I’ve been thinking through the goals I want to set for my photography in 2011. I think I’m going to keep it relatively simple:
Push myself into new areas of photography to continue to improve my skills; specifically, it’s time to get serious about learning how to use flash, and it’s time for me to get serious about both field and studio macro photography.
I want to try to get back to Yosemite sometime this spring, hopefully when the dogwood is out and alive. I had planned a trip for 2010 at that time and ended up not being able to.
I want to get out on a photo trip to an area I haven’t been to and photographed and force myself to figure out how to shoot and then publish a piece about that area and tells its story.
I want to see if I can take at least one workshop as a way to push my skills via hands on work with someone else.
I want to take a close look at whether I can be “photoshop free”.
I’m going to do a personal quest to photograph as many species of bird again this year, and see if I can beat my 2010 number of 142 I need to experiment with video more.
And I’ll note for the record that nowhere in this list is “buy new stuff”; which doesn’t mean I won’t, but the gear needs to be defined by how it will implement the goals, not the other way around…
So that’s how I defined my photographic goals going into 2011.
I did, in fact, make it to Yosemite in May. The trip was in many ways a disaster. beyond letting myself get way too dehydrated and ending up feeling like crap (which, surprisingly, affects your motivation to do photography), I found not following my shot plan or working on my shot list, and more or less not really caring; using sloppy technique, and generally just being a not very good photographer taking not very interesting images.
And that set me down a path different than I’d expected, more or less wandering into the “if I don’t give a damn, why am I doing this? and if I do give a damn, why am I not acting like it?” — time to go examine my motivations and interests and figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
I actually put down the camera and didn’t pick it up again for about two months. There were other things going on as well (and my birding suffered during this time; I effectively didn’t bird spring migration, so my numbers this year are way down). I also sent off the 100-400 for repair when it was clear that it’d been dropped once too often. It ended up having to go for repair twice before Canon got it really fixed, and so my “go to” lens was gone for a while. When I did get back to taking images, that got me working with the 300F4+1.4x combo for bird work, which I’ve come to like even more than the 100-400, which… Well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
It wasn’t burnout; I’d love to be able to drama queen this and turn it into some interesting blog posts, but in reality, I just took a break because I didn’t feel like picking up the camera, especially if all I was going to do was point it at stuff and click, and take new images that looked a lot like all of my existing images of birds I’ve already taken images of.
Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t doing any photography. Instead, I went on a journey. The journey was really more of a “what do I want to be when I grow up?” and “what do I want my images to say? what is my personal style?”. The best way to describe it is this: David duChemin’s e-book house, Craft and Vision, has published a free book called Craft and Vision, 11 ways you can improve your photography. It is a series of essays by authors who have published other books through C&V. It is well worth your time, but in it is an essay called “Understand the Stages” by Alexandre Buisse.
He effectively defines the six stages of a photographer as:
- The Photographer has no Artistic Intent, just record what you see. most people are doing this. (the “holiday snapshot” mode).
- The Photographer has discovered an interest beautiful images and is playing around with the camera they have.
- The Photographer has realized their lack of technical knowledge is hindering them, and sets off to learn the craft of image making.
- The Photographer realizes that focussing exclusively on technique is a dead-end, and that composition, quality of light and other intangibles are important in making a good image.
- The Photographer has finished acquiring the technical and artistic tools he needs and starts worrying about what to do with them.
Finally, the Photographer has found his voice and stopped worrying.
I read this when it came out, well after I was down the path of figuring this out on my own, but this crystallized my thoughts, and helped me realize that I’d hit that fifth stage and was fighting to find the sixth. And I still am, but now I understand what I’m trying to do and that’s helped me focus my efforts on things that can help me along that path.
I have found, for instance, that the list of photographers I read online has changed significantly. Photographers who talk mostly about geeky details have mostly disappeared from my reading list; honestly, I just don’t have a lot of interest in another 500 word note on why aperture creates bokeh. That’s not a criticism of those writers — they just are speaking to a different audience now.
Instead, I’ve been exploring and acquiring photographers who are writing about different aspects of photography, and most speccifically, tend to write about being a photographer. These days, the short list of writers I listen to most closely include people like David duChemin, Zack Arias, Kirk Tuck and folks like George Barr and the folks at Online Photographer (especially Mike Johnston and Ctein). One of the things on my list for after the new year is to explain why these people have drawn me to sit at their feet and listen.
This journey continues. The one thing you need for this shift into Buisse’s stage five and six is patience. It’s not something you solve by taking a lighting seminar, or even shooting a thousand images of a spider. As someone who’s written, I recognize it now as the photographer’s equivalent of identifying and harnessing your muse.
Along the way I ended up going through a couple of seminars, both online and both through Chase Jarvis’s Creative Live group. The first was David duChemin’s Vision-Driven Photography, and the second was Zack Arias’ Foundations of a Working Photographer. Both of these deserve some commentary at length, and that’s planned for the new year as well, but let me say now that I recommend both highly, and if you haven’t discovered Creative Live, you should go and explore their offerings. They also stream the live broadcast of new seminars free, so if you can free your schedule, you can take them in without costing you anything — but after you check out one or two, you’ll probably want to start collecting them. Laurie and I both have taken in some of the Creative Live seminars, and every one we’ve seen has been of exceptional quality. (another resource I’ll point you to is Chase Jarvis Live, and this weekend I watched his piece with Allegra Will on portfolio design and criticism, which I found fascinating. And yes, that now means you’ll see me restructuring my online setup to include a “real” portfolio, as soon as I figure out what I want it to be; and what I want to be. And so, we circle back…
The second half of 2011 was surrounded by Leo’s decision to blow up the piece of HP I happened to work with and the chaos and stress of living through that and trying to keep things operating and moving forward despite it — and ultimately deciding to move on and leave HP for greener pastures. Needless, it’s been a stressful few months, which has both gotten in the way of many of my original 2011 plans, but also encouraged me to use things like my photography as a refuge from it. So I did ultimately pick up the camera, but rather than force myself into new paths, I went back and simplified, and went back to my core of bird photography — and I spent a lot of time metaphorically examining my navel for inspiration and answers to questions I wasn’t sure how to ask.
So my goals changed on the fly, but in a good way (I think). I never did move into flash or macro, because I realized stretching into new techniques wasn’t going to solve the problem I wanted to solve — even though I recognize that once I know the solution to that problem, I’ll need these techniques to solve it. I never did do the bird listing (but it’s on the list for 2012), and I did, in fact, mostly go photoshop free, by deciding to bring in a copy of Photoshop Elements for those few times when I need something beyond Lightroom. I would say most photographers can (and should) go this path instead of paying the serious cash needed for the “full” photoshop. Maybe I’ll explain this down the road.
And as to my last “non-goal”, coming out of all of this, and when I made the decision to change jobs (and cashed in 160 hours of unused vacation), I did end up making my first gear purchase in two years. And I spent about a month planning that out and considering options before deciding what I wanted (and should) do. That is a big blog post in itself, so that, too, is scheduled for the new year; once the new gear shows up and I start putting it through its paces…
So overall, I think I’m existing 2011 in a better spot photographically than I entered the year, even if it’s nowhere near the spot I expected to be at when I started the journey. And as I start planning for 2012 and what I want to accomplish, I’m hoping that it’ll be a really strong year for me. Assuming my CEO doesn’t blow up my organization and stuff it into limbo for months again…. And even if they do, we’ll figure it out and do something useful…