Practice

I took this image with my iPhone which got me thinking about the idea of practicing photography. After all, I was just practicing with this shot.  It is not a shot I will do anything with but I felt good about it because I SAW it!

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How do I practice? How do I approach practicing emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally. If we think about the music we love, we can easily imagine our favorite musician and the time they put into becoming as good as they are.  The same for our favorite dancer, singer or athlete. My sense, however, is that many don’t see photography as an art form that requires the same kind of practice. I was listening to an interview of a prominent photographer recently. He was speaking about being frustrated with his current job and thought, I’ll become a photographer, it can’t be that hard right?  Of course he said it with a chuckle in the interview, fully realizing now, how hard it is. In my lectures, I speak about wanting to learn to play guitar.  So you go out, make the purchase and commit to practicing at least an hour a month.  Everyone laughs and then I add, why is it with photography many do just this?  They spend a lot of money on equipment and essentially practice a few times a year and wonder why they don’t get better? 

My thinking shifted to that of developing vision and craft.  How do we do this without lots of practice?  This is a lifelong pursuit and there is no arrival point.

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In my minds eye, I can see Dewitt Jones standing in front of a thistle in the Palouse a few years ago. He stood there for about two hours working to get it just right. Most of his practicing that night, was with his digital sketch pad, the iPhone.

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I remember with a bit of embarrassment, visiting my mentor Nancy Rotenberg at her home.  It was the first time I had been invited into her office.  There I found a large custom built light table, full of slides. I asked if I could turn it on and take a look.  I was shocked to see so many, dare I say, average images.  Then, I noticed next to her table was a wastebasket full of slides.  I asked very seriously, “you take bad pictures?” I honestly thought she only made “keepers” and had mastered her craft so well, every shot was great!  The look of shock on her face was memorable! She then explained photography was a process.  Essentially Nancy was saying she needed to practice and for her, practicing was to take a lot of pictures which helped her refine her composition and ultimately achieve her vision.

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Don’t think that practice is all about photographic technique. Oh no, it is also practicing being still and quiet and practicing being a better person.  Jay Maisel when asked, “How do I make more interesting photographs?” responded by saying, “Become a more interesting person!”  We also need to practice our post processing skills so we can better translate our vision to the final image/print.

If you’re like me, you go through times of self doubt and wonder if you have “it.”  I believe sometimes we are just not going to produce a “winner” and that is okay.  Ask any songwriter and they will tell you of the difficult times where they can’t write a thing!  The same for a writer who gets “writers block.”  Why would it be any different for a photographer?  For me, during times of “block” I have learned to be okay with it. I can’t force good images to happen. But, what I can do is practice more. I have learned to lower my expectations, to stop chasing the perfect photograph and be well with where I am right now. 

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.  How do you practice your photography?

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This entry was posted in Inspiration and tagged , , .

41 Comments

  1. Ruth July 12, 2016 at 8:14 am #

    Thank you for your thoughtful post!

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 8:18 am #

      You’re welcome Ruth. Thank you for stopping by.

  2. Scooter Lowrimore July 12, 2016 at 8:20 am #

    John, your images and words are inspirational. Today I’m going to practice, and I’m going to be quieter (difficult for me :), thanks so much for always sharing.

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 8:51 am #

      Hey Scooter!! So good to hear from you. Being quiet is VERY had for me too. 🙂

  3. Carla July 12, 2016 at 8:44 am #

    Beautifully written, John! Through the years I have followed your words of wisdom; I see my heart and soul in many of my images which is a result of slowing down and being open. It is very important not to set expectations when photographing – many times the surprise of an awesome image comes when I least expect it, maybe as simple as looking behind me. I have learned to take Dan’s mother’s words to heart – “You bring your good time with you!”

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 8:53 am #

      And you have learned well Carla. Your images reveal your heart. Dan’s Mom is so right!

  4. DIana July 12, 2016 at 10:06 am #

    Thought provoking and inspiring. I “practice” all the time and I am pleased when I get a keeper. Sometimes I look aback and see something with new eyes and I am pleasantly surprised! Being quiet is also hard for me as you will find out in December!

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

      And you too will find out how much PRACTICE I need in being quiet! We will struggle together. 🙂

  5. marty July 12, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    I watch all your webinars on the Topaz products. all of them are very informative.

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

      Thank you Marty. Happy to know you like them! Another next week.

  6. Peggy W July 12, 2016 at 11:15 am #

    John, your really wonderful photo of eye glasses in the filtered light of the shade is a wonderful example of “seeing”. It reminded me of Bill Strom’s image of the aluminum roof of a bldg. reflecting blue sky. The roof had 4 different angles giving 4 different fields of blue/silver color. He had simply been sitting on the nearby hillside handling some photo equipment when he looked up and saw what no one else would have seen. Thanks for your continuing lessons.

