Living in another culture is a crash course lesson in the unexpected.  Learning to simply deal with the unexpected is one thing, but to plan for it and turn the unexpected into an opportunity is another.  Living in a place where the electricity, running water, heat, phone,  gas or internet are regularly shut off with little or no warning and absolutely no explanation has forces a person to get creative.

No internet? I have a category of work called “Offline Work Activities”
No heat? Stockpiled blankets and electric heaters
No water? I’ve learned to keep both fresh and non-fresh water reserves
No electricity? Candles, flashlights, and books

Turn the Unknown and unexpected into opportunity
The unexpected is a double edged sword.  On one hand, it’s often times seen as a real distraction (and it can be).  On the other hand, notice from the list above how the unknown has the capacity to make us think outside the box.  It forces us to be creative.  It forces us to do things differently, which can be uncomfortable, but also has the ability to  lead to new systems, experience, and ideas that can make life better.

The same concept can be applied to our photography.  Dealing with the unexpected is really one of the cornerstones of photography.  The balance between light, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, etc – these are all tools we use every time we pick up a camera to manage the unknown. To a large degree, it is the managing and wrestling with these unknown factors inside our camera that makes photography a creative art.  Pay attention to a photographers creative process while they are shooting and you’re bound to hear something along the lines of, ”You know what, because it’s so *this or that* today I think I’m going to…”  This is a verbal clue that a photographer is taking the unexpected or unknown and turning it into opportunity.

Make the Unknown the Norm
Almost every religion or philosophy in the world has something to say about the unexpected and unknown.  Many seem to be suggesting that we shouldn’t be surprised by the unexpected – that the unexpected, is in fact life itself!  Think about it, life loses a lot of it’s interest without the unknown or the unexpected.  The ‘known‘ isn’t what drives adventurers, travelers, and explorers, is it?

If some of our best and most creative moments come when we are forced to problem solve in the face of the unexpected, should we make it a routine to embrace the unknown – or at least stop viewing  it merely as a distraction, obstacle, or setback?  We experience the unexpected every single day.  If that’s really the case, then how unexpected is the unexpected?  It’s much more than the concept of ‘expecting the unexpected’ – its to realize that the unexpected is inherent to living life so we should make the most of it.

The Value of Preparation
In order to twist the unknown and unexpected into opportunity, preparation is key.  High school gymnasiums across the country are filled with posters that sing the praises of preparation.  Though most are cliche at best, their is an underlying truth.  Preparation doesn’t reveal the unknown, it allows us to deal with it effectively- to have a plan of attack when the unknown is experienced.

The Practical
On the whole, the photographic community is really good about discussing at length the finer points of philosophical and theoretical topics like this.  This kind of talk is necessary and valuable for revealing the important “whats” and “whys” behind our photography.  Equally important is the purely practical.

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll have already figured out that what we are really talking about is experience.  Experience is  so important.  Experience informs our decisions, which in turn allows us to plan for the unknown.

Let’s talk about some practical ways to build experience.

Shoot Constantly
One of the best ways to eventually deal with the unknown is to shoot as much as possible.  A photographer who doesn’t take pictures really isn’t a photographer.  A photographer who takes pictures of absolutely everything with no direction is almost as bad.  If you shoot daily you will encounter the unexpected regularly and then it will no longer be unexpected.  There’s really now way to grow unless you shoot.  The more the better.

  • Consider a 360 day project.
  • Always be comfortable looking like an idiot.

Limit Yourself
Shooting a lot is undoubtedly the starting point for building practical experience to battle with the unknown.  However, a photographer who shoots everything with little concern for craft, direction, art, and purpose will more than likely struggle to grow and will have trouble turning the unknown into opportunity.  Limiting aspect of our photography has the unique ability to focus us.

  • Consider using one lens, aperture, focal length, iso, etc for a while.  See what the limitations of each are and then see what you can do despite the limitations.
  • Shoot in the worse possible conditions and see what you can do with it.
  • Consider a 360 day project with specific limitations, themes, and focus.
  • Consider limiting what you shoot.  Pick a subject and exhaustively as possible explore it.
  • Always be comfortable looking like an idiot.

Put yourself in unfamiliar situations
One of the reasons people practice is so they know how they will respond when the real thing comes along.  With that in mind we should seek to experience unfamiliar situations.

  • Try photographing a different culture.  Think their isn’t one around you?  Guess again.  Different cultures are everywhere, even in seemingly homogenous societies, it’s very possible to find a culture different than yours.  In fact, the process of finding and then requesting to photograph other people in this manner is stretching, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable – perfect for building experience.
  • Photography something that you know nothing about with the intentions of telling a story- pay attention to the process of going from completely ignorant to competent.
  • Always always be comfortable looking like an idiot.

Prepare your gear
If your tools aren’t ready, then you aren’t ready.  There are some really practical things that you can do to make sure your gear is as ready as you are for the unknown:

  • Adjust your camera bags for speed and accessibility.
  • Format memory cards before you go out to shoot.  Put used cards in one place and unused in another.  This way you won’t be fumbling to find an empty card when the unexpected becomes reality.
  • Have your gear ready to go as fast as possible.  The includes off camera flash, lights, modifiers, stands, triggers, batteries, etc..
  • Always always be comfortable looking like an idiot

Learn from others
There is absolutely no reason we shouldn’t seek to learn from other photographers experiences and how they have learned to face the unexpected.

  • Ask photographers you respect about a time they felt blindsided or completely unprepared.  Most will have these experiences – the rest are liars.
  • Ask photographer you respect how they prepare for the unknown or unexpected
  • Pay attention to how others shoot when conditions aren’t good or are unpredictable
  • Always always be comfortable looking like an idiot

Learn from yourself
It’s important to pay attention to our own skill level and to be honest with ourselves.  We can learn quite a bit about ourselves if we are careful, intentional, honest, and if we pay attention to what we are doing and why.  This process isn’t easy but will help us be more flexible and ready for the unexpected.

  • Be honest about what you don’t know and what you aren’t prepared for and then do something about it
  • Keep a journal of experiences, thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc.  Read back through it often in an effort to pick out how to prepare for future opportunity and to learn from past failures
  • Always always be comfortable looking like an idiot