Today I share an inspiring conversation with photographer, musician and author, Marc Silber, in which we discuss some of his awesome life-experiences, many of which play a key part in his new book called Create – Tools from Seriously Talented People to Unleash Your Creative Life.
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the book a few months ago and from the start it pulled me in and did not let go until I’d finished it. After reading the book I had the pleasure of talking to Marc for this podcast, so please listen to our conversation with the audio player above.
Here are some of the notes that I took in preparation for our conversation:
Having read this book I can say with conviction that it is probably one of the most comprehensive books and guides to leading a creative life that I have read. Before we talk more about the book, we hear more about the man behind it. Marc tell us a little about himself and how he got started in photography.
Marc emphasizes at one point that for some people it’s not so much that they do creative things, but their very existence is creative.
In Marc’s conversation with Chris Burkard he touches on the fact that there are no shortcuts. Success comes from years of hard work, and goes on to say that there is an entitlement mentality in society. I feel these things to be so true. I’ve had people ask me for advice on how to be successful, and tongue-in-cheek I often reply that I work really hard creating my podcast every week for 14 years at this point, and still I have to do more. I want to emphasize that it’s not easy, and takes a lot of persistence and dedication.
Camille Seaman says a similar thing to Chris Burkard, mentioning that people want to be fed idea rather than coming up with their own. Camille talks about the importance of knowing what makes you happy and what makes you unhappy. I have built my business around doing things that make me happy, and that in my opinion is the reason I can devote enough time to produce quality products and services.
Marc recalled his experience falling out of a tree, initially telling himelf that he was dead, but then recalls being enlightened by the feeling of being alive. I asked Marc to tell us more about that experience.
On page 55 Marc writes “I am so grateful that I made creativity a major part of my life, it has kept me young by causing me to continue to imagine.” I love that sentiment, and can really relate to it. My wife calls me a 52-year-old school–boy.
In Chapter 4 Marc gets into the tools that we use, and there’s a great quote from Jeff Duntemann, “A good tool improves the way you work. A great tool improves the way you think.” I think it’s refreshing to see someone talking about the importance of tools like this, as it’s been fashionable for a while to discount the value of the tools we use. I’m a big believer that having tools that we can enjoy using feeds our creativity. (I do of course also agree that although being happy with our tools is important, it’s not necessary to fixate on the tools as a shortcut to great images. It’s the person using the tools that is most important.)
There was one point in our conversation when Marc showed us his Osmo, and also recalls a knife that he received from his father, and I captured these screenshots over Skype to show you what they looked like.
Note that although I mention that the book would go live on the day that I release this podcast, I’m actually about a week late, but you can get a copy of Create from Amazon.com with this link: https://amzn.to/2YuT1p8
In this week’s post, I’m going to relay my thoughts on spending lots of time on lengthy post-processing techniques to “improve” our images, or more accurately, what I do to avoid spending this time, including some self-acceptance advice, based on communication with a listener.
This episode was spurred by a recent email exchange with listener Evan Stewart from Saint Louis, Missouri, so I want to start by thanking Evan for the mail, your questions, and providing some food for thought.
In the exchange, Evan asked how much I use Photoshop and mentioned that he is at the point in his photography where he can’t help being curious about trying more advanced techniques such as focus stacking, exposure blending, and luminosity masking, and was asking if I used some of these techniques in my own photography. My reply may well be useful to others, so I decided to share and expand on that reply here on the blog.
To set the stage and relay a kind of disclaimer about what I’ll follow on to, I will start by saying what I said to Evan in a follow-up to my main reply, which is that some people feel as though they must spend hours on a photo to make it good, and I feel for them. Aimed at anyone that spends a lot of time on images, I do understand that some people simply enjoy working on images.
I personally do not, which is why I shoot and process the way I do, as I’ll explain shortly, but I can spend hours on my computer doing other things. It’s all personal preference, so please understand that what I’m going to talk about today is not condemning anyone for spending time on images if that’s what you like doing.
If however, you find yourself spending a lot of time working on images to recuse them, and the time spend is putting pressure on you, it may well be time wasted, so I hope that what I’ll relay today will help you to save some of that time, so that you can spend it doing something else more enjoyable.
How Often Do I Use Photoshop?
In reply to Evan’s question about how much I use Photoshop to process my images, I said that I do use Photoshop to work on my photos very rarely. Probably less than 0.1% of my images are edited outside of Capture One Pro, but when they are, I use Photoshop. I used to edit some of my images in the Nik Software suite, named Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro, but I haven’t used these applications at all since switching to Capture One Pro just over two years ago now. Some of the effects that I was getting can be done in Photoshop, but I did like the results I was getting with Nik until Capture One Pro gave me an alternative that I liked.
Time Spent on Image Processing
Partly because of how I shoot, I actually spend less than 30 seconds on the vast majority of my images. Occasionally I shoot something that requires more work, say for example if there are power lines running through a scene, and I decide to shoot it anyway, this kind of photo would require more work, but even then I generally don’t spend more than five minutes or so.
I understand that how little I do may result in my images not being quite as impactful as some of the work of the other photographer’s but this is my style, and I personally enjoy my results. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m under no delusions that I’m some kind of amazing photographer, but I do make work that I am happy with, and for the vast majority of photographer’s out there, I think this is a good place to be in our work.
Content, Not Complacent
Having said that, I also think it’s important to make a distinction between being content with our work and being complacent. Being content leave room for improvement, and I’m always on the look-out for a better photograph, and ways to improve my work, but I want to make those changes in the field, during the creation of the images, not after the event on my computer.
Complacency, on the other hand, leaves no room for improvement, and this is a place that I never want to be. Even though I shoot some locations every year, there is always an opportunity to improve, and being self-critical is vitally important to that process, and for me, this self-criticality starts in the field, while I still have a chance to change my raw materials, literally my raw images.
Raw, Not RAW
That statement reminds me of a time when Jeffrey Friedl, who you may know for his amazing Lightroom Plugins, pulled me up for spelling raw in capitals, like an acronym. Jeffrey is probably one of the most knowledgeable people I know and realized I’d been getting this wrong when he told me that raw images literally are just raw, as in not cooked, rather than R.A.W. actually meaning something.
It doesn’t help that most camera manufacturers and many people in the industry use RAW, but I can say with my hand on my heart that since Jeffrey explained this to me, I have not only always used the lower case raw, but I think I’ve had a deeper appreciation for what raw images really are, and this also leads nicely to one of the main reasons that I work hard not to make copies of my images in a format that takes me away from my raw files.
The moment you export and edit your images in a program like Photoshop, or the Nik plugins, you will eventually end up saving your image in a format other than your original raw image format, and once you do that, you lose the ability to easily update your photographs to the latest and greatest versions of the processing engines that come with your chosen image editing and management software. I use Capture One Pro, but this is the same with Lightroom and many other applications that are what we call “non-destructive”.
When I first started using Capture One Pro just over two years ago, it was at version 9, and since then, there have been two major releases taking us to version 11, and both of these releases have brought improved image processing with an updated processing engine. When I first processed the image that we’ll look at in a moment, I had some cloning to do that was not possible in Lightroom, so my only option at the time was to take my image into Photoshop to do my editing. This was one of the rare times when I round-tripped out of Lightroom and ended up with a PSD file with my changes baked in.
I resented the time I’d spent in Photoshop though within just a few weeks. I’d taken my original photo into Silver Efex Pro and converted it to black and white, but as I lived with the image I realized that I’d made the trunks of the trees in the foreground a little too dark. I had to go back into Silver Efex Pro and reprocess it, and that meant that I had to also go back into Photoshop and clone out the cable car lines a second time. This felt like such a waste of time to me.
