Randy’s Journey – Motivation to Get Out of Bed

Being an academic that has never followed a blog, I have a problem: I keep thinking I should have something “academic” to say, or teach, in every blog. For those of you who read/write blogs, I’m sorry to come across as such a stuffed shirt. Feel free to guide me in a more informal direction with a comment or two … please.

So here is my non-academic blog post that we can both learn from (or should that be “from which we can both learn”?) The homework from my last blog asked you to explore what motivates you to improve your photography. Since that blog post was about practice and the homework was about motivation, let me share my journey the last week and how it was impacted by practice and motivation.

Those of you who live near the Grand Teton National Park remember that early last week we had four days of pretty much all-day rain.   Since we had clear skies for a couple weeks, most of my landscape photos were fairly bland blue-bird-skies. I was looking for something more dramatic so the first day we were supposed to get clouds and afternoon rain, I set my alarm for 4:30 am and drove the 90 minutes to the park for some exciting sky. Nope, it wasn’t dramatic at all. I didn’t get any photos that were even slightly interesting. Killer for motivation !

Luckily my wife, dog, and I had reservations in Stanley Idaho for later that week – right as the rain was supposed to stop. I was excited to have a beautiful new environment in which to shoot (not that the Tetons aren’t beautiful) and when we arrived in Stanley the clouds were lifting, although it was pretty humid. I bumped into a fellow Teton Photography Group colleague (Aaron) and he told me there had been a lot of fog over Redfish Lake that morning. No worry, it will all be gone tomorrow morning and I’ll get great shots of a new environment. I set the alarm for 5:00 am since I was only a few minutes from Redfish Lake.

I got up the next morning, put on my clothes, and hurried out to the car. Whoa, I couldn’t see a thing! The fog was so thick I had
Fog at Redfish (1 of 1)to drive at 20 mph on the highway and when I got to the Redfish Lake I couldn’t even see the shoreline. I setup my tripod and camera (and didn’t fall in) and figured I could wait-it-out. I took a few photos but I couldn’t see the beautiful Sawtooth Mountains at all. After an hour I left.

As I was driving back to the motel I saw a group of cars parked at Little Redfish Lake so I stopped to see what they were doing. It turned ouLifting Fog at Redfish (1 of 1)t to be a photo workshop that had driven from Oregon the day before (a 12 hour trip) only to be socked-in with serious fog. I waited with them for more than an hour, but it was a bit easier to wait since I now had people to talk with about the lake, the fog, and photography in general. But by 9:15 they got hungry and left for breakfast. I was by myself and left a few minutes later. I had taken some photos but they fell far short of my goal; two very early rises with nothing to show for it. Bummer.

At dinner I bumped into a photographer from the area who asked me about my photography. I told him I was disappointed with all the fog at Little Redfish Lake that morning and he asked me what time I was there. I said I finally left at 9:15 after wandering at the lake for over two hours. “Too bad you left so early. I got there at 9:30 and the fog was lifting. I got some great shots of the mist over the lake with the mountains catching the light just perfectly.” Bummer! That’s what you get for leaving early.

How many times have you been discouraged when you got up really early, or drove really far, or made some other sacrifice only to get nothing in return? Not getting a “reward” after making a sacrifice can really undermine your motivation. So what should we do after such motivational discouragement?

Sunset at Stanley Lake (1 of 1)

That night I drove a few miles and set-up for the sunset over Stanley Lake. I was hoping for some clouds and they showed-up. I was hoping for some sun on the mountains and a nice sunset and it worked … and I felt better and maybe even a little more motivated.

And the next morning I had a little more bounce in my step when I got up at 5:00 am to go back to Little Redfish Lake for sunrise. There was a little fog/mist on the lake and watching the Sawtooth Mountain Range come alive as the sunlight came down the Sawtooths was rewarding enough even if I didn’t get any good shots – but I got some.

Sunrise at Little Redfish (1 of 1)

So what did I learn? It was something I already knew but getting the lessons once again boosted my motivation. Are you experiencing these lessons?

