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Five Ways Photography Changed My Life

May 11, 2010

There was a time, many years ago, when my world revolved around being an outdoor athlete.  I was a rock climber, trail runner, backpacker, mountain biker, long distance hiker, canyoneer, kayaker and sometimes I would combine them all when doing adventure races.  I spent most of my free time training.  I was obsessed with going far and getting there fast.  I spent a lot of time in the outdoors but it went by so quickly that I rarely had a moment to enjoy a sunset or notice the coyote yipping in the distance. 

And then it happened.  I fell in love with nature photography.  I gave up adventure racing.  I spent more time photographing and less time training.  I stopped counting miles traveled each week and started counting rolls of film exposed.  Everything just sort of slowed down.

Looking back I realize that photography has taught me some valuable lessons.  I’ve learned that when you don’t train on a daily basis the size of your waistband increases.  Actually, I’ll blame that on age.  More importantly, I’ve learned a few things that are helpful to me as a member of the human race and I think they’ve made me a better husband, brother, friend and an all-around better person.

1) Have Some Patience – Through photography I have learned the art of patience.  I have learned that it is okay to slow down.  It’s not about the miles covered or the peaks bagged.  It’s about getting up early and sitting in the desert watching an entirely new day develop in front of me.  It’s about plopping down on a rock and waiting for the light to work its magic upon the landscape.  It’s about slowing down and enjoying a moment, whether it’s while you’re creating art or spending a few unexpected minutes with your family.  Life is entirely too short to spend it rushing from one place to the next.

2) Be Persistent – What would it be like if every time we took out our camera white puffy clouds filled the blue sky, dramatic light poured down over the landscape and an eagle glided through our frame?  Sure, at first, it would be awesome but after a while it would become really boring.  Okay, I admit – it probably wouldn’t.  But the reality is that we often have to visit a location over and over before Mother Nature feels we’ve earned the right to witness her awesomeness.  Those who persist will eventually be there when all the right conditions collide.  Persistence reaps rewards not enjoyed by those who are easily discouraged.  Know what you want and don’t be afraid to go after it with all you’ve got.

3) See The Light – Before photography consumed my life the only purpose light served was to illuminate the trail, rock or river before me.  My first “a-ha!” moment occurred in the Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix.  I was out for a trail run after work in the Squaw Peak Preserve when the setting sun backlit the translucent needles of a field of cholla cactus.  It literally stopped me in my tracks.  I stood there, jaw slack, staring at these beautiful cactus glowing in the late afternoon light.  How many times had I run or biked this trail and never had I noticed how beautiful they were?  I had only been concerned with keeping them out of my skin (not always successful).  For the first time I stood there wishing I was peering through a viewfinder.  Since that day I’ve had hundreds more moments just like that one.  Each and every one has been just as special as the first.

4) Don’t Neglect The Details – It’s difficult to appreciate a tiny wildflower or the beautiful texture of juniper tree bark when you’re flying by in the middle of a long trail run.  After moving to Colorado in 2002 I set a goal to spend more time developing my ability to find and photograph intimate landscapes.  In my pre-photography days I never would have slowed down long enough to study a stand of autumnal aspen trees  looking for the perfect balance of color, light and symmetry.  Photography helped me to discover that if you enjoy life’s little details you’ll be even more appreciative of successes on a grander scale.

5) Art As Therapy – The year 2001 was not a stellar one for me.  Early in the year I went through a difficult break-up, the events of 9/11 deeply affected me, my Mom passed away in November and I really didn’t enjoy my job.  I was sinking into depression and it seemed I was on a path spiraling quickly downhill.  I decided to move from Phoenix to Denver and use all the new free time associated with being single to immerse myself in photography.  Eventually, my mood improved.  It seemed that creating art was cathartic.  By the end of 2002 I felt like I’d come back from the brink of a place I’d rather never revisit.  Putting all my energy into art was a most intense therapy.  Now, when I need to clear my head, I head out to the desert to scout a new location or make a few images.  After a few hours I’m back in the land of the rational.

There are no accidents in life.  I never suspected that picking up a camera would change my life.  But it has, and I believe I’m a better citizen of the earth because of it.       

What have you learned about life through photography?  Continue the conversation by leaving a comment!

20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2010 8:24 am

    Great writing, Bret. You’re gonna give Guy Tal a run for his money. 🙂


    – Gary

    • May 11, 2010 5:59 pm

      That’s a huge compliment Gary, although I don’t think Guy has any reason to be shaking in his shoes. That dude can flat out WRITE!

  2. May 11, 2010 8:45 am

    I started hoteldesigns as my marriage broke up, basically making me redundant from a business I built from nothing, turning HotelDesigns from a hobby into a business. As digital improved I took on more and more of the photography and now do all the ‘features’. It doesn’t pay a great deal but the opportunity to visit and write about hotels in places from Boston to Berlin, from Namibia to Norway has given me a pleasure of infinite value.

    Best moments have come as you say, looking at sunlight through a leaf or walking with rhinos (scary stuff). I carry a camera everywhere – have four, ranging from an Ixus pocket camers to a Canon D5 mk2. Proudest moment was when a professional photographer rang to ask who did my photography. He said I had a really good eye.

