Packaged Experience

Do you create your own photo experiences and adventures or do you rely on packaged experiences? I hope to encourage you to have the confidence to create your own most of the time.

Packaged experience

What is a packaged experience? It is any situation where you purchase a ready made happening from a vendor. Someone who offers you a ready to go vacation or adventure you can just step into and passively enjoy.

A classic example of a packaged experience is a Disney World vacation. Space Mountain and Epcot may be fun and maybe somewhat magical seeming for the kids, but not much for an artist. Another example is a typical vacation cruise. New scenery, good food, but it seldom qualifies as an adventure or a unique experience.

In both cases, everything is wrapped up in a neat package, all the sharp edges are protected, and a manufactured packaged experience is provided to you. These are exactly the reasons I recommend you avoid them.

It’s not really an adventure

An adventure is “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity”. Packaged experiences are seldom unusual, since you are buying the same product sold to a million other people before and after you. A simulated rocket ride or a roller coaster may seem exciting for a few minutes, because they shake you around and it seems dangerous. But the reality is they are carefully controlled and not at all dangerous, unless you have a serious heart condition. They are a simulation of adventure. Once you reach an age where you realize the Pirates of the Caribbean are not going to stab you, no matter what you do, it should cease to hold much excitement. Unless you step into a Westworld situation, but that is unlikely.

The packaged experience is in no way unique or dangerous. It’s effects are short lived. There is no long term benefit or learning from it. And even worse from an artistic point of view, it gives you little chance for creativity or exploration of new ideas.

Maybe the worst part, from my point of view, is that in a packaged experience you did not have to put any of yourself in it. You are a passive spectator.

Roll your own

I guess it can seem intimidating if you’re not used to being responsible for your own adventures. And if you are taking the family maybe you want to be extra careful for the kids. But even for them – especially for them – wouldn’t it be wonderful to give them a legacy of being able to amuse and entertain themselves in strange places?

What does it take? Just a good attitude and the willingness to try it. No special training is required. You have to be open to accepting things as they come and learning to like them. It is almost all your attitude that determines what benefits you will receive.

Let me give an example of a pattern of things that formed some of my belief in this. Way back, when timeshares were a good thing and not yet ruined by greedy developers, we bought one. Kind of on the spur of the moment. No real planning or investigation. Well, the real utility for us was that we always traded for other locations in some part of the world. So we had a week tied to some location we had never been to. Initially we would get somewhere, explore the area a day or 2, then ask ourselves what we are going to do now? But we were stuck there. Sometimes these places were way out in the middle of nowhere.

We were forced to amuse ourselves. We would start to explore the vicinity more slowly and carefully. It amazed us what kind of interesting (and photogenic) things we discovered. Looking back on it, I can see what should have been obvious then. Almost every place has interesting things to find, quirky and interesting people, local things they pride themselves on, unique history, local food specialties to try, and just things you have never seen.

Trust your ability

We’re just not used to slowing down and looking at what is right in front of us. Instead, we’re looking for the tourist attractions with bright neon signs. The places listed on the tour brochures as welcoming busses of tourists (and having a big gift shop).

The time share experience taught me to settle in and look around to see what I can find. I can’t remember how many time share trades we did, I would guess at least 20. In all of those, even when we were initially disappointed with an area, there was not one where we went away at the end of a week saying we will never come back there. I remember the very first one we went to was in Palm Desert CA – in August – it was 120F every day. And we loved it. I found fascinating places and sights I had never imagined. We would definitely like to go back, but maybe at a somewhat cooler time.

I labeled this section trust your ability, but really, little ability is required. The biggest factor is attitude. Keep open and receptive to what is there. This is a learned skill more than any innate ability. I always had a bent toward traveling this way, but the time share experience taught me to recognize and develop it. Now I trust that this is the best way for me to travel.

Don’t go overboard

To keep it balanced, let me tell you about a friend I have who is a wilderness photographer. He goes on solo treks in the Rockies all the time, all seasons and weather. He has probably climbed all the peaks around here over 10,000 ft. Many in the winter. Wildlife encounters are not too rare. He builds and stays in snow caves. Blizzards and storms do not dissuade him. I think he is a little crazy. But that is his thing. He gets unique pictures of places and times few other people have seen.

