One question I’ve been wondering to myself is this: is it better to have plans and goals in our photography, or to have none?
Should we just harness our spontaneity in the streets when making images, or have some concrete plan? Should we plan for the future? Should we expect things to go to plan? Should we have goals in our photography and life?
I think in a very basic sense, it is good to have some sort of direction. Having a sense of direction gives us focus, encouragement, and serenity. Rather than feeling like a ship lost at sea, we feel like we have a compass directing us in life.
But the problem is, being overly-commuted to a goal, destination, or direction causes us to become blind to other options.
For example, let’s say you have a project idea to document this one local community. You have all these intricate plans on how you will take photos, interview your subjects, and publish a book. But once you get there, you realize it won’t work out — because it wasn’t quite as you imagined it.
In that situation, should you stick to your original plan, or be flexible, and change it up? Or decide to ditch it all together?
Flexibility and optionality
I feel as a photographer, we need to have creative freedom. WE shouldn’t become the slave of a plan. Most of us have no idea what direction we are going in our photography and life.
My practical tip: be flexible and keep your options open.
In the past, I have tried to make these grand 1, 2, and 5-year plans and projections.
But nothing ever goes according to plan.
In the past a child, I planned on becoming a scientist. Didn’t go according to plan.
In college, I planned on becoming a Sociology professor. Didn’t go according to plan.
At my old 9-5 job, I tried to plan my future “career.” Didn’t go according to plan — little did I know, a few months later, I would be made redundant and lose my job.
What I tried to do was to keep other options and doors open. Because I know the future is uncertain, and will always change.
What could we not predict?
Think about it — how quickly the world changes.
In the past, we hired web designers. Now they are mostly redundant, we can do that all easily through WordPress.
In the past, we hired taxis. Now taxi-drivers are becoming redundant, they’re becoming replaced by Uber drivers.
Currently, coders and computer scientists are being valued. By perhaps in the future of “machine learning” and artificial intelligence — they might also be made redundant.
So as a general life philosophy, don’t make any hard or rigid goals in your life or photography. Because the world changes. You need to be flexible and learn how to adapt.
Have a general idea what direction you want to head— have a vision or focus in your mind. But be willing to change the details. Because nothing will ever go according to plan.
In practical terms, don’t become married to any of your photographic projects. Be willing to ditch a certain photo project, or adapt it.
Also don’t get tied to one genre of photography. Don’t just stick to ‘street photography’, ‘documentary photography’, or ‘wedding photography’. By making yourself open to other options, you will be more creatively flexible, and adaptable in the future marketplace.
Be like bamboo. Strong, yet flexible.
Learn more: Personal Photography >
At the end of the month, GPP PopUp is coming to Berlin. If you are in Northern Europe, this city is within reach for you. And for a variety of reasons, it's almost certainly the last time Pop_UP will be held in Europe.
Here's why you shouldn't miss it.
A Compact, Info-Filled Weekend
This will be my third time teaching at Pop_UP. Over the course of one weekend—two days—the instructors there work hard to bring you a learning experience that centers on photography, but hits it from four unique and different perspectives.
That's important, because no two photographers' environments are the same. And learning from people who have successfully navigated various waters in different ways can be very valuable.
The sessions are all pretty fast paced. We each have a lot to cover and only a few hours to do it. For that reason, we each tend to step back from the daily cacophony and concentrate on things that might spark you to think about your own situation in a different way.
I wouldn't expect to learn 500 things. If past Pop_UPs are a guide, I think the more likely experience is that you'll get a deeper look into a couple dozen new concepts—many of which will be things that you have never really considered before.
People don't learn sequentially. Accumluated knowledge kind of builds up, then something causes that dam to burst and important concepts come together in a very concentrated way. Which is why there are times when you suddenly realize multiple things at once.
Creating those intersections is the main goal of my session at Pop_UP. But more on that in a minute.
Greg Heisler is a One-Off
Consider Greg Heisler. And yes, I realize there is a Joe and a Zack involved. But they each have their own online venues to talk about their approach to Pop_UP. But Greg really doesn't.
