When I initially conceived, wrote, and finally published my article, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Photographers, I imagined it would be considered inspiring and stimulating by readers. I wasn’t certainly expecting that the first serious feedback I would receive would tell me it was annoying. This however is exactly what Sandra Nesbit did. She kept sending me emails, telling me how much my instructions had annoyed her, because they were pushing her to go beyond her limits and step outside her comfort zone.
At some point, I told her: Listen, Sandra, instead of pestering me with your emails, why don’t you write it all down and show your level of annoyance to a wider audience? I will put it on my website and we’ll see who thinks you have a point.
Having not heard from her for a while, I was thinking I had found a way to get her off my back, but to my infinite dismay, after a few days my email client ringed and alerted me to another email from Sandra. Apparently, she had taken me up on it and not only had she written a fantastic piece about her own application of the 7 Habits, but she had included some amazing photos with it. Now I had to honor my promise and publish it. I find this to be only a tiny bit annoying after all, because she’s such a talented writer and photographer.
I might even start to like her.
Ugo Cei’s Annoying Habits
When I first encountered Ugo Cei, I was still trying to figure out how to get film into my new DSLR so I could change the ISO. There was nowhere to go but up. Patient with everything (except pictures of flowers), Ugo and other kindly folk at G+ made me a changed woman. Photographically speaking. Since I was still inhaling deeply around the smallest bit of photo-knowledge, lest a strand of it escape me, I dove into Ugo’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Photographers with high expectations. Here’s what I found and where all those habits took me.
Habit 1 – Know your camera like the back of your hand.
Sure I should know my camera, but put my camera in a bag and fiddle with the dials and nobs? Without looking? Seriously? A warning to anyone even thinking of doing this: Have your manual close at hand so you can set your camera to rights once you’re done messing it up. Annoying. Even more annoying is that…well…he’s right. Had I practiced the hand movements I needed to change the ISO without looking, I probably would have saved the shoot when I (accidentally) changed the quality of the image from RAW to JPEG rendering my post work difficult or impossible. Begrudgingly I made a (short) list of the buttons and dials I wanted to teach my hands to recognize in the dark. I still don’t like taking creative time to run my fingers through the set of exercises I developed, but I do it.
Habit 2 – Practice, Practice, Practice
Having been a dancer for decades, I’m a believer. But, which right away do I do right away? There are as many roads in photography as there are opinions. Macro? Street? Landscape? Portrait? And within each of those: Lighting? Composition? Skin tone? DOF? What annoyed me about the practice habit was the vast number of things I felt I needed to practice. I literally didn’t know where to start.
It wasn’t working to jump into whatever learning opportunity appeared; which was my current MO. After some reflection, which Ugo’s list engendered, I knew that my photographic journey would need two things it didn’t have now. 1) It needed direction, and 2) The road would have to run through my heart. Dancing had taught me how hard it can be to practice when repetition made practice boring, or difficult moves made it frustrating. There were times when I had to love dancing a lot to keep going. The same would be true with photography.
I started thinking about the kind of art to which I’m drawn: impressionistic, emotional and romantic. To sustain my passion (and habitual practice), my photographic world needed to touch on or reflect the moods to which I’m naturally drawn. The second came as a surprise as I found myself shooting more and more images of animals. And once I discovered compositing, I found single images boring. I fell in love with post. Somehow, I would have to find a way to braid the moods to which I’m attracted, with the things I love, and the kind of photography (compositing) that I enjoy.
As I applied these insights to my photographic work, practice became my teacher. I paid attention to what I was doing when the magic happened: when I lost all sense of time, or had infinite patience with a new technique. When one of my own images made me cry…I knew I was on the right track. I couldn’t have found those tears without the sometimes annoying but ultimately exultant experiences found through practice. Practice is the one and only way to unbind creativity. Nothing else will take me to the place I remember when I danced across a stage or ballroom floor responding to the music without thought, moving without reason, listening to the music with every muscle in my body.
