3 Ways Changing My Thinking Changed My Photography

In Creativity and Inspiration, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David31 Comments

As we grow in this craft, we move from uncertainty to increasing comfort and confidence with certain aspects of the skills and thinking that the making of photographs requires. To use a well-trod metaphor: it’s a journey. Some of the things we learn are adapted quickly; some we will work on all our lives. I clearly remember thinking how I’d be so happy just to be able to master the exposure triangle (the way ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed all work together to create an exposure, and how gaining latitude in one requires adjusting another) well enough that I could get on with concentrating on composing my photograph. I thought I’d never get there.

You might think you’ll never get there. There might be something right now that is tripping you up. You’ll figure it out.

Craft takes time, and there are so many things to focus on when making a photograph. It’s what makes photography so challenging, but also so rewarding.

There have been many points at which I’ve finally figured out and become comfortable with one technique or way of thinking that I could start thinking about others. I think the kids these days call it “leveling up.” I remember finally being comfortable enough with my longer lens compositions that I could tackle the more challenging wider lenses, which tend to generate more chaotic compositions at first. And I remember finally (finally!!) getting confident enough with my exposures that I became a little more creative with them, especially by experimenting with slower shutter speeds and incorporating motion.

But there have been larger steps, too, and I want to share three of them with you. I can’t know for sure what next steps will be important for you. Some will feel like bigger leaps than others, but here are three that made some of the biggest differences for me. If you’re not there yet, you will be, and it might help to see them coming. If you feel like you’ve plateaued or are in need of a next challenge, these ideas might help. Unlike some of the other times we “level up,” I think these three can be more intentionally embraced.

Is it time to shift from focusing on cameras and gear to focusing on photographs themselves?

I’m not suggesting the gear necessarily loses its magic as time goes by (it hasn’t for me); it’s just that the images themselves have become so much more important. Maybe that’s happened because I’ve become comfortable enough with the gear and how to use the buttons and dials. The much harder questions to answer have become the creative ones—those that have to do with what makes our photographs themselves more compelling. It’s the difference between studying or collecting guitars and learning what really makes a great song. I’ve become more fascinated in the last dozen years with the songs themselves, and I think my photographs have become significantly stronger in that time. Is it time to study photographs as obsessively as you study that B&H catalogue?

Is it time to change from photographing things to photographing ideas?

We all photograph things when we begin. Ducks. Flowers. The people in our lives. But the most interesting photographers I know seem to make a change at some point, and their work becomes stronger when they start exploring ideas. I don’t mean they stop photographing the ducks, the flowers, or the people that matter to them but, for example, what if you saw your work as an exploration of the idea of family, rather than just taking the odd photograph of your kids? What opportunities would you seek out? What moments would you start paying attention to?

I know this one is harder to pin down. Perhaps you’re a travel photographer, and until now, you’ve only made photographs of different places. What new directions would your work take if you started to photograph the idea of adventure or discovery instead? What about exploring the idea of faith? Would that push you to focus on finding more out-of-the-way temples or mosques in your travels? Would it help determine where you spent your time or which opportunities you said yes to? I realized several years ago what unifies my work is that I photograph (or seek to photograph) the idea of otherness—other cultures, other species, other places—and that what I am most interested in is what makes us different and what makes us similar. That focus has helped me tremendously. It’s unifying.

Is it time to move on from a focus on single images and start thinking about bodies of work?

This was a huge step forward for me. Huge. I’m tempted to put that in all caps. The realization that one image alone could only say so much and that by pursuing a series of images instead I could go much deeper, say more, and find more challenge in my work, was one of the most important for me. It has allowed me to stretch my efforts out over time, to learn to see my subjects more clearly and to find more creative ways to give them their best expression. It has pushed me away from the “I need to go everywhere and see everything” mentality (not always a bad thing, but it often leads to shallower, less insightful work) and instead to embrace the idea of returning to one place or subject often, to see it with the eyes of the familiar and less with the eyes of someone seduced only by what is novel or exotic.

While these sound like ideas that might only be implemented by the more seasoned photographer, I think there is a way to ease into them at any stage. Even the photographer still obsessed with the magic of the gear can begin to explore the language of the photograph and get fascinated with composition and ideas like mystery, depth, or storytelling. You can learn one while you learn the other and not wait as though they’re sequential steps on the journey. I urge you to do so.

Likewise, any photographer at any stage can begin to develop an understanding of the difference between photographs that are of something (the elements in the frame) and photographs that are about something (the idea those elements express). Asking yourself, “What is this photograph really about?” can be a significant first step in finding a reason to make one decision over another. For example, if part of your answer to that question is, “It’s about the motion or the movement,” you’ll have a good reason for slowing your shutter speed to show that motion to give it expression within the image.

