7.03.2021

Strategies for staying motivated to photograph.

minimalist business card. 

I've had a love-love relationship with photography since 1978. That was the year I bought my first "real" camera. And subsequently taking photographs of friends, lovers, trips, adventures and events put me on what has now been a nearly life long journey in photography. There are ups and downs but as long as there are plenty more ups than downs (over time) I'm happy to continue the adventure.

In the last few years the downs seemed to outnumber the ups. I lost my parents, spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours taking care of all their "end of life" details and personal estates, my most beloved dog passed away, and just as I started to emotionally recover from all the loss the pandemic and the lockdowns struck hard. I spent a year not being able to work closely with new people and not being able to have travel adventures or to go on much delayed vacations with my lovely partner. It was a chain of events that threatened to pull the rug out from under me...metaphorically. 

But since we are an amazingly resilient species I found ways to keep moving forward and find solutions to my isolation, grief and angst. And most of the time the solutions revolved around making photographs for myself. So how does one stay interested, motivated and engaged with their work/hobby/joyful occupation in the midst of a life that seems to be constantly in flux?

I have some strategies that work, and worked, for me. I don't know if they'll work for you. But I'm going to share them anyway...

My first rule is to make the things I like to do into a practice. A practice is something I feel like I need to do whether or not I'm "in the mood" to do it in the moment. If you make something into a practice the discipline makes you show up and engage, and once you are engaged you'll find yourself getting into a groove and enjoying yourself much more than you thought you would.

The same thing holds true for my swimming. I go to swim "practice" every morning (except Mondays when the pool is closed). I spend the first waking hour of my day swimming in tight, regimented concert with swimmers who are like minded. We're coached by great swimmers and we put in hard, structured yardage. It's not "self-paced." The workouts are given by the coaches and there is always the expectation that you'll keep in lockstep with your lane mates, and the rest of the team. 

When it's freezing and dark outside, in the early winter mornings, it's harder to convince myself to get out of a warm bed, forgo the coffee, grab a towel and a jacket and head to the pool. When I get there I have to get from the locker room to the outdoor swimming pool. And you never know until you commit and hop in whether it will be a life sustaining temperature or viciously cold. But all the discipline of every past swim moves you forward and you take the plunge. And fifteen minutes later you wonder why you ever hesitated.

Not every walk or adventure with a camera yields a portfolio full of winning photographs. Many days the creative vistas of street photography are fallow. But you know it's just the way you are seeing things in the moment. If you use your failures on the fallow days as an excuse to not come back you'll slowly step away from taking the risks and coming out to photograph. I let my memory of the many times the universe let me see something fun, new, beautiful, engaging and affirming to prod me not  to give up and throw away another precious day by not going out and photographing. Or working with a client and photographing. Or setting up a still life in the dining room and photographing. 

I know that photography is not the same as a sport like swimming. But they have a few similarities. The similarity that sticks with me is that when I don't swim for a few days I start to lose my feel for the water; my fluidity of movement and my sense of being in my element. By the same token, if I miss out on photographing for a few days then my fingers start to get confused about where all the controls are and I start forgetting how to walk with purpose and to think about photography without undue hesitation. 

Practice becomes a discipline and the discipline helps to keep you going through large and small failures or disappointments until you can break through and have success again. You have to trust the process...

My second rule is to surround myself with photography that I personally love. And, selfishly, I love my own work because it's my vision but it's also filled with people I love, respect and in some cases miss. 
I don't keep my favorite photographs in a book or in a portfolio or even just stuck on the web. I print out my favorites. Some I mat and frame and others I am so impatient to display that I just tack them to available walls with pushpins. But the photographs I love are a constant reminder that I am capable of creating stuff  that I love. That I have had many past successes. That I have mastered some range of skills. And that the exercise of those skills often brings me great happiness.

