I want to introduce you to a new piece of photography gear that is reinventing my photography.

It’s a box

This is going to require some explanation, and that requires a few digressions. You might want to grab a nice beverage and a comfy chair for this one. it’s a story of how a bunch of little things, each one seemingly independent of each other, suddenly tie themselves together into a neat little bundle you didn’t see coming until it dropped at your feet, even though you were collecting the bundle of things all along.

About a year ago — fall of 2017 — I’m doing my planning for my winter refuge work. Back around 2013 I’d made a decision I wanted to do more than take pictures of birds and start using my photography to help people learn about the wildlife refuges and come to understand the part they play in migration patterns and the health and well-being of the birds and animals around us and the larger ecological reality we live in. I decided to do that just as California’s drought was intensifying and water supplies were shrinking, which caused major, on-going stress and damage to areas dependent on these supplies — like the wildlife refuges and surrounding areas the birds used to feed.

So I spent a few seasons trying to figure out how to solve the problem I set for myself, complicated by the refuges under attack, not just by mother nature with the drought, but by every other entity that wanted access to the water being delivered towards the birds winter habitat — especially, of course, the mega farms of the central valley; a fight that is ongoing today.

Along the way I did turn out one set of work that I thought showed off what makes me love the refuges pretty well:

That said, it doesn’t really educate, and I don’t think it hits many things I want to. I felt I really didn’t know how to accomplish what I wanted to set out years earlier.

The Wrong Answer

So of course I doubled down. I decided the answer was video, and sound, and going full multi-media. And I jumped into 2017 fully committed to turning out a finished video that would bring the magic of the refuges to people.

As you might imagine, this was an unmitigated disaster. Solve an inability to express an artistic vision? Throw a bunch of new hardware and technique at it! What could possibly go wrong. Well, other than everything. So as my least productive refuge season in years wound down in February, I put the camera gear in the bag, stuck the gear in a closet, and I’ve only taken it out for one serious shoot since the first of March, when I went out and shot — portraits of birds with the big bird glass.

So most of this year has been filled with anything but taking pictures; lots of productive projects, but no new images. I had to decide what I was going to do about my photography in the future — if anything. Maybe it was time to just call it; for a while, I wasn’t sure.

And about six weeks ago, right around my 60th birthday, I realized I was starting to think about the refuges again, and was starting to plan some winter trip ideas. This change of thinking started when I went off to finish that Youtube channel (remember it?) — and then killed it. And since then, I’ve been thinking through and planning how to reboot this project and start over after the disaster of the last couple of years.

A Path Forward

Oh yeah, that box? We’re getting to it. Honest.

6fps was my first stake in the ground. It puts me in the situation where I need to be thinking about photography, and talking about and sharing that thinking, on a regular basis. The subscriber list is small but growing, the feedback is good, and most important, I’m really happy with it, and even if nobody read it but me, I’m glad I’m doing it.

Last fall I took a trip to Morro Bay, and spent an evening on the harborside exploring consciously shooting travel-style photography along the water. there are some nice shots, but nothing that’ll win awards. I thought I was doing it as background for the youtube channel, but a couple of weeks ago, I realized I was even then starting to push my brain in a different direction on the refuge work; to see the refuges with a different eye. It’s just I got so tied to the video idea I rejected what I was trying to tell myself.

Then David duChemin started promoting his new class, The Traveling Lens. I knew I needed to reset my brain and get it thinking about shooting the refuges with more of an intimate, and travel, esthetic, so it was a natural thing to do; I’ve long known the best way to orient my brain at the start of a project is to study a book or three to give it fodder to digest. I’ve been going through the material since. I’m starting to see possibilities, but I need to get into the field and start experimenting. Even more importantly, I want to get into the field and start experimenting. That wasn’t true six weeks ago.

But what I didn’t have was a way to judge progress, to define success. That was a big reason last year blew up in my face, I set unrealistic goals that in my enthusiasm I assumed tossing lots of new technology at would magically become easy. And when it wasn’t, I imploded.

A Box

And last week, I found what I needed. A box.

A box which will require one more digression. Sorrynotsorry.

I have always been a strong proponent of printing my own work and studying them on paper; I find it can improve an image in ways that are quite visibile, even in online copies, but which I can’t see if I only process the image on a screen. In my old office, all of my walls were covered with my images, so I had to live with them and look at them whenever I was in there.

