It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Zack Arias!

[Ed Note: Can you believe it’s been nearly four years since Zack‘s last blog post? After watching the video above, Zack expands a bit on the topic at hand. LOTS more after the jump.]

As 2012 was coming to an end I had a discussion with my wife, Meghan, about how 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, a small shooting space, and Meg has an area all to herself as well.

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.

– Inbox 100 :: 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. Meg and my son, Caleb, are the one that got me into it. Caleb bought me an old Land Camera at a flea market and it sat around as a decoration. Meg 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 her up with some of it. After seeing what she was getting I got her 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 / flickr for awhile :: 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.


PS – I’d show you some of the stuff I’ve been working on but I’ve contradicted myself once already. Not going to do it again. :)

    1. Ok, awesome as usual, maybe a mid life crisis is noisy, I don’t know. I know we all have the power to move the noise fence back further away, mine is too close.

  1. Damn! Can you have Zach write a guest post once a week? I know it would add to his stress, but it would sure take the stress away from me! Almost as good as his last post four years ago…that one was classic, and have watched it over and over again the past four years! Well done, Zach!!

  2. This was always going to be good…that was a ‘given’ BUT what I didn’t expect was to find out that during Zack’s 9 weeks away from Social Media he’d actually been spying. I mean…that was about me right?

    Make that ‘2’ videos from Zack that I watch each month from now on!
    Way to go!

  3. I love shooting with 10×8 and it doesn’t surprise me that you’ve gone back to it, Zack. To me large format photography is what I call ‘pure photography’ exactly for the reasons you mention in the video. The Impossible stuff is all good and well but it’s not until you start processing your own film, mixing up some chemistry and making silver gelatine wet prints in a darkroom that the circle is complete. Contact print some 10×8 negs, there’s no buzz like it.

  4. Zack continues to raise the standard for us all, yet also for himself. You have to keep on doing what you love, but just keep on doing it better

    thanks for this Zack & Scott.


  5. What can I say that hasn’t been said already other thanks for another corker of a video Zack. As always you’re adept at filtering through all the cr@p and keeping it real. First we had ‘Transform’, now we have ‘Signal & Noise’ – I look forward to seeing the final installment of this trilogy in another four years time :-)

  6. I’ve long thought that Zack’s post 4 years ago was the best one I’ve read in terms of speaking from the heart of the writer to the heart of the reader.

    In this one, starting at 3:30 and going on for 90 seconds, he did it again (noise vs signal part).

    I do wish the gestation period between his guest posts was shorter…

  7. ZacK, how awesome!!!! I so need to follow your lead….my noise is deafening. Please thank Meghan for the wonderful download of Polly. I knew that was her when I heard the music.

  8. Thanks for another great guest post Zack! I always look forward to hearing your thoughts on photography. Not only do people like your work; they like you. You’re a good dude. A real person, with real struggles both in your personal life and professional life. And you’re making the best of it everyday, always learning always evolving. You are a true inspiration to me Zack. In a way, you helped me get to where I am today.

    Your OneLight DVD changed my life. Since buying alien bee strobes and learning off camera lighting, I’ve working full time at a commercial photography studio, and now work as an in-house photographer at an advertising agency. I left retail behind and hope to never have to return. I’m blessed. I too continue to struggle with the noise in my head. And I agree that breaks are much needed from time to time.

    Question about the video. I’d like to get into dslr video. I’ve taken nice clips here and there. But I never do anything with them. Are you doing your own post production? Are you using Final Cut, Premier? I’d really like to get into video, but that’s a whole other world of tools. I don’t have steady cams, or gliders just laying around needing to be used. I have a solid manfrotto tripod. Anwyay, thanks again Zack. Take care man!

    1. Hey Brian,

      Thanks for the kind words. Glad to be of service.

      I am doing my own post production on stuff like this. I used to use FCP but can’t stand the new version so I’ve switched to Premiere. Note that if you download 6.0 (the newest version) immediately install the update. The install is not the current 6.0.2 version. There were some nasty audio issues I was dealing with until I figured that out.

      I have some of the steady/glide/jib stuff but I rarely use it. It adds a whole new level of complexity to video and requires you to be very good at that or hire someone who is very good at that. A solid tripod and a good mic is key IMHO. I’m still learning audio. That’s a beast of a learning curve.


  9. Great post. I took some well deserved time off from social media and it does help. Clean up the office, garage, studio. Get back to work on some projects, finish stuff so you can start new. I always find myself starting 20 different things and finishing little.

  10. Great post. I took some well deserved time off from social media and it does help. Clean up the office, garage, studio. Get back to work on some projects, finish stuff so you can start new. I always find myself starting 20 different things and finishing little.