I keep a bulletin board next to my desk. It's filled to overflowing with images. Some stay on the board permanently while others rotate through but they all bring a smile to my face. They remind me that this "hobby" brings me personal joy. Joy absolutely divorced from the approval or acceptance of any audience other than myself. Right now I'm looking at a photograph of Belinda from 20 years ago, Ben from 10 years ago and my friend, Jennifer from at least that long ago. They are photos that I consider to be timeless and that gives me motivation to make more photographs of more friends and strangers-who-will-become-friends in the near future. That's a powerful motivator to continue working and looking as well as a kick in the pants to get out and see people. The happiness is the motivation to seek more happiness. 

A rule that I made up just because it's fun for me is to enjoy playing with, and learning to work with, new tools on an ongoing basis. I find that new cameras and lenses click a switch in my brain that's all about playful experimentation. A new (to me) lens doesn't need to be flawless or a 'top performer', it just has to have a pleasant personality that encourages me to coax images out of it that make me happy. I've lately bought two different, ancient, 50mm lenses. One is a Canon FD and the other is a Nikon F lens. Neither is state-of-the-art but neither is a dog. And each of them render images is a different way than some of the newer and more highly, corrected current lenses do. But that's not a bad thing at all; it's just a different palette. And how will you know if you like that palette or not if you never try it? Constant experimenting is a good placebo for those times when subjects aren't available or when the weather crushes your previous plans. 

By the same logic having different cameras is also a strategy for staying fresh and enthusiastic because each different model affects the way you shoot and the way you engage with your process. I find a small and discreet point-and-shoot camera like the Fuji X100V encourages me to take chances, to move faster, to work closer to people, and to not care as much about technical perfection. A perfectionism that is an easy imepediment to making authentic images. 

On the other hand my portly and ponderous Panasonic S1R, with its high resolution sensor, makes me slow down and consider a more formal framing and brings with it a desire on my part for a more studious and careful approach to composition and structure. To try and put all those pixels to good use.

You need multiple approaches if you shoot in different ways. It keeps each genre more approachable and each camera carries with it a set of user requirements that push a certain way of looking. My current favorite camera is the Leica SL because it feels so industrial. No logic there. Just a feeling...

My third rule (for myself to follow) is to formally create and outline projects. If I have a project then I have a framework to build on. One project I've been working on for thirty years now is a documentation of Austin's downtown. There is a traditional downtown; geographically, and it changes, grows, mutates and evolves all the time. You might not see it if you work on the project day-to-day but if you step back and look at work generated over the years the project becomes kinetic and alive. Having a framework is like having a blueprint for building a house. You know what you need to do and you follow the framework to produce. 
The only caveat about projects is that it's easy to get wrapped up in the idea of the "final result." There's a social pressure to produce "the big show" that caps the project. There is a cultural pressure to find a beginning and an end. If you can skirt those compulsions and just embrace the hands-on process you'll be happier doing the work because you'll be looking for scenes and subjects that delight you instead of photos that fill some unspoken requirement to round out the project's bucket of images. To somehow please an anonymous audience.

I'm putting together ideas for projects right now. I'd like to spend a few months walking the streets of Rome making my own essay of that city because I have loved all my past adventures there and I want to see how it's changed from my first taste, with my parents and family, in 1965 to my first quasi-adult visit with a girlfriend on a backpacking adventure through Europe in 1978 to my visits there with my wife in 1985 and 1992 as well as a shooting trip there in 1995 and work trips around the turn of the century for IBM. It's been so long since I was last there and so far the plan looks good on paper.... And I do write down outlines for the projects I have in mind. The written documents exist as a rough sketch; a predecessor to the framework. 

I'd love to do a project on masters swimming. A project on beautiful people I meet going through life, and much more. The idea of projects means there is always something to aim for, just over the horizon. And that continuity of purpose helps me stay motivated to do the work at hand. And to move from project to project with a sense of purpose.

There are large projects and small projects. My "Eeyore's Birthday Party Photos" is a small project. It's a one day per year documentation of an Austin, homegrown celebration of Spring and life. My portraits of friends and family, strangers, and people cast in my projects by fate, is a larger project --- a life long project. 

It's the framework and the structure of projects that is important, not the end result. The goal is to stay engaged and have fun with the "doing". To learn more. To master a visual language. To be a life long creator. Not a content producer for cash only. 