Oh, and by the way, when Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst,” he was talking about film. In the digital world, it’s more like your first 100,000.
Habit 2B – Never Stop Learning.
Practice leads to learning, leads to practice. They can’t be separated, ever. I don’t find this annoying at all. I find it a joy. It should be one of the habits.
Habit 3 – Go the Extra Mile
This is one place where annoying is good. Annoyance is the feeling that comes over me when I’m tired and wet because I shot too long and got caught in the rain, or I’m bored to death with deleting useless images, or my shoulders ache from carrying too much gear. Annoyance, along with frustration and aggravation, is the signal that now might be the time to rise above my feelings and go that extra mile. Do I always rise to the occasion? Of course not. But every time I do, it becomes more of a habit, and I’m more inclined to do so.
Habit 4 – Be a Master of Post-Processing
YES! And it is super annoying to realize how far I still have to go. Post-processing creates lots of opportunities for going the extra mile. I am not always able to travel; yet with post, I can create landscapes full of romance, sometimes surprise, always altered in some way.
Habit 5 – Get Inspired by Your Peers
There are so many ways to create this habit. And every single one of them involves the willingness to put myself out there–artistically naked–for the world to see. For an introvert like me that isn’t only annoying, it’s terrifying. The only way around this one is through it. So I try to have a voice on social media; but I still find it terrifying every time I post an image.
Habit 6 – Share Your Knowledge
I’m just beginning to work on this one. I’m designing a learning experience that links writing with images. I’m far from feeling capable of advising anyone on photography per se. But writing? That’s something else again. So I’m trying to play to my strength and ignore that annoying little voice that tells me I don’t know enough… haven’t been a photographer for long enough, and put myself in the role of “mentor”. It will be a leap of faith.
Habit 7 – Be a Marketing Genius
The annoying thing about marketing is marketing. Scott Stratten wrote, as Ugo shared with us, about an “UnMarketing” approach to marketing. Stratten suggests that we “Engage” rather than “Market”. I find that one word both empowering and encouraging. I asked myself, “How can I engage the world by sharing myself and what I create?” I did three things and have had some successes. I ”engaged” by diving into G+ and now have over thirty million views. I began to “show” my work in a local business and have sold five pieces from there so far. And I entered two juried shows, made it into one, and won 2nd Runner Up. I’m unclear about how much marketing/engaging I want to do going forward; and whatever I do, and I want to include my writing. So there are still plenty of questions. But one step at a time. If I continue to attend to the habits, I believe that the answers will come organically, an outgrowth of the process of habituated work practices.
As you may have noticed, my personalized application of Ugo’s “habits” are largely head games. They’re rooted in feelings and propensities, rather than actionable behaviors and measurable goals. It’s not that I think the details are unimportant, but that I believe the overall habits are more important. The latent power in a set of habits doesn’t come alive because of the details of the activities involved; it comes alive in the tenacious application of attention to the habits over time.
I would sum up this, or any behavioral system (which is what a series of habits really is), as a tool to be used to achieve a work/life flow that causes me to pay attention to the key developmental areas I need to succeed in a way congruent with my idea of success. Most truly helpful habits are annoying. They must be if they are to push us beyond our current comfort zone. But I know of no other way to achieve personal excellence.
About The Author
Sandra Nesbit, a Chicago-based fine-art photographer, uses light to “paint” her images. Employing the techniques of compositing and intentional camera movement (ICM) she creates impressions and lyrical expressions in an effort to evoke an emotional response. Sandra puts it this way, “I don’t want to reproduce what my eye sees; I want to reveal what my heart feels about what my eye sees. The people of Earth are unavoidably connected by our shared feelings: hope, fear, joy, anger, love. It is my belief that, by sharing the heart-felt-beauty we experience, we artists will enhance the connections that bind us together and help to build bridges of mutual understanding and, maybe one day, peace.”