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.

Kill Your Darlings

Field of giant hamburgers

Artists, especially photographers, need to kill our darlings. I have received this advice before, but it is seldom a happy or welcome activity.

Why in the world would any artist want to kill their darlings? These are our babies! We are in love with them! We need them! It makes no sense.

Photographers generate lots of images

OK, let’s get this out to discuss. One of the distinctions of using a camera is that images are (usually) quickly created. We tend to shoot many variations of a scene looking to capture it best. We take “brackets” of exposure, focus, lighting, etc. to work through subtle differences that may make an image stronger.

This is one of the key differentiators of photography to other 2 dimensional art forms. A painting is constructed slowly from the ground up on a blank canvas. The artist selects and only adds the elements he feels make the image stronger. A photographer starts with an existing scene and decides what to include or exclude, often in a instant. The resulting image is often a small slice of time. The process is totally different.

But besides being different, it is usually fast, fluid, immediate. We have the ability to change our perspective and try out variations. Each one may be a great image in its own right.

On a productive day in a great location, I may make hundreds of images. A painter may only make one, and that’s if they are working very fast.

This very fact of photography causes a problem for us.

We love our images

Ah, the beauties we see on our monitor. Most of them are lovely and lovable. Sure, I discard the ones that are unintentionally out of focus or that have unintended shake or movement. I may exclude the ones where the lighting was bad. And there are the ones where I have to admit the concept just didn’t work or my execution was poor. I can say goodbye to them without much grief.

But the “good” ones, well, they are all good. A well composed image captured with a great camera with a super sharp lens using good technique may be technically excellent. Any one of them is my work. I am proud of them.

I can’t just delete most of them and tell myself they are not as good as I would like. It is the work I made. I created these. They are mine.

Editing is hard

Editing is where is starts getting real. Editing is one of the steps that separate the great from the good. It is very hard for many of us to do as brutally as is called for.

For me, it helps to have a cooling off period. With time I can usually take a cooler perspective on a shoot. Sometimes a day or 2 is sufficient. Sometimes it takes years. Yes, there are groups of my images where I couldn’t be really honest with myself for up to 10 years.

I do my sorting and grading in Lightroom. I have used it since its initial beta release. My exact process of how I file and mark them is probably not of interest. I will just say that I go through many levels of exclusion before arriving at a set of “portfolio” images.

My initial pass culls out the imperfect images (if perfection was what I was going for), duplicates, and things that just didn’t work. These are thrown away unless I believe there is some redeeming value to them. And that is exactly the problem I am talking about here – I think that most of my images have redeeming virtues.

A second or third pass may look over a shoot and select the few defining images out of the set. These are marked for further processing. This process is repeated several times with increasingly strict criteria, usually with long pauses to gain perspective. In general, the best image of a shoot is not going to progress up the chain just because it was the best of its group. It has to provide some reason for being considered a top contender.

Editing is necessary

The editing process has been very good for me to internalize, even if it is painful. I realize now that without brutal editing I don’t have anything worth saying. That is, if I show you thousands of images because they are all “good” and I don’t have the discipline to choose between them, you will quickly tire and go away.

When I can be honest with myself and exclude great images that do not capture my artistic intent, then the ones I keep to show are stronger. You don’t want to look at everything I saw and was interested in. You only want to see very strong images.

Going through the pain and being honest with myself is not fun. But it is necessary to end up with art.

Fewer is stronger

It has been said that your portfolio is only as good as the weakest image in it. This has taken me a long time to internalize. Fewer is stronger.

Editing is a challenging and imperfect process. I know I make mistakes. I know I sometimes let my love for an image or a location or an event cloud my judgment. I am trying to learn.

Take an arbitrary category on my web site, like Landscapes. I haven’t checked exactly, but let’s say I have well over 1000 landscape images I consider “portfolio quality”. That doesn’t work and it is unrealistic.

By forcing myself to pare them down to, say, 50 images, I am able to present a strong set of art for you. It hurts. I have to exclude hundreds of images I consider wonderful. Indeed, some of my all time favorites have to go. But if I do it well the set that is left is strong and I will not be ashamed to show them to anyone.

The ones that didn’t make the cut? I keep them, of course. I love them. Sometimes at a later date I see something new in an image that I did not perceive before. Maybe it gets bumped up. Still, it is my responsibility to edit brutally and only show you the survivors.

If you go browse my web site I hope you agree.

Let me know what you think. Do you suffer from an abundance of riches?

Telling a Story

Holy water jug

Conventional wisdom nowadays is that a good image should tell a story. Really? What does that mean? Can a single, static image actually tell a story? I’m not completely convinced. Let’s explore this.