To these bigger rules above I add little rules for myself. One ongoing rule for me is to stay in good physical shape. The better I feel the less distracted I am when I'm out making photographs. And, the longer I can stay out making photographs. The more energy I have to seek out photographs and the more energy I have to be excited and really available to the people I meet in the process. I swim and walk and do yoga to stay fit and agile and .... engaged. If you are too tired to shoot the fun seeps out and the lights dim. But it's all relative. I won't have the same energy at 70 that I have now at 65 but by constant practice, and routine exploration out in the world, the changes won't be nearly as jarring as they would be had I approached photography in fits and starts. The gradual and almost unnoticable changes seem kinder and less fraught. 

To stay in shape takes lots of exercise. Lots of walking. Lots of stretching and lots of time in the pool. The payoff may (or may not....no guarantees!) be a longer working life and less painful transition to being able to do less work, and add to the ability to enjoy each moment a little more than I would have otherwise. 

A subset of the "good physical shape" rule is to eat well. More fruits, nuts, vegetables and unprocessed foods with a great steak tossed in here and there to provide all those necessary and desirable amino acids...and great taste, No sense eating trash if it's going to slow you down, make you fat and diminish your power to be truly engaged. 


A favorite meal. A cup of blueberries over a handful of crushed walnuts
over low fat, unflavored, unsweetened Greek yogurt mixed with 
muesli. Protein, antioxidants, fiber and crunchy textures. 
What's not to like?

The final rule is one that you need to start working on in your younger years and carry forward all the way through. That's to be financially smart. To not buy stuff that you can't make money with. To not waste money on endless forays to lovely restaurants if your haven't stuffed enough money into your accounts. To never buy a car that you couldn't afford to pay for with cash (even if you choose to pay on credit in order to prevent opportunity losses to your investments. A car loan at 2% while your investments can earn multiples more makes sense). Buying a car over a certain price makes no sense at all. We've never had cable. We don't go on Instagram-worthy exotic vacations. 

If you don't have money in the bank then it's infinitely harder to say, "f#ck you" to bad clients who need to be let go of. If you don't have money in the bank you don't sleep well, can't plan well, and end up making bad decisions. There's no magic to share here. Spend less than you make. Save more than you think you should. Marry someone who understands money and the benefits of delayed gratification. Take care of your obligations and keep your eyes (both of them) on your bottom line. A healthy accumulation of wealth is the lever that allows you to have self-guided adventures without regrets or hints of future disaster. 


I guess the bottom line for staying motivated is to make photography an essential part of your daily life, to surround yourself with your own beautiful work. To use cameras and lenses that bring you joy instead of battling against you for mastery. (No one wants a camera the operation of which is like walking with a big pebble stuck in your shoe)! To engage in each session with a sense of adventure and joy but also a tingling concern that this time you might fail --- chances are you won't. But it's that little uncertainty that pushes me to try harder and to play more. To experiment and at the same time to be diligent. 

In the end, if you are surrounded by people you love and who love you, and you have the time to do projects you enjoy, and you are healthy enough to do the work you want to do, the momentum of your joy and successes will keep you motivated for as long as you'd like. It's a process not a means to an end. 

For me, photography remains a wonderful part of my daily routine. Whether I'm meeting new clients and photographing for them or walking down the street looking for new and interesting things to commit to the photo files having the camera and all its potential to help me speak fluently in a visual language, with my own accent, is the reward I've always been looking for. It seems to have snuck up on me and plastered a smile on my face. And that's good.

on the bulletin board. Renae on a greeting card. 

to the right of the desk. A model on the Spanish Steps 
 in Rome. Printed 3x3 feet and framed. The first thing I see each morning as
I walk into the office.

A constant reminder of the important things in life.

on the other side of my desk. 
My favorite, formal portrait. 

Helping me to remember all the people who've helped me and whom I have helped.


An old lens on a new body and a surprise at how charming its rendering turned out to be. 
Along with my good "friend" coffee. 