    Most satisfaction comes from producing a Review like Andel’s Lodz ( and having 500 people read it in 24 hours, with nice comments back, knowing the combination I put together of words and pictures gets better all the time.

    Now talking to a gallery about exhibitions and feel like I have reinvented myself. Remember the Beatles song, ‘The Fool on the Hill’? The eyes in his head saw the world going round. Blake’s line “to see the world in a grain of sand, and the universe in a flower”

    That’s me

  3. May 11, 2010 11:17 am

    Totally agree, with lots of emphasis on patience and persistence!

  4. May 11, 2010 6:09 pm

    I totally agree with all of this. Art lets you exercise other parts of your brain that you may have ignored earlier. It makes you a more well-rounded person. True, your accident rate may go up since you are looking for the light rather than for the car stopping in front of you! But you can adapt.

    Also it is cheaper by the hour than a therapist even if you buy an expensive camera! And cameras do not ask you; ‘And how do you feel about that?’ Now you can ask yourself that when you are shooting!


    • May 12, 2010 5:20 pm

      Really great point, Patrick. Art does allow us to use a part of the brain that may not get exercised as much as it should. It’s also nice to hear that I’m not the only one who has almost driven off the road because I’m too busy admiring a gorgeous sunset!

  5. May 11, 2010 6:50 pm

    As a fairly new serious photography hobbist I have recently learned many of these lessons. Especially about slowing down and seeing through new eyes. I will often share my insights with my readers in hopes that I may inspire others to do the same. I also can’t agree with you more about photography being a therapy in it’s own. There have been times that I think that is was pulled me through some pretty tough patches in my own life.

  6. May 11, 2010 7:20 pm

    Well said, sir. Great insights and much food for thought for all of us.

  7. May 11, 2010 8:12 pm

    It certainly changed my life a lot. It gave me balance. For the longest time my biggest passion was horses. I devoted all my time to training. But as I learned the hard way, accidents can happen, and if you have nothing else in your life to devote yourself to, your world seems to fall apart. I had always enjoyed photography, but in recent years have become much more serious about it. It gives me the opportunity to enjoy nature, travel and meeting new friends. I still enjoy riding my horse, but I now have a second passion, which has provided my life with much needed balance.

  8. May 11, 2010 9:54 pm

    Really enjoyed your article…. the way that you expressed yourself and how you view yourself as related to your art was moving!

  9. May 12, 2010 1:14 pm

    Excellent! It has changed my life too!

  10. May 12, 2010 3:00 pm

    Very insightful and thought provoking as always, Bret. I’ve never made any secret of the fact that photography and my solo photo trips are my therapy. My “dark” period consisted of trouble at home, trouble at work, trouble with my children all of which added up to severe anger issues. I never raised a hand to a family member but I sure broke a lot of stuff. Getting away to shoot was the major factor in bringing me back to the light and those trips continue to be my refuge.

  11. May 12, 2010 3:36 pm

    Great post, Bret! For me, photography certainly helped me make the difficult transition out of full-time river guiding, and everything you say about patience, persistence and appreciating detail is right on. There is a flip side, though. Getting serious with photography has definitely interfered some with my ability to simply enjoy being in the outdoors. There’s always that temptation to obsess over the photographic aspects of an outing, and to get pissy if the photos aren’t happening. Of course, it gets even worse if non-photographers are involved. Sometimes I find it really necessary just to get out for a hike or go bag a summit, without worrying about photos. Doing this generally reinvigorates me a bit, and paradoxically it often sparks a renewed motivation to make images.

    • May 12, 2010 5:23 pm

      Jackson: You have made a super valid point! It can be difficult to just enjoy the fact that we’re outside in nature when we’re in “photographer” mode, especially when the conditions aren’t cooperative. We need to remember that for most of us, we were hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers or river runners before coming into photography. First and foremost we need to enjoy our time outside. If we make a great photo or two while we’re there, that’s icing on the cake.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and counterpoint!

  12. Bill Brennan permalink
    May 12, 2010 11:11 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts so openly and honestly.

    For over 60 years I chased bouncing balls first and occasionally a photo, until a nerve issue put the photos number 1.

    Since I began seeking the magical moment of finding a good image, I have experienced many of the experiences that you have chronicled. I have found the peacefulness accompanied by the mindfulness of photography to be mesmerizing. Hours go by unknowingly.

    Bill Brennan

  13. May 16, 2010 9:07 pm

    Excellent insights, Bret, and I can identify completely with what you say. Taking up photography has had a positive impact on me, and likewise it was not something I foresaw when I got into it. Though like Jackson points out, it’s important not to over-emphasize the photographic pursuit. Obsessing on the photo haul is something I have to guard against — though I often don’t do so successfully, as those who know me well can attest when they’re with me out at some location. 🙂

    The practice certainly has helped me sharpen the senses, slow down the pace and teach the mind to pay attention. Even if the resulting photos themselves aren’t “great”, the practice of photography is enjoyable and worthwhile in almost every instance. I’m still heavily active in my primary career (the “day job”), and photography helps balance that because it’s deeply engaging but exercises a very different group of “muscles”…


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