April 2012

The power of quests and themes

by Steve Brock on April 25, 2012

This image was taken after a day when the theme was "creativity." I'll leave it to you to determine what this has to do with creativity...

We’ve explored the first five and the second five ways in which making photos and making a trip meaningful are similar. But now, let’s blur those two ideas even further.

Here’s an exercise you can try at home or on a trip. I recommend starting at home because it isn’t as easy as you might think and it will take some practice. Practicing new photo techniques on your big trip is like practicing etiquette how-to’s on a first date: not good timing.

Start by determining a theme for your photos, a motif you want to pursue. (See the point on finding a theme in the guide, How to Photograph Machu Picchu). Think of your theme as a quest.

A theme or quest can be anything: bookstores, funny pets, graffiti, interesting car ornaments or bumper stickers, redheads, where people go after work, items related to a hobby, waterfalls or other forms of water, signs from your childhood neighborhood (if you are still around there), etc. The sky’s both literally and figuratively the limit.

But if you’re really interested in testing your creativity, move beyond tangible subjects. Focus on an abstract subject/theme such as a concept or emotion. What does love look like? Happiness? Longing? Anticipation? Maybe it’s a theme like “Behind the music” or “Different tastes around the world (demonstrated without driving more than 20 minutes from your house)” Again, no right or wrong way to do it. But consider these points using “Hope” as an example:

  • What does hope look like?
  • What does hope mean to you?
  • Where will you go to find/photograph it? A hospital? A playground? A line of people buying lottery tickets? A rescue mission?
  • What objects might represent hope that you could photograph? A beam of sunlight? Babies faces or maybe a baby toy? A sprout? A wedding ring? A warm looking doorway on a cold night? Start with these more stereotypical items but move beyond. Be inventive. Be personal. For example, a fresh new pocket sketchbook whispers to me of hope. What works for you?

The beauty of this exercise – one of many – is that the more you consider a subject or theme, the more you also realize new ways of seeing it all around you.

Exploring a theme like this on a day trip at home helps you learn how to plan longer trips/quests around a theme. You begin to appreciate that a theme can determine both where you’ll go and what you’ll pursue.

I once read, for example, of a woman who loved weaving and planned her whole trip around visiting local weavers in multiple countries, buying their products and photographing them at work. She combined her love of weaving with her love of travel for one of the most meaningful trips of her life.

For me, I usually choose the destination and then look for what I’ll find there, though as we saw with moss and will see again in future entries, pursuing “collections” gives you mini-quests to follow wherever you go.

Having a theme provides you with a different way to think about both photography and travel, one that can be fun, surprising and highly meaningful. And if you’re traveling with others, invite them into your quest so that everyone is engaged and on the lookout.

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Making vs. taking – Part 2

by Steve Brock on April 19, 2012

Image of people in Naples

I have many other photos from a trip to Naples, Italy that are technically better, but the people in this one make it personal and take me right back there

Last time we saw how you can either make or take a photo or a trip. When you “make” it, you invest more of yourself, you’re more intentional and the results are usually more meaningful.

This time, let’s explore five additional ways in which making a great photograph and making a meaningful journey are similar.

    • Time. My family thinks I should have my own show on the Food Channel called “Cooking with Steve.” Each episode would only take ten minutes because the distinctive would be that everything has to be done fast. My theory is, if the recipe says set the oven to 350 degrees, I say bump it up to 425 and save yourself the wait. Why sauté when you can stir fry in half the time? But as I’m finding with learning to bake bread or making sauces, some things simply can’t be rushed. Some food is better prepared in a crock pot than a microwave. Similarly, most photographs and trips also turn out better when you don’t rush them. There’s a place for the fast-paced trip or photo, but in general taking time leads to making better images and memories.
    • Effort. I hate this one. After all, who goes on vacation and wants to work? But meaningful journeys cost you more than the price of your airfare and hotel. Same with photography. I’ll never be a great photographer because I like sleep (instead of getting up for the great pre-dawn light) and dinner (which I would have to forego to get that great evening light) too much. Making great photos is a lot like sales: Most sales people give up after the third rejection. Most sales, however, are made after the sixth one. With photography, while your first shot is often your best because you capture what you first see, many times the most distinctive shot comes after trying a dozen or more different angles or approaches. Most of us give up after two or three tries.
    • Personal. Great trips and photographs matter most when they touch you in a unique way. What’s meaningful to you may not matter to another soul. That’s OK. Find what is important to you, in an image or a trip. As they say, personal is powerful and if it moves you, it will likely stir others as well.
    • People. Our best trips and often our best photographs include people. To a landscape photographer, people might be seen as messing up a photo. But to me, they often provide scale, context and a dynamic element. We ooh and aah over mountains and sunsets. Yet God’s greatest creation walks and talks and looks a lot like us. So get more people into your trips and your shots!
    • Homework. Often the most meaningful part of a trip comes once you get home and you reflect back on your experience. Often photos that look so-so on your camera can become masterpieces with some effort on your computer at home. Trips are taken abroad, but they are made at home.

