Lobster Captain Benner

“Change is a tonic.” Boy, I wish I had written that. But, I didn’t. Just another example of the many pithy things my small but perfectly formed brain has missed. It was written by William Zinsser, the author of the best book about writing (On Writing Well) and it rang true as soon as I read it.

What he was getting at was that for all creative types (yes, that includes you), trying something different is creatively refreshing, creatively healthy and even creatively necessary. And by different, he means really different. A change is not trying a vertical composition instead of your usual horizontal or working on tulips instead daisies. A change is a radical departure from what you normally do. Think of a politician telling the whole truth or Brittany Spears going to a library.

I took Zinsser’s advice and stepped bravely into a new world. For me the change was both exhilarating and reinvigorating. It was also darn scary. But I am now photographing subjects I had either overlooked or outright avoided my entire professional career. And, this is the important part, I am now more excited about my photography, I am a more skilled photographer and my pictures are better than ever.

So, what was my change? I went from being a pure nature photographer – no hand of man, no people, no way- to all hand of man, all people. For 25 years I photographed all things nature, from grizzlies to wildflowers, from sweeping landscapes to dew drops on spider webs and I spent considerable time and effort getting power lines and rooftops, roads and contrails out of my pictures. And I was good at it, darn good.

Now, I don’t care about power lines or fence lines, rooftops or black tops. If the light is good and the composition is good, I’m good. How liberating is that?! And now, instead of traveling all the time to exotic locales I am photographing 4 miles from my home on just a single square mile of property. How wonderful is that?! My subject? An old Vermont dairy farm. It is very pretty, very close and extremely satisfying.

Here is what change did for me:

First it challenged me. I knew how to approach moose and flowers but I had no idea how to approach a dairy farmer. Do I come in down wind? Should I wear camo? What is dairy camo? Turns out it wasn’t that hard, I just introduced myself. But how do I take a nice picture of a dairy farmer? Turns out you try and fail and try and fail and then you figure it out. It’s a puzzle and figuring it out is the best part of trying something new.

Accepting change forced me to photograph things I had avoided- people, cows and the inside of buildings- and it forced me to take some really, truly dreadful pictures before I learned to take

Hugh Bromley, 92 years old

better ones. But remember-‘digital’ is Latin for ‘its okay to fail’. Without great failure you will never find great success.

Photographing different subjects forced me to learn to use my camera differently. I shoot at high ISOs now. I handhold many compositions now (its tough to set up a tripod on a tractor) so I had to learn how to best do that and I take most of the shots without much forethought now…after all, I can’t ask the farmer to go back and replow that row or remilk that cow. I have to think very fast and react to get the shots I see.

Photographing unfamiliar subjects also forced to change personally. This is the most difficult part, the scariest part and the most wonderful part of change. Photographing people forced me to overcome my innate shyness toward strangers and my hesitancy to put a camera in their face. It took me several months to begin to feel comfortable photographing people and get the strong images I wanted but now I am much more confident and relaxed photographing other people.

Photographing people and where they live and work also forced me to interact with my subjects not just record them from a distance. You don’t get intimate, impactful pictures standing fifty feet away with a long telephoto. And when you start interacting with people you actually become part of their community and not just some odd ball that looks for spider webs and moose tracks and chases rainbows and sunsets.

These are good things, no really they are. I know I am talking to a bunch of oddballs about this (remember, I am one too) but every so often it is good to spend more time with a human than with your hard drive. And even if you try this ‘change’ thing and fail miserably what have you lost? Nothing! Your flowers and sunsets will still be there for you. Besides, you might like it! So go ahead, try something different. You have my permission. It won’t hurt. Try it. Its okay.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine