Lessons learned through the lens: an incomplete index of insights from my decade in photography

I’ve chosen to publish the lessons I learned that have universal applicability. I’ve left the photography tips out ;)

1. We are born blind
I had been shooting for 6 months, 5 days a week, every week, and one day I was at the cinema. I can’t recall the film I watched, but I remember how I felt as a veil was suddenly lifted from my eyes about an hour into it. All of a sudden I could see within each shot on the screen. Choices in composition and framing, lighting, and techniques like the stop frame, slow motion, etc. were laid bare.

After that, I experienced the same insight everywhere. The highlights or shadows on the street, the framing of a poster when viewed as a reflection from the window of a building, being able to anticipate people’s movements and when they were going to line up into an interesting composition or step out of the shadow into the light from the sun.

What else in life do we miss? I think musicians engage with the sound of our world in a way I’ll never be able to, for example. Good designers are able to abstract out the function of a system based solely on using it themselves. And so on.

2. Life is composed of an interconnected series of verbal, visual and abstract languages
I have no doubt that photography is a clearly defined visual language. You can say the same for music, or painting. But you might not make the same association to plumbing, or physics, or rock climbing.

Photography encouraged me to look at all of our pursuits as a series of related languages, with communication and self-expression at their heart. When we embrace this world view, we can embrace the strengths of language: its malleability, practicality, and translatability.

3. Your equipment only exists to serve your vision
I saw a lot of photographers fetishizing their gear. While harmless, it’s also utterly pointless, and you can quickly lose sight of the fact that this equipment only exists to serve you in achieving your vision.

Don’t live in thrall to your tools.

4. The best way to learn is by doing
I started shooting without owning a camera, thanks to the generosity of a friend and future business partner. I never formally studied photography, and instead threw myself into shooting five days a week for many, many months which helped me figure out my technical skills. Asking questions, listening and observing got me the rest of the way.

Ultimately, I lacked a point of view, which demanded that I develop my theoretical understanding of photography and its place in art history. An art school may have been a good experience for this, but I got by just fine with the enormous amount of literature on the subject.

5. Learn within your personal context
If you want to learn photography, start a website, or a unique Instagram account with your point of view. If you want to learn to code, build small projects that explore the different facets of a set of ideas or themes that resonate with you.

Learning within the context of your personal interests, ideas and aspirations will grant you an almost divine sense of motivation and inspiration.

6. Creativity is not a spontaneous, isolated, or divine event
I often tried to will my creativity into being. Performing a litany of rituals hoping to conjure something from the ether. It took me a long time to realize that this popular notion of creativity is fundamentally misguided. Only a god can create something from nothing.

Seek a broad number of disparate ideas,

I wish I had found out about combinatorial creativity far earlier than I did.

7. Persist
Whatever success I achieved in photography comes down to persistence and an enormous amount of hard work each day.

8. First copy, then cut
So much angst could have been avoided if I realized the truth behind the myth of originality. Do yourself a favor and copy others, in part and in whole, in your discipline and outside of it, and only then make it your own.

You’ll achieve a lot more, a lot faster if you begin your journey on the well-worn path and then venture into the jungle.

9. Confidence is convincing
I was amazed at how looking someone in the eye and speaking with confidence could get me backstage at a 60,000 person music festival, or convince a superstar musician’s PR agent to grant me a precious 5 minutes for a portrait.

We’re all easily fooled by the appearance of authority. However, if you’re going to do it, make sure it’s not at someone’s expense.

10. Hire for personality, skills can be developed
Whenever we brought on new photographers it was always based on their personality and their attitude and it always worked out for us. These days, the fundamentals of photography are both easy and affordable to learn, so our focus was always on the person.

More to come.


Now read this

The Inverted Lens

A simple device. Whenever you are: Solving a problem. Asking a question. Answering a question Brainstorming Communicating Doing almost anything. Take time to invert your point of view to see the object of your attention from an opposing... Continue →