Why you should keep a journal

I believe that if you’re not keeping a journal, you’re doing it wrong. This statement is mainly directed at creative-type people (whether you’re a writer, visual artist, or whatever), but it can really go for everyone.

Journaling is great for self-analysis, helps get your mind working, and is just an overall amazing tool to keep you focused. In fact, my journal has become a cornerstone of sorts in my efforts to be healthier and happier. So, it’s not just for angsty teenagers, or “sensitive” adults trying to get in touch with their feelings.

Here, rather than write up some kind of abstract pitch as to why you should keep a journal, let me show you how I use mine. (The entries I’m sharing here have been narrowly-selected and lightly-edited.)

The Obligatory Early-Morning Entry

Every morning, as soon as I have enough coffee and nicotine in me to hold a pen, I crack open my journal and write. I start with the date and time, how I slept, and usually follow this with a gripe about my deteriorating body. After that, I write down any appointments or tasks which must be done that day, and round it out with whatever I want to do or should be doing.

Here’s an example:

4/14/17 – 6:20am

Slept like shit last night. This pinched nerve in my shoulder/back/whatever needs to chill. Whatever. Have an appointment at nine. Awesome. Need to get Alex off to school, hop in the shower, then see if I can get at least some work done on my novel. Need to be gone by like 8:40. Weather’s supposed to be good, though. Maybe I’ll just grab my camera and head downtown early.

Dunno. Sounds like a good idea, though. Sure. Okay. Shower, take off early, walk around downtown, then appointment. Get back around ten, grab something to eat, then depending on how I feel I’ll work on the novel for an hour then read. That’s a good enough plan for now. Time to get another cup of coffee and a smoke.

The hardest part of keeping a journal is actually keeping it. That’s true for everyone. So, planning out my day, every day, forces me to write something. If the only entry I manage to write is the date, time, and “Slept like shit. Got nothin’. Gonna watch Netflix,” then I consider it a success.

A first entry like this is also helps me organize my thoughts, and focus my energy in the most effective way I can. That bit above where I start out thinking I want to work on my novel, but decide I’d be better off shooting photos? You’ll find stuff like that cropping up in these entries all the time, and it’s one of the main reasons why you should keep a journal in the first place.

The Less-Obligatory (Though Still Helpful) “Check-In” Entries

As I go about my day, I go back to my journal and note how I’m doing, or jot down a thought or idea that seemed interesting.

10:07am

Christ, that appointment sucked. No energy. Took a lot of photos and got some exercise walking around, but now I’m wiped. Don’t think I even have enough brain to read. Gonna make another pot of coffee, grab a smoke, then see how I feel.

 

These check-ins are usually much shorter than my first entry of the day, and follow the pattern of: what I did, what I’m going to do next, and why. This helps me re-focus, in light of any distractions, and that helps to keep my creative energy and inspiration flowing as the day goes on.

The Slightly-More-Obligatory End-of-Night Entry

I round out my daily journal habit with an end-of-night entry. It’s basically a recap, with a specific focus on what I did, not what I didn’t do. This is another reason why you should keep a journal: it gives you a place to review and celebrate your accomplishments–important stuff for staying positive, which can be hard sometimes…

8:25pm

Tired. Looking forward to curling up under my blanket. Hopefully I sleep better than I did last night. Today sucked, but I got some stuff done. A bunch of photos, a blog post. Took another walk. Exercise-wise I’m doing pretty good. Just so mentally drained, and I’m not sure I ever fully woke up today. Here’s hoping tomorrow will be better.

I rarely get everything done that I set out to do (especially when I have an appointment in the middle of the morning), but I almost always get something done and that’s what I write down.

 

And Finally, Some Tips!

Here’s a few tips which help me. Maybe they’ll help you.

