The Adventure of Art

In Creativity and Inspiration, Life Is Short, Pep Talks, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David10 Comments

“Life,” said Helen Keller, “is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.” The same can be said about art and the effort to make it.

Adventure is defined as ” a risky undertaking of unknown outcome, an exciting or unexpected event.” Risky. Unknown. Unexpected.  Art-making has a wildness to it, an untamed quality.

I know I’ve written about this before, but when Picasso was asked if he knew what his paintings would look like before he even put paint to canvas, he replied, “No, of course not. If I knew, I wouldn’t bother doing it.”

It is the adventure of art-making that makes it unpredictable, an exercise not only in the exploration of possibilities but also in the discovery of ourselves. It’s the adventure of it that brings a thrill when you make a thing you didn’t see coming. You don’t get that when you finish a paint-by-numbers or a jigsaw puzzle. You might get a different sense of reward, but it’s not discovery. That’s why repeating ourselves is so toxic to the artistic spirit; it robs us of the uncertainty and the wonder. Even when it’s the “I wonder if this is even going to work” kind. Maybe especially then.

Uncertainty. Oh, how we run from it. We’ll run in almost any other direction, which is a shame because there’s so much to be gained by running toward it.

It’s uncertainty that prompts young photographers to ask anyone which shutter speed, aperture, or lens they should use in a given situation rather than just trying and seeing what happens. “What if I do it wrong?” is the unspoken fear. The kindest answer, of course, is “you’ll learn something.” I mean really learn it. We learn much better when we figure something out by trial and error than when someone tells us to use 1/500, f/5 (your F should always be 5!), or 85mm.

Our fear of uncertainty is why there’s such an unstoppable torrent of drivel written about this craft. It’s just so much easier to be told what the best landscape lens is. All you have to do is buy it, slap it on the camera, then point it at the landscape. Same with all the other recipes and formulae. Easy peasy.

But should it be easy? Is that what we’re after as we make photographs? It’s not what I want, I know that. Remember, you can’t have flow—that state of creativity when time flies and you get in the groove and create your best work—without challenge. Challenge and uncertainty aren’t a problem to be solved. They aren’t what stand in the way of your next great photograph. They’re how you get there. By thinking them through. By experimenting. By failing and trying again and really learning not only how to do a thing but how you do a thing, in your way, for your purposes.

No adventure, no art. After all these years, this is the guiding principle in my own work. And I’m comfortable with that.

If there’s no uncertainty, risk, or “I wonder if….” or “I wonder how…”, then it’s because I’m comfortable. I’ve been here before, and I’m not moving forward. A more cynical version of me would have said this is just “mailing it in.” I don’t think it’s that intentional (or lazy), but it’s also definitely not an intentional effort to move forward. Into new territory. The discomfort of uncertainty.

I’m not interested in the photographs I’ve already learned to make—those that the younger me already figured out. They satisfied him; they were his adventure. But I’m not that guy anymore, partly because of the risks I’ve taken and the lessons I’ve learned. Sure, I make my art, but it’s just as true that my art makes me. I’m a new photographer (and human being) almost daily, and I’m most interested in the photographs that guy is going to make. There’s uncertainty there. Challenge. Adventure.

Your adventure will differ from mine because we all differ in our challenges, and what is uncertain in your art-making won’t be what’s uncertain in mine. But the resulting flow and joy will be similar. We seem hardwired to find pleasure in overcoming hard things, in accomplishing things we’ve never done before, things we thought might be just beyond our reach. But we’re equally hardwired to avoid them. By instincts honed over millennia, we’re risk averse by nature. Art-making is one way we engage with that, challenging our sense of what’s possible.

Find something you don’t know how to do and figure it out.

Use gear you’ve never used. Stop asking how you should do this or that and start asking what the possibilities are. Play. Experiment. Google things you don’t know and peek around the corners of your curiosity. Don’t let “I don’t know where it’s going to lead” be the thing that stops you; let it be the thing that propels you. That’s the point! You don’t know! Find out. Don’t know what settings to use? Find out by trying them all. Don’t know if your idea for a photo project has legs? Find out by doing it. Don’t know if you’ve got it in you? You do, but you need to find that out for yourself. Explore. Do. Discover. 

You don’t have to photograph bears or climb mountains. You don’t have to “go on an adventure” to make great photographs. But I think making great photographs should be an adventure. Find yours.

For the Love of the Photograph,

P.S. Want to have an adventure with me?

Since we’re speaking of adventure, I’ve started thinking about new shared adventures with you. If you have any serious interest in coming to places like Kenya with me, I’d love to hear from you.

For years my safari trips and most of my workshops have been invitation only. They’ve been limited to alumni, people I’ve worked with before. That makes it hard for new people to join me. So I’m planning a couple trips that would be open to more people and allow us to travel, photograph, and learn together. If you’re interested in being among the first to know about these adventures, would you let me know by following this link? I’ll put you on the Adventure List and email you with those opportunities as they come up.

