You will (I hope) be learning this craft for a very long time. The learning curve may flatten out a little and certain skills may come more easily, but after 36 years, I’ve not found myself within sight of the kind of mastery beyond which there is nothing new to learn. My 14-year-old self would be shocked to know what a long, winding, and seemingly endless journey he set in motion for himself (and for me) when he first picked up a camera. I think that long journey of craft is part of what keeps me interested.
But at a certain point, the big challenges aren’t about what shutter speed to use or trying to figure out how to make sharper photographs. That groundwork was laid a long time ago for me, and it will come for you, too (if it hasn’t been already). Once we’re beyond those technical needs, the bigger challenges for most of us are the soft skills: how to think like a photographer. These are the things I am most interested in—and which push my evolution as a photographer and artist as well as a human being.
Among the hardest to learn has been the need to stay in the moment.
Not only to stay in it, because the moment, like a riptide, has a pull on us that feels inescapable—we’re in it, no matter what we do—but to remain truly present in it. To remain observant and focused. Sensitive to what’s going on around me and, where the creative process is concerned, within me. That’s the hard part.
On the long list of things I would tell my younger self, so eager to learn to make stronger photographs, this would be among the more important: do everything you can to stay aware within the moment. It’s fleeting, and it turns in unexpected directions. What seems like forever in which to make decisions and let our focus wander is often over almost before it begins. And then it’s gone.
For the one interested in finding something astonishing and rare within these moments (and I get that not all photography is as concerned with the slivers of moment that mine is), it is amazing to me that we allow ourselves to be so distracted, to be so frivolous with these moments.
The job of the photographer is not merely to use a camera really well and hope the rest falls into place; it is to be present. Aware. Responsive. And not only that but to anticipate, when possible, the moment as it unfolds: to speculate what might happen not only in the moment but how that might translate to what’s going on in the frame—and the resulting impact on the composition.
The younger version of myself, new to digital photography, missed so much of this. Preferring to check his LCD and see if he managed to catch the moment that just passed and so to completely miss the ongoing moment. Missed isn’t really the right word; squandered is better.
The younger me had no sense of how valuable these moments are. How rare. More concerned with the quality of his gear than the quality of the moments he was living and, I can see now, so willing to value one more than the other that he had no idea what a high price he was paying to miss those moments he thought would surely repeat themselves. They so rarely do. My photography trips so often passed in such a blur of chasing the shot that I missed the bigger picture. As we get older, this matters more and more.
It actually matters just as much when we’re younger, but we just don’t see it. Maybe that’s the privilege of youth: to squander (money, time, love) and still have the time to recover and do it again. The camera has helped me see my way back from that. It’s made me realize how rare these things are, both with and without the camera in my hand. I hope it has also given me the wisdom to know when it’s time to pick up the camera and when to put it down. Sometimes the camera can amplify these moments; other times, it can blind us to the fuller experience. You can miss the moment as easily with a camera to your eye as by not having one at all.
What is certainly true is that the moment matters. More than we’ll ever know. As we live our moments, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, so we live our lives.
Increasingly my advice (to myself, if not also to others) on how to make stronger photographs is inseparable from my advice for living a better life. Perhaps no more so than on this subject.
You want to make stronger photographs? Do everything you can to remain present in the moment. Don’t wish it away. Don’t kill time (what a terrible expression). Don’t look down at a screen when the moment is happening everywhere else. Don’t cut it short before you absolutely have to. Don’t make the mistake of believing that moment won’t be cut short before you expect it to be. Or that it will repeat itself. This might be the one chance to live it, experience it, and perhaps also to photograph it.
You don’t have to photograph it (there are times not to), but don’t miss it.
Our raw materials are light and time. Of the two, time is the most limited. It’s the one over which we have the least control. And it’s the one we will all—one day—be wishing we had more of. Often that day for me is the day I get on a plane and leave a place (Kenya, for example) and only then realize how careless I was about my moments. No, maybe I couldn’t have found more of them in the time I had. Every trip ends eventually. But oh, how I wish I’d made more of the moments I did have.
Practically, this might mean finding the discipline not to chimp through your images until it’s past time to put the camera away. It might mean leaving your phone at the bottom of the bag or putting it into airplane mode. On my trips, it means not talking about home unless absolutely necessary. I hardly ever check my email. It means not looking at the news (good advice no matter where you are). It means staying in one place longer. Maybe that’s one town, or maybe it’s one street corner or that rock on the river waiting for a bear. It means working a scene well beyond the obvious. Being open to a change of plans. Maybe it means bringing less gear so you spend less time mucking around with it all.
Above all, it means quieting the lizard brain and the monkey mind. It doesn’t hurt to breathe. When’s the last time you read that in a camera manual?
I’m laughing as I write this because I’m imagining my younger self (or you) rolling his eyes. His needs were simple; he just wanted a better camera and to use a camera better. But when I look at the best of my work—the images that have endured for me, the ones I prize above the others—it’s the moments I was alive and really awake and aware within, responsive and creative and in no great hurry to move on to the next thing that I see there.
Don’t confuse the need to learn your craft with the need to craft your life and be fully alive within it.
For the Love of the Photograph,