Five Things Photography Has Taught Me…

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Five things photography has taught me, about being a better person. OK, the list could probably be much longer, but I’ve deliberately narrowed it down to the highlights.

Setting oneself up for negative criticism, is not, what motivates any artist to hold themselves up for public scrutiny. Fact is that most of us are somewhat insecure, we want and need to receive positive feedback, and without it we tend to wonder what we did wrong. It’s not unusual for me to deliver a collection of photographs to a Commercial Client or proofs to a Retail Customer and hear nothing further.

We know in our hearts if we did the best we could, given what we had to work with, but any creative worth their salt, still wants to know if they were successful in meeting their patrons expectations. We live and die by word-of-mouth referrals and receiving a cheque in payment for services rendered, doesn’t necessarily imply a satisfied customer.

As a photographer, I’m well aware of the fact that I’m only as good as my last shot. Add to the mix, the ease with which Social Media can magnify any negative comments and my left eye starts to twitch. Still, I wouldn’t have persevered this long, were it not for a certain degree of confidence, tenacity and ability to adapt. Possessing the humility to learn from my mistakes, and the courage to follow through on a unique vision has been essential to developing a self-awareness, without which, I couldn’t have evolved as an artist.



The Canadian Merriam-Webster Dictionary, defines Tenacious as: “persistent in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired.”

Anyone who knows me, will know that I’m tenacious by nature. When I latch on to something, I find it extremely difficult to let go. I believe in my heart, that with a positive attitude and by focusing on the end goal, almost anything is achievable.

I say almost, only because one has to accept one’s physical, intellectual and emotional limitations. I’m vertically challenged, so work as hard as I could I would never be drafted into the MBA and I knew very early on, that I was not going to challenge Stephen Hawking for the Nobel Prize for Physics.

However, recognizing those challenges and knowing that my strength lies in my emotional depth, I naturally, and completely unconsciously, gravitated toward artistic expression. After settling into photography, the rest was easy. I focussed on learning something new from every roll of film I got back from the lab, and on studying what it was about great paintings and photographs that engaged our unconscious to produce an inexplicable emotional response.

Especially for a small, single, mad-hatter such as myself, it’s very difficult, but equally critical to carefully plan everything, from equipment purchases to marketing efforts, and to methodically implement each of the steps with a clear goal in mind. However, it’s also important to recognize when one should cut their losses and try a different tack.

So, how do we recognize the difference between being Tenacious and being Foolhardy?

In my early teens I began a subscription to the free Monthly Royal Bank Letter, which I continued to expectantly receive in the mail until it’s paper form was retired in the late 1990s and continued on in an electronic format until 2008. Fortunately, the entire catalogue from 1943 to 2008 is still available OnLine. You guessed it. It was after reading one of these essays that I began to question that unsettling grey-zone.

I am tenacious. I’ve learned how important it is to finish what one starts, and those who hire me have benefited from the professionalism that flows from that understanding. Following through on something as mundane as answering E-mails, even if just to acknowledge them, stems from an understanding that no conversation should end abruptly and without a civil punctuation, and that everything matters, always.

My clients can rest easy that I will do what ever it takes to get the job done!

2. Perfection

It’s fare to say that with regard to the arts, there can be no such thing as perfection. Now, within that context, and even though there are clear technical standards with every form of artistic expression, subjectivity plays an essential roll in describing perfection. What might appear to be a mistake, isn’t so, if the deviation is deliberate and repeatable.

Many scoffed at the early impressionist painters for their lack of technique, when clearly they knew what they were doing, and how to deliberately repeat the effects they were applying to their canvases. The same can be said of modern dance, jazz and theatre. defines mediocrity as: “of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate.”

I remember spending hours in the darkroom to produce a single print. Using different techniques and tools in varying degrees, striving for that perfect print. Their in lies the motivation for any true artist. It’s in the striving for perfection that we become better at our crafts. That’s why a musician will perform and record two treatments of a piece of music on a single album or revisit the composition, years later. Slowing it down, speeding it up, changing a chord here a lyric there. Why, because as artists, we recognize that there is no such thing as perfection only variations on a theme. Few things grate as much as being labelled a Perfectionist, as if that were a bad thing. I take solace in the belief that its usually delivered by one who is generally indifferent.

However, most of us can also recognize mediocrity. Most of us have crossed paths with Good Enough and are left speechless when we see the Best… for now. Even though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I am often baffled when poking around the web. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, when I stumble across photographers’ websites that are little more than a collection of mediocre snapshots, as if inundating the visitor with quantity, will distract them from the quality.

When asked how I’m doing, I will typically answer, “There’s always room for improvement.”

3. Problem Solving

The Photographers Bible defines Freelance Photographer as: “Problem solver capable of maintaining composure, while under pressure.”