  11. Zack, your post is inspirational, as usual. I’m also really glad you mentioned the mannequin too. I purchased one for my studio space to refine my lighting and experiment with and people generally look at me like I’m crazy, but I’ve found having it invaluable. I call her Mandy the studio mannequin :)

  12. This is why I love Zack. He is an inspiration. He is real. We need more photographers like him in todays world. He is literally the Joel Osteen of photography. Thanks Zack.

  13. I love Zack’s down to earth approach. I believe that it is ok to sit around and visualize, but if you want to become great and not just think about becoming great. You need to go and do it. No one ever won the Master’s dreaming about it on the couch. Thanks to Brad, Scott, and Zack for bringing us great insight and advice.

  14. lots of eye-openers here… it feels great knowing that some of the things that bother me are not unique for me… and getting great solutions to those problems is an added plus…

    Zack is one of my all time favourite photographers, not just for the photos he can make, also for the way he chooses to help others around him… its always a joy to read Zack’s writings or to hear him talk…

  15. Thanks Zack! This is the perfect time for me to be reading this post. I too experienced the overload and the “noise”. It’s a major pain but getting out from under it is a lot easier than we think and according to your list I’m definitely on the right path. Happy New Year!

  16. Overload. Lots of people go through it and nobody is immune. Back off
    and pay attention to the important things in life like family, friends,
    yourself. Do that before you get to the next stage:Burnout..

  17. Yes, yes, and yes. Been thinking along much the same lines and need to get productive again (used to get so much heavy deadline work, was more creative and was actually happier for it and had more energy overall and enjoyed a more balanced life). The Internet can drain and suck the life out of you. (And I always clipped stuff and protected it in binders but I am going to follow this lead and start putting things on the walls to remind me to get adventurous again!)

  18. I love this video. After following this blog for years now, I tell me students to be their own worst critic. This video, which I’ll share at the beginning of my first class next thursday, will begin the 16 week semester. “Watching your Facebook likes, Noise.” Excellent line.
    Thanks for sharing!

  19. Zack, you really do have an uncanny knack for posting these when I need a kick in the pants. Thanks for putting yourself out there once again. Wishing you, Meg, and the kids all the best!

  20. Zaaaaaaaaack. I’ll have to read the rest but I just caught the paragraph about disconnecting from social media for a bit. SO TRUE. Facebook alone is a black hole of time wasting and stressing about sh*t that doesn’t matter. I’ve never been so unproductive since I got sucked into that mess. For 2013, I’m reducing my social time-wasting. Looking forward to reading the rest.

    The hot tub guy from PSW 2010 Orlando.

  21. Zack, timely message: signal or noise? First, finding one’s passion or niche has been pointed out on some episodes of the Grid and the benefits it provides. Mainly, it helps to eliminate the distracting noise. NAPP and Photoshop User mag are there to provide us with a variety of ideas and information on a variety of subject matter. However, this “noise” has to be sifted through your own niche filter by asking how relevant is to my interests. That’s the key to preserving one’s focus and sanity in an info overload world. If you want to see an example of Zack’s latest goal of camera shooting simplicity Google one by the name of Michael Disfarmer, an American portrait photographer who was the epitome of this method. Also, the inspirational wall is also a good idea to keep one on track. Einstein said it best: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Trying too hard should be our signal to stop and re-think.

  22. I think the hardest part for me is figuring out what is brain noise and what is signal. Thanks, Zack, for the helping hand. Mastering the gear that I have and learning to light in any situation will be my mantra from now on.

  23. Ah…the irony of making a blog post about the value of checking out of social media. But hey, as the poster below noted, cue the sycophants who will tell Zack and the rest that they are “absolutely brilliant…”

    1. I went to public school in the South. I had to look up synophants.

      I just want to say “psycho pants” when I read it. :)

      Cue the psycho pants!


  24. And this is why I love Zack Arias. Well written and I love the video. I get what he is saying and I think we all, as photographers or as just people, can relate to the signals and noise in our heads

  25. Appreciate the post Zach. You’ve provided some clarity and a thought process to things many of have struggled with during our careers as photographers. Good to reset and refocus once in a while.

  26. Sorry mr Kelby i’ll write what i think and after i’ll read the comments ok? ;)

    While viewing this movie i touched the soul of this idea that Photographer is a man who listen to the voice of the heart, his heart. I realised that why i’m so angry when i dont have a time to create photos. Why when i finish one photo and someone use my photo i feel real happiness. Why i feel tears in my eyes when i look at my photos, my childrens immortilized on them.

