As creative artists and sometimes small business owners, it’s vitally important to continue to learn and grow on many levels, but I urge you to not get so caught up in technical details that you become paralyzed in the field through overthinking every decision.
I love learning new skills and continuing to hone my craft. You might have noticed that I have a relatively good understanding of photography. My friend David duChemin often drops me a line when he has something technical that he’d like describing because he knows that this is one of my stronger areas. My Craft & Vision e-books were born of a need to fill a specific technical hole in their line-up, and my Making the Print book was a direct request from David.
It helps that I have a strong technical background. I was the worst student when I was a kid back in England, but I learned the value of studying after moving to Japan in the early nineties, and I went to college here in Japan from 1995 to learn various computer skills. After getting good grades and passing a few exams I finally realized that I’m not totally stupid, and I went on to study for a number of exams that took me into some great jobs in IT and I continued to build a foundation of both business and technical skills that would help me to wear the many hats that are required to run my company.
I’d love to hire a few more people to help me cover some of the business processes that I have to cover, but to be totally honest, as a 1.5 person company, just me and my wife who helps out part-time, we still aren’t really in a position to expand just yet. Because of this, I change hats literally by the minute sometimes, as I market tours, deal with customer questions, print and post out my fine art prints, manage our accounts and maintain our server and web site etc. to name just a few of the things I get up to on a daily basis.
Hat #33 – Apple App Developer
There are areas when it would make so much more sense to just hire someone, but realistically it just isn’t possible, so I find myself continually being presented opportunities to learn new skills. For example, for the last week, I’ve spent almost every waking hour working through an intensive online course learning how to develop apps for iOS. I have an app that someone kindly created for me many years ago, but it’s now shamefully outdated, and if I don’t update it soon, it will not run on iOS 11 that isn’t very far away now.
I asked around for a few quotes to get the app updated by a third party, but none of them were realistic from a financial perspective. So, I decided to block out some time and learn how to do this myself. At this point, although it’s going to be hard, I already have a good idea how I’m going to tackle not so much updating my current app, but recreating it from scratch, so that I can not only keep it in the App Store, but also add native support for running on the iPad as well as iPhones.
Learn What You Love
I’m getting side-tracked a little here, but I’m telling you this to illustrate a point, which is that the first rule of learning something new should be to pick your battles and invest time in learning what you love to do, which in most cases with our relationship in mind, is going to be photography related. I love making things, which is one of the reasons I fell in love with photography during my teens, and why it has remained a passion for more than thirty years.
Especially as photography has evolved over the last twenty years with the event of digital I found it fascinating to be able to merge my love for computers with my love of photography. I can say in all honesty that if we had continued with film I would probably not be talking with you today, and I definitely wouldn’t have built a photography related business. It’s not that I don’t like film, I just found the connection between photography and the computer so natural and enjoyable.
It was this connection that made photography so much more fun that I was able to give it my absolute all. How cool is it that we can now trip the shutter and see the image a moment later if we want to look? Being able to change the ISO between every image is another thing that I found totally awesome. Some will argue that we can benefit from the restrictions that film brings us, and I agree, as a learning process, but we can learn in similar ways by setting ourselves assignments, like going out with just one old memory card that only fits 36 images on, or taping a zoom lens to a set focal length to learn about framing.
Question Every Decision
Personally, though, I don’t do this kind of exercise either. You might recall my episode on The Mental Checklist, in which I described how I learned so much about photography simply by being deliberate in my processes and questioning every step of my shooting workflow until it became a mental checklist that I worked through as I shot a scene or subject. After working in this deliberate fashion for many years, a lot of the things I used to have to mentally remind myself to do became second nature, but the questioning process remains.
I tend to question all of my decisions, just to keep myself in check, and although I know that I’m not getting every single opportunity available to me, I am making work that I’m mostly happy with, and feel that I come away from most situations relatively happy that I’ve capitalized on my opportunities.
The point here is more about being deliberate. If taping a lens at 50mm will help to force yourself to think about composition, get to it. If simply asking yourself if the current perspective which comes from your focal length and distance to the subject is the optimal perspective for what you are trying to say in your photograph, that may well be enough. I feel that staying conscious of this kind of decision is more important than forcing oneself with physical restrictions, but we are all different and need to find our own best way to evolve and grow.
