We like to promote the impression that we are a professional, so what we do is always deliberate and we know exactly what the result will be. Too bad it is not true for many of us. Sometimes our best discoveries are a result of happy accidents. If we are open to them we can learn a lot.
Have a plan
Shouldn’t we have a deliberate plan before we go out shooting? That depends on what you are doing and what your personality is. If you are shooting for someone, of course have a well thought out plan. You are contracted to produce agreed on results. You have to deliver.
I am a “fine art” photographer, though. My only client is myself. This “client” is looking for great experiences and images that are meaningful to me and that excite me. Those are very hard to plan.
I find it best to have one or two project themes in mind and then put myself is harm’s way, so to speak, by getting out and shooting. My best work is done by being in the moment and reacting to what I find rather than just thinking about what I might do.
So no, I don’t really plan. A plan for me might be to decide to go east today. That determines the general nature of what I will find.
I expect accidents to happen and I expect many of them to be happy ones. An accident does not imply something bad or disruptive. It just means it was unforeseen and unexpected. An accident in my terms is not usually an event that happens. Rather it is the recognition of an opportunity I had not considered.
If I have a few project ideas kicking around in my head to seed my thoughts, I wait for something to trigger some kind of recognition. I have to stay wide open to what is there so I allow myself to recognize what I am seeing. This is my own brand of mindfulness.
Being receptive is the hard part for many of us. Especially you Type A personalities. If you are heavy on control and planning you tend to put blinders on to other opportunities that present themselves.
Not being a Type A, I am usually content to go out empty, as Jay Maisel would say. I enjoy just having some vague ideas in mind to slightly focus my thoughts and wait for things to come to me as I wander around.
Let’s say I am thinking about a project on “The Forest”. I go to a forest cause, well, that’s where you find forest pictures. I wander around aimlessly for a while, shooting a few frames to get the creative juices flowing. After getting the obvious shots out of the way, I start asking myself more questions. What is the essence I am feeling? What is a forest, really? Is there anything unique about this group of trees? Can I offer any insight on this? Things like that.
If my mind is engaged and things go well, I will get past the obvious, shallow first impressions and start delving deeper into my feelings about this place and what I am seeing. Magic can happen then. I seem to be operating on a different plane. Suddenly new worlds of sights open up and I see a different forest than I had before. At this point I can do creative work.
By being receptive to my feelings and what I am encountering, I can create images that show a new perspective on the subject. This usually will not happen unless I can get into a mindset of being grateful and receptive and respectful of what is around me.
Get out of your own way
Finding this state is not easy until you have done it enough times to trust the process. You have to get out of your own way. Stop trying to control so much. Gratefully take what is there and use it to the best of your ability.
There is a yin/yang battle going on in my mind. Part of me is instinctively framing and shooting as I intuitively recognize good images. Another part of me is questioning. Asking “why?”, “what am I drawn to here?”, “how could I get deeper to the core of this?”. This questioning dialog subtly guides the instinctive shooting process and helps refine my view of the subject.
But there needs to be a healthy balance. Don’t become paralyzed by over-thinking what you are doing. On the other hand, don’t just go totally open loop and shoot all day without any self-examination of what you are getting and why.
Results count. For me it may be better to say the quality of the results count. When I went out to shoot I may have had a vague notion of what I expected to find and capture. If I have taken advantage of the happy accidents I encountered, what I ended up with may not have been at all what I expected. Hopefully I will think that what I ended up with is much better than what I expected to get.
It is kind of a mental game that takes practice to master. In a way it is probably like being in a flow state. If you have never experienced it, it is just an abstract concept. Once you have experienced it, it is “Wow! That’s great! I want to do this a lot more”.
That is how I feel about happy accidents.
This is one of those unexpected, happy accidents. This is sort of a follow up on the idea of working on a “The Forest” project.
When I went out to shoot this day I had no idea I would end up with pictures of a burned forest. I went up high and came to a burn area of a few years ago. Usually I would avoid a scene like this. It makes me sad to see so much of the forests near me burned. Knowing they will never come back in my lifetime.
This time I found the sights and designs of the burned trees fascinating. It reminded me that there can be beauty even in death and destruction. It is a natural cycle. Besides, just taken on their own it kind of reminds me of a stark pen and ink drawing. Something I really appreciate.
This was my introspection on a forest that day.