There’s something freeing about a crappy camera. The type of camera that belongs in a messenger bag. At the bottom, among the Doritos crumbs and pencil shavings. It’s the camera you don’t mind being ruined. The kind of camera you can take with you wherever you go. The sewers, for example. It’s the type of camera you’re willing to point at anything because it doesn’t matter if the photo turns out or not. It is, after all, a crappy camera.
I forgot what a joy this kind of camera can be. I began taking photographs again just before the new year, and I felt so good about it, I embarked on two new projects January 1: 365days and 2009, a year in pictures. My fresh-minted son is one reason I began these projects. The main reason, really. But the other is that I enjoy taking photos. The act of photography makes me a more careful observer, a better seer. I’m able to find details in everyday life that, without a camera in my hand and photography on the brain, I might not notice otherwise. And the crappy camera, for some reason, frees me from deeming something not worthy. It makes it easier to practice. And as we all know, practice is a big part of excellence.
I used to think writing prompts and writing exercises fell into the waste-of-time category because I’m a snob and believed those who needed writing prompts should worry less about prompts and more about sitting down and god-damn writing. I still hold that belief, to some degree, but now understand writing prompts might serve as practice when ongoing projects are scarce. And writing prompts could be the seed that germinates into a full-fledged story. This is not, actually, unlike a photo-a-day project for someone who’s day is often routine (like, if you work in an office, drive the same route every day, and rush home most days to spend time with your family whose company you enjoy more than all others. Maybe even all others put together. Hypothetically, I mean. If that was you.)
Many of the photographs I take are crap, or are at least wholly unexceptional. But the simple act of taking one every day makes me a little better, and the sheer number of photographs suggests a couple good ones in the bunch, at least.
In his latest book, Outliers, Malcom Gladwell suggests one of the keys to expertise is practice. Notably, 10,000 hours worth. Merlin Mann, part inspiration for this new blog, has also lit upon the idea after reading Twyla Tharp and Stephen King. I first heard of this practice idea in an interview with Donald Barthelme. My fiction teacher read an excerpt in class. To paraphrase, Barthelme maintained that writing fiction is all about soiling paper, and when pressed on the amount of paper he had soiled, Barthelme confessed to “boxcars full.” But the message didn’t settle until I read an article in Wired about David Galenson and his theories on genius types. I would hazard, without having read the book, that Galenson’s work heavily influenced Gladwell’s Outliers.
I’m not saying I’m a genius. Far from it. I know this or that about the craft of writing fiction, but it’s taken me a long time to figure it out. I’m a long-term “genius,” according the Galenson. The other, quicker genius is enjoyed by folks like F. Scott Fitzgerald (one of my favorite writers) who captured a zeitgeist and wrote perhaps the greatest American novel (in that it is most American) before he was 30. Fitzgerald had something innate, and when he tried to examine it, to coax it out of himself, he could not, his writing suffered, and he died. Pleasant stuff, right?
What does all this have to do with a crappy camera? It’s pretty simple, really. If I paid attention to what other people told me to do for photography, I’d probably buy some mid-range Canon SLR, several lenses, a $500 tripod and worry about depth of field, white balance, and a million other bits of photographic minutiae that, in the end, would keep me from taking as many photographs as I need to get better. And so now I shoot often with this crappy Fuji FinePix S700 and worry not about color, exposure, depth of field, or clarity. The cheap camera (with busted LCD, I might add) enables me to focus on large-scale concerns like subject and composition. It also enables me to take a ton of photos fast, with little worry. In essence, it enables me to practice, practice, practice. And later, when I’m comfortable with composition, then I can move back to the Pentax as my primary camera and begin examining things like depth of field, how shutter speed and aperture interact, and what it means to have a really nice lens.
And what does this have to do with you? It’s simple. Do what you need to practice. Take the time, use the tools you have on hand, whatever they may be, and know that all creative work is separated: large-scale concerns like structure and composition, and small-scale concerns, like word choice and sharpness. It’s easy to get so bogged down in the little things that we forget the large-scale concerns. Remember them, and use the tools necessary to keep them top-of-mind.