First of all, I would like to thank Scott Kelby and his wonderful team for this amazing opportunity. Like many photographers I am self taught. The classes and learning resources Scott has made available through the years has served as a foundation from which I built a career doing what I love.
I have so many passions in life but three bubble up to the top: photography, travel, and teaching. I’m truly blessed to be able to do all three full time. They feed off of each other, as I write this blog post I’m in a motel in West Virginia making my way across the country from NYC, working on a personal project and scouting several locations for future workshops.
I have a very close connection with my students; there’s a real bond there. I understand that fiery passion of the creative process, that unyielding obsession and the frustration that inevitably comes with it. They’re two sides of the same coin. That frustration, that struggle, as Scott has said once, is a good thing. The frustration is the result of the recognition that we’re not where we want to be creatively. Yet! It’s also, however, an acknowledgement that we have a creative direction, we know where we want to be, if only (fill in the blank here).
That frustration is an acknowledgement of our potential. Imagine the alternative. Take the top performers, in any creative endeavor, if there’s one thing they have in common, they’ll tell you their work is not finished, there’s more to the story. It’s a game of continuous improvement, with each step up the ladder a result of struggle, failure and success. There is no top to this ladder, it just gets higher and higher, the view just gets better. We’re all at different points on this latter. Joe McNally has a great view. No matter where we are and how good the view, we all get stuck.
The Unplayable Piano
In Cologne, Germany in 1975, American jazz legend Keith Jarrett, already world famous, sat down to give the performance of his life. The recording of this session produced the best selling piano album and best selling solo jazz album in history. Just hours before however, he refused to play. There was a problem; the piano was the worst he’d ever seen, half the size of a typical piano, the keys stuck, the pedals broken. It was an unplayable piano. Sitting in his car outside the concert hall, listening to the pleas of a desperate teenage promoter standing in the rain, begging him to play, he agreed.
Playing in the middle of the range, no pedals, standing up and literally banging on the keys at point for bass and to project the sound, that unplayable piano allowed him to give the performance of his life. This story is recounted in a recent Ted Talks by Tim Harford, which I highly recommend. During the talk, he states, “We don’t want to be asked to do good work with bad tools. We don’t want to have to overcome unnecessary hurdles, but Jarret’s instinct was wrong.” Had he been playing on the best piano, if everything was finely tuned and working perfectly, that magical night never would have happened. He certainly wouldn’t have chosen those circumstances intentionally. None of us would. Perhaps we should. That frustration, that limitation, that hurdle makes us more creative.
Last year I discovered my unplayable piano.
Apple reached out to me last year and asked me to give a presentation for them on iPhone photography, to simply inspire people to go out and shoot more with their iPhone. And so I did, using it as an excuse to embark on a road trip with my DSLR and my iphone and put it to the test. Before then, honestly, I would never have considered shooting with my phone. I’m a professional photographer, I take what I do very seriously, no self respecting photographer would… My instinct, like Jarret’s, was wrong.
Over the past year, my unplayable piano has taught me much about photography, about the creative process, about myself as a photographer. Ultimately, the experience has helped me to reflect who I am as a photographer and what is important to me, the quality of the image and the quality of the experience.
It’s still crazy to me how we’re supposed to capture our vision, our unique vision with this ridiculous piece of glass and metal and circuits we call a camera. I now know what every setting is, I know what every menu means, I know what every dial does. Who cares? Now what? The ability to create a meaningful image is much different than actually creating one. If you’re like me, the achievement of technical perfection and gear lust and acquisition is a comfortable safe distraction. Technical mastery is not the top rung of the latter, it doesn’t even have a good view. It’s the start of something more. I feel like I’ve been stuck on this rung of the ladder for a while now, pursuing perfection over creativity, knowledge over experience. My unplayed piano helped me climb higher.
My iPhone is handicapped compared to my full frame 42 megapixel DSLR in every way. Paradoxically however, these limitations, the lack of choice and options, are the very things that have challenged me, inspired me and helped me grow as a photographer. The limited resolution has forced me to carefully consider my compositions, the fixed focal length, severely limiting my options, has forced me to use my feet more, the lack of depth of field has required me to pay more attention to all of the details at the edge of the frame as well as more carefully considering the background.
Up until recently, shooting RAW wasn’t an option, shooting compressed jpegs required a more careful consideration of color balance and exposure control. The lack of a viewfinder has been incredibly helpful in breaking the habit of pulling the camera up to my eye and taking every picture from the lofty perspective of 5’7”. Holding the camera away from my body, the very thing we’re taught not to do, has allowed me to see a scene and compose with much greater freedom of movement. Also, a funny thing happens when you don’t have a big camera and lens in front of your face… you’re more approachable. This is me banging on the keys, flexing my creativity, making the system work for me.
Consider again Jarrett’s performance. What made it the best selling solo jazz record ever, was how much it resonated with the audience. It was that what was being played was much more important than how it sounded, the bass was muffled, the treble sharp, it didn’t matter. If we can just suspend the importance of edge to edge sharpness, frame rate and ISO performance long enough, then maybe we can focus on what really matters; our vision, what initially caught our eye. Then, the light, the color, the composition, the gesture, the moment.
These are the timeless ingredients that truly comprise a great photograph and they have so very little to do with the camera we sling around our neck or the lens attached to it. If we can redefine, for ourselves, what image quality truly is, then maybe that camera we all have in our pockets is all we need to create meaningful work. Maybe, like that unplayable piano, it’s exactly what we need to create our best work yet.
I’d like once more to extent my gratitude to Brad Moore, Scott Kelby and the team at KelbyOne for this opportunity as well as Ron Martinsen from Ronmartblog for making the connection.
For those interested in learning more about my capture and post-processing workflow, I will be teaching several workshops this year in NYC and around the world this year. For those in NYC, in March, I’ll be leading my annual two-day Lightroom Bootcamp in NYC, in April I will partnering with world class street photographer Steve Simon in a special iPhone street photography workshop in NYC, October will be a very special and unique photography workshop on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia in concert with the Celtic Colours festival and in November, an active adventure photography workshop in Bhutan with Zephyr Adventures. More information can be found by clicking the links above, signing up for my newsletter or reaching out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org I’d love to hear from you.