Just Outside Our Door

For some time now, I’ve understood that writers need to read quality works and photographers should study great images in order to improve their craft.

The impact of this activity might not be obvious at first. But over time these positive influences will seep into the deeper recesses of creative consciousness.

Writers, for example, will hear the meter of the language they read. They might not realize it, but their brain will remember the patterns that make one sentence effortlessly flow into another. And at some point, these melodies will mingle with their own written expression.

This works for photographers as well. They can examine a print and dissect how the composition is constructed, then emulate it in their own creations. And beyond that, they may also feel how the image touches their emotions. Realizing that a picture can have this power is an important moment for a photographer. I’ve experienced this myself.

But what I didn’t realize was that these encounters don’t need to be limited to the confines of our own craft. Photographers can step out of the frame into other forms of expression. That’s because an artist is an artist regardless of the particular medium that he or she chooses. Photographers who explore creativity outside of their specialty will see the world from different angles. And I believe that this will help them make better images.

I decided to test this theory with a series of interviews that I’m sharing on a podcast called The Nimble Photographer. I wanted to find out if I could improve my pictures by learning from musicians, illustrators, filmmakers, street artists, and yes, other photographers.

After just a few months, I can say that I’m blown away by what I’ve heard. Here are just two of the lessons that have emerged from these conversations.

George Shaw, Musician, “Say Yes”

At a young age, George learned that his ticket out of the rural South was through education. He was both studying and playing music along the way. What he didn’t realize at first was that his formal education would intersect with his creative expression. And that’s what propelled his success.

I learned a couple of things from George. First, the importance of developing your awareness to recognize opportunity, then knowing when to seize it.

He doubled-down on this skill by leaning toward saying “yes” when presented with something new, even if he wasn’t totally comfortable with the challenge. This approach led him from one adventure to another, helping him develop as an artist along the way.

When I asked him for advice for upcoming musicians, he responded with, “Know your craft.” It’s one thing to be in the right place at the right time, but it’s another to take full advantage of that situation. You have to be excellent at what you do, or opportunity will be wasted.

In his case, musical skills were vital. But his advice also applies to my work as a writer and photographer. Job one for me is to know my craft. George reminded me of that important lesson.

Tom Rodrigues, Illustrator, Nobody Bats a Thousand

One of the questions that I ask every artist is how they define success. You would think that recognition and financial reward would be at the top of every list.

The reality is that it’s more complicated than becoming rich and famous. Every artist that I’ve talked to acknowledges that business has to be part of the equation if they are going to continue their creative pursuits.

But what I learned from Tom Rodrigues, an illustrator, is that financial reward is bigger than any single project. Creative people fail all of the time. If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move forward. The value of our efforts are more than revenue and praise. Projects that don’t succeed financially are just as important as those that do because of the lessons gained from the experience.

Tom achieved financial success through his innovative designs of wine labels. But he also lost money endeavoring big projects that he loved. They just didn’t work out. His definition of success is becoming a better artist. Creatively figuring out how to pay the bills along the way is part of the art.

Facets of the Same Diamond

Bringing all of this back to the world of photography, I realize that if I open myself up to other artists, I can learn from them and energize my own craft.

This is advice that I’m also sharing with photographers who complain about falling into a non-creative rut. Instead of trying to solve the problem by grasping at new cameras or running off to exotic destinations, why not investigate the world of music, painting, theater, and other art forms as well?

A simple start is to visit a museum and study the paintings housed inside - really looking at the use of color, line, and composition.

Then go beyond that. Listen to how Mozart constructed a symphony, or see how the lighting helped create the mood for a theatrical performance. And what about the challenges those artists overcame to achieve their success? I bet that’s interesting.

Maybe go so far as, when presented with a creative roadblock, ask, “What would Meryl Streep or Andy Warhol do?”

I find it comforting to realize that I am part of a larger creative community that spans well beyond photographers. Many of the things that energize me also fuel musicians and actors.

