Stay (Alive & Awake) In The Moment

In Life Is Short, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, The Life Creative by David35 Comments

You will (I hope) be learning this craft for a very long time. The learning curve may flatten out a little and certain skills may come more easily, but after 36 years, I’ve not found myself within sight of the kind of mastery beyond which there is nothing new to learn. My 14-year-old self would be shocked to know what a long, winding, and seemingly endless journey he set in motion for himself (and for me) when he first picked up a camera. I think that long journey of craft is part of what keeps me interested.  

But at a certain point, the big challenges aren’t about what shutter speed to use or trying to figure out how to make sharper photographs. That groundwork was laid a long time ago for me, and it will come for you, too (if it hasn’t been already). Once we’re beyond those technical needs, the bigger challenges for most of us are the soft skills: how to think like a photographer. These are the things I am most interested in—and which push my evolution as a photographer and artist as well as a human being.  

Among the hardest to learn has been the need to stay in the moment.


Not only to stay in it, because the moment, like a riptide, has a pull on us that feels inescapable—we’re in it, no matter what we do—but to remain truly present in it. To remain observant and focused. Sensitive to what’s going on around me and, where the creative process is concerned, within me. That’s the hard part.  

On the long list of things I would tell my younger self, so eager to learn to make stronger photographs, this would be among the more important: do everything you can to stay aware within the moment. It’s fleeting, and it turns in unexpected directions. What seems like forever in which to make decisions and let our focus wander is often over almost before it begins. And then it’s gone.

For the one interested in finding something astonishing and rare within these moments (and I get that not all photography is as concerned with the slivers of moment that mine is), it is amazing to me that we allow ourselves to be so distracted, to be so frivolous with these moments.  

The job of the photographer is not merely to use a camera really well and hope the rest falls into place; it is to be present. Aware. Responsive. And not only that but to anticipate, when possible, the moment as it unfolds: to speculate what might happen not only in the moment but how that might translate to what’s going on in the frame—and the resulting impact on the composition.


The younger version of myself, new to digital photography, missed so much of this. Preferring to check his LCD and see if he managed to catch the moment that just passed and so to completely miss the ongoing moment. Missed isn’t really the right word; squandered is better.  

The younger me had no sense of how valuable these moments are. How rare. More concerned with the quality of his gear than the quality of the moments he was living and, I can see now, so willing to value one more than the other that he had no idea what a high price he was paying to miss those moments he thought would surely repeat themselves. They so rarely do. My photography trips so often passed in such a blur of chasing the shot that I missed the bigger picture. As we get older, this matters more and more.  

It actually matters just as much when we’re younger, but we just don’t see it. Maybe that’s the privilege of youth: to squander (money, time, love) and still have the time to recover and do it again. The camera has helped me see my way back from that. It’s made me realize how rare these things are, both with and without the camera in my hand. I hope it has also given me the wisdom to know when it’s time to pick up the camera and when to put it down. Sometimes the camera can amplify these moments; other times, it can blind us to the fuller experience. You can miss the moment as easily with a camera to your eye as by not having one at all.  

What is certainly true is that the moment matters. More than we’ll ever know. As we live our moments, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, so we live our lives.  

Increasingly my advice (to myself, if not also to others) on how to make stronger photographs is inseparable from my advice for living a better life. Perhaps no more so than on this subject.

You want to make stronger photographs? Do everything you can to remain present in the moment. Don’t wish it away. Don’t kill time (what a terrible expression). Don’t look down at a screen when the moment is happening everywhere else. Don’t cut it short before you absolutely have to. Don’t make the mistake of believing that moment won’t be cut short before you expect it to be. Or that it will repeat itself. This might be the one chance to live it, experience it, and perhaps also to photograph it.  

You don’t have to photograph it (there are times not to), but don’t miss it.  

Our raw materials are light and time. Of the two, time is the most limited. It’s the one over which we have the least control. And it’s the one we will all—one day—be wishing we had more of. Often that day for me is the day I get on a plane and leave a place (Kenya, for example) and only then realize how careless I was about my moments. No, maybe I couldn’t have found more of them in the time I had. Every trip ends eventually. But oh, how I wish I’d made more of the moments I did have.  