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

      Peggy, as you know, Bill was a major influence in my photography. His ability to see something others could not was amazing! Oh, and you’re welcome! See you soon in Yellowstone. 🙂

  7. Flint Sparks July 12, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    This is great John. As you know, I took up photography as a practice—a spiritual practice of deep seeing. So what you have written here, so beautifully and carefully, is a wonderful teaching and encouragement for those of us who are not so experienced, and not so skilled, but who are wholehearted in using photography as a way of going deeper and more intimately into the inconceivable mystery of what it is to actually be alive. With a warm bow of gratitude.

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

      My dear friend Flint. My response is to say nothing but rather to exhale a sigh of understanding, love and connection. Thank you for your kind thoughtful response. I am so looking forward to teaching with you in December!! WOO HOO!! Oops…. that was my outside voice… 🙂

  8. Irene Oleksiuk July 12, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

    What a wonderful article, very inspiring. Lately I have been shooting with an iphone, a whole lot.
    Since its close by, I can grab it when I see a special light hitting the kitchen sink, or special shadows and lines or when I am gardening and see a colorful insect. So, that’s my practicing, my awakenings.

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

      Irene, the iPhone is a great tool for REAL pictures as well as learning. I love your use of the word awakenings. Again, the key is to slow down enough to be awakened! 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  9. al campoli July 12, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    Hi John,

    Yes practice practice practice is very necessary!! It was something I have learned from attending a few of your seminars and reading various articles emphasizing the need to practice. I cannot say how much it has helped me in improving my skills. I still have much to learn. I often sit in my den at various times of the day and night and shoot out an open patio door at the flowers on the patio and birds that gather at our feeders. I do the same thing at various parks in the area for landscape shots. I try various settings always checking my histogram. I review my shots after I download them onto my computer and see what differences the different setting make to the images. When I can’t seem to get it right I put my camera into(don’t cringe at this….:>).) “auto mode” and look at the results and adjust my settings accordingly. This my not be the “Pro” way to do it but I find it helps me get back on track. I still have much to learn but I’m slowly but surely getting there!

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 1:21 pm #

      Al, I did not cringe at all. Practice the way it works for you! Auto Mode is great on modern cameras and is indeed an acceptable way to learn. Learning to see is so much more important than learning settings…. that will come and it seems to me you are already figuring that out.

  10. MWS July 12, 2016 at 6:17 pm #

    I would add two observations. First, it is possible (and sometimes necessary) to practice with no camera at all. Just because there’s no permanent record doesn’t mean you missed it.

    And second, every bit of that practice pays off on those rare, precious occurrences when it seems that you and your camera can do no wrong and you come away with a couple of keepers. When that happens, it’s one for the outside voice, WOO HOO!

    • JB July 12, 2016 at 7:42 pm #

      Valid observations oh wise one. Or in your case you whistle… louder… 🙂

  11. Jim McDermott July 12, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

    Wise comments, John — though I didn’t hear you raise you volume much at all!

    I’m sympathetic with those who dust off the camera monthly to take a photo at the soccer game — a great and important way to share experiences across distance and time. To go beyond that, however, the practice is necessary. Fortunately, in the digital age our garbage cans can be smaller and cheaper. But thank God for the teachers like you who urge us to try, give us permission to fail, and then try again, hopefully with some greater insight and experience.

    • JB July 13, 2016 at 7:50 am #

      Yes, Jim to move beyond snapshots it takes more. Thank you for your kind comment.

  12. Lea July 13, 2016 at 6:15 am #

    Great, thought provoking post!

    • JB July 13, 2016 at 7:48 am #

      Thank you Lea.

  13. Steve L July 15, 2016 at 9:40 am #

    An important message, John. And well put.
    And I wholeheartedly agree! I consider some of my photographs to be sketches…the same kind of thing you’re describing. That is, just practicing seeing things and trying different techniques and approaches. Not everything turns out well, but it keeps the juices flowing.

    • JB July 15, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

      Exactly Steve!

  14. Janice July 17, 2016 at 12:55 pm #

    John, for me the term “practice” has never come into my photography. I think of it as play. If you watch a child in a pool, they will dunk and sputter, dive to the bottom, make swirls, perform flips… Their goal is completely unencumbered by the need to improve. It’s just experimentation – for their immediate delight. It’s just play. It’s just fun. But they’re learning! That’s how I like to feel when I have my camera at my side. It’s just so much fun, that I can’t resist getting outside and playing with it!

    • JB July 17, 2016 at 1:06 pm #

      Great feedback Janice. I never said practice had to be work, although sometimes it is isn’t it? And of course if I carry forward the music analogy, I was MADE TO practice 1/2 a day by my parents. So, your point is well taken. Ultimately we can make practice fun or work, no? I’m with you though, taking the lead image was not work, it was made from the mindset of play. THANK YOU!