My quest is to learn as much from them as possible, and bring that knowledge and inspiration to my own craft - and hopefully to yours as well. I realize that every lesson might not be a perfect fit. I will pick and choose accordingly.

The important thing is to realize that there’s an endless supply of inspiration in the world. We just have to look for it. Why settle for a microwave dinner when there’s an entire feast just outside our door?

-Derrick

Know your Craft

One of the common themes that I’ve gleaned from my conversations with successful artists is the commitment to knowing their craft.

Creativity is almost a given. Everyone of my interviewees knew they were artistic at a young age. But channeling that natural talent into something unique and wonderful required learning the tools of the trade.

In his interview, Tom Rodrigues mastered the art of stained glass as a youth. This played an important role in his later success as an illustrator. And when he explains the steps of how a wine label goes from conception to completion, the technical detail is amazing.

Musician George Shaw cited “know you craft” as his primary advice to upcoming artists. “As a musician on stage, you have to be ready for everything,” he commented. “And if you make a mistake, you have to make sure that it never happens again.”

As photographers, we’re in an interesting space right now concerning this notion. At one time, knowing the technical details of image making was enough to separate ourselves from snap shooters. If we could consistently deliver a good looking image, we could find work as artists.

But these days, technology does much of the heavy lifting in terms of exposure, color, sharpness, and even depth of field. And I think the advice of “knowing our craft” now applies to post production.

Just about anyone can capture a technically sound photograph with their smartphone. Of course there’s still artistry in the composition, but the other elements can be handled by the camera itself. And this is where it ends for most casual photographers.

I’ve learned that I can separate myself from weekend warriors is in the second half of the process. What I do in image editing makes my pictures look different. And I’ve had to become highly proficient in that area to survive as a working artist.

I have one client that provides an option for its photographers: hand over the original files and let them edit, or post produce them ourselves. If we choose the later, we’re paid for the post production as well.

I was talking with one of the other photographers recently, and I was amazed to learn that he takes the path of handing over the original files. I would never choose that option.

The work that I do in post is one of the things that makes my photographs unique. I don’t want to just fulfill the assignment, I want to kill it. My goal is to have the best possible rendering of the subject.

Some people think that technology has killed the craft of photography. That’s not true. But it has upped the ante. We can no longer get by just because we know how to set an f/stop.

We have to know our craft. And these days, that means using the tools of post production to help express our artistry.

The concept hasn’t changed, only the process.

Kung Fu and the Nimble Photographer

When I was a kid, I loved watching the TV show Kung Fu.

I admired Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine, who came to the American West in search of his half brother. If there ever were a case for a journey eclipsing the destination, Carradine’s encounters were that. The stories that fascinated me were the lives of those he met along the way.

Years later, I have embarked on my own journey as the Nimble Photographer, in search of artists who have navigated their way through the financial challenges of life. How did they do that? What is the answer?

They have surprised me with their stories. I go into a conversation thinking that I have a sense of what is about to transpire, only to discover that there is far more to the experience than I could ever imagine.

Like many journeys, I wasn’t really planning to take this trip. A series of unexpected events happened, and the next thing I knew, I was on the road. Kwai Chang Caine had to flee China because he killed the man who murdered his mentor. Fortunately, I have done no such thing.

But as I perceive it, there has been death. The casualties are the careers of thousands of writers and photographers. In the span of a decade, I have watched how much of the business world has devalued professionals who excel at honest communication, creative thought, and insightful storytelling.

And even though many of those opportunities have gone away, the people who are skilled at them have not. They are still among us. Many of them continue to perfect their craft without the safety net of financial security, health care, or paid time off. Or… some have managed to recover those things, and they are willing to say how.

In the end, Caine did find his brother. And I hope that I find the answer to my question as well, which is: what are the best ways to adapt the skills that I admire to today’s society?

If you enjoy a good quest, then I hope you’ll travel with me on the Nimble Photographer podcast. I may not be able to fight for these people as Caine did, but I can share their stories. And there’s power in those words.

