This lesson is part of the How To Photograph Life - FREE Course. To see the full list of lessons, and learn more about the course, click here for the index.
Welcome, dear photographer, to your most important, and arguably most challenging, photographic assignment of your life: documenting it.
It’s kind of funny: so many of us photographers first buy a camera because we just want to take some nice photos of our travels, our families, or our everyday adventures. We think it’s just a casual hobby thing, no big deal. The photographers with the big fancy paid jobs are the ones really doing the serious work...
Well, I’ve been on both sides of that coin, and I can tell you straight up: I think the amateurs have it harder in many ways.
I know. You don’t believe me. I wouldn’t have believed it either. Until I lived it.
Hi, I'm Lauren – photographer, teacher, head author here at Photography Concentrate, and creator of this lovely little course you currently find yourself in.
For years I was a professional photographer - hardcore style. I lived and breathed my work, and had nary a free evening or weekend. I shot it all, from capturing week long-Indian weddings (including a couple of weddings in India) to documenting coffee roasters and lobster fishers.
Don’t get me wrong: those shoots all had their challenges. Being a professional photographer is no cake walk.
But then we had a baby, and semi-retired from pro shooting to focus on teaching. Now my main subject became everyday life and I thought it was going to be easy street. I could relax, enjoy, and have unlimited photographic inspiration in front of me.
I. Was. Wrong.
I was completely unprepared for both the technical and emotional challenges of documenting the everyday. It blindsided me. I had seen other photographers do it so artfully, so I assumed it would be the same for me. But my time as a pro shooter had me, dare I say it, spoiled. In many ways, the art of documenting everyday life was so very different.
Let’s take portraits, for example. A professional shoot involves a pre-scouted location, timed for ideal light, folks showing up in their best clothes, and only 1 - 2 hours of focused shooting. Nothing else to do but capture those people that are doing their very best to be happy so the images turn out well. Even the kids are listening, thanks to that delightful tendency of children to pretend to be well behaved for strangers. (Plus I think most have been bribed with pizza. Smart.)
A Pro Photo Shoot
Golden light, a cute expression, an awesome background – the joys of a meticulously-planned photo session!
Compare that to trying to take great portraits of your kid, on the other hand. You’ll be doing that in your home (and if it’s anything like mine, it looks like a tornado hit a toy factory immediately before crashing through my living room). The light will often suck – indoors with low/artificial light, or the middle of the day. Whoever planned bedtime to happen right at golden hour wasn’t thinking about my photo shoots, that’s for sure. My kids are often in pj’s, clothes that leave no question as to what we ate for lunch, or, best of all, simply no clothes. And their mood? Uh…let’s just say it’s…variable.
Oh, but don’t forget you also have to make dinner, tackle the piles of laundry growing at an exponential rate, and, y’know, work, socialize, and glance at your spouse now and then.
Now make sure you get great images out of this scenario every day, all day, for all eternity.
Sounds fun right?
Shooting at Home
Compare that last photo of a scheduled photo session, to this shot of my own little dude at home. In your everyday life, that trifecta of great light, a perfectly composed shot, and a winning expression aren't always that easy to come by.
Documenting your life is a marathon. A really, really long marathon. It’s never done until you’re done. (Morbid much?)
The real question is: How did I ever think this was going to be easy??
I think there are two ways a photographer can approach this assignment that, often unconsciously, we all sign up for. It can be an afterthought, a sideshow, a hobby to dip a toe into now and then.
Or…it can be your life’s work. Literally. The work of your life. The art of your life.
The second choice is much more challenging. It requires great skill and motivation. More so than we ever think we could possess.
But the rewards of taking that path? Well, my friend, I happen to think they are immeasurable.
The photos you take of your own life will be the most meaningful ones you ever create. They may not be the most artful, and they very likely won’t be the most profitable. But, when it really comes down to it, they’re the ones that you will value the most. They will be reminders of how you lived, loved, and explored. How you spent your time, and who you spent it with: The things that really, truly matter.
Here’s the bonus. These images won’t just matter to you. They’ll also matter to your people. Your loved ones. The ones who inspired you to pick up a camera in the first place. Your children and your grandchildren will have more than just a passing interest in the photos you create. You are, in no uncertain terms, documenting their very history. The history that matters most to them: where they came from. Do well on this assignment, and the benefits will outlast you.
Woah, right? This is heavy stuff. Life changing, soul shaking stuff. What once seemed to be just a casual hobby has so much more meaning when you imagine how those images will gain in their value as each year passes. (They have a better return on investment than any stock or bond, har har!)
But you don’t have to wait until years down the road to benefit from this practice. See, I believe that photography not only helps us to preserve moments for the future, but it can help us to appreciate them in the present.
The practice of photographing a scene requires you to slow down and attend to the details: The light, the surroundings, the expressions and the actions. Everything else must be out of your mind in order to do a great job of documenting. You simply must be present. Fully present. And doing this will transform you. When you are totally immersed in your present, you come to understand it on a deeper level. And, hopefully, to appreciate it too.
I’m no expert, but I have a sneaking suspicion that true happiness doesn’t come from finding something out there, but learning to appreciate what is right here. Photography can help us do that.
But life is messy. Every moment isn’t a beautiful treasure. Some of them are really tough. Painful. Exhausting. They test us, and wear us down, and the last thing we want to do is to pick up a camera to remember. "No thanks, I’d rather just forget this epic tantrum right after I hustle my toddler out of this store."
Have you ever had this happen? You go on a trip somewhere, and in between all the nice, happy moments, you run into a snag. You try to save a few dollars by taking a cheaper flight, and find yourself at a closed airport outside the city, lying outside in the middle of the night, reading Harry Potter to each other to pass the time. Or that easy hike you take your two small children on winds up feeling more like a summit approach to Everest, and you end turning back after a stunning total of 20 minutes.
At the time, those moments suck.
Waiting for the Bus that Never Came
We walked the streets of Rio de Janeiro for hours, trying to find a taxi. Then we waited for the bus. All the while, we carried Max. Eventually the kid just passed out, and I sat on the ground as we waited, and waited. The bus never came (though we did eventually snag a taxi). At the time, it was stressful, and exhausting...
It’s not fun when things go wrong, when things are hard, when life gets messy. But years later, when the exhaustion and the physical discomfort and fear fade, you look back with fondness. You smile. You proudly tell the story. Not only did you survive these crazy moments – they helped you grow. You learned what you are made of. And you came home with a great story.
No one wants to hear about that really nice sunset you saw. But they laugh their heads off when you tell them about the senior citizens in full hiking gear blowing past you on that mountain, as your baby very adamantly demanded to descend immediately. (At least my mom sure laughed her head off.)
If you pull out the camera during those tough moments? Well, you’re making a mental decision to look forward and say “One day I will want to remember this. One day I’ll appreciate this struggle. One day I’ll laugh at this."
Do that, and chances are you’ll appreciate it right then. Photography doesn’t just help you appreciate the beauty. It helps you see the positive in the struggles. It can change the way you approach your whole life - if you let it.
Over the next two weeks we’re going to dive into what it takes to do a great job of documenting your life. We’ll cover everything from technical skills, motivation, finding great light and working with bad light, key compositional techniques, the fundamentals of storytelling, the basics of video, efficient workflows, file organization, post-processing, backup, sharing, printing, and creativity.
Yep, we’re going to get serious about this. But most of all, we’re going to have fun. This stuff might be challenging, but it is also the most rewarding work we photographers will ever do. I can’t wait to dig into it with you, and come out the other side more prepared and passionate about documenting life.
Well, let's do it already! Click here to head to the next lesson, and let's go!
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