back to the beginning

My new favourite tea mug from     Pottery by Osa    .

My new favourite tea mug from Pottery by Osa.

Ever since I made the promise to shoot more, I’ve been spinning around in circles: shoot what, exactly? I’ve got full days with coaching clients, so it’s not like I can go exploring on a photo hunt every day — and good Lord, hasn’t everyone already seen what’s happening in our house? Why would I shoot anything around here, anyway?

And then it suddenly came to me: I just need to go back to the beginning.

When I first decided that I wanted to learn photography, I asked a photographer friend of mine, Josef, to help me. I didn’t know a single thing about what kind of camera to buy, or even how much to spend, or really, which end of a camera was up, so I figured I would rely on his expertise. He gave me three amazing pieces of advice: 1) spend at least $500 (!), and buy second hand instead of new (!!), (2) make sure to get a 50mm f1.4 lens, and (3) shoot, shoot, shoot. He went with me to buy the camera, and soon enough I was walking out of a wonderful camera store here in Houston with a new-to-me Nikon, having spent $501.00. (I’d be damned if I was gonna spend way over $500, man.) The camera was a Nikon FE film camera (this was way before digital cameras were a thing), and a beautiful manual 50mm lens. And then he took me out to shoot — and he taught me that photographers don’t actually shoot subjects, they shoot light — they capture how light is falling on and playing with the subject. “Photography,” after all, literally means “drawing with light.” The subject is secondary.

It was a great lesson, and I’ve discovered that really, the last two years, when I haven’t been shooting with my big camera, I’ve become sort of lazy. Camera phones make taking pictures so easy, after all — just point, shoot, apply an attractive filter, and voila, you have a pretty picture. I think it’s wonderful, honestly — I love that technology has enabled everyone to up their picture-taking game. But if I’m really going to commit to using this big camera, I needed to do more than picture-taking. I needed to return to light-drawing.

There’s a Zen Buddhist word, shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind” — the concept of returning to the openness and zeal for learning that you had when you first learned a skill, even when you already have the skill. It’s exactly what I need to do. So I’ve put away my fancy automatic lens, and attached that old, beautiful-but-decidedly manual 50mm lens to my digital camera body. The manual lens means that I have to slow down — I have to focus and adjust the aperture manually, and I have to really pay attention to the light, to ensure that it’s doing what I want it to do before I make the photograph. And so even when I’m shooting my favourite tea mug, what I’m really looking at is how light is falling and creating shadow on the mug, and whether the twinkle lights in the background are blurring into circle shapes as I hope.

Then I’m taking the shot.

It’s been a lovely exercise, and while my subjects might be a bit boring, I’m re-learning how to do the thing I’ve been doing for over 25 years now. It’s why concert pianists still do scale exercises every once in a while, I presume, or acclaimed chefs occasionally return to their mother’s pound cake recipes. There’s something to be said for occasionally returning to the beginning — and remembering why you loved a thing in the first place.

Soundtrack: Begin by Shallou (featuring Wales)