However, this is not what I am suggesting. It is not at all necessary to go to that kind of extreme to create unique adventures. Just go somewhere new and be open to what is there.

Try it

I encourage you to give it a try. It may take several outings before it becomes comfortable. That’s OK. Being uncomfortable is not a bad thing. Sometimes that just means you are learning something new and exercising a new skill.

To get started, take some short trip, maybe one night. Head out someplace you haven’t been before, but not more than a few hours drive. Stay overnight – I recommend a nice local motel, not a big chain. It will be a little more adventurous and without the sterile industrial feel. Besides, small communities need your money. Then home. During the entire outing, give yourself a mission to stop and see and take pictures of anything even remotely interesting. An overlook, some nice trees, a classic old rusty car, a silly local tourist trap – whatever piques your interest. Let yourself go. Tell yourself you’re not in a hurry and you have permission to stop whenever you like. One of the purposes is to learn to find interests on your own.

Photo Tours

Many people I know host photo tours, so I want to address those. Different tours have a variety of goals. For this, let me divide them into 2 groups: tours that take you to famous sites and promise you to make the same well known pictures, vs tours that provide stimulation, discussion, and training while also taking you to interesting locations you have never been. I would call the first kind a packaged experience and advise you to avoid it. The second type, however, would be an enjoyable growth and learning experience. The sights and actual images you get are secondary to the adventure and new experiences. That is the kind of experience I would appreciate.

Do it

I know this isn’t for everbody. Some of you are such hard core Type A personalities that you can’t go to the hardware store with out written goals and a definite plan. So the idea of heading off anywhere without a well researched plan would be horrifying.

But for the majority of us, I encourage you to give it a try. And persist long enough to get over the discomfort and have a fair test to see if you like it. When you learn to see like this, every outing becomes an adventure. Walks in your town become new and filled with sights you never noticed. Trips where you actually get away are more exciting, because you are constantly discovering new things that are not on the tourist brochures. Things that are special to you, that become “yours”. It can revolutionize your life.

Today’s image

An interesting road sign found on a tiny back road in Devon, England. We were staying at a time share miles out in the middle of nothing. Wandering around, we found many terrific discoveries. It was a lovely area that is a special place for us still. No tourist map or guide book would have taken you here.

Traveling

An unexpected travel shot. It came from taking the time to stop and watch and wait.

I have been traveling more than usual this year. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I shoot and why. Perhaps it will trigger a response in you.

This is not a typical travel photography article. You won’t find the expected rules and checklists and how-to advice.

How I travel

Travel for me is a rather solitary activity. Being an introvert, I work best alone. Having people around who want to talk about what I am doing and “help” me find pictures is almost always a negative. My wife is occasionally along on these trips, but she has learned to get out of the way and leave me alone when I am shooting. Not always, but that is the norm. I don’t want to make it sound like I push her away, it is just that she knows me enough to recognize when I am in a zone and don’t want to talk.

When I am traveling with an option of doing photography I prefer to drive or be on foot in a large city. In either case I preserve the freedom of exploring, setting my own path, managing my time. I strongly prefer to explore out of the way, seldom seen sights, even if it means missing the main tourist attractions. Actually, especially if it means missing them.

As you can tell, if I have to take a tour, especially in a bus, I feel handcuffed, in prison, doomed to follow someone else’s agenda. I may see some interesting things, but there is seldom the chance to explore something as i would like.

What am I seeking

As I learn more about myself, I realize I can never restrict myself to certain subjects. I’m afraid I will never be that guy who is known for mountain landscapes, or still lives, or seascapes. I recognize that this is a disadvantage from the sense of marketing and branding. Too bad.

Of course there are certain subjects I am naturally drawn to. I like particular kinds of landscapes. The area that might be termed wabi sabe – simply things that age and weather with character – appeals to me. It is almost a given a given that I would check these things out. A joke with my wife and some close friends is that, if we see an old rusty truck, I will want to stop and photograph it. Like most humor, it is based in truth.

But in a more general sense, I have learned that what draws me is the chance to exercise my creativity. When I see an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective or a creative treatment to a subject, I go for it. It does not matter if it is an obscure something on a back road that nobody cares about. If I can visualize it fresh and make an interesting image, that is what I want.