Then, a few months later, in the summer of 2016 I switched to Capture One Pro, and during my initial tests of the product, I used the same image to see if I could both create black and white images that were as good if not better than Silver Efex Pro, and I checked to see if I could do cloning in Capture One Pro, so that I could avoid baking my changes into a destructive file format rather than keeping them in their original raw format.
It turned out that Capture One Pro passed both of these tests, so I now had a copy of my original raw file with all of the cloning done in Capture One and so when versions 10 and then 11 came out, I just clicked a button to update the processing engine, and the image grew incrementally better with more subtle detail and better handling of the shadows. I was able to improve my photo twice, with no more effort than a couple of mouse clicks, simply because I had been able to keep my image in its original raw format, so this is a major time-saver and benefit.
My “No See, No Edit” Policy
Let’s take a look at the image I’m referring to as we start to discuss more of the methods that I use to help improve my photography and save me time in post-processing. Since I started shooting digital back in 2000 I made a conscious decision to kill two birds with one stone. I’m not a purist in the sense that I will not clone anything out of my images, but I don’t like to make the decision to do so lightly. I want to modify the content of my images based a deliberate, conscious decision.
Couple with a desire to create images that require as little as possible work on the computer, I decided to train myself to be more observant in the field, by sticking to my personal policy not removing anything that I was not aware of when I exposed the photograph. If I didn’t see it in the field, I do not allow myself to change it later in postprocessing.
What this means is that if I see the cable car lines running through a scene, I am OK with removing them later, but if I do not see the cable car lines or anything else distracting in the image until I get it onto my computer, I do not allow myself to remove the distraction. I’m left with two options, live with the annoying element, or throw the image out, and 99% of the time I go with the latter option.
To illustrate this, here’s a photograph from Mount Asahi in Hokkaido, with the lines of the cable car running through the scene. I knew about these when I composed the photograph but liked this scene so much that I decided to spend the time to remove them later. There is actually also a large pillar to support the cables, but I positioned my camera so that I hid that behind the third foreground tree from the left. Another decision that I made to help save me time on the computer.
To see the cable cars on the left side of the photo, grab the vertical line in the middle and drag it over to the left side of the image. You’ll see the cables behind the trees across most of the left side of the photograph. Another minor benefit of keeping my images in raw is that I could show you the processed black and white image today, and just turn off the cloning adjustments for the before/after images.
I have found though that my policy of not allowing myself to remove anything that I didn’t see when I initially made the photo has really helped me to be more deliberate in my compositions. There were times when I had to throw out images that I otherwise really liked, so I soon learned that I had to do better. It’s surprising how much a little self-kicking can do. I really recommend it to all photographers.
No Exposure Blending
Evan had asked if I had come to peace with not using any exposure blending techniques, but for me, it’s not so much a case of coming to peace with not using techniques like exposure blending, I really just don’t believe it’s necessary. Part of this in my case is because I don’t often shoot in very bright weather that might cause really high contrast images, but apart from a few times well over ten years ago, when our cameras weren’t as capable as they are now, I really just haven’t photographed any scenes that in my mind needed more than one frame to capture the necessary dynamic range.
Part of this is also my own sense of the aesthetic. You might remember me talking about this photo (below) earlier this year about how I often let the windows go white in my Namibia work from Kolmanskop. This is not because I’m too lazy to take multiple shots and blend them together, but because I really just prefer to see the images that way. It leaves more to the imagination and to me, feels a little more surreal than a photo where we can see both the inside of the room and the exterior perfectly exposed.
Similarly, I don’t mind in this photograph that the walls are leaning outwards from the angle that I shot this. That is not to say that I never do any keystone adjustments mind. I do, but only when the effects that I a remove are a distraction for me. I think people sometimes feel that they have to remove any and all form of distortion, and again, that’s each individuals decision to make, but personally, I don’t feel that every photograph has to be absolutely perfect in this respect.
Don’t Deliberate, Be Deliberate!
In complete contradiction to that sense of not caring for the above image though, I should note that I do quite often take the time to ensure that my camera is at just the right height to prevent my vertical lines from leaning in at least part of the time. This falls under my heading of being deliberate. I find it ironic that the same word pronounced differently has both ends of the spectrum covered for me in this respect.
I won’t “deliberate” over some issues, such as leaning walls, or spending hours on images in post, but I absolutely will be “deliberate” and take the time necessary to craft my compositions, so that everything is just as I want it, as I did for this photo (below) where I moved the frame on the floor to a more pleasing location and spent extra time ensuring that my camera was at the right height to get all of the vertical lines perfect straight.
I guess it’s also ironic that I completely don’t care that we can’t see everything outside the windows to the right in this shot as well. I think my point is, once again, that we have to develop a sense of what we are happy with, and in many respects, this takes time and confidence in our work.
As I think about this for today’s post, I realize that Evan’s email to me that prompted this post had a more appropriate subject than I had initially thought. I started this post with a different title, but as I write, I’ve adopted the subject of Evan’s mail, which was “Developing your Style and Self-Acceptance”.
In some areas of my photography, I’m a stickler for getting it right and ensuring that everything is perfect, but in other areas, I simply decide to not give a hoot, and that really does come from reaching a point where you can not care what other people think. Having the confidence to say that it is simply not important to be able to see what’s outside, and deciding that the walls are leaning outwards doesn’t matter, comes from having a strong sense of self-acceptance.
The Roll of Your Trusted Critique
If you listen to everything that everyone will tell you it can be quite paralyzing, as you really will never be able to please everyone. This is where the significance of your trusted critique comes into play, and equally important, is developing the ability to ignore the words of the untrusted critique.
I’ve mentioned a number of times in the past that my wife is who I consider my main “Trusted Critique”, although there are a few others around the world whose advice I will head. Whenever I have a decision to make about my photography or any other creative pursuit for that matter, I don’t consider my work to be complete until I’ve run it past my wife. Her advice means everything to me, but I should note that I don’t take on board everything she says.
There are times when I like something that she doesn’t, and at the end of the day, it’s my art, and I have the final word, but for example, if I’m working on a set of images, say a portfolio, or a selection of work to send a client, nine times out of ten, if she says that something has to go, it goes. A lot of the time, I use her opinion to check my own suspicions, and over the years, I’ve learned to preempt her advice, and simply remove images that I know she will dislike.
Cooling Off Period
I also recall a story from my good friend Graham Morgan, an award-winning photographer from Australia, who was on his way home from Antarctica and showed his wife a photo that he was about to delete but she told him to keep it. The following year he won the Australia Nature Photographer of the Year with that photo! This is a powerful reminder of the need to seek advice from a trusted critique.
It’s also an important reminder that making the final decision on photos that we’ve shot straight after shooting them isn’t always a good idea. Giving yourself at least a few days, ideally a week or more after a shoot to make a more subjective decision about your work is very important.
When I return from a trip, I generally want to start talking about it within just a few days, so I force myself to complete at least a preliminary cull as soon as possible after getting home, but then I always continue to refine the selection for another week or two until I make my final selection. Invariably I find that as the memory of the shoot fades slightly, I am able to be more ruthless in my selection, and the more we can remove from a selection, the more condensed and rich the final set will be.
Controlling Exposure for Optimal Dynamic Range
As I mentioned earlier, in part of my reply to Evan, I had also stated that if you are careful with your exposure, you can generally get a better quality image from a single frame than from blending. Now, I realize that there are techniques that can help to blend images together without really being able to tell it was done, but the majority of the time they require more work than I personally am prepared to put into each individual images, so once again, this is personal preference.
