I freely admit to being a fan of the Bill Murray comedy film "Groundhog Day" which sees the same day play out over and over until the intrepid TV weatherman protagonist learns his lesson. With February 2nd right around the corner, I got to thinking. Allow me to explain.
There once was a time when you didn't know how to use a camera to take pictures. Everything was new. At some point though, you began to feel like you were getting the hang of things and became more comfortable with the process. Ever since then, you've hopefully been honing your craft, working to get even better.
But to the extent that a given photographic opportunity fits a pattern you have already learned how to handle, it can be all too easy to react to it out of habit, based more on what you already know than by what else may be possible. It can be all too easy to repeat patterns, over and over, and not even recognize them as patterns. At some point, a pattern can become "just how it's done," without ever giving it a second thought.
If you don't believe me, set aside the whole subject of improving your photography, just for a bit, and allow me to temporarily change the subject. Let's consider briefly the process of learning to drive. I can still recall how it went, and hopefully you can too. At first, everything took effort. I had to consciously perform every action. Staying in my lane was difficult to begin with because I over-obsessed on doing so. I found myself focusing on the where my vision of the car's hood projected out to meet the road in front of me and the lines painted on that road. Every little variation in alignment caused me to react by turning the steering wheel to compensate. Or rather, I should say "overcompensate." Stepping on the gas and brake pedals required careful attention so I didn't screech away from a stop when the light changed to green or lurch to a stop when I approached the next one as it turned to yellow and red. That's why they called it a "Learner's Permit" of course, but I was definitely nervous about every action at first.
But it didn't take long for me to begin to get the hang it. Even if it did seem like forever at the time. Gradually, I found myself performing such basic driving actions without really thinking about it overtly. It became "just the way it was done," and I could focus more on my surroundings than on the car I was sitting in.
Now, maybe the example of learning to drive isn't entirely applicable. I mean, after all, photography is an artistic pursuit, and there's only so much creativity involved in driving a car. You can't exactly drive straight through a red light just to see what happens, or at least you shouldn't. So what about learning to play a musical instrument then? All that time playing scales by rote or practicing chord patterns eventually gives way to provide room for freer expression – using the instrument as a tool rather than an end unto itself. This aspect matches well to learning to operate both a car and a camera. Once you master what seem to be the basics in each of these endeavors, the piece of machinery becomes a tool and almost an extension of the user.
Returning to photography again, it's probably just fine to know enough about the tools of the trade not to have to obsess over every action. But where do you draw the line? What is it that is helpful to learn by rote, and what is it that gets in the way of your creativity? I've done it so many times, I can set my tripod up without even thinking about it. But if I always set it up to the same height I'm missing the possible vantage points available from different heights. If I always reach for the same lens when photographing a given subject, I miss the framing available with other focal lengths and lenses. The rule of thirds can be helpful, but it can also be self-limiting.
Making a distinction between one thing being helpful to learn and another standing in your way of seeing the full range of possibilities isn't easy. The first thing to do though is to admit we have a problem. Or perhaps it's enough to say we have an opportunity, if we're willing to take it and stop always repeating ourselves.
There a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The quote is generally attributed to Albert Einstein, but there's considerable debate as to the accuracy of this source. But regardless of who first said it, it describes pretty well what we are sometimes guilty of. Now I'm not saying that any of us are insane or anything, but we do repeat ourselves over and over without ever realizing it. And then we wonder why all our images end up looking the pretty much the same. Why is it that some people can see creative possibilities that others miss? Could we be doing things the way we always do rather than the way we could if only we saw the possibility? Are some people more aware than others of where their habits are holding them back? Or more to the point, would it be helpful if we were more aware?
In the movie, Bill Murray's character eventually learned what was happening and was able to break out of his habitual ways of repeating himself. Just like with every good movie, Murray's TV weatherman did indeed live happily ever after in the end. But only after he realized what he had been doing wrong the first two thirds of the movie.
That's what we have to do too. The next time you go out with your camera, try to pay attention to everything you do, even the steps you normally take for granted. Why are you doing that? And why that particular way of doing it? Remember, some things are helpful to do automatically so you can focus on more important matters. Some things though could be done a different way and may actually be good to do differently – or not at all – in certain circumstances. There really is no hard and fast line between the two, and only you can discover where you are unconsciously falling into the Groundhog Day cycle. Only by seeing beyond the force of habit can you grow beyond those habits.
By the way, there's another Bill Murray comedy called "What About Bob?" Back when it came out in the early 90's I had friend who insisted on saying that to me at every possible opportunity. "What about Bob?" over and over again. Whether this was the reason why or not, I was never much of a fan of "What About Bob?" Thankfully, now that enough time has passed, she doesn't say that to me all the time anymore so the mention of the movie's title doesn't irk me so much now as it once had come to. I'd still say that "Groundhog Day" is the better movie. But unless you too are named Bob and used to have friends like mine, that may just be me.