NOTE: This is a long article aimed at photographers who wish to move past f-stops and shutter speeds to more artistic pursuits. I get that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea so I wanted to give fair warning. To those who read all the way through, I think and hope you will find it worth your time and I thank you.
If you’ve followed me a long time, you know I have had or have the very best tools available in the photo and video space. I’ve been lucky to make a living with my cameras and even luckier to build an audience for my work that has allowed me to attract sponsors and support from several companies that make the gear we all know and love.
In short, I have WAY too many cameras (and camera bags – but that’s another post.)
When I started my current one-year journey to make the iPhone my primary camera, one of the things that helped me make that decision was the knowledge that having fewer tools available often brings out the most creative results.
There have been lots of times (in the old days) when I would take one camera, one roll of film, and one 35mm lens and just go out hunting for stories to tell with that limited amount of gear.
Fast-forward to today, I am spending as much time as I can with nothing more than my iPhone 13 Pro as my main camera. Limiting my access to all the toys I have brings about that “necessity is the mother of invention” thing.
What I am talking about is minimalism. This isn’t hipster minimalism or “on-trend” minimalism it is actually an entire art movement that has been around for quite a while. It usually relates to finding the real core of the story you want to tell and discarding everything else. Often open or negative space is used to create minimalistic imagery and that’s what most people think of when they think minimalism…Showing just one element with lots of space around it.
And while I do make good use of negative space in some of my images, there’s more to it than that.
To me, minimalism is simply about focus – not camera focus, but focus on a single idea. Thinking about ONE thing – forcing my mind to go into almost a meditative state and zeroing in on one important theme or subject. Being careful and deliberate with all my choices – that’s part of the hallmark of minimalism for me.
There are lots of ways to go about expressing a minimalist point-of-view. You can focus on leading lines, symmetry, patterns or texture, contrast, negative space, complimentary colors (or no color at all.)
The goal is to think like a storyteller and eliminate everything that isn’t needed to make the story easy to follow.
Eliminating distractions (in your art and in your life) will generally make you a more creative, prolific artist.
And THAT is one of the reasons why I love using my iPhone as my main camera. I have this one thing in my pocket, all the time, everywhere I go. And I force myself to make as much art as I can with JUST this tool. It’s counterintuitive to many, but the less gear you have to work with generally equals better results.
Now – let me make this drink a double…
What if you added pre-visualization to minimalism?
Pre-visualization is all about knowing what your picture is going to look at before you even press the shutter. It takes focus (no pun intended this time) and patience (hard to come by in today’s world) and fearlessness (working with a beginner’s mind – more on that below.)
Shoshin ( 初心) is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning ” beginner’s mind. ” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. The term is especially used in the study of Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts. But I apply to my artwork and have for many decades. I spent four years living in Japan and while there, I learned just a tiny fraction of what it takes to really master a “beginner’s mind.” But even that tiny fraction made a big difference in my approach.
Here’s an experiment I want you to consider – Hand a child an instant camera and give them an assignment. Keep it simple. They will see this as an opportunity for play and exploration. Often, they will come back to you with shockingly good images. They SEE things we do not because our minds have been clouded by EXPERIENCE and fear. They don’t have the biases we have collected over our years. They are too young to have developed those biases. So they see everything with fresh eyes and keeping a beginner’s mind requires us to TRY to do the same. We need to imitate the children.
They aren’t afraid to make mistakes. So they just go out and SEE. That’s what we need to do. Remembering Ansel Adams’ famous quote:
“A photo is not an accident…the machine gun approach to photography is fatal to serious results.”
Now start with this information – minimal gear, a minimalist approach to imagery, a beginner’s mind and add one more thing – an answer to the question – WHY?
Why are you photographing that subject, in that place, in that setting, using that camera and that lens and that shutter speed and that aperture and that light angle with that background and that plane of focus? And and and and and – you get the idea. If you can come to the point in your pursuit of photographic success where you can answer the WHY question – you are close to becoming a master.
Because people do NOT care WHAT you do – they care WHY you do it. Being able to articulate (with specificity) the WHY is the key to great art.
So back to our story…
When I find myself in situations where all I have is my iPhone, I look around and see if there’s any story that I want to tell, and then – I think about WHY I want to tell it. (The how and the what come next and naturally without thinking – trust me on that.)
