Editor’s Note: In 2013, Zack shared this post as a followup to his first wildly popular guest blog/video. Both of them are favorite posts of mine, so here is this one again for your enjoyment!
Signal & Noise
As 2012 was coming to an end, I felt as though my brain was full. There wasn’t any more room in it. I can’t take any more information. My head was filled with noise and trying to find anything of any substance was difficult. I would do my best to remember what I was going to the store to buy, but when I walked in the door I couldn’t remember. I’d sit in meetings with my studio manager where she would ask about the direction for the new year and I’d draw a blank. “I don’t know.” My mind was filled with thoughts but I couldn’t string them together in a coherent way to save my life.
Each year I take the month of December off from social media. I like to disappear, go work on stuff, and come back feeling fresh. Nearing the end of 2012 I knew I needed to leave all of that behind sooner than December and most likely stay off of it until the spring. My mind was stuck on static and the volume was set to eleven. I had been working on a Q&A blog with a goal of answering 1,000 questions after which time I was going to check the @#$% out. I reached my goal, said farewell to my online friends and colleagues, and got to work on several projects that had several loose ends. I wanted all commitments and loose ends taken care of before Christmas. I need to build as much space in my schedule, my life, and my work to let the smoke clear.
This was all happening as I was opening a second studio location that we lovingly refer to as “The Lab.” My main studio is filled with a lot of production work. The work is consistent and I have an amazing team who sees that it runs smoothly. The problem is I can’t “work” there. There’s a lot of hustle and bustle going on. We are under a tight NDA from our main client so I can’t just have anyone coming in and out of there due to the stuff we shoot. My brain needs space. My work needs space. I need a place where I can turn my music up, brew some coffee, cover the walls with stuff, set up lights and leave them for a few days, etc. I found a great little space that allows me to have my own production area, and a small shooting space.
I finished my Q&A goal, bought some cheap table tops and legs at Ikea, set up my stuff, and I got to work. It’s been nine weeks now. I’ve learned some things that are helping build signal in my life and keep the noise down to a manageable level. I realize that some of these things seem so obvious but I, as a forty year old man, am having to tell this stuff to myself, so maybe you could use this info, too.
Keep A Clean Plate
The more stuff that is on your plate to do – the more stress it creates. You’re trying to sleep but you’re having a hard time doing so because you know you have all this stuff to do. As soon as a project is in front of you get it done. Just get it done. Stop sitting on it. I’m a deadline producer. I do my best work on deadline…. but it’s stressful and most projects don’t need to cook in the pressure pot. Many can be fried up on the spot and served. As long as it’s hot and fresh you’re good. Don’t let the work pile up.
I tried that inbox zero thing. Haven’t quite gotten the hang of that. I’m trying for inbox 100. I try to spend a few hours each week to sit down and get emails and phone calls out of the way. An hour each day might be better but I know that doesn’t work for me. I’d get stressed out about it – but you know what? Figure out what works for you and stay on that schedule. When the emails and phone calls pile up you can feel like you are getting pulled in many directions. Knock them out on a consistent basis so you can stay focused on other things.
Build An Inspiration Wall
I had stacks and stacks and stacks of magazines and photography books. I would thumb through them every now and then. Most of the time they just collect dust. I keep them for “inspiration” but they aren’t in front of me all the time. Since opening the lab I have started to rip out all the stuff that inspires me and have started taping this stuff to the walls in my production office and hair and make up room. Everyday I walk in I’m confronted by walls of stuff I find cool. At first I thought I was building a wall of intimidation but I see that it is a wall of inspiration. I see a picture, something about it speaks to me, I rip it out and tape it on the wall. Do this in your garage, basement, garden shed, hallway, somewhere.
Maybe I like the colors. Maybe I like the pose. Maybe I’m responding to the light. Whatever it is I tape it up and recycle bin the rest of the zine or book. It is cutting down on the clutter on my shelves and giving me cool stuff to look at each day. It starts to tell you some things about yourself as well. Currently my inspiration wall is about 90% black and white. Much of it is dramatically lit. There’s a lot of multiple exposures, motion, and projection. It’s also nice to have it hanging up in a client area (hair and makeup room) because you can easily point things out like styling cues, posing ideas, emotional aspects of what you are wanting to make, etc. Don’t rip stuff out and put it in a binder. Get it on the walls in a place you’ll see it every day.
The nice thing about seeing this stuff everyday is you can begin to build ideas that you’ll start with on your next shoot. Grab one photo that you like for the light. Grab another that has a color palette you respond to. Another shot is a pose that you like. Another one has an idea for a background or location. You then start to build a shot with that light, this pose, that color palette, at this location. Signal. Showing up on a shoot with zero ideas can be a lot of noise.
