It’s that time of year! The weather is starting to get warmer and we start to think about our vacations/ photo trips for the year. Part of the fun of all of this is the planning and research and the resultant anticipation and excitement—and maybe less fun: the development of expectations. What I want to do here is to present something I found to be a very productive mental framework for getting the most from one’s outings.
In my own experience one of the most counter productive elements in photography is the presence of expectations. This could manifest itself in the simple, straight forward feeling that you need to make good photographs and/or, especially early on, the need to make specific photographs. Examples of this latter concept might be the need to get that shot of Half Dome when you visit Yosemite or the Eiffel Tower when you visit Paris—and at that Right Time with that Right Light! And, I would expect that the list of must shoots will be longer than just that one!
The problem with expectations is that they can create a great deal of anxiety within us and if we are traveling with others, frustration for all. We will tend to only think of running here or there to fill our shot list. Or if we haven’t “seen” those good shots yet, we start to feel we should be looking for them at all times as time’s ticking away—tensions just build up inside of us and our seeing actually starts to become more muddled.
I don’t know that we ever totally get rid of expectation, however, it can certainly be subdued if we move away from the sense of “Looking For” photographs to one of just “Finding” them.
Now, we could certainly debate the nuance of those two terms but I’d like to suggest a specific difference between these two that I found to be very productive. That is that the act of “Looking For” something is generally tied to a sense of knowing. We tend to set out to look for things we know and want to find. There is a specificity to the act and that specificity acts as a filter that, to some degree, eliminates the things from our awareness that don’t fit into that specific knowledge or goal.
For example, if I have lost a gold ring and set off to look for it I am not paying too much attention large objects, soft objects or small objects that don’t have the color or shape of the lost ring. Essentially, I pretty much ignore those objects that don’t fit into my sense of “gold ring” and very specifically “that gold ring”.
I would suggest that when we go out to photograph a similar phenomenon will often take place, but maybe in a more subconscious or covert way. If we decide to go shoot on the street or in the landscape or studio or Yosemite or the US Southwest, we may already have a rather specific idea of what that means for us photographically, maybe even those specific shots we are looking for. The mental filters that materialize can often be consuming in that we end up not seeing what presents itself to us and which may actually transcend our “goal”.
What often happens is that those “filters” or expectations cause us to become frustrated. We rush to a vantage point at that “right time” to get that shot we covet only to somehow arrive late or the weather/light we visualized for the shot doesn’t materialize—maybe even worse, we sit and wait for hours and nothing happens as we expected! I experienced this quite a bit when I was just starting out and then remembered that on my way to that destination, I passed something that I even noticed might have made a good photograph in my effort to get THAT good photograph I had started out to get. Who knows how many I may not have noticed because they didn’t fall within my expectations for what an image I was interested in looked like.
On the other hand, if we can release these tendencies then maybe we might allow ourselves the opportunity to see and “find” those things that present themselves to us. Things we had no awareness of or which might even be “out-of-place” but which intersect with our path. We might turn away from looking for our intended subject and see what is right there before us.
Now, I don’t have any notion that writing this is going instantly solve anyone’s problem with expectation or change the way they do things. Some of this is just part of the “rights of passage” a photographer will go through. On the other hand, after 37 years, I still deal with certain types of expectation but my awareness of their existence helps me move past it. Just being aware of it is how we can start to learn how to move past it.
When he was little, I would take my son on Saturday photo trips to give my wife a break and have some alone time with him as well. I’ll never forget a comment he made when he was about 4 (now 31), we were driving through the mountains to the central desert of Oregon. He asked me where we were going, I said to find some photographs, he said “how can you find photographs if you don’t stop the car?”.
Overall, what I continue to find is that if I just stop I will find things I didn’t know existed and wasn’t looking–often these will also create the best images.
I don’t suggest that there aren’t times we need or want to look for things only that we should be aware of the difference and mechanisms that might be at work when we go “Looking For” instead of allowing ourselves to relax and “find”.
Please feel free to add your experience or thoughts on this subject in the comments. I love hearing about others experiences.