Trust Your Instincts
One thing that I am very conscious of when deciding how to grow though, as I mentioned earlier, is that I always create goals that lead towards results that I will enjoy. To be honest, the last week has been hard, and I probably have another week of going through my course before I will be able to really start to work on my app, but I have always enjoyed creating things, be it physical objects like a fine art print or canvas gallery wrap, or redesigning my web site.
I find great satisfaction at sitting back and looking through my final selection of images from a trip, or an update photography portfolio. I know that I’m going to be over the moon when I’m able to update my own iOS app, and it never hurts to have an extra skill. Even if I’m able to grow my company to the point where I hire a dedicated app developer, having the knowledge and ability to talk to them on a deep level makes working with people so much easier.
It has to feel right though for me to take a plunge like this and dedicate such a large chunk of time to learning something as complicated as a new computer programing language. I trust my instincts a lot when making these decisions. I have to be excited about the prospect of adding this new skill.
Deciding Your Photography Genres
In my photography, this is similar to how I decide the sort of photography that I will invest my time in. Living in Tokyo, a city of thirteen million, I have endless opportunities around me to do street photography, but it doesn’t excite me. I love looking at street photography, but I don’t enjoy doing it enough to prioritize my own time to go out and shoot street.
I get infinitely more pleasure out of photographing nature and landscapes, and my travel photography is also very special to me. I think it’s partly because it’s so removed from my everyday environment, but when I look at work in the genres that I have chosen it feels more natural and more me. This is probably a strong indication that I’ve found the genres in which I excel and in turn, I prioritize my time to concentrate more on these genres that I want to continue to grow in.
Studying to Stay Engaged
When I first started to learn photography, before we had access to the Internet as we do now, I read books on the basics. I learned about apertures, shutter speeds, and the exposure triangle etc. I learned compositional theory and everything I needed to know to get out with the camera and start to experiment.
Most of the studying I did was great to help me build a strong foundation, but the main reason that I would study back then, was to keep myself engaged in a hobby that I had become so passionate about, that I wanted to be doing something photography related for as much time as possible. I’m recalling when I first got to Japan now, back in 1991, when I would get home from work and study Japanese for a few hours, but then with some free time to kill, I’d pick up a book on photography.
I’m sure you’ve felt the same. You become so fixated on something that you love, that you start to look up as much information on that subject as possible, just to quench your thirst for whatever it is that you’ve fallen in love with. This is a wonderful driving force that we can use to absorb lots of information that really help to drive us forwards.
Studying is Not The Goal
Herein though lies one possible problem that I’d like to talk about a little more. As I come into contact with photographers in the field and in teaching environments, I’m running into more and more people are obviously totally overwhelmed with information and the desire to consume every bit of photography knowledge available to them.
This drive and momentum can be a huge enabler when it comes to learning more about our craft, but it’s leading to two very serious problems, which are the main reasons I decided to share my thoughts on this with you today.
Firstly, I’m seeing people that are spending so much time online studying every aspect of photography, that they are cutting down on the time that they could actually be out with the camera. The act of studying photography for some people becomes the goal. If you find yourself more excited by the act of studying photography than actually doing it, you might want to consider your motivations.
I know that I’m seen as a bit of an authority, thanks to the detail that I put into my posts and podcasts, which is also helped by my engineering and technical background. But, you might be surprised to hear that I’ve not studied much of what I talk about in order to learn what I know about photography.
I’ve learned pretty much everything I know through getting out and doing it, then most of the time guessing what I need to do to overcome issues. For very complicated topics, I will research specific areas online, but generally do just enough to set myself back on the right track, and figure the rest out for myself.
Doing and Achieving
I think perhaps one of the problems might be that we are surrounded by information, and with the Internet, we have access to people that know their stuff. Maybe for someone that feel there is still a long way to go on their learning path, there is a certain amount of pressure to try and suck up as much information as possible.
I guess what I’m saying is that it comes down to confidence. It’s natural to study harder if you don’t feel confident in your ability to go out and make beautiful images. But, that assumes that the problem is a lack of knowledge of photography, but I’d propose that this can also come simply from not providing yourself with enough opportunities to make beautiful photographs.
