The first night of my photography workshop found me outside my town's train station, bundled up against the cold. My new compact mirrorless camera had been sitting in its box, unused since I bought it months ago. As family photographer, I wanted to improve and use techniques from the gazillion basic photography classes I took over the years. The photo bug was also in my genes: my great and second-great grandfathers were professional photographers back in the day.
However, whenever I opened my new camera’s user manual or fiddled with its digital settings, I got a headache and grabbed my trusty point-and-shoot instead. My latest class was advertised as being ‘photography in action.’ It assumed an intermediate skill level, so classes were held at various locations to get right into exploring different types of shoots. In other words, I would be forced to get out my unused digital camera and take pictures. Perfect!
This first shoot was an architectural stroll through town at night, capturing interesting aspects of the modern Town Hall and the adjacent old-timey train station. When I arrived and saw half-dozen people clicking away with massive lenses as long as my arm that were attached to huge, tripod-mounted cameras, I wanted to run away. I hadn’t brought my tripod. D’uh. Night shooting requires a slow camera speed and a tripod to steady the camera during its long exposure time.
Plus, I hadn’t figured out how to mount my new camera on its tripod. The instructor offered to lend me a tripod. I declined. I figured if the night didn’t get any better, it would be easier to make a fast exit without returning equipment.
We divided into groups. Advanced students (those with uber-lenses and tripods) wandered off on their own. Those remaining clustered around the instructor since we needed more help.
I needed help all right, but nobody had another mirrorless camera because it was a new technology. I was on my own. Sigh. It took five minutes to remember how to toggle between shoot and preview modes. Then my strap came loose, and my lovely new camera was inches from crashing on hard concrete before I snatched it back to safety. Scurrying around in the dark, aided only by dim streetlights, I found the missing tiny black piece that had fallen off instead of holding the strap in place. My bad. I hadn’t secured it correctly in the first place.
My stress level was off the charts. I felt s*t*u*p*i*d. Frustrated. Hopeless. Plus, it was cold. My fingers and ears were numb. I was desperate to end my misery and slip away.
Then I overheard two classmates discussing aperture control, a function that creates a blurred or sharply focused background: “Is it a large f-stop for a shallow depth of field or the other way around?” Ah. My kind of people! I could never remember that setting, either, and always carried a cheat sheet to explain it. Definitely feeling better. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know everything.
We stepped inside Town Hall for interior shots. Definitely feeling even better being out of the cold and in decent light. I snapped away. As we worked, I discovered my classmates felt much as I did. They also wanted to learn and struggled to take it all in. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
We walked together to the nearby train station for our next shoot, and as we crossed the tracks to the depot, the blue locomotive’s optimistic refrain from Watty Piper’s classic children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, popped into my head— I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. That plucky engine didn’t give up when faced with a challenging haul up a mountainside to deliver its load of toys to children. I wouldn’t give up, either.
There's a mountain-sized learning curve in the weeks ahead in my photography class. I must push myself to stay with it. That first night, I was miles out of my comfort zone, mere seconds from running away. My I-should-know-how-to-do-this-perfectly-and-immediately mentality almost shut me down.
This venturing into the unknown is magnified a hundred fold on a writer’s journey, with Mount Everest-sized challenges about writing, publishing and marketing books to conquer. I’m often out of my comfort zone trying to keep up and take on new ways. The worst is the crushing self-doubt that pops up when mega-efforts result in baby steps -- or no steps.
I wish I had a magic wand to make self-defeating attitudes disappear forever. Take that, evil, thoughts. Be gone! But I’m human, and those thoughts will always lurk and bedevil me.
Instead of giving in, I’ll give myself permission to be okay with being an imperfect learner as I face something new.
I'll channel the Little Engine's I think I can, I think I can, I know I can! mantra.
And I'll just keep trying.
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