OK, I just made that up, but if you’ve ever put a roll of film through a camera, but it didn’t, you know of what I speak. I’ve never met a photographer that hasn’t had the experience of mis-threading a roll of film, mis-loading a sheet of film, or forgetting to charge the batteries, at least once in their careers. What matters, is how we recuperate from our oversights without freaking out, all the while smiling and continuing to direct the players involved.

As much technical experience as I’ve acquire, from years of photographing everything from Food to Architectural Interiors, or priceless Museum Artefacts to documenting Development Aid projects in the Andes; as a Professional Photographer, I can rest assured that I’m bound to find myself in situations in which unexpected complications threaten to scuttle a photo shoot.

Whether its an unruly child or an uncooperative CEO, these are the opportunities to exercise my social skills. Knowing how to relate to people on their level is just as important to being a successful photographer as knowing the difference between an f-stop and a bus-stop. Diffusing a tense situation by seeking first to understand what the subjects’ needs are, and finding a way to satisfy them, while accomplishing the task I was hired to complete, is an invaluable soft skill.

I spent several years working with Chris Freeland, a gifted commercial-photographer that I admired for his ability to marry the art and the science of photography. Many were the days, pre-digital, where we had to jimmy together some contraption, to suspend objects in mid-air, cast shadows from non-existent objects and reflect light around corners. The challenge was to capture these wonders without the assistance of any digital gimmickry – to get it in the camera – while bearing one single objective in mind, to satisfy the clients vision.

Countless times, I’ve called to mind Chris’s ability to visualize solutions, and reached back into that bag we stuffed full of tricks.

Believing that every challenge is simply an opportunity to conjure-up an imaginative solution, is a sure sign of a creative photographer.

4. Patience

Patience has it’s origins in the Latin word for suffering – pati, and in varying degrees, to exercise patience implies that we are enduring a provocation, annoyance, misfortune or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like.

What’s the difference between a photographer and someone with a camera? Not an easy question to answer but one absolutely, necessary, character-trait, is patience. It’s not just the patience to wait for the perfect shot, it’s the patience to understand what the desired result, truly is. It’s the patience to discern between what I can control, and what I can’t.

I’ve had my share of photo assignments involving children, and more often than not, it’s the parents that I have more trouble with. I approach every Portrait as a gift. I’m about to immortalize someone and helping them relax by distracting them from their inhibitions, is a challenge that I take very seriously. It’s impossible to accomplish that in a Drive-Through setup and I’m less interested in perfection, what ever that might mean, than I am in sincerely capturing the thoughts and mood at that moment. Take-away… there’s a huge difference between a snapshot and a Portrait, and the later can’t be rushed.

OK, so I’ve publicly admitted to not being perfect and to believing that the my film was being pulled through the camera, so it’s time to discuss forgiveness. Working as a freelance photographer has taught me that stuff happens. Unfortunately, there are too many among us, that would like to believe that our human experience can always be reduced to simple right and wrong, that one is either competent or incompetent, negligent or careful.

Basically we’re talking about humility. No one’s perfect. We all make mistakes and as inconvenient as that may be, that’s just life. In the absence of indifference or deliberate malice, I must extend to others the same degree of patience and understanding that I wish to received.

The client on the other end of the phone asks “but what if we go over the half-day?” to which I reply, “Be fair with me, and I’m not going to nickel and dime you.”

5. Perspective

Lets’ face it, no one died and I’m not curing cancer. Not to dismiss that many photographic assignments are date and time specific, as in the case of a Corporate Event or Wedding, but many others are not. Some things, like being punctual, are to a large extent within our circle of influence, while others, such as the weather, are not… although we are making a mess of that.

Google defines perspective as: a particular attitude toward, or way of, regarding something; a point of view. Our perspective on unforeseen complications, the patience we bring to bear on the issue, and how creative we are in problem solving, will make all the difference between a successful shoot and a mediocre result, and demonstrates our tenacity and strength of character.

Of course, there is a whole other perspective that is very important to the photographer, which relates to a point of view. All to frequently, photography is treated merely as a commodity. Cameras are everywhere and consequently, everyone is a photographer. If simply owning a camera, be it a DSLR or a Smartphone, makes one a photographer by virtue of enabling one to capture a moment in time, then so be it, but in the hands of an artist, the camera becomes a precision instrument.

Each and every Photographer is unique, because no two will produce the exact same photograph, from the exact same angle, at the exact same time, with the exact same degree of passion. As we approach a subject, we position ourselves within the space and frame a scene, based on a very personal perspective. When framing a photograph, timing is very important, but no more so than composition.

Practice anything with intensity, and one will become proficient, maybe even master a skill. Without question, photography has forced me to see the world differently, from the smallest crack in a wall to wide-open cityscapes. I see more, I hear more, I feel more, and it is that unique perspective that distinguishes me from every other photographer.

So there you have it, a synopsis of how being a photographer has made me a better person, but there’s always room for improvement.

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This Collection of photographs illustrates my point of view

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