    I discovered a paradox of my Photo Passion. When i go inside deeper and deeper of this Great World of Photography i feel like i’m more and more … amateur. No matter how many years i’ll spend to be better. I’ll stay amateur forever, because not others will judged me more than i will. More i know, i know more what i dont know ;)

    I speak all the time with everyone who like listen ;) that no camera is important but man.

    Light(s), lens, camera + Soul and we have a Great Art and to finish this “little” long post i wanna say to author of this movie:
    It’s very difficult to listen yourself in this world of noise and thank You for this Piece of Art.

  27. I’m trying to figure out what that camera is. It looks a little like my Cambo 8×10 but I’m not so sure.

    Shooting film and large format is pure, though. All photographers should spend 6 months with a 4×5 or 8×10 camera. Good luck and enjoy!

  28. I started in 8×10, it was all I knew at the time. I understood slow I understood time, I understood my camera … so simple. A PITA to lug around but it was my hobby, the darkroom was my home away from home.

    40 years later I read this message, see this video hear these words, that remind me of the things I long forgot, things that got buried in 24 to 36 exposures around my neck, things that got lost in a camera that can take hundreds (if not thousands) of crappy photos on a whim. I forgot time. I forgot slow. I forgot space … I forgot fun.

    I try to remind myself everyday to remember what it was like, I only hear myself and it gets diluted by “noise”. Zach’s message is not new, but it is presented (to me) without a bunch of other babble (noise) and it hits home that I am not the only one. Photography is not a utility, it is not a machine gun. Photography is like a low rider on main street at night, taking it low and slow.
    The camera is my hand, the camera is my eye, my hand goes to my eye, the camera is my hand the camera is my eye my hand, my eye …

    Thanks Zack

  29. What a great post to get you focussed for another year. The video is awesome. Love the audio aswell. Great post!! Can see this making the best of 2013 blogs!!!

  30. Zack is back :) I think after 4 years this man can still makes us think and has all the answers to our questions or rather things that bug us big time. Zack should have a weekly or a fortnightly appearance on Kelby channels / blog.

    Thanks for this Zack.

  31. If you’d have posted this video a few months ago with the suggestion to buy a mannequin, I wouldn’t have just taken one from the local highschool. Always inspiring. Thanks, Zack.

  32. One of the most inspiring photography posts I have ever read. I just took 2 weeks off to re-organize my life, my equipment room, office, and storage. For the first time in a while I can think again. Less is more.

    Now it’s time to look at the social media, blog projects, and other things that prevent me from being a photographer. Not that I’m going to turn my back on these things, just do them more efficiently. Work smarter, not harder.

    More signal, less noise.

    I think that is going to be my new mantra for a while. Thanks Zack.

  33. This totally resonates with me, and I bet a lot of other artists out there. We are constantly being stimulated by outside sources like Facebook, Flick, our blogs, Twitter, our photography gear. We forget to just simplify. I bet most of us have that OCD due to this as well. We are obsessed with all of our stuff and media. It’s an addiction. I agree with shooting one camera for a while, or stepping out of the comfort zone of things.

    I have a zillion new magazines and books I haven’t read yet. I need a news break. LOL!

  34. Nice. But I will take the signal AND noise. It is all in the process that we gain satisfaction of the art: both in the making, and the exhibition. Noise is what separates organic from computed. And if a photographer is not considering a reception, then the art potentially fails to play a communal role, which I believe to be one of the greatest existential facets within art—mutual appreciation of beauty.

  35. Zack just zenned me. I feel so relaxed and ready to go do something productive.
    Who else has gotten distracted by the “noise” he reffered to? We all have, right? He clarifies it so well when he points our the “signals” that we as photographers should be tuned into. Very well done Zack and all other associated with this project.

  36. Jack has it right! I love my Polaroid land cameras. It makes you think. Is this picture worth this much $. Any photographer wanting to get one I would recommend it. They can be had for about 30$ or so. You just have to modify for an modern battery. Also inspect the bellows before buying and the compartment to make sure not corrosion of paint flakes are in there. Although the pain flakes do add character. :D Steps to convert to AAA… I would recommend like a 340 or 360. The 60 series models are metal. And 40-60 have glass lenses vs plastic. Steps to convert battery.

  37. Perfect. Again. Thank you!
    I will keep this to view again and keep remembering what’s important and stop overthinking. My worst work happens when I overthink and drown in noise!

    but, I wish I could find a way to view the previous vid blog too….it seems to be gone!!! =(

  38. I’ve only just read & watched this and it is fantastic. Zack is just the ant’s pants, the bee’s knees. No wonder is one of the world’s most followed photographers on social media. More Zack, less noise!

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