The Danger of Looking Ahead

And that desire–the strong desire to take pictures–is important. It borders on a need, based on a habit: the habit of seeing. Whether working or not, photographers are looking, seeing, and thinking about what they see, a habit that is both a pleasure and a problem, for we seldom capture in a single photograph the full expression of what we see and feel. It is the hope that we might express ourselves fully–and the evidence that other photographers have done so–that keep us taking pictures. – Sam Abell

If you don’t know Sam Abell, you should.  He was on the staff of National Geographic for 30 years and is one of the best photographers of his generation.  In addition to that, his mother taught English at my High School in Toledo Ohio.  I guess that makes Sam my BFF, even though I’ve never met him.  His books are thoughtful and give great insight into the photographic process.

What does that have to do with this post?  Who would have thought that way back when, our paths would eventually lead us to where we are now.  If I’d been looking this far ahead, I’d have never been able to see or predict the events that lead to this point.

Three or four times a week, I do laps around Green Lake here in Seattle.  It’s a 2.8 mile loop, which has (very roughly) four corners that I use as markers of my progress.

When I start my walk, I can see all the way across the lake – almost a mile and a half away.  When I do that, I can feel the energy drain out of me and my legs get weaker.  Man that looks far!  The people are small specs, the rental boats merely small colorful dots along the far edge.  It’s depressing that I have that far to go, and I’ve only just started.

So I’ve learned to break up the lap into smaller parts.  I have corner one, where it bends east, then two by the boats, turn three gets me  in sight of the rowing house in turn four.  When I round turn four, I have a silly voice in my head saying “Down the stretch they come!” like a horse racing announcer. (yes, I listen to the voices in my head when they make me smile like that)

That way, I keep my head and eyes in the immediate area.  I see all the ducks, squirrels, the waves against the shore, notice how the vegetation changes each week (and making note of it for future photographs).

When I do this, the distance isn’t bad at all.  I have easily reachable milestones and best of all I notice all the little things on each leg of the journey.  Before I know it, I’m coming down the home stretch.

What does all this have to do with photography?  I’m sure you already know that by now, you guys are smart.  If you look at the goal of, say, being at National Geographic full time like my BFF Sam, it’s impossible to see how you’ll get there.  You’ll get depressed, unfocused, and feel drained.  It seems impossible, right?

It isn’t.  What’s the key?  Have a goal in mind, but break things down into manageable chunks – and most of all just keep shooting.  As Jay Maisel said:  “If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.”.  Be flexible about where it can lead you too, there may be even more interesting surprises along the way.

Then next year at this time, you’ll look back and see how far you’ve come.  I know I have. I would have never envisioned that, as I write this, I’m looking out over Seattle from my deck, Mount Rainier in the distance, and have some of my photos in an photographic art gallery show that opened yesterday.

As Dory said in Finding Nemo:  “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming”.

Now get out there and shoot, learn, try, experience and let the future take care of itself.





  1. I hate the Grandma’s 1/2 or full marathon in MN because it is on the inside of a slow curve around the edge of lake superior. You can see the end almost from the start. Love the Twin Cities marathon. I have the thing broken into 3 mile sections. That helps a lot.

    Thanks for the reminder. I am feeling frustrated after one year of trying to push to make things happen. I need smaller goals.

    Awesome about the gallery.

  2. This is a wonderful post and, for me, a companion to the idea of not ‘over thinking’ your photographic process. You communicate very well the concept of ‘just start walking’ instead of worrying about how far the destination is. Many greats have said the same idea in some variant of “shoot with the camera you have with you” or “unless you’re out there shooting, you’ll never get any great images” and to that I want to humbly add “if you see something that catches your eye, raise the camera to your eye, focus, pick your exposure, and get at least one image BEFORE you start ‘perfecting’ it”. There was something in that first moment that you saw, and you should learn to trust yourself.

    Your post is very true for me, in that I often worry too much about all those steps instead of just starting off. Great post

  3. Just came this way via @_standingstill_ on Twitter. This was a great post to read, a great reminder to not get lost in the game of worrying.

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