This is a topic that has been on my mind almost daily for the last three months in one form or another.  What’s the question exactly?  If I had to sum it up, it would be this:

How do you shoot what you love and actualize your vision in an environment that encourages something else?

Some necessary back story. I live in far Western China as a photographer, photo business owner, and teacher.  A travel photographers dream, right?  Travel photography I like, but I don’t absolutely love it.  I don’t hate it by any means and in fact I really enjoy it.  See the difference there?  I walk down the street every day and pass highly interesting subjects from 6 different minority and ethnic groups.  Monks, Muslims, Chinese, Mongolians, and a few that 99.9% of the world wouldn’t recognize.  It’s a truly awesome place to live and run a business.  Photographically I’ve had to dig to find my gold.


Before I even start this section, if you are reading this, go buy David duChemin’s VisionMongers. David articulately put to words quiet a few things I had been thinking for a long time and expresses much better than what I’m going to say here.  Most, if not all, of the ideas and concepts I’m refering to here he covers with a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that is well beyond mine. <end pub>.

But seriously guys and gals, what IS your vision?

I wrestled with this question in a 9 round cage match to the death.  This is where the killer blows landed – every time I was out shooting something I thought to myself “Man, what would that look like on white seamless?” or “What could I do with an umbrella and some hot-shoe flashes here?”  It’s a lot like the Flipping a Coin method of decision making.  You flip and coin and in that instant you know which one you are hoping for.  It’s certainly not that easy but I found myself coming back to off camera lighting work, lighting setups, modern vs. ancient, high contrast.

I love taking multiple, off-camera flash shots of an ancient culture – that’s contrasty and I love it.  Now, if you didn’t see the different before, see it now.

I really enjoy travel photography, but I LOVE lighting it.

I get goosebumps thinking about it.  I love lighting. Dare I say, it brings me joy (LIGHTS//CAMERA//JOY). LOVE.IT

I sit in my office late at night taking test shots of myself – firstly because no one else is around and secondly in order to see how it would make something ancient look modern when out and about.  I take what I see other people doing with full studios and try my damnest to recreate it with something I could carry on my back.  I try to see how far I can make two hotshoe flashes go.  Heck, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with some lighting setup in my brain and was compelled to act on it that instant(having no kids and a supportive wife required).  I’ve started to describe myself as a studio photographer happily living in the Third World.  You see where Im going with this?  As David duChemin says in VisionMongers, We shoot best what we love best.”


The Whiny Photographer phenomenon happens to most everyone I know and for a whole gauntlet of reasons.  I have landed squarely, embarrassingly, and undeniably in this category more times than I would ever wish for more frequently than I want.  The Whiny Photographer is the one who focuses on things like “Man, I’d love to shoot what that guys shooting.” or “I can’t do that without (insert gear here).” or “I just can’t do that here.” or “Yeah, but he has a great opportunity for ….”.

Focuses on- NOT NECESSARILY expresses regret, desire, or missed opportunity. FOCUSES ON!

The Whiny Photographer breeds discontent, burn-out, lack of motivation, and a general lethargy.  You probably will never kill the little Whiny Photographer thats inside of us all, that’s not necessarily the point.  The point is to not let it get in the way of opportunities, hustling, passion, desire, and finding YOUR vision and way of doing things.  When the Whiny Photographer is out, these things are rarely in coexistence.


We all have different opportunities because we are different people in different places with different passions and completely different life stories.  You undeniably see EVERYTHING at least a little different than I do.  That, my friends, is awesome.

<the point>DO WHAT YOU WANT WITH WHAT YOU HAVE.</the point>Turn that unique set of variables into something you are passionate about, have a vision for, and LOVE doing.  What would the photographic community have to offer if every photographer expressed and produced vision oriented work of the opportunities they had where they were instead of praying they they win that Twitter competition from Scott Bourne so they can start being a “real photographer” with that 5D Mark II. It’s there, it’s work, it’s hard, it’s buried, it’s dirty- get the shovel and start digging.


I’m not saying I don’t whine and I’m not saying that I don’t look at opportunities that other people have and absolutely lust over it.  I’m not saying that I don’t wish weekly that I had a full studio with built-in white seamless and 1600 sq ft. of working space with studio monitors and lights out the tailpipe.  I’m not saying any of that.  It’s about focus…remember.

Every day I see my friends Zack Arias, Stephen Hunton, Shaun Menary, and Phil Thomas (to name a few) capitalize on opportunities that I don’t have, in a studio I don’t have, with interesting people that don’t live here, with resources that don’t exist within 3,000 miles of me.  I don’t ignore that by any means and I’m not saying it doesn’t affect me.  I am saying this – it should serve to help refine my vision and puts a fire under me to do it differently – the way I want with what I have.

Inversely, I also bet that those guys have never had a Tibetan Monk walk into their house BEGGING for a picture or photographed a nomads first visit to a city or had the opportunity to capture a child monks love for basketball.

I’m also not saying that you should settle where you are either, obviously.  If you love shooting big cities, Nowhereville, Kansas might not work out for you.  Count the cost and do what’s necessary.  What I am saying is there are opportunities in Nowhereville, Kansas that only you have.period.

Like I said, this has been 4 months of soul-searching that have culminated in these thoughts.  I’ve been accused of everything I’ve listed here and will continue to be accused of letting The Whiny Photographer out of the bag, and too often.  I’m not travailing against anything here but myself.