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Mastering: Decision making & freedom (5)

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs)

Keywords: mastery, art, bgs

In the last installment of Mastering the art of photography series, part 4, we discussed the areas that you can control for when you are growing as a photographer, such as allocating time for your photography. We also touched upon the areas that are to a lesser degree within your control, such as other people.

Today we are digging further into the "controlled spectrum" with some thoughts on decision-making and consequences of our actions, or inactions. We will look into taking risks, and freedom as a foundation for creativity. We are also coming back to physical exercise for helping your creativity flourish.

How to increase your controlled spectrum

Most things in your life can be brought under your control. I quite often experience that friends of mine first object to the idea that most things in their lives are actually controllable. After thinking it through though they tend to change their mind. We are in a given situation because of a certain, past decision, but we still can exert control. Events seldom "just happen" to us and are often the result of an earlier decision taken, or not.


Every day we make decisions and our actions, large or small have consequences. Even not making a decision will somehow influence our lives. A lot is being taught to leaders on consequences of their decisions, or at least there is plenty of learning material available. We, as photographers can pick up ideas from this and incorporate it into our photography.

One book on the topic is "The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World" by Susan M. Schneider.


Ballet dancer in the Primate's Palace of Bratislava, Slovakia by Pascal Baetens (pbaetens)

A ballet dancer in the Primate's Palace of Bratislava, Slovakia. By Pascal Baetens (pbaetens). Click for larger image.

We are changing our brains based upon our actions and to cite from The Science of Consequences, "Ultimately, knowing what drives us puts us in the drivers seat". We should not ignore the importance of how we are shaping our destinies by reprogramming ourselves as we go about our lives. Susan M. Schneider says; "In a world of instant gratification that tempts us to ignore later costs, perhaps we can use what we know to make better choices."

You can balance the pros and cons of a certain decision and anticipate the consequences simply by thinking through the different, potential outcomes and write these down prior taking it.

Weighted Decision Matrix

For more complex decisions I use a "Weighted Decision Matrix" (WDM, aka "Pugh matrix" or "Criteria-Based Matrix) often with an Excel sheet or by running a small application. One such app is the "Best Decision app" by L Kowalski, which I find a joy to use. You can find it in the app stores for iOS and Android.

Let's say I am considering buying a tele-lens when out shooting landscapes and I want to figure out what is the best matching solution for my personal selection criterias by applying the WDM approach.


Example WDM for supporting my decision making process acquiring a new lens

The Weighted Decision Matrix helping me decide what lens to get. Click for larger image.
You can download this Decision Matrix Excel template and adjust it for your own use.

I list the criteria in the left-most column such as "Cost to acquire", "Depreciation" (loss of value over time), "Carry weight", "Optical quality", "Compatibility with existing filters", "Ease of use", "Wide application area" and "Pure joy factor".

In a second column I give each criteria an importance weighting from 1 to 5. I care not to spend too much money on a new lens so I make "cost to acquire" important and weight that at 4. I find the carry weight to be very important so I make that a 5. I consider optical quality to be important with a weight of 3 whereas I am not too bothered about ease of use and weight that at 2. I give the other criteria a "1" which equals no additional weighting.

Now I list the various solutions, each in one column and I rank the solution for each criteria with -1 (negative), 0 (neutral) or 1 (positive). For each solution I multiply the importance weighting with the value assigned for each criteria and I sum it up per solution. The solution with the highest total value wins.

A bit astonished I find that I should not buy a tele lens but a tele converter. If I would rank optical quality even higher, then my WDM tells me to get the 300mm/4 instead of the tele converter.

Decisions, decisions...

Some decisions you as a photographer might be wrestling with right now which might be well worth putting into a WDM;

1. How shall I best invest my time on photography? (Potential solutions to this could be; Workshop on Hawaii for one week, buy 10 new books, Upgrade to Gold and visit Nikonians daily...)

2. What lens shall I acquire for macro photography? (The latest Sigma, the new Nikon, no lens but a tube, the screw-in glass, an older whatever from an auction site or KEH, no new macro lens)

3. What kind of backup camera shall I get, if any? (The same as my main body, the latest low-end body, a used pro body, buy a new main body and use my current one as backup body, don’t get a backup camera) 

4. How shall I learn a new photography discipline? ...

For example, you can decide to buy a backup body and use that on your shoots as to minimize the risk of not getting the images even though it will add cost and weight. You can decide not to use one since the body you have has not failed so far. You might consider the shoot being very important and a backup body is a great insurance. You might value the lower carry weight of one body higher than the risk of experiencing a camera failure.

I personally enjoy light packing and I try to reduce the amount of gear I take with me on a trip, leaving most of it back home. I tend to take one body no matter what I am up to. I might take one lens only (then it is often a single zoom, like a 24-70mm or on a DX body a 17-55mm) or maybe a few lenses. With light packing comes increased freedom and I thrive on freedom. It gives me the chance to walk and hike. It propels me further with less effort. It reduces exposure to damage and to risk of theft.

We've talked about taking time for our photography earlier. If you are interested in getting more shooting opportunities of landscapes, you can decide that it is worth getting out of bed earlier, something that is often (fairly) easy to control. As a landscape photographer I can get some excellent shooting hours if I get up early, especially getting up and being ready on location prior sunrise.

If something feels out of control, ask yourself why. If you are honest to yourself you might likely find that you can control for it. Often we might feel out of control just because we might have issues organizing a set of tasks and maybe ignoring the impact we have upon our own lives.

