6 New Year's Resolutions For The Photographer
As the year draws to a close, one great temptation inevitably tickles the back of my brain: the urge to make resolutions. Every year, without fail, I start thinking about what I'll do differently in the new year.
Even though I never stick to whatever resolutions I make, the practice has value. It is a chance to look back at the year, and review not just what activities filled the days, but what I learned from the experiences. This is the best fodder for resolutions – to take the challenges and troubles and turn them into improvements, inspiration, or ideas for the year to come.
This last year was a busy one. I'm frankly amazed I came through it with my sanity (mostly) intact. The constant drive to create, improve, provide and learn often culminated into a schedule of Sisyphean proportions.
I think many photographers feel this way — especially as we compare our work to that of others, compete for assignments and covet the wins of our peers, take on more than we can handle in the desire to make a difference in the world and also make ends meet.
I'm grateful for what felt like a full, rich, and challenging year. With the closing of it, I'm teasing out the threads of lessons learned that can be woven into a guide — or at least a safety net — for next year.
May these personal resolutions help inspire you on some level to craft your own approach to to the New Year that will bring you joy, satisfaction and success.
Discover Inspiration Without Comparison
leaf-cutter ants, costa rica
One of the particular challenges I have – and I suspect I am not alone – is seeking out inspiration only to slump into a feeling of inadequacy. While searching for something to spark my own creative muse, I too often wind up feeling like everyone else is doing more and better. This problem primarily requires a boost of confidence or a good solid pep talk to overcome, but there is at least one strategy I can think of to assist in finding inspiration without comparison:
Spend less time on Facebook and more time with actual books of photography.
Social media does something funny to us. We see primarily the best of people's lives, and are often lead to jealously compare our own lives to these misleading snippets, feeling dissatisfied, inadequate, boring. Even when simply scrolling through images, the appearance of likes, shares and comments shifts how we consider that image, and how we evaluate the success of our own images on the same platforms.
Another issue is that we too speedily scroll to the next image without giving due consideration to the first – a fast-forwarding which only further reinforces negative feelings about our own work, about our selves. My unscientific conclusion is that we are less able to appreciate, to be curious about, to find inspiration in images found on social media than images found in print.
Resolving to seek inspiration without comparison is a two-fold challenge.
First is to reduce the amount of time I spend looking at images on social and swap it with spending time looking at images in books and magazines. And second is to engage in constructive internal conversation.
Even when sitting down with a stack of photo magazines, it is so easy for me to get distracted by the “shoulds” that pepper my thoughts: I should shoot more like that, I should travel there, I should create a new project about such-n-such, I should shift my existing project to be more like this one. They can quickly overwhelm my mind and make me want to close the publication and move on to something “productive.” Yet closing the book or magazine would be the least productive move.
So, it is conscious practice to instead consider an image with curiosity and appreciation — to ask myself about details I enjoy about the image, to wonder how the photographer achieved the image, to think about what aspects of the photographer's work I already see or would like to see in my own work.
To discover real inspiration is to have a conversation with yourself. Comparisons only silence that conversation. Instead, mute the comparison and focus on the questions.
Ongoing Inspiration From: Morgan Heim
See The Neighborhood With New Eyes
wildflowers at sunrise, California coast
At its heart, photography is about capturing the way you see the world. Because photographers constantly seek new sights to capture, we often get the craving to travel. Yet, satisfying the desire to see new things doesn't necessarily require traveling great distances.
It requires practicing the simple art of paying attention.
After I latched onto wildlife photography, I became continually amazed at the biodiversity in my own backyard. A photographer could dedicate their life's work to documenting the flora, fauna and landscapes within a 200 mile radius of my hometown on coastal California. Yet, I didn't realize most of the jewels I was living among until I became a photographer. The camera required me to actually look at my surroundings. And, now that I'm a professional photographer, my malnourished bank account requires me to stick to my local spots much of the time. Rather than this being a sore point, I think it is a perfect challenge.
There is much in our own backyards, parks, and walking trails that we never notice until one day we're given cause to. It could be as easy as visiting a local park and taking a tour with a naturalist who points out the interesting stories or biology behind common species. Suddenly, those common species hold new fascination and importance. The creative spark gets going on how you can photograph them in enlightening or surprising ways.
My resolution comes in the form of a check list. First, to photograph something new in a familiar place, I will pick up my field guide book and try to find and photograph at least 10 local species I haven't seen around before. Second, to photograph something familiar in a new way, I will pick 10 local species and document behaviors or life phases with a mix of techniques.
The greatest challenge may be finding new ways to see, and to photograph beauty, in something so familiar as the scrub-covered hillsides I hike every week.
Ongoing Inspiration From: Michael Forsberg
Strive For Content, Forgive Imperfections
Geoffroy's spider monkey, Costa Rica
There's a risk in caring too much about technical quality, about getting a shot within the parameters of acceptable ISO noise or tack sharp eyes on the subject. What an image evokes in the heart of a viewer is more important than its technical precision. We have watched technically imperfect images win awards and score the cover of magazines because the images spark so much emotion that it doesn't matter that they're a bit of a mess. Indeed the mess even adds to it.
