Ten Days Into my 365 Photos Project

Toward the end of last year, I started contemplating doing a photo-a-day project. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Take a photo a day, and publish it, preferably on the same day. I pretty much decided that I already had too many commitments in 2015 and that I wanted to cut back, but I just couldn’t bear to scrap the idea entirely.

Then, on New Year’s Day, I woke up, and saw this nice light pattern on my wall, which I caught on camera. Then I decided, “Screw it. I’m going to post this as Day 1, and see how far I get. If I end up giving up, no harm done.”

So I posted it. Ten days later, I’m still doing it. (You can follow my project on Flickr.) I felt ready to give up on both Day 2 and Day 3, but I didn’t. Instead, I got clearer about what I was trying to accomplish, and why.

I decided that my main goals were to document my life and to practice. If I had to choose between posting a mediocre photo that told a more accurate story of my day versus a gorgeous photo that was largely irrelevant, I would go with the mediocre photo.

This immediately raised several problems, the main one being that I don’t lead a very glamorous life. I’m usually indoors in front of my computer or in a meeting. I decided to take this on as a challenge. It would force me to exercise my storytelling muscles in a more creative way. At worst, it would encourage me to get out more — a very nice side effect.

Another problem was that I didn’t always have a camera with me. This was surprising, given that I feel like I’m always carrying my camera around these days. But within the first few days of the New Year, I found myself missing out on what I thought were good opportunities. I have a smartphone, but I don’t like its camera. Yeah, yeah, I know that the best camera is the one you have on you, but I was having trouble getting over this.

By Day 7, I had to confront this problem head on. I knew I was going to have court-side access during the pre-game warmup at the Warriors game, so I brought my camera and long lens, expecting to take some cool pictures of the players. But the arena wouldn’t let me bring my camera in, because the lens was too big.

I was disgruntled, but I knew I had to get a picture, so I got this one of my friends with my phone. And I love it. It’s technically unremarkable, but it means something to me personally. Maybe I would have taken a better one of the same subject with my good camera and lens, but maybe not. Constraints are good.

The last problem was that I had to get over myself. This could take an enormous amount of time if I let it. I’m not a professional photographer, and I’m not trying to be. I want to get better, but I have a bunch of other things going on in my life. I need to be okay with improving at a realistic pace.

When I started taking photography more seriously, I started getting more self-critical. This improved my photographic eye, but it also prevented me from putting myself out there as much. One of the reasons for my improvement these past two years is that I simply share less. That’s legitimate — curation is a huge part of photography — but I could probably improve even faster by putting myself out there more, even if that means exposing inferior work.

Furthermore, taking good photos requires a lot more concentration. Sometimes, I find myself giving up on taking pictures entirely, because I just want to focus on whatever it is that I’m doing, and I know that any photos I end up taking will be mediocre as a result. If you look at my meeting pictures over the past two years, you can gauge the level of my involvement in the meeting based on the quality of the pictures. When I was facilitating, the pictures ended up being mediocre (or sometimes nonexistent), because I was devoting 100 percent of my concentration to my job at hand.

I’m trying to manage my standards and just publish something once a day, focusing on the benefits of practice rather than worrying about my self-critic. I’m enjoying it! I’ve already started to notice key opportunities for improvement, and I’m looking forward to being able to see that improvement over time rather than worrying about not being there yet.

Most of all, I love having a journal of my life. I was never able to keep a daily written journal, even when constraining myself to bullet points. But a picture journal seems easier and a lot more gratifying, and it’s amazing how a single picture can trigger a lot of memories.

It’s also an incredible way to recognize life patterns. This past week, you can see that I was around lots of people, which was great, but not typical. Next week will be similar, but the week after, I’ll start bearing down. I’m curious to see what new patterns emerge and how this feedback mechanism changes my behavior (hopefully for the better).

The Power of Constraints and Practice

I love the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m lucky enough to be able to see it from where I live. I never get sick of gazing at it, visiting it, or taking pictures of it. For me, it never gets old.

Still, I know that the hundreds of stock photos I’ve taken of this iconic bridge aren’t very interesting. While I somehow can’t resist taking these shots anyhow, my goal is to grow as a photographer and as a storyteller, to capture unique, emotional moments. I want to take pictures that are meaningful to me, but that are layered, not just literal. I also want to take these pictures largely spontaneously, although I’m not opposed to a little bit of direction here and there.

