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.
When it comes to documenting life, the simplest path to great images is, ironically, what I find to be the most challenging.
See, the key to capturing great moments is, above all, to always have a camera on you, ready to shoot. Without a camera on hand, all that study of light, composition, storytelling – it’s worthless if you can’t actually make a photo.
But finding the motivation to always be shooting and looking for stories, that’s not easy. It seems like it would be – I sure expected it to be – but I’ve come to find that it’s really very tough.
What's easy is letting this stuff get pushed to the back burner – life and work can get in the way of this big side project. I’ve designed dozens of albums for clients, all delivered on time, with a super fast turnaround. But I’ve only managed to finish two (yes, only two) albums for my little family in the 10 years I’ve been shooting. (I sure do treasure those two albums though. Do I get points for that?)
Add to that the building up of frustration, of missing shots, bad light, challenging subjects, multiplied over days, weeks years. It’s a mountain to climb.
In a way, I wanted to create this course not just for you, but for myself as well. Because I know how important this work is, but I struggle like anyone to do it well, and do it consistently.
So if you’re finding it hard to keep up with all this, if you find yourself leaving the camera at home, even when you know you shouldn’t, you’re not alone. I do it too. But I know that, while it’s only a small regret right now, it’s going to be a much bigger regret for myself as the years pass. I want to find ways to motivate myself to keep up with this – my life’s most important work. So here’s what I’m learning, what I hope will help me, and what I hope will help you.
In The War of Art, author Stephen Pressfield argues that one of the greatest obstacles to creating art is overcoming resistance. Resistance is all of those things that make us fail to pick up the camera, take it with us when we go out, or pull it out out of the bag when something happens. In order to make great work, we need to find ways to push through those blocks, and take the shot, even when we may not feel like it.
For me, the most important thing is that the camera be easily accessible, and ready to go. If it’s on the kitchen counter, with a full battery and space on the memory card, I’ll grab it and take some shots. If it’s upstairs in the camera bag, I’ll think “Oh, I’ll get it next time”. But there won’t be a next time: that particular moment is gone for good. I let the resistance of going to get the camera get the better of me. So I try to keep a camera out and easy to grab, especially during occasions where I really want to take photos, like a party or the holidays.
It may not be considered the best manners, but keeping your camera on the table can help you quickly capture great images during meals. It's a time when everyone comes together, and can make for some memorable moments!
During the Holidays
During the holidays our camera lives on the kitchen counter. This is a prime time for documenting your life, so figure out where your camera should live, and keep it there! Oh, and make sure you have some spare batteries too!
Remembering to bring a camera when we go out is another story. I used to be better at it, but with kids comes a never ending supply of things to carry, and as my shoulders got weighed down with diapers and snacks and 20lb babies, the heavy camera slipped out off my packing list.
UPDATE: Here's a funny thing! As I spent hours upon hours planning, researching, and writing this course, I came to understand just how important this work is (that is, after all, the main theme!). And so, a couple weeks ago, I asked for a new, smaller camera for my birthday, and I've been much better about bringing it out with me! I told you I was writing this for myself ;) (P.S. I'll tell you all about which camera I picked in the Gear lesson coming up next!)
Now, my new habit of taking my camera with me may stick. Or I may start to get lazy and slack. I've done it before, and chances are I'll do it again. But I think a big part of being successful with this work is being kind to yourself. You’re taking on a huge assignment, and it’s going to be tough. If you beat yourself up for missing shots, or leaving the camera at home, well, you’re sort of being a mean boss to yourself, and who wants to work for a jerk? I’m coming to understand what I can reasonably expect from myself, and then I work to do my best within those expectations. And when I’m kind to myself about it, I feel a lot more motivated to do better. Such a weird situation, but there you have it.
Don't beat yourself up when you can't quite muster the energy to take a photo. Being nice to yourself is going to be a big help in keeping your motivation up!
One of the best ways to overcome resistance is to make a habit out of the action you want to perform. A routine will help you build that action into your day, to the point where you don’t even question it anymore, and the resistance is gone.
For three years we took a photo of our son every single night before bed. It became part of our bedtime routine, to the point where we wouldn’t even think twice about running back downstairs to grab the camera to get the shot. It’s amazing how that consistency and habit can change what we would do.
So if you’re having trouble carrying a camera with you, find ways to make it a habit. Before walking out the door, think “Keys, wallet, camera.” And if anything is missing, you go get it. Every time. It’s going to be hard at first – making a new habit is. But after a few weeks, it will be routine.There are many ways to create a habit of photography, and folks out there have come up with some brilliant ones.
There’s the 365 project: a photo a day, every day, for a year. When I watch people go through these, it’s a true transformation. They improve dramatically, and make a real habit of photography. It’s a big commitment though. So others have a 52 week project, where they shoot once a week. Either way, you’re making it a habit that will continue even after the challenge is done.
