It was déjá vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. I was roaming the campus of my alma mater recently, taking pictures for Northwestern University. Some 25 years ago this very year, I was doing exactly the same thing as the yearbook and newspaper photo editor. It was a trip down memory lane, and I was tickled at the opportunity, which I explored more than once.
What was instructive was just how much more productive I was this time around. As a student, I remember spending waaay too much time trying to find photographs, carrying my camera in desperate hopes of populating the yearbook with beautiful images of campus. It was crazy. The publisher once found me curled up under a table, sleeping in the office after struggling to make deadlines.
10,000 hours of photography later (at least) I was amazed how much easier it was. I was seeing moments left and right – even pictures I could have made 25 years ago but didn’t. My productivity, as measured in volume and creativity, was maybe 10 times that of my days as a student. I shake my head at the reality of the time spent away from my studies and friends.
What did I realize that my experience brought…?
• Improved cost-benefit analysis – I knew not to waste my time with pictures that wouldn’t yield the most impact. With experience, you have a sense of the best picture that can be achieved by chasing down a bunny trail, and the cost of doing so. There’s only so much quality light you have to work with, and only so much time to wait for a situation to ripen into a fruitful photograph. You know when tremendous patience is warranted, and when tremendous impatience is warranted.
• Accumulated visual memory – Partly what your cost-benefit analysis is based on is your memory of your pictures in similar situations, but also your memory of pictures taken by others. If there are some factors coming into play that you recognize as being rare and unusual, you’re quicker to jump on them to come closer to images that you have been inspired by or found before. With more visual memory, comes more visual inspiration and more excitement to share.
• Techniques – If you want to read about how to get blood from a turnip, read my post about How to Make a Boring Situation Interesting. I toggle through the various options in my mind to make the most in front of me. The more you practice them, the faster you get.
• Problem-solving – If you’re the kind of person who gives up easily, gets flustered, or has a propensity for powerlessness, I can’t imagine you’ll do well in photography. Photography is all about problem-solving, with all the technical, logistical and interpersonal barriers that throw themselves your way. Even if you text someone desperately with more experience, “HOW SHOULD I SOLVE THIS?” they won’t be able to tell you. You have to find ways to deal with issues that are consistent with your own make-up and resources, which no one can tell you how to do.
• Previsualization – Previsualization isn’t just a one-and-done thing that happens before a shoot. It also happens during your shoot, where you are spotting changing circumstances and previsualizing (with cost-analysis and accumulated memory) where the next best shot will be. Generally, the more you practice this, the better you get. Otherwise, you can end up chasing your tail, missing moments that could have happened because you weren’t prepared for them when they sailed by you.
• Mistake avoidance – When you drive down a road many times, you know where the potholes are, where the kids randomly cross the street, where the red light cameras are and where the birds love to dive-bomb cars. It’s the same as a photographer. With painful mistakes comes mistake avoidance. You know what catastrophic issues can arise, and you prepare for them – humbled by experience. It sometimes takes the pain of a mistake you’ve outlived to avoid repeating.
• Maturity – One of the things I’ve observed is that you get better access to situations when people trust you and learn to let you do your thing. Generally, people watch you and the decisions you make, and make judgments about your ability and skills. They watch how you cope with disappointment and with exertions of power that come to your expense. It’s just the way it is. With more experience comes more maturity (well, ideally) and people respond to that. You’re worth their time and investment, and doors can open with that trust.
All this is why why many professional photographers are counseled not to charge per hour, but per a creative fee. Your efficiency and productivity can’t be measured by time. It’s measured by your creative output, which significantly increases with experience. How can you compare hourly rates among photographers of vastly different experience and talent?
All the experience that photographers gather through their work is incremental, such that you may not even realize it.
Yet it’s very real, and translates into substantial value for those who invest in it.