  1. Don’t Pack Up to Leave Quite Yet – This is a very tough lesson to learn since you can never be sure when things will change. I always try to stay “a little longer” and find something else to see or think about in the fog or smoke or rain or …
  2. Don’t Ask Yourself if You Should Get Up – Make up your mind the day before. Put your gear near the door or in the car. NEVER ask yourself if you should go out on a shoot when you are in a nice warm bed; the answer will always be “Sleep a few more minutes” and you won’t get out of bed.
  3. Have a Shoot-Partner to Meet – It is easy to go back to sleep but not if someone is counting on you to meet them. Photo workshops can be very helpful for many reasons and one of them is that others are counting on you.
  4. Reflect on Your Own Motivation – One of the key “strategies” to improve your motivation is to think about your own motivation. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What brings you back for another shoot after an uneventful day? How have your photos improved over the last month or year? What have you learned that has improved your photos?

And tomorrow I have an early morning shoot. I’ll leave home at 4:45 am and pick up an old college friend in Jackson at 5:45 to drive up to Oxbow Bend. It won’t be tough to get up and take a 90 minute travel because: I had some success last weekend; I have a friend to meet; and I’m confident the color of the vegetation in the park will give me a great opportunity to take some great photographs. And even if none of my photographs were great, the beauty of a sunrise at Oxbow Bend with an old friend will make it worthwhile.

A Little Help for Randy to Reach OUR Goal

I received eight comments to my last post, (and quite a few have been added to the first post.) If you are one of those folks who took the time to add a comment, thank you very much. Since I am such a raw rookie on blogs I need your help to achieve our goal of helping amateur photographers. I was looking for comments to include in my posts but that is going slowly. So rather than wait, I am going to try to put up a post every two weeks with a bit more about my journey. I also received some suggestions about including photographs; that is why I have added a few of my photos and I will probably ask for yours sometime in the future.

The next post will be about how to improve your motivation. Please respond with comments to the last post so I can include how YOU improve your motivation. Don’t worry. If you feel like you have no motivation, put that in a comment and I promise I won’t mention your name. 😉

What’s the Critical Variable for Improving Your Photography?

On the last post I left you with a question to consider – essentially a homework assignment. It wasn’t a very challenging assignment (after all, I don’t want to chase you away after my first post) but if you spent some time thinking about the questions it takes you to the heart of the difference between people who take point-and-shoot pictures and serious amateur photographers: What is the single most important variable to improving as a photographer?

As a sometimes frustrated, but usually committed, improving amateur photographer I have read dozens of books and on-line articles about how to improve as a photographer. I’ve talked to many photographers in the Teton Photography Group (http://tetonphotographygroup.org) and read the comments of “the dozen” (the photographers who have answered my questions). I’ve spent hours reflecting on what has improved my photographs. There are many variables that can improve your photography but one seems to be the foundation on which other variables build. Let me start with a funny YouTube video you may have seen.

If you are a sports fan you may have seen this video of Allen Iverson (https://youtu.be/d29VsG35DQM).  Iverson had incredible individual skills but he hated to go to practice. In this one-minute video he goes on a rant and complains about practice over 20 times. I imagine when Ansel Adams first started taking photographs there were days he didn’t feel like getting up and carrying that huge format camera out for a shoot. I know first hand there are days I don’t feel like getting up before dawn to go take photos in the golden hour. And I wonder if those of you who are most frustrated with your lack of improvement are also the ones who regularly tell yourself that you will get out for a shoot tomorrow.

As I mentioned in my first post, the First an Amateur blog is not just about my journey to better photography but also the journey of about a dozen other photographers who answered a series of questions for me. “The dozen” are all amateur photographers but they are a very diverse group in terms of experience and age and photographic skills. Let’s look at what they had to say about practice:

George – “Practice and more practice helped me learn effectively.”

Adam – “I was out on a daily basis. I would leave early to work and always have my camera with me. I made sure I found time and subjects to shoot.”

Mike – “The art of capturing unpredictable live action meant learning through trial and error a whole new set of skills.”

Patty – “After attending a workshop or reading an article, I would go out and try to practice what I had just learned.”

