Hard Work

I was confronted with a question the other day that, to my surprise, I found quite difficult to answer:

Don’t you have fun taking photographs?”

A brief introspect provided me with an adequate answer for myself, but it was so full of nuance and mixed emotional responses that I struggled to articulate a clear answer to my inquirer. Of course I enjoy photography, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. However, I wouldn’t describe it as fun in the same sense as going to the movies or having a drink and shooting pool with my friends. It is work, and I work hard at it.

My approach to photography happens in three main steps: 1) Inspiration, 2) Planning and executing the exposure, and 3) Executing the development of the final image. Of the three, inspiration is the only one that is pure fun.

Inspiration can take me by complete surprise, hitting me like an epiphany out of the blue and sending me into a daydream of endless possibility. Other times inspiration is the result of a process of intentional investigation. Either way, inspiration fills me with a sense of excitement and hope for what could be. Inspiration does not require problem solving and is not yet constrained by the harsh realities of the physical world. It provides me with the excitement and energy needed to carry out the next two steps.

Planning and execution does have an excitement to it, but it is also work. This step requires planning various logistical details of the shoot, tapping into past experiences, taking risks, solving complex problems, clearly articulating my vision and moving to action. In terms of making the actual photograph it also sometimes means putting physical demands on my body. I’ve been in several car accidents that have left me with severe back and neck issues. For my architecture and landscape images the execution stage might require walking for miles with heavy equipment (often in unpleasant weather conditions) and holding an uncomfortable position for upwards of 30 minutes to compose and get the shot. I’m only coming up on 33 years young, but, thanks to the aforementioned injuries, these activities can put me out of sorts for a few days (sometimes longer if they keep me from sleeping well). I’m not complaining, mind you. I gladly do it over and again, but it takes its toll.

In addition to these minor physical exertions, this stage is also the most mentally taxing. Bringing an image from vision into reality requires discipline, constant evaluation and problem solving. I welcome a good challenge. I find it mentally stimulating and enjoyable, but it is not without its price. At the end of a shooting day I come home with feelings of contentment and peace, having done what I love to do, but I am also mentally and physically exhausted and in need of rest.

The execution of the final image happens mostly on the computer. I’m also trying to be more intentional lately about carrying it through to the printing and presentation stages so that my images have a place in the physical world and don’t just spend eternity in the limbo of hard drives and cyberspace (it also makes the work more rewarding for me to see it as a print). This stage, again not without it’s enjoyable aspects, is pure work. On average I would guess I’ve been spending no less than 5-10 hours refining and finishing an image. As my processing skills get better this process has fewer frustrations but I think it will always be laborious and time-consuming. Staring at a computer screen until my eyes are seeing double and my hand is permanently cramped into a stiff shell around the mouse is not “fun” but I do enjoy every necessary part of the process. It is extremely rewarding to see my images take life before my eyes and then to look at the finished product knowing I have done the best that I can.

So, then, how do I answer the question, “Don’t you have fun taking photographs?” No. It’s not fun in the usual sense of the word. Some days it means going out shooting even when I don’t feel like it because the conditions are right for it. Sometimes it means taking a risk and failing. It requires persistence and perseverance. It is not effortless enjoyment. It is not relaxing. It is, however, absolutely wonderful. I am full of passion to keep doing it over and again as much as I possibly can. It may not be a job at this point in my life, but it is hard work. It is work that I am eager to do and I find it to be very fulfilling.

You might have heard the old saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” I’m sure people will have different opinions regarding my level of talent so I’m just going to keep working hard so that I’m covered either way!

I leave you with my most recent work and a glimpse at my beginning conceptual “sketch” compared to the final vision realized.  I woke up on a Sunday, March 1st to a cloudy sky, a rarity in Phoenix. Even though I didn’t feel like it, I packed up my gear and told my wife I was going out to take advantage of my ideal shooting conditions. I had had this building in my sights since I photographed it with my iPhone the previous November. Once there I really struggled to get my ideal composition due to the placement of a few pesky trees. Furthermore, it seemed like every time I was ready to make an exposure it would start raining, a problem since my lens was pointed skyward. Then, all of the sudden, the sky cleared out and I had no more clouds behind my building. With frustration mounting I waited patiently. Finally, the clouds moved back into place and I got one six-minute exposure done. No sooner had the shutter clicked shut than a security guard came over and told me I was going to have to leave. Not knowing for sure if the shot I got was adequate, I went home, frustrated. My wife’s first words were, “did you have fun?” She was taken aback by my abrupt “No.” I was irritated and frustrated and tired. I didn’t even upload the images from the memory card for a few days because I needed to distance myself from the experience before I tackled the task of looking at my raw file to see if I had something to work with. Luckily, I did. A few days later I began working on putting the finishing touches on the shot I had worked so hard at getting. Very rarely are my shooting experiences this negative, but that’s part of the discipline of practicing my craft even when I don’t feel like it that day. Musicians aren’t always in the mood to practice, but they are always better for having done it. It’s not always “fun” but it’s always worth it.

This is the rough “sketch,” so to speak, of how I wanted to shoot this building. I made this with my iPhone on a clear, sunny day last November.

Phoenix Financial Center Data Card building

And below is the same building shot with my DSLR after waiting patiently for the right light and weather conditions. Notice how differently the building appears in direct glaring sunlight compared to how it appears in the softer light of a cloudy day. I like the stark, graphic contrast of the first image but I also like the rich tones, textures and details in the second.

Phoenix Financial Center Data Card building

Canon 5d Mk III, 24-70mm f/2.8L II Lens
ISO 100, f/5.6, 391 seconds