  1. I use a physical journal and a pen. For journaling, I much prefer the feel of actual writing, as opposed to typing. Other people are totally the opposite. Try both and see which works.
  2. I don’t share my journal with anyone, nor do I intend to ever do so. It’s not that I’m writing state secrets, but I don’t want to feel like I’m writing for an audience–even subconsciously. I want every letter in my journal to be honest, so it’s off limits to everyone but me. (Hence the “narrowly-selected and lightly-edited” disclaimer at the beginning of this post.)
  3. Related to the above, I don’t take my journal out with me. It stays in my house. I could toss it in a bag and be reasonably sure I won’t lose it, but my brain’s not always reasonable about things like that.
  4. Also related to point number two–in fact, the whole point of that point–is that your journal should be a judgement-free zone. Not that you won’t use it to judge yourself (a journal is great place for self-critique) but that what you write in it doesn’t have to be profound or even good. My journal is full of hastily-made grammatical and spelling errors, as well as full-frontal nonsense. I once wrote a three-page rant on how terrible season eight of the television show Bones was. And a few entries before that? A paragraph on how I should eat fewer onions because of how much they make me fart. We’re not trying for a Pulitzer, here.
  5. Ultimately, there are only two rules: write at least one entry every day, and what you write should be honest. It doesn’t matter if you follow my format or not (though I do think it’s a good place to start), it doesn’t matter if you begin with “Dear Diary,” or if only manage to write “Don’t feel like journaling today,” three days running. Just write something, each day, and make sure it’s the truth.

Now go forth and journal.

What is the best camera for learning photography?

Since I’ve been asked, I thought I’d write about what I think is the best camera for learning photography.

The short answer? The camera you already own.

Whatever camera you have, that’s the one you should learn on. Whether you have an expensive DSLR, or just the one built into the hundred dollar smart phone in your pocket–whatever camera you’ve got, use it.

Megapixels don’t matter.

Ghosts of Summer Screen Shot
If you click on the thumbnail, you’ll see that this photo is 477 x 593 pixels, for a total of 282,861. That’s less than a third of a megapixel.

Despite what you’ve heard, megapixels aren’t that important. Thanks to Instagram, the most common number of megapixels used in photography today is less than one.

Seriously. The image on this post? It’s from my Instagram account, and it’s a little less than a third of a megapixel in size.

So, that six-megapixel camera in your cheap, prepaid phone is perfectly fine to learn on. And you’ll be able to share your photos on Instagram without them looking out of place or amateurish due to their “low” resolution.

Now, will you be able to create beautiful, 8×10 prints from your photos? Or blow up your image to see every last detail? No, but even then, the resolution of your photos won’t really matter because…

Your mistakes are what matters.

This is probably the biggest reason why I think the best camera for learning photography is the one you already have. When you first start out, you will make a ton of mistakes. Your subject will be out of focus, the light will be all wrong, you’ll have motion blur you didn’t intend–the list goes on.

And that’s okay.

You should be making mistakes, because that’s how you learn. But these mistakes will be way more detrimental to your photographs than resolution or the quality of your lens. No amount of expensive gear will fix a poor composition, blown highlight, or out-of-focus subject. You need to develop your fundamental skills as a photographer, and then better gear will start to make a difference.

And since you can only really develop those skills by taking lots and lots of photographs, that brings us to…

Convenience also matters.

I own a pretty nice DSLR camera, but I take nearly all of my photos these days with my phone. Why? Because it’s always with me, riding along in my pocket, ready to work at a moment’s notice. If all I had was a DSLR, I’d only take a fraction of the photos I do.

Convenience to carry and ease of use are huge factors to consider, especially if you’re just starting out in photography. A big, bulky DSLR might look cool, but how often are you really going to bag it up and carry it with you?

If a DSLR is what you’ve got, use it. Just don’t discount the six-megapixel wonder in your pocket.

Don’t learn on a film camera.

In most cases, I think the camera you already have is best camera for learning photography, but that advice goes right out the window if all you have is a film camera. Don’t try to learn on film, go buy a digital.

Look, film is not dead. There are a lot of really great photographers who still shoot film exclusively, and it’s worth exploring yourself at some point. But learning the fundamentals on a film camera? That’s just crazy talk.

The best and fastest way to learn photography is to take lots and lots of photos. We’re talking hundreds, if not thousands of photos, taken with various camera settings under various conditions. And when you consider a roll of film will cost about five bucks to purchase, another five bucks to develop, and you only get about twenty-four to thirty-six shots per roll…it can get expensive.

