The best images come from a handful of days. I have observed this from my own work and I have come to recognize it as a pattern. This is both comforting and frightening.
Ups and downs
Our creativity and our productivity is not linear and always increasing. It is more like the stock market: generally rising, but always fluctuating – especially lately. We can’t control our passion and interests much more than we can control the stock market.
I have heard photographers almost brag about the number of shots they take at a location and the percentage of “keepers” they get. Good for them, if that’s the way they work best. It doesn’t work for me. I do not follow metrics or rules. Quantity is not my goal.
Something has to draw me to set up and snap the shutter. I have to believe there is something there worthwhile of capturing and editing.
Beauty isn’t enough
I hate to admit the number of times I have been to a beautiful location and felt like I had to take a number of pictures. Even though I wasn’t really feeling any great draw to the scene. It’s just that I knew it was beautiful so I had to shoot some.
What do I end up with in those situations? Usually a few nice record shots of the location – and a lot of throw-aways. It is a shame to throw away nice pictures of a beautiful scene, but the reality is, there is no substance to them. They are just looking at the surface of the scene.
While I’m at it, let me vent a pet peeve. When it is known that you are a photographer, everyone around feels compelled to guide you to shots they think you should take. “You’ve got to go here and shoot this! You’ll love it!” No, actually I don’t. Maybe, occasionally, very rarely yes. But these are their visions; their beauty and meaning. It seldom aligns with my interests. So I politely shoot a few frames and thank them. Sigh. I’m better now. 🙂
Don’t be discouraged
If beauty is not enough, then what is?
My friend Cole Thompson once said “I used to think that vision was what inspired a great image. Now I believe that it’s both vision and passion; something that just gets you excited and you can’t wait to work on it.” I think he hit on a great truth here.
Sometimes you have a vision of something that would make a great image. Or perhaps you are at a location where you know you could make a pleasing picture. That’s great, but if it is not touching something within you that gets you excited, it is just another pretty picture.
A few weeks ago I was at a favorite area up in the Colorado mountains, a historic old mining area up at timberline. I love the location and the sights there and I have shot many images here that I like a lot. This time, nothing. Oh I shot, of course, I was there. But nothing was inspiring me. The images were technically OK, but not exciting me. So far I have not pulled any of them for a portfolio or collection.
This can be discouraging. I feel like a failure for not being able to “make” a great image in such a location. But if I’m not feeling inspired, the rest is just mechanical image gathering. That was not one of the high value days.
When we’re “on”
But then there are those times when we do feel that passion. Those times it seems we can’t turn around for being called to shoot something. Everywhere we look it seems we can make an interesting image.
What’s the difference? A lot of it is how we feel about the subject or area or theme that day. Or maybe how we feel about our self. When everything resonates with us it just clicks. Everything works. At those times we get a high percentage of images we like. And more that we are drawn to and only realize later why and they become even more special.
These times are is like Cole said – I can’t wait to shoot and I can’t wait to work up the images to see what I will get. I’m loving it. Things are flowing and I’m in the “zone”. Images seem to be competing for my attention. I can’t shoot fast enough. Those peak days make it all worthwhile. Adrian has a very good description of the sensation here.
It’s not work for hire
Let me point out I am talking about the fine art images I take for my artistic expression. These only have to satisfy me.
If I were doing a commercial shoot for a client, I would have to produce good results at the scheduled time, regardless of how I was feeling about it. Luckily for me, this is not the situation I am in.
I do not worry about good, consistent, professional results. I want to seek those peak times where I can produce special things. That is what drives me.
Embrace those days
Let me suggest, to both you and to me, that rather than getting discouraged that we aren’t always at a peak, instead joyfully embrace those exciting times when everything comes together. That special handful of days. It is a game of quality, not quantity.
Sure, it can be disappointing when we have a great opportunity and we come away empty. Just accept that it was not the right time for you to be there. Another day it may be different.
Trust your intuition. That is your guide to creativity. Listen to what it is telling you. It may tell you something completely different from what your logical mind says. If you are trying to make art, logic will probably not get you there. Producing a few great images is much better than a huge stack of mediocre ones.