So you may not like MY story (photo) and that’s okay. It’s MY story to tell. It means something to me and if that’s the only thing that is important about it, that’s cool. Photography (when practiced at its highest levels) is all about self-expression. You own EVERY pixel of EVERY photo you make. It’s yours. It belongs to you and you alone. NOBODY can tell you what to do with it (unless you let them.) So for me, photography is how I express my feelings, and my thoughts and my desires and all the rest.
I apologize if this is all a little ethereal, but when you get old, you live in your mind and I constantly find myself exploring these themes because it’s understanding stuff like this that sets my work apart from someone else’s. We all have access to the same gear. Many of us have access to the same subject, location, etc. What we do with and about that is what counts.
So this has been the longest lead-up in history to tell you about the image behind this article.
When I was leading a tour in Alaska not too long ago, I was making the trek into Kenai Fjords Park. I was on a boat and this area of Alaska pretty much ALWAYS has rough seas. I’ve traveled around the world – much of it by sea, and I NEVER get sea-sick – EVER – except in Kenai. I think I am four for four in recent trips. I know I am going to upchuck along the way so whenever I go to the glaciers, I think I better come up with a good idea to make an image I’ll like because I am going to pay for it later.
In this case, I was passing one of the many glaciers in the park and frankly, the lighting wasn’t great and not much was happening that inspired me. So I decided it was up to me to get creative. I wanted to MAKE a photograph – not TAKE one.
I saw this glacier and immediately realized there was nothing special there – at least to me – since I’ve spent a lot of time around Alaska. (I realize that to many of you, it would be magical to just see this once so I apologize for my lazy thinking here.)
Then I let go and found my beginner’s mind. I tried to think of the situation the way that five-year-old, Scott would think of it. All of a sudden, I just started writing a short story in my brain about a magic mountain that had the power to turn day into night. The WHY was I simply wanted to share the theme that – there is often more there than meets the eye.
I instantly SAW the final image IN MY MIND before pressing the shutter button – i.e, pre-visualized it) and then tried to FEEL my way to the photograph. (I know this is getting very touchy/feely – sorry – I don’t have better words to express what I mean.)
I saw the vision of a dark, foreboding, B&W scene. I thought about how that makes me feel. I tried to express it through the photograph. I looked at it, made a photo with my iPhone 11 Pro Max that would give me as much dynamic range as I could get to achieve my goal (which was going to mean doing some work in post) and went for it. To the naked eye, looking at my phone screen, it didn’t really scream “AWARD WINNER.” But that’s okay because the rest of the work would be done when I got home. But before I got home I had to finish this boat ride…
And I leaned over the side of the boat, made my image – promptly upchucked.
When I got home, I pulled up this image in Photoshop and tried to remember the way I felt when I made it. I tried to focus in on how this magic mountain might turn out once I applied my post-processing skill. I used Photoshop, Luminar NEO and Topaz Impression II to pull off the final result – which looks NOTHING like the original. And that’s okay.
This is where pre-visualization comes in. I have enough skill (just enough) to pull of most of the images I see in my mind’s eye. In other words, I see the picture before I make it. Sounds weird to some of you – others of you may get it. But that’s the only way I can think to describe it.
Once in post, this wasn’t a long or elaborate process. It probably took me less than 15 minutes. And guess what? It turned out exactly how I hoped it would. Now remember, whether or not anyone else thinks this is good, that’s none of my business. I was trying to tell my story and was able to succeed.
To round all this up into one little ball and give this long article an ending I’ll just say this: Working with the iPhone and nothing but the iPhone, helped get the gear out of my way and allow my mind (and my heart) to get involved in creating a photograph that gives me fond memories of that trip to Alaska. I am not sure I would have been able to get to this place if I had my full kit with me. As I said in the beginning, having less gear forces us to get creative and here, I think it made the difference.
Next time you pull out your iPhone, try any or all of this. Try being deliberate. Try telling a story. Try washing your mind of pre-conceived ideas, or recipes and just express yourself. I can’t wait to hear how it goes for you. I am rooting for you and thanks to those of you who stuck it out till the end.
P.S. If you’re inclined to tell me you like the original better, then I didn’t do a good job of writing this article or you didn’t do a good job of comprehending this article and we both wasted our time. If that is the case for you – please accept my apology. But if that is your only comment, you missed the point entirely. And that’s fine. Not everyone is ready to go this deep. When you’re ready, hopefully this will trigger something in you and you’ll remember this article and it will have no longer been a waste of time.