Practically, this might mean finding the discipline not to chimp through your images until it’s past time to put the camera away. It might mean leaving your phone at the bottom of the bag or putting it into airplane mode. On my trips, it means not talking about home unless absolutely necessary. I hardly ever check my email. It means not looking at the news (good advice no matter where you are). It means staying in one place longer. Maybe that’s one town, or maybe it’s one street corner or that rock on the river waiting for a bear. It means working a scene well beyond the obvious. Being open to a change of plans. Maybe it means bringing less gear so you spend less time mucking around with it all.

Above all, it means quieting the lizard brain and the monkey mind. It doesn’t hurt to breathe. When’s the last time you read that in a camera manual?  


I’m laughing as I write this because I’m imagining my younger self (or you) rolling his eyes. His needs were simple; he just wanted a better camera and to use a camera better. But when I look at the best of my work—the images that have endured for me, the ones I prize above the others—it’s the moments I was alive and really awake and aware within, responsive and creative and in no great hurry to move on to the next thing that I see there. 

Don’t confuse the need to learn your craft with the need to craft your life and be fully alive within it.  


For the Love of the Photograph,
David

Comments

  1. Also, I don’t know where the “pingback” on my comment came from.

  2. One of the best wildlife photos that I ever took was of a snowy egret on a set of branches in some water. I won first place in a wildlife photo contest with it. I look at the photo now and wish I had taken more time on it and waited for the wind to die down for just a second so I could have had a perfect reflection instead of an almost perfect reflection. Who knows if would have been a better image, but I’m older now and more experienced and will look for those fleeting moments in the future.

  3. Hi David! I’m very new to photography and have been following you for about a year or so. I absolutely love listening to you and learning from you. As in this article, the lessons go well beyond photography. I’m actually far too novice for most of what you teach and talk about, but I’m sticking around anyway because I love your voice (literally and figuratively) and your message. I took your Beyond the Shutter course and asked what was probably a “dumb” question. I regretted it after I hit send thinking you would be annoyed with me. Instead, you were so kind and generous and understanding in your response to me. Thank you so much. Sometimes I want to give up because I’m not young and it’s taking me so long just to figure out how to get out of auto focus(still working on it), but your kindness and patience reassured me. Your advice is so good. I just ordered a book of photographs so that I can really study what I like versus flipping through Instagram. I’m dying to take the Compelling Frame, but I know it’s so far above my level. Maybe it’s just a matter of betting on myself to learn my camera. Spending the money on the course might actually compel me to put more time and effort into leveling up. I have a few days to think about it. Anyway, I’ve been wanting to connect with you here on the blog for some time now just to say thank you and tell you how much I enjoy what you do.

  4. Pingback: Stay Awake Stay Alive — Marilyn Lamoreux Photography

  5. Okay, this has nothing to do with this article! I’m taking your comment made during the Beyond the Shutter Q&A that your blog is a good place to have a question answered;) How in the heck are you working in Lightroom between a desktop and a laptop? I’m using an external hard drive and plugging it into my iMac then ejecting it and plugging it into my MacBook. If I create a new catalog on my desktop, it is not showing up when I use the same external hard drive on my laptop. And if I develop an image, the file shows up on the laptop but does not hold the developing information. I even went so far as to uninstall LR from my laptop and reinstalled it to see if would look the same as on my desktop. Nope, it did not. Must I sync anything I’m trying to do between machines? If I sync, then unsync to save precious cloud space, will the developing steps be retained on my computer? That’s a lot of questions. We’re getting very close to my tech brain capacity here!

    1. Author

      Hi Anne – Thanks for this. Happy to try to clear this up. First, I do NOT use the same catalogue on my laptop as I do on my desktop. When I travel I import images into one catalog on my laptop. When I get home I export all those images (and the changes I made to them) as a catalog (using the File > Export as Catalog command after selecting all those images) and then I import them all (once the catalog has finished exporting) to my one big catalog on my desktop machine (using the File > Import from another Catalog command). Once that’s done my catalog on the laptop gets deleted. I don’t keep anything on my laptop.