Loren – “I think practice and a structured approach to learning are more important than the time in the classroom or on-line.

The books and articles, my discussion with photographers, and my own personal experience has shown me that time behind the viewfinder is the most important variable in personal photographic improvement – especially for us amateurs. Boy, that was easy to say but not so easy to put into practice for most of us. Why?

Let me briefly tell you the story of freshman college students I regularly counseled when I was a professor. Many had done well in high school but by the middle of their first semester they were failing, or at least doing much worse than they had ever done in high school. They wanted to do well but most shared the same concern: “I don’t have any time to study.” I suspect many of you who are frustrated and stuck with what you see as mediocre photographs say the same thing to yourself. Most of my students thought I was respectful and understanding even though I typically said, “You don’t have any time? But everyone has 168 hours per week so we all have the same amount of time. How do you spend your time?”

As grown-ups we have a lot more responsibility than young college students but we still have only 168 hours per week. We have jobs, family, and other responsibilities and we typically have less energy. But our life is probably a little more organized than when we were teens and we probably have goals that are more clearly established. So how do we fit in time to take photographs? Adam took his camera with him everywhere he went and found time and subjects to shoot. Mike used trial and error and Patty went out to practice whenever she read about a new skill.

“But Randy, you make it sounds so easy. I just can’t find the time. You are retired so you have plenty of time.” Yea, I am retired but my first couple retirement years I didn’t “find the time” either. Now I have a way to achieve my goal most of the time; I set aside at least one morning a week to get up before sunrise to take photos. When the alarm goes off at 4:00 am I’m usually not mentally ready but I get up anyway. By the time I’ve driven for an hour to my destination I am psychologically ready and enjoying the beauty of another sunrise. Don’t ask yourself if you want to get up: the answer will always be NO. Get your clothes and photo gear ready the night before so you don’t have to answer the “Do I really want to go out this morning” question.

For many of us the biggest challenge is putting off the photo shoot until tomorrow, which certainly rivals what my failing college students did the week before a test. I thought you might “enjoy” a sign I had in my office that often explained one of the motivational strategies of my struggling students: Procrastination reduces anxiety by reducing the expected quality of the project from the best of all possible efforts to the best that can be expected given the limited time. I’m not trying to lay a guilt-trip on you – just as I was never trying to lay a guilt trip on my students – OK, maybe a wee-bit of guilt. But if procrastination leads you to be satisfied with little, if any, improvement in your photography, you might want to devote a certain amount of time-behind-the-viewfinder every week to see if you see progress. Be patient and give your new strategy a few months to work. You absolutely can improve; the question is whether you are willing to be committed to have the discipline to get out there behind the lens on a regular basis.

Some folks can find the time each week and see the progress in a few weeks or months. For others there is a time challenge they may not be able to overcome (e.g., a new job or child or other responsibilities) which will interfere with improvements. And for others the time challenge may be tied to a motivational challenge; they never seem to get around to “finding the time.” Since improving your photography skills takes time, let’s talk next week about how motivation could be impacting your photographic journey.


Motivation is a tricky topic no matter what you are talking about; motivation on the job; motivation in the classroom; motivation to clean the house; motivation to become a better photographer. I spent a lot of my professional time at the university studying motivation and applying what I learned in my college classroom. I found many research findings and classroom applications that were quite surprising that I will share with you in my next post. In the meantime, I want you to think about this question and put your answer in a comment to this blog. What motivates you to get out and take photographs and improve your photographic skills? What have you done to improve your motivation that didn’t work? What have you done to improve your motivation that has worked?   As always, your answers may be very very different.

A Little Help for Randy to Reach OUR Goal

For the first post I received about 9 comments; I responded to each of them and will respond to all future comments (until I am overwhelmed with hundreds.) A few of those comments were answers to the Homework Question (and I may include them in the motivation post) and some were commentary or questions.  Please feel free to answer the homework question or make a comment by going to the blue COMMENT button below the post.

And please feel free to include feedback to me about the post. I am very interested in knowing if First an Amateur is helping you, or at least getting you to think about improving your photography. Let me know what I can do to help you and I will try to address your alarms.