And while bodies of work sounds like a technical thing with established rules or conventions, it’s really just thinking in a series or a group of images that do more together than a single image can do, the pursuit of which can encourage you to look for different kinds of images or look at things from more than one angle and revisit the subject more than once.

I’m sure there are others. I’d love to hear what your significant steps have been. What single change have you experienced in how you think about your photography that has helped take your image-making to new places?

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. David, this is brilliant set of ideas and very helpful! Really enjoy your blog and books. More than anyone else I have read, you really make me think about my photography and journey to capturing moments and images. Happy New Year!

  2. Hi David,

    Thank you for always pushing us to become better at this craft. I had previously read point #2 but have to say haven’t made much progress implementing it… Let’s take the idea of adventure/travel for instance…What would qualify as photographing the idea? Would a picture of a passport cover lying on top of folded clothes inside a duffel bag qualify as photographing the “idea” of travel/adventure? Or would the blurred lights of an airplane at night work better? My other idea was to photograph a trunk packed full of bags…How close/far am I from photographing the idea of travel/adventure?

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  5. I love how you talk about the difference between the rush to go everywhere and see everything vs returning to the same subjects and seeing them through the eyes of the familiar. This is a push and pull I struggle against all the time. The craving to see and photograph something new and exciting. The FOMO. Versus the desire to return to my favorite places and explore them in different ways and focus on different aspects. I recently returned to a gorgeous park known for its waterfalls and really focused on photographing the tiny flowers growing along the stone edges as much as the flowing water to explore new depths of a place I’m familiar with.

    Kyle Reynolds

  6. Back in 2013 after retiring from paying photography, I sold all my pro gear and bought a Fuji X100S and X-E1 w/1,4/35mm lens as I wanted to shoot with only primes for my retirement. Fast forward to today, I have sold all my Fuji gear (two X100S, WCL, TCL, and the X-E1/35mm lens) and have challenged myself to shoot only film (Tri-X) and exposed with the Sunny16 rule with a Yashica Electro35 GS without a battery (makes the camera shoot at 1/500 second). I have yet to develop any of the rolls but I do not see myself returning to digital anytime soon if ever. Scanning is not an issue as I have a Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 that does a super job. Once the film is developed I will learn what I guessed right on and what I didn’t. Yes film is expensive but I am having Dewayne’s photo do my processing as my health prevents me from doing it. So after almost 5 decades of photography, I have returned to my roots.

  7. Love and appreciate the article and thoughts. I can not agree more. There is the 10,000 hour theory that one does not become proficient until they work at their craft and pass the 10,000 hours due. I wonder if there is a 100,000 or 1 million photographs rule also? I think I just past the 200,000 shot mark (dabbling on and off for > 30 years).

    What is funny is that I am shooting more photos (maybe most are just sketch shots?) now more than ever but truly using and valuing only a handful. However, those few gems (1 out of 50) feel stronger, better and more powerful than ever before. Perhaps that is the progression of photography?

    I look back at my 1000+ posted Instagram images and realize that I have always strived to shoot something different or unique or just pretty. But recently, i have been in the “story mode” with my images and posting less but I think at a higher quality or at least with more contemplative thought into them. Still sprinkling the “pretty images” into the mix.

    Fyi, one thing that really has “upped my game” has been doing a simple photo challenge each week through “52frames.com” with a photo theme to shoot for the week.

  8. David, your writing is always both timely and insightful. I really enjoy sharing your thoughts on photography & life.

    Thinking about a “body of work” versus a collection of images: That’s been my tendency in terms of exploring interesting subjects, mostly historically significant archaeological ruins – looking for the angle not often seen, attempting to capture a definitive exploration of the site. There’s been a change in mindset recently, from the academic exposition to more creative storytelling, evocative of emotion rather than scholarly pursuits. Not to say that the typical snapshot of family, pets, events & places doesn’t take up quite a bit of room in the photo library! Since the lock down, I’ve had my film archives digitized, converted “obsolete” early digital images to new formats (remember Kodak PCD?) and undertaken learning post processing techniques in depth. The invention of the internet “back in the day” comprised most of my commercial work, preparing millions of images for websites when Amazon hadn’t yet become a household word. using tools that by today’s standard were the equivalent of “stone knives and bear skins”.

    For me, making the transition from the more (documentary inspired) Photographer’s Eye to the Artist’s (emotive) Eye towards Visual Storytelling is truly the biggest challenge (besides being a life long “gear head” in everything from guitars & amps, computers and camera equipment). Thank you for sharing your vision of that path and approach.

