You have to get wet if you want to learn to swim.

If you want to swim competitively, at a very high level,  you'll need to spend time in the water.  A lot of time in the water.  When I swam in high school and college we hit the pool at 5:30 am every morning.  We swam for two hours and then went to class.  When classes ended we headed back to the pool for another hour and a half (if you were a sprinter) or two hours (if you were a distance swimmer).  During the middle of the December we averaged 10,000 to 12,000 yards a day.  Five days a week.

Today, swimmers focus on just as much training out of the pool.  They work on flexibility and strength training.  I'd venture to say that they think about swimming technique a number of times throughout the day.  Before the last Olympics Michael Phelps swam workouts 365 days a year.  That's what it took to be the best in the world.

But here's the interesting thing:  When college football is over the players who didn't make the pro cut stop playing. Same with baseball players and gymnasts.    Most swimmers never stop.  I swim six days a week with a masters swim team.  We have members who are in their sixties who are fast, highly competitive swimmers.  They never give up.  They rarely miss practice.  They know that if they miss a week or two or, horrors! a month!  Their conditioning and feel of the water start to decline.  Even a week out of the water means a rough re-entry.  Because physical technique requires constant practice.

So why is it that many photographers don't get that constant practice is really required to perform photography well?  Too many people put off taking photographs until it's "convenient and then wonder why they don't improve.  Why their craft seems to plateau.  Why they don't "feel" the flow of their creativity in the way they want to.  I think photography is every bit as demanding as competitive swimming but in a different way.  It's so much more multi-sensory.  You have to be able to look with rigor and, at the same time, block out the distracting thoughts of everyday life that dilute your intention and your conscious focus.

You need a clear head so your hands and eyes and feet all operate together as a unit.  So you can capture the image you want at the exact millisecond you want.  I'm not saying you need to do exercises or drills to become better but you have to spend time in the water.  You have to spend time with your camera.  You have to spend time practicing seeing.  And maybe most importantly, you have to spend quiet time with yourself, alone, thinking about why you photograph.

I conjecture that only by knowing what really motivates you to pursue photography will you be able to channel the energy and spirit to ignore the mental and physical roadblocks that every day life tosses in front of each of use like a never ending shower of kabers. Because only when you are clear about the real value you get from exploring photography do I think you will overcome the impediments to clearly seeing and capturing images that move you with passion.

Here are a few things I find helpful when I hit a creative block:

1.  Lie on the floor and clear your mind of everything.  Go blank.  When thoughts come into your head look at them in a dispassionate way and then let them go.  Pay attention to visual constructions.  And then let them go.  Get back off the floor when you feel the desire to create come back.

2.  When you are clear about why you photograph and what subjects give you pleasure (as opposed to subjects that serve to gratify your ego because you know that others will respond to them) visualize an end result for your work.  It could be the construction of a private book of images just for you or a show of your work in a public place.  You might even send prints out to people as anonymous gifts.

3.  Everyone has their own cliche images.  But if we try to avoid the sticky cliches we give them a certain perverse power and they become more dominant in our field of view.  Instead, shoot all of your cliches and then move on.

4.  Edit down your vision.  If you try to do every aspect of photography well you dilute the things you do extremely well.  Every swimmer has a favorite stroke.  That's the one they work on.  Boil it down to its essence.

5.  Find a kindred spirit who can be a mean son of a bitch and be politely but firmly critical with each other's work.  Having all nice critics around makes for a lazy artist.  Sometimes you need someone else to tell you what you don't want to hear about your work or your approach to work so you can get past it.

6.  Once you are clear on what you want and how you want it you have to make time to do it.  That means you have to make photography a priority in direct proportion to how much you want to get out of your photography.  

7.  Don't do it for love or money, do it because you feel compelled to do it.

8.  Like eating, breathing and swimming, do it everyday.  Doesn't have to be hours and hours.  Just enough to keep you fresh and loose.

9.  Don't compare yourself to  other artists.  You are on your own path.  Your life is different from mine.  I might hate your work and you might hate mine but it doesn't matter.  Neither of us is right and neither of us is wrong.  If we're being true to our real vision.

10.  You can't swim without a pool.  You can't shoot without a camera.  Don't leave it at home.  The camera is like your shirt or your shoes.  Take it everywhere you take your body.  Then you'll be ready when the image you love arrives in front of you like a gift.  Be gracious.  Be ready to accept the gift.


Wolfgang Lonien said...

Wonderful advice, and the points are getting stronger by the number. Thanks again Kirk, like so often.

#7, wow.

J. DeYoung said...

Good words.

Especially Comments 6, 8 and 9. :-)
Your blog is always a good read. Keep up the good work.

Mike said...

Great post. I've been struggling with a lot of this. I need a kick in the pants, and this helps.

Matt Beaty said...

Very well said - #8 has always been the hardest for me, and it goes hand in hand with #10.

Keep 'em comin!

Alex Solla said...

Kirk- This made my morning... at 5am. So I took your advice, instead of my pillow's. I got out and shot first thing. Showering be damned! The light was kick-ass and there was no one around. Perfect! Never mind that it was break-in-the-new-camera-day... that would get anyone out of bed early. Your post hit me square in the eyes. Both as a former competitive swimmer (and yes former because the teams up north here seldom meet in the winter months)... and as a firm believer that muscle memory applies to that fat-ass muscle we think of as our brain. Fail to use it and it atrophies. Thanks for the kick in the head this morning. Felt good.

Chris said...

Don't forget number 11. When in doubt, buy something. :)

Jet Tilton said...


#8 is the hardest, especially when we don't live in such a scenic place like Austin! But we need to find the time somehow!
#10 reinforces my decision on a rebel xsi instead of a bigger 40D or 50D, the smaller rebel is much easier to throw into a small bag with a couple of lenses, and lesser weight means I might take it with me more often than not!

Thanks again for always knowing how to kick us in the rear!

blog said...


Words to live by. Thanks for the inspiration.


Raianerastha said...

Good stuff Kirk.

For many years as I was learning photography, I was frustrated when I couldn't seem to get the "look" of my photos to match what I'd seen pros and talented, skilled enthusiasts do. Then a pro friend helped me out. I went through some of my contact sheets and slides, pulled shots he considered the best and said "I bet you consider these rejects, don't you?"

Yes, I did.

I learned from him the same things you have talked about-find my own vision, my own passion for photography and pursue that, not worrying about whether it fits the expectations of others.


Josef Moffett said...

One small point I'd like to make.

While it's technically true that you can't take a picture without a camera, I would suggest that it is "fantastically" possible to do so.

By this I mean that you can imagine the process all the way through in great depth concentrating on all the bits you need to do to get the picture.

The benefit of this is that you can now take a picture (or at least the practice of doing so) without having the camera. And the wierd thing? Because you don't have the camera, you're actually focused on the important things - composition, noticing the light, etc.

Of course, if this is your only form of photo-taking, then you're not going anywhere. But the cerebral form of photography is one you really can practice anytime, anyplace - even in places where you have no permission to photograph.

Bold Photography said...

This post is why I keep coming back for more, Kirk...

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed that you seem to work every day and you still have time to blog. You must be the hardest working man in photography! Thanks for giving us this!