006 - Challenges, Goals, and Self-Discovery (Part 2)

July 2019



In the first installment of this two-part series I touched on some of the challenges and goals I set for myself in 2018 but much of it focused on some personal life lessons I learned throughout the year, as well. In this follow up entry, I speak more specifically to the photography objectives I set, and how they helped me grow as a photographer: 

- Visit new destinations

- Attend at least one photography workshop

- Master post-processing

- Ditch the tripod

Reading about post-processing isn't terribly engaging - which is why you should book a 1-on-1 online editing workshop with me today! * - so let's dive a little deeper into the other three listed above...

*not-so-shameless plug

New Destinations

As covered in part 1, prior to jumping into the deep end of photography I hadn't really done a whole lot of exploring the great outdoors. It wasn’t for a lack of appreciation for nature or anything like that; it was admittedly a lack of true motivation to get out and fully experience the outdoors for myself ("why camp when I can enjoy a bed and air conditioning? haha, it is to laugh"). I'll assume you've already read about my 2018 spring trip to Arizona and my summer outing in Wyoming but I also knocked several other locations off my bucket list of places to visit for the first - and certainly not last - time: Ennis, Texas for spring bluebonnets; Glen Rose, Texas for a wildlife photography workshop; a whirlwind weekend scramble to the north rim of the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon; and Aspen, Colorado for a fall workshop. All offered drastically different landscapes and experiences, and new opportunities for growth.

  • Ennis Bluebonnets

    Ennis Bluebonnets

  • For Dominance | Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

    For Dominance | Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

  • Reflecting on Wyoming

    Reflecting on Wyoming

Ratcheting up my travel didn't necessarily drive direct improvement in my photography but it did provide more opportunities to practice, learn, and refine techniques. I also met some great people along the way, either through workshops or unexpectedly by just being out shooting and exploring. Whether traveling near or far, immersing yourself in new environments helps push you out of your comfort zone and, depending on those how new surroundings may vary from what you have near home, can provide ample opportunities to try new approaches to your photography. Stale experiences will often lead to little inspiration and, therefore, stale images.

That, and exploring the world even just a bit outside your usual stomping grounds is just plain fun.

The Workshop Experience

It seems aspiring and established photographers alike are a bit divided on this topic but I decided early in 2018 that one of the best ways for me to continue to grow was to attend at least one workshop to learn from someone with different viewpoints and experiences than me. I firmly believe that, no matter how experienced you are, you will always learn new techniques and concepts simply by shooting with other photographers. If you don't challenge your own viewpoint, that, too, will lead to staleness.

Fossil Rim Wildlife Workshop

Fossil Rim Wildlife Workshop

Excited about the prospect of wildlife photography in Wyoming, I leapt at a chance to sign up for a workshop on that very subject at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, near Glen Rose, Texas. Led by Brian Loflin and one of the center's guides, in just a couple days I learned a lot about not just shooting animals (ah, the awkwardness of photographer-talk…) but their behavior and the depressing plight of the endangered species they are working to protect. Ironically, Wyoming ended up being a near-total bust in regards to wildlife photography opportunities as the animals clearly conspired to hide their presence from me as much as possible, yet the workshop experience at Fossil Rim was well worth it regardless.

Aspen Workshop

Aspen Workshop

Speaking of Wyoming (again), soon after that trip I found myself itching to get back out into nature and around mountains (it's funny how quickly one can become addicted). Lo and behold, I soon came across a workshop announcement by a professional photographer I had been following a bit, Joshua Snow. He was accepting signups for a long weekend in and around Aspen to shoot fall colors and, if memory serves, there was only one spot left. After an internal debate between my cheapskate yin and my photographer yang, and contorting myself mentally to rationalize how they can coexist, I plunked down a deposit and began counting down to the start of the workshop.

Going into Aspen I was feeling pretty confident about my photography skills and really expected to benefit mostly from having someone very familiar with the area as guide. That was certainly one outcome but I also gained a fair bit of knowledge through Joshua's photo critiques and editing tutorials during our down time in the middle of the day, and received some feedback that helped me better identify and evaluate potential compositions while in the field.

Additionally, although I was still focused on shooting handheld as much as possible - more on that in a second, I promise - I also appreciated the deliberate approach Joshua took with his photography. While in Aspen I decided that a new (old) goal for 2019 would be to slow back down, helped along by doing yet another 180 and returning to the use of a tripod more often in the coming year.

More importantly, I built new relationships, not only with Joshua but with some of the other attendees, as well. 

Go ahead and check out Kevin Westlund for some great all-around photography, and DJ Brooks Jr. for the same, along with some consistently awesome moon images. 

About the Damn Tripod, Already!

So, why in the world would I have decided I didn't want to use a tripod throughout 2018? One of the building blocks of learning when I was starting out was to slow down, and using a tripod is a great way to force yourself to do so. There is, however, a downside… it is very easy to roll up to a location, plant your tripod in the first spot that catches your eye, and grow roots. It's a bit like a dog tied out on a leash; once you set up and place those three legs it's unlikely you'll stray more than a few feet from that spot.

I knew over the course of the prior year I wasn't exploring the scene as much as I should have, and had fallen into a habit of shooting more or less from eye-level for every shot. Committing myself to leaving the tripod behind (well, okay, I did usually have it with me as you can't handhold everything) granted me the freedom to explore and quickly shoot multiple compositions, from varying heights, and move on. Even if I didn't take a shot, not having my camera attached to a tripod allowed me to move up, down, and around to try compositions through the viewfinder as I explored. I'm also a firm believer in leveraging technology where you can and took advantage of my previous practice with Auto ISO and Aperture Priority mode during my wildlife outings to keep me moving, and to allow me to spend more time thinking over my compositions than my settings.

Settings are obviously important but, remember, the challenge I set for myself was to embrace the freedom to focus more on the composition. I really only slowed down and locked my camera into the tripod when the light just wasn't sufficient enough to do anything else.

Crown of Gold

Crown of Gold

Admittedly, trying to limit your own use of a tripod may not work for you; I've always had a knack at almost instantly seeing something that stands out from its surroundings - useful in my retail days when visiting stores, although especially annoying to my employees, I'm sure, when I'd walk in and immediately find the one or two things that were out of place, but I digress - and that has carried over to how I see the world around me when hunting compositions. My eyes are constantly scanning as I move around, waiting for that certain something to snap into place in my brain; then I'll pause and evaluate the scene more closely before quickly deciding whether I should take a shot or move on, or file the composition away for when the light may be better... or skip it altogether upon further inspection. I can certainly do that with a tripod, too, but ditching it as much as possible unshackled me so I could find more than the first thing I'd come across, removing the temptation to grow those aforementioned roots.

For what it's worth, every image on this page was shot handheld and most were captured using Auto ISO and Aperture Priority mode.

Even if you don't want to leave your tripod behind, you can still practice (and commit to!) staying mobile and trying different compositions before you set up. Move around, crouch down, get on your belly, take a step or two left or right, walk a little further down the trail. Seek out not only the first thing that catches your eye but the best composition for the scene that first made you stop! You're much more likely to do so when you're not immediately tying yourself to a figurative leash within moments of arriving to a location.

Don't be afraid to ditch the tripod.

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What are your current goals? How will you challenge yourself to drive growth?

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