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.

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.

There is no I in TEAM

On mountain top looking toward setting sun

This famous coaching advice is so well known that it is almost a cliche. There is no I in TEAM. It has been used for a long time to convince athletes of the necessity of teamwork. And this is right. A sports team must work together. Winning is a team effort, not an individual thing.

I am turning this saying upside down for this article. The point here is that my art is not a team effort. There is no team in I.

Not a group effort

My creativity and the products of my creativity, my art works, come solely from my head. I do not have collaborators or mentors or advisors. It is a lonely and scary place in here, but it is where I work. There is not room for anyone else in here. Plus, I’m not very sociable when it gets that personal. If someone tries to get in my head I resist strongly.

I enjoy listening to artists I respect talking about how they create and what their process is. I browse images from other photographers and painters. But those things are just inputs. Some of the forces that “pump the laser“, as I have written before.

But after a time, the books are closed, the videos are shut off, and I come home from the galleries. It is time to work. A writer or a painter is faced with the terror of a blank page waiting to be filled. A photographer must confront the terror of “nothing of interest“. A world of clutter and stuff that does not call to us.

How to respond to that is not the subject of this post. See the one I reference above. The point here is that it is up to me to do whatever is going to be done. No one else is responsible. No one else can do my work.

Helpful suggestions aren’t, usually

Ah, the helpful friends or family members who come forward with suggestions for what I should shoot. “I saw a great scene yesterday you should check out.” Or “I would do a project about …”.

They are sincerely trying to help. I appreciate the thought and the care behind what they mean. But even my wife does not really know what might motivate me at any time. No, I take the suggestions thankfully. Sometimes I politely shoot what they suggest. They almost never makes my short list of good images, though.

Ultimately, it is up to me to get off dead center and do something. I have to find or generate motivation about something. Creativity means I created it.

No collaborative environment for me

The corporate world and the education establishment believe with religious fervor that collaboration is absolutely the only way to do things. In one of my previous lives as a software architect and a user experience designer I was deep in such an atmosphere.

Surfacing ideas was a group process, design was collaborative, even deciding on requirements was required to involve a group discussion. Everything involved a consensus process. I felt then and I still firmly believe that such a process leads to a median quality in everything. It might improve the efforts of a poor designer but it greatly limits the capability of a great one.

Now, as an artist, I am not limited by a group. Of course it means I do not have the support of the group to carry me when ideas do not come. But walking the high wire alone is part of what you buy in to when becoming an artist.

I cannot share responsibility (or blame) with anybody for my failures.

Solitude

I realized a long time ago that I am an introvert. This is fairly common to creatives. If there is too much “noise” or chatter or helpful suggestions I cannot think creatively.

I need to be alone in my head. I need to protect that small, dark creative space while ideas are flickering into life. Many may die there, but some will grow and develop. Like a young tender plant those ideas need to be protected while they develop.

My ideas do not spring into being fully formed. Sometimes I get a glimmer of something that needs to be worked on. Sometimes something draws me to a subject and it is only later that I begin to realize what was calling me.

I long ago discovered that if I am having to argue for or justify new ideas as they are forming, many great things will be lost. It is hard for me to argue for something I don’t yet understand well. I will save the arguments for within my own head. Even then I lose a lot of them.

There is enough noise inside my head already without having to deal with the clash of outside opinions.

Individuality

My value as an artist comes from the uniqueness of what I bring. This develops from my individuality.

If a group process produces average results, the only way to produce excellent things is to let individuals flourish. My art is my own. All I have to present to the world, such as it is, I can at least know is a product of my own mind. It is me.

I am not skilled at telling you about me, but when you look at my art you see what I think and value and perceive.

Teams are not for me.

Teamwork can be good. I have been part of great teams in my previous career and as a musician once upon a time. Being part of a well functioning team is a joy. But I believe that the artist is excluded from the team. He is the one sitting on the edge that no one chooses for his team. You know, the one with the far off look, wandering off, not paying much attention to the game.

So if there is no I in team, and if “I” is all I have to sell or to differentiate myself from the rest of the world, then there is no place for team in my process. There is no team in I.

And that works OK for me.

Indoor Time

Very distorted window

Most of us are having to adjust to rather extreme temporary measures in our daily lives. Our focus has become on indoor time.I won’t say it is a “new normal” because I hate that phrase and it is tossed around too easily.

This has caused most of us to spend way more time indoors than we are used to and are comfortable with. As photographers, we are accustomed to being out shooting a lot. So what are you doing with your new indoor time? I’ll give you a brief rundown of some of what I am doing.

Filing

I hate to admit it, but I was thousands of images behind in sorting and tagging and grading. I have spent MANY hours in Lightroom recently trying to get caught up. I’m not there yet, but I have dealt with thousands of images. That is tiring.

But it also can be rewarding. I have run across a lot of images I had mostly forgotten about. It makes me feel good to find these pockets of images I really like. It encourages me that maybe I have a history of making decent images. Plus, they remind me of good times and great experiences I have had.