Maybe it’s because you aren’t visiting locations that really strike a chord with your own creative desires, or possibly you are not able to translate what you know you want to create in your mind’s eye to your actions as you photograph your chosen subject, and that leaves you feeling inadequate, and that drives you to study and study.
Only by actually creating work that at least gets close to what we’d like to create gives us a feeling that we have achieved a certain amount of mastery. We don’t feel as though we’ve mastered something by reading a book or doing an online course. We only feel that confidence after putting what we learned into practice, and have images that we feel happy with, or at least start to edge closer to that state.
Of course, even once you feel that you have a good technical grasp of photography, and you are happy with your composition and creative decisions, there is always room for improvement. Even people that have mastered every aspect they require to do their work continue to learn. I’d propose that this learning is not about the effects of aperture and focus distance on depth-of-field, or trying to wrap their head around the circle of confusion, but more about the struggle with how they can continue to create even more beautiful photographs.
One thing that I want to make totally clear is that I’m not saying that there is no need to study photography. It’s absolutely necessary to build a solid foundation, and then continue to bolster your knowledge with continuous top-ups. What I am saying, is that we have to achieve a balance between the time we spend learning about photography and the time we spend doing photography and putting what we learned to practice, building success experiences or identifying the areas that we need to spend more time thinking about.
In addition to the first problem of studying become the goal rather than getting out with the camera, the other problem that I’m seeing as more and more information becomes available to us, is that some people develop a serious case of analysis paralysis.
People sometimes get so wrapped up in thinking through formulas and trying to implement techniques that they’ve learned, that they stop asking themselves the important questions that would otherwise lead them to figure out the problem for themselves. What’s often worse, is that they are no longer able to simply enjoy the moment and what I consider to be a meditative experience when making photographs.
On my workshops I’ve been called over for advice, and before long find myself having to just ask the participant to stop thinking about all of the stuff that they’ve learned and take a step back, and just think about the problem at hand. The knowledge that you’ve learned academically only starts to become your own when you apply it to achieve a specific goal or overcome a specific problem that you personally are encountering.
This academic knowledge is useful and necessary, but people get so wrapped up in other peoples’ reasons for applying it that it stifles them, effectively causing a type of analysis paralysis in the field. This stops you from being open the scene and removes you from the moment, which is a shame because we can only capture what we fully appreciate. We need to be there to have any kind of chance of really capturing the essence of the moment in our photographs.
Knowing Your Gear
Let’s consider a few other points that will hopefully help to maximize our opportunities in the field. One thing that will remove you from the moment is fumbling with your gear. Learn your gear, and buy into a camera system that doesn’t fight you. I’ve seen people on my tours that spend time trying to figure out how to do some very basic things, like turn on Auto-ISO or enable continuous focusing.
Of course, I help with this when I’m there, but you aren’t always going to be on a workshop with someone that can help. You need to know how to change at least the commonly used settings, and quite often this requires you to just set time aside and sit down and read the manual. As well as I know my Canon cameras, whenever I buy a new camera, I sit down for an evening with the manual and make sure I understand all of the new features and what’s changed over the previous generation of that camera.
And at the very least, make sure you put the PDF of your camera’s manual on your phone or iPad or even drop the paper manual into your camera bag before going on a trip so that you can figure out how to do something while you are out and about. Ideally, you don’t want to be looking stuff up in the heat of the moment, but having your manual with you can prevent some very vexing situations, especially on multi-day trips.
Ultimately, as we’ve already discussed, the only way to really understand your camera is to use it a lot. If you only shoot for two weeks a year when you travel, you’ll lose all of the muscle memory and it all feels very rusty. We have to keep the gears oiled by shooting regularly, even if it’s just by slinging your camera over your shoulder when you go out for a walk. It’s not always about creating killer shots. For me, just the act of raising the camera to my eye, composing the photo and releasing the shutter is a relaxing, therapeutic action, and this helps us to keep our shooting muscle memory in shape.
Identifying and Solving Problems
As we gain a grasp of the basics, it’s vitally important to get out into the field and start to find real problems that need solving. We only really understand how to apply what we’ve learned by overcoming problems that we face in real life.
You might for example photograph a mountain stream or a waterfall and find that you don’t feel the results are as aesthetically pleasing as you’d hoped, and you need to identify what it is that you want to change, and what you have to do to make that change. Identifying and then solving problems, again and again, is what makes use better photographers.