My advice to people has always been that if using exposure blending or any other HDR techniques feeds your creativity, then go for it. If however, you are doing it to overcome limitations on your camera, then first learn how to expose your photos to get maximum dynamic range in a single image, then decide whether or not you need HDR. Once you get used to looking at the histogram, there isn’t even any guess-work. You can see right on the back of your camera if the image fits in a single frame, simply by referencing your histogram.
Exposing To The Right (ETTR)
Now, I’ve talked about ETTR or Exposing To The Right a number of times in the past, so I’m not going to go into great detail on this, but I want to summarise why I still do it, and a few other considerations that you might keep in mind if you are still formulating your own strategy.
First of all, I want to mention that thanks to the wisdom received from Graeme Nattress, who’s forgotten more about image processing than I’ll ever know, I’m no longer talking about the cause of noise in images based on the old Luminous Landscape article that used to be my primary reference. Graeme helped me to understand that the old explanation is not valid, but also that the benefits of Exposing to the Right are very real all the same.
I have though been Exposing to the Right instinctively for many years though, and experience has proved to me that my images are better quality for it, so I’m still using this technique for almost all of my work.
Basically, what I do exposure all of my images so that the lightest part of the histogram data falls just short if not slightly touching the right shoulder of the histogram. On the rare occasion when I find myself photographing a scene with the sun in the frame, I will allow it to become over-exposed slightly, to give myself some leeway in the shadows, but even then, one frame generally gives me enough dynamic range.
As an example, here’s a photo (below) of a lighthouse with the late afternoon sun shining through the windows of the lantern room, shot on this year’s Hokkaido Landscape Photography Tour. When looking through the viewfinder, as you might imagine, everything except the sun looked almost completely black. I could see from the histogram though, that if I set my exposure so that the sun is just starting to over-expose, the shadows were not spiking up the left shoulder.
Again, this is a comparison image, so you can slide the vertical bar from left to right to reveal more of the final processed image on the left, to see how much detail I brought out in the bottom third of the photograph. All I did was ran a gradient mask over the bottom third and opened up the shadows slider to around half way. I also pulled out the shadows across the entire image with a very slight tone curve adjustment and placed a second gradient mask across the top of the sky to darken it down a little. This isn’t the greatest image I’ve shot by a long shot, but I think it helps to illustrate my point.
Reading the Histogram
Basically, expose so that the information on the right of the histogram is just about, or in this case, just touching the right shoulder, and check to see if you have a spike on the left side. If you do see a spike on the left side, it means that the shadows are going completely black, which, similar to highlights going completely white means that it might be difficult or even impossible, to recover any detail in these areas. As long as the shadows on the left side are not spiking though, there is detail in the shadows that can be used.
Do also be aware that the camera’s histogram is generally based on the JPEG preview, so it tells a somewhat harsher story than your image processing software probably will. Both Lightroom and Capture One Pro give you around a stop of light back, compared to how the images look on the camera.
I also use a piece of software called RawDigger to check my images, especially ones like this, to see what the image really looks like, and I can also create a very details histogram, such as this one (right) that I got from the original raw file of the photo we just looked at.
In the RawDigger histogram, we can see a small spike on the right side of the histogram, which represents the bright sky around the sun that I overexposed slightly. On the left you can see that the shadow data tapers off nicely, showing that there is a little bit of information lost, but enough to be able to bring out detail in the shadows.
I don’t have a photo of the histogram on the camera, but here two are two histograms from Capture One Pro with the original raw file on the left and the processed raw file on the right. You can see how the shadows were steep and close to the left shoulder, but not spiking. Also, note the small spike in the highlights for the sun, but see how I was able to bring that under control in Capture One Pro. Going over a little bit is rarely a problem, but we do need to avoid going over by a large amount.
So, as you can see, using the histogram as a tool can really help to make educated decisions about your exposure. Based just on the image, or even just what you see through the viewfinder, you might think that a scene like the Lighthouse sunset would need multiple exposures merged together, or even HDR processing, but in my opinion it really isn’t necessary, unless, as I mentioned, you actually enjoy the process and that process feeds your creativity.
For me, there is nothing more off-putting than getting home from a shoot and having to spend hours working on images, and as fast as the process may have become, as far as I’m aware, there are still no applications that will allow you to keep a processed and tone-mapped HDR image in raw format, so you cannot benefit from future processing engine updates.
Don’t Fight Your ISO
That example was for a high contrast scene, but as I said, I Expose to the Right for all of my work, and I have received feedback from people that know, that the quality of my images is higher than most, and we attribute this to the way I shoot, taking control of my exposure.
Basically, the darker your images get, the more noise you’ll see in the shadows. I have talked about ISO Invariance in Episode 520, and I agree that if your base ISO could be ISO 100 you can increase the exposure in post for a number of stops, and really not see a lot of degradation in image quality. This means that especially when you are running and gunning and the light is changing so fast that manual exposure may cause you to miss shots, you can go to an automated mode and then brighten up the images in post if necessary.
This is only the case though if the scene is bright enough that ISO 100 would get you to within two or three stops of your required exposure. Once your scene is so dark that you ISO 100 does not get you to within two or three stops of your necessary exposure, the only option is to increase the ISO, and when you start to increase your ISO, you can’t benefit from ISO invariance. Your only option for darker scenes is to increase your ISO and if you are afraid to increase it high enough to essentially expose to the right, getting the histogram data as close to the right shoulder as possible, then your shadows are going to get noisy.
Use Highlight Warnings
Another thing that I want to add here, is that it’s also important to turn on and use the Highlight Warnings or “blinkies” in your camera so that you are made aware when small areas of the scene or subject start to become over-exposed.
For example, when photographing the dark-skinned Himba people inside their huts in Namibia, their eyes, teeth, and shells around their neck start to overexpose as you increase the ISO, but it’s virtually impossible to see this on the histogram. You have to check for these areas blinking in the preview image, or if you are using a mirrorless camera, some of them have these warnings in the electronic viewfinder too.
Some people make the mistake of trying to get the peak or hump of the histogram over to the right side, but when shooting images like this one of the young Himba Girl (left), that will result in her eyes, teeth, and regalia all becoming overexposed, and although just a little is fine and controllable, we don’t want to overexpose these areas too much.
To be clear though, the goal is to increase the exposure to the point where the brightest parts of the scene or subject are as close to the right as possible, but not overexposed, and sometimes, this requires us to increase the ISO so much that some people start to back off.
This image was shot at ISO 5000, and that scares some people, but because I was still essentially exposing to the right, until the bright areas started to overexpose, the shadows still have almost no grain to speak of, and this is with a 50 megapixel camera, which was supposed to be really bad in low light. The reality is that even with such high-resolution cameras, if you push the ISO to the point that you need it to be at to give you an ETTR image, then the shadow areas will still be clean enough to give you a useable image.
You might also recall that this is one of the ten images that I printed at 44 x 62 inches for display in an exhibition at Canon’s Headquarters here in Tokyo, and the feedback I’ve received is that people were very surprised that this image was shot at such a high ISO, and they were looking at a five foot tall print, so I think that’s proof enough that my technique has helped me to create images of a pretty high quality, often in somewhat challenging environments.
This may be obvious already, and I certainly mention this a lot, but just to be thorough, I should also mention that I shoot almost exclusively in Manual Exposure mode. I just find this easier, as it enables me to get my camera set up for a specific scene, exposing to the right, and then just shoot, without having to worry about exposure compensation, which I find completely annoying.
I know that some people like to just let the camera decide, and if your scene is bright enough that ISO Invariance will help you to brighten up your images as necessary without losing any image quality, you really won’t be negatively affected by shooting in an automated mode. For me though, I’ve been shooting Manual for so long, that it’s just more intuitive, and second nature.