Then there’s the lag to consider. Take a photo with a digital camera? You can look at it immediately to see if your settings worked. Take a photo with a film camera? It could be days before you know how the photo came out. And are you even going to remember what settings you used?

Yeah, just buy a digital camera.

When should you upgrade?

At some point, you’ll outgrow the camera you’ve got. When that happens, you’ll know it. More importantly, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the sort of camera and lenses to buy, because you’ll have learned at least a little bit about what it is you like to shoot.

Unless you’re like me.

Just remember, while the quality of your gear can become more important once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, the best camera for learning photography is the one you have and will actually use to achieve that mastery.

Photography pet peeves

Okay, right up front, let me say this: I’m not an expert photographer, but I’m not half-bad either. I have a decent grasp of the fundamentals, and can generally get the photos I go for.

More relevant to this post: I know how to spot many of the most common photography mistakes–the sort of problems which are so common and easy to avoid or fix that it drives me right up the wall when I see them. So here are my three biggest photography pet peeves and what to do when you see them in your own photos.

And before you ask: No, I’m not immune to these errors. Every single example of “what not to do” below is taken from my own collection.

For I, too, am just an ordinary sinner.

Slanted horizons.

This has to be the most common problem I’ve seen, and it’s crazy easy to fix.

Left = Bad; Right = Good

When you’re taking a photograph of a landscape or similarly-wide view, you want your horizon to be straight. So before you take the shot, make sure your camera is level. If you’re using a DSLR camera, look for a built-in leveling indicator, or you could use a tripod with a bubble level.

Can’t get level when you take the shot? No problem. Just eyeball it and fix it later. There are a ton of free or dirt cheap photo editing apps out there, both mobile and desktop, which you can use to straighten your photos after the fact. This is a really quick fix which will improve the quality of your landscape photos tremendously.

The shot that almost was.

You sneak up on a bumble bee, get in close, and snap off the shot. Boom!

Yes, it sucks that you didn’t get the shot you wanted. Deal with it.

Alright, so you didn’t get the photo you wanted. The bee’s cut off, out of focus, and everything is terrible. So why post it?

My guess? Most people post photos like this because they feel like they have to get something for their efforts. They went through the time and trouble to set up the shot, and feel like it’s somehow wrong to just walk away with nothing to show for it.

I get that. But learning how to walk away from a bad photo is just as important as learning how to take a good one, so maybe don’t share this one to Instagram.

Blown highlights.

This is the trickiest of my photography pet peeves to explain, and it can be a lot trickier to avoid. You take a shot near water or some other reflective surface under bright light, and wind up with a big blotch of pure white in your photo.

At left, the photo as taken. At right, I’ve colored the “blown” section in red so you can see it.

That’s called a “blown highlight,” and what this means is that the spot was so brightly lit that the camera just said “to hell with it all, that’s white.” There’s no way to fix it. No way to bring back the detail that was there. It’s just gone.

Blown highlights are most common for outdoor photographers who have to rely on sunlight for their shots, and it’s why a lot of us tend to avoid shooting from about ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. During those hours, the sun’s hitting at very near its full power and everything is all harsh light and dark shadows–a situation which cameras have a really hard time dealing with.

Some cameras have a setting called “Exposure Compensation,” which you can use to prevent blown highlights when you take the shot, but after the fact? There’s just no way to fix it.

Creative choice trumps all.

In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, you want to avoid these mistakes, but sometimes, sometimes, they’re not mistakes at all. Like almost anything in art, you can invoke one of these “problems” as a creative choice, and that’s totally fine.

For instance, I’m fine with the blown highlights in this photograph…

Blown highlights as a deliberate, creative choice. (Gray border added to illustrate.)

Is this a particularly good photograph? Eh…not really, but that’s not important. What is important is that I intended to have the top third and those two windows blown out to pure white. I made a creative choice to break with my “no blown highlights” rule for this shot, and I got the photograph I intended to take.

Creative choices like this trump all the rules. So, if you want that horizon at a forty-five degree angle, or you want everything blurred out or chopped off, go for it.

But only if you mean it.