Today I am publishing my first guest post by Justin McAfee. Justin is an avid photographer and a mechanical engineer and introduces us to the term polymathic photographer in this post. His photography tips help photographers who are beginners develop their photo sight or in his own words help "curate your photoSight and develop your photographic voice." Please visit jusmcafee.com and subscribe to the newsletters and weekly email list if you are interested. The news letter and e-book which I received after I subscribed has excellent information for beginners with info graphics and pictures and is really useful. Now over to Justin.
A Polymathic Photographer
- a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning.
The most well known person who could be characterized as a polymath is Leonardo Da Vinci. His notebooks are as colorful as his personality, and the combination of insights from his lack of direction is staggering to most. Today, we view this as a given, but before Leonardo was Leonardo… do you think he had the confidence, the outward exterior to be Leonardo?
Everyday we have a routine which we continue to do. Every day at work, I walk in the door sit down, boot my computer up, and then get back up to get some coffee. I do this everyday, now without even thinking about it, and I bet you do too! We reject change in our lives for one simple, basic reason, because it’s difficult. Because it’s abnormal to our daily routine.
This is how my journey started out in photography. I took my first shot in high school with a camera my mother got as a gift from her mother and it was awful. Not only was it bad, it was on the auto setting. I started taking photos because I started the school newspaper, and the yearbook group wouldn’t ‘allow’ me to use their donated equipment, or photographers, or photos. Something about the equipment being too expensive to replace and me not being trustworthy enough. Fair enough, they pegged me.
So I started taking photos at my high school football games with my mother’s camera. It was… about as good as the cameras the yearbook team had. Which for the Friday Night Lights football scene: no light, fast movement, and lack of credentials. I stood out in all the wrong ways.
Then I shook the hand of a couple other fathers who had sons on the team taking photos. They handed me their spare equipment. This is a little different to the equipment I was using (mine cost around $600 for the body and lens I was using, theirs cost $10,000 body, lens, and monopod - yes, you had to use a monopod, because the lens itself weighs about 10 kilos). I was petrified I was going to break these cameras constantly. But I made a deal with them, if I can use their cameras to take pictures, I would allow them to use my pictures, royalty free. I was the editor-in-chief for the paper and I needed photos for my magazine. No one else was going to take them, so guess who got the job? This guy, and he was a lousy photographer. But these cameras took photos at about 12 shots a second at full rate, and tackled the barriers I was facing with the camera I was borrowing from my mother. And pretty soon, after taking photos and listening to the pros for a couple of months, I had 1000s of photos under my belt. Began adjusting the settings and playing with the light from the photos.
Here’s the crazy thing, pretty soon, Friday night football games became routine.
This is where everyone starts with a new hobby, a new passion, a new something. And I dare say, it never starts out as a passion or something you ‘believe’ you will do great. This is where the rubber meets the road. Where something kicks in you and says, I will break my continuous routine and struggle my way through this educational phase. And it’s tiring. I’m sorry. This is good too, because there is neuro-activity taking place because your learning rewires your brain to incorporate the skills you just learned across your entire brain.
This is polymathy, and why it is so important.
New research is coming out everyday about a polymathic thought process  but what makes a person a polymath? The simple answer is breadth. Just as Mark Twain harps “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” A polymath does not view an educational objective as the completion, but a stepping stone to something broader. Below is the photo from one of my emails called “A Polymaths Prowess”, where I recollect the story of how I captured the shot.
Story Behind the Lens
This foggy photo is one of a kind, and will only happen on the strangest of days. These are the days which photographers on National Geographic regularly capture, but the story behind the photo, revealing the phenomenon is what really plays to an audience's attention.
You want to know don't you? How this happened?
The night before, it snowed like crazy in Michigan, but the day the photo was taken (around 3 PM) it was above freezing, it was actually quite warm. Meaning the snow was going to melt, and turn into fog. Well, there are actually three types of fog and this type of fog is called advection fog - where warm air passes over a cold surface.
Where does being a polymath come in?
The interesting thing is, when it came to taking this photo, I planned it. Myself. This photo was taken after work, and I knew it was going to be foggy because of the air warmth, but how?
My experience being a private pilot.
During training to be a pilot, you need to learn about the types of fog and what they 'look like'. Because paying attention to these 'details' is what saves you during a flight.
When it comes to photography, you must think about it in the same way, predict the way you want your photo to be composed, predict your settings and have them lined out before you arrive at the venue. This will give you breathing room to work your 'magic' but will also give you the structure necessary to get the job done. Which is the most fulfilling aspect of any new skill. This is where these polymathic research papers come to fruition . You can no longer look at what you are doing everyday as an isolated occurrence, you must compose the picture as a whole and bring in all your knowledge.
This is where the creativity of photography truly comes to shine, and why there isn’t too much original content, and what makes the ones who do create originally, something unique. Another photographer, Joe Shutter, talks about the topic of Instagram killing creativity. This is a really interesting topic I want to dive more into during a later post, but it’s a plea for help from those interested in learning photography to develop your own photographic voice.
I want to help you curate your photoSight and develop your photographic voice. This voice is the same one you hear in my writing, it’s also what creates my original photographic works.
This is something which will take some time to process, because you are changing biological processes to incorporate what you are learning. Dare to change your routine, dare to learn broadly, develop your photoSight with this link: Curate your photoSight.
- Root-Bernstein, Robert. “The Art of Innovation: Polymaths and University of the Creative Process.” International Handbook on Innovation, 2003, pp. 267–278., doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-008044198-6/50018-8.
- Root-Bernstein, Robert & Root-Bernstein, Michele. (2004). Artistic Scientists and Scientific Artists: The Link Between Polymathy and Creativity.. Creativity: From potential to realization. 10.1037/10692-008.
- Ross, C. E. ""Trying all things": Romantic Polymaths, Social Factors, and the Legacies of a Rhetorical Education." Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 53 no. 4, 2011, pp. 401-430. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tsl.2011.0015
I am a mechanical engineer living in Detroit working in the auto industry. I have been taking photos for about a decade now for my high school newspaper. From there, I met professional photographers who constantly loved my photos, and begged me to take photos for them as well, for this I was able to use their professional equipment. The catch? I would allow them to use my photos to be used by them.
I run a website jusmcafee.com where I share my photography thoughts and give resources for photography, which I am building out as time progresses and I find new and exciting techniques, ideas, and scene making.
I send out a weekly email where I go through detailed analysis of photo techniques as well, where I help develop and focus starting photographers develop their sense of photographic sight. This is done through provoking questions as well as progressive pictures to show the thought process of how I capture my photos.
Hope you enjoyed the post.
Have a good weekend!