“If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.” – Jay Maisel
I’ve always been creative at heart. From the time I was young, drawing and sketching, then gravitating toward my dad’s old film cameras. I’d fumble around with the manual controls of those old dusty cameras, trying to figure out what all the buttons and dials meant. Soon enough, I was dreaming about taking photographs of far-off places with wild animals and exotic locations.
Now, that fascination and desire to create are more robust than ever. It has taken me worldwide on fantastic magazine and film assignments. It has opened the natural world to things I never thought I’d see. Whenever people ask me about my job, I find I am always asked the same question: ” How did you do it?”, not “What camera do you use?” or “What are your settings here?” People want to know how to make something like that work. People want to know how I was able to turn a passion for photography and wild places into a career over the last 15 years.
As I continue to answer this same question, I realize that being a photographer has nothing to do with the physical act of taking pictures. It’s never been more accessible in the history of humankind to take a technically “good” photo, but as you may or may not have heard, good is the enemy of great. Getting to the next level has to do with a mindset, a way of thinking, and doing things that seem foreign to most people. It’s a way of life, not just snapping some photos now and then. Embracing this way of life has unlocked a world of excitement and wonder for me, and it certainly can for you too. This realization helped me understand just how compelling photography can be when used as a tool to document your adventures and help you frame a life full of intention and excitement.
The following are some of the ways that I have found that photography can be a valuable tool to help navigate life’s ups and downs. It’s ideas like these I continue to lean on when I struggle to try to make new and inspiring work. I hope that you, too, can use them in the future, and perhaps the next time you pull out your camera, they’ll help you frame the life you want to live.
Sharpen your focus.
The best photos are tack sharp. Don’t get me wrong; there may be some artistic choices made. Maybe some blur or out-of-focus elements, but the subject or intention is clear. The best photographs leave no room for mistakes for the viewer, their focus directing the viewer’s attention where it needs to be. The best photographers you can think of are the best photographers in their niche, or to put it another way, they are all highly focused. Underwater, Reportage, Wildlife all are masters of their crafts. They are not generalists. They are masters of their particular fields.
As you navigate your path through life, it’s worth considering your focus. Sharpening your focus gives you direction and purpose—the more specific, the better. Specificity clears the trail for you and helps you start your journey toward mastery. Now your goals come in. What do you want to accomplish or do in a particular field? Do you have something you want to focus on getting better at? It could be a skill, a side hustle, or a sport. Give yourself the gift of getting lost and wholly consumed by your goals, and you’ll soon start to see the improvements from your sharpened focus.
Keep your Composure.
Your compositions will separate you from the crowd. The composition of the photograph makes it sing. The subject, the lighting, it’s all there, but the composition is what brings it all together. It makes it relatable and understandable. There are no distractions, and it’s clear what’s going on. The structure of the picture directs you. The rule of thirds is one of the photographers’ most prevalent techniques when crafting their images. It simply divides your composition into three distinct areas, vertically and horizontally, giving you a space to anchor your subject and keeping it from being placed right in the center of the frame. It prevents you from slipping into tunnel vision mode and putting everything right smack in the middle. It helps give your photographs depth and helps hold the viewer’s attention as they visually explore your images.
The rule of thirds is about breaking up significant problems and giving yourself smaller, more manageable pieces of the puzzle. In the same way, you can also use the rule of thirds to add depth and meaning to your life.
Big project coming up? Divide it into three parts, giving yourself smaller, more manageable portions to work with. Setting your goals? You guessed it, set three. One of the best uses of the rule of thirds came from an Olympic running coach. While you’re chasing your goals, 1/3 of the time, you’re supposed to feel great as if everything is going for you, 1/3 of the time, you’re supposed to feel a bit uneasy and unsure, and finally, 1/3 of the time you’re supposed to feel downright awful. That’s because what you’ve chosen to do is hard. What you’ve decided to do is not take the easy route. You’ve set goals that seem unattainable to some people, and trying to achieve them is just plain hard.
Projects, not Pictures.
The best photographer’s past and present work thematically, specifically on projects. They’re not out there trying to shoot offs, hoping that they will get discovered because of one single image. Instead, they are trying to produce a body of work. True, one picture may catch the right person’s attention or go viral. Most likely, they created that work while the photographer was working within the scope of a larger project or theme. They were working on something that goes beyond scratching the surface. The masters take deep dives into their subjects that can require years of research, planning, and work. So it goes in life. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, it may be worthwhile to ask, What are you willing to dive into? When was the last time you did it? Try giving yourself the freedom to get absorbed by what you’re doing and become a specialist. Seeing projects come to completion gives you a sense of accomplishment and adds to the portfolio of your life experiences. The next time you’re looking for direction, try thinking about what project you can cook up that will keep you engaged and focused enough to see it through to the end. Most photographers believe that the process of capturing amazing images happens one at a time, almost as a stroke of luck. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those fantastic images that you see gracing the pages of publications like National Geographic come from the labor of love that comes with dedicating yourself to working on projects. Immerse yourself in a project to become a master of your craft.
Recreate your best mistakes.
One of my favorite sayings is that great photography is simply recreating your best mistakes. When you get a truly great picture, often it’s in the midst of a bunch of terrible photos, or at the very least, it comes when you least expect it. It’s a welcome surprise that you feel with your whole body. It creates emotion inside you that is palpable; you can feel it. These happy accidents are keys to improvement and getting better, but it only works with reflection. It only works if you take the time to sit down and deliberately figure out what happened to help you learn how to recreate that situation. Once you’ve identified what it took to create it, you’re giving yourself the tools you need to recreate it on demand. You’ll know the settings and won’t miss your shot when you see it and it’s time to take it.
Live your animal.
I have spent thousands of hours in the field watching and photographing wildlife. I have had a chance to record never-before documented behavior and witnessed terrific feats of animal athleticism in the wild, all with a camera in hand. It wasn’t until I read works by Carl Jung that I realized the full implication and subtitles of the lessons those animals had been teaching me. It is worth considering Jung’s idea of “Living your animal.” Not a one mistakenly imagines that it is an elephant when it is a mosquito,” he says in his famous book Libra Novus. To put it another way, none of the animals that I have ever photographed has ever considered being something else. The mountain lions I photograph don’t wish they were the deer that are their prey. The Grizzly bears I photograph don’t waste time thinking about what the polar bears up north are doing. Why should we be any different? Why should we give our time and energy to things that drain us and only weaken us in the long run? Those things don’t matter anyway. It also means we should stop trying to be things we are not and embrace what we are. Only once we stop pretending to be what we are not can we truly become what is already inside us. Live your animal.
Photography is all around us these days, so much so that it’s easy to take it for granted. But when we slow down and do it with intention, it can be a wonderfully meditative way to connect with deeper parts of ourselves and create something truly unique and special. No matter the style, it gives us an extraordinary form of artistic expression from deep within. Now it’s up to you to see what you can create.