After finishing up a ten-day job last week I came to Oklahoma to visit my parents. Tired from the previous week-and-a-half of shooting, and not wanting to think any more about images, I spent a couple of days ignoring my camera. But, with each day bringing nice afternoon light, I quickly began to worry about falling out of practice. I didn’t feel up to getting out for any kind of big shooting expedition and didn’t have any need for particular kinds of images so I decided that simply doing some exercises was all I needed. It’s often difficult to have a fresh eye in a well-known environment, so goal-driven, exercise-oriented shooting can often get you capturing frames in places where you normally feel there’s nothing to shoot.
Read on for more details about the exercise that I tasked myself with.
If you’ve spent much time shooting in and around your house you’ve probably encountered that feeling of walking around with your camera but seeing only “boring” stuff – the same old houses, fire hydrants, street corners, and so on. Inspiration is the first step in creating an image – you have to be taken by a scene to consider looking at it through your viewfinder – and in a familiar location it’s difficult to be inspired. My parents no longer live in the house I grew up in but I’ve spent a lot of time here, so there’s little that looks novel or “inspiring” to me.
I don’t take “lack of inspiration” very well. As I walk around not feeling inspired– and hence not seeing anything to shoot – I respond by beating myself up. I panic that I suck as a photographer, and that I always have. I decide that the whole conceit of shooting in such an environment is stupid and move on to assuming that any photos I’ve ever shot in such places are probably lousy and I just never noticed it. This quickly spirals into a desire to stomp home, hide my camera in a place where I won’t have to see it, and then find something else to do.
It’s been very hot in Oklahoma for the last couple of weeks so there’s no one outside in the late afternoon when the light is good. This can make finding potential subjects even harder. To fight all of this I’ve found it’s best to try to remove as much choice from the shooting process as possible. Of course, the easiest way to remove choice is to give yourself an assignment, but I often have a hard time thinking up an assignment that I’m interested in. When I can’t, I’ll think up some very specific limitations to work with in. Having these constraints seems to focus my attention enough that I don’t have time to argue with myself about how much I must suck as a photographer.
For this afternoon of shooting I began with a geographical limitation. I constrained myself to three specific blocks (ultimately, I never got to one of the three, so I would have been fine limiting myself to two). Such a restriction results in a few things. First, it makes me go slowly. I had about 90 minutes of good light, but knowing that I couldn’t travel very far made me keep a slow pace, look deep into places, and spend more time than usual working my shots. It’s the rare situation where slowing down won’t improve your photography.
Second, limited range stops me from worrying that there’s a better image in another neighborhood or around the next corner. It keeps me from getting on my bicycle and pedaling off to another part of town where I’ll end up riding around thinking “there’s a good spot to shoot around here somewhere.” After 45 minutes of this I will have gotten some decent exercise but not any pictures. I’ll be burning up the good light with travel rather than shooting. What’s weird about this behavior is that I’m expressing the idea that I can’t shoot in a particular area unless I think there are images there. But of course I don’t know if there are images in a particular area until I start shooting. Deciding ahead of time where I am allowed to shoot gets me shooting sooner and keeps me from thinking “maybe my problem is that I’m in the wrong place and if I go somewhere else everything will start working.” Instead, I start working where I am. Finally, in this particular instance, confining myself to shooting within two blocks of the house meant I didn’t have to walk as far in the 97° weather.
I suppose the other “constraint” I gave myself wasn’t really a constraint but a permission. I told myself that my only goal within my two blocks of shooting was to find simple, formal, geometric compositions. Finding those was to be the measure of my success. Knowing that measure ahead of time kept me from falling into self-defeating thoughts about “I’m shooting empty sidewalks?! What kind of subject is that?” The goal kept me from worrying about the fact that I couldn’t find any scenes or activities to build shots around.
Exercises are, of course, a chance to simply practice your craft skills – composing, figuring out exposure, playing with focal lengths and camera positions, and so on. But they also give you a chance to work without the pressure to create great finished work. The goal here was to shoot formal compositions within two blocks. They didn’t have to be great pictures, just compositions that complete the exercise. With that as my goal, my internal editor calmed down and I got the chance to get a few hours of seeing and shooting practice in a place that I normally don’t think of as a shooting destination. Give it a try next time you’re in a familiar location, feel like shooting, but don’t believe you’re in an area that will yield anything interesting.