Story

It is well understood that people learn and remember better from a story than by memorizing lists of facts or rules. That is one reason the Bible is mainly a collection of stories.

In civilizations where writing was late to develop, or where the literacy rate was very low, their records of their history were passed down by oral tradition – storytelling. The keepers of the stories were usually very respected members of the tribe.

Even in “more developed” Europe, storytellers were important through the dark ages until sometime into the Renaissance. Most of the population was completely illiterate. Even what we call “fairy tales” were very important stories and traditions.

Books

Books are an obvious story telling vehicle. They have lots of time and space to develop characters, set up complex plots, give the protagonist room to make lots of mistakes and bad decisions and go through many trials before getting it together and finally resolving the conflict.

Books have been written for thousands of years. The art of creating stories for print has been studied and practiced for all that time and it is well developed now. They have become excellent at grabbing and holding our interest.

You can go to school (or read a book!) to learn the process of character and plot development or to improve your vocabulary. You can’t go to school to learn to be a good author. That is still art. And rightly so.

Film

Films – I continue to use the archaic term – are a completely different story telling medium than books. That is why, even starting with a great book, a screenwriter must be employed to create the film version. The story telling process is very different.

Films are visual and the story must be told by the live actors “living out” the plot. Obviously there are exceptions, but this is the typical approach. A film is also a time-based medium. The story must unfold within about 1.5 – 2 hours of clock time.

But filmmakers have become very adept at engaging us with drama, magic, pathos, wonder, sadness, significance, aspiration. There is a great range of possibility and new creations are coming out every day to amaze us..

Static 2D image

Time, motion, character development, plot development, conflict resolution – these things are much harder to do in a single, static image. These older media get to engage their audience for an hour or more to days (depending on your reading rate). With an image I have 2 conflicting goals: capture my audience’s interest to make them spend some time on my image, and have enough lasting interest to make them want a copy on their wall to see every day. Perhaps I have to think of “story” differently in a 2D image.

In a 2D image, nothing is actually moving. No action over time is possible. Little or no character development can happen. It is very hard to show a before-during-after sequence.

The type of “story” that seems possible to bring to you in a picture is a “moment in time”. I can show you something in a particular state at this instant. I have to leave it to you to imagine the setting or previous events or how the future may unfold. If I do a good job as a story teller, that may be possible.

One of the advantages of that is that it brings you into the process. You have to participate in the interpretation. You get to, in effect, write the story for yourself. What happened to get the scene to this state? What would happen if you could push “play” and continue it? Can you imagine yourself there? Would you want to?

Contrived

Let me side track for a bit to tell you a pet peeve of mine.

Many of the influencers in the photography media preach the mantra that you have to tell a story with your pictures. Whether it is travel photography or environmental activism or landscape or portraits, what we hear is that we have to tell a story.

Hardly any of these pundits help us by explaining how to do it. Usually they will just show one of their images and congratulate themselves for illustrating a great story. Weak, unhelpful, and intimidating. I can think of one writer/photographer right now who mostly makes images of the American desert. He writes passionately about the meaning and story he tries to bring to his images. But then when he illustrates it with a specific image, I often look at it and kind of say “huh?”. There wasn’t a story there for me or deep meaning. It was just a scene. It may be nice to look at, but it is not a story to me.

Can we tell a story with a 2D image?

Can it be done? Yes. But it is seldom what I think of as a story. As I said, maybe I need to change me definition of what a story is in this case.

Photojournalism or street photography is attuned to story telling. It is generally understood that presenting a “decisive moment” is more important that creating a technically perfect image. I agree, for those genre.

In all cases, I believe any photographer should know why they made an image. What was it that called them? What were they trying to present to their audience? We can often call this the “story” of the image.

The problem is that this story is often only known to the artist. It may not be apparent to the viewer at all. At best, the viewer may be able to create their own story around a good image. This works.

And is it OK that the “story” may just be that I considered this scene beautiful or uplifting or interesting? YES! Much of the established modern art world rejects beauty as a valid subject. They are wrong and I feel sorry for them. What a bleak world to live in.

Tell your story your way

So I recommend that you to go out and make images that call to you. They may not have deep meaning to a wide audience or be praised as “meaningful”. That’s OK. Always be able to express for yourself why you took an image. Practice that. After all, you are the only one who absolutely has to love your images.

Meaning and story may come for you more with time and experience. Or may not. It depends on how you see the world and what kind of “story” you want to tell. If beauty or whimsy or abstraction call you, go with what you feel. If it passes the test for you and you love it, what more can you ask?

If the story is a secret to just you, that is fine as long as the image also stands on its own as interesting. Then your audience can also participate by creating a story of their own.

Every time I make an image, in a sense I am telling a story to my viewer. It is good for me to be more aware of the way they perceive the story.

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.