I’ve been taking lots of pictures with my zoom lens these past few months. It’s a great lens — fast and sharp — and I’ve wanted the flexibility for the situations I knew I’d be in. But I also realize I haven’t had as much fun taking pictures the past few months as I usually do. There are lots of reasons for this, but I felt like the zoom lens was playing a role.

So this past week, I started carrying only one lens with my camera — my 50mm equivalent, which is my favorite by far. It’s a tighter lens, which can make it challenging for landscapes and tight spaces, where you have limited room to maneuver. You have to let go of what it can’t do, or you’ll just get frustrated. When I manage to do this, I find it liberating. I’m forced to eliminate options, to choose and focus. It opens up all sorts of creative possibilities through the power of constraint. I don’t know the exact role carrying only one lens played this past week, but somehow, photography started feeling fun again.

Yesterday afternoon, I went for an afternoon walk on the bridge with my Mom and younger sister. I noticed them holding hands as they walked, and I asked them to pause when we got to the bridge so that I could snap the photo above.

I didn’t want to mess too much with the moment. I wanted to take the picture quickly, and move on. But I couldn’t help making two changes to the scene. First, I noticed that my sister was wearing a bracelet that our 10-year old nephew had made her recently. It was on the wrist that she was using to hold my Mom’s hand, so I pulled up her sleeve so that it was fully visible, giving the photo yet another layer of meaning.

Second, their hands were partially enshrouded in shadow. I couldn’t eliminate it by repositioning myself, so I moved their arms slightly. This is something I never would have done two years ago, not because I was shy about directing people, but because I wouldn’t have even noticed the shadow.

Much of my growth as a photographer over the past two years has simply been a result of paying more attention to light. In the past, I was so focused on the subject, I’d often ignore light and other compositional elements, such as the background. However, simply knowing that I should pay more attention to light wasn’t what ultimately helped me do so.

My growth has been a result both of intentionality and of practice. Taking pictures like these…

… has helped me develop a sensitivity toward light, so that it’s become more instinctual rather than something I have to consciously pay attention to. This, in turn, helps me recognize situations like the one above with my Mom and sister, resulting in better pictures.

I don’t know if the payoff is noticeable to others who look at my photos. But I notice it in the photos I’m seeing and taking. Here’s one I took of my nephews and brother-in-law after church in Cincinnati:

I saw my older nephew, Elliott, offering food to his little brother, Benjamin, and thought it was a cute moment, so moved to capture it. At the same time, I noticed how beautiful the light looked along the wall, so I positioned myself to try to get that too. A split second later, I noticed my brother-in-law in the distance, and included him in the photo.

It’s not a perfect photo. I was shooting in aperture priority mode, and I forgot that I was at f/8 ISO200, so the shutter speed was slow, and it came out a bit fuzzy. By choosing to compose the photo this way, I also missed out on capturing Benjamin’s face and the details of the boys interacting. It’s all good. I like the photo, and I see the progress I’m making as a photographer in it.

I’m also loving what I’m learning about perceived imperfections and how they sometimes result in stronger pictures. I took this photo of my friend, Oz, and his dog in front of the Painted Ladies while on a walk a few months ago:

I was paying attention to light — it was the middle of the day, but the clouds had come in, dispersing the bright light beautifully — but I missed the shadow on Oz’s face as a result of his hat. I still miss details like this, despite the progress I’ve been making, and when I catch it, I’m always annoyed. I could have asked him to take off his cap, and the picture would have been technically stronger as a result.

But upon further reflection, I’m glad that I didn’t. I like that he was wearing a Pixar hat, and I like that both he and his dog are wearing hats of sorts.

I’ve barely started to understand photography, but I am loving the journey. I love having an archive of memorable moments, especially with people I care about, and I absolutely love the learning process.

Sophistication Versus Literacy

I frame my work and mission around this notion of collaborative literacy. The idea is that our ability to collaborate effectively can be thought of as a type of literacy, something that we can develop and enhance through practice.

There are lots of great examples of how this manifests itself in other fields. A few weeks ago, I talked about cooking literacy in a Faster Than 20 blog post entitled, “Chefs, Not Recipes: The Tyranny of Tools and Best Practices.”