The Manuals Were Wrong
Another thing that I wanted to talk about, with regards to using ETTR techniques to get better quality images, is that sometimes people quote the camera manuals, that often say that a good histogram has one large hump, and that should be in the middle of the histogram. Forget this if it’s something you tend to bear in mind, for two reasons. Firstly, having the data in the middle of the histogram may result in unnecessary noise in your images, especially in the shadow or dark areas.
The other reason is that the histogram represents a mapping of all the tones in the image. It is not uncommon for a histogram to have multiple spikes. This image, for example, has a spike on the right side, that represents all the white in the crane’s and the snow, and a spike of the left, for the dark background. And there is nothing in the middle, which is where the camera manuals will have you believe the data should be.
Of course, as a guideline, for an average scene, it’s not a complete failure as an example, but it’s important to understand what the histogram represents so that it can be used as a tool to work towards shooting images of higher quality, rather than allowing something you’ve been told to lead you to make mistakes.
OK, so the last thing I want to relay is that it is also not necessary to try and have your image data fill the histogram. Some scenes do not contain a wide enough range of tones to create a full histogram from the left to right side. As an extreme example, and to make one last point, here (below) is another snow scene from Hokkaido.
See if you can guess where the histogram spike will be for this image, then drag that vertical bar over to the left to reveal the embedded histogram and see how close you were.
Let’s start to wrap this up now, with a few last words on why I put this post together. I kept Evan’s part about developing a style in the title, even though we didn’t go into detail on this, because I think that the way I shoot plays a large part in the look of my work. I don’t I have a distinctive style that comes from a type of processing, because as I’ve said, most of the time it isn’t the processing that defines my work. That in itself is, to me, one of the most important things that I wanted to relay today.
I’ve been told that people can tell my work, because of the quality of the images, and I like to think that this is because of the care I take in setting my exposure, and how careful I am to compose my images in such a way that they contain as few distracting elements as possible. A lot of my work is somewhat if not straight on minimalist, but rarely cluttered, and I think these things all inform my style.
I’ll stop writing for now though, and get this out there. I’ve already been writing for a day and a half, but there is still so much more to say related to this topic. I’ll try to follow up next week with a discussion of some of the things that I consider as I decide on my compositions, as we didn’t really get into that today. If there is anything else that you’d like me to cover, just drop me a line or write a comment below. I always enjoy hearing from you.
Some people arrive at a location with preconceptions and their sole intent is to make their copy of other peoples’ photographs that they’ve already seen. Today I’m going to discuss how and why I believe we should avoid being a collector, and shoot from our own appreciation of any given scene or subject.
A while back I contributed to a post on the Shutterstock Web site, as part of my work with OFFSET, one of my stock image agencies, and I thought I’d start there, and expand on what I said. The post was about how to avoid clichés in our photography, and I started out by saying “If you fill your head with other peoples’ photos before you arrive, you spend your whole time trying to find their photos.”
I’ve mentioned this here a number of times over the years, but I thought I’d expand on this today. In the article I went on to say that I’m not sure that I do avoid clichés, but the reason for this is the same as the reason that I possibly sometimes do avoid them. Basically, although it is most likely either still photos or video of a location that provides the initial spark, the desire to visit any given location, once I’ve decided to go, I avoid looking at photography from the places I visit beforehand.
This isn’t specifically to avoid cliches, but I find that if you fill your head with other peoples’ photos before you arrive, you spend your whole time trying to find their photos, and this can paralyze your own creativity. You have to avoid planting these seeds to leave yourself fully open to your own creativity.
If the results end up new and fresh, that’s great. If the results end up cliché, it’s simply because I wasn’t aware of how other people had already photographed the location, and the classic shot was just too obvious to avoid, or maybe I’d subconsciously drawn from an old memory. I also sometimes get back from a place and someone shows me an iconic shot that I’d totally missed. That pangs, but it’s fine too, because my own creativity didn’t lead me to that particular angle or framing.
I’d much rather come home with images that are from me. From my own heart and know that my work is mine. I’ve seen people in the field looking for shots they’ve seen, and they are totally blinkered by their quest to find and collect their own copy of someone else’s image.
So, my advice here, is however you get to the point where you have decided to visit a place, don’t ruin your chances of making something totally your own, by spending hours on line looking at photos from that location. It will only paralyze your own creativity in the field.
Originality is a State of Mind
What this boils down to, is that we have to make a decision to make our work totally our own. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be totally original on a universal scale. Even if we have consumed every image of a location that we can find, and then specifically avoided shooting all of them, the chances are, someone at some point has still shot something similar to your new photo.
I’ve come across people that equally paralyzed by trying too hard to avoid shooting images similar to those that others have shot. They study the hell out of a location they’ll visit, and then failing to find something new, come away with virtually nothing. I’d say this is worse than following my advice, and not looking at images to avoid planting visual seeds.
I’d like to propose that originality is a state of mind, rather than an absolute value that stands up to universal scrutiny. What I mean by this, is when I look at an image that I’ve shot, and know deep down that it was influenced by someone else’s work, I get a sinking feeling, the degree of which is directly linked to how much of that influence made it into the image.
When I make a photo that I can say in all honestly contains no specific external influence, my experience when I look at the image is much purer and special to me. I have a greater sense of pride when I look at these images after the shoot. The sense of accomplishment trumps anything that I can get from making a beautiful photograph that was influenced to some degree by the work of others.
These images are truly original to me, regardless of what else was photographed before me. That is really all that matters to me. I work first and foremost for myself, and any other similarity that I was not aware of is pretty much irrelevant.
What I’m Not Saying
I want to also make it clear that I am not saying we should not look at other peoples’ photographs. As I’ve also mentioned in the past, I believe that as we make our own images and decide on our composition and camera settings, we draw on a mental database of images.
For me, this often starts with my own previous work that I like, and also images that didn’t work out. If I fail to make an image of a place that really signs to me, I spend a lot of time trying to understand why I wasn’t able to make a better image.
The more I shoot, the better I become at recognizing when I’m falling short in the field, and correcting my mistakes while I’m still there. Occasionally though, I do still get home and feel that I failed to really do a scene or subject justice, so I spend the time to try and figure out why, and keep all of my failures in my database, along with my successes.
Of course, to widen our horizons, it is also very important that we learn from the work of others to add to our mental database of possibilities. Looking at the work of others, especially the masters upon whose shoulders we stand, provides us with almost endless possibilities.
It’s even OK I guess to try to emulate the work of the masters, as a learning experience, to develop your own sensibilities and technical skills, but once you’ve learned from that, we move on to draw from these images and experiences, and make work that is truly our own.
Your Trusted Critic
Another concept that I’d like to touch on, is the role of your Trusted Critic. This is also something I’ve mentioned a number of times in the past, but wanted to reiterate today. I’m not one for listening to every piece of criticism available. I don’t care what people that I don’t really know think of my images. It feels nice to get a pat on the back, but if someone tells me they don’t like an image, I generally shrug it off, unless I trust that person to some degree.
I think it’s important to have at least a few trusted critics, who we can turn to for honest feedback about our work. For me, my first port of call is usually my wife. Family can be tricky, if they have a tendency to only tell you nice things about your work, but my wife can be totally brutal, and that’s important.
I don’t have to listen to her, but quite often what she says is totally on the mark, and it really helps me to see what I’m doing wrong, and being aware of that is the first step in fixing any problem. So, as I build my database of dos and don’ts, I keep the advice of my trusted critics in mind as well.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris
This may leave you wondering how I do plan for a shoot in a location that I’ve never visited. I’m usually too busy to do much real planning, but there are a couple of things that I sometimes do before setting out, and one is to consult The Photographer’s Ephemeris. For many years TPE has been an invaluable aid to photographers planning trips.
