Jeff Kida, Photo Editor

I had lunch the other day with an amateur photographer who talked about his frustrations with the craft. He’s been shooting for a long time — first with film, decades ago, and now with digital. He’s taken many classes and workshops, but when he goes out to shoot, he says, he gets hung up. I asked him what he’d been focusing on. He said he’d been shooting everything from wildlife to macros to landscapes.

Photograph by John Burcham

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Paul Markow, a longtime contributor to this magazine. Paul had been mentoring an aspiring photographer. He had potential, but he kept hitting creative “speed bumps.” Paul’s been in the business for almost 50 years, and he’s developed an interesting philosophy: With photography, he compares the learning curve to assembling a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final image will be. Every piece is a piece of knowledge that comes from study and practice. And new pieces are added in with subsequent workshops and photo shoots. If a person takes the time and stays the course, Paul says, the pieces eventually will fall into place and the image will be revealed.  

Paul has another piece of advice: Instead of trying to shoot everything, choose a single subject and focus on documenting that location or theme. Once you think you’ve mastered it, don’t quit — keep working your subject. The best photographers never say, “That’s it. I’m done.” They keep looking for ways to make a better photograph.

A good example of that appeared in our September 2014 issue, in a portfolio about Bismarck Lake, which is just outside of Flagstaff. For the assignment, we gave photographer John Burcham 18 months, with the simple
instruction to visit the lake at least once a month for 12 months. That was it. We didn’t want to lock him in. We wanted John to figure it out through his own process and vision. Of course, he mastered it. Because he’s a professional who focused and plumbed the depths of his creativity. Bismarck Lake became his muse. You need to find your Bismarck Lake.

Do you have a question about photography? Email it to [email protected], and our photo editor, Jeff Kida, will try to answer it in a future issue.