This is one reason I seldom hang out at the iconic viewpoints that everybody seeks. I have no interest in shooting the same image that thousands of other photographers have made. Yes, I may shoot it for my memory, but I would seldom publish a photo like that.

How I approach subjects

This is pretty nebulous. I do not have a distinct process I have written down. I’m just trying to reconstruct my thought processes.

Basically I have an imaginary dialog with the subject. “Who are you?” “What is your story?” “How would you like to be seen?” I don’t really express these things verbally or even consciously. But this is a process I think I go through.

In effect, I am making a portrait of the subject. In a good portrait, the photographer tries to get to know the subject enough to recognize the key characteristics and the underlying personality of the person. This is what I try to do, even if I am shooting an old truck.

It sounds kind of silly to write it down, but it is how I work.

Environment

There are some powerful environmental conditions I have control of that have a strong influence on the outcome and productivity of my shooting. I have learned over time to manage these things.

A powerful one is to get off the freeway. I have seldom made an interesting image alongside a freeway. Cruising down that wide road at 75 mi/hr or more tunnel vision takes over. My focus is the road ahead and cars around me. The most wonderful scene I have ever imagined could be right there next to the road and, if I noticed it at all, I would probably convince myself it was not worth pulling off and falling behind in the traffic stream.

Another is sound. I find that listening to the radio gives a focus that distracts me from creative viewing. My car radio is often off all day. If I am driving at night I may turn it on to help keep me alert, but that is the only time.

Having mild ADHD tendencies, I find I cannot ignore words, either when someone is speaking or in music. When that stimulus is occupying me I tend to ignore a lot of things going on outside. And it is easy to get in a groove and be reluctant to stop to check out possible subjects.

And having a fixed agenda works against my creativity. If it is the middle of the afternoon and I know I have 250 miles to go before I stop, it becomes too easy to judge that this thing I just saw is not worthy of stopping and putting me behind schedule. Agendas can’t always be avoided, but I try.

Gear

Photographers tend to be obsessed with gear and the technical side of the art. Who doesn’t like a great camera and a selection of excellent lenses?

Sorry to disappoint, but I find I become less interested in that with time. The key thing is what you see and what you can do, not your gear. I seem to take less gear each outing.

On a 1 week road trip I just returned from, I took one body and I only shot with 1 lens – a 24-120 f/4. I had a couple of excellent lenses with me, but never attached them. The lens I used is surprisingly good and covers the range I normally shoot in. I like to become comfortable and familiar with what I am using so that once I have visualized what I want, I just pick up the camera and it is a quick and automatic process to capture my vision.

Actually the bulkiest equipment I brought was 2 tripods and a monopod. And I didn’t use 1 of the tripods. Next time I will probably not bring it or the other lenses I had with me.

Just me

I readily say these characteristics are peculiar to me. And I am peculiar. I am in no way suggesting you should do things this way.

Over time I have learned what works for me and what I did that increased the amount of images I like. Being an introvert makes it easier for me to reflect on things like this. I like to figure things out. You need to figure out what works for you and maximize it.

We each have our own unique characteristics and strengths and weaknesses. Learning who we are and what works for us is a big step toward improving our work. And being happier along the way.

Side Trips

Medieval manor house

I love to wander, to travel slowly. Side trips are a refreshing joy to me. Let me encourage you to join in the adventure.

Wandering

I am a wanderer. It seems to be deeply ingrained in me. A good way to frustrate me is to put me in a situation with a tightly planned itinerary. It feels so scripted and limiting.

For years I resisted my wife’s pleas to go on a cruise. I knew I would not like the regimentation and fixed schedule. Reluctantly, I finally relented, but only because we would be gong with close friends. I was right. It was frustrating and I was always concerned about getting back to the ship in time. Seems like we are always leaving port just as the light was getting good for photographing on land. I don’t totally hate cruises. We have been on several now. but I have to put myself in cruise mode and accept that I am not going to be doing much photography that is interesting to me.

Some of my peak travel experiences came back when we owned a timeshare. Ours was exchanged in blocks of 1 week. They were very nice properties, but often in out of the way places. After a day or so we had “seen everything”, but we were there for a week, so then I could get down to hard core wandering. I would get the most detailed map I could find (can’t count on data service in these places) and we would head off. We encountered places we had never heard of or envisioned. Things that were not on any tourist brochures. It was a great joy.