Having choices is a luxury and a privilege. And each camera brings with it
some power to change the way you see the world and to make things fresh;
even if it's just for the day you use it.

A hat I've owned for decades. 
A sentiment I've believed through thick and thin.

Hope you go out shooting tomorrow and discover magic. 
Or just reconnect with your own happiness at being 
in the world ---- and speaking a visual language....



 

So. You're a photographer. Can you shoot my wedding? What's your package price for a family portrait? You should go to XXXXX, the landscapes are beautiful. I've got some rental houses, what do you charge for real estate photos? Etc. Etc.

 


It's funny-annoying to tell people what my occupation is. I never know exactly what to say and I never know exactly how people will respond. I should take a cue from Cindy Sherman or David Hockney and just tell people that I'm an artist. It might make the conversations shorter and more fun. But usually I tell them that I do commercial photography for a living and that my hobby is "art" photography. The almost universal response I get, right off the bat, is: "Do you do that full time???" followed by: "Can you actually make a living at that??" 

People come into the conversation with so many preconceptions of what a photographer is. Since the majority of people I come across aren't likely to be clients for commercial work the conversations revolve around the aspects of photography that they know about from their own life experiences. Mostly, they presume that every photographer is a generalist who survives financially by doing weddings on weekends and "real estate" photography on the weekdays. If you are a "go-getter" you might also lard in some senior portraits and some family portraits.

Everyone here knows what I mean when I mention wedding photos and senior photos. These are the foundation of a retail --- direct to consumer --- photo business. Real estate photography is a bit more ambiguous. I used to think people just meant architectural photography where the photographer is trying to bring out the best in a custom building project. But the layperson's understanding is that "real estate" photography is what happens when a home seller and their realtor need lots of quickly done wide angle images of a house or condo to plaster into a quick website to show buyers what the interior (and sometimes exterior) of a property looks like. This is "bottom of the barrel" work that usually commands(?) low fees and is done with minimal extra lighting, one very wide angle lens and...maybe...a tripod.

The people who ask about my "job" don't ever think about actual commercial work like photographing for ads, photographing executives environmentally for global use, or photographing corporate events that last days and days. Nor do they imagine that companies are willing to pay to put a photographer on and off airplanes, to photograph operations and processes in multiple cities and countries. The lay people think the difficult part of those jobs, once they learn about their existence, is in the buying of the gear, or learning how to light, use the cameras, and shoot those kinds of jobs. They don't understand the amount of time spent on logistics. Everything from closely sequenced travel schedules to collaborating with managers, supervisors, field technicians who are on site, and marketing departments back at HQ, and so much more. The hardest part of nearly every commercial job is the logistics of getting everything ready to be photographed and getting the people you'll collaborate with lined up... not the photography itself...

While many photographers started with "retail" work (weddings, babies, senior portraits, etc.) and eventually progressed to working for corporations I started, instead, working in the advertising industry and came to photography after having learned from hands-on campaigns as an advertising agency creative director. My transition was from hiring photographers, videographers, illustrators and copywriters, and collaborating with them to create content,  to becoming a photographer; and I knew from the outset that there would always be more money, more freedom and more fun working in the field of advertising than there ever would be in retail. 

Why am I bringing all this up? It's a direct result of the recent discussion here and on Michael Johnston's site about the integration of video into still cameras, and the very nature of what video is now in the commercial spaces. It seems that the same confusion exists in the video markets as to what the different disciplines within the big tent of "video" are all about. 

Many remember a time when there were far fewer outlets for video programming and those that existed were highly codified. Exempting feature movies from the discussion, there were: educational videos that got played in classrooms and training sessions. There was television programming which ranged from hour long dramas to public access TV, and lots of level of production value in between, and there were commercials that ran on network stations and on some cable channels. The final outlet was electronic news gathering, the video/reporter teams that worked for local new stations. That was pretty much it for decades. The internet changed all that. But most people are oblivious to change. Sadly. 

