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Challenges, Goals, & Self-Discovery (part 1)

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Sit down, buckle up, and prepare yourself for a tale of trials and tribulation, herculean obstacles, and glorious triumph.

Or, at least, read about this photographer's humble journey over the past two years...

Obi Fire | Grand Canyon North Rim, July 2018

Since my last entry I have grown significantly as a photographer but also, through photography, as a person. I've pushed myself to learn new skills and refine my eye for compositions, and have taken steps to transform what started solely as a hobby into a business that allows me to share my work and my passion for photography with others. Beyond the knowledge I've gained behind the camera and in the digital darkroom, I've also learned some things about myself - some favorable, some not so much - by challenging my limits creatively and physically in the pursuit of capturing the beauty of our world. This entry is not a how-to guide as my previous three entries were but I hope it provides some insight, and provokes some thought, as you continue on your own photography journey, whether you're just taking your own first steps or are already well down the path you've chosen.

Beyond the knowledge I've gained behind the camera and in the digital darkroom, I've also learned some things about myself...

A Look Back: 2017

Jumping back in time a bit, at the start of 2017 I felt I was sending myself into a rut by repeatedly chasing sunrises and sunsets, often visiting the same location near my house any time the sky looked promising. While there's nothing inherently wrong with doing so, I began to feel it was stifling my creativity and I was relying far too much on a beautiful Texas sky to create compelling work instead of pushing for new horizons by trying new things. I was getting locked in on the light and failing to focus on compelling compositions to go with it.

To challenge myself, I set a goal for the remainder of the year to simply not shoot any more sunrises or sunsets, no matter how tempting, and force myself back onto a path forward towards growth. Looking back through my images from the last two-thirds of the year, of 59 edited shots only 5 included the sky at sunrise or sunset... and none of those were taken on an outing where that was the specific, and only, goal. The rest are during other times of the day (including the dreaded midday sun), of the night sky, or were my first attempts at shooting wildlife (especially when I got my hands on a rented Tamron SP 150-600mm bazooka). I began to shoot more with my longer lenses in general, with 22 of the last 25 photos taken at 75mm or longer.

2017 was also when I shifted from a focus on travel photography to purely landscape and nature

Although I don't have a many photos from 2017 that I'd now consider portfolio or print worthy, there is a lot more variety in that collection compared to my first two years of shooting and I feel I progressed far more - even when bumbling about learning new skills and trying new ideas - by forcing myself out of my comfort zone. I had to really look for good light in intimate scenes, and strong compositions, instead of leaning on a spectacular sky to make an otherwise average or mediocre shot stand out. 2017 was also when I shifted from a focus on travel photography to purely landscape and nature; by forcing myself to seek new horizons I discovered what I really loved most about photography.


A Leap Forward: 2018

Throughout 2018, I elevated my work to the next level, both in terms of the images I captured and my ability to fully translate my experiences and emotions through post-processing. At the start of the year, I set a few specific goals for myself:

  • Visit new destinations

  • Attend at least one photography workshop

  • Master post-processing

  • Ditch the tripod (more on that later)

One challenge I've had with landscape photography is that I've not exactly had a ton of experience visiting national parks or exploring remote areas in general. At the start of 2018 I had never camped, had only really hiked once (a few days in Lake Tahoe in 2017), hadn't visited any national parks (unless you count driving through the Great Smoky Mountains as a kid), and basically had no idea where to start. My first real opportunity to dip my toe into the outdoorsy life was before a business trip to Arizona in Spring: a coworker, highly experienced in the outdoors, joined me in flying out a couple days early so we could spend time in Lost Dutchman State Park and the surrounding area.

And thus, I finally slept in a tent, and went on what I would qualify as "real" hikes (almost up to Flatiron and all the way up to an overlook of Weaver's Needle) just a few months before my 40th birthday.

At the start of 2018 I had never camped, had [never] hiked, hadn't visited any national parks... and basically had no idea where to start.

My motivation to get some hiking and camping under my belt in Arizona was driven largely by the fact that I had decided to join a group of strangers on a trip to Grand Teton National Park that coming July, and I didn't want to go in completely green (and out of shape) before spending a full week sleeping in a tent and trekking to and from some of the best locations for landscape photography. Given my lack of experience, it seemed the perfect opportunity to let someone else do all the planning and prep work, and then join the group and absorb as much knowledge as I could.

Life Lessons

As I type this, it's now been one year since I joined the group in Wyoming; a random collection of photographers and friends, several of us meeting for the first time thanks to the efforts of Garret Weintrob and Will Buckley. The trip spanned seven incredible days and was an absolute blast… and, at times, a tremendous challenge physically. We hiked, and climbed (or rather, scrambled over boulders), and I swore I was going to have to stay back or give up several times, but in the end I made it to every location and proved to myself that I could do it (albeit slower than pretty much everyone else - this north Texan is not used to elevation changes!).

While it may seem I'm overstating this accomplishment, as a resident of the northern part of the Lone Star State I'm not off-base in touting my lack of familiarity with weird things like altitude and actual elevation changes. We'll overlook the fact that I was in not-great shape, right?

After saying goodbye to two-thirds of my colon and some small intestine for good measure, I spent roughly a month in the hospital

There's a bit more to the story, too: you see, back in January of 2009 I ended up in emergency surgery for a perforated colon. After saying goodbye to two-thirds of my colon and some small intestine for good measure, I spent roughly a month in the hospital, first in the ICU as I battled a horrible infection and then in general recovery. I also had to overcome a blood clot, pneumonia, and terrific back spasms - like, can't take a full breath spasms - probably due to muscle loss while laid up in the hospital. In the 10 years since, I've been fortunate to not have any major complications from the whole ordeal but, if I'm being honest, I've probably been subconsciously hesitant to really push my body too hard. As I was facing 40 and approaching the 10-year anniversary of my surgery, I wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it, whatever "it" entailed.

Fort Griffin Sunrise | Texas, 2018

Beyond learning that I can (still) push my body to new extremes, however, the Wyoming trip forced me to take stock of some things. Namely, I recognized that I was falling into negativity a bit, about activities and other people. Perhaps it was physical exhaustion and a general lack of sleep, or maybe that tiredness simply removed some of my restraint, but I've always considered myself laid back, easy going, and generally positive toward - and about - others but my veneer cracked a bit during the trip and I didn't particularly like what was exposed beneath. It's something that has stayed with me throughout the past year, and I've worked to understand why it was happening (uncertainty in my professional life, self-doubt, vitriol on social media, to name a few triggers) and to do my best to recognize, and focus on, positivity. It's a work-in-progress... but improving.

So, what does any of the above have to do with using a camera to create art? They were all experiences whose very origins were rooted in photography. I very likely would not have recognized some of my negative tendencies if not for the amazing experience of being in Wyoming with a great group of like-minded people. I almost certainly wouldn't have been on a trip of that nature to begin with, and definitely would not have pushed myself as hard as I did without new friends to encourage me. Photography opened a door to evaluate who I am, both to myself and to those around me, and where I want to go.

Check back soon for Part 2, where I'll dive further into the photography goals I set for myself for 2018...

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