how to tend a fire

In Film, Inspiration

Here’s exactly how it happened. The first week of summer vacation is sacred in our house. No camps, no appointments, a few homemade special breakfasts with the time to linger over them, and now that we have a teen, those  breakfasts often roll into brunches, maybe a movie, the library for a fresh stack of books, at least one  walk out to ice cream in the long evening and one morning, without fail, my kids and I all sit together and make our summer lists. I think of this week as a transitional palette cleanser between our seasons, and this summer it was completely hijacked.

Despite my best efforts to avoid it, we ended up with multiple crews of workers upstairs and down on the Monday of the first week of break. The noisy work began at 8:00, the kitchen was cordoned off, and all thoughts of lazying about, cozying up or making that summer list the way we usually do went straight out the new kitchen window. Right away I got to work coming up with plans to keep us out of the house all day long – first up a local-ish amusement park.

I was taking my two by myself, and doing the driving up and back, and I knew I’d be playing sherpa much of the day, so I decided against taking my heavier medium format camera. It’s fine if that’s all I’m carrying with a small bag, but load me up with more and my neck becomes a tangle and I feel so weighed down, I end up shooting less – sometimes lately not at all. So I picked up a 35mm camera and hoped that something fun and colorful at King’s Dominion would help me put my slump to rest.

After a while wandering the park we found a ride that both wanted/were willing to go on, no mean feat, and I stood on the sidelines with all their gear while they lined up at the gate and – BOOM! The seats and the shadows – I had to take that picture. And then I saw another that I wanted to take. And then another. And then something else I was curious about. I popped the lens cap back on – four photos of one subject is a lot for me. But as I kept waiting and looking, more photos presented themselves.

Rather than tell myself, I’d already gotten it, no need to take any more, I let myself get carried away. Every new way I saw the swing, I allowed myself to make a photo. This may sound ridiculous to a digital shooter, in the end I took maybe ten photos in total of the one ride, but for me this is a huge extravagance. Film has imposed a sort of pre-editing process on my photography that I have found generally works quite well, and yields a majority of frames I’m satisfied with and few repeats or also-rans.

Here’s the epiphany though –  my self-editing is wonderful when I’ve got momentum and visual enthusiasm for the world around me – when I’m making photos on the regular and look forward to the chance to get out and make more. That’s because it helps me the produce the kind of variety I prefer in my images, but what I had in that moment of waiting while my kids rode the swing was the teeniest, tiniest spark. Had I tamped it down, suppressed my enthusiasm by taking one or two photos and told myself, “no more, that’s enough”, I could have very well extinguished the very flame I have been trying to light for months. This was no time for restraint, and giving myself free reign to make as many photos as I liked of this one subject, as long as they each showed something different, provided the oxygen I needed to fuel the flames.

Seeing the scans a few weeks later confirmed it for me – this was the very moment I kicked my slump. My long-dormant visual curiosity was restored. To my great relief and delight, I am an alert, passionate observer of the world around me again and this, more than anything else, makes me feel like myself. The next time I hit a slump, I think I’ll make myself stand in one place and take as many different frames of the same subject as I am able. Even if you’re not in a slump, or you’re not as precious with your photos as I am apt to be, it can be a challenging and fun exercise. If you try it, I’d love to know how it worked out for you.

Keep your eyes wide open,



  1. These are absolutely brilliant and I am SO glad you took that lens cap off and kept shooting. Each one is a total winner!

  2. Debbie, I am dying! These are fantastic —- each and every one of them! You must have been jumping for joy when the scans came back. I am so happy to see them and to know that you are feeling like your curiosity is restored.

    xoxo Deb

    • Yes, it does feel really good. It so different pushing yourself to create and see vs. just feeling it come naturally. It doesn’t always ,and it really can’t, but boy is it sweet thing when you get your flow back!

  3. In love with all of these but my favorite is the one of the shadows in that ride. Inspired by you I did the same thing at Six Flags the other day! Let’s see what comes out of it…

    • Did your tower photo come out of that set? Because that one was spectacular!

  4. So so good! LOVE the idea of standing in one place and keeping our eyes open! Great set of photographs here.

    • thank you! sometimes the right trick comes to mind in the right place and time.

  5. Gosh these are brilliant my friend! The last two are so very special! Love them.

  6. Alright lady, I am SO curious as to how you got those “multiple” shots- is it multiple exposures or were you not forwarding the frame? They are amazing!!!

    • My film cameras have multiple exposure settings. This allows you to re-shoot multiple times (as many as you want until you switch off the functionality) on the same frame of film.

      I underexpose each shot by a number of stops tied number of exposures/times I plan to re-expose that frame to light. When I’ve taken my 4, 8, 12 whatever number of shots on the frame, I toggles that setting off and things go back to normal. Sometimes I hold still with a moving subject and let the movement come from the natural movement, sometimes I shift the camera staggering it up, down, in an arc in tiny steps to create or enhance natural movement. Let me know if that doesn’t make sense.

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