Tony Zhou’s wonderful video (brought to my attention via Alan Murabayashi’s blog post) talks about movie-making literacy using action film auteur Michael Bay as his subject. It’s a thoughtful breakdown of the difference between visual sophistication and visual literacy. At worst, if you’re a movie fan, you’ll walk away with a very concrete understanding of “Bayhem.”

I see a similar phenomenon in a lot of collaborative processes, where people patch together tools and “hot” concepts into experiences that seem collaboratively sophisticated, but that aren’t particularly collaboratively literate. Getting people into a circle and putting up lots of stickies does not necessarily equate to a great collaborative experience. I’d like to help prevent collaborative Bayhem.

My Six Favorite Essays on the Groupaya Blog

A random interaction with an old friend earlier today caused me to search for something I wrote on the Groupaya blog a few years ago. That got me nostalgic, and I ended up reading every post on the blog.

It was great to revisit these, and it stirred up some useful, sometimes nostalgic memories. I’m proud of what I wrote in my time there (2011-2012), but I’m even prouder of what Kristin Cobble and Rebecca Petzel wrote. They shared some wonderful gems.

It’s unfortunate that the company no longer prioritizes real-time knowledge sharing, since there’s a lot of wisdom in that group from which the world could benefit. It’s understandable, though. Sharing what you learn openly and in real-time is challenging, even scary, and it’s not for everyone. You have to really value it to do it.

If you do, however, you’ll find that it’s not that hard to make it a habit. It’s also tremendously rewarding, as I’ve been rediscovering through my Faster Than 20 blog. The act of writing and sharing is valuable in and of itself. It helps you think, and it helps you find your people. I am constantly humbled by the people I meet and touch through my writing.

But the most valuable benefit of blogging this way is that your ideas become persistent. (This is also what scares a lot of people.) Others can discover what you write long after you’ve written it. That can lead to new connections and possibilities. “Others” sometimes even includes yourself! I find revisiting old thinking to be a hugely valuable learning process, if only to remind me of thoughts I once thought and have since forgotten.

Here, in no particular order, are my six favorite essays from the Groupaya blog that I wrote:

  1. What Does the Collaboration Field Look Like?
  2. Measuring Impact: How You Feel Also Matters
  3. The Illusion of Control
  4. Practicing for the Emergent
  5. The Skillful, Intentional Practitioner.
  6. The Secret to High-Performance: Constant Striving

Enjoy!

Two Collaboration Insights from Last Weekend’s Football Games

It’s football season! Today, I came across two gems about this past weekend’s games that spoke to me about collaboration in general.

Data and Impact

In reaming Tennessee Titans coach, Mike Munchak, Bill Barnwell wrote:

Mike Munchak put us all through a lot of field goals for no real reason, and in doing so, he illuminated the difference between meaningful game management and the illusion of impact.

In this one, biting sentence, Barnwell is offering commentary on how we evaluate coaches. When you kick a field goal, you’re putting points on the board, and so it may look like you’re getting results. But the real question is whether kicking a field goal the highest impact move you could have made at the time. The sports analytics movement has shown that some of our most common practices are often the worst moves we can make, even though they give us the illusion of progress.

Sound familiar?

Fundamentals

The Seattle Seahawks have the league’s stingiest defense, and they completely dismantled the San Francisco 49ers powerful offense this past weekend. How did they do it? Gregg Easterbrook wrote:

The short version of the success of the Seahawks’ defense is good players who hustle, communicate with each other and wrap-up tackle. Contemporary NFL defenses are so plagued by players’ desire for spectacular plays that make “SportsCenter” that blown coverages and missed assignments have become de rigueur. Seattle’s defense almost never has a broken play. And those lads can tackle! Seattle misses fewer tackles than any NFL defense. Lots of wrap-up tackles where the runner gains an extra yard are better than a few spectacular hits for a loss, plus frequent missed tackles. Seattle defenders understand this.

Hustle, communicate, execute. It sounds so basic, it’s almost a cliche.

A big reason I developed Changemakers Bootcamp was my realization that getting really, really good at the basics could have a much bigger impact than on inventing new tools or processes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of attention and focus seems to be on the latter rather than the former. We see lots of stories from sports and other fields what a mistake this can be.

Photo by Philip Robertson. CC BY 2.0.