With any new challenge, you probably go through the same stages as I do. At first it’s all energy and excitement. Hundreds of photos a day! Elaborate adventures, impeccably documented. Ten wardrobe changes for newborn photos! 40 pounds of camera gear with you at all times!
But before long, things get tough, the energy fades, you miss shots, you get frustrated, and you get down.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at the work of other photographers, documenting their life so artistically, and, seemingly, so effortlessly, and I feel like a terrible photographer. A terrible mom. If I really cared about this trip, I’d have taken 500 more photos by now. If I really cared about my kids, I’d be doing so much better.
It can get to the point where I don’t take my camera out for days, even weeks.
I’ve read a lot of books about creativity, and art, and there is one very simple idea that comes up all the time in response to "not feeling it": do the work anyway.
A Frustrating Month in Buenos Aires
Once upon a time we spent a month in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At the time, it was actually kind of creatively frustrating. We didn't think we were getting great shots, and felt pretty down. But we kept shooting. We went to all corners of the city in search of photos...
And now, looking back on the trip, we consider it one of the most significant for our career – not necessarily because of the images we got, but because of the ideas that came up from spending a month just doing the work, even when we didn't feel like it.
Indeed, the surest way to get out of a slump is to simply pick up the camera and shoot, shoot, shoot. Before long you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it again, back in the rhythm, eyes open once more. The hardest part is so very often simply starting.
The sheer challenge of documenting your life can be overwhelming, and that alone can make it hard to pick up the camera. It’s just so exhausting sometimes! A dear friend of mine came up with a brilliant idea to combat this: The 5 Minute Project. She would start to say “I’m going to shoot for only the next 5 minutes, then put the camera down.” It takes this enormous task of documenting your entire life, and makes it so very manageable. Who can’t handle just 5 minutes? But, if you explore the projects posted on the site, you’ll see that so much can be captured, and such great stories told, in such a small timeframe. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try 5 minutes and see what happens.
5 Minutes at the Beach
Documenting an entire vacation is daunting. Here are just 5 minutes captured – a much more manageable task.
One of my favourite ways to spend an evening is to open up Lightroom, and browse through my photos – really dig deep into the archives. I’m sure Rob hates it, because every two minutes I'm bugging him to look at another photo. “Look how little he was!” “Look how little we were!”.
There is truly nothing that re-energizes my dedication to documenting life than looking at the old photos I’ve already taken. All at once I both see how valuable those images are, and how quickly things are changing. It reminds me so powerfully how weak my memory is, but that a photo can bring everything rushing back.
I also quickly see which images mean the most to me. I can see how the beautiful photos of sunsets mean more when they include the people I shared that sunset with. And that the photos of the journey, and the struggles to get there, are just as important as the photos of the destination.
Make a point of regularly reviewing your work. Not only will you find renewed energy and inspiration, but you’ll also see where you can improve, and what skills you should be working on. You can even take notes in a notebook of new ideas you have, techniques you want to try and areas to focus on.
Waaaaaaaay Back Into The Archives
This shot of the Chain Bridge in Budapest is over 10 years old. It was from our first trip together, a mere 6 months after we met. We took a small point and shoot camera on a backpacking trip around Europe. This was the trip that started our dream of becoming photographers.
The Spanish Steps
Yep, we were just wee little ones when we first met. Looking at old photos feels like travelling through time for me.
One of the keys to photography is to be able to see things with new eyes. To set aside any preconceived notions of what is going to happen, and just be open to what really is.
This is easy to do when you’re just getting started with photography. You find yourself taking photos of, well, everything!! It all looks so new with a brand new camera in hand.
Over time your eyes can get tired, though. They start to think everything looks the same. You already photographed this. You know what this looks like. No need to do it again.
This is such a dangerous mindset, and a very easy way to get bored, tired, or frustrated with your photography.
So you need to find ways to regain your new eyes. Truly one of the simplest ways is to try out a new camera or lens. You’ve probably had it happen to you. You get a new piece of gear, and go out and shoot everything! It’s so new and exciting! And then, within a week or two, the camera is back on your desk and your new eyes are gone. This method, while effective, is very temporary. (And also kind of expensive!)
A tilt shift lens takes some work to wrap your head around, but once you have the hang of it, you'll be seeing the world in a totally different way (think: crisp bands of focus set against big blocks of beautiful blurriness, for starters).
The cost (and non-instantness) of shooting with film forces you to really slow things down and refine your composition and settings. It's a great way to encourage your eye to pay attention to every little detail.
A better approach is to find ways within yourself to freshen your eyes. It truly can be as simple as reminding yourself to open them up and really see what’s in front of you. Maybe even thinking of a word that you repeat, a mantra of sorts, that triggers the awareness. Pick up the camera, “Open eyes”, and shoot.
Or maybe "Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose." Not just for football, amiright?
