Being Where I Am

I’ve been struggling a bit with photo-envy lately – or maybe it’s more “experience-envy” – the feeling that everyone is doing interesting things and getting better photos than I am.

Even if you’re not a photographer, you may know what I’m taking about. Other people, not necessarily anyone specific but “people” in general, are leading more exciting lives.

If I think about the feeling, it’s not really based in fact. I do plenty of things and get good photos. Not all the time, but no one does all the time. 

I’ve just returned from an epic trip to India and that’s probably not helping. My normal life seems so colorless. 

I just feel that I’m never quite in the right place at the right time. If there’s a good sunset on, I have a family thing. If I’m one place, I should have been in another. If I get out to photograph sunrise, it’s cloudy. If I don’t get up, then the sky is on fire.

Mind games, all of it. 

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I had a day or two to do a little trip – not one of the great trips I have on my bucket list – just a little get away. I keep a list of potentially interesting photo places around where I live and I set off to see a couple of these. In all I was probably no more than 2-3 hours drive from home, so not a long trip by any means.

But the length of the trip wasn’t what it was about. It was getting in the tourist-mode and focusing on being where I am.

I went out into the plains of Illinois. Nothing really touristy about the area, but I found some interesting places.

I dithered a bit about where to go, but once I made the decision I was determined to stick with it. 

I set a couple of ground rules for myself:

1. Detour Freely

I was heading to a specific destination, but I was in no hurry. It didn’t even matter if I actually reached my destination. It was the journey that was important. 

If I saw something interesting, I would take the opportunity. I would behave as if I would never be down this road again. And in fact, I wouldn’t be – not with this light with this weather with my particular outlook on life. 

As the proverb goes – no man crosses the same river twice for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.

I did see quite a lot of water from the flooding we’ve been having around the Mississippi River. Fields of water create great reflections for the grove of cypress trees. I saw a small park on my map, so I detoured to investigate.

In many ways, it was enough to know that I was the only person seeing this particular scene in this particular light. It’s not an epic scene, but I had made the effort and it was just for me.

I may not have gotten an epic sunrise on my trip, but the calm morning and the unexpected water in the fields made for some interesting reflections.

2. Find something Interested in Each Town

If I drove through a town, I had to find at least one interesting thing to photograph. Even if this meant getting off my route. 

I’ve never traveled with this rule before and I’m glad I put it in place. It’s too easy to blow through a small place and get fixated on a destination.

I found interesting things in a couple of towns, and that one, and that one… now that I think about it, I found interesting things in nearly every town no matter the size.

This probably has more to do with my mindset than the actual photographic interest in the towns I was driving through. I was looking for something interesting so I found something interesting – some very interesting things indeed!

Rule 1 & 2 came into play to find Smith Mill – a place I didn’t know about but it was right up my alley. I would never have found the place had I not gotten off my route to find something of interest in a town of about 5000 people. I found a railroad museum and then I saw a sign pointing me 5 miles off my route to this mill.

5 miles – I could spare 5 miles!

The owner brought the mill back from Pennsylvania and built a museum around it. Now I know it’s here, I’ll have to come back in the autumn to see the colors around the mill.

Bob Smith at his mill in central Illinois. I had no idea there was a mill out here and would never have found the place had I not been open to getting off the beaten track.
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3. Accept Where I Am

There was no sense in wishing I were elsewhere. I am where I am. Technology has yet to invent the transporter.

I encountered storm clouds and there was no sense in driving like a maniac over hills thinking the next scene would be perfect with the storm in the background. I was where I was. I could enjoy the weather unfolding even if I didn’t have that epic barn in front of the approaching storm.

Wishing I were elsewhere just takes up mental energy. If I accepted where I was and looked – really looked – maybe I’d see something I’d missed when I was imaging my perfect photo.

I was here when the storm rolled in. The church in the distance isn’t the best subject, but this is where I was.

If I work the scene a bit in post-processing, I might have a nice little image. Maybe in hindsight, I was right where I needed to be.

Storm across the Illinois plains

Wishing just takes my energy away from looking at where I am and I can miss experiences and opportunities.

4. After I Arrive, Look Again

I generally stop to take a photo for some reason, something caught my eye, and I was heading towards a couple of specific destinations. But that’s not always the only thing there to be seen. The first thing that caught my attention doesn’t mean it’s the only thing of interest.

I fall into this trap a lot. I’m so focused on the interesting thing in front of me that I sometimes miss something interesting going on right behind me.

One place I’d been aiming for was this abandoned railroad bridge. A couple of locals helped me find the place where I could actually get out onto the bridge to take photos. Great! Success! I found my destination and it was pretty photogenic.

What I hadn’t realized is that I’d wandered into Amish country. I saw more horses and buggies in 10 minutes than I had in my entire life put together. I just had to park myself along a road and wait for a few minutes and another would come along.

Had I not looked around, I would have missed a great opportunity.

Amish transport. This buggy literally drove right by as I was photographing the bridge above. Had I been focused, single-mindedly, on the bridge, I would have missed it.

Final Thoughts

I’ll admit that I’m still working on these things myself, but my trip helped center my mental energies.

I found some of the things I was looking for on my trip, but some things weren’t what I expected. I found many things that I wasn’t expecting and that’s where the adventure begins.

It may not be that I’m standing in the wrong place to see rainbows, I may simply be looking in the wrong direction.

I’ll be talking more about Zen Photography at the Out of Chicago conference at the end of April, 2019. Join us!

Out of Chicago Spring Photography Conference. It’s taking place in Grayslake, Illinois from April 27-28, 2019 . Use the discount code SPRING when you register to get $50 off. Spaces are filling fast. For more information, visit www.outofchicago.com/spring.

For more photos, follow me on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Website, Flickr

7 Comments

  1. Good life lesson, and good photo lesson. And you netted some fine images.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Almost Iowa says:

    Speaking of envy, I have some serious pickup truck envy going on. I want that truck.

    The photo of the abandoned railroad line is a classic.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great skies and a lovely photo of Bob Smith.. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thoughtful post, Jean, and some awesome photography! Don’t compare yourself to other photographers. Play in your creative sandbox, focus on the next beautiful little object in front of you and take an image that makes YOU smile.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Marie says:

    Wonderful post, Jenn. It is amazing where backroads can take us. I love the shots, especially the tree reflection and the railroad bridge.

    Liked by 1 person

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