A Mantra for New Photographers to Live By

Something I muttered to myself one cloudy afternoon on my garden ended up being a mantra I have had with me for over a decade.

Some of you will know that I got in to photography through a perhaps unconventional route: macro. In fact, my interest in trying photography came from even more obscure means: a thread about macro photography on a car forum. A handful of guys were creating images of tiny bugs that had detail I couldn't believe. Insects I would swat away without even thinking about were in fact these majestic and beautiful specimen of adaption and evolution, that when looked at closely, were truly fascinating to me. So I bought a second-hand Canon 350D, a kit lens, and a macro filter to screw on the front of it. It wasn't much, but it was enough. Enough to get me completely hooked and invest more — both money and time — in to the craft.

Before long, I was out in my garden every day, plodding around with a 100mm macro lens and a Marumi ring flash. The difficulty was, as I told myself, that England wasn't exactly a hotbed for strange and wonderful creatures; I needed to be in the rainforest to really get subjects. Most days I would grab my kit, venture outside (whether my garden or local lakes and rivers) and wander around looking at plants for 10 minutes. Then, more often than not, I'd return home dejected and whinging about England. Then, one innocuous day where I only traveled as far as my back garden, I hit the usual road block of lack of activity, and prepared to head back inside. In a sudden surge of determination I thought "you're just not looking hard enough" and I swiveled on my heel, and returned to patrol the garden.

Confrontational spider does not wish to share his sunflower.

So much time has passed, I honestly cannot remember if I captured anything worthwhile that day. I want to post a great macro image and say that the only reason I caught the moment is because I had that thought; it just wouldn't be true. But, that really doesn't matter. For whatever reason, that little thought became ingrained in me and how I work. Every single time I would go out with my macro setup, I would no longer come back empty handed. Every time I was ready to throw in the towel, I'd think "you're not looking hard enough" and carry on. My success rate rocketed and with every success after the mantra, the mantra was etched deeper.

The prompt for this article was just earlier today when I edited Nando Harmsen's article on how high expectations nearly ruined his trip. I won't spoil the contents as it's a worthwhile read, but his conclusion and one that saved his holiday, is a close cousin of my mantra. In fact, the way I handle any soft roadblock in photography (and even writing) is to say "you're not looking hard enough". Countless on-location shoots have lacked a certain something for a specific shot or idea I've had, and where once I might have given up, now I just change my approach completely. My mantra isn't so much a prescription to continue in the same way for longer — although that can work — but rather to change the way you're approaching this problem. Speaking in terms of photography, it might be to alter your focal point, the angle of your shot, the mood, the style, switch from color to the intent to edit to black and white or vice versa, and so on. Don't fall back at the sign of first resistance, as in my experience, the greatest fruits often lay beyond it.

Do you have a mantra when it comes to photography? Share it in the comments below; you could change someone's outlook for the better.

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13 Comments

Mark Houston's picture

I hope my wife does not find out about this lens I just bought, I hope my wife does not find out about this lens I just bought, I hope my wife does not find out about this lens I just bought,...Well, I guess it's more of a pray then a mantra..

Ryan Luna's picture

weird...i thought everyone had the opposite mantra as you. ;-P

Mark Houston's picture

I hate writing on my phone.

Andrew Leman's picture

This is my mantra 100%. My local camera store recently started offering financing.....I'm going to get into a lot of trouble lol

Andrew Morse's picture

This hits close to home. I still remember last time I got caught - I went from a 6D to a 5D IV assuming my significant other wouldn't know the difference, and I was showing her a few photos but then I swiped the image to show the next one on the LCD and she said - "wait, your camera doesn't have a touch screen. This is a new camera!" Crap.

D M's picture

I prefer the more general photographer's mantra: "Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints."

D R's picture

That's not a mantra though despite it's sentiment.

Jens Sieckmann's picture

I wouldn't call it a mantra but a rule that I try to follow is "Do not let pass occasions for photographing". I remember a couple of situations where I questioned myself to take a shot or not. "Ah, this composition is not the greatest" or "The light is flat." This resulted in "I will take it later". Bad habit. Don't hope for better conditions and occasions. Take the shot NOW!

Deleted Account's picture

A good article and a good way to approach photography and life for that matter. My mantra is slightly different, being: enjoy the process of taking photographs and if you get one you are happy with it is a bonus, if you don't it doesn't matter as you have had an enjoyable time shooting.

For me photography can be a mindful activity, I focus on the moment and this can help when life is tough. During some cancer treatment and after, going out with my camera really helped me cope better and towards the end of my treatment whilst feeling really unwell I got a few shots I am really happy with which was definitely an added bonus.

Aixa moodandmystery's picture

Your mantra is the same as mine! Get out there and keep yours mind attuned!

Colin Robertson's picture

Sage words. Ben Long once mentioned "work the shot", which good advice for when you find a *potentially* good composition... I utter that to myself often, but I often give up before even finding a shot. Obviously I need to "look harder"! lol

Andrew Morse's picture

For a while mine has been persistence is often the difference between a good shot and a great shot. I have woken up in my tent to the sounds of rain at sunrise several times and thought "nah, I'm tired, the weather's crap, and my time would be wasted if I get up - I should just stay in bed." More often than not, when I force myself to get up and stick to the plan, I come back with something awesome. The hardest times to get moving are when you have to get moving.

Kerry Givens's picture

Dedicated outdoor macro guy here. My chant has always been "if I try again, I bet I can do better". I'm referring to common, perennial subjects I have photographed well already, at which point it's easy to take them for granted---but forcing myself to revisit them, with the goal of topping my previous efforts, often turns out to be rewarding. Spring wildflowers come to mind. It's hard to come up with a fresh take on something EVERYONE has photographed a million times. You don't necessarily have to top everybody else. Just move the bar up for yourself.

My other tenet is, after setting up some painstaking low-level shot of insects, fungi, whatever--- "always look around." Macro subjects are everywhere. By scanning the environs a few feet around something I'm photographing, many times I find something even more interesting than what's already in the viewfinder. Happens all the time. I've sometimes spent a couple hours in one spot as a result. Which is why no one likes to hike with me.