BTW, don’t buy a timeshare now. the prices and rules have changed so much that they are not a great deal. Timeshare now is VRBO.

Excursions

This kind of wandering I described from our timeshare I would call excursions. We had a great fixed base and went off exploring on day trips. I prefer this to planning a route, packing up every day, estimating where we will get to, and trying to arrange ahead for lodging in unknown places. What can I say, I am spoiled.

I also frequently do similar excursions from home. Recently I had to take my wife to the airport for a short trip. The airport is about an hour from our house. After dropping her off, I went for an excursion in eastern Colorado. It turned out to be a 12 hour trip. No itinerary, no real goals, just the freedom to wander and explore the wilds of the plains. I loved it. I haven’t processed them fully yet, but I think I got some shots I will love long term.

Side Trips

Another example: on a family trip coming back from the southeastern part of the country, we were passing through Arkansas. We were on 2 lane highways, as I prefer, when I saw an intriguing sign talking about a marker for the Louisiana Purchase Survey. Never heard of it before. Curious, and always up for possibly interesting side trips, I turned off on a very small road that took us about 5 miles out into what became swamps! Did you know Arkansas had swamps? Neither did I.

Anyway, after the Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800’s the government devised a system for surveying the land so they could start parceling it out. Two survey teams were sent out and where they crossed was designated the”Initial Point of the first survey of the American West” . A marker stone was set there. in the middle of the swamp. Lucky for us, it is in a nice Arkansas park now with boardwalks to take us over the swamp to the survey marker.

This was a fascinating bit of history I did not know and the location was spectacular – to me, since I love swamps. We probably took over an hour seeing this bit of interest we did not know existed. A great side excursion. Sure it put us “behind” on our trip, but so what? This side trip is what I remember.

I love interesting side trips to find obscure things I did not know existed.

Exploring

Long ago I figured out that I am an explorer by nature. Not a Lewis & Clark “head out into the uncharted wilderness for years” guy. But someone who likes to discover new and interesting things. I will get out in all kinds of weather, but I don’t sleep on the ground anymore. 🙂

Exploring doesn’t require long treks in the wilderness. I explore all over my small town all the time. I am surprised that I can still find new and interesting sights. When I’m in town, almost every day I take side trips a few miles around my studio. I have done it so much that is is getting harder to see compelling new sights, but sometimes there is the thrill of discovery. Sometimes familiar things take a whole new look in different light or weather.

If I go to a new city I usually head out on the streets to get oriented and familiar with the sights and looks. Sometimes I even take a camera. Exploring is creative fun. There are always surprising new things to discover.

Don’t be in such a hurry

I know it is totally counter to the modern lifestyle and expectations, but slow down. Look around more. Find new interesting things where you thought you had seen it all. Be willing to take side trips and excursions. It is a creativity exercise that keeps your mind open to discovery.

Not all side trips pay off in great images. Probably most don’t. Even if not, there is the joy of trying and learning something new. As has been said by wiser people, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. But sometimes…

This image

Today’s image is a classic “found along the way” find for me. This is in the Lake District in England. We knew roughly where it was, but, as I am prone to do, we came in from a non-normal way. Basically we came in the back door. I won’t say more because I don’t want to rental car company to know what we did. 🙂

it was a great and beautiful place and I’m glad we did the side trips and wandering necessary to see it.

Boredom

Surprise seaside cliffs in Devon England

Boredom. We’ve all been there. We get in a funk. What we usually see and shoot is distasteful to us. We are discontented. Everything has been done, there is no creativity left. Do you ever feel like this?

The time of year

This article will be published in the depths of winter. Many of us don’t think there is anything interesting to see or shoot. After all, there are no flowers or green trees or lush fields.

I would say, look again. Get out in it. Yes, out in the cold and snow if you have that. Or the rain and clouds. Whatever winter is in your area.

Forget what you want to be shooting. Look with fresh eyes at what is there. You may discover a whole new world. In the words of an old song, “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” While I do not recommend this as a way of managing your relationships, it can be very useful artistically.

