. The world outside is my canvas. If I were a portrait or commercial photographer I would have to do things differently. When there are crews and talent and art directors and contracts to fulfill, I recognize that the photographer has to plan and organize tightly. I am glad that that is not my world. I thrive on spontaneity.

Subjective vs. Objective

In a recent webcast by Chris Murray on Nature Photographer’s Network, he discussed the idea of objective vs. subjective photography. (Sorry but this is a fee site, but you can sign up for a free month.) It was a good talk. He spend a lot of time on his journey from objective to subjective.

He characterized objective images as ones that document a scene and subjective images as images that convey how the artist felt about or responded to the scene.

I think most of us start out objective. It happened naturally when we point our camera at a beautiful landmark and get a picture that makes us say “wow, that’s beautiful”. But if it has no more interpretation by us, it is not really different from the hundreds or thousands of other captures of that scene.

The thing I want to point out here, though, is that Chris said when shooting objective images he would research a location, decide the time of year and time of day that would be best for it, and go there and sit until the conditions were what he expected. He told about camping on a mountain for 3 days waiting for the image he visualized.

The image he got was a beautiful scene in the Adirondack Mountains. But my reaction to it was “meh…”. (Sorry Chris). To me it did not have any passion or depth. He got almost exactly the shot he planned, but my thought was “why?”.

What do you miss?

What did he miss while he was waiting 3 days on that mountain for the “right” time and conditions? Maybe nothing, but maybe a lot. To me that is too great a price to pay.

I have heard other photographers talk about fighting for a tripod spot at a grand, iconic spot, realizing that they were about to take the same shot that thousands of others take every year. Then they turn around and see a scene the other direction that is more meaningful to them. One that most of the other photographers failed to see because they were totally fixated on the iconic scene.

I try to be open and aware of what is around wherever I am. Same applies as much if I am walking a downtown street as if I am in a wilderness. Wonderful images can be discovered anywhere.

Avoid preconceptions

If you decide before you head out what you want to shoot, you put mental blinders on yourself. It is a fact that you only see what you expect to see.

This is called “selective attention”. A famous, effective, and short demonstration of this is in this video. Watch it! It is very enlightening. I won’t give a spoiler here, but this applies to any of us. If you are only looking for birds you will tend to only see birds.

Maybe that works OK for you. It’s not what I want for me. I want to be open to all the exciting things around me. And there are a lot of them. Many of my favorite images are things I would not have known to look for if I was making a list beforehand. I don’t want to miss out on the excitement of truly seeing and openly exploring what an area has to offer..

Grow

We all need to practice our skills and our visualization. Even the most famous and experienced photographers make themselves take time for personal projects to keep from getting stale and to grow in creative ways. Learning to avoid the trap of preconception can be part of that growth.

All artists need constant practice. Pablo Casals was possibly the greatest cellist.

The world’s foremost cellist, Pablo Casals, is 83. He was asked one day why he continued to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered, “Because I think I am making progress.”
— Leonard Lyons

Repetition is one thing. I have advocated for that before. It is necessary. But there are other ways of learning to break your habit of preconception.

A great thing to do is to go minimalist. Go out for a day of shooting with one camera body and one lens. I can hear you sputtering now. ☺ “But I might need my fisheye; or I might need 400mm”. No, not if you don’t have it. Practice getting great shots with what you have.

An interesting thing happens when you let go and go with it. Let’s say you just take your 50mm prime. When you get into it, you will quickly start to see the world from the 50mm perspective. This is probably a type of selective attention, but it is forcing you in a different dimension. Instead of being selective on subjects, you are selecting your viewpoint on the world around you. It is a great exercise.

I did something similar on a larger scale. My natural vision is telephoto. My ideal lens is 70-200mm. Even longer is great for me sometimes. I like to crop in on details. But for over a year I have switched to mainly shooting with my wonderful 24-70mm. I think it has helped me grow in my creativity. I am surprised at some of the new things I see.

Let yourself be surprised!

For me, my art is a voyage of discovery. It is exciting because I never know what I will find. I like to be surprised!

When I can get into seeing the excitement and possibilities all around me there is sometimes so much to shoot that I have to just stop and take some deep breaths. Slow down. Decide how I feel about what I am seeing and what I want to say. Pace myself. It can be an embarrassment of riches. I am drowning in the imagery.

The image with this article is an example. I was head down by a lake shooting grass and reflections. That is all I was paying attention to. Eventually I noticed that things were changing and getting colorful. Looking up, I discovered this gorgeous thunderstorm was forming practically right by me. This became the picture. The other images I shot that day are forgotten.

It even applies to post processing. Sometimes I shoot frames just because my instinct tells me there is something there I am not consciously seeing. Sometimes whatever I was drawn to becomes apparent in post. As I work an image, something magical begins to emerge. It is like creating an image in front of me on the screen directly from light and the manipulations I am doing to coax out an elusive something. That is a joy, too. It is the kind of surprise that makes art worthwhile.

So I invite you to stop limiting yourself artificially. Don’t block your vision by deciding in advance what you only want to find. Let go. React. Be open to the unexpected. Go out empty, as Jay Maisel famously says. Enjoy discovering what there is instead of being frustrated by what you can’t find.

