43 Folders

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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Photography, and the Tolerance for Courageous Sucking

As I've started shooting photos more often, I've picked up on some interesting patterns: habits, if you like. And, as I struggle to absorb the insane physics of capturing light with some glass and a black box, I accept upfront that the improvements to my actual photos will be slow, incremental, and, largely undetectable to anybody but me -- a fact that's never more painfully clear than when I swoon over the work of the more talented friends who inspire me (Heather, Ryan and Chris each come to mind here).

But, being instantly great at this couldn't be further from the point. Although I started taking photos to become a better photographer, I keep taking them because I've learned to love the process. And, luckily, at least as far as I can tell, dedication to the process can't help but make you a better photographer -- or a better whatever, for that matter.

An Urge to Push

I lug this clunky camera around with me every day because I want to, and because turning this hobby into a project that I work on a little bit every day ensures continuity and helps my modest bumps in skill to accrete -- to make new friends with one other in ways that often surprise me ("Low ISO + giant aperture + standing very still? Wow, check that out!").

I'm especially learning to embrace a priceless habit of shooting way more photos than I'd ever even process in Lightroom (let alone share with others). So, I'm getting more comfortable with trying different combinations of angle, framing, lighting, aperture, speed, and ISO. The calculus of capturing a "tack sharp" image encompasses an astounding combination of science, observation, and, in the fullness of time, intuition. But, to get there takes time and clicking. So, that promiscuity with the volume of photos I capture teaches me that it costs nothing to just get something in the viewfinder and shoot, shoot, shoot. Maybe something will turn out if I get enough of 'em, right?

Cleft Unto the Suck

And, even if a given shot is shit -- and, most certainly, the vast majority of all my photos are varying degrees of shit -- you still learn from the bad ones and no damage is done. Truth is, at the level I'm playing, there's no real cost associated with failure. Unless, you count the damage of working with unrealistic expectations or the paralyzing joylessness of the conventional wisdom that only some are "Blessed with Creativity..." [insert Tinkerbell glissando]

So, maybe, that's what really grabbed me last night, when -- depending on your perception of how this stuff works -- I either started to lose The Fear, or I became one of those horrible little people who doesn't realize how stupid they look fiddling with a camera.

It Starts with a Shoe

Yesterday evening, the three of us went out for pizza. And, at some point, as my wife and I took turns carrying our daughter home, Eleanor lost a shoe. This happens a lot with a 13-month-old. Of course, we didn't notice the shoe had gone missing until we got back to the house, where I was quickly re-dispatched on a reconnaissance and rescue mission. Heading for the door, I started to grab my camera — but then stopped and winced a little.

"Oh, Jesus. Really?" some voice whined. "Now you're That Guy? Can't you just walk out there like a grownup, retrace your steps, and be back here in 5 goddamned minutes? You really need to drag your giant, douchey camera out for a four-block walk? Who're you now, freakin' Diane Arbus? Jeez, get a life."

But, you know what? I told myself to shut the fuck up. And, I grabbed my camera and started downhill, into the darkness, toward one MIA Croc.

Fortunately, it was an easy enough trip, because there was Ellie's shoe, upright and undisturbed, on the sidewalk at the end of the block. Of course (having the giant, douchey camera with me), I started snapping some photos.

First, I got a couple eye-level photos of the optimistic little shoe that turned out about as badly as most eye-level shots of the ground do. But, on review [always review the first few shots and zoom way in], I thought the color looked cool on the dark street, so I got on one knee to take another. Yeah, better. But, it still looked like a lame overhead snapshot that was way too dark and noisy. So, I did something that surprised me.

I laid on the sidewalk. All the way down. On my gut on 50° of western San Francisco concrete.

And, I took my time, thinking about the aperture (all the way open for depth of field) and the available light (very little, so I put the the camera right on the ground to steady it). I snapped a dozen or more shots with slightly different settings. No idea what I was doing. People walked by, cars passed, the L barreled by, but I kept shooting until I was satisfied that I might have something. Then, I grabbed the shoe, stood up, and trotted back up the hill, triumphant, with a recovered piece of footwear, plus what I suspected might be at least one pretty good photo.

I like how it turned out.

Evening Reconnaissance Mission

Yeah, I know, it's no masterpiece, but I'm proud of it for reasons of my own. Because, last night, as I was splayed prone in the fog along Taraval Street, I realized I was getting a little better at this.

Not because I'd been magically touched with mythical creativity and skill, but because for a moment I was thinking more about how to use what I'd learned to get a good photo than I was about how I might have looked while doing it. And, that felt like a small turning point.

Tolerance for Courageous Sucking

Nobody likes feeling like a noob, especially when you're getting constant pressure on all sides to never stick out in an unflattering way. And, in this godforsaken just-add-Wikipedia era of make-believe insight and instant expertise, it's natural to start believing you must never suck at anything or admit to knowing less than everything -- even when you're just starting out. Clarinets should never squawk, sketch lines should never be visible, and dictionaries are just big, dumb books of words for cheaters and fancy people. Right?

I think finding your own comfort with the process (whatever that process ends up being) might just be the whole game here -- being willing to put in your time, learn the craft, and never lose the courageousness to be caught in the middle of making something you care about, even when it might be shit and you might look like an idiot fumbling to make it. What's the worst thing that could happen?

Well, you could quit, because it's too hard to make stuff you aren't already great at. You could convert all that pointless effort and practice back into MySpace updates and the production of funny cat pictures. No, it's not technically the worst thing that could happen, but it's a damned common pathway for fear to molder back into an emotional impulse to put on jammies and watch Judge Judy.

I'm not doing anything special here, and I don't claim to have a magic formula for creativity, let alone for getting a half-decent photo of a rubber shoe. All I know is that sticking with things that don't arrive with instant mastery does have its own reward, even if you're the only one who ever collects it. Because the more you push through the barriers for these little avocations, the easier it becomes to remember you always have everything you need to just keep banging until you're satisfied with any work that's thrown at you.

Next time I need inspiration to get through a bad patch, or to get past that persistent feeling that I'll always be stuck in the lowest creative gear, I hope I'll remember to stop and ask myself what exactly is keeping me from just laying on the sidewalk until I get my shot. Even if it's cold, even if I look like an idiot, and even if I risk missing the first crucial minutes of Judge Judy.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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