deep work

In Film, Inspiration, Nature

The “work” of my photography is observational, documentary and almost always seems to circle back to a sense of place and how places change. But photography, being the versatile and ubiquitous media that it now is, these certainly aren’t the only photos that I make. I usually work a portrait of one of my children onto every roll of film, I document the big days in my family’s life, and the quiet ones in our home, trips, get togethers, and I keep a visual log of my reading life with my phone. So it’s rare for me to go more than a day or two without taking a picture, but it’s easy for me to get bogged down in my routines and lose my drive to create those particular images that I feel are my deeper work.

Parenting certainly places plenty of physical and mental demands on my time and attention, and that time and attention is further fragmented by the shiny, vampirish tech I’ve invited into my home, my pockets and, over time, I fear, even my brain. It’s so counter-intuitive, but the photography that feels the most important and vital to me is the photography that more often than not gets pushed to the side because I don’t have the mental energy to make those images or I don’t make making time for them an inviolable calendar priority.

I’ve been reading a book that hits on the universality of this personal challenge, Deep Work, by Cal Newport and have seen that I’m not alone in letting my own, higher priority work get waylaid by less meaningful, more responsive activities. In fact, finding the mental quiet and focus required to produce whatever we think of as our most engaging brain work is increasingly challenging in our increasingly connected world. I plan on employing a number of Newport’s strategies to combat my distractions, but a few I think most of us who take photographs intuited long ago.

One in particular is the restorative photographic palette cleanser – a walk in nature. You’d have a hard time swinging a camera and not finding a photographer worth their salt who hasn’t done that from time to time. Our stores of attention are finite, and periodically much like a battery they require recharging. Apparently the ‘inherently fascinating stimuli’ in nature engages our brains at a sweet spot that keeps our mind from wandering but places little demand on our directed attention. After a fifty minute nature walk our attention stores are replenished, and we are ready to get back to challenging work. For this exercise to be truly effective though, you have to do it old school. Walking while looking at your phone isn’t going to provide you the same kind of attention boost.

Earlier this fall, prior to reading, Deep Work, and frustrated at myself for not having made “my” photos in a while but lacking the proper clarity of mind to actually go out and create them, I hit the trails with the objective of capturing all of the colors in the rainbow on a roll of 35mm film. I shot, in order – one red image, then one orange and so on searching out the tiniest yellow blossom and letting myself fill the viewfinder with a bold color wash of peachy-orange backlit leaves. For this exercise I took myself completely off the hook for the kinds of complex compositional challenges that I usually attempt when I make photos. Find my color, take a picture of that color, look for the next. Without realizing it, I was giving my over-charged brain a break, letting it focus on one sort of hypnotic, visual task and freeing it up from everything else.

I found every color in the rainbow –  twice; I came back with some clarity and fresh momentum regarding my deeper work; and I made some photos that bring me back to the gorgeous light and colors of an early November day. If you are feeling depleted and unable to focus deeply on the work you want to create, give it a try, with or without a camera. Who am I kidding? If you’re reading this you I know you’re taking a camera, but maybe, for the full effect, don’t use your phone. And February weather is no excuse. According to the research Newport references even a nature walk on a brutal Michigan winter’s day improved the focus of test subjects. So, if you want to go deeper, get outside.

and when you do, keep your eyes wide open,


  1. I love the idea of choosing specific colors to look for and shoot! And I’ll have to check out that book, too!

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