15 Minutes From Home

100 ft from my studio

It is pretty easy to take good images in exotic locations. A real test of our skill is to see how well we do in familiar territory close to home. What if we arbitrarily said we were going to restrict ourselves to 15 minutes from home? Actually, that kind of sounds like the situation many of us are in right now.

I use ideas from Cole Thompson too often, but he often says things I wish I had said. In a recent newsletter of 3/27/2020 he challenged the idea that you have to go to great locations to take great pictures. Referring to the fact that many of his recent images were made in far flung locations, he said “You see the same coming from other photographers: exotic images coming from exotic lands. The conclusion is obvious: To create great images you must go to great locations! But that’s a lie. The real truth is this: great images are created anywhere you can see them. Even at home, your back yard or hometown. “

He went on to show a portfolio of great images taken within 15 minutes of his home. To me, his picture of wrenches hanging in a tool shed is at least as beautiful and intriguing at the classic figures on Easter Island.

Then why travel?

I will readily confess to being a traveler. I love to travel (hate airports and airlines though). Seeing different cultures and different landscapes energizes me. I tend to see things with a fresh eye. It’s an opportunity to give yourself permission to be a tourist and to view new things differently.

Travel makes you set aside time for the new. It removes you from the clutter and noise of your everyday environment. It may replace it with different clutter and noise, but the difference makes it new. Plus, you don’t worry much about the routine things that occupy you at home. That email you need to write, the business contact you need to follow up on, that blog post you have been meaning to write – they are just a distant murmur in the back of your mind. The lure of the exotic location tends to drown out the mundane things that usually shout so loud for your immediate attention.

The immediacy of the new sights in front of us makes it pretty easy to lose ourselves in the experience.

Burnout

Many of us can get in a rut and suffer from creative burnout. We start to think there is nothing new to photograph. Nothing new to inspire us or make it worth even getting the camera out of the bag. Travel to a new location seems to hold the hope of drawing us out of our slump.

I’ve been there. I still fight it frequently. Now with travel restrictions it seems worse than ever. What can we do?

I advise you not to get overly frustrated and fight head on against it. Reframe the problem. Go out walking with your camera. Tell yourself you do not expect to make any portfolio images today. You just want to look and practice, maybe work on technique. With no pressure to try to “make” a great shot you might be surprised at what you see. Give it time to work.

You will probably find yourself less dismissive of things. You might notice new things you never took the time to actually see because you were too focused on a preconceived notion of what you wanted to find.

Burnout is a real problem, physically, mentally, and creatively. Let yourself heal by taking it easy. Ease up on yourself by reducing the pressure you feel to make “great” shots every time.

And do something. Don’t let yourself wallow in feeling sorry for yourself. Get off your rear end and do something. Anything. Build something. Take walks or bike rides. Keep moving.

Inspiration

Ah, the problem of inspiration. I already admitted I am inspired by travel. Is that the only drug to feed my need?

Being confined at home is a great time to learn new skills. Learning should be a life long pursuit. Here is an exceptional opportunity to catch up.

We all have an opportunity now to pull back. It is a good time to read inspiring books. To view a lot of training online, such as Creative Live, The Nature Photographer’s Network, or B&H Photo. Or just play with Photoshop. Experiment. Try things you would not give yourself permission to do normally. Photoshop by itself is a life long learning experience.

But these activities do not directly apply to creating images in our particular style, do they? How do they really help?

Do you know how a laser works? (Not a laser diode; that is different mechanism) The acronym stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Without getting technical, a laser has two mirrors parallel to each other with a cavity in between. Electronics around it pump energy into it causing it to start emitting light. The light bounces back and forth between the mirrors, getting pumped to higher and higher energy states, until it finally breaks out as a focused, high energy beam. The point is that the signals that pump the laser to higher energy levels are not the same as the laser light. They feed the energy of the laser.

I believe my creativity is like that. I believe it is actually common to many people. Anything that feeds my knowledge, that makes me see new things, stimulates my creativity like a laser. So for me, some authors do that. Some classes may. Even some movies. In a strange way, even writing this blog pumps my inspiration. Get pumped and then do something with it.

Lack of faith in our creativity

A problem many of us have is little faith in ourselves. Deep down we believe we are fakes. That we really don’t have much creativity. Just because we did something good last week does not give us confidence that we will be able to do something great next week. This is called The Imposter Syndrome.

I believe this is more common than we let on. Some people have said that almost all creatives suffer from this. We do not like to admit it.

I am a fine art photographer and most of my work is outdoors. My personality and workflow is such that I do not plan my outings in any detail. I go with the flow snd take my inspiration from what I find. It can be scary when I’m not “feeling” it. I have to trust that something will capture my imagination and get me started and into the groove. If I relax and let myself be attuned to what is around me, it usually works.