A simple trigger word may sometimes not be enough though, especially if you’re really feeling stuck. That’s where new techniques can help. There are countless ways to make a photograph, and people are infinitely creative when it comes to trying new ways. We’re going to go over some really great ideas later in this course, but for now, know that if you’re feeling down or stuck, try out something you’ve never done before. Drag the shutter. Shoot at night. Shoot really close. Back way up. You don’t need any new gear, you just need to use your gear in a brand new way. Or shoot a different subject. These are all great ways to unstick yourself, stoke those creative juices, and get excited about your work again.
And hey, even if you’ve never felt down about your work, there’s a good chance it’s going to happen at some point in your career. Knowing a few simple ways to change things up, and get excited about photography again is crucial to continuing your assignment of capturing your life.
Feeling uninspired? Hop in your car, on a bike, or on a bus and travel somewhere new – near or far! You'll be amazed at how a simple shakeup in your environment can leave you with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of photo-joy!
The Night Sky
Can't transplant yourself to a new environment? No matter! Try transplanting yourself to a different time instead. Shooting in the black of night will expose you to literally galaxies-worth of photographic material.
Now we come to a very important topic: Balance.
It is so easy to get so focused on achieving your goals with your shooting that you do so at the cost of enjoying the experience. If your trip is all about the shot, it may be hard for you, and the others around you, to fully enjoy it. As wonderful as photography is, it isn’t everything.
So if you aren’t enjoying yourself, or the others around you aren’t enjoying themselves, rethink your approach. You may need to put the camera down a little more often. Or maybe involve others in what you’re doing, so they don’t feel like they’re always on the outside.
Previously I chatted about my nightly routine of photographing my son. At first he didn’t care, he was a baby. But as he grew to a toddler, it started to become more challenging to get him to sit still for even a nanosecond as I took his photo. He seemed like he really didn’t want to do it. So I asked him if he liked it when I took that photo.
Hearing that hurt. But after I pulled the pieces of my heart back together, and stepped back, I recognized that I didn’t want him to have a negative relationship with my camera. I didn’t want to force it. So I finished up the project on his third birthday, and then stopped. The first couple nights he asked why I wasn’t taking photos, and I told him. Now I try to shoot more when he’s engaged in doing something, instead of forcing him to sit still. Much more toddler friendly.
Max and the Slide
Max didn't love having his photo taken right before bed every night, so eventually we let it go. Now we try to take photos when he's into it too – like before he conquers a new slide at the park.
Another important aspect of finding the balance is engaging with those you are shooting, no matter what you’re shooting. Your camera can easily make you separate from what’s going on, but to really enjoy your experiences you should try to get involved. Put the camera down and play, lend a hand, talk. Grab a shot here and there, and then engage again.
Keeping this balance in mind is tough, and finding the sweet spot is challenging. But I’ve found it’s so much more rewarding to feel like I was part of something, with a few great shots, than an outsider with a card full of images.
Enter the Action!
It's important to do more than just capture people with your camera – you need to engage with them too! While we love the portraits we made while we travelled, the real memories come from the experiences we had engaging with those people. So remember: Don't just shoot the action – be part of the action, too!
Capturing your life is a doozy of an assignment, and there will surely be times when you feel uninspired, bad about your work, or just generally down. That’s totally normal. Heck, it’s to be expected.
So remind yourself why you’re doing it. All those great things we’ve talked about. To be more present. To remember your great adventures. To appreciate those around you. To tell your stories. And to preserve it all for your family and friends.
That right there is worth all the struggle, the challenges, and the life-long search for balance and motivation.
Don’t give up.
“The alarm clock rang at 4AM. I’m not sure if that counts as morning or night, but it was time to get up."
That's how the story of our day on a lobster boat in the waters of Prince Edward Island begins. This was our first time shooting a big documentary story, and it was a wild ride. We took thousands of photos, did interviews, and travelled around this scenic Maritime province learning about the beloved red crustacean. Then we laid out the images, wrote a story, sourced family recipes, and put it all into a photo book.
Then we wrote this tutorial to share what that whole adventure was like! If you want to execute a photography project of your own – it's a great way to stay inspired and keep your love of photography alive – be sure to check our ebook: How We Did It: Lobster Island. You'll learn everything you need to know to get your own storytelling project off the ground, from planning, shooting, editing, printing, marketing and more!
Click here to check it out and get it with an instant download - keep on learning, you’re doing great!
"If someone is planning on telling a story with their photography, Lobster Island is a great guide."
Ok, now that we have that mushy stuff out of the way, let’s get to the gear. I stand by my statement that it doesn’t really matter what camera you have, you can use anything to capture your life. But certain types of cameras are better suited to certain circumstances, and having the right camera in your hand can help make your assignment a whole lot more enjoyable. Plus there are some great accessories that will really help out! So come on back for the next lesson, and let’s get our gear on!
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