For almost six months since mid-February, I didn’t pick up my camera. Not once. Yes, I needed a break. No, I don’t think to be a “real photographer” you need to pick up the camera every day. I don’t think we owe the camera any obligation at all; it’s there for us, not the other way around.
But a couple of weeks ago, I felt the spark again. I recognized that I was starting to feel like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, the way he was at the beginning with his joints all rusted up, asking for oil.
But what to photograph? I started a portrait project last year called The Treasury, a casual series of monochrome images of the people who make my life richer. But in the wake of the pandemic and closing our home to anyone who’s not my mother (and even she had to wait a while), that project went on hold. I deliberated about this, and here’s what I discovered: I was in a rut. And I missed my camera.
When I considered my next project, I kept coming back to things I was good at. Things I’ve done before. Safe things. And what I have learned is that those things don’t often teach me something new. They don’t challenge me.
Challenge is everything to me. But not just me: you, too. We need challenge if we’re to escape or avoid boredom. We need challenge if we hope to get into creative flow. And we need it to learn and keep the edges of our craft sharp, which in turn helps us understand new possibilities, and that also helps our vision move forward.
So I decided to try my hand at self-portraits, and here’s what I learned: I had no idea how to do self-portraits. I didn’t know how to tether my camera to my laptop. But 10 minutes with Google and a few moments of self-inflicted rage directed at the technology (Oh, you mean the camera has to be ON? Well why the heck didn’t you say so!) and I figured it out. I didn’t know that my Nikon had multiple options for the self-timer, either. Did you know you can set many DSLRs (and likely mirrorless cameras) to take a certain number of frames with a certain amount of time between those frames? I had no idea. Why? Nothing I’ve done before—none of my usual work—demanded I learn this.
The moment I’m done writing this to you, I’m heading back into my studio to turn the lights on, fire up the Nikon and do a few more portraits (see below), or try to. I’m still in the learning stage—the experimental stage where most of what I make is junk. But once in a while, I do something fun that results in an unexpected image, and I get the spark back. The spark that I only get when I learn a new thing and take some creative risks. Do I have any idea where it’s going? None. But perhaps in a year or so I’ll look back and see that my playful approach to learning and imposing some new challenges resulted in a body of work I’m proud of. Or maybe I’ll just be really glad I know how to tether my camera or use the self-timer with more control. Maybe what I’ll learn is that I’m lousy at self-portraits. I don’t know.
But I do know that challenge is what pulls us forward. I also know that there is almost nothing we can’t learn, or learn from.
These are some of the images I made after writing this article. It’s a start, right? Who knows what I’ll learn and discover in the coming months as I pursue this. I made these with one strobe, a cheap 18″ softbox, and a black paper backdrop. I really like the self-timer because I don’t exactly know when it’s going to fire so I’m more natural. Then it does nine frames, giving me plenty of time to relax.
I’ve had a number of emails and discussions on social media lately, all of them saying similar things: I don’t know what to do, or, I don’t know what to photograph, now that I can’t do the projects I used to find so much joy in.
Pick a challenge. Find something you don’t know and learn it.
I didn’t know how to do self-portraits, but I knew I could figure it out. So can you. I spent a few minutes on some YouTube videos I found after a simple search and then just started playing.
Perhaps for you, it’s macro photography that gives you a chance to learn to use indoor lighting and get creative with discovering the hidden worlds of the flowers in your garden. Or maybe it’s still life photographs. Maybe it’s time you learned to use that flash to freeze the wings of those hummingbirds at the back window.
I don’t know what your challenge will be, but don’t make the point of it to be really good right off the bat. It’s not. Neither is the point to make great photographs. The point is to learn. To play. To laugh a little when you just can’t get it right and to be creative in solving that problem. Perfectionism has no place here. In fact, the uglier it all is, the better. Because that means you’ve got more to learn, and the challenge will be greater. Where the challenge is greater, so too is the possibility of real creativity and real growth.
Not sure where to begin?
Here’s a list of some possible challenges that might get you playing with new directions, and if these aren’t your cup of tea, then perhaps they’ll give you ideas for challenges that are.
- Self-portraits. Already know how to do this? Add a constraint. Make them all with one strobe. Use a slow shutter and rear-curtain sync and move around during the exposure. Want more? Stop thinking of this as a self-portrait but as a portrait of an emotion. What would you need to do to make a photograph about frustration? Boredom? Joy? Try a new emotion every day. What changes do you need to make with the light, colour, framing, choice of moment?
- Still-life from the kitchen. Find three things in your fridge to photograph. Need inspiration? Start by creating an homage to Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30. Now go to the market and find something else. An artichoke? Ugliest carrot? And then, when you’re done with the outside, photograph the inside. (But seriously, do a Google image search for “ugly vegetables”–there are some strange things to photograph!
- Macro in the garden. Get so close you can’t tell what you’re photographing and make these a study in colour and shape. No macro lens? Get a set of extension tubes. They’re cheap and powerful.
- Home interiors. I’m embarrassed to say I used to steal copies of Architectural Digest from my high school library. That’s the kind of rebel I was. I still find interiors really beautiful, and hard to photograph well. Imagine you’re tasked with a 12-image series of your home for Architectural Digest. Learn to compose and light for interiors. Watch some videos on YouTube.
- Strobes. Figure out (finally!) how to use that flash you’ve got sitting around. Better still, figure out how to use two of them. I’m betting there are months of play in there. No willing subject? Combine this with self-portraiture. Or, I don’t know, an eggplant. Document the long, slow rot of that noble vegetable.
- Night photography. The pandemic hasn’t closed the night sky. Teach yourself how to photograph at night. There are hundreds of great articles online that’ll teach you the basics for free.
- Panoramas. Do you know how to shoot and process a 6-image panorama? No? Take some time to teach yourself. Don’t know where to begin? Start with a Google search of “how to make a panorama photograph” or “make a panorama in Adobe Lightroom.” One search for the latter just got me a handful of great videos and articles.
I am never happier than when I’m working on a challenge and, specifically, something new to me that requires my full attention. This is when time flies by for me—when I get into the flow and emerge from whatever I’m doing with a sense of having done something I didn’t think I could do. It’s not always easy, but if it’s too easy, it’s not a challenge, is it? But it’s what has kept my own craft (and yes, my vision as well) growing for the 34 years I’ve been pursuing it.
What have you been doing to challenge yourself? I’d love to hear about it. And it just might help others get some ideas for their own next steps into the unknown. You can do that by leaving a comment here on my blog. While you’re here, I’m happy to answer any questions (or try to, at least) about what I’ve learned about self-portraiture.
For the Love of the Photograph,