Regardless of whether I want to photograph the sunrise and sunset, the time that the sun rises and sets are important to our photography, as is the angle and height of the sun in the sky at the time we expect to be in our location. It sometimes shows us that it would be better to arrive at a different time of day to optimize our opportunities at any given location.
Thinking about it, I’ve probably used TPE as much to find out where the moon will be as much as the sun. It’s very easy to get this information from a desktop computer, or with apps for iOS and Android devices.
Just checking The Photographer’s Ephemeris web site, I see that they have now partnered with Skyfire to bring sunrise and sunset color forecasts to the TPE iOS app. This is only available in the US and Canada, and they have a nice warning regarding this in the app if you try to add Skyfire outside of these locations, but I’m hoping that this service will spread, and one day be available around the world.
Another app I love, and have been using for many years, is VelaClock. I find myself opening VelaClock more than TPE when I just want quick information on Sunrise and Sunset times, as well as Moonrise and Moonset times, and the phases of the moon.
Needless to say, both apps have the ability to set a time in the future for planning purposes, and can also simply show details for your current location, if you are already there. I really like the fact that I can also see the azimuth of the sun and moon when they rise, so I can align elements of my scene accordingly in preparation for them appearing on the horizon.
Be a Creator Not a Collector
Anyway, enough about the apps, my main point for today, is to encourage you to resist the temptation to check out hordes of photographs of the locations you’ll visit or subjects you’ll shoot, at least for the last month or two before you go, if you have time before you actually go that is. Keep your mind free of fresh influences, so that you can be fully open to the opportunities you make for yourself in the field.
Of course, if you are going to spend a lot of money getting to a location, you will want to do your homework, and looking at photos is a great way to do that, but once you’ve decided you are going to visit somewhere, stop looking at photos. I know this can be scary, but how much satisfaction can you really gain from coming away with a handful of images that you copied from someone else?
Working from our own hearts is the way in which we finally start to build our own style as a photographer. I’d much rather come away with images that I know are “me” based on my own appreciation of what I saw in the field. If I miss something beautiful, or inadvertently make an image similar to someone else’s, so be it. But the satisfaction that I get from making an image that I know is truly mine, is much more satisfying than gathering copies of other peoples’ work.
Today we’re going to explore a number of topics that have been plaguing artists for centuries, and will probably continue to plague us for a few more millennia at least—how to become and stay creative, finding your artistic genre and developing a style.
We all, at some point, find it difficult to pick up the camera and start to do what we love to do. Despite having a passion for photography, or any other creative pursuit for that matter, we sometimes lack inspiration or momentum to actually create, or create to the quality or aesthetic level that we hope for our work.
One of my students in The Arcanum recently mentioned that he was having trouble “finding his muse”. My answer to this in brief was that any time you spend searching for your muse is wasted, because she’ll come when she’s good and ready, and not a moment before. But if you just sit around waiting for your muse to show up, you could have a long wait on your hands.
Create to be Creative
Five years ago, in episode 244, I talked about Creation Breeding Creativity. I’d been frustrated, because I wanted to go out and do some work, but was feeling uninspired, and it was at that point that I realized that the best way to get out of a creative slump, is to start creating.
Literally, right up until the point that I raised the camera to my eye, and actually started to frame up some shots and work the scene in front of me, I’d felt deflated and not really interested in creating anything at that time. Once I started to shoot though, actually being creative, before I knew it, the muse was by my side, leading my thoughts and refining my ideas. On that occasion, as is quite often the case, my compositions tightened and it all started to come together, but it doesn’t always work like that. The higher you set your sites, the more difficult it can be to achieve your goals.
The Taste Gap
It’s not really fair on the muse though, to expect her to complete your work for you once she’s turned up to lend a hand. Sometimes we start to understand what it is that we want to create, but there are a lot of things that factor in to how easy it will be for us to reach those goals.
If you have not been doing photography for very long, you might lack a technical understanding of how to achieve the results we’re hoping to create. If that’s the case, it’s important to develop the ability to either investigate or at least take a good guess at how you can achieve a certain look. Even as you become more experienced, sometimes you might have a killer idea, but just cannot figure out how to pull it together.
As Ira Glass points out in one of his talks about about storytelling, there is often a gap between what we can conceive and what we are able to create. He says that you get into creative work because you have good “taste” but for the first couple of years of making stuff, what you are making isn’t that great. There’s a gap between what you want to create driven by your taste and what you are actually capable of creating at that point in time.
I’m paraphrasing, but he goes on to say that it’s such a shame, but many people stop at that point, and give in. To get past that phase though, and to start to create work that matches your taste, you have to do a huge volume of work. What we often don’t realize here though, is that it’s perfectly normal for this to take a while. We have to fight through this phase.
There are No Shortcuts
You have to keep on reiterating on your ideas, refining the results with each iteration. The more you do something, the better you become at doing it. It can take years to get to the point where you can really make what you had envisioned, whether the muse is by your side, or on top of her cloud sipping a cocktail while watching you squirm.
Never in history has it been so easy to gain information and advice on how to reach our goals. The last 20 years have revolutionized how we study new pursuits. It’s common now to just pick up a device or open a browser and search for just about any knowledge that we require, and the chances are that someone has already taken the time to put the information you are looking for into a post of some sort. Maybe that’s how you will end up finding this post!
But just reading about a certain skill or technique will not make you a master at it. You have to put in the work, and make it your own. That only comes through repetition. Doing stuff again and again. Over and over until it starts to become second nature. The culture of having everything at our fingertips can lead to the desire for shortcuts and quick-fixes, and that will lead to disappointment.
Case in Point
As a case in point, I’d like to explain the photograph that I used to illustrate today’s blog post. The photograph in itself has little to do with the topic, other than in that it came into being by me practicing what I’m preaching here. Last Friday, my wife was heading into Shinjuku here in Tokyo for an evening seminar, and I’d spent almost three full days doing maintenance on our Web site and cleaning up posts afterwards. I was feeling a bit deflated, and knew that the only thing that was going to pick me up, was a little shutter-therapy, so I decided to go with her.
Across from the building that my wife needed to visit is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, or Tochou. In the past I’ve photographed the circular wall around the courtyard there with my 14mm prime lens, but I’d been left wanting to go a little wider, which of course my new 11-24mm lens from Canon enables me to do, so that’s what I took. My 5D Mark III, the 11-24mm lens and a tripod.
I’d been there about ten minutes, got the shots that I’d set out to get, but I felt that the scene needed a little something more. I was doing 30 second long exposures, so most of the human figures that walked through the scene were disappearing due to their movement. I had just started to think of going into the shot and standing there myself, or maybe sitting cross-legged in the foreground, when a few Google Plus friends arrived, totally by coincidence.
After having a bit of a chat, I asked them if they’d mind posing in the scene, so we did a couple of shots, still at 30 seconds, trying to keep as still as possible, and the result is this photo (below).
With Friend’s at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
I had almost turned off, and given up on my idea to include a human figure. We’d been chatting for fifteen minutes when this idea popped into my head. We were starting to wind up the conversation and I started to think once again about sitting in the scene myself, and then I connected the dots, or my muse connected them for me. Either way, I absolutely love this photo, and wanted to use it to show that we have to keep doing what we do. It keeps us sharp, and open to the whispers of the muse, or whatever you’d like to call it.
Rinse and Repeat
It can take years still to get into a position where you will be able to repeat your new found skills and processes consistently, and during that time, as you grow as an artist, you’ll not only start to achieve the goals that you were able to perceive, but you’ll start to develop new sensitivities and tastes. You’ll come up with new, more ambitious ideas, and these put us right back into a very uncomfortable place, where things don’t flow as easily as they started to before, and the missing muse will make us lonely and desperate all over again.
