Randy’s Fun with Camera and Friends

In my last two posts I have focused on what we might call “negative motivations” – those motivations that keep us from doing our best. Sorry if I came across as cynical. 🙂  So let’s look at the more positive motivations this time and focus on what types of experiences we encounter, or create, that help us to want to get out there and do more photography. After all in the second blog “the dozen” made it pretty clear that practice is likely to be the most important variable in helping us improve our photographic skills and our photographs.  Let me start with an experience I had last week that really got me excited about photography.

This summer I had three college fraternity brothers from back-in-the-day (more than 45 years ago) stop by our home. Two of them were part of “the dozen” (amateur photographers who had answered my 12 photography questions earlier this summer) and both were interested in stopping by to do some photography. Tom and Larry live in South Carolina and they decided to take a road-trip across the country (yea, a 6000 mile road trip) to take photographs and visit friends. I asked them if they would be interested in me arranging a one-day workshop with a professional photographer in the area. They were gung-ho about the idea and I set-up a full day workshop with Henry Holdsworth (WildbyNatureGallery.com) to visit Yellowstone in early October. It would be my first guided workshop.

It was fun to have two old friends visit, to get reacquainted, and tell stories from our days together in college. The next day we got up early to take some shots of sunrise and look for wildlife in Grand Teton National Park. It was overcast so we didn’t get any great shots and we didn’t see much wildlife until late in the afternoon. Nothing great behind the lens but we had many enjoyable discussions and a great exposure to a beautiful national park. Late in the afternoon we met my wife at a Jackson restaurant for dinner and got back home in Victor early to get ready to meet Henry at his gallery at 6:15 am. It may not sound like this could be a great positive motivator, but it set the stage. I was having fun with friends that were interested in photography and we were all anticipating a great learning experience the next day.

None of us had any problems getting up a 4:30 am and we arrived at the Wild by Nature Gallery early. It had rained over night and there was a dense fog in Jackson Hole. But I wasn’t worried or disappointed; I was pumped to get out there and take some shots. I had told Henry that Tom and Larry were excited about wildlife photography so we started looking for wildlife in the fog as soon as we entered the park – the visibility was terrible. Soon we came across a bull elk with a small harem of about five elk cows. Henry stopped the car and immediately said, “Set your ISO at about 3200 and let’s see what shots we can get.” The sun hadn’t quite risen and the fog was thick but leaving the ISO setting to Henry allowed me to feel confident and I started shooting. I didn’t get a great photograph but considering the conditions I was pleased. Henry had made a very difficult task (exposure setting in very low light) a realistic goal for me by helping with the ISO setting.

3 Morning Elk (1 of 1)

After the elk wandered off into the fog Henry said, “Let’s get out of the fog. Let’s drive to the top of Signal Mountain.” I never would of thought of that but I will from now on! We drove up Signal Mountain Road in the fog until we came to a turnout and then WOW, Mount Moran was sitting on a blanket of fog. We all jumped out of the van and Henry said, “Get setup on your tripod, this may not last too long. Watch out for the dead tree on the left.” The next twenty minutes were amazing. The view of Mount Moran changed every minute and the four of us kept shooting with suggestions from Henry. It was so helpful that he wasn’t telling us what to do, but rather offered suggestions. He would look in our viewfinder, give us feedback, and invite us to look in his viewfinder. I felt in control and supported. I got what I consider to be very good photos – but I didn’t “watch out for the dead tree.” When I got home and looked at the photos in Lightroom I noticed what I consider to be a real nice bonus I didn’t see in my viewfinder – the car driving on the road below Mount Moran. It helps tell the story and I think it adds to the photo. I hope to get the “dead tree” removed when I learn more about Lightroom. Henry helped minimize the overwhelming decision-making, but I’m still not quite ready for quick photos when the light is changing so quickly.

Mount Moran in the Fog (1 of 1)

As the fog moved in to cover Mount Moran we jumped back in the van and drove to the top – and another WOW ! The valley below us to the east was a blanket of fog that was changing – it seemed by the second – with the sun slightly above the Gros Ventre Mountains. The view was constantly changing but it wasn’t evaporating so we had plenty of time to LEARN. We talked about exposure, composition, the edges, and I learned important key elements to look for in my photos. We stayed at the top of Signal Mountain for over an hour, looked at each other’s viewfinders (including Henry’s), discussed what was happening and what each of us was seeing. I felt supported and confident that I was learning and improving as a photographer. Henry encouraged the three of us to make comments on the details of each person’s composition in their viewfinder and gave us specific details about what he though was strong or weak.  And I felt really really motivated. Why ?

