My belief that "getting started" trumps waiting until you are "ready."

Are we busy getting ready or should we just dive in???

Earlier today I posted a link to a video about the tyranny of choice. The idea of tyranny of choice is that when presented with more than a few choices we become paralyzed by having to choose rather than being joyfully enabled. But I want to talk about something else that seems to happen to most of us at one time or another and that is the overwhelming desire to become thoroughly prepared before starting something new. Now, let me be very clear that in many fields I agree with the need to be well prepared. 

I want the person who might be doing surgery on me to have studied and practiced (on someone else) many times and under much supervision before I place myself in their hands. I feel the same way about the engineers who design airplanes and the architects who design all of those high rise buildings. But, in the field of Art, a field in which few are killed or even inconvenienced by the artist's lack of preparation, I think being too well prepared before engaging in the process is very counterproductive for the artist. 

I learn more when I learn new lessons in a hands-on situation. My ability to learn well seems to correlate with how many new things I try and fail at much more so than how much stuff I read on the web, and try to digest, and add to, in anticipation of actually trying something real outside the virtual reality of the screen and the web.

Here is my example: A few weeks ago I became interested in a big, complex wall filled with graffiti. I photographed the wall but I felt like photographs weren't an immersive enough solution for such a big project. I decided I'd do a personal video project about it. I used my new Sony RX10 and filmed the whole project handheld. And in the process I failed at many, many aspects of the project. Really abject failure---

And I learned things through hands-on failure that burned the lessons into my brain in a way that just reading, watching videos and thinking about the process would never have accomplished. 

The first day I went out I tried doing a couple of interviews with a small, shoe-mounted, shotgun microphone. I presumed the microphone would work as required even though I intellectually knew of twenty or thirty theoretical reasons why it might not. I forgot to bring along a set of headphones. I shot two interviews and I was very excited about them because the people I interviewed were working on great art and they said stuff that sounded smart and original. When I got back home I checked the audio only to find that there was none. The culprit? A dead microphone battery. I could swear I changed it only a few weeks earlier.....

I learned this for all time: Bring extra batteries. Watch the sound level meters on the camera.  Check the sound as I go by using headphones. 

So, I went back and I put a new battery in the microphone (and a back up in my pocket)  and grabbed  a set of headphones and I tried again. This time I could tell that the mic in the hotshot was a non-starter after listening to a few interviews and even though I didn't have an assistant I wanted to get that little sucker off the camera and closer to the subject for better sound. I did that with a small cord. But when I got back to the studio I listened to the audio and there sure was a lot of background noise that I didn't like. I learned the hard way so that the next time out I would take a set of wireless lavaliere microphones and attach them to the person being interviewed for the best audio. Either that or I'd get a person with experience to come along with me and operate a shotgun microphone on a boom pole.  Part of learning the hard way is learning the lesson up front and then having it reinforced for you when you sit down with your inadequate results and try to edit something together....

So, back to the project and my next basket of mistakes. On my first foray I set the exposure the way I thought it should be and liked the way it looked on the tiny monitor but I didn't pay enough attention to the flashing "zebras" that were trying to tell me that my highlights were burning out. Looked pretty good on the monitor but back in the studio on the big monitor I cringed when I saw some of the shots.  Another lesson learned. Now I watch the zebras and stop trying to convince myself that some burn out will be okay. Which led me to another issue. I decided that I wanted to film at 24fps because that seems to be what all the cool kids on the web do. But the exposures were getting pretty hot on my second time out so I compromised and set the shutter speed to 1/125th instead of 1/60th of a second. I understood, intellectually, that the lack of blur in the frames would make the footage look jerky or choppy but I only understood it intellectually since I rarely shoot client footage in full sun....or even outdoors.

It looked okay on the tiny monitor on location but again, when I got back to the studio and started looking at the footage on a large screen I was horrified. When I go back and shoot again I'll set the camera for 60 fps and limit myself to 1/125th as a top speed. At 24 fps I should have limited myself to 1/50th of a second to prevent the "choppies." But really, until you've screwed up and seen it in the cool light of the editing software it all seems like opinions and theory. In messing up, profoundly, you learn a lesson that stays with you like a bad prison tattoo. 

Okay. So that's it. Right?  Nope, my hubris and stupidity knows no bounds and so we come to the whole idea of hand-holding the camera to get the footage. I'm guilty of reading many articles about just how great the IS is in current cameras (the Olympus OMD EM-1 being the current king) and I've read about just how good the IS is in the RX10. So I put it into the active mode and went for it, certain that the web learning would not fail me and that the camera would smooth out my trembling transitions. It did not. No camera can really do that, unaided, during takes that are longer than a few seconds. But I didn't believe that until I put my hands on the process and gave it a go. Now I know why we spend tons of money on tripods and sliders. And fluid heads and dollies.

