The other day I watched (skimmed, really) a video on YouTube promising I’d learn about the 20 biggest misconceptions in photography. The video had 1.2 million views.
What, I wondered, could so many photographers be getting so wrong?
It turns out the answer included focus breathing, reciprocal rules, sweet spots, megapixel density, the non-existence of depth of field, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. My eyes haven’t glazed over like that since the last time I was put under full anesthesia.
Twenty things (no, the 20 biggest misconceptions) photographers get wrong and not one of them makes a damn bit of difference to my photography.
The video left me feeling like I was taking crazy pills. Almost 35 years as a photographer and I didn’t know (still don’t) what in the name of the Great Googly Moogly he was talking about. But I can handle it. I know that my photographs don’t rely on knowing any of that stuff. But how distracting is this nonsense going to be to others—people like you who just want to make compelling, honest, authentic, creative photographs?
When photographers want to “take things to the next level” or “up their game,” they tend to focus on honing a skill, putting in more practice, and dig deeper into knowledge of the tools.
“If only I could get a better grasp on this or that technique,” we think. If only we knew more (like WTF is focus-breathing?), preferably the secret to this or that, we’d be better. And sometimes, this is exactly so. Sometimes that is exactly what we need. But not so often as we think. I think there’s something more important going on.
I think the most important thing we can do, once we begin to grasp the basics (and this applies no matter what your craft), is to protect our creativity with all the strength we can summon.
I think we need to feed it and nurture it and, most of all, keep it away from the toxic environment of our comfort zone. Yes, learn your craft, geek out on reciprocal rules if you must, but if you had to ration it all out, I’d tell you to give that stuff 10% of your effort and put the remaining 90% into anything that will make you more creative, give you greater freedom, and make you more comfortable with risk.
I would tell you the single best thing you can do is get out of your comfort zone. Get out and stay out. The dangers of the comfort zone are well known. Your comfort zone discourages or stops any real learning, limiting new ideas and possibilities. It discourages risk (at all cost) and since creativity is about doing and making things that are new and unknown, it can’t happen without the willingness to risk. To risk failure. To risk wasted time. To risk looking foolish.
The comfort zone discourages the hunger for more, to be better, to make and do better, to try new things.
It says this is good, let’s just stay here. If we aren’t moving forward it’s because it’s just easier to stay where we are, running in circles because it feels like progress. Sure, you’re moving, but never into new territory, and never deeper, unless you count the ruts that you’re wearing into the floor.
So how do you stay out of the comfort zone and keep your creative spirit alive and well and making photographs that feed your soul? Here are a few ideas to ease you in.
Be curious. Learn to self-learn. Google new words and ideas, read books about people you’ve never heard of, be open to learning about Picasso or Pollock or the metaphysical poets (I’m a big fan of Gerard Manley Hopkins). Expand your influences. New ideas shouldn’t threaten us. They should intrigue us. But follow your curiosity and not obligation. No interest in focus-breathing? Me neither. Move on to something that intrigues you.
So often we fear failure; it keeps us wanting to be comfortable because failure hurts. Not doing something right the first time stings our pride. We don’t want to look foolish. Sure, it may hurt. But it will not harm. In fact, it will do the opposite, the way pulling out a splinter hurts but in the long run is better for you on account of not getting all infected and gross and looking hideous for the rest of your life. Look back at times in your life when you failed initially—when you didn’t get right on the first try. Didn’t you bounce back? Wasn’t it easier than you expected? Didn’t you grow in the end, and become better at that thing?
You are more resilient than you know. Embrace new and different and “let’s see what happens.” Embrace initial failures (some of us just call them “lessons”). Every creative effort starts ugly. It has to. Lean into that. And remember, it’s just art. If you fail or fall, you’ll bounce.
Inventory your fears.
Make a list. What are you actually afraid of? Now take a long hard look at them. Will it really kill me if no one likes the photographs I’m learning to make? Do I have to be the best at this? Isn’t it OK if it takes me a while to sort this out? What’s the worst that could happen if you share your work and ask for feedback? Wouldn’t you feel better if you put yourself out there rather than keeping it all locked up inside because of some vague fear that you won’t be accepted? You know that people not liking your art isn’t the same as them not liking you, right? List your fears. Shine the light on them. And then ease in.
Most of us don’t just hurl ourselves into the unknown. We’d rather test the waters, inch by inch, than head for the high dive towers. So do it. Make a list of the things you’d really like to do, but that are hard to do, scary to do: the things that are just outside your comfort zone. Now break them down into small steps. Find one small step and get a win under your belt.
If you want your photographs to be more creative, you don’t have to commit to an exhibition of multiple exposure photographs. Just go out and make 12 really bad multiple exposure photographs. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Don’t show the world, just make them. Laugh at the efforts that are less than attractive. If we all just laughed at ourselves a little more, imagine the freedom! Want to write a book but have no idea where to begin and you’re held back by your comfort zone? Just make a list of 10 possible titles or hypothetical outlines. Write the first sentence. That’s all.
One small step is a win. Now do the next one.
What would happen if you actively waged a campaign against your comfort zone? If you took a new route to work every day, if you tried food you think you don’t like, if you went sky diving or bungee jumping or faced some smaller fear and discovered your fears have been lying to you all along and all the “what ifs” those fears throw at you aren’t nearly as bad as the “what if you stay in this comfort zone and don’t try new things and move forward in your skills, your tastes, your willingness to put yourself out there and be seen in the world?”
What if the hypothetical hurts your fears warn you away from aren’t nearly as bad as the harm that comes from the guaranteed stagnation and atrophy of the comfort zone?
After coaching and mentoring people for as long as I have, and I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, I can tell you this with certainty:
Your creativity will suffer at the hands of your comfort, and the borders of your comfort zone are patrolled by your fears.
Those fears want you to survive; they have no interest in you thriving. They’re leftovers from thousands of years ago when actual monsters hid in the shadows and not belonging to a tribe meant peril. Nothing you do in your art-making or the pursuit of your craft is about surviving. It’s about thriving. That’s a conversation in which your fears have no idea what they’re talking about. Want to make better photographs and be happier making them? Listen to your longings and your hopes, your curiosity and your whims, rather than your fears. Take daily steps out of the comfort zone and into the unknown where you risk, learn, and grow. Where you put your feet on unexplored ground and make things for the joy of making them.
The biggest misconception in photography is still this: that better cameras and more knowledge make better photographs.
It has always been better photographers—human beings who aren’t scared to try new things and bare their souls—who do that. In The Soul of the Camera, I wrote, “The camera on its own is a wonder, but in the hands of the poet, the storyteller, the seeker of change, or the frustrated artist, it can create something alive that touches our humanity.” That only happens when we emerge from the protective shell of our comfort zones.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Until July 14, the digital version of A Beautiful Anarchy is on sale for $10 (that’s $5 off). I think it’s the most important book I’ve written and others continue to tell me it does what I hoped when I wrote it for you: not just change your photography but change your life. Help you understand how creativity works. Help you gain new freedom, face fears, and fill the canvas of your life with brush-strokes wild and bold. I don’t often push, but if you haven’t read this book (and you like my writing), you absolutely must read this.
If you prefer the printed version, you can get it on Amazon here. But if you want the PDF, you can download it here for $10 (rather than $15) until the end of July 14th.