Fog from Signal Mountain (1 of 1)

As I said in my last post, each of us is different in our motivation – both the positive motivations that get us pumped-up and the “negative motivations” that undermine the behaviors that help us to improve. So what I took from the morning with Henry, Tom, and Larry may not be true for all of you, but I suspect it is true for many of us. To save some space, let me put the positive motivations in a list:

Let’s Have Fun – This is pretty much a no-brainer but it can be something to include in your motivational plan. Taking photographs should NOT be stressful and disappointing; if you are frustrated and disheartened today, are you going to want to do this again tomorrow? Tom and Larry and I had a great time because we were with old friends that enjoyed being with one another doing something we valued. We weren’t “partying” but our conversation and interaction was woven into photography.

Learning is Enjoyable – Some of you may have had bad experiences in school, which unfortunately might lead you to believe learning isn’t enjoyable. But learning doesn’t stop when school ends. Most of what we learn in life happens after we leave school. There are a number of key elements in the process of learning that are likely to increase our motivation. Sorry but I’m going to get a little academic 🙂 and compare our experience to Ed Deci’s Theory of Intrinsic Motivation. Intrinsic Motivation doesn’t require any “reward” because what motivates us is an enjoyment of what we are doing. Deci says that there are three things that help encourage intrinsic motivation:

  1. Optimal Challenge – Whenever the goals for which we are striving are challenging, and also within our grasp, we are likely to increase our positive motivation. When Henry gave me the ISO for the elk photo in the low light situation he was making the task within my grasp. Be careful about comparing your work to the work of others; for some folks competition can actually undermine motivation. Choose realistic goals that are a challenge but not outlandish. When you have both short-term and long-term goals you can control the optimal challenge.
  2. Choice – Whenever we are put in situations where we are given choice and feel in control we are more likely to have a positive motivation. When WE decide what our goals are we are more likely to achieve them. Henry guided us at the Mount Moran turnout and at the top of Signal Mountain but he never told us what to do. He gave us choices and support for the tough stuff. And he “let me fail.” He told us to “Watch out for the dead tree” but let me learn my own lesson. I’ll check with him about how to get rid of that dead tree with Lightroom :-).
  3. Informational Feedback as opposed to Evaluative Feedback This is critical. When I see comments on FB they are almost always Evaluative Feedback: they say something like “Beautiful” but seldom explain what is beautiful about the photo. Informational feedback is a statement of what is good, or not-so-good, about the photograph: “I like the leading lines in the composition” or “I think the composition would be improved if you cleaned up the edges.” I believe that Henry is a very good teacher for many reasons but a very important reason is that he gave me specific feedback about what he thought was effective in my composition and what detracted from my composition. He setup an environment in which we critiqued one another’s photographs using specific details NOT something like “Wow, that is great” or “Boy, that stinks.”

By the way, it’s been raining here for a couple days and there was supposed to be rain today. But I got up at 5:00 am and drove to a very foggy Grand Teton National Park. I could have gotten discouraged but as soon as I saw the fog I thought, I can drive up Signal Mountain above the fog. It turned out pretty good. I would have liked some folks to talk with and share Informational Feedback but after my experience last week I have gained confidence to improve my own photos.

Signal Mountain For 10-20 (1 of 1)


I imaging some of you highly motivated folks may be tired of talking about motivation, so let’s move on. The next post will focus on photographic gear. I asked “the dozen” what they believe is the most important photographic gear they have acquired that has improved their photography. Their answers were very diverse and interesting. I would like for you to think about the top two pieces of equipment (cameras, lenses, tripods, computers, software, even books) that had the most impact on your photography and send me your top-2 and why they have been important to your improvement. Come on everyone, that isn’t that hard to do. Hit the reply button and send me your homework and any ideas you have to improve FirstanAmateur.com.

Randy’s Experience – The Challenge of Getting Motivated to Learn

I’m hesitant to sound too academic in the blog but a comment by a reader recently reminded me of an idea I think I should share that may point out a real difference between some of us. It is common for us to assume other’s motivation is similar to ours and we wonder: why others choose to join challenging workshops; or why others don’t get out of bed in the morning for a great shoot; or why others get defensive or have hurt feelings about our feedback. Let me share a story I told the students in my class on educational motivation.

Imagine you are a fourth grade teacher and you are concerned about one of your students. Bobby never participates in class and when you ask him questions he always says, “I don’t know.” He has never turned in a homework assignment. On tests he simply puts his name and doesn’t answer any questions; he just puts his heads down on his desk. What do you think is Bobby’s problem? Why doesn’t he do any of the required work in your class?

If you are like my students you probably are thinking Bobby isn’t motivated.  When I asked my students how Bobby’s behavior led them to that conclusion, they said it was because he didn’t do anything in class. When I suggested that maybe Bobby was motivated but that his motivation was keeping him from getting involved for fear of failing, they didn’t believe me. But as long as Bobby didn’t try in class, his lack of effort was the excuse for his “failure.” And when he didn’t answer questions his classmates wouldn’t say he was stupid, rather they would say he was lazy or hated school. Bobby didn’t want to put himself in a situation where he would look bad and the best way to do that was to disengage from class as his excuse.

