Working in the software industry I am forever having to "manage expectations" of project stakeholders. This is so prevalent that it has become one of those silly business cliches. I mean really, what does that mean?!
Yet I often find in my photography that I'm victim of my own over inflated expectations. This leads to a huge sense of disappointment when they don't come to fruition. Making the effort to go out at 4am for the sunrise that never materialises. Getting soaking wet waiting for the storm to pass that never does. Spending thousands travelling somewhere I've always wanted to shoot, only for the conditions to conspire against me or for it to not live up to expectations ("but they never have hundreds of people walking all over it in the pictures I've seen").
Expectations are perfectly natural. We build a picture of how something will be in our minds based on what we're read, what we've seen, even using our imagination. When I'm going somewhere I'll use a combination of tools (I talk about them briefly in this blog post) to visualise a place. Sometimes this can go too far though.
In a recent blog post Mike Green talked about the "futility of over-planning" which really resonated with me when writing this post. When you're distant from somewhere, you can prepare and try to form a vision of what the place will be like and what shots you're going to take. But the problem is that vision is unlikely to be right and worse we can fix it too rigidly in our heads.
When inevitably the reality doesn't match that picture we feel that fate has played a cruel hand against us. The reality is that we've failed to manage our own expectations and failed to realise that we were hoping for something that was either unlikely or unrealistic. It would be fortune indeed if the various elements did align to deliver our expectation.
Our reaction can be quite damaging. Photographically we can completely shut down, despondent and fail to see what may lie still before us. Even if what we expected to see doesn't materialise, it's rare that there is truly nothing to get excited about. But we become blind to the possibilities as we've been so focused on that one thing. We beat ourselves up. We make less effort. We may even throw in the towel.
So, better to have an attitude of Anticipation rather than Expectation I think. The difference may appear subtle but I think it's important. One is hopeful and the other fated. One is flexible, the other fixed. One is open, the other closed.
Anticipation allows us to keep an open mind to what we will encounter and adapt. It's the explorer's mind, the creative's mind. Taking what comes and doing something with it.
Bolehill Quarry II: My vision of Bolehill Quarry from a previous visit and from other images I had seen was of a murky, monochromatic woodland. In the bright sunshine on Saturday morning it couldn't have been more different.
That's not to say planning doesn't have a role. Having a vision allows us to anticipate what we will encounter and we should do our research to maximise our chances of success. The way I think we need approach planning is that it should lead us to a "target rich environment" - we are often short on time, so it helps to know that there is potential (ignoring the view that potential exists everywhere!).
But we shouldn't let it go so far that we have the shot already set in our mind. If we've got to the point where we're thinking "I want that rock here, that tree there, that distant peak between them, the sun setting just there with a thin line of bright red cloud, and a unicorn frolicking on the valley floor" then we know we've gone too far. Indeed if you've got to the point where you know the image you want from research alone, then quite possibly you run the risk of creating something derivative or cliche.
There are so many times things have just failed to happen for me (and not just photographically! :)). This has happened on "once in a lifetime" trips. The thing is your expectation for that once in a lifetime trip may well have been set by images created by people that have dedicated their life to getting those images.
I remember going on safari for my honeymoon in 2008. I fully - seriously! - expected to come back with pure gold from that trip (noting I got my DSLR 7 months earlier). I got some nice images - one, right, still has "pride" of place on my wall :) - but come on, false expectations or what?! How realistic is it that every element will align in a week long trip for that "once in a lifetime" image. Pretty remote right?
The answer isn't to down tools and give up as it's easy to do. It's about saying "ok, that didn't work out, let's see what I can do instead". Anticipate something magical, but be prepared to change course to avoid disappointment. It also means that we can better enjoy in the magic that we do create, knowing that things haven't gone our way before.
Mike Green also has a number of posts on his blog where he talks about planning and using technology to pre-visualise images. It's well worth a good look around.
Bruce Percy has put together a really interesting eBook called the Art of Self-awareness which delves into this and many other problems we create for ourselves.