Breaking Routines

Small waterfall in Yosemite Valley, high noon
Small waterfall in Yosemite Valley, high noon
Everyone develops routines and habits: waking up at the same time every day, eating the same thing for breakfast, taking the same route to work… and on and on. Routines are beneficial in some ways—they help us avoid spending time and energy making small, unimportant decisions every day.

In photography, routines can help with the technical, left-brained stuff. Always putting lens caps in the same place in your camera bag, or the same pants pocket, can help save time and avoid frustration. Checking off a mental list before pressing the shutter can prevent mistakes. Did you adjust the polarizer? Focus? Set the right aperture? Shutter speed? Did you check the histogram? What’s your ISO?

But routines also dull the senses, and in photography that can be deadly. I’ve photographed this small waterfall in Yosemite many times, but always in the shade. Soft light works well for subjects like this—it makes it easy to use slow shutter speeds, and simplifies the lighting. So I’d never even considered visiting this spot when sunlight was hitting the water.

Last weekend I was shooting footage for some instructional videos in Yosemite Valley. I wanted to talk about using slow shutter speeds with moving water, but the crew only had one day in Yosemite, and the schedule only allowed us to visit this waterfall at noon. As we approached the fall I thought, hmm, this might work. Backlight filtering through the trees created some interesting patterns, and as the sun moved it started to highlight just the right spots. As I was demonstrating how different shutter speeds affected the appearance of the water, I was looking at the images on my viewfinder and thinking, “Wow, that looks pretty cool!”

So a tight shooting schedule forced me out of my routine, we visited a familiar spot at an unfamiliar time, and I ended up making perhaps my favorite image of this waterfall yet. Which makes me wonder: what other mental ruts have I fallen into, and how can I get out of them?

While the left brain likes routines, the right brain—the creative side—needs stimulation. We all fall into photographic ruts, preferring certain lenses, or the same kind of light, or particular subjects. Even when visiting a new location we tend to photograph it in the same way as the last spot. But all it takes to break out of that routine is to try something new. Use the “wrong” lens. Photograph in “bad” light. Fill the viewfinder with mostly empty space—and make it work. Put your subject in the center—or on the edge of the frame.

I’m going to give myself an assignment: to identify my own photographic rules and boundaries, and break them. What are some of your boundaries? How could you break your routines and stimulate your imagination? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: The Third Dimension in Photography; Capturing a Mood

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California

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    Michael I absolutely agree with breaking routine with photography, or any art form for that matter. Today especially with the mass media and constant visual influence we receive or have access to, I feel it?۪s hard to capture something new, interesting, or visually surprising. Take for instance how many times a popular object or location can be photographed with almost identical results. One explanation that I believe I read in one of the books written by Gillis, is that when the photographers are technically equivalent, they will most likely pick the same photo position at a given location. This coupled with a somewhat standard lighting situation (cloud formation or sunset), will provide a very similar photograph. However, with the amount of time spent, and the ease of viewing thousands of images, is there a subconscious (or possibly even a conscience effort) to replicate what we?۪ve already seen and believe to be a pleasing image? I fear this may be the case when considering our current media eruption. I?۪ve been an auto racer/builder for longer than I care to admit at this point and an amateur photographer for the last couple of years. When I approach the task of capturing an artistically pleasing image, I try and use some of the same techniques as I do with the auto racing. Once I?۪m familiar with the format or methodology on the operation of the tool (in auto racing it would be the vehicle and in photography the camera, equipment, and software) I want to know the rules and read them on my own, and then I don?۪t want to see anyone else?۪s interpretation of those rules. For example, if I submit a photo in the assignments section of Outdoor Photographer, I try to read only the assignment heading (the rule) and not look at any of the entries prior to creating an image that I might like to submit. I?۪m basically trying to take a fresh look at what?۪s there and hopefully I?۪m able to identify something that?۪s out of the box using my own interpretation. My reason for adopting this approach in the auto racing/car building is that if I follow someone else or copy their idea, my best possible outcome would be that I end up being only as good as they have become. While this may at times be better than I am, this doesn?۪t work well when you are trying to be the best or stand out. I feel this translates well to photography, although I understand that my thoughts may carry somewhat less weight than if I was as an accomplished professional photographer. I must also clarify that I believe mastering the actual technique of equipment operation is paramount to creating images that are pleasing. This can be and most likely should be learned from someone else and at most times is not hampered by somewhat of a routine. It is also continual, given the advances that seem to be happening almost overnight with equipment. I hope this helps.

    Michael, great article and great picture of the waterfall.

    This is thought provoking, because when you learn a technique and perfect it, you feel good about your ability to be able to nail a shot over and over. You don’t really think about it becoming dull and predictable because you end up with great shots. However, until you try something different, you never know what you’re potentially missing out on.

    Plus, who doesn’t like to break a rule now and then?

    Tracy, Marcus, thanks for your comments, and sorry I missed seeing them until now.

    Tracy, very thoughtful stuff – thanks! “if I follow someone else or copy their idea, my best possible outcome would be that I end up being only as good as they have become.” Absolutely. And you’re right to point out that we learn by copying, and that’s perfectly fine, but at some point you have to go beyond that if you want to make really satisfying images – satisfying to you, that is.

    Marcus, that’s very true – we want to do things that we know we do well, so it’s natural to try to repeat ourselves in that sense. But at some point this becomes less fun, less satisfying, because you’re just imitating yourself. It’s fine to keep doing what you know how to do, but it also makes photography more fun when you at least occasionally break away from that.

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