You’ve been writing this column for two years now. What one question do you wish someone would had asked but hasn’t yet?
~A Curious Cat
Dear A Curious Cat:
Has it really been two years already?! Thanks for keeping tabs. And thanks so much for reading and for your question.
When I started writing Dear Bubbles in November 2019, I didn’t have any expectations of what type of questions I’d get in from my community. Oh sure, I knew the kinds of inquiries that often come up in workshops, presentations, and emails. The span of queries—from creative challenges and equipment and technique struggles to the simple satisfaction of curiosity—has impressed me.
But not having any preconceived notions about what questions I should have received makes it difficult to define what I could or would have. I don’t know what I don’t know. And I certainly don’t know what’s on everyone’s minds out there to make a guess.
That said, there is one question I wish everyone would ask of themselves. And often. It’s one I consider to be the most powerful question you can ask in photography and in living a creative life. That question is, drumroll please…..
I view the practice of photography as a contemplative endeavor, a way to ask and explore questions about myself, others, and the world around me, not necessarily as a mechanism to obtain answers. Whether this approach derives from the necessity of art or is simply a productive application of my overanalytical tendencies—or both—is still up for debate. It doesn’t matter. It works for me and my work.
Asking “what if…” allows us to run through hypothetical scenarios. Thinking through a variety of options enables us to visualize different approaches, techniques, and solutions while immersing yourself in a scene without photography gear, standing behind a camera during a remarkable moment, and even at home sitting on the couch. This question enables us to embrace divergent thinking, to see that multiple paths can lead to many exciting and fresh “right” answers. It encourages us to challenge our beliefs and habits; helps us face our fears without exposing ourselves to risk; and guide us to see most of our fears are self-imposed and society-reinforced barriers—in other words, not rational and oftentimes not worth the energy we expend on them. The exercise is especially helpful when we feel stuck and out of ideas.
Knowledge and ideas seed the creative process. Knowledge and ideas are literally nourishment for your brain and food for your photography. I mentioned the importance of the “what if” question (and it’s cousins, “Why” and “Why not”) and its tie to creativity briefly in my “Lust of the Mind” column in July 2020. To get a refresher, please visit http://dearbubbles.com/2020/07/lust-of-the-mind/.
Now, “What if…” is sometimes associated with expressing regret. For example, What if I would have said something different? What if I would have done this instead of that?
Are there are many different decisions we could, should, or would have made? Possibly. For some reason, often a very good one(s), we didn’t in that precise moment of choice. When it comes to evaluating our past, I’d like to believe that we acted to the best of our abilities, whether or not we now judge those actions to be less than desirable in the present moment. That’s called growth. Value and honor that gift.
Reflecting on how you might have responded to certain situations differently to influence our development is a productive exercise. But don’t get stuck in wallowing in the “coulda”s, shoulda’s, woulda’s.” Don’t trap yourself in the past so long it affects your present and future in unproductive ways. As Lucille Ball said, “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.”
I could—and would—argue that, in addition to the benefits I outline above, posing a variety of “What if…” questions now can help stave off regret. It can help us imagine endless new possibilities. In possibilities comes opportunities and choice. In choice comes power.
- What if you tried a different type of photography (even if you were not good at it)?
- What if you bought that new camera?
- What if you bought that new lens?
- What if you could design your own camera equipment?
- What if you used all the gear you’ve already invested in?
- What if you rid yourself (e.g. sold or donated) the gear you don’t use?
- What if you could never use your favorite lens again?
- What if Photoshop/Lightroom/processing software didn’t exist?
- What if you only photographed with your mobile device for the rest of your life?
- What if you could only photograph in black and white?
- What if you could only photograph in color?
- What if you could only photograph in all the hues of purple?
- What if you used a piece of gear differently than the instruction manual instructed?
- What if you read the instruction manual?
- What if you burned the instruction manual and just went outside to play?
- What if you pressed the buttons on your camera to figure out what they do?
- What if you lengthened your shutter speed?
- What if you shortened your shutter speed?
- What if you used a graduated neutral density filter upside down?
- What if you used selective focus?
- What if you used broad enough depth of field so that everything in your frame appeared in focus?
- What if you intentionally made everything in the frame so out of focus that the objects’ forms were unrecognizable?
- What if you used a flash during the exposure?
- What if you moved the camera during the exposure?
- What if you combined multiple images?
- What if you extended the center column of your tripod as high as it could go?
- What if you didn’t judge the light as “good” or “bad”?
- What if you centered your subject?
- What if you intentionally composed so that a leading line went out of your frame?
- What if you deliberately photographed with a shower cap over your lens?
- What if you wandered without a plan?
- What if you booked that trip at the top of your bucket list?
- What if you traveled alone?
- What if you organized a trip with all your friends?