The cool thing is, that the more you do this, the more confident you become in your process, and you’ll start to know that despite the failures and disappointment, you will eventually create what you’d been hoping for. You just have to do the work. Rinse and Repeat, until it all comes together, once again.
Passion Will Pull You Through
I think the most vulnerable time for any creative person comes in the years shortly after you’ve fallen in love with a particular form of creativity, be it photography, writing, oil painting or knitting. You can get very excited by the results of your early efforts, because you don’t realize at first that you are really just scratching the surface.
Once you become proficient enough to realize that there are greater things to move on to, that’s when you start to panic, and feel disappointed, but if you really have fallen for your new found passion, you will be able to do the work, and put in the time required, and it will lead to results. Armed with this information you will hopefully learn not to fear the failures. It’s all part of the process.
I’ve spoken to people almost desperate to get through these early phases, and I know that this can feel really bad, but really, if you love what you do so much that it can hurt that bad, you have the passion required to do the work, and make it through to where you will occasionally be able to close the Taste Gap, and create something that you are truly proud of.
Don’t Let the Muse Leave
The great thing about being really passionate about your craft is that it can help you to be prolific. And the more often you do this, the easier it is to maintain your state of flow. It’s as though you get to call the muse back before she really gets a chance to leave.
When I’m on my photography tours or multi-day projects, it’s always much easier to stay creative when you get up and do it every day. Sometimes you’re tired, and don’t necessarily feel like getting off the bus and starting to shoot again, but for both myself and the participants of my tours, we have a plan, and we arrive at a place. The options are get off the bus and start to do what we fundamentally love, or sit on the bus alone and watch everyone else leave to do what they love. What we love!
Jewel on the Shore
Needless to say the latter rarely happens, and the great thing about this is that as soon as the camera is raised to our eye, our creative juices start to flow again, and we often almost pick straight up where we left off the previous day. The technique, the creativity, it’s all right there. The muse didn’t get a chance to leave.
Having the Courage to Abandon Work
Sometimes though, as hard as we try, it doesn’t always come together as we’d hope. We just don’t see it. We know that we have to continue to work hard and it will kick back in, but what do we do with the crap that we make in the meantime?
As I mentioned in episode 438 on the Evolution of the Photographer, it’s important to understand when what you create is not worthy of public eyes. It takes a lot of courage and commitment to abandon something that you are emotionally invested in, not to mention financially, or your often lengthy time investment. I am a strong believer though, in us only being as good as the worst work we allow to represent us.
Sure, it’s OK to show less than stellar work as illustration, or when you are trying to solicit advice on how you can do better, but when you show something and say, this is my work, it’s what I do, such as in a portfolio, it should be the best that you can do at this point. Even if you hope to go on to create even better work, and you always should, just be sure that what you show others is really your best work right now.
Putting Your Stakes in the Ground
When I rented a gallery and did my first solo show at the end of 2010, I was basically putting my stake in the ground. I had high hopes for the work that I was still to make, and I still do, but I wanted to say “This is me, right now. This is the work that I was able to do while still employed in my old day job.”
At that time, of course, I was happy with the work. I was proud to show it! But at the same time, I knew that in a few years I’d look back and wonder why I included at least some of the work that I did, and I do. And that’s OK.
You have to believe in what you are going to become, but don’t let that stop you from putting your stake in the ground right now, as you create your stepping stone masterpieces. Each of these achievements is another step in our own personal evolution as an artist, and even if you look back later and cringe, it’s necessary to take us to the next level, and forms an important part of our personal history.
Finding Your Genre and Style
One fortunate byproduct of all the hard work that we put in to being creative and finding inspiration, is that being prolific also leads us to our photographic genre, and in turn helps us to start to develop our style. These are also areas in which people seem to get impatient, but I truly believe that just as the muse walks the other way when we sit around wishing she’d show up, the only way to find your genre or develop your style, is to shoot a lot.
Finding your genre is in many ways the easier of these two aspects of photography, because we are attracted to certain genres over others. And, we all only have a finite amount of time to dedicate to photography, so we prioritize that time according to our desires. If you have just three hours to head out with your camera for example, you’re going to think of your options, which might be to either head to the park to make some flower shots, call a model friend to do a quick studio session, or go into town to do some street work.
You can replace these examples with just about any other photographic genre of course. The point is that you’re going to prioritize your time in such a way that you’ll automatically gravitate towards the sort of work that you are most passionate about.
There is nothing stopping you pursuing multiple genres either. You may find that you love to use small pockets of time doing street photography, because you can do that closer to home, but when you get a full day or more you may head out into the hills to do some landscape or wildlife work. Multiple genres can coexist, and as time allows, I believe your photography will benefit as a whole by doing as many types of photography as you can. One discipline will feed and inform the others.
The Beginnings of Your Style
Even from within the genres you try your hand at though, you will find yourself prioritizing some types of photography over others, and this will lead you to hone in and specialize. You’ll start to build a body of work in a small number of genres. Once again, within those genres you’ll shoot more and more, and over time you’ll start to see some patterns form in how you work.
You’ll find yourself using certain settings, certain compositional and processing techniques over others. The more you shoot though, the more work you’ll produce, and then you’ll start to gravitate further still towards certain areas of photography and processing. These are the beginnings of your style developing, and what’s more, I believe it’s fine to have a number of sub-styles within your overall style.
Sub-Styles and Style Dilution
For example I love to use shallow depth of field in my Flowerscape images, but for my landscape work, I generally go for much deeper depth of field, often aiming to get the entire scene in focus. (See my post on Understanding Hyper-focal Distance.) I like to do long exposure landscapes, and quite often they are processed into black and white images.
How we process certain types of images adds to our style. I often create high contrast black and white images of my landscapes and even some flower photographs, but my Flowerscapes are generally left in glorious full color. If color is important in a landscape photograph I often use Color Efex Pro to enhance the color in the scene, but I pretty much never use it on my wildlife photography.
It’s definitely not just about processing and technique though. The more I shoot, I’m happy to hear from time to time that people can recognize my work, because of a common sensibility between all of my types of work. Be it a black and white flower, a full color landscape, or the look on the face of a philosophical snow monkey, people generally recognize my work, and that means I’m gradually establishing a style.
If you want to develop a recognized style, and be known for it quickly, you’d probably be more successful by sticking to just one style and one type of processing. I personally want to have more fun with my photography, so I work in a broader set of genres, but this really is up to the individual. It’s pretty safe to say though, that the more you dilute your styles, the longer it’s going to take for people to recognize them as yours.
What If I Can’t Find My Genre?
It’s quite common as people start to get into photography, to feel frustrated that you don’t really know what type of photography you’d like to pursue. If you simply have a love for photography, but don’t know what to do with it, just shoot anything and everything that you can. Really. Go crazy with it! Over time, you’ll gain a large enough mass of photographs in one genre over another, that gravity will kick in and pull you in a certain direction.
Your heart will lead you. You’ll find that some types of photography simply make you feel happier than others, but you might not learn which ones they are until you have spent some time working in a few different genres. It’s never been easier to learn of the possibilities though. We are surrounded by more photography today than in any other time in history. On the television, in magazines, and of course everywhere on the Internet.
There are sights like 500px, Instagram, flickr and many others where people share amazing photography every day. Go and take a look, and listen to those flutters of excitement in your heart as you see certain types of photography. Most sites have a way to Favorite images, and then display them in groups later. Use this, and you’ll see certain commonalities between the images that you select. This is where you’ll want to start.