While previous generation productions required lots of hands and lots of infrastructure in order to be well made many of the things that drove projects to be expensive have been cancelled by new technology and new places in which to place the new videos. And the new outlets, mostly web-driven, provide a much enhanced quantity of engagement that previous, pre-web channels. They are accessible and delivered to much bigger audiences. And they are available all the time; not just in scheduled time slots... or in limited runs. 

If we wanted movie cameras/video cameras to move in the dark ages we laid down dolly track and put a dolly on it and had one person operate the camera attached to the dolly while another person pushed the dolly along the track. Getting shots with the camera moving (and not shaking all over the place) required lots of time to set and level actual track (think: miniature train tracks) and to rehearse the moves between the presenter, the camera operator and the dolly operator. That mostly gave way to a single operator with a camera on a heavy and expensive SteadiCam rig which required much practice and physical fitness. Now we can get results that are amazingly good with an iPhone 12 Pro on a small, easy to operate (with one hand) gimbal. Progress. 

Is the new version picture any crappier because it's so much easier to create? Nope. 4K video in good light, shot with a current iPhone is much, much better than ancient Sony Beta SP at 540 lines. It's also much, much more affordable. Now, instead of a $40,000 stabilization rig and a $20,000 camera and tons of support people a kid in a middle class neighborhood can make a better technical product for about $1200 and no crew. Is the programming better or worse? The content is always only as good as the talent behind the camera. Always. And that's not necessarily budget or crew dependent. (see Robert Rodriquez's feature movie, Mariachi).

When I mentioned that we shot video alongside our still cameras one immediate response was that the advertising agency that hired me was just trying to save money by getting a second service cheaper. I had to laugh. What we were creating with the video was so efficient to create that it added a lot of value to the client with minimal stress to me. Why? because its destinations (Instagram, Facebook, TikTok) didn't exist back in the days of big crew productions. And because the intrusion of the big production paradigm in this situation would have negated the whole project by dint of how many resources it would have taken and how much time and fluidity in the project would be lost. Not to mention adding tens of thousands of dollars to a production that didn't need the incremental possible increase in production value. Especially considering we were using real people, willing to sign talent releases, instead of paid talent that we could control and video until we got the "perfect" take. Oh, and I should mention that obliteration of authenticity once a project morphs too large. 

Yes, I often shot twice during the day. I'd use one camera to shoot some stills and then switch out to a second camera and shoot some video. It's not like we had to strike a set and then recreate the scene in front of us. Nothing had to change. New lights didn't need to be added. Props didn't need to be re-done. No make up had to be re-applied.  It was just the same as if I had shot a couple of images and then decided to cover my ass by shooting a few more; only this time I recorded them by pressing the "red button" on the camera instead of the shutter button. 

The understanding about video that is destined for social media and websites seems to be the reverse of people's understanding of commercial photography. Instead of thinking that we can take many different approaches to making videos for many different kinds of media people think only of Hollywood-styles of shooting and production with all the bells and whistles. Gaffers, grips, best boys, transportation captains, animators and production assistants galore. 

But is any of that relevant if all the client is looking for is a six second pour of red wine into a logo branded wine glass with an out of focus vineyard in the background? Naw. Once we have the still shot in the can the only added cost, at all, is that second pour of red wine. 

The new reality is that with 4K video, high frame rates, computational high dynamic range, and brilliant stabilization new video as created by current cellphones, in the hands of a person trained to see good composition and flow of action, trumps the big teams and big gear in so many ways. 

I could kick myself for over-thinking things last week. I should have left the second "big" professional camera at home and stuck my iPhone onto the phone gimbal I already own. It would have been the perfect toolset for a nice, slow motion clip of ruby red wine cascading from the lip of a wine bottle and bouncing around in the bottom of a glass. If you want to stop and bring in an Alexa camera and a crew to do the same thing; considering the final use will be a quick splash on an regional website, then I just think you totally misunderstand the new realities of our industry. 

And no, I won't be shooting any weddings. And no, I don't want to go to the flower show and shoot the beautiful blooms. Nor will I be going toe to toe with a feature film DP to compete for the next Fast and Furious installment. That's a different market entirely. 

That's 2021 photography.