But the reality is, even if it’s easy to open and swap, a framed print is a pretty strong inhibitor; you always find reasons to not get around to printing new copies and swapping them into the frames. All of the images on my wall were over a year old, and they were great images (if I do say so) but the display was static and I wasn’t printing much. When I did my new office this year, I decided to change it up.

In my new office, I have one of my prints, a nice large canvas of my Yellowstone elk. And I put up after much thought three other prints: one by Ansel Adams, one by William Neill, and one by Michael Frye: The commonality? Yosemite, a special place for me. Why those photographers? That would require another digression, and you would justifiably shoot me, so we’ll do that some other time.

I am slowly choosing what prints to put up elsewhere in the house, but those are permanent installs, not temporary framed prints. So I knew I still had that problem of what to do about printing images when “just toss them later” wasn’t the answer I wanted. And I still had no real idea how to define “success” on my upcoming refuge season. Long term, sure — that hasn’t changed, but I don’t want to turn that into a short term goal I know I’ll fail at.

And then it clicked.

Ben Horne, the large format film photographer, creates and sells a portfolio every year. You can find it on his web site. And I was looking at his images, wondering if I wanted to get a copy to study, when I realized it was the answer I was looking for.

Now I have my box. It’s a nice, solid 11×14 Portfolio box, which cost me about $40, and just the right size for the prints I prefer to make, and pretty enough to live on the coffee table to share with friends.

And starting now, I’m going to create a portfolio box for my favorite images every year; since refuge season for me starts around November 1, my year runs 11/1-10/31, and leaves me enough time to pick 12 images to use for a calendar for the next year.

So every year, my job is to create at least 12 images that become my permanent record for the year, and from that to be able to create the calendar. They can’t just be good Instagram pieces, they have to be solid shots that hold up at 11×14 on paper.

That’s a good, solid, achievable goal, but not easy. Lots of stuff looks fine until you put it on paper, and I’ve found a surprising number of images survive 8×10 test prints and show up serious flaws at 11×14 or larger. It’s also objective and hard to pretend you’ve succeeded; you’ll look at the images and know.

Even better, it doesn’t conflict with other, longer-term or larger goals, whether it’s creating a body of work about the refuges or building a portfolio of bird shots. Whatever idea I choose to follow also feeds this goal, too, rather than argues with it.

And I don’t have those arbitrary friction points of framing, matting, display or wall space.

Finding the answer in the last place you thought to look

Here’s my reason for sharing this with everyone: it’s to help you realize that if you give yourself time and think it through, you’ll find the path to your goal. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is define what that goal is, and sometimes that takes a lot of time, a lot of grumpy and not a few tears.

And you will often find it in places you never would have thought to look at, except that lots of little things helped guide you there, even if you didn’t recognize it at the time. So embrace that, look for the little things that click, start seeing what they might have in common, or where they say to you when you pull them and study them. Often parts of you are communicating to the rest of you in subtle ways you have to be willing to pay attention to.

You also need give yourself time, and sometimes space. I’d hit a frustration point where I needed to get away from the camera and let things marinate, and if I’d kept grinding, I may well have thrown my gear in a lake and been done with it. As it was, while I muttered about doing just that, I knew that wasn’t the answer, and I needed to get away from the problem until I could sort it all out.

And then you may find the answer in a box on the shelf where it’s been sitting all along, but never forget the 37 steps along the way that led you to realizing that. You won’t take that final step if you don’t find and take the first one.

So, takeaway #1: there is a path forward. Don’t try to map the entire path at the start; just find that first step in the right direction, and then see where it takes you. Find that first step, but be patient, because it may be subtle, and it may not be findable until you’ve had time to let the problem marinate and start understanding why it’s your problem.

And, takeaway #2: When things go sour and you feel like a failure and an idiot, please remember that we all go through these phases, and you can work through them and get back on track. Part of what allowed me to step back and give myself some space until I got my frustrations sorted out was knowing others had done this before and gotten through it, and had talked to me about it. So part of what I’m doing here is paying that forward, so when you need it, you’ll know that you can find a way forward, too.

That box is out there for you, somewhere. It won’t be easy to find, it won’t be solved overnight, but if you don’t give up, you’ll figure it out.

And now, I have to go pull the lenses off the shelf and pack my bag, because I need to go shoot some images…