Business Learnings from Landscape Photography

Death Valley National Park, California; photo by the author

I bought my first DSLR a few years ago after a trip to South Africa. I assumed that I’d use it to photograph street scenes (I live in New York and spend most of my time in cities) and wildlife (Africa is my favorite travel destination), but landscapes are what have most captured my attention.

Landscapes are the antithesis of technology and Silicon Valley in that they change very slowly. It took the Colorado River millions of years to carve the Grand Canyon as we know it, and it’s still going. On the other hand, CB Insights recently published a list of start-ups that disappeared in spectacular fashion about as quickly as they were created.

One of my personal goals for 2018 is to photograph 10 national parks. Halfway to that goal, here are some things I’ve learned—or relearned—that can be applied to business, too.

Planning Is Everything

Dwight Eisenhower made famous the statement, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

A good plan is a set of actions that, taken in a specific circumstance, yield the desired results. Hike to this location, set up the camera, and take a photograph at this time. You can capture a beautiful photograph if your information is perfect and nothing unexpected happens.

Of course, this is almost never the case. The hike takes longer than you expect. Low clouds obscure the mountain summit. Your tripod breaks. Your plan is useless and you go home without a photograph.

Planning, on the other hand, prepares us for any eventuality, not just the one for which we hoped. The act of planning makes us more knowledgeable. It helps us to prioritize. It prepares us to make decisions.

Patience Is a Virtue

The best time of day to photograph landscapes is immediately after sunrise and before sunset — the so-called golden hours. You’d be forgiven for thinking that patience isn’t required: Google “sunset time,” arrive a few minutes before, and press the shutter. If only it were that easy!

Yosemite National Park, California; photo by the author

It took me four hours to capture the photograph above: an hour to find and refine the composition, three hours of waiting for the light and clouds to cooperate with me and with one another (this was taken just before sunset), and 10 seconds to expose the scene. Of course, that doesn’t include the many hours I spent hiking 14 miles to arrive at the location.

You can’t rush good work.

You Can’t Control the Weather

Presuming you aren’t capable of weather modification—a safe assumption if you’re reading this lowly blog—the old adage is true: you can’t control the weather. Luckily, dramatic weather is the not-so-secret ingredient in compelling landscape photography, perhaps best illustrated by Ansel Adams’s famous photograph, Clearing Winter Storm.

The obvious takeaway is to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. This reminds me of perhaps my favorite business mantra: you can only manage behaviors, not results. I’ve found that this can be difficult for some people to understand, especially after hearing another one of my favorite mantras: aspire to be judged on results, not intentions.

The problem is that results are like the weather—they can’t be controlled. Just as Ansel Adams didn’t conjure up a winter storm, so too can a sales leader not hit the plan by fiat. On the other hand, the sales leader can invest in training and create repeatable processes that, over time, deliver results. Good behaviors are the leading indicator of results.

Good Work Isn’t Always Obvious

I’ve taken my share of terrible photographs. They’re easy to pick out because they’re boring, overexposed, or out of focus. But I’ve also taken photographs that I thought were so-so before I spent more time with them and discovered something that I really liked.

Antelope Canyon is a stunningly beautiful slot canyon. It’s also been Instagrammed up the wazoo, which makes taking a unique photograph challenging. The rock formation below left is pointed out by every Navajo guide because “it looks like the Bat-Signal.” It’s beautiful but doesn’t make for a compelling photograph—there’s no clear subject and it’s close to impossible to expose the scene correctly. I marked it one star.

Antelope Canyon, Arizona; photo by the author

A few weeks later I revisited the photograph and noticed how the grooves in the lower right corner looked like waves in the ocean. I created the above right edit, which has become a personal favorite.

In business, good ideas frequently come from unexpected sources and are rarely announced as such. It’s therefore important to keep an open mind and constantly look for ways to say “yes.”

I’m in Alaska this week photographing three more national parks: Kenai Fjords, Katmai, and Lake Clark. I hope to return with good photographs—and learnings that I can apply to business, too.

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