This Must Be The Place
There’s a French term, mise-en-place, which translates to putting in place, or to translate more properly, it’s the idea of everything having its place. It is often associated with cooking, where it refers to a particular spot for your pots, pans, bowl, plates, tools, spices, sauces… everything. Always in the same place. And this way, when you’re busy cooking, you’re not also wondering where things are. You can go into a bit of auto pilot with the more technical aspects of your endeavor. Find your flow.
Photography also has its versions of this. From packing the bag to ingesting and editing photos, you can create a routine with it that can reach mise-en-place levels. And routine is powerful, not only for the flow-state it can enable, but as an emotional tether in difficult times. It provides a certain amount of predictability. And when life seems to be thrown into chaos, a great routine can be an incredible soother of nerves.
Lately, with everything going on in the world, I’ve reacquainted with this need. As I write this, a close election between two sides that have never been further apart hangs in the balance. Like a lot of other people I know, I’m having a hard time feeling enthused, positive or energized for creativity. But at the same time, I’m busier than ever. I’m shooting upward of three times a week, sometimes with back-to-back, same-day shoots, or shoots I have to drive a distance for. I’m doing studio work, event photography, editorial and lifestyle shoots, product photography, environments, real estate, and more. And I need to pull it together for each and every one, suck up my inertia and find my way to it, with a positive attitude and with no loss of quality for any given project.
After months of this, I’ve found the place in myself where I can manage it all. It’s a different gear, but it still produces the same results. And it involves cutting down the decisions I need to make on set.
Finding Zen in Removing Choices
It was a big lifestyle shoot with five different models and two separate locations in one day where I really found out the power of paring down my choices. Both locations had a lot of dirt and we were doing quite a bit of movement work, which means a ton of dust in the air. I wasn’t feeling like putting the energy into switching lenses and having to protect my sensor in the process. I wasn’t feeling like using a backup camera, either. Almost out of exasperation, I made a quick decision to use only the 24–70mm for the entire day.
What happened was a kind of emotional pressure release valve for me. Without needing to consider my other lenses, I just felt a palpable calm come over me. It had a tinge of righteousness, too. It was like taking back something. We all know the capable range of a 24–70mm, but how often do we just give in to it, fully — to the exclusion of that incredible 85mm, 70–200mm or maybe a super wide? I’m always putting a little thought toward lens choice in my shoots. But that also means some deep, quick decision-making. A break in the action, too. And then some adjustments to settings and re-composing. Then another switch. The mental shift to accept that all my shots would fall within the constraints of my one mid-range zoom, slowed down a part of my brain that requires a lot of energy.
In the end, the shots were excellent and everything came out great. So, I started taking this approach to my shoots for the next month — not always the same camera and lens, but with a conscious choice on it when I walk out the door. And I’ve found it has had reverberating, peaceful effects on my entire outlook toward my profession. I’m finding more in less and its given me a new outlook and a new appreciation for my own ability to control how I feel and manage through chaos. If it helps you in your own photography journey, here are my 3 realizations:
1. Simplicity Has No Limits
A big realization I’ve had is that by limiting choices in how I approach a shoot, I open myself up to more in myself. Creative people have worked wonders inside limitations forever, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. But there’s just something about photography that pushes you to bring more and try more. As I’ve continued to tell myself, “for this shoot I’m only using this camera and this lens — the whole time,” I can just feel my attention on set turn toward other things. I see options more clearly, I’m more attuned to my surroundings and collaborators, and ideas flow easier for me.
2. I’m Pre-Visualizing More
As a photographer, your role is often to solve problems. Issues with light, models and location are almost assured. You bring a lot of stuff to help mitigate: from clamps to stands to sandbags, back-up cameras, a myriad of lenses and on and on. But what happens if you don’t bring them?
For me, what that has meant is putting more pressure on figuring out what I want to achieve before shoot day. More reference images, more prep and more confidence in the outcome.
By putting the emphasis on pre-visualizing, not the actual shooting, my shoot days are freer, lighter and more fun.
And speaking of fun…
3. The Return of Humor
In John Cleese’s 5 Factors of Creativity, the one that I think is hardest to fully understand, or control, is humor. Humor, instinctively, feels like a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have, especially in photography, where the technical aspects and problem-solving can rule the mood of a set. Factor in these weighty times and, as a photographer, it can suck the life out of even a very technically good image.
By creating a simpler shoot day for myself by preparing more and bringing less, I’ve also reacquainted with the lighter side of what I do and found myself to be just a little more spontaneous and creative on set; engaging with talent, being open and freer. This is the great power of humor, as Cleese describes it — a shortcut to opening the mind and making creative connections quickly.
Wishing everyone some peace, health and humor through all the turmoil out there.