I actually love shooting in winter. Today I was out shooting in 70+mph winds and temperatures not much above freezing. Do I love being out in that kind of wind? Not at all. When you have to bundle up in layers of wind-tight clothes and hold your tripod to keep it from blowing over, it looses some of its charm. However, there were great opportunities out there. I have, by chance, been working on a project about wind. Today was a great opportunity to fill in some gaps in the image set.

It happens to all creatives

We all feel blocked, bored, empty at times. The “muse” is not around. We fear our best work is behind us and there is nothing to look forward to. Might as well give up.

You are not alone. We all feel this sometimes. Like temperature and climate and relationships, our mental energy is cyclic. Sometimes the spark seems to be gone. It is a low time for us.

Recognize that this is a natural part of life. Don’t be (too) discouraged. It will change. The creative energy will flood us again. Just give it time.

Use it!

But we don’t have to sit passively waiting for the creativity to return! Use this boredom to propel us to a new level.

If we are bored perhaps we have plateaued on our current path. Maybe we aren’t reaching far enough. It is a great time to reexamine where we are and how we feel about our art. And actually do something about it.

Boredom is frustrating to most of us. Use that! That is an energy and motivation. What are we lacking? Should we strike out in a new direction? What would we love to do if we had the opportunity?

Like with our body, if something hurts, that is a sign that we need to take care of it. Taking care of it doesn’t necessarily mean we should rest it and take a “oh, you poor thing” attitude. Maybe we need to work it, eat right, exercise, build it up.

The point is, the frustration of boredom can be a motivation to change our self or redirect ours thoughts or energy.

Opportunity

I have made some of the best discoveries of my life because I was bored. Really.

Let me give an example. Way back, we owned a timeshare. For those who don’t know them, it is a vacation ownership scheme that was popular at one time. Don’t buy one. It’s not a good investment. The way it worked was, you “bought” a fraction of a property, say one week during the year. Typically your ownership time would be traded for a week at another property. Because of this, we got to visit beautiful places around the world. But a side effect was that we were “planted” at a single location for the week.

This led to interesting trips. On one occasion I can think of, we were in a nice place way out in the country in Devon, England. Ten miles or more from the nearest town. It quickly got boring. As a result, we started exploring. Even though this wasn’t an area you would find featured on many tourist itineraries, the things we found were intensely interesting. We still cherish the memories.

Because of the boredom, we were led to explore with our eyes and minds open. We had to forget the expectations that were not being met and become receptive to the wonderful things that were there. Repeating this experience many times completely changed my travel style. Therefore, now I want to settle in somewhere, get to know it, and have to find out what is there.

Use boredom to your advantage

So I encourage you to let boredom be motivating. With the right attitude it can free and empower us. It can lead us to opening our eyes to our surroundings, to learning new subjects or techniques, to re-evaluating our work and making improvements, to getting out and doing something about it. Or, you can sit on the couch and feel sorry for yourself. Your choice.

The image with this article is one of many surprises we discovered on that “boring” trip to Devon I talked about above. It is a beautiful place with hidden gems all around.

The Highway – Update

General Store, Luckenbach TX

I’ve written before about shooting from the car. I enjoy driving and I do a fair amount of my image captures during car trips. My advice has been to avoid freeways or major highways when you do this. On a recent driving trip I decided to reevaluate this. To drive some freeways to see if they still have the same effect on me. Spoiler alert: the highway is a creativity killer.

Please understand that my advice here is from my personal experience modified with my personality. Even more than most of my articles. Your behavior may be completely different.

Highway anesthesia

What I had found and observed was that driving a freeway is a mind numbing and deadening experience. The miles roll by at high speed. My attention narrows to mainly the road and cars ahead of me. The goals become to get to the destination, pass that traffic in front, and don’t get a ticket.

I may pass by beautiful or interesting sights, but there is too much inertia to stop. He impetus to push on down the road was powerful. It would require something truly amazing to break into my coma and pull off, let all the traffic I passed get ahead of me, and look foolish with all the passing cars staring at me. So I seldom do it.

On the freeway, I may see something potentially interesting, but I can usually talk myself out of stopping. I can convince myself it wasn’t really great. That I will find a better view down the road. Or that it is too dangerous to stop here (maybe a valid objection).

Whatever the reason or excuse, the whine of the wheels is hard to interrupt.