      The other issue might be solved by making sure your metadata changes (anything you do to the image in Develop, but also keywords, labels, rating, stars, etc) are written into the metadata automatically so it’s all there when you try to access the one catalog from multiple devices. In your menu bar go to Lightroom Classic > Catalog Settings > Automatically write changes into XMP. Make sure that is checked. See if that helps with your issue.

      If you’re working off two machines then you’ll need the images AND your catalog files (LRCat) on an external harddrive. Do your work on the laptop, quit Lightroom when you’re done, un-mount the drive, plug in the desktop, open Lightroom and then make sure Lightroom is using the SAME catalog on that external drive that you were just using on the laptop and it SHOULD all be there if you’re automatically writing changes into XMP as suggested. Give that a try. Hope it helps!

  6. Such truth. Such good advice. Now see if you can get a 14 year old to slow down long enough to heed it. Ha ha.
    I always look forward to your posts. Thank you.

  7. Be present.
    Years ago i saw a TedEx about “having a good conversation” or similar. It taught me the same, be present with all your sense (or sensors?) and listen to the other(s) to have it.
    And the sentence “You don’t have to photograph it (there are times not to), but don’t miss it.” Be there. Get out.
    And it is important, because (as somebody mentioned before) you also have to train your eyes, your mind.
    Probably, for me as a hobbyst, that’s a problem, because to have several/more experience it isn’t enogh to see more pictures on your screen (can be good to learn even some techniques), but to catch it…
    Sometimes i spent hours out, and nothing, but in rare moments it’s just a blink/flash, and i even “see” the outcome. After reading this notice, probably when i was really there, not thinking e.g. for tomorrow’s work or sg like that.
    Yes, be there, be present.
    Thanks.

  8. As the end of my life is now much nearer than the beginning, increasingly I recognize the value of mindfulness. I don’t know if that would have been possible as a younger man. Perhaps it’s developmental.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this critical element of any art form…and every life.

    1. Youth is wasted on the young, as they say. I think you’re right, Charles – this kind of perspective comes more easily (and urgently) with age. Better now than it not coming at all, or just too late to do something with it, though. 🙂

  9. Thank you for a thoughtful article and for the free PDFs and your recent recorded talk to the RPS. (I very much hope that you are now returned to full health).
    Great advice – I never have the preview switched on in my cameras as I also feel it disrupts the flow and could lead to a loss of an image and my rhythm.
    Like some others, I also prefer to have one camera and one prime lens, I know zooming with your feet it a problematic expression because you will get a different impact etc, but for me physically moving to compose a shot – take a different view because of the lens helps me to be present and have a better chance of getting that heart, mind eye connection.
    I am however guilty of hiding in my phone and that probably leads to me missing things, I shall endeavor to leave it in the pocket and just be open to the scene while drinking a coffee or having lunch.
    Thanks again

    1. Thanks so much, Pete. I’m back in fighting form. Just a 24 hour detour. Feel much better now, though very much wish I hadn’t missed the chance to be with you all live for my presentation.

  10. In 1976 Don Schiltz wrote a song called “The Gambler” and made famous by Kenny Rogers.
    I think the words paraphrase your message completely

    “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
    You gotta learn to play it right
    You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
    Know when to fold ’em
    Know when to walk away
    And know when to run
    You never count your money
    When you’re sittin’ at the table
    There’ll be time enough for countin’
    When the dealin’s done

  11. Thank you, David. Texts like these I why I follow your work. You put in words what I have vague ideas about but agree are so true.

  12. Staying (Alive & Awake) in the Moment is sage advice, and I would add, “capture your own life in the moment.”

    I’ve been a photographer for 45 years now. 20 of which were as a US Navy Combat Photographer. I look back at my career in the Navy, and it was all about getting the shot. Getting published in Newsweek, USA Today, or Stars and Stripes. The places I’ve been are a blur to me. With a few exceptions, my memories are entirely locked in the frames I captured. Most of which, I never got to keep, as my original images were mailed off to the National Archives.

    I look back at my career and have many regrets. Why didn’t I pay more attention to what I experienced rather than getting the perfect image? Why didn’t I use my camera to record the mundane aspects of my life rather than just going for the glory shots? Making images of my day to day life in a Navy Photo Lab. I may have captured 10,000 images (film days) of missions and ports visited while on a six month deployment overseas, but only 20 images of the people I worked with day in and day out. That’s insane. And now at age 62, looking back at my life, I don’t care about the photos I took in Operation Desert Storm. I want to see photographs of the people I worked with and images of life onboard ship and overseas.

