Is it done yet, or are you just done with it?
In the years after college, when I was still figuring out my path in this world, I spent some time working in an auto body shop, repairing and painting cars. It was a fun way to spend a few years, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. You may not think that sanding cars and then spraying paint on them has very much in common with photography or filmmaking, but what I learned while mindlessly moving a sanding block back and forth turned out to be of vital importance so far in my career. I would even argue that it's the biggest factor when it comes down to who succeeds and who doesn’t in this highly competitive industry– and it has nothing to do with your equipment, skills or even your ideas.
Fast forward a decade to my tenure as Backpacker Magazine’s Staff Photographer, and I find myself encountering this skill once again, but this time as the person who needs someone else to have it. Working for a major outdoor magazine like Backpacker is what one might call a dream job, but even the dreamiest of jobs have their little bits and pieces that aren’t very fun. Every November we found ourselves surrounded by a pile of sleeping bags, fresh out of their tiny stuff sacks, wrinkled as all get out, that needed to be photographed for the annual Gear Guide. Those bags desperately needed to be steamed. This job usually fell to whoever was the Photo Intern at the time, and year after year, I noticed the same thing– they always stopped steaming too soon. They decided the job was done, but there were clearly still wrinkles. Maybe there was a secret. Or maybe that's just as good as it gets. Nope.
Now, you may say, “But I don’t want to paint cars or steam sleeping bags, so who cares?”. (And we actually had an intern who said that. He didn’t last long. But nevermind that.) Here’s where we get to the point!
Time and time again as a photographer, filmmaker and musician, I’ve found that what really sets people apart, what really makes the difference between a good artistic project and a great one, usually comes down to who was willing to keep at it until it was really done, and who called it done too soon. Whether you’re sanding a car to get it ready for paint or steaming a sleeping bag to get it ready to be photographed, you’re ability to pay attention to detail and stick with something until it’s finished– really actually finished– will be the primary factor in your success.
You see, sanding and steaming are both pretty simple tasks. I can teach you everything I know about both of them in less than 20 minutes. You are trying to remove imperfections from a surface, and your job is finished when there aren’t any left. There’s no real secret. There’s no special knowledge. No magic trick. Just keep working on it until it’s perfect. And when you bury the sanding job that you did with paint and some glossy clear coat, or you shoot that sleeping bag with a high resolution camera and a bunch of studio lights, every flaw is magnified, it quickly becomes apparent whether or not you did a good job.
Turns out the 80/20 rule holds true in all things.
The 80/20 rule, if you haven’t heard it, is the ballpark rule of thumb that says 80% of the task is done in the first 20% of the effort; and the remaining 20% of the task will take the remaining 80% of the effort. When reshaping and sanding a car, the basic shape is there pretty quickly, and before long, it looks mostly right; but you can spend hours smoothing out the tiny little dimples that will look like craters after you paint it. With steaming a bag, the big wrinkles are gone almost instantly, but those really fine creases, man those take a long time. And so it is with making art!
If you’re shooting a portrait assignment, you probably have your lighting idea planned before the subject steps in front of your camera, and by your 10th shot, you probably are 95% of the way there. You then spend the next 100 shots making minor tweaks and corrections– look here, turn the fill light down, chin up, move the key a bit, work on the expression, a little closer– and those tiny changes– steaming out the wrinkles of your idea– when all put together are what make the difference between a good portrait and great one. With an adventure image, it may look like that person just strolled through that mountain trail, perfectly in stride when the image was taken, just in the right spot of the trail, with just the right color shirt on; but all of those things were part of the process. Little adjustments to get things just right, shaping the image until everything is exactly how you want it. In the image above, we didn’t just arrive at the beach, toss up an AcroYoga pose, and a big splash just hopped right in the photo for us. Sam, Raquel and I spent a day looking for a location with good waves breaking on rocks, figured out the best time to shoot that would maximize both higher tides and good afternoon light, then tried to get them up in the full pose at the right time for one of the 1-in-20 big, splashy waves. And then a tried again, and again, and again. Until we finally one we were happy with. And if there wasn't a limit to the number of times Sam can hold Raquel over his head with one arm, I probably would have wanted to try even more.
I struggled with this a lot early in my photo days, and I think a lot of people do. There’s this notion out there that if you’re really good, you just bang out a few shots, and bada bing you’re done. So I would get 20 frames into a shoot, and be really frustrated that I wasn’t making magic yet, then move on to a different idea for 20 more frames. It wasn’t until I had a few opportunities to watch the work of a few people way out of my league who I really admired, that I noticed something. They actually worked on things LONGER than I did. They weren’t afraid to stay on an idea and work it until it was what they wanted it to be.
Sure, with technological things like photography or filmmaking, there are certain requirements of gear needed to pull off some things, as well as the skill and practice to properly use those things when it counts (and believe me, I’m all about education and proper equipment). But when we find ourselves walking away with a finished product that isn’t as good as it should have been, in my experience, it’s far less an issue of gear, skill or the strength of the idea, and is usually just an issue of throwing in the towel too soon when the job really wasn't quite done yet.
Your gear is probably good enough. Your skills are probably good enough. Your ideas are probably good enough. Spend the time you need to take your project all the way– and don’t call it done, until it really is.
Here– I’ve made you this incredibly complex flow chart to help guide you through this process.
Keep sanding. Keep steaming. Make something awesome.