I threw aways many, many minutes of unwatchable footage that flickered and slithered and bumped kinetically across my screen. And, for the most part I didn't subject my audience to much of it at all. Editing breeds humility, at some point. 

You would think I've been confessional enough at this point but no. I want to talk about another mistake I made. I think you can hand hold stuff if you are willing to shoot wide and practice a great deal, and you are calmer than the Buddha. But it's doubly impossible to hold a camera steady when you insist on shooting at the telephoto end of your camera's lens. Yes, I know it magnifies every movement but it all sounds so theoretical until you actually come back and look at the long shots, handheld on the big screen. You may think you are steady in the moment but one look at a big monitor tells you that you've got all the stability of a car barreling down a bumpy road with no shock absorbers. 

Lastly, in a final guilty purging, I must admit that while I know I'm supposed to write a script or at least have a good idea of the story I'm going to tell with a video camera I ignored all that and considered the motion camera as just an extension of still photography and decided to shoot "interesting" opportunities as they presented themselves. And they didn't. Ever. 

What a waste of time? Hardly. 

Think of all the things I learned in a way that hardwires them into my brain. Everything I failed at was a valuable lesson learned indelibly. I won't make the same mistakes again. Not if I can help it. But the whole process of trying and failing had at least one very positive function. It got me up off my ass and into the field to experiment on my own dime with all the stuff I'd studied and read about. It got me to acknowledge the stuff I need to work on and the stuff I need to ask for help with. It got me energized about making video projects because for every failure I could see flares of fun and visual wonder in the footage. By pushing the "go" button I got past the resistance and inertia that holds us back by telling us that, "You are not ready yet."  

But the truth is that you are never "ready." All art is work in progress and it's important, if you really want to learn in an impactful way, to start now. To initiate. To stop warming up and get down to the business of actually running a few races. Because it is in the actual doing and failing and doing and learning that we start to understand what we really want from the process, from the medium, and we learn to make it our own. 

I have known people, smart and creative people, who are afraid to start without the full encyclopedia in their heads. They don't want to embarrass themselves. They are afraid to fail, especially publicly. They want their first project out of the gate to be a perfect project. But the cold reality is that they are paralyzed by their need to perfect their knowledge, or to acquire the gear they feel they need to use, until it's too late and so many opportunities for fun and growth have passed them by. They need to launch themselves and their projects now, today. And to fail means they'll learn better. 

When I started writing this I was still thinking about the idea of the paralysis of choice. And how our need to have the perfect gear is part of the intellectual process of research that keeps so many of us paralyzed and unable to get after the stuff we know we want to do. I could easily convince myself that 4k video is the future and anything I learn or do today in 2k is pointless. I can convince myself that I should wait for the Panasonic GH4 or the Black Magic 4K in order to do this right. But if I convince myself that this is true I'll just put off the necessary failures that lead to success until another time in the future. A time when I may not have the energy and resources to fail quite as profoundly and as well as I can today. 

I shared the Graffiti Wall video with you all not because I thought it was great art but to show where I was with the gear in hand. And with the idea of one man guerrilla video. But in truth I was also showing you my failures in order to start a conversation that culminates in some of us learning from people in the audience who know more, who've already made the same mistakes. The ones who know where the potholes in the road are. 

I got a lot of great feedback and most of it was from the shy folks who preferred to take the conversation offline. But I love that they spoke to me and poked (nicely but firmly) holes in my techniques and approach. Through failing so publicly I learned much more than I would have had I spent another thirty days watching instructional videos on Lynda.com (which were useful...) or on the various web forae having to do with digital video. Most of the stuff on the web (outside of Lynda and a few others) is really much better at teaching you (theoretically) about what additional gear you need in order to be successful and not so much about how great it is to fail. 

Now, on client projects when I don't know something I tend to hire the people who do. I am conservative when other people's money is involved and try not to learn in the same way on someone else's dime. I hire an editor. I hire a sound person. I use art directors. I work to a script. And maybe that's why failure is so important to me in my personal work. I get to try stuff that may not work and then figure out what I should have done...

I really do believe that if you don't start you'll never fail and if you never fail you'll never really learn.  So, with that written, I'm off to fail again with my little video camera. And some extra microphone batteries. And a fluid head tripod. And some headphones. And an outline. And.......


Anonymous said...

IMHO, one of your best posts. This morning, my wife and I had a discussion about something totally unrelated to photography. I mentioned to her something a friend said to me in 1975 about real estate investing. "The difference is, they're doing it and we're just here talking about it!" Then, as usual, I checked e-mail and read your blog. You've struck a chord, Kirk, that certainly resonates with me. Thanks.

Jan Klier said...

Well written take on an oft discussed issue.

There is a difference between science and art. The surgeon and the engineer of the high rise exercise science. It's about predictable results that can be repeated over and over again. Repetition is good, same results even better.

The artist on the other hand dies from repetition or predictable results. The artist is called upon to interpret a subject and come up with new and at least equally pleasing results.

