Thursday, April 23, 2015

Let the Ball Drop

"Buying a Nikon doesn't make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner." Author Unknown

As photographers, we are always looking to improve and capture a better image. To do this, you need clear goals and objectives, and you need to go out there and collect data. And learn to juggle. Say what?

First, goals and objectives are the foundation of what I do as a scientist and teacher. Data collection, interpretation and dissemination are all part of the process. This sounds mundanely academic (and it is) but fortunately, these useful skills have spilled over into my photography. While the term "data collection" appears as far removed from art as a statistics textbook, it is an essential part of the artistic process and does not require formal training. Artists, like scientists collect data in the process of learning their craft. Having clear direction or goals serves to help the artist achieve his or her artistic vision.

We can have a goal in mind; for instance, become a better landscape photographer. But to achieve the goal, we need data. Data collection is information gathering and experimentation, and then successfully making order out of the chaotic pieces of information and experience. This is, for all intents and purposes, the act of learning. From chaos comes order or a higher level of understanding and new skills (our goal). And then we apply all these to our art and create a better landscape image. But, the most important aspect to all of this is that we stay committed and continually set new goals. What this means is that we have to frequently put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of failure and make mistakes. 

"We adore chaos because we love to produce order". M. C. Escher

So what does all this have to do with juggling? Twenty years ago, I read a book titled "Lessons From the Art of Juggling" by Michael J, Gelb and Tony Buzan. Not only did I learn to juggle, but I learned to teach myself how to juggle. Perhaps the most poignant tip from the book was simply, "let the ball drop". Rather than lunging toward it, let it fall to the ground was the first lesson. In short time, I learned to throw the ball with one hand so that it landed perfectly into the motionless waiting hand. Can you see how this becomes a metaphor to photography?

"You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over." Richard Branson

When I began photographing the wilderness in earnest over a decade ago, I knew practically nothing about photography. I would go out there with the camera not knowing what I was doing and just shoot, shoot, shoot. Taking pictures was like juggling. Many times, I lunged at the poorly thrown ball. This may be a metaphor for taking a bad image and trying to "photoshop" it into something better. I realized quickly that I had to improve my use of the camera. In other words, I had to improve how I threw the ball.  

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" Albert Einstein

So I plunged into research and experimentation and approached photography like a scientist. I put myself out there for criticism. I began communicating with experts and taking workshops. And as often as I could, I photographed for the sake of photographing. Sometimes, I got very frustrated and had feelings of inadequacy that came and went frequently. One day, I would proudly display an image that looked exciting and bold, and the next day it appeared dull and flat. And there was always another photographer that made it look so easy, who seemingly never failed.

"I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it". Pablo Picasso

I go further into this year with two clear goals and have developed specific objectives to help me achieve them. Neither goal is directly related to winning contests, getting into an art festival, or selling more prints. Instead, my goals are to improve my craft and my art. Have you considered your photography goals? I challenge you to leap out of your comfort zone and learn a new camera skill, experiment with a new genre, study up on digital camera sensor technology, post an image on a critique forum, ask questions, just try something new and challenging. And don't be afraid to let the ball drop.

"I'm still learning". Michelangelo

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