Starving Artist Approach: Goal Oriented Learning
Every once in a while in a weak moment (or a weak day, or month) I will find myself dreaming of having a more expendable income. I'd get myself a Nikon D800 and a slew of lenses to go with it. Maybe a Fujifilm X100s for street work. I'm working on my studio setups, so maybe I wouldn't bother with these manual flashes and I'd get myself some Alien Bees studio strobes with the best softboxes and beauty dishes. But I usually snap back to reality when I realize that even with all that gear, and all that spent cash, I'd still be the same photographer. And I'd still have a lot to learn. Except that my options would be unlimited and my mission would be blurry and…well…that's no way to learn. It sounds weird, but perhaps I'm happy with the fact that my photography fund isn't bottomless.
There's something to be said about the starving artist. The traditional belief is that a starving artist feels pain and struggles for their passion. So the theory is that they are somehow more in touch with their emotions and their art thrives. They live their art and they are nourished by it. But maybe that isn't it. Maybe it's the focus that they get from having to choose between aspects of their art.
Focus On Goals
It's one thing when you're in school learning photography within a program. A program is set up to give you as much exposure to as many aspects of photography as possible. But even the best schools will only scratch the surface. For the self taught – and I believe that will make up a great deal of you – things aren't going to be laid out for you and it may be difficult to get a broad education. But do you need it? In my opinion, if you have the passion enough to teach yourself photography, then you are prepared to scratch whatever surfaces you need to in order to find something that works well for you. So let's talk about how we get to where we want.
Learning is as simple as trying something. Whether your attempt succeeds or fails, you'll learn something new. And you can build upon that. It's as simple as that. However, knowing which way to build is where most of us fall down. We need a plan or a map; something to tell us where to go next. When we're lost, it's easy to give up and linger where you're at in a state of non-advancement. Let me assure you that you know everything you need to know about setting your own course. All you need to do is set some goals.
First ask yourself what kind of photography you'd like to aspire towards. That is your ultimate goal. Now you need to plot your course on your way towards that goal. You need to set smaller goals along the way. The intent of these smaller goals is like wayfinding: You can't see your ultimate goal, so you follow smaller islands and landmarks along the way so you can reach your ultimate goal.
For example, suppose you want to specialize as a portrait photographer. There are steps along the way that will help you get to that ultimate goal. You'll want to learn and practice posing your subjects. You'll need to learn studio lighting with all the trappings: modifiers, inverse square, etc. You'll need to learn white balancing, post-processing (black & white and color) and you'll need to know the difference between vibrance and saturation. There are plenty of goals that feed into any aspect of photography, you just need to identify them. And they won't all be identifiable at first…as you grow, you'll see more areas that require your attention. And the process repeats.
Perhaps it's unfair to call it a path or a course, because that implies a linear approach. Art is not about linear thinking. It's more like a mound of ideas. Your ultimate goal is unreachable, like a light on the ceiling, and you can't get to it until you pile all that knowledge and experience in a mound beneath it. Or maybe it's a closet of tools and your mission is to build one of those desks like the ones you get at Ikea and your only instructions are a bunch of badly drawn sketches (that doesn't even look like a screwdriver). You know what…forget the Ikea desk. It looks cool, but it won't last long and it's hardly stable. So lets get back to that mound…that thing won't move and it serves as a good stable base. It may not look like much, and it may be filled with things you didn't like, but it's a means to an end. And the end is beautiful.
The one caveat that I have is that you shouldn't feel that ultimate goal is the only goal. You may partially build your mound and get on top of it to see your progress only to find that the goal isn't so bright as you get closer. You could very well decide you need to be somewhere else doing some other aspect of the art. But that's okay. The cool thing about piles is that they break down and can be placed somewhere else. So don't be afraid to change your target.
Back To Starving Artists and Focus
Looking back at my own art, I have realized that my path is not very different from that of a starving artist. Photography is not my primary job nor is it a significant portion of my income. So I have a stable job that pays the bills. I'm not quite the starving artist who needs to choose between a meal and gauche paints, but I have my challenges. For me and my art, the challenge is justifying the costs of certain equipment and resources. It's hard to justify $1,200 for a lens when your daughter wants a new bike (and she's really cute, and I'm her superstar, so she gets the bike). Having to choose between your desires and what ultimately makes sense gives me focus. I can't buy the D800 or the best beauty dish. So I learn to use a lesser camera to its fullest potential and I use a salad bowl wrapped in foil. Is that really so bad? No. I've learned a lot by such restrictions.
So take away the expendable incomes and the bottomless pits of expensive cameras. Because focus can be attained no matter what your situation is. But if you don't have a choice, focus is your only option.
My point is that it's easy to feel like there's only one course or a single path to your ultimate goal. And sometimes you can be trapped into the lie by what you read in a single book, or on a single website (even this one). But in truth there is no single way to reach your goal and as no people are the same, there's no guarantee that the same method will work for both. So you need to diversify, learn as much as you can and acquire as much knowledge and wisdom from as many sources as possible. Yes, I know I just committed journalism fatality by admitting that you should read more than just this magazine. But it's the truth. If there's one thing I've learned about wisdom its that you need to gather your own. Your wisdom will differ from mine and mine will differ from the next guy's. There's a lot to learn out there, so embrace it and blend it. A portrait photographer can learn from a street photographer and from an architectural photographer. So do it.