The Best Advice I Ever Received: ‘Put Down the D*mn Camera’


My mentor was a cranky dude. He liked to put me through my paces every chance he got. Sometimes, when he needed something: “Hey, Greg—fetch that cable for me!” Yes, he said “fetch.” Sometimes, when he just knew better than I did: “Hey, Greg — get off your a** and come assist me.” Or when I was feeling superior: “Hey, Greg—stop being an idiot.”

Ah, fond memories!

For the record, though, he was a really cool guy, and I have no regrets. It’s safe to say that my younger self was dragged into the photographic business by my mentor. And thank goodness, because I might have otherwise been too young and stupid to realize what a great opportunity I had.

socializingAs usually happens in a good mentor relationship, I learned just by observing. I never got tired of watching him interact with people, helping young and old folks alike to relax in front of a camera in an otherwise intimidating portrait studio atmosphere.

I was an awkward kid who didn’t really get what life, or photography, was about (not that I’ve necessarily learned any better since then). And I think I appreciated unconsciously that my mentor could interact with people in a meaningful way.

Folks would come to him again and again, they would tell their friends, his schedule would fill up. And when I asked him one day just how the heck was he able to make so many connections and thus generate such business, he gave me the best advice I ever received: “Hey, Greg — put down the d*mn camera.”

To be honest, I didn’t get it at first. It took me several years, in fact, to really begin to appreciate those simple words. And here’s what I learned.

houseIf you’re a professional, then photography is your business. (I know, I know. Duh. But stay with me.) I think that in most businesses, you succeed or fail by how well you deal with people. And for some, dealing with people comes naturally. They’re called extroverts, and they’ve always made me nervous. I mean, how can you be that incredibly happy to see someone you’ve never even met before? Watching them always made me feel like Dr. House.

See, I grew up in a fairly solitary environment, and meeting people had always been one part exasperation, two parts perspiration. And now here was my mentor telling me to (gasp!) talk to people. Yucko. I just wanted to get the pretty girl in front of the camera, thank you very much.

…Yeah, I had a lot to learn.

commBut along the way, a funny thing happened. I began to enjoy being around people, talking with people, listening to their stories, forming a bond, even one that only lasts for the space of the shoot. It seemed like every time I raised the camera to my face, it was like I was dropping a dark slide (remember those?) between myself and the person opposite me. I was so eager to take a good photo that I forgot the second half to the equation: the subject.

And that’s the thing. Photography (well, portrait photography at any rate) isn’t just about taking a good photo. It’s about interacting with another human being. For me, it’s about communication. And I can’t communicate with someone when I’ve got a Canikon D37Blitzkrieg between us.

It took a while, sure, but over time I really started to appreciate eye contact, hand shakes, pats on the shoulder. Life stories. I’m not saying that we always have time for that sort of relationship-building, especially not in the often-crazy commercial industry, but it’s a good point to remember. On every shoot I tell myself: “Make an effort, say hi. …And for the love of all that is holy, put down the d*mned camera!”

Image credit: stuff by the tartanpodcast, David Dubinsky and Nelson Rockefeller socialize with others. by Kheel Center, Cornell University, dog modeling by -~’`’TvT’`’~-

  • Will Mederski

    wonderful, personal story well told!
    thanks for sharing.

  • Adam Cross

    +1 great post

  • Sam Sather

    great article, but can someone seriously make a Canikon D37Blitzkrieg into a real thing. I have this image in my head of a Camera decked out like an AR-15 with 75 useless attachments.

  • Dario Toledo

    Totally agree!

  • chris

    best post in a long time, made me have a think about how I work!

  • ennuipoet

    This advice goes for ALL kinds of photography. Sometimes, you just need to put it down and live in the moment. I was at the rally in NYC where Edie Windsor was speaking just after the DOMA decision was announced and I realized I was too busy trying to fight my way through the crowd to get “the shot” and missing a historic event. So, I put the damn camera down and just listened to what the woman had to say. I have no regrets.

  • olafs_osh

    Aye! Great post.

    I am in my early thirties and only now I just starting to realize, that conversation and interest is the way to go with people. Looking back, I somehow always was too closed up or was trying to leave the right impression. I’m getting to think, that the more you will be laid back, actually let others in, the easier the contact will become for both sides. I might be wrong.

  • fdefewfd

    your mentor was not cranky… he was an idiot it seems…

  • Eugene Chok

    so true

  • Greg

    I don’t think you’re wrong, but I also don’t think that you need to struggle with it. Maybe in the beginning, sure. My feeling is that we live in a society that, by definition, is social. We interact with others all the time, and maybe we just don’t appreciate it as much as we could.

    I struggled with the whole “be yourself” thing. Over time, I learned that “being myself” just meant letting go of the outcome when meeting others. My ego shouldn’t be crushed if someone doesn’t like me. And it’s okay for me not to like certain people, either. But the bottom line is that we are all on this planet together and it’s in everyone’s best interest for us to get along. Even our biology, after all, dictates that we be social (it takes two people to make a third).

  • Greg

    That’s a really good point and one I think I glossed over. I was talking about putting down the camera as a means of furthering your interaction with the subject. You’ve taken it to the next level by suggesting that it’s sometimes better to partake in the experience rather than to sit back and record it. I really like this idea, though it’s one with which I often have difficulty.

  • Greg

    I’d probably buy one! :-)

  • Greg

    Thanks, Will. Much appreciated!

  • olafs_osh

    couldn’t agree more.