Right now I’m thinking of a couple 8 or 9-night safaris in Kenya in January 2025, but there might be other opportunities coming soon. I’ve also got a couple bear trips in 2024 and while they’re full now, any openings would be offered exclusively to people on this smaller adventure list. If you’d like to hear more, follow this link and tell me how to get in touch with you. The only thing I will send to people on this list are opportunities to travel and photograph together. I don’t do many of these kinds of trips, but they’re consistently the highlights of my year and I’ve created some of my closest friendships on these shared adventures. I hope you’ll join me. I would love to share my favourite places on the planet with you.


  1. David,
    That reminds da me I have been avoiding running toward Mail Chimp because…why?

    I am not interested in African trips as they will be out of my income bracket and safaris have never been on my bucket list; however, I would definitely make an effort to join a week or weekend trip closer to home—Bella Coola or up on the Chilcotin Motherstone photographing geology, or even a simple hike trip through the massive old growth of Meares Island learning to shoot that unique place in its own light.

    I really don’t need to encounter top predators: a quiet, less expensive , less challenging adventure with whatever is beautiful or unique with time to relax, talk, meditate, share meals and walk or kayak appeals more to me and I suspect a lot of the older women who you once said make up your Ideal Audience Avatar.

    1. I was thinking along similar lines… I really want to explore BC, because there’s so much amazing stuff here to see and explore. And I’ve been eyeing the Chilcotin and Cariboo areas. What I’m seeing and learning about them is making me think about moving out to that region, rather than staying in Vancouver 🙂

  2. Can you comment on the value of series? Talking with others, many do not wish to work in a series, to fully explore an idea or concept. It seems experimenting within a defined set of ‘rules’ enhances creativity, Limiting choices, investigating all the possibilities of something is my version of adventures., What do you think?

  3. I always hesitate slightly before opening your emails/blog. I know I have to devote a few minutes to reading and taking in what you have to say. In a busy day (especially in the Christmas season) it’s sometimes hard to do.
    I’m never disappointed.
    Adventure, creativity, pushing the boundaries. That’s what art (and life) is all about!
    Thanks for reminding me.
    Would love to join you on a Kenya adventure (I left my email), I’ve been promising myself this for some years!

    Thanks David. Keep inspiring 🙏🏼👍🏼💪🏼

  4. There is so much written about gear these days because so many sites are driven by gear sales.

    When you listen to an amazing piano concerto, do you wonder what make the piano is or what paper the composer used to write the concerto on?!

    Great gear is great. However, if you cannot use it then it may as well be rubbish.

    A very long time ago, my dear departed father was trying to help me with some maths from school. I asked him why I couldn’t just use a calculator, as he often did.

    “Well, if you can’t do it yourself, how will you know if the calculator gives you the correct answer?”

    Took me a long time to understand that. The same is true of photography. If you don’t understand how it works you won’t know how to work within the limitations of your equipment or how to correct the errors it inadvertently makes.

    Personally for me, I returned to simplicity. My camera has only manual focus and only Aperture priority or manual. It doesn’t shoot video.

    I revel in that simplicity.

  5. David,

    “Sure, I make my art, but it’s just as true that my art makes me.“. As I continue to work at my art I find that statement to be ever more true: those “Oh My God – I made that” moments – that flush of warmth that originates in your brainstem and washes over you. That’s where your art makes you. And it’s almost always unexpected. My last one was when, in spite of my pride in my initial investment in photo gear and my efforts to go places and see things in a new way, I made a photograph of my son’s dog looking out of the living room window that I took with my iPhone. It “checked all of the boxes” that I have been learning and working on. But it wasn’t the technical – it was that instantaneous gut-love of what I saw.

    Great point – still working at it and loving every aspect of your guidance and instruction.

    Thanks again,

  6. This is priceless: “peek around the corners of your curiosity”. I could add, “Don’t be intimidated by your own imagination”. Or, “Let the inner child loose (with a camera, of course).” The great thing about photography is that the possibilities are limitless. That’s what keeps it interesting for me, whether I’m in my house, backyard, or on a hike. Thanks, again, David for encouraging creativity and exploration. Was it you who once said, “I can’t teach creativity, I can only encourage it”? Or, something like that? Of course, your photos also demonstrate what you’re “teaching”.

  7. I have been taking photos since I was young. I have always been intimidated with a camera. I have tried many times to learn, but I always get frustrated and I always go back to my iPhone. When I visited Uganda in 2019, I went with a photographer from Ontario. She would show me what to do, and I tried, but I always got frustrated and switched back to my iPhone. I actually took some amazing photos of the chimps and the gorillas.

    I don’t understand why I am scared by a camera. It seems complicated, but I try and get frustrated again.

    I’m tired of being afraid of my camera. I want to move past my fear. It’s time to learn!

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