The Glorious Gifts Of Simply Showing Up

image: dan james
image: dan james

A recent photography experiment with a fellow photographer reminded me of the many benefits of deciding on a project, then showing up to see it through.

Though it didn’t turn out how we thought it would, and in some ways it was disappointing, in other ways it gave us invaluable learning and experience, and some very pleasing results.

None of which we would have enjoyed if we hadn’t have taken it on, shown up, and completed it.

I’m going to use this project as an example, to outline three of the major reasons why simply showing up and creating offers us many opportunities and benefits.

First, a quick outline of the project –

We embarked on a Expose Both Sides (EBS) film swap with the theme of people/buildings.

We have the same film cameras – Pentax ME Super SLRs – and planned to each shoot a roll of film of people, then rewind our films, and send them to each other.

We would then flip the film over and respool it, which makes the film redscale. In brief, redscale film means all the photographs would have strong red and orange tones.

Then we’d each shoot the film through again, focusing on images of buildings.

The resultant two films would then each have a layer of people shots, merged with a layer of redscale buildings.

Here are the three major benefits of this project, and indeed any creative project where we simply show up with an initial plan or starting point, and create.

1. We learn what works.

With this project, we chose a film we’ve both used and enjoyed before, Tudorcolor XLX 200. We knew it could give us rich, deep, warm photographs, and felt it would suit this project well.

The best of the pictures that resulted did indeed show these kind of tones and characteristics. With the film shot straight, ie on its regular side, as it’s supposed to be used, it delivered lovely photographs. It reassured us of this film’s particular charms.

2. We learn what doesn’t work.

For the second layer, we flipped the film to shoot redscale. I’ve experimented with a number of films in this way, and each give a unique set of tones – reds, oranges, yellows.

Neither of us had used this specific film as redscale before though. And even on the photographs with the strongest layer of redscale, it was still very faint, much less visible than the first, people, layer. And far less visible than previous similar experiments.

In other words, on this evidence, it doesn’t seem the best film to use as redscale. A valuable lesson, plus it makes those films that do work well as redscale ever more valuable.

3. We explore unfamiliar avenues that enrich our experience and skills.

This was the biggest gain for me, in this particular project.

We used SLR cameras, with which you can change a number of variables – the ISO, the aperture, the shutter speed, and the focal distance.

Usually I photograph fairly static objects like flowers, decaying buildings and gravestones. Which means I can take a few moments or even a few minutes adjusting my camera to get the desired settings before I click the shutter button.

For the people photographs though, I decided that this approach wouldn’t work at all. Passing a stranger in the street, I wasn’t about to stop them and ask them to pose for me for two minutes whilst I fiddled with my camera.

I wanted immediate, spontaneous photographs. Which meant a radical rethink in how to use the camera.

In short, I decided to use a fixed aperture and fixed shutter speed, that would give me about the right exposure on the day.

I also decided that rather than trying to get the camera in focus as someone approached me, I would set it to a fixed distance of 3 metres, and simply click the shutter when they were that distance away from me.

The aperture I chose was quite small, which also meant a forgiving depth of field. In non-technical terms, this meant that with the focus set to 3 metres, I could actually click the shutter button when the person approaching was anywhere between about 2 metres and 5 metres away, and the photograph would still be in focus. Ideal for this venture.

This way of using the camera, quickly and spontaneously, with very fixed settings, as I said was a radical departure from my usual, familiar way of photographing with SLR.

But it suited the subject and situation, and worked a treat. Plus it opened a whole new way of working, and an exciting new area of photography to me.

None of the above experiences I’ve talked about would have happened if I hadn’t have embarked on this project, and showed up to do the work.

I wouldn’t have had a better understanding of what this particular type of film is good for. I wouldn’t have learned what it wasn’t so good for. And I wouldn’t have experimented, improvised and discovered a whole new way of photographing.

Simply showing up can give us an abundance of gifts, that keep our creative adventures exciting, and our skills ever evolving.

But it begins with showing up.

Just thinking about creating isn’t enough.

Just talking about creating isn’t enough.

Just reading about other people creating isn’t enough.

None of these actually result in anything getting created…

Instead, pick a project, a starting point, an idea, then run with it.

Show up. Create.

Only then will the gifts present themselves.

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