Zen and the Art of Improving Your Skills Through Fear

Star TrailsMy fear is helping to improve my photography.

Say what, now?

(Stay with me here, because there’s a treat waiting for you near the end, an incredible time-lapse video, but no cheating! You can’t jump ahead!)

I’ve often been afraid to try new things with my photography, sticking instead with what I already knew how to do, staying within my comfort zone. Why? I’m not sure, but maybe my experiences will help you improve your own skills with a camera, or in other parts of your life that you may be hesitant to try. My decision to face my fears took place after several unrelated incidents, and this is one of them:

  • A few months ago I was offered the opportunity to assist on a photo shoot with a world-renowned National Geographic Traveler photographer who happened to have a scheduled shoot not far from me. His local assistant was unable to make it that day and the shoot couldn’t be rescheduled. He knew other photographers in the area, but some were unavailable and others didn’t have experience with the new Nikon-compatible PocketWizard® radio remote system. Now, I didn’t own this system at the time (I do now) but I knew in general how to use it because I’d already planned to get it in the near future, so I’d already researched, watched videos, and borrowed a friend’s Nikon system and learned how to use it, although certainly not as well as if I’d already owned them. Anyway, this photographer remembered me from a few of his seminars and presentations I’d attended up and down the East Coast, from New England to North Carolina. He knew I was a Nikon shooter. He knew I was experienced and personable. He knew enough of my work to know I’d be a good assistant. But then…  I lost the job. Why? He asked if I was experienced with this PocketWizard® system because he needed someone who knew it “like the back of your hand” because, as he put it, it wasn’t a glamorous job and the client was on a tight schedule and he needed someone who could move and react quickly, without hesitation, and with no learning curve whatsoever. When he learned that I wasn’t as experienced as he needed an assistant to be, he said he was sorry and would have loved to work with me, but not knowing the system thoroughly was a deal-breaker. I got it. I did. And I was devastated. This was a grand opportunity for me – for anyone! I mean, this guy travels all over the world, all the time, and is published practically everywhere. Not just his phenomenal images, but he’s written many books, has published articles in top photography magazines, is an editor or contributing editor for many of them, and he even had his own television show for a long time! And little ol’ me came thisclose to being his on-the-shoot assistant! Until then, my fear (in this case, of lighting and its complexities) prevented me from already having and using the system. I’d kept telling myself I didn’t need to know that much about light manipulation. After losing this job, I decided to face my fear and never miss an opportunity like this again.

    Stepping out of my comfort zone helped me to improve my overall skills.

The reason for this back-story? I’d put off buying the PocketWizard® system because, as primarily a nature photographer, I’d done little studio work involving creative lighting and remote triggering and adjusting, and I had little need for it (I didn’t need it for my portrait shoots, or so I thought, but now that I have the system, I don’t know how I did without it!). Ok, to be totally truthful, the subject of lighting really intimidated me, and that scared me enough to convince myself that I didn’t need to know that much about it. Wrong-o! There’s a lot to know about light and lighting if you want to make the best images, of any subject, that you can. After all, photography is all about light. There’s so much to know, that if you Google the subject you won’t believe how many hits you’ll get. But I’m actually happy (kinda sorta) about losing the job, in retrospect, because it forced me to step out of my comfort zone and learn new techniques – not just about studio and other lighting, but other things as well, which had the effect of starting to improve my overall skills as a photographer and as a person. This lesson – facing our fears and stepping out of our comfort zone – applies to almost anything in life. Self-improvement doesn’t come without a price, but it’s a price well worth paying.


One of my first attempts at lighting liquid, using PocketWizards® to control and fire 3 strobes.