If you need certain types of gear specific to the genres that excite you, try renting for a few trips before you go off and drop some real cash down for them. Try to confirm that you really want to invest your time in a genre before you invest any real money in it. Remember though, your initial results might not be as good as your taste will have you desire. If you know that you really want to pursue that genre and get good at it, you’ll have to put in the time required to close that gap, as we mentioned earlier.
Only You Can Be You!
One last thing that I’d like to encourage you to keep in mind as you gain your inspiration from the photography of others, is that you don’t have to try to be that person. It’s fine to emulate a look, to dissect the process and help you to learn your craft, but your final goal is to be you. Don’t try to be someone else. Everyone else is already out there doing what they do, probably better than you will. Only you can be you, so do it well, and be the best you that you can possibly be, even if it takes many years to really start to feel comfortable in yourself and your work.
Today I talk about a topic that was raised by Andy Bartlett, a member of my cohort on The Arcanum, regarding how we push through the mental barriers and doubt as we try to create beautiful photographs after making some earlier spectacular work. Although not all of our work will be as spectacular, I believe great opportunities help to elevate us to higher ground in our photography, as we explore in this episode.
Andy asked this question, which sparked today’s topic…
I watched a great documentary last night about Pink Floyd making the Wish You Were Here album. This album came out after Dark Side of the Moon which had been a huge critical success, and they suffered that situation that so besets music groups – “what if that last album was the best we’ll ever do?”, and “how do we make this next one even better?” Does the next picture we make have to be the “best ever”? I want to improve, but can this desire stop us producing anything?
This is a great question, and one that I thought about for a while before posting my reply, and it’s been playing on my mind a little since, so I’d like to relay an expanded version of my thoughts on this today.
Your Latest Work Should Always Be Your Best
It can certainly be difficult to beat your previous work, and it is not always possible or even necessary to do so on an image by image basis, but I want to explain what this means to a creative and what I feel is important to aim for as we progress and hopefully evolve into better photographers.
If you’ve listened to this Podcast for a while, you may have heard me say that I believe that our most recent work should be our best, and I still believe that. Of course, the images resulting from our efforts as we continue to create may not be as striking as those that we made during a trip to an amazing location or of a special subject. There are times of course when we visit an extraordinary location and the stars align and we come home with absolutely stunning photographs.
Kussharo Lake Tree
Sometimes the emotion of the shoot or the memory of all the effort or even money that we spent to enable ourselves to make those images is so strong that it makes us love the work even more than the actual merit that the images themselves hold, but if we truly created beautiful art, then time will not diminish our appreciation of them, and months and years into the future, we’ll still be able to look at these images and they’ll bring a smile to our face, or remind us of the cold wind in our face, or burning sand under our feet.
Learn From Your Prizes
Our old television broke a while back and we bought a new 55 inch 4K Sony Bravia TV, into which I can plug a USB memory stick with my photos on and look at them at literally native 8 megapixel resolution at 55 inches. My wife and I sat down and looked through album after album of photos from Antarctica, Namibia, Iceland and Hokkaido, as well as my City, Flowers and Flowerscape portfolios, and a number of times I mentioned just how lucky I am to have visited these locations and been able to come home with such beautiful photos. Some of these photos are around ten years old, and still make the hair stand up on the back of my head.
These are my treasures and my prizes, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to make these images, and that’s why they ended up on the USB memory stick. They were given priority over the many other photographs that I’ve made over the years, mostly because of the beauty of the place and what I made of these locations. Just looking back at these images fills me with pride, but also reminds of times when it all comes together, and all the effort is paid off.
But, when I pick up my camera to make a photograph closer to home, or in my studio as I prepare for a magazine article etc. I don’t feel despondent because these images are not going to be as dynamic or amazing to look at as some of my work from more exotic locations, or even locations closer to home when it all just came together. Far from it, I actually approach all new work from what I consider to be higher ground, as a result of having made the more special images.
New Work from a New You
I believe that when we are fortunate enough to make breathtaking photographs, these elevate our creativity, and our work from that point comes from a different place. From a new you. The resulting work may not be as impressive as the work from the amazing locations, but they will almost undoubtedly be more refined, and if they aren’t, we learned nothing from the previous experiences. It’s important to note that the leveling up process is far from automatic.
You can’t just pay to visit a beautiful place and just expect your work to be elevated. You need to be prepared, and receptive. It is not based on happy accidents. If you tripped and fell, and pushed your camera shutter button resulting in the most spectacular photograph you’ve ever made, the chances are you are not going to improve, unless of course you figure out how to repeat the happy accident time and again, in which case you might be onto something.
The point is though, you have to be working in such a way that you can repeat that quality of work, regardless of whether you are in Antarctica or your own back yard. Conversely, if you are not ready for an amazing location, you might come away with images that don’t really do it justice, and you don’t feel entirely happy with. I remember spending a few years before I started to travel to Hokkaido for example, franticly trying to become a better photographer so that I wouldn’t waste the chances that I knew I’d be presented with once I started investing in traveling to that beautiful northern island of Japan.
Be Receptive to Advice
I wasn’t fully ready. I was still bracketing my shots until my now good friend Hiroshi Yokoyama, one of the two workshop leaders on my first winter trip there told me that only people that don’t understand exposure bracket their shots. He and the other leader Yoshiaki Kobayashi taught me how to expose for the snow and I led me on my first adventure into manual exposure, changing my photography completely and forever. If I’d gone on this trip too early, I would have been too scared to try, not ready for their advice.
Stag in His Element
I’m using my own experience of growing from the locations I’ve visited, but this will of course be different for you. You may not be a landscape or wildlife photographer. If street photography is your thing, you may need to change the mental images here to match your own experiences, but I’d hazard a guess that there will still be some pivotal experiences that have or will hunch you up to higher levels as you progress.
You might take a workshop in Paris or Rome with my friend Valerie Jardin, and it totally changes your photography. If I was a street photographer there’s nothing I’d rather do. Or you might be a sports photographer plugging away at your local school’s soccer match every weekend, getting bored with your results, but then get a chance to shoot from the sidelines of a professional game. It’s then that all the work you did shooting the school soccer matches is going to help you, nervous as you are, to make the most of your chance in that stadium. Whatever the situation, if you are ready, it will almost certainly change you.
These are our Dark Side of the Moon albums. These are the experiences that move us to the next level. Pink Floyd was an amazing band to make that album, but having made it, they were elevated to new ground, and with that comes expectations and pressure. They’d earned the right to be where they were, and it was up to them to continue on their creative path and on to even greater things.
We Are Our Experiences
I believe that we are the amalgamation of everything that we experience as we move through life. Everything that you do, becomes a part of you, and the same goes for photography. You cannot help but be affected by all of the photographs that you make. They become a part of you, as much as the character that you build as you go through life.
Some experiences are more character building than others. I’m sure I was changed more by the experience of finding that pesky brain tumor in my head three years ago, than I was by the act of eating a rice ball wrapped in seaweed for lunch today, and the same goes for our photographic high-points. The great shoots, great locations and amazing opportunities elevate us to a higher place, but it’s then our own responsibility to stay in that higher zone, and look for the next rung of the ladder.
Martin in Landmannalaugar (Iceland)
It would be really easy to come back home with our treasures, and store them away in a lofty location and go back to our old ways, but that would be doing yourself an injustice. As you build on your experiences, shoot from that higher place, and from your new self, that is capable of more, your photography will improve, regardless of the subject matter. You should have a new sensitivity, and appreciation of what you see through the viewfinder. Don’t waste that. You now know that you can do better. And you can.
