14. Let go of the past to define the future

Are you unhappy with your progress as a photographer? Creatively, do you feel like you’ve reached a plateau, or worse, have you fallen into a valley?

Show Notes

In this episode I talk about letting go of cameras and lenses I've owned for nearly a quarter century, and how letting go of bad habits and preconceptions can make us better, or at least happier, photographers.


Are you unhappy with your progress as a photographer? Creatively, do you feel like you’ve reached a plateau, or worse, have you fallen into a valley?

If so, it may be time to let go of what you’ve done in the past, to influence and shape your future.

Hello and welcome to Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.

Last week I made the difficult decision to finally box up all my Canon gear -- cameras, lenses, flashes, and so on -- and sell it. My goal is to transition to a Sony mirrorless setup. It’s a process I started two years ago when I bought my first Sony camera, an A7 II, and a couple lenses, although I’d been begrudgingly hanging on to my decade-old Canon 5D Mark II, not because I liked it, but because it was familiar. I used the Sony for some personal work, but I was always too scared to go full mirrorless on paid gigs.

When I was faced with shooting two weddings in June, I finally made the decision to rip off the proverbial Band-Aid. I considered what I needed to be successful shooting a wedding on the Sony system: First, I needed a fast standard zoom lens -- a 24-70 f/2.8 -- not the most exciting lens, but one that accounts for the majority of my work.

Second, I needed another camera body, because you absolutely need a backup for a wedding. And three, I needed to be able to trust my camera. I never felt like I could rely on the autofocus on my A7 II. It just didn’t feel as direct as the Canon, and I had the out-of-focus shots to prove it.

So, as my wallet screamed, I bought a second Sony body, a refurbished A7 III, and a fast zoom. If for some reason it didn’t work out, I felt confident I could sell it for a minor loss and a lesson learned. The new gear arrived just days before the first wedding of the month, so I did some testing and settled on a configuration that allowed me to shoot in a comfortable manner, while still taking advantage of some of the Sony’s features, like eye detection focus and absurdly fast and quiet frame rates.

Now dual-wielding Sonys, and feeling confident in the capabilities of the upgraded body, I headed to the first wedding of the month, for once excited to get to work. I brought the old 5D with me as an extreme backup. I’m happy to report, it stayed in the trunk of my car, as the A7 III and it’s elder sibling, the A7 II, functioning as a medium telephoto wingman, both performed above and beyond my expectations.

With that I decided it was time to let go of the Canon gear and officially make the switch. While the older gear didn’t really “spark joy” in me anymore, I found getting rid of it was surprisingly tough. I’d owned some of this gear since the mid-90s.

Here were the first prime lenses I ever bought, a 24mm and a 20mm, from way back in 1997. And a 70-200 f/2.8 that I was only able to afford because I bought it when I was still living at home with my parents. I thought about all the photons these lenses had captured, from early images that showed my inexperience and naivety, to photographs that were award winners -- first at the county fair, and later, from the South Carolina Press Association.

This was gear that allowed me to support myself and my hobbies, gear that gave me the license and access to work as a journalist. These lenses imaged pets that have come and gone, people, including close family members -- who are no longer with us, faces in anguish on the worst days of their lives, and smiling faces on their happiest days. I captured tragedy, disaster, and celebration alike with this glass, from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, to sunsets across the vineyards of Sonoma.

"Mr. Fair" Sam Fogle, shot in 1998 with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens (Andrew Haworth)

I wasn’t just liquidating my Canon gear either. Perhaps the hardest piece of gear to let go of was my Fujifilm X100 -- the camera that went everywhere with me for a solid year, as I churned through my photo-a-day project. I’m not going to lie, as I placed it back in its pristine original packaging, encased it in bubble wrap and sealed up the cardboard shipping box, it felt like I was nailing a coffin shut.

The next morning, I dropped off three large, densely-packed boxes of gear at a local FedEx. As the clerk slapped shipping labels on them, I considered telling him what was inside as if he’d somehow take extra-special care of them as they were ferried off to their new life. I decided he probably didn’t give a damn about what I was shipping or my personal hang-ups.

As I left the store, the boxes had already disappeared into the piles of other packages waiting to be shipped. It was like the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the film’s titular relic was stashed away in the bowels of some massive government warehouse, never to be seen again.

I admit I have attachment issues when it comes to objects. But I also realize there’s a time when I need to sever those attachments so I can let go of the past and move forward on to new endeavors.

Case in point, I once owned an American-made Fender Stratocaster. Metallic blue burst with a mother-of-pearl pickguard and noiseless pickups. I’d saved up for months doing odd jobs to buy it, and on my 21st birthday, I did. The guy who sold it to me was clearly crushed he was letting it go. He had the same personal connections with it as I had with my camera gear.

