Photography is a microcosm for the real world, and in many ways, it mirrors it. Here are my top five rules for life that I've transferred to photography.
Rule 1: Life Is Not an Administrative Task
Benjamin Franklin is famously attributed with the quote: "nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Or rather, death is the one certainty in life, and money makes the world go round, so governments will try their damnedest to get their (un)fair share of it. Keeping your paperwork in order is vital when turning pro; however, it's a salutary reminder that even before you've pressed the shutter, you have admininistrative issues to contend with. Lots of them. Being efficient pays in terms of making sure administrative work gets done; however, do not fall into the trap of letting it become an end in itself.
Therefore, don't seek to become as efficient as possible at the exclusion of actually "doing" photography (unless you love doing administrative work). There are people that make a list of daily "jobs" that, in and of themselves, are meaningless, but they feel that they've had a full day at the end of it. Life is not a trial run; it's the real deal, so make sure you live it to the max! Do the photography that needs to be done today, then free up some time to finish off the administrative work.
Task: hire an accountant to do your tax return.
Rule 2: Find Meaning and Purpose
Identify your mojo, what makes you tick, the thing that you love so much you'll get up early each and every morning to do it. Ken Robinson called it finding your element. Princeton from Avenue Q called it finding his purpose. Photography isn't one amorphous blob that we just "do," but rather, has subtle nuances which we are drawn to. For leisure, I love shooting architecture, while for weddings, the candid shot is my raison d'etre — being able to capture that unguarded moment of thought. That is what makes me sing.
Task: look through your 2019 portfolio (you made one of those, right?) and categorize each photo by genre. Does this tell you anything about what you love shooting?
Rule 3: Being Good Takes Effort, Being Great Is Hard — Very Hard
You can roll with life, taking the easy road so that things are never too stressed. You might start out assisting a pro; however, to be good at something takes practice. Moving from good to great is hard — possibly 10,000 hours of hard. As Matthew Syed outlines in Bounce, top ice skaters don't get better by taking it easy. They get better by constantly pushing the envelope, which inevitably means falling over. Lots of falling over.
As photographers, we need to experiment, evolve, produce duds, reshoot, assess, and then maybe, just maybe, produce a flash of brilliance. We need that depth of experience, depth of failure in order to nail it. In order to push my strobe skills, I've been reading Joe McNally's "Hotshoe Diaries" and what struck me was the vast wealth of experience he was able to draw on, much of it won through the School of Hard Knocks! The mantra is "Practice, practice, practice!"
Task: take on a photo challenge that pushes and stretches you so that you learn and improve. I undertook 30 selfies in 30 days, which felt hard and unfulfilling at times, but I came out of the other end having learned much.
Rule 4: Simplify
Complexity in photography can relate to both the gear you use and the compositions you produce. Generally, I've found that simplification is a good maxim to live by. That's not to say that complexity is bad, but complexity for the sake of it, and particularly when we talk about gear, can be wasteful at best and at worst, catastrophic.
Apple's approach to designing hardware has been almost zen-like (see the "Design of Everyday Things") where a device should both look beautiful and have an ergonomic fluidity such that it doesn't impede its function. You can take minimalism too far, and I'd be the first one to argue for a 3.5mm headphone jack, but I can't deny the phone looks better for losing it.
In photography, a good example of simplicity and minimalism is the advocation of prime lenses. By removing the choice of focal length, you work to achieve a series of images within this constraint, which can actually lead to more creative outputs. Of course, as a working wedding photographer, I wouldn't leave my 24-70mm at home!
Task: for your next photo session, assemble your gear as per normal, then either replace or remove one item in order to simplify your kit.
Rule 5: We Thrive on Change, but Yearn for Stability
It seems a universal truth to me that when we are presented with a rapidly changing, diverse life, we thrive as people. Spiraling situations that force us to chop and change, innovate, think differently, and generally be on top of our game push us to the edge of our abilities, which is how we grow. Too much change, particularly turbulent upheaval, can be traumatic. While it can still develop us as individuals, it can also be debilitating.
What I find odd is that while we know we thrive in these situations, at the same time, many desperately seek stability, peace, even solitude. With stability comes the risk of complacency, which can take us back to rule one: life is not an administrative task. Learning to strive for success in all its forms is therefore vital to avoid the downward spiral of complacency. How you define success is up to you, as satisfaction comes from not only doing what you enjoy (even if you don't enjoy it all the time), but from trying to do it better every day.
Task: think back over your photographic career and try to identify one period or incident where you gained the most satisfaction. Did it involve striving?
Bonus: You Are in Control When You Take Responsibility
There always has to be a bonus! Life is about responsibility. You can't develop as a person without being responsible for your actions, and that is central to being a photographer. Even when things go wrong, if you have taken responsibility, you are in control, which means you are in the best place possible to take action. Serendipity has its place, and one of life's joys is the unexpected. However, I don't live by it as Jim Carey did in "Yes Man." Use it within bounds that you control; love it and learn from it.
Cover image courtesy paulclee and body image courtesy geralt, both via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.
Jordan Peterson would be proud! Thank you for your artical, Mike.
Good article, Mike, thank you!