Stop Collecting Marbles
One other thing that I’ve come to realize, as I experience more and build my own photographic character, is that in my earlier days, I was desperate to build my collection of treasures. I had decided I was a photographer, but I needed my bag of marbles to prove that I was. This, I now know leads to mediocrity. You go out with your camera, and come back with a hand full of shots, some nice ones, and your main goal is to drop a few into your Best Shots folder, or upload them to your Web gallery.
I’ve always tried to be picky with what I show people, and have never been one for dumping my memory card on Flickr, but I know that there were times when I was adding images to my Web galleries, simply to prove that I was doing it, and to grow my collection. I felt that having a large selection of images online would somehow validate me as a photographer.
As the collection grew, I started to do pruning sessions, and go through my old galleries clipping off an image here and an image there, but I still held on to some of my older work because it was helping to pad out my collection, and also because I’d worked hard to upload it all, and add my titles and captions. Again, I was holding on to something because I’d worked hard to put it there.
In my case, I’d also referenced a lot of the images in my old gallery in this Podcast, and the way I developed the Podcast backend meant that I had to leave some images in to keep them available for people listening to the archives. I remedied that last year by getting help from a friend Michael Rammell to get almost 200 old episodes posted on my blog, along with the photos, removing the requirement to keep the old gallery online. You can’t imagine how good it felt to tear down that entire gallery with thousands of images that I no longer felt properly represented where I am now as a photographer.
Some of the images are still there in the blog posts, which is fine, they’re part of my history as a photographer and content creator, but as an artist, they no longer need to be in my portfolio, and that is what I created to replace my old galleries. My Portfolios that you can access through the menu bar are a much more refined selection of my images, and the only thing that will stop me updating these now is time. I can go in now and much more easily remove images that I don’t want to show any more, and add new work, or new portfolio galleries as necessary, and that’s been liberating.
Raise Your Own Bar
To get back to the point though—I reached a point a few years ago, where I had enough photographs that I was happy with, that I no longer felt the urge to continuously add new images unless they actually built on my portfolio. As selective as I’d been to that point, I was in a place now that I was able to become totally ruthless in my selection of new work.
Now, whenever I raise the camera to my eye, my entire photographic life to that point flashes before my eyes. I release the shutter, creating frames as I work and refine my ideas. That’s how I work. But as I work my subject, I know that the shots I’m making are not the ones that I will show people.
The way I work is almost like filling a bucket of water until it reaches a line marking my current level, and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes the creative hosepipe is only trickling, and sometimes the water stops altogether, but I have to keep working until the water flows and the bucket fills or I know I will not get my shots.
There comes a point though, that I know that I’ve achieved what I was trying to achieve, and the required level has been reached and when it all goes really well, even surpassed. Sometimes it’s so hard that I am not sure until I get home and look on the computer and do my post processing, but I generally have a good idea when the quality I’m working towards has been achieved.
Sometimes of course, it’s still so hard that I can’t reach the level that I want to be. I tried as hard as I could, but I just couldn’t get there. I simply can’t reach the point where I’m truly happy with the results. In the past, that’s when I would have posted images anyway, because I needed to fill the marble bag, collecting my treasures, prove that I was doing it. I had to show something for the effort that I was putting in.
Now, I have enough treasures that when I simply can’t make it happen, nobody sees the results of my efforts, and I start trying to figure out what I need to do to improve. The important thing when this happens is to know that you need to improve, and figure out how to do that, rather than settling for what you were able to create.
I haven’t seen the Pink Floyd documentary that Andy mentioned in his question, but I am pretty sure that they made a few songs that didn’t make the Wish You Were Here album. There’s an old adage that you are only as good as your worst photograph. This is so true! If you are going through an amazing portfolio of images, really impressed with what you are seeing, and then presented with a really weak image, you are instantly deflated. That becomes the baseline from which you judge the photographer from that point on.
Edit with your Heart
I know it’s hard to keep these lesser works out, but you have to do it. After a trip or a shoot, I try to spend a good week or so mulling over my resulting images. My goal is always to show as few images as possible, not as many as possible. If I can quickly get my images down to 50 shots, I try to get them to forty. If I can get them down to thirty, I’ll keep going through them trying to reach twenty-five.
King Penguins in Snow
Once I get to a tight selection of images that I think I’m ready to show people, I use my heart to get rid of a few more. I grab a coffee, kick my feet up and watch the images flow by one by one in a Lightroom slideshow. I keep my Bluetooth keyboard on my lap as the slideshow progresses, and I feel my reaction to each image. I need to be excited as it appears on the screen, but sometimes, I get a slight sinking feeling as an image is displayed. Right there, I hit the number 1 key on my keyboard, and the image is demoted out of the set.
Be Content but Remain Ambitious
I guess the conclusion that I’ve kind of come to as I thought through this, is I believe that deep down, as I was posting images a few years ago, I sometimes knew that I could do better. I had to be truly happy with some of my work at that point, or I’d probably have sold all my gear and taken up knitting, but there were times that I knew deep down that it wasn’t up to the mark, but I also think that this is OK as an expected part of the evolution of the photographer. If you can use this information to shortcut some of your own progress, that’s great. For me, I think it was a necessary process.
As you walk your path as a photographer and have experiences and opportunities that enable you to level up your skills, the important thing I think is to not allow yourself to slip back down to your previous level. In your heart, you will know that you can now do better, and if you simply can’t, not matter how hard you try, you have to set about the task of figuring out what to do next, to stay on your higher ground.
You don’t have to do that alone of course, and for heaven’s sake don’t throw out your images if you didn’t quite make them as good as you’d hoped. Seek the advice of a trusted critic. My wife is my best, and our closeness gives her permission to be incredibly ruthless. I don’t agree with every call she makes, but generally, when I’m in doubt about an image enough to ask for her opinion, when she says it’s crap, I generally listen to her.
She’s not a photographer, so it’s not always easy for her to articulate exactly what she thinks is unnecessary or missing, but our conversations often fill me with new ideas to try the next time I’m stuck in a similar situation. In fact, we sometimes get so wrapped up in our own expectations that we overlook some of our other images with potential, only to find that we have what really works in our outtakes anyway, and my wife sometimes helps me to find them through her advice. The creative muse was doing their job in the field. It is sometimes our struggling inner creative that was getting in the way after that, and a fresh pair of eyes and impartial opinion can help us to get past that.
I definitely feel though that over the years, my experiences and achievements have helped to build Martin 2014 and will continue to level me up each year, and I know that this goes for you too. Stick with your art. Listen to your trusted critics, and listen when a little voice inside you whispers “You’re better than this now.” Work through the doubt and fear of failure, until you feel for sure that the work you are creating right now, is at least at your current standard, and when you get a chance to level up again, grab it and make it yours.
Evolution comes in bursts. It’s OK if you don’t improve with every shoot, but it’s not OK to devolve and resign yourself to being the previous, lesser you. Your work doesn’t have to be as dynamic and amazing as that from your best opportunities, but you will know inside if it meets your current level and expectations. If it’s not up to scratch, keep plugging away at it until you create something that you know in your heart is what it now needs to be.
It’s important to our growth and success to surround ourselves with people that help us to look inside ourselves and grow. I want to thank Andy Bartlett for getting me thinking about this stuff!
Before we finish today, I wanted to quickly let you know that I’ll be at Photokina 2014 in Germany starting next week. Well, actually, I personally won’t be there, but my friends at Gura Gear will be using some of my Iceland images splashed across their booth, and they’ve agreed to hand out postcards with one of the photos on one side, and on the other side there’s a special offer where you can win a one hour portfolio review session with me, and everyone that enters for this prize will get a special pack of five high-resolution desktop images for free. The Web page address that you need to visit to enter and claim your free gift and enter for the prize is on the postcard, so do stop by and say hello to my friends at Gura Gear, and grab a card or two for you and your friends.