Start by giving up.

Sometimes I find the photo after I’ve just admitted failure and am on the way back to the car.

Photograph of the Old Cedar Bridge in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Say I have an idea for a photo somewhere, and finally decide to go out and get it. After driving across town, parking somewhere, and walking to the location, I’m already feeling dumb about all the time I’ve spent, and telling myself it won’t pay off. And of course when I get to that magical spot… it doesn’t look so great.

I think my brain then gets tied up comparing reality to my preconceived dream image, analyzing where I went wrong, and trying to salvage the situation. I hang around for a while, fiddling with the camera, hoping I get lucky and it pans out somehow. Eventually I give up, start thinking about other things and just cruising the area; and then, maybe I see an interesting photo .

My takeaway from these experiences is that the mental activity of trying to execute a preconceived plan – against the resistance of the real world – is incompatible with the sort of free-form “looking around” that leads to photos I like.

One very cold morning, I drove down to the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge and walked out on the snowy deck. This bridge spans Long Meadow Lake, a backwater of the Minnesota river. After being obsoleted by the newer Highway 77 bridge, it fell into disrepair but was restored for pedestrian use in 2016. It’s now part of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Migrating tundra swans gather on this lake in the fall.

What I had in my mind was this: low rays of early sunlight from the east, hitting masses of vapor on the frozen lake down below. The reality was this: featureless snow-covered ice, in dull shadow. Total nothingness. The bridge wasn’t even oriented like I thought it was; it actually lined up end-to-end with the sun. A wasted trip. My feet were already getting cold.

Trudging back to the car, I turned around to look back and saw beams of winter sun, broken up by the girders, stretching down the deck of the bridge and revealing a few lonely tracks in the snow. Blue and gold. A typically cold and gritty Minnesota scene – nothing spectacular, but I liked it. Luckily I had a camera with me.

3 Replies to “Start by giving up.”

  1. Like you, I find preconceived photo plans often disappoint. Lately I basically limit my preplanning to choosing an area to explore. Once at the location I explore with the hope of discovering a photo or two or three. For these kinds of outings I tend to bring along a variety of lenses, not knowing what will present its self. Typically I bring along a Telephoto zoom, a macro lens, a wide to normal zoom and a 1.4x teleconverter.

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