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.


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.


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.

When the Flash Goes Off

A "drive by" example

The process of taking a photograph is intensely personal, yet there are probably commonalities among the population of artists. I am a hunter, a stalker. I call that instant when I recognize there is a viable picture in front of me “the flash going off”. It is often a blinding recognition.

Disclaimer: some of this was inspired by Michael Freeman. I highly recommend his great book The Photographer’s Mind. It is part of a really good series. I will get no revenue from recommending this.

Let the camera make the decisions?

Long ago, back in the 1940’s, Bill Brandt said “Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” I haven’t researched him enough to know if he was being truthful or if this was a tongue in cheek exaggeration.

Maybe it works for you, but if I just let my camera roam unattended, it doesn’t do much useful work. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I think I am completely guiding and directing the image making process. I may let the camera give me its opinion of things like exposure, but I make all the final decisions.

A theory of the process

OK, I make the creative decisions. How do I do that for scene selection and composition? Have you ever tried to analyze your process for making an image? Many of the things that happen are so fast or are part of such a deep experience base that we are barely aware of what is going on. And if we try to slow down the process enough to reflect on in, it becomes a muddle. I did an experiment once of trying to describe how to tie my shoes. I know how to do it, I can do it quickly and precisely, but to describe it – well, try it.

A possible explanation of the photography process is taken from cognitive vision theory. The basic idea is that, over time, we develop a history of the types of images that we are drawn to, that excite us or interest us. A photographer creates a mental library of these images.

The mind is quite fast at recognizing patterns and matching expectations. When we see a scene we seem to process it through our library and almost instantly recognize a promising image or reject it. This theory makes sense to me, as I recognize that scenes that have features I like seem to jump out at me.

Drive by

Some anecdotal evidence for this is what I see of my scene recognition behavior while I’m driving. It is not unusual for that flash bulb to go off alerting me of something that is probably worthwhile to photograph – about a quarter of a mile after I drive by it. Like this image with this post.

It is hard, mentally, to turn around on the highway and go back to check something out. It is especially hard when my wife is along. She rightly says “why didn’t you stop when you first saw it instead of having to go back?” I can’t get her to understand that when I am driving my mind is primarily occupied with that. The image recognition process is running in the background. This causes it to be delayed a few seconds. But when it gets a hit, it is like a highlight replay. It is clear and obvious, despite my having passed it by.

I’m usually glad when I bite the bullet and go back for the image. Whatever triggered the response is usually worth checking out. I admit, though, I sometimes take a picture even when I don’t like the scene, just so I don’t have to admit to my wife that it wasn’t worth going back for.

Learned library

This library, if it really exists, must be learned. We don’t come prewired with it. Although it could be said that some things, like sunsets, are universal. How do we create the library? Well, we all see images all the time. When we see something that appeals to us perhaps we somehow add it to the library.

A better way is to very consciously go through our catalog of images we have saved. Sort them into 2 piles, the ones we really like and want to build on, and the ones we are cool to and don’t really care about. Study the keepers. Decide what attracts us about them. Thinking about them will help build the library of images that match our vision.


The mind is incredibly powerful at recognizing patterns and matching images. Allow it to help sift through the clutter all around us. Pay attention when the flash bulb goes off. That is our pattern recognizer trying to tell us something important.

Let me know what you think!

To see the kinds of things I respond to, check out my galleries at

Next week I will give an alternative viewpoint to this.