Life lessons disguised as photography lessons from Sam Abell

Recently I flew down to Los Angeles for a workshop with Sam Abell – a wise kind man who worked for National Geographic for many – many! – years. Even though the workshop was about developing your vision as a documentary photographer, I wrote a post on how some of the wisdoms he imparted can be applied to life.

This post was supposed to be about lessons I learned about photography during the workshop, but the more I thought about them the more I realized they, too, apply to life.

Art is a false guide

Looking at how other people do photography – or life – is not a good way to figure out what you should be doing with yours.

I started out my family photography journey with posing and props – because that’s what everyone was doing and it seemed like what I was supposed to do. Thankfully I listened to my gut and paved a very different path quite quickly.

The same can be said for social media – looking at everyone’s curated feeds and Pinterest boards is a false guide for how to do life. I’m very excited to see more and more real life pop up on social media.

Get to the right stance to get your photograph

Where the photographer is standing (or kneeling, or crawling) to make their photograph has great impact on how the image turns out.

Our stance – our attitude, our point of view – affects how we go through our days as well. The events that happen in our life look very different depending on where we stand (pun intended), which affects how we move through those events.

As I’m writing this blog post, I’m at a phone repair shop waiting to get my phone back. The repair takes two hours – which from one stance might feel like a huge waste of time. But I looked at these two hours as an opportunity to write blog posts and emails. I knew I would not be distracted by the dog, the laundry, or anything else that usually calls my name at home – so I prepared for a long wait by grabbing my laptop before heading out.

Compose and wait

This is one of the biggest things I admire in Sam Abell’s work – he composes for the scene, and then he waits. He waits for a person to do something interesting, for a subject to move into the best light, for an animal to pop their head up above the horizon line. He waits for life to happen in the scene he has composed for.

I’m a fairly impatient person, when it comes to seeing results for something I’ve done. (This is probably why I’m a photographer and not a painter!) I’m guilty of assuming that if something did not get me fast results, it must have been a bust.

It is crucial to do the work, and then patiently keep at it. Wait for the effects of your work to take form. Be ok with the boredom for a while, until you’ve given something a fair shot to give back to you.

Beach Day Photos In Santa Cruz | Bay Area Family Photographer

Separation [of subjects] is important

Photographs look better when subjects have space between them – we can clearly see who/what all the subjects are and what they are doing.

Life is best lived when we can separate the essential parts from each other – work, life, etc. If we try to overlap these areas, things get messy. For example, if we get work done while we are with family, or try to tend to family matters while at work, we aren’t fully present in our main task and neither task gets done well.

What’s behind is important

As Sam Abell is a master of composing for the background, he of course says that what is behind the subjects is important.

The intention behind our actions and words are important, too.

If we are doing something for ourselves, we need to make sure that we aren’t subconsciously doing it because of someone else, because of societal expectations, or because we are comparing ourselves to someone we don’t even want to be like.

When it comes to other people in our lives, it is important that the intention behind our actions are sincere. The intention needs to align with the message of what we say or do.

Bad weather makes good pictures

When things are rough, it sets things in motion far more than if things are well. Rain makes people hurry and carry umbrellas. Stormy clouds can provide a dramatic background. (Tantrums make for my favorite pictures of kids.)

Disagreements with our loved ones can be rough. BUT, they are a possibility to learn about each other’s boundaries and priorities – and in the end brings us closer together because we’ve learned something new or cleared up a misunderstanding.

Don’t wish for better – do the best possible

This really hit home for me – I’m definitely a “wisher”.

“I wish the light was better in this hospital.”

“I wish Nova didn’t pull the leash so much.”

“I wish I had more time.”

But there really is no use wishing – the best thing is to figure out what can be done in a situation to make the best possible out of it. Wishing won’t change the circumstances, and thinking in terms of solutions will work out better.

This leads me to the next lesson;

A family hanging out in their living room

Scenes are problems to be solved

Sam Abell was talking about how scenes really are like a problem we have to solve, for example what angle should we be shooting at, how close or far should we be, and which elements do we include in order to make the best photograph.

This is how I try to approach life as well. If there is something in a situation that feels frustrating – or just not very smooth – I try to figure out ways to change or tweak it. (This bites me in the butt sometimes, as the people around me aren’t always too interested in ideas on how to tweak what they do. I forget that not everyone is into this type of thing.)

No photograph is inevitable

Sometimes a photograph – or a life event – may seem inevitable.

“Of course she took a picture of Channing blowing her nose on her brother’s swaddle blanket, because it’s funny!”

“Of course she became a photographer, she’s so good at taking pictures!”

BUT. We never get to where we are without having made choices on the way, even if it sometimes seems like an outcome was a given. We get to whatever outcome based on our decisions and actions.

(I had to be ready for the above photograph, I was positioned well for this photograph. Most importantly, I’m the type of person who would make this photograph instead of think “Oh gross, nobody will want to see this photograph!”)

Make the best photograph that can be made by you

Only you have your experiences, your thought processes, your wisdoms, your point-of-view – and you can use all that to make the best possible photograph in any given moment.

The same goes for life – we cannot make decisions based on things we have yet to learn/do/acquire, but we can do our very best.

Add a comment...

Your email is never published or shared.



Documentary newborn and family photographer serving San francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and surrounding areas