New York, New York!

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I was in New York recently – what an amazing place. More vibrant at 10.30 pm than 2 pm.

I’m thinking about community this week – who listens when you talk, supports you when you need to be supported, and kicks you in the pants when you need to be spurred on to be as good as you can be?

Resources for Time Management

I’ve been experimenting with some new tools for time management that I think are interesting and well worth sharing. I think that I’ve mentioned before that I use a hybrid of David Allen’sGetting Things Done‘ system, J.D. Meier’s ‘Getting Results the Agile Way‘ and the tools Peter Bregman describes in ‘18 Minutes‘.

What do I use from what? I use GTD as the overall scaffolding for my approach this includes both the action lists, next step thinking as well as the horizons of focus. Peter Bregman’s book and J.D. Meier’s overlap somewhat. Both ask that you consider – what is this year about? and what is this day about? – in an effort to make sure that you have your attention on the things that matter the most. Working between these three books you should have a good sense of the big picture – Work, Relationships, Family and Self Development – and how what you’re going to do in the coming year supports each of these.

There are some useful templates from Peter Bregman here and from JD Meier here. Check out this link for a guided 30 day introduction to JD Meier’s methodology.

I live and die by my calendar and have been experimenting with a new calendar app on the iPhone and iPad called ‘Tempo’. Definitely a step up from the calendar app that comes preinstalled.

List managers are a bit trickier. I’ve tried lots including lists in evernote which works quite well – I do like the fact that evernote syncs everywhere but I seem to be settling on ‘Things’ which is about as complicated as I want my list manager to be. Another one worth exploring is ‘2Do’.

I’d be interested in hearing what approach you follow for increasing your productivity and what are your favorite apps productivity/time management apps. Add your voice to the comments below.

Gear Lust & Chasing the Look

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I’m often sucked into the vortex that is lusting after new gear. While there is something to be said for the improvements in technology i’m more often that not thinking about larger format cameras – Hasselblad 503C and the Linhof Techno. While thinking about these I entertain the notion of a digital back but in reality I’m thinking about what people have created with these and similar cameras using film.

It took a while but it finally dawned on me that what I’m hankering after is not necessarily the gear but the look that is created. The look of course is in part gear dependent since each of these cameras has a unique mechanism, good but different lenses, that I’m sure but can’t prove to you today that have a unique look to them, and then of course there’s the film that imparts a certain look too. Camera body, lens and film all give a distinctive look as do the choices made after capture, the choices made during development of chemistry and paper.

For a while most of the images that I shot with my iPhone were processed to give a ‘lomography look’ to them and I did entertain for a while getting a loom film camera but at the same time thought that I ought to be able to create that look digitally with the camera that I already have. More recently I’ve been taking gritty black and white images with my iPhone and again felt that I ought to be able to achieve a similar effect with the DSLR that I already have. The image above is a first attempt. I’d be interested in your thoughts. I’m chasing the look, just with the tools that I already have to hand.

A Commitment to Becoming a Better Photographer

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To follow up on my previous post I thought that I’d share some of the things that I’d done to improve my photography and hopefully they may be useful to you. At the time I did all of this stuff I felt that I was a late starter and wanted to accelerate my learning as much as I could. This meant using the expertise and experience of photographers that I liked to quickly get a solid foundation. Please do chime in with your thoughts and comments too.

1. Find your true calling. Work out what appeals to you, what repels you. Start a scrap book real or virtual of images that appeal to you. Make a list of common attributes – color or black and white, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, fashion, wedding, dig a bit deeper what else do these have in common, what differentiates them.

2. Find a mentor. Have you found yourself gravitating to one or two photographers? Study what they’ve done and how they got the shots you particularly admire. Of course if they’re alive today they probably teaching workshops – take a workshop with them and get some advice from your photographic hero. Not only will you get some insight into how they achieve their signature works but you’ll also get some feedback on your own work.

3. Get the right gear. Figuring out what gear your heros are using to get the shots you admire and get the same stuff. Somethings you’ll want to buy now, others you should rent. But without getting the gear to get the shot you won’t get the shot. A good example for landscape photographers is a rock solid tripod – get a good one and it will last you for years.

4. Do what your heros do to get the shot. When I was at Alison Shaw’s Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard in 2009 I was bemoaning my lack of progress to Alison’s assistant Donna Foster. Donna quickly pointed out that there was a progression to my work but that my biggest problem was that I wasn’t shooting in the best light and that if I wanted to improve I should find some time to get out early or late and shoot when the light is good.

5. Get feedback on your work. There are a number of ways to get comments on your work I prefer one on one portfolio reviews with someone who is going to be brutally frank. Feedback from workshop instructors is also very useful, as can be comments from friends whose opinion you trust and value.

I hope that you found this useful. I’d be delighted to hear what you’ve done to improve.