Well, that’s my list of ten similarities between great photos and great trips.

How about you? What have you found that makes either a photo or a trip more interesting or meaningful?

If you haven’t yet, you can read Part 1 here

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Making vs. taking – Part 1

by Steve Brock on April 16, 2012

Cat on street in San Gimignano, Italy

Great moments and images occur most when we're prepared and open

As we saw last time, making a photograph (versus taking one) or making a meaningful journey (versus taking a vacation) require intentionality. But they both share in a number of other commonalties such as the following:

    • Anticipation. You’ll likely get more out of your trip and your photo if you think ahead of time about what you want to get out of each.  You may never have thought before about anticipating a photo, but knowing what you want to accomplish beforehand and waiting for the right pieces to come together (say for the colorfully dressed local to pass in front of the building you’re waiting to photograph) can make all the difference.
    • Preparation. As Louis Pasteur noted, chance favors the prepared mind. Similarly, discovery favors the prepared. With photography, preparation means knowing ahead of time how to use your camera and having all your gear ready. With travel, it means taking care of the details you need before you leave. This doesn’t mean you can’t wing it, but it’s important to know before your trip when you’ll need reservations (for example during a major festival) and when you can get by without them.
    • Openness. Discovery is often enhanced by your preparedness, but nothing beats being open, present and ready to respond, both for great images and great trips. With photography, that means paying attention to changes in light or the people around you. Similarly, your best trips will be the ones where you are most present to yourself, to those around you, to the place itself and to the subtle ways God makes himself known there.
    • Experience. With photography, the more you practice, the better you get. That’s the same with travel, but how you “practice” matters. I recall this statement about work: If you do the same job for ten years, at the end of that decade you don’t have ten years worth of experience. You have one year’s worth repeated ten times. The same holds true for meaningful travel: If you go to the same types of places doing the same types of things, you won’t really grow as a traveler. You may have fun, but it won’t stretch you and you won’t return home much differently than when you left.
    • Story. I’m constantly reminded that sometimes the worst trips, the ones where nothing goes as planned, make the best stories. Every trip is an opportunity to create a new chapter in your life’s story. Some stories, however, are better than others which brings us back to intentionality. Knowing the purpose or theme of your trip helps greatly. Maybe it’s a quest to find some collectible or a pilgrimage to a site that has deep meaning to you. Perhaps, it is a reunion or a comparison of “before” and “after” that looks at how a place has changed from when you visited it years before. As one photographer noted, when you don’t know your story or what you’re looking for, you end up taking photos you think others will like. And those rarely are the best. So with your photos and your travels, think about what story you want to tell and be part of. You can learn more on this point in “How to Photograph Machu Picchu.”

Be sure to come back next time for five final points on making vs. taking.

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Elephants, plumbs and intentionality

by Steve Brock April 11, 2012

Great photography, meaningful travel and spiritual growth all share this common connection: they each require intentionality.

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What we don't see

by Steve Brock April 6, 2012

Good Friday reminds us that sometimes what we don’t see is more powerful than what we do.

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How to photograph Machu Picchu

by Steve Brock April 3, 2012

Want to take better travel photos? Check out this guide on How to Photograph Machu Picchu – even if you’re not going there since the tips for getting great photographs apply to any trip.

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