So what does that have to do with amateur photographers? How can Bobby’s disengagement in school be related to the photography challenges you are facing? Why do you have problems getting out of bed in the morning to go to a photo shoot? Why don’t you want to bring your photos to the photo club critique or enter your photo in a competition? Why were you so crushed by the “mean comments” that a skilled photography friend made about your photographs?

Let me share my own example of my fear of “not being good enough.” The biggest change I’ve had in my photography occurred in January of this year. When I learned about the Teton Photography Group and the Informal Critiques I was worried that my photos were terrible. I knew I should have brought my best photos to the meeting but I was scared (yep, scared is a good way to describe it) that people would rip my photos to shreds. So I went to the meeting without any photos and even considered lying if they asked why I didn’t have any photos.  I hate to admit it but I was afraid of failing, just like Bobby was afraid of looking stupid. Ever feel that way? Have you ever avoided trying something new ‘cuz you might look stupid, or clumsy, or lacking artistic skills? Almost all of us avoid putting ourselves in situations where we will look bad. Unfortunately, that avoidance typically keeps us from learning.

So what did you do Randy? I was very fortunate at my first Informal Critique to watch a number of other amateur photographs get really constructive feedback on their photos. Many of the people around the table were very skilled “amateur” photographers (they seem like pros to me) who were very constructive in their comments. The gave positive feedback to each person (e.g., “I like the contrasting colors.”) with suggestions that were constructive (e.g., “I think this photo would be improved by cropping out the tree on the left.”) I left the meeting feeling comfortable and convinced that the leaders at the meeting were there to help us improve our amateur photography. So the next month I brought some photos.

So how do others impact our motivation to improve our photography? For many of us our concerns about looking bad may get in the way, unless we trust those around us. I left that first Teton Photography Group meeting feeling that I could trust the people who were there; their comments focused on what the amateur photographers could do to improve their photos and they had positive comments about each of the photographs. Their support and “gentle critique” brought me back with my photos for the next meetings.

Since some of you have suggested that adding photos to the blog made it bit more interesting, I’ll give you an example. But I must add that these are not the first photos I brought to the critique. I know, some of you are probably thinking that I am ashamed to show them 🙂 but the truth is my original thumb drive is broken (I know that sounds like “the dog ate it” excuse.) So here are the two photos I shared at the Informal Critique at the next critique and the feedback I received.

This photo of a pair of pronghorns was received quite well. The feedback I received was the pronghorn on the left (in sharp focus) and the pronghorn on the right (not in focus) moved the viewers eye to the sharp pronghorn and his eyelashes, which is what I wanted to do. They also said that the brush between the two pronghorns was distracting and could be removed in Lightroom, which led me to want to learn more about Lightroom.

Pronghorn 2

This photo received a lot of feedback and all of it was very helpful. I can’t remember the exact comments but we discussed whether this should be a photo of a sunset or one that was more abstract. We talked about it for quite awhile and I felt I really learned a lot about composition, color, and ideas I never thought of exploring.

SSR Sunset

Some Suggestions to Consider for OUR Blog

That leads me to suggest a few things WE can do with this blog. I am pleased to see that we have about thirty followers of FirstanAmateur.com and that each post is receiving some comments.   I hope that this post will encourage more of you to make some comments. I suspect that I’ve got some of you to think about what might be holding you back from improvement (e.g., Are you hesitant to share your photos with others because they may shoot you down?). I also hope that if you realize that those concerns are getting in the way that you may share more of your photography IF we can build a supportive community of learners.

So here are a couple of suggestions.

First – What if I can add a page to the blog where you can share your photos with all the readers so they can give you some feedback? I know, for some of you that would be quite threatening, just like that first TPG Informal Critique was scary for me. If there are a number of you that are interested, I think I have someone that can help me create a webpage for the blog that will allow you to share your photos. Please note, I am admitting I cannot do that myself so I hope our FirstanAmateur.com community will be patient with me.

Second – What if I were to offer a Peer Mentor Photography Program? The Informal Critiques were very helpful to me and I think something like that could be helpful to many of you. What I’m thinking of doing is creating monthly informal critiques that include identifying a partner that you can work with for both the critique and a monthly photo shoot. You could identify your own partner (maybe someone you know who is also interested in improving their photography) or find someone at a group meeting. Lots of possibilities here and I am certainly open to your suggestion.

And one last request for comments. Does it help for me to share my experiences (successes and failures)? Has it helped you to read that I left the scene early at Little Redfish Lake when staying would have resulted in getting great photos? Or that I was fearful that my photos weren’t good enough to be critiqued by members of the Teton Photography Group? It feels a little awkward sharing my mistakes, but I’m thinking it is good for me to share my mistakes since we are all First an Amateur.