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Rediscovering Photography and Decluttering in 2019

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I’ve quietly altered my photographic pursuits over the past few years, from going out in search of that one-off beautiful landscape photo, to telling stories of the places I travel to and the people I meet. I didn’t really realize that it was happening – or had happened at all, really.

I had the honor of appearing on a popular photography podcast this year and speaking at a few public events. In all of these events, the people who invited me wanted to hear about my recent humanitarian photography projects in Africa and Central America.

No problem, I’d love to share those stories!

But wait – I always fancied myself a “landscape photographer.” How the hell am I speaking about humanitarian & travel photography?

Ile A Vache, Haiti

This really made me evaluate how I got to this point. Because not even I knew.

But once I figured out how this transition happened, I felt compelled to share it at these events, and want to share it with you here. It’s an important point for creative people to consider, especially as we get into a new decade and many of us are making new resolutions, new goals, or whatever else you want to call them.

I’m going to give you two challenges for the upcoming year. Will they improve your life and photographic pursuits? I don’t know, they’re something you’ll have to try first!

Passion & Drive

I hear (and give) a lot of advice to photographers searching for subjects to photograph and projects to work on. The advice is often something along the lines of, what are you passionate about?

I was always passionate about being out in nature. Hence, landscape photography.

Sky Pilot

But there were two problems with this.

First, it’s true that I’m passionate about being out in nature. But I’m there because it’s my place to reset & renew. It’s a spiritual experience for me. A sanctuary, one that I was violating with business pursuits. In all honesty, it tainted both the outdoors and photography for me.

Second, while I loved taking photos of grand landscapes, the love ended there. I felt no additional fulfillment after creating the photograph. Isn’t photography supposed to make you feel something? For over a decade, I was in total denial that landscape photography wasn’t fulfilling a greater need.

The case for stepping out of your comfort zone

So I only wanted to take photos of landscapes. No photos with people in them, not even in the distance, let alone closeups.

My first accidental foray into documentary-style photography was in the Bahamas in 2013. I met some volunteer sea turtle taggers and spent a couple of days photographing their work for their fundraising efforts. Not only were these photos not landscapes, but they had people in them! *gasp* I was completely out of my comfort zone and venturing into a photographic genre I had never done before.

bahamas sea turtles
bahamas sea turtles
bahamas sea turtles
bahamas sea turtles

But you know what? I loved it. Completely fell in love with the idea of this kind of photography. There were numerous reasons why I came to love this kind of photography.

  1. The challenge – there are no second chances. I couldn’t mess up the timing, the composition, or the technical decisions and say, “nope, I’ve gotta redo that photo.” By that point, it’d be too late. I’d have missed the moment and the photo. I thrive on challenges like that.
  2. The story – I’ve always loved stories. Movies, books, folk songs, photodocumentaries. I don’t know why but I never brought this method into my photography. I was just making single landscape photos meant to stand on their own. But once I started using photography to tell larger stories of amazing people & places, it all started making sense.
  3. The reward – using photos for good. I’ve always felt I had a higher calling to serve others, hence my time in the military and my current roles in Search & Rescue. Being able to use my passion for photography to do good helped me feel whole again, and gave me another reason to pick up the camera.

Your first challenge: Photograph something that you’ve never thought about photographing before. I’m not saying you have to follow my footsteps or do photography to “feel good,” but poke your camera into a genre you’ve never considered before. See where it can take you.

I’ll be doing a lot more documentary projects in 2020, including going back to the Bahamas to followup with the turtle taggers, a return to Guatemala, and another project with Photographers Without Borders.

Decluttering daily tasks & workflow

I’ve purged a lot of things out of my life in 2019 and it has felt great. I have limited bandwidth, and getting rid of (or minimizing a few things) has opened up processing power in my brain for more important things.

Social media for different reasons

“Everyone” always says that photographers need social media to be successful. Build awareness on Facebook, find people to work with on Instagram, post news on Twitter, send out videos on YouTube…all that stuff.

Post at least once a day (if not twice), comment on at least ten photos per day, follow 20 new people every day…the list of “rules & best practices” goes on and on.

Not only is this nonsense, but it can misplace your priorities. If you enjoy it, more power to you. But it’s not for everyone.

Self-promotion was tiring me. It’s not my style, and not why I want to be a photographer. So, screw it. In the words of the great Bill Murray, it just doesn’t matter. I’ll post when I have something to post, even if it’s only twice a month.

The result? Less anxiety throughout the week. No more FOMO.

Is RAW processing just a waste of time?

I hate sounding like a commercial for Fujifilm, but seriously, the style customizations within the camera have spurred me to focus more on capturing the photo and less on processing it.

Why does this matter? It’s really forced me to consider the look & feel I want to convey before making the photo – to consider why I’m going to press the shutter. This forces me to pay more attention to the pre-capture technical decisions, like color and exposure, knowing that I won’t adjust them later.

My main goal is to get an emotional response from the viewer based on the content of the photo and the story it tells, not on how I processed it on the computer. If it’s a compelling photo made with technical proficiency, it should be good enough to go straight from the camera to publishing.

The result? SO. MUCH. MORE. FREE. TIME. If the JPGs meet my goal, I’m done. If not, I only have a little work to do on the RAW.

Does this approach work for everyone? Hell no. But have you asked yourself if it will work for you?

Your second challenge: Is there any part of your daily photographic tasks & workflow that you can cut out, or even just minimize? Can you cut out some of your social media efforts that aren’t contributing to your goals? Are you spending too much time processing photos just for the sake of “processing”?

By the end of 2020, I hope to get to the point where I’m comfortable enough not even considering the need to process any RAW files.

Which challenge will you accept? Let me know below! Or is there anything else you’re going to try?

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Drew Sinclair

Thursday 13th of February 2020

Great article John. Good to hear I'm not the only one with social media anxiety... Talking about de-cluttering, how do you go about organising your photos? I'm a Fuji Shooter and utilise JPEG+RAW. I have a copies of Lightroom, Capture One and Luminar. I can never really settle on any one of these bits of software. Like you I am moving towards mostly JPEGs from the camera. I just don't have the time or inclination to process hundreds of RAW files. I really just want to take photos, dump them on my SSD drive in a relevant folder and move on. I usually make a photo book a year with my family snaps. I also have personal projects that I like to print. I am tempted just to use Apple photos for my JPEGs because it's a simple interface and easy to organise. There are drawbacks obviously. It won't read compressed Fuji RAW files for one... Also, the idea of being catalogue free appeals to me, rather than having everything tied to one bit of software. Any thoughts or suggestions would be most appreciated! Thanks, Drew

John Peltier

Thursday 13th of February 2020

Hi Drew, thanks for the feedback. I had been big into Capture One the past couple years for its awesome RAW processing capabilities, and because Lightroom couldn't handle Fuji RAW files very well. But around the same time I realized I was tired of processing RAW files, and noticed Capture One was just too much, Lightroom updated its software to handle Fuji RAW files. So I'm back to moving everything over from C1 to LR. I've found LR's cataloging and organizing features to be much better than C1, and when I do need to make some edits, it's much more streamlined. I have my cameras set up to record RAW+JPG on the same memory card, rather than on different cards, so it's easier to keep them paired when I import them. Some people import into folders by year then subfolders by month or location, but because I tend to travel to the same places year after year, I have my folders organized by Country->State/Province->Year. I'd love to get away from a "catalog," but I don't think I could completely ditch LR. What about Adobe Bridge? I haven't used that for nearly a decade but I think you can still catalog & organize photos in there without having an actual "catalog." And you can also edit the occasional RAW file if you need to by opening Adobe Camera Raw right from Bridge.

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