How to Pick a Direction for your Photography
And follow your bliss
In the only writing course I ever took, while pursuing a degree in programming, the teacher played a film on Joseph Campbell.
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.” ~Joseph Campbell
I didn’t really get it then, but the phrase, follow your bliss, comes back to haunt me over and over. It finally came to be part of my decision-making process and I eventually incorporated it into my creative outlets, writing and photography. Writing for Medium allowed me to follow my bliss in that genre.
Today, I’d like to urge you to follow your bliss in your photography. But let’s back up a step.
If you are like me, as a beginning photographer, especially in the digital age, you shoot everything. I both enjoy and cringe looking back through my first year of photography. I have some really nice stuff and some absolute crap. Eventually, the nice stuff overtook the crap and now, mostly, I am thrilled with my work.
But first, I had to pick a direction. I’d like to help you understand how I did that, so you can pick your own direction. The first phase was I thought about what I was about to shoot. I still remember the first time. I don’t recall the subject, but I clearly remember the thought. I’ve already shot this. Whatever it was. I had shot it before and had done the best job I could with it. I wasn’t going to do it any better and the act of capturing it wasn’t going to bring me any joy.
And that was the first step in picking a direction. Every image I take doesn’t bring me joy. I shoot stock photography. Sometimes, you have to just shoot stuff. But I’m still selective about exactly which stuff. It has to challenge me. I at least get fulfillment, if not joy, from the act of capturing it.
I’ve been shooting digitally for over 16 years. The first subject that has stayed with me is architecture. I love the lines and textures in architecture. I love shooting massive blue glass towers and old bungalows. There is very little architecturally that I don’t enjoy capturing. If the whole building doesn’t resonate, I can always find a tiny detail. Think of all the buildings you pass by every day. Almost every one attracts my eye and gives me pause. How would I shoot that one?
Another early subject that I have stuck with and found my greatest success with is food. My best-selling image is a plate of fried chicken. Mundane stuff, right? But I remember shooting that plate of fried chicken. It was still hot, so the mouth-watering smell was a distraction. But I arranged and rearranged each piece. I rotated the plate. I tried different backgrounds and lighting. I didn’t want to just take a picture of chicken; I wanted to capture its essence. I wanted the viewer to see that picture and run out and buy some chicken. When I took the final shot, it felt right. I knew I had nailed it. Getting that perfect shot of fried chicken brought me joy. Eating it also brought me joy.
Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. You can’t follow your bliss, or it is elusive. Early on, and I’m pretty sure this was in the film days, I’m driving down the highway and an old, dead tree caught my eye. The jagged limbs on the blue sky and the variations of texture between the bark and bare wood attracted me. I had to shoot that tree. That dead tree haunted me.
So finally, armed with my old Canon AE1, I went in search of my tree. Call me Ishmael. I found the tree and circled around it finding the right light and angle. Finally, I nailed the shot. Or so I thought. At that time it was days rather than seconds before I saw the result. It was a dead tree. I had failed in capturing what I had originally felt. Over the course of two decades, I have shot many other dead trees and have yet to get the shot I want. Some day, I still hope I can. Some day, I want to raise the camera to my eye and think, no, I’ve already shot that.
I hate shooting people. Man, I hope the search engines don’t pick up on that sentence. I’ve done some corporate shoots and there is good money in it. I’ve done some model shoots and I’ve come away with some amazing images. But mostly, I just don’t like it. Chin down, fingers together, look at me. It’s tedious. Street photography is another thing. That might be my next new direction. Capturing candid shots of people in everyday life. I’m enjoying that.
So keep getting out there. Shoot anything and everything. But once you master the technical stuff, I want you to think about what you are photographing. Does it bring you joy? Is it something you could shoot over and over for years and never tire of it? Does it bring you bliss?
Because that’s how you pick a direction in photography. You discard the subjects that bring you no joy. One at a time, you quit shooting things that don’t make you happy, make you content. Maybe you settle on two or three. Perhaps it will be just one thing, babies or puppies or flowers, oh my. It doesn’t matter what the thing is. It only matters in how it makes you feel when you capture it. You’ll know it when you get there. Maybe not when you shoot it. But later, you will go through your recent shots and come to one that makes you stop. It makes you smile. That’s it. That’s the one.
Follow your bliss.