A test

I just got back from a 2700 mile driving trip through parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. That is a lot of open miles. I decided to check to see if my anti-freeway prejudice still holds. To see if I can overcome the bias against stopping.

I drove over 300 miles on freeways or major divided highways. Well, I did not stop for a single picture during any of those miles. I told myself I would stop when I wanted to. I thought about it. But nothing I encountered could inject enough energy to make me do it.

In fairness, a lot of this time I was not in what would be considered pristine landscape areas. But I consider the test valid, because other times, in the same general areas, I got some interesting pictures while driving smaller roads. I believe the difference was the attitude I have when driving smaller roads.

i examined my reactions as carefully as I can and verified that driving freeways causes a different mindset. I am reluctant to stop or to go back to shoot an image. It is hard to break the rhythm, to stop. The highway is hypnotic.

A comparison

Here is a comparison of a specific subject. I drove through huge areas of wind turbines. In one case, on a back road, I stopped and took some side roads and even walked in some fields and got some interesting shots including the turbines, Another time, driving a high speed highway, I drove by a perfectly composed scene, with a single stark white turbine out in a field, with a perfect clear blue sky. The turbine was parked and it was perfectly positioned with one blade pointed straight down and the other 2 lifted in a perfect, symmetrical “Y” and directly facing me. But I drove by it. I wouldn’t bother to stop. I still kick myself about that missed opportunity.

One of the main differences was that on the back road, it was easy to interrupt the trip for promising pictures. On the freeway, even a very interesting image couldn’t convince me to stop.

Another subjective comparison: there are people I know who would pay $1000 to avoid driving across Kansas. I can understand that. But a partial solution is to get off I-70 and take back roads. When I do this I am much happier and I usually come back with some decent pictures.

Why?

I wish I could give a definitive explanation of the root cause of this. If I could, I might be honored as a respected psychologist. But I’m not and I can’t.

I have theories, though, based on my on reactions and introspection. Remember, anything I say here is unscientific and may only apply to me.

I believe the way I travel sets a context, a framework of perception and decision making. On the freeway there is the implicit goal of making progress. Getting to the destination as soon as possible. Minimize stops or interruptions. I’m in a rhythm and I don’t want to break it.

Driving down the freeway and seeing a picture causes a conflict. Now 2 sets of goals are in opposition: speed vs. interrupting the trip for something that actually slows things down. The conflicting goals have to be weighed and balanced. But even if I decide the scene was worth stopping for, the moment is gone. I’m a mile down the road and it would take miles of driving to backtrack to it. And it is much easier to justify that it probably wasn’t worth it and let the momentum carry me down the road.

On a small back road, though, the pace is slower, the traffic is light, and I have put myself in a position of committing to looking for images instead of covering as many miles as possible. Traveling this way also seems to keep me more alert. I am more actively engaged with my surroundings and paying attention, not only to the road, but to everything around. There is a constant background thread of playing with compositions in my mind as I drive by them. It is very educational.

My travel style

My preferred travel style is to only plan on making 300-400 miles a day at most. I avoid nearly all freeways and large divided highways. I then give myself permission to stop whenever something interests me and even to turn off for side trips according to my whim. Unlike the typical male, I will even turn around and go back when a light bulb goes off and I recognize I have passed an interesting scene.

As an extreme example on this trip, we got from Colorado to New Mexico via back roads – well hardly what you would call roads and you would be hard put to find them on a map. My Jeep was caked with mud and I left it on during the rest of the trip as kind of a badge of honor. But we saw very interesting things and I got some good images.

My wife knows, on a driving trip, to bring lots of books and magazines to read while we are stopped. I am very fortunate to be able to create this environment for myself. It would not work for everyone. As a matter of fact, most would probably hate it.

For fun, the image with this article is from back roads in the Texas hill country. It is the old General Store in Luckenbach (yes, that one). Not my normal style, but it was fun.

Slow down

My recommendation is to slow down and give yourself permission to stop for anything interesting. I fully realize this will not work for everyone. But have you tried it? If you are on vacation, can you take an extra day or 2 for your art? What do you have better to do?

I have practiced this on most driving trips for years and I can completely recommend it. Your mileage may vary. It is a very personal choice.