Do I really need to do all this detailed filing? Probably not. But it is critically important (to me) to go through the sorting and filtering process to narrow them down to the set of images I am proud to show to anyone. For me, this takes several rounds of serious evaluation and making hard choices. It is very difficult for me to “let go” of images I really like that don’t make the cut.

Post-processing

Along with filing comes post-processing. This seems like a never-ending struggle. Trying to catch up on thousands of images that have not been processed yet brings with it the opportunity to edit many of them.

I am constantly learning new techniques for processing in Lightroom and Photoshop. So this is a great opportunity for me not only to catch up, but to practice some new methods and get more efficient. And my values and vision seems to evolve all the time.

I make it harder on myself because I am often not content to process an image and have done with it for all time. No, every time I take a new look at many of my images I have a different inspiration about what to do with a few of them.

So between trying to catch up on a backlog of lots of images and re-processing many that I see differently now, I have a lot of work. Luckily I enjoy the post-processing in the computer. I view it as one of the creative parts of photography. But it is very time consuming.

Backup

Yes, I am a computer nerd. Well, I used to be. Now the computer is just a tool. I no longer have an intimate relationship with them. But as I have written in the past, I am fanatical about backup. This has been an opportunity to review my system and make some changes.

I have levels and levels of backup. One of the last levels is rotating storage offsite (where they’re then backed up again. ☺ ). My offsite disks have been too small for a while to hold all of my main catalog. I had to restrict them to the “most important” images. That has been uncomfortable. It was a chink in the armor. So I took this opportunity to replace the offsite storage with larger disks. Now I can backup everything in my main catalog to each of them.

WD makes some great little portable disk drives. This MyPassport drive seems very reliable and pretty fast. And the physical size is amazing for 5 Terabytes of storage. I do not receive any benefit from referring this. I included an Amazon link, but, honestly, I would recommend finding another vendor.

Warning, when you attach a 5 T disk to your system don’t think you are going to just copy your files to it and be done in a few minutes. If your computer can transfer data to the backup at a rate of 100MBytes/sec, it will take a few days to do the initial copy. Subsequent updates only take minutes, because they typically only affect a few GBytes. There is 3 orders of magnitude between a GByte and a TByte.

Study and read

For an introvert like me, free time means reading or study time.

One of the benefits of the popularity of photography is that there is limitless information available, online and in books. You remember those things printed on paper, don’t you?

Ah, but that glut of information brings other problems. Who do you trust? How to separate the useful from the useless? There is a lot of bad or useless information out there. You can learn good information from a bad example, but I don’t recommend it unless that is the only alternative.

I admit to being rather jaded. I am technical and creative and very experienced. It is hard for me to find someone I trust to give me good information. I don’t want to come across as arrogant. This is something that happens with lots of experience in a field.

Two instructors I can recommend who consistently do great training are Dave Cross and Ben Willmore. They are fantastically deep in their knowledge of the tools and are good communicators. Plus, they mostly teach how to use and understand the tools, not “cookbook” methods for copying the results of someone else.

So, in the spirit of good disclosure, I have been spending a lot of time on CreativeLive, KelbyIOne, The Nature Photography Network, John Paul Camponigro’s web site, and B&H’s archive of videos.

I have also been reading books for inspiration, such as Creative Black & White, by Harold Davis, and More Than A Rock, by Guy Tal.

Study your equipment

I believe intimate knowledge of your equipment pays off. If you can’t use your tools rapidly and with little thought they will get in your way rather than help you be creative. This is an opportunity to spend time practicing with your camera.

I moved to a mirrorless body about a year ago. I confess that I have struggled with it some. It is not as convenient and user friendly as a larger and more mature DSLR. I am comfortable using it for normal day to day shooting situations, but I could not pass the blindfold test like I could with previous bodies. That is, I could not reliably set the camera up for a particular shooting situation blindfolded (or in the dark).

I love the quality of the images from the mirrorless camera, but I am having to spend extra time making it natural and intuitive to use. I am working on that as part of my down time.

Get out and shoot

I may make some people mad for saying this, but I am out shooting almost every day. Our officials here kindly allow us to be out walking, biking, etc. I take advantage of it to wander with my camera. I try to get out walking 2-4 miles a day. It is very good for me health-wise and for my sanity. Plus I like to practice shooting every day. Sometimes I even get a decent image.

I also occasionally jump in the car and drive out of town for some photos. For instance, we had an unusually large snow last week (as I am writing this). I was out all afternoon shooting. It was great and very refreshing! For the sticklers, I was never within 20 feet of another person. But then, I do not worry about Covid and I am not concerned about catching it when I am out and about. I refuse to be paralyzed by fear.

Time well spent

These are some of the things I am doing in my “confinement”. I hope I will look back on it as time well spent. A chance to regroup, catch up on some things, refresh and recharge. I hope you are able to make productive use of your time indoors, too.

Let me know how you are doing. I would love to hear from you. Sign up to receive notifications. Please visit my gallery site and let me know what you think.

I hope you are well and I’m glad you’re reading! Even if it is because you are bored. 🙂

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.