The more problems we solve, the better we get at solving problems. One way to bring your waterfall shot closer to what you were hoping to create might be to use a neutral density filter to allow the water to move during your exposure, creating that beautiful silky effect that I’m sure you’re familiar with.
The next question is going to be which ND filter to use to get the results you want. Quite often between a half and, one second is a great shutter speed for shooting waterfalls, and depending on the amount of ambient light, might require a three-stop ND8 filter. You might also learn through experience that photographing waterfalls in direct sunlight doesn’t really work. It’s best to shoot them on heavily overcast days or when the sun isn’t shining directly on them.
Of course, if you don’t even own any neutral density filters yet, this would be your prompt to buy some. Personally, I don’t like or use gradual neutral density filters, and the large square filter systems are too bulky, difficult to use in inclement weather, and I just feel that they are unnecessary. I’m now buying my circular solid neutral density filters from Breakthrough Photography. Their X4 ND filter series is amazing!
Develop a Visual Database
One of the best ways to understand that we can do better is to look at the work of others. Buy books of photographs from masters in your chosen genres. There are way too many to name them all, but I have books from people such as Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna, Nick Brandt, Michael Freeman, Paul Kicklen, Tony Sweet and the amazing Sebastiao Salgado. We don’t have to mimic these photographers or compare ourselves to them, but I think building a mental database of visual possibilities is vital to help us to question our own work and see where we might be able to do better.
The more visual possibilities you memorize, the more likely you are to identify and hopefully avoid a potential problem with an image as we create it. Even after we get home and start to go through our images though, it’s really important to ask why some images didn’t turn out as well as we’d hoped, and commit the answers to these questions to memory to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
Always Room for Improvement
We all have to go through this, and the cool thing is that it never really stops. It doesn’t matter how accomplished we become, there is always room for improvement. Although I am often happy with some of the photographs I come home with, I go through very natural phases when I think my work sucks. Thankfully once my emotional rollercoaster ride is over, I’m generally happy with my final selection, although I always know that as I grow, I will be able to do better.
I think this is important to drive us forwards. We have to continue to look for areas in which we can improve, and if my process of questioning myself in the field doesn’t help me to improve as I shoot, I store the insights that I gain from my image editing process in my mental database and try to implement these ideas as I continue to shoot. It would be great to be able to simply think through the next twenty years and just be amazing right now, but I believe this has to be an iterative process. We have to grow in stages, to ensure that we have a firm foundation on which to grow.
To wrap this up, I’d just like to ensure that you understand a few of the points I’m trying to make here. The most important thing is that I am not saying that we shouldn’t study. If you are using your spare time to suck up information, and simply find that enjoyable, that’s great! Indeed, if you have a strong desire to do an online course to learn something new, and the weekend is the only time you have, by all means, do it, even if it means skipping your weekend shoot. It will hopefully help you to overcomes problems that you are facing.
What I strongly urge you to do though, is consider your motives. If you are trying to build your confidence as a photographer, please don’t give studying the theory preference over getting out with your camera and making photographs. Ultimately that is the only way you’ll get better at making photographs and solidifying the theory that you’ve learned.
I really urge you to also just check that the act of studying itself has not become the goal. There is no point in studying every aspect of photography if you prioritize this so high that you never pick up your camera and go outside to use it, or if it stifles you in the field. We can become infinitely better photographers by being deliberate in our actions and decisions as we make our photographs.
I’d even propose that we can be so much more by poring over books of photographs from artists that we respect and nurture our visual database of possibilities while honing our problem-solving skills to overcome issues that prevent us from creating the sort of work that we long to create.
Lean On Me
One last thought is that if you have any specific areas of photography that you simply cannot grasp or would just like to know more about, feel free to mention this in the comments below or drop me a line via our contact form. Of course, I don’t know everything, but I have a good handle on lots of stuff, and I can always queue up a topic to talk about as time allows, so don’t be shy. Also, just take a moment to hit the search button at the top of the screen, and see if I haven’t already covered what you are interested in.
The Mental Checklist episode: https://mbp.ac/498
Get Breakthrough Photography Filters here: https://mbp.ac/x4NDs
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