You see, I was also intimidated by the great photographers who have flash and lighting nailed. I mean, they know it “like the back of their hand,” a phrase I’ll now attribute to losing that great opportunity to work with a renowned photographer (and a nice, funny guy, to boot!), and it forced me to teach this old dog new tricks. Flash had intimidated me for the longest time. It still does to a degree but the more I use it, work with it, learn about it, experiment with it, the more comfortable I get with it. This goes for anything new we try, right? And guess what? Being able to manipulate light hasn’t just improved my lighting skills, but it’s actually opened a new world for me: product photography! Will I be hired by The Coca-Cola Company or Nike, Inc. anytime soon? Not a chance. But I don’t care. It’s all about building my self-confidence, my skill set, and finding new ways to explore the world and share it. So I started experimenting with lighting in different ways, one time placing a strobe underneath a glass table, putting a translucent reflector onto the table, placing a glass of liquid on the reflector, adding a black backdrop, and moving my light stands around, trying all kinds of different ways to light the subject. I’d change the location of the strobes, change their power output, bounce light off a wall or ceiling, fire the strobes through an umbrella, bounce their light through another umbrella, and so on. You can see a couple examples above and below. I made mistakes, learned from them, made more mistakes, learned from those as well, and will continue to happily make mistakes along the way, and learn from every one of them. Will these practice images ever be published? No way. They’re technically flawed on many levels. But the more I experiment, the more knowledgeable and skilled I’ll become, and – here’s the best part! – the better images I’ll make, all because I forced myself to overcome my fears and intimidation and make myself learn how to do something I’d never really done before and was afraid to try.

Another session with PocketWizards® and strobes, lighting in different ways.


Self-improvement doesn’t come without a price,
but it’s a price well worth paying.

Here’s something else I’d been afraid to try until recently:  Have you seen time-lapse videos? I have. Lots of them. Some good ones. Some great ones, like “Finding Oregon,” by Uncage The Soul Productions, below (the special treat I promised you). I’ve seen cool images of circular star trails and wondered “how do they do that”? Well after much research, trying different ways to make circular star trails, making some into my first time-lapse videos, I’m soon ready to start making videos of beautiful land- and seascapes. Will my star trails image above win any awards? Nope. It was my first-ever attempt, shot from my patio, facing woods that my house backs up to. Many mistakes were made along the way, as there’s lots to know, lots to remember, and lots of it to forget. But I had fun doing it! It will take a long time, and lots of trial-and-error, to accomplish things I want to do, but since I’ve started taking baby steps to improve my knowledge and skill set, it’s become easier to try new things, and I’m loving the journey!

This video was clearly made by a highly-talented team. Were they born with the skills it took to make the video, to make those images, to create the six-months of time-lapse photography throughout Oregon, to put it all together (complete with the synchronized and magical music)? I doubt it. At some point they all stepped out of their comfort zone and learned something new, perfecting it over time. This was a huge team undertaking, and I guarantee that they made mistakes along the way, experienced varying degrees of fear and anxiety, as well as excitement and anticipation. But do you see how their efforts paid off? How great is this video?!!  In whatever you truly want to do in your life, perseverance and facing your fears can pay off!

It’s easy to hold a camera to your eye and press the shutter release. What’s not easy is learning new ways of making great images – the keepers, the ones you’re proud of, the ones you want to frame, give as gifts, and share with your family and friends. Food for thought.


In whatever you truly want to do in your life,
perseverance and facing your fears can pay off!

I’ll end this by giving a shout-out to a wonderful photographer I’ve recently started corresponding with, to whom I was introduced by a mutual friend – who herself is an amazing and well-known photographer, leading wildlife safaris in Africa and other beautiful places. The safari photographer’s name is Piper Mackay. A link to her site can also be found on my website’s tab called Great Sites. The other photographer I’m referring to also has a link on my Great Sites page. Her name is Anne McKinnell. She was among the first to inspire me to start taking baby steps out of my comfort zone toward making life changes that I’ve wanted to make but was afraid to. It’s still a work-in-progress, but the point is, I’m making progress! Anne’s story is for anyone who is at a crossroads, in any aspect of their life; it doesn’t have to be about photography, nor do you have to be a photographer to appreciate her story. Anne made a decision to change her life and follow her passion (hers as a photographer; yours can be something else that you’re passionate about and wish you could do full time if possible). Her life didn’t change by chance or luck, but by courage, determination and sacrifice.

The take-away I hope I leave you with is: don’t let fear stop you from trying new things!

Don’t forget about the upcoming workshop at the beautiful Antelope Canyons in Arizona at the end of May! There’s still space available, and this is a Troy Kevin Shinn workshop you don’t want to miss (and Troy will be assisted by… yours truly!

Meanwhile, keep on shooting!


~ by Karen Rosenblum on January 29, 2012.

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