      • Janice July 17, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

        John, I would love to respond to this, but I’m outside playing with my camera and won’t see your message until later this evening. But, WOW, you had to practice your music 1/2 day. No wonder you’re so good!!!

        • JB July 17, 2016 at 8:50 pm #

          Yup half a day. It was awful! :). No half hour!!

  15. marty golin July 20, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

    Just catching up on your blogs… Excellent point that you are making, but in one respect I think the emphasis is a bit skewed. When you present phone images (often more or less on the fly) as practice, why shouldn’t they be as “good” as an image w/ a DSLR on a tripod? It is ALL photography!

    A well-composed/exposed/etc dramatic landscape (just to select that genre) w/ tripod, filters, etc can be as much practice for the cell phone shot of the shadow in the parking lot when packing your gear. Cell phone images (digital sketchbook) can be more honest in their quick intuitive approach than the thought-out landscape. It certainly is the manner that unconscious “shifts” (for lack of a better word) can come out. At least for me, it continues to amaze me reviewing my P&S shots later on the monitor, to see what I actually saw without being aware of it. This happens at least as much as reviewing my thought-out DSLR shots, & finding them flat & much less interesting than when I took them.

    Your sentence of practice also “being still & quiet &… a better person” I think is really the key concept. Doing that enhances one’s photography; photography enhances being still & quiet.

    • JB July 21, 2016 at 9:12 am #

      Good observation as usual Marty. I did not mean to imply that iPhone, P&S images are not of equal value. Only that many of us have that tool in our pocket and can practice with it. There are many out there creating ART with their phones. Thanks for weighing in Marty.

  16. Karl July 25, 2016 at 11:43 am #

    When I feel like I am in a “creative block”, I turn to practice. I just walk around until I see something of interest, then spend as much time as I feel like trying to capture its essence. I then wait for a while to process these images. I often find a few unique keepers that inspire me to go out and practice more. The more I practice, the more I find hidden creativity. When I go out to specifically create that great image, I usually come home and go back to practicing. When practicing, I find that more images come to me versus when I focus on being creative.

    • JB July 25, 2016 at 1:49 pm #

      Sounds similar to what I do Karl. I can’t force images to happen… never works. Thanks for your comment.

  17. Ann Lyssenko July 27, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    Hi John,

    I have been pondering practicing photography for a while now. Such an interesting subject! I have watched professionals on a workshop explain how to look for a flower with character, move around it, check the background, watch for the light. This photo process has a lot to it!

    I have watched professional photographers walk around, in walking meditation, feeling the energy of a place rise up from their feet and into the hands that hold the camera.

    I have also watched professional photographers jump out of a car, run to a location and click the shutter. I have watched fellow photographers come to a location and find nothing to photograph, complain about the light and wind and complain that there is no shot to be had at that location.

    For me, practice involves seeing in new ways. That will not be accomplished by having a preconceived idea of what a location or subject offers. To get to that place of “seeing “ in a new way, in the moment, I find it helpful to start photographing a bit to make sure that my camera with all its “bells and whistles” doesn’t get in my way. In some ways as I change from location or subject, I need this spacer between the last subject or location, the babble in my head and my ability to use my equipment. I suppose you might call this preparing for practicing, like scales on the piano.

    Then the photographic practice begins for me! The world of photo opportunity opens to new “seeing”. I will have the expected photographs of course. But over a period of time, the subject will begin to look different. As I photograph, I look for new things, I explore my feelings and how to capture their essence. Practice for me is exploration!

    Ann

    • JB July 27, 2016 at 9:15 pm #

      Ann, I am so happy you’ve chosen to post your well thought out ideas on this important subject. Excellent my friend. Thank you!

  18. Ginny brown August 3, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

    I was feeling guilty (regretful) when I began reading your post and the wonderful comments because lately I’ve been one of those once a month people. Then I realized I DO practice. I practice seeing. The way the light hits the kitchen table at a certain time when I’m having my morning coffee, the way the sun hits just the blossoms on the pot of flowers on my back or how, and right now, how the light and shadows fall on the wicker chairs on my front porch. I remember Dan saying something like “something catches your eye because it’s important. Go back and see what it was.” So here’s to more practice – even if it’s only “memory shots.”

    • JB August 3, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

      Exactly Ginny! You are indeed practicing all the time. 🙂

  19. Wyn Knapp August 4, 2016 at 3:28 pm #

    At the end of a post-processing session, I look for a software area/feature/add-in I don’t know or understand well and try to understand it.

    • JB August 4, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

      Hello Wyn. Thank you for your comment.

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