  9. All very good points David, especially in regards to working in projects. Something I’ve been guilty of not doing for too long.

    On top of this I’ve also felt removing myself from the expectations trap … this is paramount at this very moment as I prepare for another extended period travelling (if I remember how to do it) in our van. Whereas before I’d have spent the weeks and months leading up to the trip scouring the Internet for images of places, hoping to replicate the scene, only to be left frustrated by my own efforts, I now go in with an open mind which I find not only allows me to see beyond the obvious, but also opens up other opportunities for images that I may have overlooked especially if Mother Nature is playing hard ball with the conditions.

    And if I come away without an image it’s okay. I’ve still been enriched by simply being outside in the landscape and I know this time, while not immediately obvious, will help me to see more as I continue my journey.

  10. Your essays always inspire. Thoughtful and brilliantly written. So very grateful for all your time and energy and wisdom. Stay Well.

    1. I was particularly drawn to your suggestion of photographing ideas and by extension stories. While indoors this past year, I set up a studio in one stall of my garage. I started with flowers, groups of them, behind glass, in still lifes, etc. and eventually experimented with other ephemera and flowers, incorporating them in different themes. However, I appreciate, after reading your post, that capturing ideas is very broad and can be achieved in many different settings with many different subjects. I will pursue the idea of “ideas” as I venture into other territories. Thank you, as always, for sharing your insights. It’s as though you are actually engaging in a conversation with us, not lecturing.

  11. Whew! I have just read through that article and it tells me so much. Much like I am feeling now. Here I am at almost 80 years of age but not satisfied that I stay as I am in my photography. I love the artwork that one can do within a photo once I have taken the image, as in using various editing forms, and have been adding some frames around some (mostly flowers) that I have been taking, giving them more depth, now some like that and some don’t, but I don’t want to stay in that mode forever, and there you are with this article that just ‘hits the spot’
    Doing a body of work sounds so interesting, but whatever way I decide to travel with my photography, I don’t want to stay stuck in one mode but develop and grow no matter how old I get.
    Then, should I get to that point where there is no other outlet but flowers, to work on them in different ways, and perhaps creating a story even around them.
    Life and photography is full of possibilities…..thanks for much for the inspiration

  12. Very helpful. It seems like you are writing to my particular stage in development. Wow, thank you. This will guide me in my post-Covid photography.

  13. I spent a few years learning the technical and process and still learning. I think it’s necessary or at least helpful for any artist, to learn some actual craft before moving forward. But it can seem like a forever of frustrations and obstacles. Sharpness is beat into us as beginner photographers. Photos need to be sharp. Good lenses are sharp. I was even told in a photo judging course I took that less than sharp photos should be thrown out immediately, no further judging.

    There came a time in my journey that I’d make a less than sharp photo and like it, but I’d not show it to others because part of me was embarrassed that it wasn’t sharp. After all, less than sharp is not acceptable, right?! I’d like it all the same, not even understanding exactly why. I obsessed over part of a photo, some water moving around a rock. The full waterfall photo was published in a calendar that was sent to hundreds of thousands of households, but I was still fascinated by the part of it with the rock.

    I had been introduced briefly to ‘camera painting’ during a photo workshop and found it intriguing, but still I was a little hesitant to like it or show it because of….. ding, lack of sharpness.

    David, your teachings of the feeling of photography finally helped me see the light, that I wanted to make some less than sharp photos, ICM, the whole time. It’s how I see, or rather feel much of the world. Can’t thank you enough. I’ll say that the entire process of trial and error and learning techniques & exposure triangle was a necessary prerequisite. Part of my journey. I love ICM, and it’s not just waving the camera around. All the fundamentals still apply. I still make ‘conventional’ sharp photos, but often my feeling is best expressed through ICM. Like breathing.

    I recently had an exhibit at a local art museum. It was a huge honor, especially for a relative newbie like me. I received 2 compliments that meant so much.. One was from a total stranger who relayed a message through the gallery manager that I should Google ‘Mother Trees’, that I’d love it. I already knew what they were, but the fact my photos showed her my love of trees was a wow moment. The other compliment was from a fellow artist, a painter, who I’ve only met briefly a couple times. After viewing my exhibit, she said she liked the ICM pieces, that they were more about the feeling than the place. Eureka!! I communicated my feelings for those subjects.

    Now I’m working on a body a work, which will be in the form of a short photo book. I’m also doing David’s Standing Room Only course, which is challenging for an introvert.

    In two days, I’m doing a presentation on ICM for my photo club. Oh the irony… as it was their course that I took on photo judging.. that less than sharp photos should be dismissed from competitions. 🙂

    Thanks again, David. I’m finally happy as a photographer, well, artist, even on days when I don’t quite find the photo. Not to say that I believe I have reached the top of my mountain. No way. I think I have so much more to learn and find. But I sure do enjoy the climb now.


