Where the Sidewalk Ends
During a brief respite from our recent rains earlier, I was out taking a walk around the neighborhood and found myself thinking a lot about sidewalks. This may sound like an odd topic to write about for a photography blog, but please keep reading. There is a point to all this.
Sidewalks are interesting things. They help guide tourists and those less familiar with the area. They provide a sense of direction and perhaps even purpose. Sidewalks imply that there must be something in that direction worth walking to.
For modern city dwellers, sidewalks function somewhat as guardrails. They tell us where to walk and at least imply where we should not walk. At downtown intersections, they even tell us when to walk and not. In Seattle, they ticket people for jaywalking if they cross against the light. Sidewalks mean we don't have to walk in the mud when it's raining. They keep pedestrians safe by giving them somewhere to walk other than in the street. They keep traffic flowing better too for the same reason. There's any number of good reasons why city planners put sidewalks in when building out new areas and when retrofitting existing ones.
But sidewalks limit our choices, even if only subconsciously. Even as they help guide those who need the help, and even as they make life easier for those of us who know where we're going, they create default patterns that we all follow, even where there may exist good reason not to — even when there might be somewhere worth going that the sidewalk doesn't.
In a similar fashion, most new photographers benefit by reading and relying on the instruction manual that came with their camera. When they get a new camera, people somehow have to learn to use it. Guidebooks and websites covering the "rules" of composition help aspiring photographers by guiding them as to what generally aids in creating successful images. Indeed, there is no lack of information and instruction available from others to help photographers to be successful at their craft.
But all that information and all those rules create guardrails that serve to limit choice. Thankfully, no one will give you a jaywalking ticket if you don't follow the rule of thirds in your composition. But all of us are influenced and guided in what we shoot and how we shoot it by all this outside information on "good" photography. Just follow the rules and you won't make any serious mistakes.
But neither will you create anything truly original. I mean, if you always follow information from others, where does your own creativity fit in? If you restrict yourself to advice from others, you'll tend to end up with images that could have been taken by others. Guidebooks are published covering most national parks and other scenic destinations telling you precisely where to stand, how to compose, and how to shoot images that look just like the ones taken by "the experts" in the book. While these sort of guides can be helpful up to a point, you have to be willing and able to go beyond such guardrails to discover your own photographic vision.
Suppose you're walking down the sidewalk. You've been at it for some while so you must be getting some place good. As you continue walking though, you get to a point where the sidewalk ends. What then? Some people might just stand there seemingly stumped for a while. Some will conclude that the obvious answer is to turn around and head back the other way, assuming that nothing worth visiting lies beyond. But the truly adventurous soul will set out on their own, unaided by sidewalks and other such amenities. Just to see what they can find on their own. That's not to imply that they should callously run out into traffic and risk getting run over or anything. But they should use what they've learned up to that point to start seeing what they can find on their own. You just may be pleasantly surprised. You just may discover something new.
Likewise, there has to come a point where you dispense with all those photographic rules you've learned over the years and strike out on your own. You need to take what you've learned up to that point and begin seeing what you can find on your own, making use of but no longer being limited to what you've learned up till then.
As a photographer working to improve and hone your craft, it is important that at some point you begin listening to your own inner voice rather than confining yourself to what you've learned from others. Perhaps you've already made that leap and this article will have to serve merely as a reminder. But if you've been doing your best to follow all the rules and advice you can learn from others and yet still feeling frustrated with the results you are able to achieve, this article is targeted squarely at you. At some point you have to get to the point in your photography where you go beyond the rules and you start following your own inner guide. There is a voice within each of us that tells us what is good and what is not. It's important to pay attention to that voice rather than just the voices of everyone around you.
So after you've tried everything that everyone else tells you, try listening to yourself. Take a look around you and if you find yourself where the sidewalk ends, don't stop and don't turn back. At first you'll likely need to feel your way, one step at a time in order to stay safe, but in time, that inner voice will become your guide and your muse. It's well worth a listen.