A Brief Note: I have started and stopped this post for quite some time. To that extent it is just a continuous work in progress and much longer than my general posts. If you read the whole thing I applaud your efforts. Hopefully you will find something that resonates with you.
Occasionally I run across articles and blog postings that present suggestions for making better images. Most of these are suggestions in list format, or attempt to break photography down into the "Top 5", or Top 10, things you should do to make better photographs. In some ways these lists can be quite helpful and in many ways they are not. In my own journey with photography, a lot of it largely self taught, I have admittedly utilized such lists when they have some compelling thoughts that interest me or may help to influence my own work. Many of these lists though just state the obvious and perhaps that is a fine for those who are just starting out in their pursuit of photography. But I have seen the "list syndrome" in friends who have just picked up a camera as well as in workshop participants. They tend to hone in on what the list says versus what it means. They settle for preconceived and absolute notions ranging on the technical, such as on camera settings and image processing, to the largely esoteric concepts on composition or other hard to fathom maxims such as "learn to read the light". Lists are good for running errands or shopping in the grocery store. I do not think they are good for photography.
To be honest I have found no absolutes in photography other than perhaps the Exposure Triangle. This one was drummed into my head in my very first photography classes when I was in college. Prior to that, and I had been using a camera since the 8th grade, I loaded the film and essentially guessed on the exposure. The result was a lot of bad images. And I mean a lot. When I upgraded from a rangefinder to a high-end Minolta with lots of lenses, I still made a lot of bad images. I did not understand light, composition, or even how my camera worked other than placing the exposure match-needle in the center. Never mind that I typically blew out the sky and grossly underexposed the foreground. Back in those days, those wonderful pre-internet days, there was not a lot of information for someone like me who was trying to figure it all out. Perhaps a list of things to consider at that time would have been helpful. I prefer to think my abilities today have come from the school of hard knocks or re-imagined through the help of mentors.
I do not believe that photography happens by consulting a list of the 5 or 7 or 10 things "you" need to do to make better images. Do this, don't do that, always compose in the Rule of Thirds, set you camera this way or that way, and the list goes on, really just gets in the way of making images. Photography is a life-long journey and it is not always an easy trip. Enlightenment comes in many small and incremental steps. Enlightenment comes by practice and making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Enlightenment might well be an esoteric concept for photography, but I suggest it as a way of asking questions, both of yourself and of others. Enlightenment in the Buddhist sense is an awakening and in the Hindu sense it is a state of transcendent divine experience. I think awakening and transcendent divine experience sums up my love of photography. Every time I walk into the landscape and point my camera at a scene I awaken to what is before me and it is the exploration and the making of the image that becomes the divine experience. The act of being in the landscape, the exploration, the process of seeing, the making of the images, and the ultimate processing of the files is all about awakening and experience. This kind of engagement cannot be done from a list.
In my own journey, both current and past, I often struggled to make images. I would look at the photographs of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Galen Rowell and and wondering how they made the shots. And when I finally made my first trip to Yosemite and Death Valley I brought home a lot of poorly framed and exposed slides. Looking back on these images today, and yes I still have quite a few of them, they were shot in the wrong time of the day, lacked a subject, were poorly composed, many out of focus, and grossly under-exposed or over-exposed. I found my efforts frustrating at the very least. Having majored in graphic design and architecture I considered myself to be a fairly artistic individual. The concepts of layout and design, the positioning of elements, the interplay of forms, color palettes and color theory, perspective, story telling, the nature and direction of light, or the consideration of extension and connection of space through architectural design are all very relative concepts in making photographs. But I just was not able to apply this in my own work. The muse was not there. For a time I left photography. It was easier to bury the desire and pursue my other design work.
Ultimately the fire was reawakened through the form of a guide. It is a simple story where I had a chance meeting with the photographer of a series of landscape images that brought forth questions on HOW were these images made. It was my first introduction to the concepts of managing light and the split neutral density filter. Craig Tanner became a mentor for me and put me on a path of photographic exploration, awakening, and experience. Along the way there have been others who have stopped by to feed the muse with more gifts of knowledge. But it all began with the question of HOW. The question off HOW actually woke me up. Many years ago, Craig wrote an essay entitled The Myth of Talent, and when questioned about the break that launched his career, he said that "finally facing the ultimate fear was what it took for me to truly wake up and start to live. On the only level that matters - on the inside – I became a photographer because I entered the realm of my most closely held and passionate desires and I was committed to remain there - in that perfect place where anything is possible".
It has been nearly twenty years since I asked that question. It has been a long journey of passion and practice. My skills and knowledge have certainly increased but the path, and gratefully so, is still long. There is so much more to learn, see and do. Even today I continue to ask the question HOW. HOW ultimately leads you to the place where "anything is possible". So let's put away the lists and awaken to our own possibilities. Engage the energy of your passions and put away your self doubts. Years ago, when I was testing to Black Belt in Kung Fu, a fellow student broke down in tears before the test. She questioned her ability to take the test and feared what might happen. She asked Master Reid what she should do. He simply said "breathe", and walked away. Everything, moving forward from that point, was up to her. Instead of being in the moment she existed in the fear of the future and the doubts of the past.
Photography is like that for me. In fact I love photography because it is such an act of the moment. I once told a friend that when I am behind the camera it is the only time I can suppress the noises in my head. Now lest you think I am crazy, the noises are simply the attributions of our intensely busy lives. It is hard to be in the moment when everything from work life to family life, and everything in between, is vying for attention. I use photography to help bring me back to the simplicity of the moment.
So if you have gotten this far I again will applaud your diligence. I will end this with a few thoughts that might keep you moving forward in photography. Let's consider them to be ideas. The first is simply to allow yourself the room to fail. It is OK to fail. Failure leads to breakthroughs which leads to those powerful moments of awakening. Remember the question of HOW. Be kind to yourself and just enjoy the path.
Practice. If you can find the time to practice everyday you will unlock things you never thought existed. Practice making images, explore the settings on your camera, read books and watch videos, study the work of others that you admire, ask questions (there is that HOW concept again), and process images. I personally do this work every day, and everyday I learn something new. I have worked hard to make the technical aspects of my camera automatic. I know where all of the buttons and settings are located and what they will do. I can do this in the dark and when the light is rapidly changing. Making the technical automatic frees you to react to changing conditions and frees you to be in the moment.
Looking at the work of others who are further along the path can be very helpful. It can also be frustrating if taken as a point of comparison to yourself. Resist this. The path you walk can only be yours, but asking for help from others is a powerful way to move forward. Twenty years ago I asked the photographer who became my first mentor, "HOW", and a new world of possibilities opened up. Do not be afraid to contact a photographer whose work you admire and ask them some questions. The good ones will respond. The ones who are willing to give back and remember their own humble beginnings and the struggles they faced have much to offer. And remember that one day you will be further up the path so do not forget to give back.
For some time now I have felt constrained by my narrow focus on landscape photography. In my early years photography was about much more than one type of subject matter. A recent switch to a new camera system though reignited some lost passions and brought me back to the joys of just making images. I have been shooting portraits, street images, architecture, macro, and yes I am still shooting landscapes. The point I hope I am ultimately making, no matter what you photograph, is to pursue this craft with a joy and passion. Keep asking those questions, read, make images, find a mentor, and just get on the path. Enjoy the journey. RHC