    1. Good words, Wes, thank you! I have this feeling that in the final chapters of our lives we’ll all define what makes a good photograph differently from what makes an important photograph. I know the ones that are most important to me now would never have made the cut at all as a younger man.

  13. I loved this, living in the moment, feeling, savoring, absorbing, becoming, and enjoying what I see. This is how I recently experienced Ireland for the first time at 73, camera, one lens, and much walking, can’t take away those memories!!

  14. You are so spot on. Over the years, I’ve started to realize this as well. And you know what? I enjoy life more. I see more. I appreciate it all more. And it makes me want to explore new things more. For example, I joined a friend at an airshow this week. Planes are not really my thing, but I thought, who knows? I might enjoy it. Guess what… I did. And I got some wonderful photographs to share with others. I was “in” the moment, couldn’t leave because I didn’t want to miss anything. Maybe because it was new to me or maybe it reminded me of my old days of sports photography which is how I got started. Either way, I’m glad I joined my friend for something new. Who knows when I might get that chance again…

  15. Thank you David for your interesting article.

    As you say, it is about developing a particular mindset so that you are subconsciously looking about you for that opportunity to capture a fleeting moment or a scene that makes a good composition and if your lucky a good story.

  16. „Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?“
    (Marc Aurel)
    Sometimes destiny gives only birth to seemingly not enduring photographs…😊

    Thanks for your books: inspiration and fun

  17. This article is so very important. As an artist we should never squander away our time and live live live in the moment. We are alive and only are here for a fleeting moment.

    I shoot analog and since making that commitment to only use film, nothing as been more important than so much of what you mentioned in your article. Another way that I look at this, or at least how I am trying to be mindful of is think about if you only had 500 photographs to make in your entire life. What would you do?

  18. I was on an Alaskan vacation in 2000 with a good friend. I had two cameras with me, both film; one with b&w and the other with color. Of course I was blown away by the enormity and stunning beauty of AK and was constantly in shooting mode. But one evening while on this excursion, our guide provided the group with chai tea and told us to leave our cameras behind. We were to proceed to the beach around a large lake, find our spot and sit quietly (no talking) and watch the sunset. It was a transformative moment.
    While I love taking photographs I do find that I miss the moments, so focused am I on getting that great shot, capturing the action etc.
    Thank you David for reminding me that being present, knowing when to put the camera aside, are just as critical as capturing the moment.

    1. What a great lesson. It’s very true for me that sometimes the camera is what puts me in the moment, and sometimes it’s the reason my monkey-mind is chattering at me – find another angle, do this, do that. Leave the camera and you’ve no choice at all. On dive trips I often take one dive just to be there. No camera, just me and whatever chooses to reveal itself.

  19. Good afternoon from an intermittently sunny England. I am glad to read your missive today because I think this means that you have recovered from whatever prevented you from talking to us via the RPS a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t agree more. I have just finished a long project [and achieved my Fellowship with it] and am making myself take the time to reset and shut up my scorpion – a competitive creature who is both a blessing and a curse. I will fall back on the advice of Len Metcalfe delivered by Sue Brown, a former Fellow of the RPS – when I feel ready, head out with one camera and one lens and concentrate on being present and still and in no rush.

    1. Thank you so much, Linda. Yes, I am fine. I was under the weather pretty good for about 24 hours but back it now! I was so sorry to have missed the chance to present to RPS live and in person. Congratulations on your Fellowship!

  20. Great advice! I’m preparing for a visit to Kenya and struggling with what gear to take. Your thoughts have helped me to pare down my bag and resolve to “be in the moment” rather than viewing the whole trip through a viewfinder. Thanks.

    1. Having recently lost my husband at a somewhat young age, I wish I had observed what was going on when he was playing with his grandkids and captured those moments with my camera. I thought I had more time. Now we have just the memories.

  21. Never a truer word, I’ve lost many a moment through be impatient, looking at my camera wishing more would happen instead of catching the moment

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