For more than 20 years I was the steward of this guitar. It even smelled the same as it did the day I bought it. I considered it the one really nice thing I owned, and swore I’d keep it as long as I lived. Then, I made the mistake of loaning it to someone. It came back with the paint damaged, knobs missing, and for a reason I will never understand, the person who borrowed it, took it apart and soldered in a modification on the tone control. And by the way, this guy did not know how to solder.

After that, I couldn’t stand to look at the Strat anymore, so I decided to trade it in for a bass guitar, an instrument I’d never played. It turns out, I really love playing the bass. Because the bass fascinated me, I wanted to develop a better understanding of its role in the overall harmony of a song, so I decided to make an effort to finally learn some music theory. As I learned more theory, it made me want to start making my own music.

In the process of making music, I learned how to use digital audio workstations, like Reaper, Pro Tools, Logic Pro and Ableton. I learned about microphones, compression, loudness, equalization, and the Fletcher Munson Curve, which deals with how humans perceive sound according to frequency.

This technical knowledge also happens to be handy for engineering podcasts. A year or so later, I’d written enough music to release an album, and I’d gained the confidence to really get deep into editing podcasts, and eventually made my own.

So maybe the guy who defiled my Stratrocaster actually did me a favor. By letting go of that guitar, it sent me down a path that eventually led me to where I am at this second: In my home studio, talking into a microphone for this podcast, which by the way, features music I also made myself.

Back in episode seven, I talked about paralysis of choice. Having too many options can make it difficult to make a decision. In selling all my Canon gear, I have the opportunity to rebuild my kit and just keep it to the essentials. At one time I owned something like nine Canon lenses. My goal now is to only have three to four lenses maximum.

The mirrorless cameras offer some other intangibles. Namely the size. I don’t like the predatory look that comes with wielding a chunky DSLR. Also, they’re heavy. And I’m not getting any younger, so anything to shed some weight off the kit helps. There are some other advantages as well, but I’m not really here to advocate one system over another.

When it comes to photography, there’s more we can let go of than JUST gear. Bad habits, lazy approaches, mediocrity, outdated thinking, jealousy, and preconceptions, are much harder to let go of. These mental obstructions are what truly impare us as photographers and artists. And I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I’m guilty of all of them.

I’ve been shooting seriously since the mid-90s, but these are issues that took root sometime after I started feeling too comfortable in my work. They go right back to the first photography class I ever took, the first books I read on the subject, photography magazines, and even habits I learned from co-workers. That initial learning stage is where I suspect many of us pickup these preconceived notions of right and wrong, and rule-based thinking.

I loved my first photography class because it taught me the basics, and it lit a fire in me to create images that never burned out. However, in learning those fundamentals, I learned rules, and as we know, photography loves its rules: The Sunny 16 rule, rules for setting shutter speed based on focal length, rules for developing film, rules for selecting an ISO, and so forth and so on.

Some of these rules are simply basic camera operation guidelines. Worse are the tired cliches regarding creative thinking we seem hellbent on repeating.

Things like, “zoom with your feet,” (guilty as charged, I said this in a previous episode) and “If the photo isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” We extol the virtue of the “decisive moment” as if that’s the only motivation for image making. I often cite the Rule of Thirds as the key that unlocked photography for me. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t programmed into my brain.

Skipp Pearson, photographed in 2013 with a Canon 5D Mark II and 50mm f/1.2 lens. (Andrew Haworth)

Have you looked at any photography news sites lately? If you browse Medium, it seems like every other photography article is something like “10 ways to improve your photography now” or “5 ways to take your photography to the next level” and so on. And we click on this stuff, only to find “zoom with your feet,” “leading lines,” “observe light” and -- no kidding -- “look at weather reports,” and similar recycled advice that’s been with us since the era of the Brownie camera.

For some reason, we get this drivel stuck in our heads early on in our journey. These little rules make sense and they’ve become occupational shibboleths. It’s as if we’ve just been offered some secret handshake separating us from the muggles who don’t know about the Rule of Thirds. It grants us access to the ancient arcanum of image making, where an elite fraternity of photographers hold secret meetings to argue over lens bokeh, chromatic aberration and ISO invariance.

I wish I could experience photography for the first time again, but without preconception and standards of good and bad. That’s what I personally want to let go of. I want to rid myself of bad habits I’ve picked up as a photographer, habits of laziness, such as the notion that a photo is “good enough.” Why not strive for greatness?

I want to take a critical look at my methods and revise them if needed. Just because a technique has worked for 20 years, doesn’t make it right. I want to think in deeper ways about the images I’m creating, and I want to let go of more than two decades of rules that have been ingrained in my creative process.