That said, I catch myself often falling into the trap of pixel-peeping, beating myself up over blur, not even trying for a shot if the conditions aren't right. This harkens back to that comparison issue: we become fettered by concerns over how an image will rank among the work of peers or be received by followers on social media. We don't shoot if we don't think what we're shooting will be good enough.
We lose touch with our gut instincts – and indeed the joy of photographing the world – when we focus on perfection.
It's a struggle to remember that yes, precision is important but isn't required to create a compelling shot, and worrying too much over those aspects hinders us from crafting photographs. Particularly in the niche of conservation photography, it is not about taking award-winners — it is about making game-changers. That requires shooting with your heart speaking louder than your head.
So, I am making a resolution to spend more time focusing on crafting images that say something, evoke emotion, spark imagination or empathy, make the viewer stop and contemplate. That is ultimately where the true quality of an image lies.
Ongoing Inspiration From: Annie Marie Musselman
Learn A New Shooting Technique
Marine toad, Costa Rica
Nothing brings out more inspiration, excitement, and of course humility than learning a brand new technique. It opens doors to thinking about a story in a new way, approaching a subject with a fresh perspective, stretching your creativity into unchartered territory, and of course building new neural pathways in the brain that will help you out in future shoots.
Earlier this year I spent a weekend in Joshua Tree to finally try my hand at Milky Way photography. Learning how to find and set up an interesting composition and light the scene just right was wonderful practice. And the quiet time spent under the stars watching owls and bats fly by was certainly good for the soul, an energizing side-effect of spending hours trying shot after shot after shot until getting a few keepers.
Recently, I took a workshop specifically to see species I'd never seen before and to learn how to shoot macro. I'd never done it before and thus never realized the work that goes into setting up a great macro shot, whether that is with a longer lens for tiny subjects or a wide-angle macro for larger creatures. There is a lot of planning, forming the composition, and wrangling critters to get it to work, and it is more often than not a team effort to create a great image. Not only was the workshop great practice, but I spent time with some talented photographers I've admired for awhile and found new friendships.
Again, time spent learning a new technique also offered up some invaluable bonuses.
After that workshop, I became particularly drawn to wide-angle macro photography. It requires a certain set of circumstances to really pull off the look without distracting distortions or impractical working distances from your subject. It more often than not requires off-camera lighting, and critter wrangling. And it is a completely different look, feel and approach than anything I've ever shot before. It is something that can be incorporated into a lot of the work I already do to provide more diversity in a story essay or project portfolio. So of course I'm curious. I resolve to pursue this new technique until I'm comfortable with it, and with luck will gain some great personal moments and memories in the process of building this skill.
Whether it is mastering off-camera lighting, working on a particular style of shooting, getting comfortable with a certain type of lens, crafting studio set-ups or anything else, committing time and energy to learning a new shooting technique is time and energy well spent.
Learn A New Skill Outside Of Shooting
sunlight through the jungle, Costa Rica
Take a look at the career of any professional photographer, particularly nature photographers, and it's abundantly clear that success requires more knowledge than just how to make a camera work. There are so many skills that are necessary to make a photograph, from building custom equipment to troubleshooting electronics or natural science issues, from knowing how to craft smart travel itineraries to basic survival skills when working in the middle of nowhere in tough weather.
Recently a friend built me a custom housing for a camera trap I'm using for urban coyote work. When he handed it to me, I was amazed to see the design he'd come up with after his own camera trapping trial and error, the types of materials he used, and the skill that went into piecing it all together. It made me think back to my junior high days shop classes, and that sense of pride in making even something as simple as a metal dust pan or wooden tool box with dovetailed corners. For that matter, it made me think back to when I picked up knitting and pulled off my first sweater that actually fit like it was supposed to. It feels amazing to have the skills to make what you need when you need it with materials you have around you. Beyond the sense of accomplishment, how invaluable it is to be able to craft what you need to get the shots you're dreaming of!
So, I'm making a resolution to learn the handiwork skills required to set up camera trap equipment for different situations and in different environments.
Learning how to fix or maintain your gear, or perhaps learning a new software program, workflow strategy or post-processing technique, or getting a handle on promoting your photography business — or even psychological skills like learning how to take constructive criticism or overcome Impostor Syndrome — are all skills worth investing time in learning.
Ongoing Inspiration From: Sebastian Kennerknecht
Renew Energy In Existing Projects
urban coyote, San Francisco, California
There is a constant hum of seeing new projects launched by other photographers, learning of pressing conservation issues that need attention, species we hear about for the first time and are fascinated by. What comes with that hum is the drive to constantly start new projects. But often our best work happens when we hunker down into existing projects and focus on making them truly exceptional.
I'm guilty of habitually piling too much onto my plate. I love projects. I love the planning, organizing, researching, networking, planning and coordinating shoots, brainstorming shots, building a platform for the story to be told… I love every part of a project. So I usually have too many going on. Then I get overwhelmed, with focus being spread wide and thin. The result is always that something gets neglected — and often, that something is my own wellbeing. I know I'm not unique in this.
Most photographers have too much going on, burning the candle at every end. But what good can we do if we are burned out?
I'm making a resolution to not create anything new. My full attention will be devoted to those projects I already have underway; my focus will be narrow and deep. The best of me will go into making these projects the best they can be, and seeing what that pans out to be is far more exciting than the shine of novelty.
Ongoing Inspiration From: The team behind Urban Coyote Initiative