One issue photographers face, is that it requires a balancing act between art and science. The is the art of the captured image, and the science of the gear wrangling. As opposed to the painter who faces fewer technical challenges.

The architect of those high rises is of course the one brining the art. You don't want the same old building all over again. But he has to collaborate with the engineer to make it happen, and tame his artistic endeavors to what is achievable by science.

Interestingly enough in the movie industry the artistic and scientific roles are often split, whereas in the still world we try to be jack of all trades with mixed results at times.

Kirk Tuck said...

And, as we say at the Visual Science Lab: "Photography is just the messy intersection of physics and art."

Racecar said...

I tend to be non-confrontational due to my upbringing. I'd rather tip-toe around a social situation, than barge into it. Consequently I'm seldom critical of other people's work, despite the fact that I'm downright cruel when editing my own. However I see your point, that you don't mind a bit of gentle prodding when done tastefully. Still... it's something I need to work on: the art of constructive criticism. It's an uphill battle though.

Cpt Kent said...

I imagine it's better to have your failures in HD, rather than in 4K...

Anonymous said...

A great demonstration of Samuel Beckett saying:
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Mike said...

This is great. It's so easy to wait until everything is right to get started on something, but there's always an excuse.

Doesn't every photographer have a personal project in mind that for some inexplicable reason they haven't started yet?

Casey Bryant said...

Kirk, once again it's reassuring and inspiring to read your words.

My videography experience is lacking. But, the hobbiest photographer in me is inspired to new lengths as I am now a new dad.

I'm really caught up with video capturing these precious moments spontaneously happening before my eyes. But as a scientist, I'm also a perfectionist. I find myself pausing in the whole process because of my limited experience with filming technique, editing, or script writing for that matter. Or that fact that I'm using a measly Olympus E-PM2. I know I want to create something that tells a clearly thought-out story. And I load my footage into iMovie and I realize I'm failing terribly. But, like you've said--we're learning. One day, maybe I'll have something to show for it.

I still find drooling over an E-M1 (oh glorious stabilizer) or a GH3 (oh glorious 60p and high bitrates). Does it all really matter? I'm not a poor man, but not a spending fool either. Product choice shouldn't shape our aspirations so easily, but I can't shake the idea that I would make better art with with a better tool.

Anonymous said...

As always, an interesting post.

Many years ago I read something I've never forgotten:

"Much of photography can't be taught,it can only be learned."

rlh1138 said...

Yes, and yes some more. Your willingness to talk about topics like this is one of the reasons I read here. And, while you might not get the number of comments on this as on others, take my word that we're all out here thinking about what you said. And being a bit uncomfortable perhaps.

Here's for keeping it real.

Ray H.

John M Flores said...

Great post Kirk! It takes great courage to put aside what you know, take some risks, make mistakes, and talk about them publicly. That I think is the key to staying young, a willingness to try to see the world in a new way, a willingness to do things wrong after a lifetime of learning to do things right.


Jr. Miller said...

Hmm agree on the headline..but!

The Olympus E-M1 is fanatastic handheld in most situations.


The rest of the "downfalls" seem to be a bit more on the side of being unprepared for what you were trying to do. Checking batteries, checking sound levels...a few minutes of measuring the exposure. All things that technology doesn't solve and we still have to use our brains a little.

Santo W said...

My favorite setup for sound now is using my Zoom H1 with a lapel mic and syncing it in post. However, when I just got the device, it was not without any mishaps. In this video https://vimeo.com/41233223 I accidentally had the lapel mic plugged-in into the earphone jack (scrub to minute 9:30). I realized my folly, corrected it, and the audio sounds good around minute 16:50. One benefit of syncing in post is that if the audio recorder fails, I still have the audio from the camera's mic albeit not so good because it is far away from the source.

Bob Travaglione said...

The Magic of a Tripod always impresses me! Here in the Windy Midwest, it is a wonderful crutch. With the Articulating LCD Screens, we have the perfect mix to do serious work. Working your own projects are the best "Schooling" we can get. We grade ourselves not on a curve, but what we see in the Results. This was a great Blog today. Thanks!

Ron Zack said...

One of the very best blog posts I've ever read at VSL. I'm going to take these words of yours, chisel them in granite tablets, and round myself with them, and read them three times everyday.

Since I'm mostly just a hobbiest photographer, I get to fail all the time, and no one but me cares. Wonderful freedom.

But when I do a shoot where I know some dollars are involved, I'm as rigid and self-critical a person as you are likely to find, straining for the perfect Decisive Moment, and cursing any equipment that doesn't respond with a perfectly exposed and focused image within 1/10,000 of time it takes me to press the shutter button.

Fear of failure is the most paralyzing force on this earth, who knows how many great wonderful things would have been accomplished, and great works of art produced, had that fear not choked it's potential creator into complete impotency.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, can you tell us where to buy, brand or some to get those sneakers?