Better safe than sorry.
Those are the words I’ve known. Those are the words I’ve lived. A calculated existence, staying the course, climbing the hill, waiting to become all the me I could be.
Don’t fight windmills.
Don’t chase the dream.
I had a steady stream of clients, an office in the middle of Manhattan, and a brand new Brooklyn home.
Everything was perfect.
And if you were to ask me what perfect felt like, the best answer I could give is it somewhat resembles staring down the barrel of a 45-caliber loaded gun.
It looks like long hours with mismatched clients, constant insecurity, and a deep well of doubt. It looks like a big mess of yourself, never coming together, always falling apart, hoping to be more, but too afraid to be less.
I was a pregnant pause living off a catheter with a constant drip of hope.
I was desperate. Afraid. Ashamed of my ridiculous facade that mattered to no one but me.
There are three types of photographers in the world.
The first is the novice, and the novice lives by memorizing the work of others and replicating those pictures. He operates by the principle of substitution. Essentially recreating something that’s already been done without adding anything to the mix. You could just as soon Photoshop heads and bodies into other pictures to achieve the same. Instead of looking for differences this photographer finds similarities. Instead of revealing uniqueness, the novice renders everything as common.
The second photographer lives by formula. This is the amateur. One step up the ladder, he has extracted the rules that make pictures work and organized them into a set of formulas. He no longer needs to force feed his subjects into tired tropes, but his work conforms to commonly accepted rules. The amateur thinks of the world in terms of right and wrong. He looks for good light. Good composition. Good expressions. And these are absolute. He proves his skill by making pictures that include as many forms of goodness as possible – the more, the merrier.
The final type of photographer is the professional. The professional knows there is no good and bad and knows what counts is not being good, but communicating powerfully. Most people call this voice. He will do whatever it takes to make that communication come through. For the professional, every moment, every occurrence, every expression is something new and valuable, so it must been seen with open eyes and explored as fully as possible. There are no rules, just what works, which also means that the professional lives in complete uncertainty. Everything must be figured out. The only safety net is a well-honed instinct and being deeply in touch with his beliefs. The professional knows the power of trying and getting things done, and works constantly to grow.
The true artist is a professional. The true business person is a professional. Those who find their value are professionals. The professional puts subject first, bringing insight, surprise, and joy into the world.
No one who was ever been hired just to get a job done will be paid the full value of what they are worth. There has to be more.
And very few of us are professionals for one simple reason.
The more we learn the rules, the more we like them. They’re comfortable and familiar and easy, but in the end, if you can’t let go, they’ll stop you dead in your tracks and blind you to possibility. There are no rules. If it works, it works. The greats make the rules, and you can’t do that, if you’re not willing to walk out on a ledge and jump.
The truth is most people would rather look good than be good.
And this is a tragedy.
Because the moment we give up our vision in favor of the common and the accepted is the moment we lose touch with our dreams, hopes, and even our purpose. The things that make us the most human and the most powerful.
The way the professional differs from the amateur is the way he handles fear. Instead of turning away from it to find safer ground, the professional steers right into it and takes it down. The professional lives a life of trust, while the amateur lives a life of doubt. The professional sees opportunity, where the amateur sees danger.
And to add insult to injury the very security the amateur seeks is a lie.
The middle class is dying. You’re flying or crashing. There is no holding pattern. That’s a relic from a bygone era, when you could spend your lunchtime sipping martini’s and your weekends manicuring your lawn.
Living out loud isn’t just a luxury now. It’s the minimum you need for skin in the game.
This isn’t a world we can know any longer. Change is too fast for that.
You can only know how to listen to the surf, feel the swell, and ride the waves. If you crash, you crash and get right back up. It’s not ready, steady, go. It’s go, go, go, and deal with being ready and steady the whole way through. That is the skill of the here and now.
And that is exactly the skill of the professional: living in the present.
Success, is an activity of constant change. You have to learn how to live ahead of the curve and create things no one has seen before. That’s the rocket fuel.
Yes, knowing the rules will get you business. So will slick marketing. These things will get money in the door, but what it won’t get you is control. It won’t get you passionate followers who insist on spreading the word.
Insecurity is now the only path to security. More than ever, this is the time to experiment. To play with new ideas. To dive deep. It’s time to find your edges and discover your voice, because in this hyper-connected, over-saturated, technicolor world, being noticed is harder than ever.
I thought I wanted safety, but I was wrong. What I wanted was relief. Relief from the pressure. Relief from the fear. I wanted permission to be myself and to try not being myself.
That permission never came. There’s no one to give out the gold stars in real life. There is no one to tell you it’s OK. It just is. You go out and do things, and see what happens, and believe in yourself and your ideas enough to know that you can take whatever happens, whether it works the way you wanted or not, and use it to move yourself one step further into the journey. It’s taking the step that counts.