But when it doesn’t, that can be a challenge to my self confidence. A usually reliable cure for me is to spend time in my image collection. I am lucky to have a large collection of images. Of that large collection, a small percentage are the ones I would not be ashamed to show to other people. Browsing through these picks can be inspiring to me. It reassures me that I can make good images over a long time. Remembering the story behind some of the images can be especially heartwarming. Like the times when I was in a hurry or not feeling inspired or creative or not happy with the work I was doing that day and suddenly I come up with a great image that I still love years later.

Close to home

Exercises and mind shifts like this give me the faith that valleys of inspiration, like virus epidemics, do not last. I believe most of my best work is yet to come.

It may seem easier to shoot good images in beautiful exotic locations, but there are very good reasons to focus most of our energy on the near, the familiar, the things we grow to love. Having a relationship with an area will usually lead to more intimate and insightful pictures. And I believe that there is great potential even in the overworked area 15 minutes from my home.

How about you? Are you shut down because you can’t travel? Let me know.

The image at the top of this article was made less than 100 ft from my studio.

An Outsider

Reflections in glassware

I have always felt like an outsider. Not a social pariah, just not fully a part of what I see around me. Research is discovering that this may be common to creatives. It may even be necessary to them.

In an article by Olga Khazan, she quotes ‘Sharon Kim, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s business school, told me she’d always noticed that some people credit their creative successes to being loners or rebels… So rejection and creativity were related, Kim determined. But with a caveat. The advantage was seen only among participants who had an “independent self-concept”—meaning they already felt they didn’t belong. There appeared to be something about being a weirdo that could uncork your mind and allow new ideas to flow.’ This is adapted from Olga’s forthcoming book, Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Ah, so there may be some advantage to being a weirdo. That is great to hear after all this time.

A social outsider

It is never comfortable being an outsider, even for those of us destined to be one. You always wish you could “fit in”, to be a valued part of the group, whatever that group is for you. To have your opinion solicited, to be valued. Outsiders are the ones who get the funny looks when we give our opinion. Most of us learn to stop sharing our opinions.

Most people say they want to be unique, but there is tremendous social pressure to conform to the norm. Take any teenager “rebelling against society and conformity” and try to get them to wear something other than the standard uniform all their peers wear. People want to be different, just like everyone else.

I was always taught by my parents to be an independent thinker. Well, I learned it well. I was taught by my faith that I am an outsider here, a pilgrim. Yes, I accept and understand this. But it is not always easy. Such independence makes you different.

I take comfort in Mark Twain’s quote “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” I find that joining the majority is often a warning sign of me losing my way, or at least my independence of thought. But sometimes it would be comforting to feel like I belonged.

A creative outsider

Since I started calling myself an artist, I also came to accept even more my position as an outsider. I feel that viewpoint gives me a fresh insight on the world around me. And it helps me to be truly independent in my creativity and protects me from copying other people’s work.

In Guy Tal’s book More Than a Rock, he says “although the artist participates in the world as any conscious being, in making art he is also afforded, temporarily, the privileged perspective of an outsider. To one who cares and feels and acknowledges his own flaws and fallibility, having such a place within him also is a powerful form of self-therapy.”

And the great Steve Jobs said “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

So I value and nourish my independence. It helps that I am an introvert. That keeps me from feeling as much pressure to conform to the majority. Not too surprisingly, research shows that a large percentage of creatives are introverts.

Freedom

No one, no matter how independent they are, likes to be criticized or demeaned by others. But there is no shortage of people who see themselves in the role of taste maker and art critic.

I will say that being independent and seeing yourself as an outsider helps a lot. I want people to like the work I present to them. But if they don’t, it is more important that I like it. And when criticism comes it is important to honestly evaluate what is said and who said it. Maybe I can learn something. But I will not, I refuse, to alter my fundamental beliefs and vision to conform to someone else’s opinion. If I believe they have a good point of view I might grow in a new direction.

I also reserve the freedom to pursue any subject matter I wish. If a gallery or buyer says “you do abstracts, what’s with these landscapes?” I will have to let them know I do images that call to me. The subject matter and genre means little to me. I know this is not a smart financial position. Conventional wisdom says I should stick to one genre and become known for that.

That’s the problem with conventional wisdom for me. It is usually not conventional and it is seldom actually wise. When the majority goes a direction that seems wrong to me, I follow my own instincts.

Exclusion

A characteristic of photography that I like is that it relies on exclusion rather than inclusion. It is a busy, complicated world out there. Unlike a painter’s canvas, the camera will record everything you show to it. Our job as a photographers is to intelligently select only the small set of things that should be included in the frame and light and compose these important things in a way that makes for a good image. This means excluding most of what is out there.

I guess I like that because it seems to be complementary to my outsider point of view. It is an exercise in throwing away most of what you see and homing in on that small piece that is significant. Declaring what is significant and what isn’t requires strength of character and independence. I believe it is easier for me to make those decisions if I can keep an outsider’s perspective.

There is a saying known as Sturgeon’s Law that says “90% of everything is crap”. I believe this is quite true in most things. My own corollary to this law is that Sturgeon was an optimist. In my photography I get to look at a scene and decide what to throw away and what to keep. It’s very empowering and makes my independent self-concept feel great. ☺

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. And I get no financial incentives from the books I mention.