Getter Better All The Time . . . Couldn’t Get Much Worse

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I’ve been thinking about learning in the last couple of weeks and have become increasing comfortable with the notion that 20% of our efforts give 80% of the results, or knowing 20% of something can get you 80% of the way there. For many people this is good enough, with the disproportionate amount of effort it takes to go the last 20% of the way not worth the effort it takes.

For the longest time I wanted to take better photographs without really a notion of what better really meant. Even now I’m not sure what better really means but I’ve settled on it being sufficiently skilled that I can conceive of an image and realise that in the final image. I’ve started to realize that for me this is a little bit like looking for the end of a rainbow. What I’ve found is that the more skilled that I become, the more that the technical stuff falls away allowing me to spend time on the artistic piece, the further and harder I push. What was difficult becomes easy and uninteresting. The new challenge is the thing that stretches and tests your abilities both technically and artistically. Failure, frustration and disappointment remain part of your everyday existence. Perhaps those failures become more spectacular as your skills develop and you try and push to bigger things. But failure remains a constant, intermingled with some successes and it’s those successes that make it all worthwhile.

So how to get better when better remains an unachievable goal. There are of course stages to this growth. Arguably imitation is the foundation of all that we do. We look at those artists that are making the kind of work that we’re interesting in and ask the question how do they do it. We work the technical side of things and figure out how they did what it was that attracted us and make servicable copies of the work of the masters. Great examples of this are the multitude of photographers that make the pilgrimage to Yosemite each year to make their own copy of Ansel Adams great photographs. That’s pretty cool – execute one of these photographs immaculately and you’ve got a pretty nice looking photograph that your friends and family will most certainly coo over.

I would argue that the next phase is to build a familiarity with the things that appeal to you. This covers the gambit of design sensibilities, aesthetic qualities in everyday life – furniture, tools that you use everyday – computers kitchen gear, dishwear, cutlery etc. as well as becoming encyclopedic in your familiarity with the medium that you work in – landscape photography, portrature, etc. and perhaps digging depper to sub specialties such as water in the landscape.

The final and perhaps hardest step then is to combine the technical and the artistic to create something that is truely your own.

I’m going to unpack my thoughts around getting better over the next few weeks. Comments appreciated as always. Thoughts on the 80/20 rule in relation to skill development? I’d love to hear them.

The Value in Competition?

It’s been a big few days for sport here in Boston. Friday was the first home game for the Red Sox and today is the Boston Marathon.

Fitting then that I had a conversation at the end of last week about the sport of photo competitions. If we ignore all the flat out bad things about photo competitions – that they are money earners for the organizations that are running them (not strictly bad) and attempt to get royalty free images – are they useful?

You could argue that competitions give you an opportunity to judge your work against that of others and also that this is also an effective way to market your work and build an audience. I would say no on all points. Art is subjective, ask three people and you’ll get three different answers. Competitions can be an effective way to get your work out to a broad audience, that is, if you win. Otherwise there’s probably not a lot of value in it.

It’s always nice to win, for some this is more important than it is for others,

Competitions bring out the worst in me. In a competitive situation I want to win and will do whatever it takes to win. I don’t think that this is terribly useful when it comes to fine art photography where the goal, or at least my goal, is to effectively capture my emotional response to the scene in front of me or to make the image that’s in my head. As soon as I start thinking about what it takes to make a successful image before I’ve made it then I’m not going to be true to myself.

I don’t view fine art photography as a competitive sport. For me it’s much better to use your own work to benchmark against, a little like the runner who is interested in personal best time, but to do that after the fact. After you’ve made the image and worked it up. Then see how it fits with the rest of what you’ve done and whether this meets the standard you’ve set for yourself.

Competitions aren’t an end game for me. I may enter the occasional competition but it will be will photographs that I made for myself not with the competition in mind. What’s your position on competitions?

Competitions bring out the worst in me. In a competitive situation I want to win and will do whatever it takes to win. I don’t think that this is terribly useful when it comes to fine art photography where the goal, or at least my goal, is to effectively capture my emotional response to the scene in front of me or to make the image that’s in my head. As soon as I start thinking about what it takes to make a successful image before I’ve made it then I’m not going to be true to myself.

The Importance of Story

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What do you think of when you see or hear the phrase ‘visual story-telling’? My mind immediately goes to the classic Life magazine photo-essays such as Eugene Smith’s ‘The Country Doctor‘, or the kind of article you might see in the National Geographic the Smithsonian magazine or my new favorite magazine Orion.

My reaction has also been that I don’t see the world this way, that I’m not trying to tell a story but look for things that resonate with me. That there’s no story here. In part that’s true but stories are all around us, whether we realize it or not. Any time there is a gap in our understanding we tell ourselves a story to explain it. Any time someone does something we like we tell ourselves a story. Any time someone does something that we don’t like we tell ourselves a story. The photographs that we choose to take do tell a story, whether that’s our intention or not. They tell people how we see the world.

The more we understand our own story the better placed we are to tell it to the world and the stronger this understanding the more likely that your work will be unique. My question for you then is ‘What’s your story?’