- What if you were shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island?
- What if you took a photography workshop?
- What if you listened to a new podcast?
- What if you read a new book?
- What if you read The Collected What If? book? (A fascinating collection of thought-provoking essays about historical events, not photography.)
- What if you wrote a book about yourself and your life?
- What if you wrote a poem? (A haiku!)
- What if you learned how to play an instrument?
- What if you tried watercolor painting?
- What if you painted with chocolate?
- What if you tasted seaweed?
- What if you danced in your car to your favorite songs?
- What if you sang like Yoda?
- What if you jumped in a mud puddle?
- What if you stood in the rain with both hands out to catch the drops?
- What if you squished sand through your toes?
- What if you played like a child again? (While still functioning as a respectable, contributing adult member of society—the two can coexist!)
- What if you turned off the TV?
- What if you at pie for breakfast?
- What if you started that project you’ve been thinking about?
- What if you took the final steps to finish the project you’ve already started?
- What if you made a photograph every day?
- What if you took a break from photographing for a month (or year or other set period of time)?
- What if you took that road that looked interesting on the map?
- What if you looked fear in the face and said, “No more!”
- What if you stopped caring what other people thought of your photos?
- What if the voices in your head gave you a constructive critique instead of criticism?
- What if you stopped listening to the negative voices in your head?
- What if you stopped sharing your images with the outside world?
- What if you started sharing your images with the outside world?
- What if you stopped attaching yourself to your past?
- What if you bought yourself flowers today?
- What if you didn’t care if you got wet while photographing in the rain? (Extra credit if it’s horizontal rain.)
- What if you believed in dry fog? (It’s real!)
- What if you could stop time?
- What if you could live forever?
- What if you could be invisible any time you wished?
- What if you were the last person to live on Earth?
- What if you knew everything there was to know about the world?
- What if you knew where the end of the universe was?
- What if you lived on Mars? (And what would you photograph there?)
- What if a genie in a bottle was willing to grant you three wishes?
- What if you could live a day in the life of your pet?
- What if you turned into your spirit animal?
- What if you watched a sunrise or a sunset not through the viewfinder or LCD?
- What if you did not make a photograph?
- What if you never had to work another day in your life?
- What if you made photography, or any other creative pursuit, your career?
- What if you fail?
- What if you succeed?
- What if you said “yes”?
- What if you said “no”?
- What if you went left?
- What if you went right?
- What if you went straight?
- What if you went backwards?
- What if you stayed right where you are right now?
- What if you made “someday” today?
- What if you asked the question you thought was “dumb”? (Hint: it’s not.)
- What if you tried developing film in chicken soup?
I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t pursue any of these things. I am suggesting you remind yourself that you only get one run down this river of life. If you woke up this morning, you were given the gift of another day. Congratulations. Let’s eat pie for breakfast to celebrate!
Although it may feel like you’re running full steam ahead down a certain path, you can wake up in the morning, or even decide in the next second, to change it all. In the same way, when you’re standing in front of a scene and you feel locked into a lens, light, or position, you have the power to change by asking “what if…”
Believe that you have options in the uncertainty ahead. Open the door to possibilities. Question everything. Judge nothing. Fine tune what makes you happy. Stop doing what doesn’t. Be deliberate with your time and choices. Use your imagination. Make this one run down the river count.
What if you asked what if? What would you come up with? Where would it lead you? The very thought of giving yourself possibilities in your life and photography excites me.
So much of my photographic work, business, and life comes from pondering the possibilities. In fact, the photograph at the top of this post, which is a combination of two images in the Great Smoky Mountains, came from a “what if…” line of thinking over the course of a year, specifically:
- What if I moved the camera from top to bottom AND did a zoom pull while exposing the picture?
- What if I photographed slightly out of focus?
- What if I just pointed my camera at the ground without thinking?
- What if I finally understood what happens when I press the OK button when in playback mode and select “Overlay?”
- What if I used this frame and that frame to combine? (Repeated 100s of times with different frames and combinations of frames.)
(To hear a more in-depth explanation of how I made the image, have a listen to my latest presentation on “Visualization” hosted by Singh-Ray: https://youtu.be/OeryQ3pkvFI?t=2149)
Similarly, this Dear Bubbles column began because of this exact question, “What if I started an advice column to answer my community’s questions?” And look where that’s brought me—brought us!—over these last two years.
Thank you all for reading Dear Bubbles—and thank you especially to those who asked themselves, “What if I send a question to Dear Bubbles?” And did so. You’ve made us all better photographers and people as we paddle along in this wild journey. I’m grateful to you and to all the possibilities ahead.
Be well, be wild, and may 2022 your most fulfilling year yet.
Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Looking for inspiration? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at firstname.lastname@example.org to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.