Great people make life work. Sometimes they fly. Sometimes they crash. But they know something most of us don’t.
Being sorry is better than safe.
The problem with wedding photography has nothing to do with photography. It has nothing to do with exposure and f-stops and whether this looks like film or that works as a print. It has nothing to do with light and composition or even emotion or feeling on their own. The problem with wedding photography, in fact, is distinctly non-photographic.
The problem is Iceland.
This is an industry where there isn’t a week that goes by where the stakes aren’t ratcheted up a notch. Where the landscapes don’t loom a little more dramatic, where the couples don’t get a little smaller, and the compositions grow more impressive. A high stakes game being battled across the globe in locations near and far and so commonly settling in Iceland, as the hills sing with the sound of shutters clicking and couples trekking.
Each year, the light gets prettier, the cliffs become steeper, and the pictures are stunning – more than enough to satiate the wanderlust in every flip-phone toting, card-carrying, hipster heart. Raggedy-yet-graceful couples walking up hills, down hills, staring at oceans, and standing in forests.
But for all that, no matter how stunning and how impressive, the question isn’t about how well you take the picture. The prettiness may make it all go down a hell of a lot easier, but it will never be a replacement for what really matters: having something to say.
While it may be the age of unending fetish, no VSCO filter, no stock of Kodachrome, no place, no space – none of it means anything if there isn’t a point of view stirring inside the person who clicks the button.
Yes, pictures have improved. But as the haze lifts and the talent grows, what becomes clear is that the plague of the wedding industry isn’t its sheer crappiness. We’re finally starting to steer clear of that. It’s the pervasive sameness that has defined this industry from the start. Where craft is concerned, crappiness and sameness are worlds apart. But insofar as the art, heart, and soul of the medium goes, they remain one and the same.
This is a time of a thousand variations of couples center-framed, space-enclosed, holding hands, and looking somewhere, anywhere, and everywhere. And I’ll fess up now. I, too, am guilty.
What’s wrong with sameness? It sells. It’s sexy. It’s hot. Why not?
Because people are more. Couples are more. Because we are more. If you buy the party line – and this is a line I’ll buy hook, line, and sinker – that we all have something to say – that we all have something to offer – then sameness is most certainly a problem.
We are defined by how we are different. No one says you’re you because the things you do or the beliefs you have are just like everyone else. You are you, because of all the ways you’re different. That’s how it goes. We are our exceptions, not our conformity.
And we all have something stirring inside of us. Everyone has a way of doing things. But many never put it to use nor pay it heed, instead, chasing the chase, looking for better in all the wrong places.
You see it in the battles of the moment and the talk of the times. There’s the white hot fight to see who can produce the truest film emulation. The crusade for printing prints. The unending litany of discussions about the cameras we use. Do we stick to a DSLR or go mirrorless? Do we shoot digital at all? And what format, if we go film? Check out the Leica M Edition 60 if you want to see the ultimate conceit of the now. All digital, no LCD viewfinder. Get the hardness of digital and the limitations of film for $19K. Nice.
This all misses the point.
The question isn’t how good a film emulation is. It’s why you use it. I’ve seen many a conversation comparing film stock presets. I’ve seen all of none telling us why it matters. If you don’t have an answer why getting 98% of the way to Portra 400 is better than 96%, then who really cares about the rest? Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t matter, but that the question of why needs to come first, or else it’s the chase for the sake of the chase.
Authenticity is only valuable when you understand it well enough to let go of it. The moment we cling to the authentic for itself is the moment it loses its original purpose.
It’s not digital or film. Print or screen. It’s what you have to say with them. How you use them. And if the answer is only going to go as far as the mysterious beauty of the grain structure or how a different technology makes you slow down and think, that’s not even close to far enough.
Beauty for what? To say what about the world? About your subject? Slowing down and thinking, though great, did all of nothing to make every film photographer anything close to brilliant before digital hit the scene. Most people were just slow and bad.
Thinking about light, composition, and timing is one thing. Thinking about what life, love, and living is for is another. And that is the problem with Iceland.
Not that so many have gone to the ends of the earth and back to find the ultimate shot. That, in and of itself is fine. But that so many people wander through the mist and climb the hills – whether it be in Iceland, California, or across the street – only to bring back something so similar to so much without asking what their own private Iceland was. That we chase the look and not the meaning.
Great photographers find novel ways to show similar subjects. Sameness disparages the complexity and beauty of who we are.
Live life first.
Not through the camera. Not for the camera. But with the camera. Sit on a sidewalk and watch the people pass. See how you feel about them. Not what looks like some shot you’ve seen before from a hero of the past. But what YOU feel. Put that in your pictures.
