“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – Confucius
So often students will ask me how is it that I can return to familiar locations over and over again and keep the experience, not mention the images, fresh, creative, and productive. That’s a perfectly valid question and one I have tried to answer myself over the years.
For me is starts with a mindset, one that doesn’t guarantee success, but puts me in the best possible attitude for success.
There is certainly much to be said about the excitement of a new place, something I enjoy as much as any other nature photographer I suspect. There’s no denying the thrill of seeing something for the first time, up close in person. It’s the reason why we love spending as much time as possible in nature, and the more variety the better.
Yet it is also unreasonable to think that the only time to photograph is when we find ourselves in a new and unique environment. (Read more on the importance of familiar landscapes. )
Approaching a familiar landscape with fresh eyes however is an extremely valuable skill to practice. I say “skill” because the approach can be learned for sure. Here are some suggestions I’ve used and field tested with success and hope you consider adopting when faced with the familiar.
- Stay present – The more you remain engaged in what’s actually happening, the more likely you are to see and feel. Without some kind of emotional connection, it will be hard to convey anything more than a picture of the objects you photograph instead of what you’re responding to. A simple daily meditation practice can also be extremely helpful.
- Look for light first – No matter where you are, light is the essential ingredient in a captivating image. Others will respond to that first no matter where the image was captured. The easiest way to move beyond location is to photograph light and it’s ability to convey emotion, mystery, and meaning.
- Avoid judgement and self-criticism – Avoid the insatiable desire to check and judge every image captured on your cameras LCD. Once you press the shutter button, remain connected with the thread of inspiration that made you press the shutter to begin with. Keep your eyes engaged, look deeply, explore variations on the composition, and stay aware of the subtle changes in light. The more you stare at your LCD, the further away you get from what matters—the present moment of discovery.
The thread of creativity can be very thin, and total concentration is the only thing that will keep it from weakening, or breaking all together. I can not stress this point enough–editing is best left for after you’re done creating. The more you remain in the right side of your brain, the more effective you will be as a photographer.
- Try something outside your comfort zone or instinctive approach – Not sure where to start? Try something put of the norm, like a different lens or focal length than what you’d normally use, or better yet just bring one lens in your bag. Resist the urge to move as soon as you think there’s nothing left to capture. I often return to familiar locations and simply stay in one spot because I can—there’s no rush to go anywhere else because I’m ok with just being where I am.
Somehow I become more aware of things I would have missed before because I was too busy looking for the right place instead of exploring all options.
There’s a difference between working with the canvas in front of you versus wandering around trying to find a canvas. That simple limitation will force you to consider elements more closely before dismissing them for something imagined.
The challenge of familiar places is that it puts the onus of creativity where it belongs—on you. That means you have to push yourself to see what’s really there instead of relying on the new, which always seems exciting at first. It makes you work harder for images, helping develop your vision and your sensitivity to what really resonates in your heart.
Yes it’s difficult, but it’s a sure way to make images that are your own when everything comes together. It will also help you become more objective about your work, because you won’t become seduced by novelty, but instead evaluate an images on it’s aesthetic merits.
Progress is made when you reach for what’s just beyond your grasp, and you have a sense of what you need to do to succeed. Valuing that experience is how you come to approach every opportunity equally, regardless of where you are.