I want to stop obsessing over numbers on paper and specifications, such as lens sharpness, sensor resolution, and “creamy” bokeh. These are important to a degree, but they also live in our heads rent-free and make us second guess ourselves and the decisions we make concerning the tools we think we need.

I want to forget about what makes a photo good or bad, because it’s all subjective. Either a photo moves you or it doesn’t. I want to shoot images that break rules. I want to shoot images based on feeling. I want photography to be meditative, and deeply personal.

The reality is it’s hard to break free of old habits and approach your own work from a new perspective.

You need to ask yourself what kind of artist you want to be, and what you need to do to get there. Abandon the rules or habits holding you back, and focus on moving forward. Stop reading those articles that waste your time and tell you what you already know. We ALL know the same techniques, thanks to Google.

The real photographic secret is that there are no secrets, and there are no shortcuts. No one piece of advice is going to take you to the next level. There are ways to operate a camera to achieve a certain exposure or depth of field, but there are no rules. In the end, are you making images you’re happy with? Do they line up with your personal vision? If not, why? Is it a habit or practice you can let go of?

I’d also implore any photographer to use caution when mimicking popular or trendy techniques. In my last semester teaching, I had a student who was an excellent technician, but this individual was constantly ripping off trendy YouTube and Instagram-ish techniques, from colored smoke bombs and “bokeh” shots with fairy lights, to milk bath photos.

I think it’s fine to make images like this as an exercise if it helps you learn. And if it makes you happy, that’s the most important thing. Of course many people enjoy seeing these gimmicked images, which in turn validates the process, so maybe you keep doing it. Here’s the point where two roads diverge: You keep using the gimmick and it turns into a crutch or bad habit; or maybe you push the gimmick to the point where you make it your own.

When I was a young photographer, my gimmick was window light photography. I loved the drama it brought to an image. People loved the look of the images, and sometimes I won awards for these images. I was addicted to this lighting style, and working as a photojournalist, I’d seek out window light, to the point of losing the narrative.

On an assignment to cover the closure of a textile company, I went out of my way to pose a plant manager for a window portrait. The photo looked great, but I missed the big picture. I should have focused on the story, the human element, the people who were about to be out of a job, the impact it might have on the small town where the plant was located, and so on. The “eye-candy” window light portrait ran in the paper, but I knew I’d screwed up. It felt gratuitous and didn’t tell the right story.

That was the point where I let go of the window light portrait as my gimmick. Now, it’s just another technique that I use as needed, but I don’t rely on it exclusively. I don’t associate it with my personal style anymore. That was one bad habit I was able to let go of, but there are many more.

Snapshots from New Orleans, less than a week after Katrina. Top, my buddy Melvin, who carted me all around New Orleans, and below, a shot he took of me on Bourbon Street. I can't believe I was ever that young and scrawny. Both were shot with the Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8.

Sadly, I’ve contributed to these issues in my own work teaching photography in colleges and universities. For here on, I won’t be recycling my old lectures. I won’t be teaching the way I was taught.

If you've ever learned something new, you'll recall the initial excitement of just getting involved and participating. Then some time goes by, and you level up your skills. You keep working at it, and you get comfortable, and at some point you likely take a dip and land in a twilight zone where nothing seems to be working. It feels like you've plateaued. Eventually, you get past that, and you ultimately graduate to a higher, more erudite level.

Unfortunately the pattern can and does cycle back, and it seems like every iteration brings lower lows and higher highs.

Photography can certainly have those ups and downs. By letting go of our old ways of working, we can clear our minds to make way for new methods and new ways of seeing, and push through those plateaus to create work that makes us happy, and helps us grow as photographers and artists.

How do you let go? Well, it first involves awareness and the desire to make a change. Figure out what is holding you back or weighing you down, what works and what doesn't. This is essentially a mindfulness exercise. Think about it days before you go to shoot photos, not in the moment when you're composing a shot.

Then, visualize what you're trying to accomplish and make the changes in your life to achieve them. Maybe this involves doing the opposite of what you've done all along. For instance, If you're a slow, measured shooter, try working fast and careless, and vice versa. If you're always worried about a perfect exposure, try breaking the rules, underexpose, overexpose, drag the shutter, and so on. Maybe a new type of gear will push you in a different direction.

The important thing is to detach from those old methods that are keeping you restrained. Your mind is going to fight back, but persistence is key. Focus on what you can control, and keep doing it.

Then maybe, once you've broken through another plateau and you're making work you're happy with, take the time to share that work, and teach others who might be on the same path.

Folks, thanks for listening to this episode of Photo 365.

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with friends, and if you’re a photographer, I’d love to hear from you or see what you’re working on. You can contact me at the show website, photo365podcast.com.

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Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting, and we’ll see you next time!