So let's talk about him for a minute.
First, Greg is one of the world's pre-eminent portraitists. You've grown up seeing his work. And you think there is this gap, for lack of a better word, that separates his work from yours. And in some ways you are right. The technical gaps are there, because he has a mastery of photography and lighting and color that few can match.
But what I have learned, watching him teach in his very open way, is that the camera-related gaps only partly explain the difference between his work as compared to that of the average "good" photographer.
I have learned that there are other gaps. Important gaps. Probably more important than the photography-related gaps that we can easily identify.
His work ethic, his thought ethic, his approach to dealing with the people in front of his camera, his respect for (and knowledge of) the history that came before us as photographers—all of that is at least as important as his mastery of photography or lighting.
Probably more important, actually.
Spending a half a day seeing that is something that is hard to put a value on. You go in expecting F/stops and you coming out realizing the important stuff had nothing to do with F/stops. If you have read 50 Portraits, you already have some idea of what I am talking about.
(And if you own his book, bring it. Get him to sign it. In 100 years, no one is going to remember me. But Greg Heisler will still be alive and well in the lexicon of photographers.)
Yes, he will almost certainly be shooting at Pop_UP. And it will be a learning experience to watch him work. He might use a Profoto light, or he might use a cheap fluorescent tube from a local hardware store. To Greg, it's all just light. His versatility and unflappability is a lesson in itself.
Lastly, back to the idea of this being a one-time opportunity. Because for the most part, Greg has been taken off of the market.
Syracuse University in upstate New York has very wisely snapped him up to keep largely for themselves. He loves it there. It's a wonderful college town with a steady stream of curious (and lucky) young minds for him to mold.
Which means he almost never teaches externally these days. And because of his academic schedule, when he does teach it is generally close to home.
If you are in Europe, this might well be the only chance you have to learn from him.
And I Have to Follow That
I have taught in a lot of places—many cities, many countries. And suffice to say that following Greg Heisler in any kind of teaching environment is its own little nightmare. Not unlike the one where you show up at school without pants.
It stems from a deep-seeded fear of relative inadequacy, something I readily confess as a "lighting guy" in the context of Greg. So you can damn-well be sure I won't be talking about lighting.
"What an amazing cooking presentation by Julia Child! Please stick around for David Hobby, who is next and will show you how to make toast..."
So my class on Sunday afternoon will be more about the things that surround photography:
• How do you find the areas in photography where you are particularly well-suited?
• How do you identify—and create—areas of extreme competitive advantage?
• How do you create the ecosystems that, in turn, create the positive feedback loops you need?
• Which "outputs" from those systems do you optimize for? (Not just money.)
• Is it a good idea to optimize for money? (Not usually.)
• What balance do you need to create to foster sustainability?
• Where do your best ideas come from?
• Is it possible to engineer a stream of strong incoming ideas? (Yes, definitely.)
I have watched for ten years as my particular field—editorial/photojournalism—has largely collapsed. Many assignment fees today don't even cover the cost of periodic gear replacement. It's crazy.
So my last ten years have been spent studying and practicing new ways to approach the "new" world of photo and its related professions. To learn to adapt to a world that has completely shifted under my feet, and to anticipate those changes still yet to come.
This is not something I write about on this site, simply because it is way out of the lighting niche. But it is something that I feel is existentially important for photographers to understand.
That's the deep dive we'll be taking on Sunday afternoon.
So That's One Day
Like I said, I'll let Joe and Zack speak for themselves. Feel free to ping them on Twitter if you have any Q's. But for those of you joining us in Berlin, this is what's on tap for your Sunday.
Pop_UP is not a forever thing. We have been to UK, Asia, US—and this month, EU. If it continues, it would almost certainly be in South America or Africa.
If you are in Europe, and you want to attend one, this is your chance. Come join us.
And if you have photo friends in Europe, please help to spread the word. None of us live there, so we would very much appreciate your help in that way.
Thanks—and see you there,
:: GPP Pop_UP Berlin, Oct 29-30 ::