Risk taking and growth

Taking certain risk is needed for growth. Imagine the photographer that tries to cover for all eventualities, carrying a very heavy backpack just to end up not making the trail since it was steeper or longer than first thought. Had he packed less he would have gotten a better shot from a superb location, now he got the mediocre one from one of the regular outlooks instead.

Evaluating risk is highly personal. It might not be a very large risk to go on a photography trip to Asia by yourself if you are in good health and vigor, being used to long distance travels. If OTOH you have never travelled abroad it might be worth considering reducing risks by not going solo.

If we dare a bit more, e.g. not being too afraid of "the weather", we likely can improve our landscape photography further, with more chances, good backdrops and interesting colors. If we are typically hesitant to speak to strangers, we can increase our chances at great street photography by talking to people, being a bit more daring and outgoing.

What kind of photography travel would you consider out of scope because it would be too risky? What could you do to reduce the risks?

Dependency, liability and freedom

Freedom is a very good base for improving your creativity. Happiness and being content in general are other good components in the over all creativity scheme. Being very limited in freedom or being unhappy in general is not helpful on the road towards more creativity.

The more gear you acquire, the more dependencies you will create and this often results in less freedom. Your checklists will be longer, your insurance premium will be higher, you will feel more stressed out about checked-in luggage or the airline's rules for carry-on's and the risk for gear malfunction increases.

Maybe you bought the gear on credit and that needs to be paid somehow. Paying typically means working and working commonly means having less freedom. The increased risk of leaving a lot of expensive gear in the car limits your action radius and your freedom is limited further.

If we consider what kind of freedom we will get vs. what kind of liability we are entering into before acquiring additional gear, one or the other purchase might not happen. The freedom side of the equation might grow though. When we experience more freedom we have the chance of becoming more creative.

Let's take a serious leap from dependencies to physical activity. The two are though intertwined in creativity.

Two legs, for a reason

We have two legs for a reason. Some long distance runners like Cristopher McDougall argues we were born to run and are designed to get short of a half marathon behind us daily - I assume a large majority of us don't get that kind of mileage and I don't think we should to try.

When we move we feel better though. The lesser we move the worse we feel, in general. In part three we touched upon physical fitness as a precursor for mental fitness, which in turn is required to let creativity flow.

If we have an office job we might end up not moving enough throughout the day. If we are keen on improving our creative side, we probably should increase our physical activity a bit as well. Doing this does not mean we need to turn into long distance mountain runners or start training for a triathlon.

There are though a few hints we can take with us from Chris McDougall and these are: (1) we are made for moving (2) we are made for moving quite some distance per day (3) at the age of 60 we are capable of moving (i.e. running over longer distance) at the same pace as someone who's 19.

My point is really that many of us need to be moving more, not racing for sure, but to move, be physically more active since that is inherent in us. We are born to move. We are self-healing machines made to move. When the machine is still, it breaks down and maintenance is cumbersome.

What ways can you come up with to increase the daily number of steps you take? How many steps do you think you are taking daily right now? Do you notice a difference how you feel when you are physically active vs. being still for longer periods of time?

If we have the basics of the creativity-support layer worked out, i.e. time chunks large enough for real work to happen, a basic sense of control of our situation, some physical activity planned and executed, management/organization in place of stuff that is outside of our direct control (weather, people & other third parties...) then we probably can discover how to feed our art side, our "soft animal" that needs nurturing and that we might not even know very well. We discussed that a bit in part three.

The "only" thing we need to do

The poet Mary Oliver writes; ..."You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves." 

Her "Wild Geese" poem is worth reading, or listening to.

It is this "only" part that is vital, even critical to help us improving our photography, such a small word with enormous implications.

Please do let me know your thoughts on the topic in the discussion thread in our Café.

(6 Votes )

Originally written on December 29, 2017

Last updated on December 30, 2020


Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on June 11, 2018

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

@MKHurder: Thanks. Re WDM: Yes, more than a few of us probably do this to some degree subconsciously - I know for sure that I still do that to some degree as well. Making it more consciously leads IMO to better results though.

User on June 10, 2018

Part 5: That's a great tool, Bo. "WDM", puts a label to what I've been doing subconsciously for years. Now I'll think a little more clearly about prioritizing things. I did a little of that when I decided to buy Tamron lenses, knowing I couldn't buy Nikkors and the D850. Because of a Nikonian's suggestion, I had a major "rethink" about being a pure Niconista. This was also a "get it now or probably never" kind of situation. I had the funds from the insurance company to spend as I wished by way of rehab. So I went back to school and bought the gear I could, while I could. Priorities! Thanks a bunch, Bo. Sometimes I get lost in trying to be perfect right now and forget the "reason why". This kind of motivational article helps center the thought process, smooth out the wrinkles, if you will. Bravo!

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on January 8, 2018

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

@James: Thanks for your feedback. I am happy to hear that you are getting back to photography.

James Sipos (jimsipos) on January 7, 2018

Thanks for the article. I have been inactive in photography for nearly five years due to illness but am much better now. However, I still have not gooten my equipment out of storage because I haven't been able to choose what it is that I want to start capturing again. Too much equipment to choose from perhaps so I just sat down after reading your article and made my own chart to help me decide since there will be an expense to get the equipment ready to be used again. It looks as though my best choice will be to do Winter landscapes. Thanks for helping me get back to photography. There were several choices other than photography that were available, all of them enjoyable - woodworking, boating and sports car restoring to name a few.