  14. Okay David, here is a craft question. For some reason I am afraid (yes afraid) to jump into trying to learn how to post process. Yes, I do want to learn (& know that I am not required to). I even have my preferred post processing app installed on the computer. Fear fear fear -of damaging the image, losing it, not knowing how to back it up, not knowing how to make a print, how to send an edited file to a friend or to a Facebook photo group. You get the idea. What is this!!!!????

    1. All I can say to this is ‘Yes! Me too.’ I’ve bought Affinity and it’s sitting on my desktop ready to go. I’ve been a lecturer for 15 years, and feel I should be able to teach myself to use it, but it’s so utterly confusing that I’ve given up for now. I need someone sitting next to me, explaining what to do, and to have a pen and notebook in one hand. Such is the way preferred learning styles can hamper our learning – teachers too. Please let these awful days be over so I can get back to a small evening class and learn!

  15. Seems I arrived at the same place (or places) as you, though on different paths.

    To your point, “Is it time to study photographs as obsessively as you study that B&H catalogue?”: Yes. Yes. Yes-siree Bob. In part this is important to me because I came to photography through my academic studies of images and representation, so for me, understanding visual media, delving into the structure of it, is how I make sense of my photos. (Such analysis helps me understand the feels I get from an image.) The other reason this is important for me is because I am, apparently by nature, visually analytical, so understanding how and why images work is fun and fulfilling. And yes, I learned about the technical side of photography enough to hold a conversation with most any photographer (just had a great chat with a photographer that started with my commenting on his camera bag, which was the same make and model as mine) and a tech foundation is useful for when/if I need new gear to understand what I am buying. But yes, studying photographs themselves is crucial for me, and in great part because of your second point.

    I take photos about things. About a year ago, a friend of mine with who I do a somewhat monthly live cast photography “show” (it will be 5 years in October!), mostly to take some time to talk about our beloved art form, sometime including friend “guests,” brought up the same idea in much the same way: Do you take photos of things or about things? Since that discussion, that is, as you suggest, something that guides my thinking about my photos. And it ties in with your third point.

    After a couple of critiques (paid, but well worth it; I was lucky), I finally accepted the suggestion from the “critiquers” that I should think about my images (I take photos of different subject matter) in series, as projects, because some my photos can be groups by similar ideas/inspiration/style/feeling. And thinking in project or “set” mode has helped me understand my overarching aesthetic that is pretty much a constant (to varying degrees) whether I photograph close up head shots, portraits, flowers, cars, or architecture. I almost always tend to photograph about the thing, and feedback (most always from photographers whose work, though not necessarily similar to mine, I admire immensely) that reflects that the viewer grasped an “about” in my photos (even if not my perceived “about”) are the most valuable. (BTW, your FB group, The Vision Driven, seems to be a great place for such feedback. I am going to start posting and feedbacking soon. And am happy to see a photographer I know who is very insightful). I am in the process of categorizing my work within overarching projects, sets, and I am enjoying thinking through why some of my images go together, or not. And it all ties into my background in and live for analyzing visual content.

    Who knew?

  16. This will be a hugely rewarding article for so many of us. I wish I could share an image from my first “idea” shoot. Well done, David!

  17. Thank you for your excellent writing. It is helping me to push myself in the direction I want to go and to find the ideas I want to photograph. And to be looking to create bodies of work too. I enjoy reading about how you think about photography/creativity and the questions you ask help me to see things differently. Looking forward to the next post!

  18. I truly appreciate your essay. This just what I need. Time to take the next step.

  19. Really, David, it always seems as though you are writing directly to me. You’ve given the place I live, photographically speaking, an address. The location is at the intersection of these three questions. I’m moving deep into these questions, even though I am an amateur, and the work is fulfilling and life-changing. The single change I have experienced in how I think about my photography – it’s okay that I am not tech-savvy. I used to be petrified of photoshop and worried that I would never master all the settings on my camera. I own only one camera and a few lenses and was very intimidated by all the gear talk from other photographers. Once I accepted that I didn’t really WANT to learn photoshop or lightroom tips, I was able to free myself up to all the inspiration the world has to offer – and it’s everywhere! And once I accepted that I’d never have the discretionary income to buy a lot of fancy gear, I became amazingly grateful for my Canon 5d, mark III. I’ve learned to dance with that camera and it’s a wonderful partner. We anticipate each other’s steps and accept each other’s limitations. These simple shifts opened up a beautiful way of seeing and photographs that I am really proud of. Thank you for your being a mentor!

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