My Eccentric Attraction to Old Cameras

It was about 4:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday after I had been up all night working on a podcast. My brain was tired, and all I wanted to do was take a nap. Too late in the day for that.

So, instead, I climbed the stairs to the workroom on the second floor where I refurbished 35mm film cameras for my online store, TheFilmCameraShop.

There was this Nikon FE that I had been meaning to work on. I sat down at the bench and lifted the camera to my eye. The viewfinder wasn’t too bad. There was a bit of dust, but I could drop down the focusing screen and hopefully blow that out. Seems like a good place to start.

That is, until I touched the mirror bumper with my index finger. It was sticky and ready to fall apart. Can’t let that happen or it will drop goo all over the mirror and the focusing screen. Cleaning that up is a far more difficult task. I better replace the mirror bumper first.

So I carefully scraped away the old gooey foam, cleaned the metal beneath it, then cut a new bumper and installed it. Nice. Now I can drop the focusing screen and blow out the viewfinder. Got it all. No dust in the viewfinder.

I then tested the shutter button, only to discover that it was sticking on the higher speeds. Darn. I tried a little lubrication, and wouldn’t you know it, it worked. What a magnificent sound that shutter is, and the film advance lever was equally satisfying as I pushed it forward with my thumb after each exposure.

I opened the back of the camera to discover that its door seals had long ago crumbled away. I cut new seals and installed them by rolling a penny in the narrow channel around the film chamber to pat them down securely. I then cleaned the entire body and the lens.

I looked at my watch and it read 5:45 pm. An hour and 15 minutes had just passed in seconds. During that time I never once felt fatigued, worried about my clients, or fretted about the unchecked boxes on the ToDo list.

I raised the camera to my eye and pressed the shutter button again. It sounded beautiful. What mechanical miracles those 1980s film cameras were. Nearly 40 years later, this Nikon FE still had its looks, and sounded good as well.

I know that some people think that I’m eccentric for working on these old cameras. Maybe so.

But I know that this Nikon will soon provide great joy for a photographer that I’ve never met. He or she may live in North Carolina or Idaho. I won’t know anything about them except for one thing - we share a deep appreciation for this mechanical device that is both handsome, and can make beautiful images.

I sat the camera down and got up from the workbench. What a satisfying way to end the day.

Nikon-FE-1600px.jpg

Reinvention

I still think about that morning in the Winter of 2009 when we were all called into a conference room. A dull anxiety had been in the air for weeks, and that unsettling vibe was finally coming to fruition. On one hand I was relieved to learn was the mystery was all about, that is, until I actually found out.

There were a stack of packets on the table. One for each of us. Inside the envelopes were details about our departure. There were forms to sign and agreements to be made. If we wanted our severance pay, we would dutifully follow each step.

When I walked out of that conference room, I, along with all of my co-workers in the department, were unemployed. And so began my solo career.

You don’t always start a business; sometimes you’re thrust into it. I had a few friends who were willing to help get me started. I got a phone call from Bruce, the co-founder of lynda.com. “I hear you have some extra time on your hands. Let’s make some movies.” I began to put the pieces together.

A decade later, I’m still on my own. It’s so different now than having an employer. When I was in the publishing business, I never really worried about my job. It was just always there, until one morning when it wasn’t.

But now, every day seems to bring some new surprise. Clients and sponsors come and go. One moment you’re in a meeting at corporate headquarters, the next you’re a line item in a budget cut.

I can vaguely feel those changes before they materialize. It’s like a cold coming on. You don’t want to believe it’s real. It’s just a scratchy throat. Until it isn’t.

So I’m always thinking about what’s next. I have to. What can I do that’s new, that’s different. One of those new things is going to happen right here. It’s a funny story, actually. I can’t tell it quite yet. But I will. Sometimes you have to wait until the coast is clear.

Timing is everything, right? At least for the good stuff. As for the bad… well, there’s never a good time.