Read a book and think about what people are. What is marriage for to you? What is love for to you? How does your choice of framing, composition, filtering, and camera make this opinion – this belief in your heart – indisputably clear? Step out of your role as the photographer and forget about what you’re supposed to shoot. Find what you need to shoot.
Be conscious of your possibility.
The world doesn’t need you to solve what’s already been solved. It’s waiting for you to solve what hasn’t. It’s waiting to hear what you have to say. Don’t check yourself in at the door. Don’t run from who you’ve fought to become. Wear it. Show it. And make that lead the way.
Einstein once said if he had an hour to save the world, he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution. What’s unfortunate is if you research this carefully, you’d find he probably never said that (I, on the other hand, did not research this carefully, but I did Google it and found this article).
What is fortunate is this makes for a great quote that reveals an essential truth about creative thinking: Answers are bad. Questions are good.
Read on, to see how it worked for Steve Jobs, how it stops photographers in their tracks, and why Jeff Goldblum can save your life.
FOCUSING ON ANSWERS BLINDS YOU TO THE OBVIOUS
Answers are only as useful as the questions they serve. Or, to put it another way, creative thinking isn’t answering questions. It’s asking them. Think about it. How many times have you thought to yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because you know you could have. But the odds are the reason you didn’t see the obvious is because you didn’t ask the obscure.
Bad questions are stifling. Why? Because all questions are packed with assumptions –horrible, mind-numbing, headache-inducing assumptions – and until you can untangle this morass of evil assumptions, answers have limited value. Worse yet, bad questions are not only packed with the most assumptions of all, but they’re also the first questions to come to mind, so when we set out on solving a problem without taking the time to reframe it, we implicitly accept the status quo instead of taking a fresh look at the issue .
For example, the entire computer industry spent years in the early 2000′s trying to make the tablet work. Why did Steve Jobs get it done, when everyone else couldn’t? Well, yes, sure, because he’s Steve Jobs, there’s that. But the real problem was everyone was asking the wrong question.
The whole industry was asking “How do I stuff a computer into a tablet format?” That was insurmountable, because they had to figure out how to create a machine that could do everything without the physical tools (keyboard, mouse) and space (form factor, screen size) a full computer necessitates. Because of that, what they produced were slow tablets with clunky interfaces that plain sucked.
If Apple had asked the same question, there wouldn’t be an iPad. But that’s not what they asked. Instead, they asked what are the basic features people need when they’re on the go? By asking that, they could let go of all the legacy functions in a full-sized computer and create something that worked exceptionally well for a few specific purposes. Problem solved.
And so it goes in this industry, as well.
Do you need to give out close to a thousand pictures to your clients? And I’m not actually saying you should or shouldn’t. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t – it depends on who you are. But here’s one thing I can guarantee. Asking how many pictures you should give, whether it’s a lot or not is a useless question. How do you even draw a conclusion to that? Research? Ask people? Do an a/b comparison for five years to gather data? Way too hard.
The types of things you’d want to ask is what matters to your clients and why. Or what makes people hire you? Or how you get the results you get? Or, even, if you’re going to insist on focusing on the numbers, then ask ask what types of numbers will get people’s attention and generate more business. Either way, quantity alone won’t get you anywhere without a reason behind it.
HOW PHOTOGRAPHERS SHOOT THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT
And it’s not just a business problem. In fact, asking good questions is the essence of creativity.
Look at the way people typically learn. They see a picture they like. They find out how to replicate it, and they spend the next year shooting everything they can to look just like that. Sometimes the next ten years. Sometimes, the rest of their lives. But asking how to achieve a technique, though a necessary part of the process, is also one of the least important questions to answer. If voice begins when differentiation begins, then asking the same questions as everyone else is the hardest way to get there.
A gaggle of photographers running around in an open field at golden hour shooting the same model might improve some portfolios, but it will do nothing to up their vision. Vision is not technique. It’s not ability. Sure, you need these to execute, but vision comes from somewhere much deeper. A place you find by asking better questions.
The whole reason the greats can run wild, break the rules like twigs, and trample over convention is that they’re solving different problems than everything else. They don’t just say, “How do I reproduce this picture?” They ask “What makes a better picture?” Better yet, “What makes people react?” And they know what their answers are. Ansel Adams was famously technical, but his command of the camera and darkroom always served a greater function – observation and ideas.
Good questions open up possibility and expand thought. They engage you and let you ask even more questions and become more interested. They let your brain make the essential connections to see the world differently. That’s voice. As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “[They] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And that’s what’s essential.
Asking better questions isn’t just a theory to expand your horizons. Asking better questions is a necessity to stand out. It’s a necessity to keep yourself involved in your own business and your own art and your own life. It’s lets you become more, and it’s the activity that most people never bother to do, which means the advantages are vast. So before asking how to do something, ask what the value of that thing is. Otherwise, you wind up getting eaten by dinosaurs.