Lessons from Behind the Lens

Photography has been a constant in my life, albeit one with fits and starts. In my never-ending journey towards photographic nirvana, I’ve always tried to keep open eyes and an open mind, learning all that I can from those around me. Triumphs and hiccups alike have both provided valuable learning lessons along the way.

My love of photography can be traced back to my grandparents. My grandfather wrote (to the best of my knowledge) the first book on photographic asset management back in 1980 and it is still recognized by Controlled Vocabulary as an important reference. He and my grandmother were globetrotting travel photographers. Upon return from each trip they would ruthlessly edit their images, reducing several hundred rolls of Kodachrome and Agfachrome into a couple hundred select images that would be carefully cataloged.
Lesson 1: Edit ruthlessly, then keyword and catalog your images so you can find them later.

What separates a good photograph from a great one is the difference between wishing you were there versus feeling like you are there — like you can step into the picture. Maybe it was the quality of my grandparents’ photography. Maybe it was the depth of their highly-researched narrative that went with each image. Maybe it was seeing the images projected on a 14 foot diagonal screen. Through their photography, I was there beside a young girl on a red bridge spanning a meticulous Japanese garden; I visited the weathered shop in the Red Square of Moscow tended by an old woman whose face bore the tales of a lifetime of harsh Russian winters. Although I had not literally been there, through their pictures I felt like I had. What I, and everyone else, remember from my Grandparents, is their ability to tell a story with their photographs.
Lesson 2: Learn to tell a story with your pictures and create images that people feel like they can step into.

By the first grade I had decided that my Kodak 110 camera didn’t cut it and I started taking my dad’s Nikon FM to school with me. The Nikon went everywhere I did, it documented my childhood adventures. It nestled so nicely in the pocket of my North Face jacket, there was never a good reason to leave it behind. Its mechanical simplicity meant all I had to remember to bring was a roll of film, making it the perfect camera for a boy who might have forgotten his nose had it not been firmly attached.
Lesson 3: The best camera is the one that you take with you.

I wanted to take beautiful pictures and I edited my images ruthlessly as I had been taught. But I was not trying to create Art, and certainly not “Art” with a capital “A,” I was trying to tell stories. My stories. My friends stories. This storytelling continued through high school and a summer-long trip to Europe. Upon returning and ruthlessly editing my photos, I was disappointed horrified with the results. With this frustration, combined with a desire to fit in and not be “the kid with the camera,” I introduced my Nikon to a new and unfamiliar environment — a closet shelf. It stayed on that shelf for nearly four years.
Lesson 4: If you are not getting the level, quality and style of images you want, find someone who can help you and ask for help. Don’t give up. Everyone needs a mentor. If your mentor doesn’t give you usable guidance, find another.

At some point along this path to frustration, I had become interested in making beautiful pictures more than merely telling stories, but was ill-equipped to do so. I felt like my pictures weren’t that good and most certainly were not Art. In truth — the kind of truth that only comes from hindsight and perspective — it’s not that the pictures were bad, but more that they didn’t match the vision in my head. I was shooting in very difficult light and was more concerned about moving fast than taking the time to really analyze the scene and create a good image.
Lesson 5: Like everything else in life, you need to have clear goals for your photography. Goals are your map, without them you have no direction.

My re-introduction to photography, and re-training as a photographer took place over about a three-year period. Before going further, I should mention that I come from a family of ski racers, and in that department I am definitely the runt of the litter. After getting off to a great season, my skiing suddenly went from pretty decent to really bad. Since I had already committed to going to the next race (including lodging and lift tickets), I had my coach pull my race entry and decided to bring my camera instead. With a creak of a closet door, my trusty Nikon FM was reacquainted with daylight. The pictures I shot at that race were pretty decent. They told the story I wanted to tell and everyone who saw them had the same response: “Wow, I feel like I’m there.” That experience made me reexamine my older work, the pictures that made me quit in the first place. You know, they weren’t great, but they were a lot better than I had remembered.
Lesson 6: Sometimes you need time to judge your work on its own merits and not against the vision you had or the image your were trying to capture.

Not long after that race in Steamboat, my girlfriend and I had the opportunity to take a vacation to the Colorado mountains for a few days. Shortly after arriving we were greeted by a beautiful alpine sunset, the kind that turns whole world pink. I grabbed my camera from the bag, but the lens, lens mount and most of the metal from the front of the camera remained in the bag. I was devastated. Nikon service asked if they could keep the camera as a memento, they had never seen a failure like that before.
Lesson 7: Don’t cry for things that can’t cry for you, but if you are on an important shoot or trip, carry a backup.

Luckily, a Canon rep took pity and set me up with a complete Canon system for the price of just a couple of lenses. Going from completely manual to 10 frames-per-second and autofocus was quite the eye opener. The first time I put the Canon through its paces was a World Cup ski race. While I missed the simplicity of my FM, I was able to get world class images from that race.
Lesson 8: Carefully planned, anticipated and executed shots rule over “spray and pray,” but don’t be afraid of the latest technology.

During this time, the in-house photographer at the ad agency I worked at took me under his wing. He opened my eyes to the world of lighting and creating a shot. I grew up in the realm of photojournalism, adventure and travel photography. You shoot what’s there and if you don’t like the light, either wait awhile or go somewhere else. I see photojournalism and landscape photography as subtractive processes — you look at the everything around you and systematically decide what will NOT be in your image. Studio photography, by contrast, is like painting – it is an additive process. You start with nothing (whether an empty canvas or an empty room) and create from there.

I loved the control of studio photography, and I began trying to infuse it into my work outside the studio. While all the other photographers on the hill at that race were trying to find shots that weren’t backlit, I was reveling in it and used the mottled backlight to create dramatic action shots.
Lesson 9: “Photography” literally means writing with light. It stands to reason that to master photography, you must first master light. While it is something you can learn from a book, learning from a master is better.

I’ve come a long way since I was that little kid running around with a Kodak 110, but I also know that I have a long way to go. Being truly committed to photography means constantly refining your craft, pushing yourself and your gear (see bio photo above). One of the great advantages of the digital era is that it allows us to rocket along the learning curve. The instant feedback allows us to experiment, push the envelope and try new things. “Back in my day” we had to pull a Polaroid (learning to read them was an art in itself), wait 90 seconds, make adjustments to the shot and try again. Or just shoot the film and hope for the best.
Lesson 10: Photography is a lifelong learning process. Remember that it is, and learn to enjoy the process.

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