Get A Mannequin
I found a mannequin on eBay for $90’ish bucks. I got this mannequin to function as a stand in. There are times I get an idea for a lighting setup or I want to see how a certain background is going to work with a certain lens. There’s something I want to try. Something I want to test. I’ve shot pictures of trash cans, vacuum cleaners, and guitar cases in the past. A guitar case is not quite the best object to test lighting for a portrait. I will now regularly pull this mannequin out and test some ideas that are floating in my head.
Note… I’ve been pursuing photography for 15 years. This year is my tenth year of doing it full time… I’m still learning to light. Still learning to see. Still needing to test things out and try stuff. A lot of it fails. Some of it works. Having a test subject on hand 24/7 has been a pretty cool thing. It’s also helping me with ideas I have for location photography. I need a faster way to set X kind of thing up and get my shot. Some of these corporate and editorial gigs I go on don’t allow much time for me to experiment. I can do that experimentation in my studio with the mannequin and then replicate it on location.
One Lens. One Light. One Something.
Simplify your gear. You pick up a camera for the photograph. You pick up a camera for the photograph. It’s the photograph stupid. Not the Nikon. Not the Canon. Not the 8×10. Not the new 24-70 whatever. Not the new Octabank. Limit your gear usage for a week or for a month or for a year. One camera. One lens. One light source. Master it. MASTER it. Know it. Inside and out. Do everything you can with that one camera, one lens, and one light. My thing right now is one background. I shoot on a white background all the time. ALL the time. What else can I do with it? I know, from looking at my inspiration wall, that I can do more with a simple white wall than what I’m doing now.
Try Something New (Old)
Let me go ahead and say it because all of you are about to…. I’m a hypocrite. I preach all the time that it’s not about the gear right? Well, let me contradict myself. Try a new piece of gear. Get an old Polaroid Land Camera and get some Fuji 3000b. You have a bit of control of the exposure but not much. Parallax is horrible. Metering is all over the place. It’s fun as hell though. My son, Caleb, bought me an old Land Camera at a flea market and it sat around as a decoration. He picked it up one day and asked if there was still film available for it. I had a drawer full of Fuji 3000b in the fridge at the studio so I hooked him up with some of it. After seeing what he was getting, I got him a camera, took that one back, and I love shooting it.
I have Jason Groupp to thank for the 8×10 monster in the video above. I was talking to him one day about my desire to shoot 8×10 again and he said he had an old one laying around. He shipped it to me and I’ve been shooting Impossible Project’s 8×10 film with it. I love the 8×10. It’s such a simple, simple, simple camera. It’s a beautiful thing to behold and it’s a total pain in the ass to work with. Screw one thing up and you blow the shot. With the Impossible Project 8×10 film costing nearly $20 a shot you DO NOT want to screw anything up. It slows me down. Way down. I look at that massive ground glass on the back. The image is upside down and reversed left to right. I study it. Is THAT the shot I want? It’s $20 down the drain if I don’t want it. As difficult as it can be to work with at times it brings a lot of signal to my head. 8×10 was the go to format for many photographers for many decades. A lot of important work was done with an 8×10. No auto focus. No built in exposure meter. No buttons. No menus. A camera. A lens. A light. Simple. I love it.
Take Just A Little Time Off
I think we all dream of taking a month off or more. I, for one, could not manage that well. I’m the type of person that needs to keep something going to keep my momentum. I took two weeks off recently and lost every single ounce of momentum. I had the hardest time getting back to work. Getting back to projects. Getting back to emails and phone calls. Two weeks was too much. A day off is nice though. On a regular basis. Pick up that old Polaroid and go shoot a few packs of film. Go on a photowalk by yourself with just your camera phone. Leave all the gear at home.
Turn off Facebook / Twitter / Instagram For A While
Get offline. Say adios to everyone and go make stuff. Work on a personal project. Get all the honey-do stuff off your list. Clean your basement. Organize your crap. Get all that stuff that lingers over your head off your plate. All those loose ends are noise. Social Media, as much as I LOVE it, is filled with noise. Social Media plays an important part in my life. It’s also a time suck. It’s a place where ideas, questions, and thoughts scatter in a million different directions from a million different sources 24 hours a day. Turn it off. Clear your plate. Let your brain quiet down.
Go Make Stuff
Go. Make. Stuff. Stop thinking about making stuff. Stop talking about making stuff. Stop reading about other people making stuff. Stop immediately sharing the stuff you are kind of thinking about maybe making. Shut up. Turn off the noise. Clear your plate. Go make stuff. Don’t tell anyone about it. For awhile.
Feed your soul. Not your feed.