Graduation Speech to the Class of ’09

by Miserere


Just 1 week ago I was contacted by the New England School of Photography and asked to give the main speech to this year’s graduating class. It seems the important photographer they had scheduled had cancelled unexpectedly and they were pretty desperate to find a substitute. Given the short notice, I had to think quickly about what I would say to these young, hopeful students that could help them in their career and would stay with them forever.

The ceremony took place this past Sunday, and this is what I came up with.


Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’09,

Use a tripod.

If I could offer you only one tip for your Photography, a tripod would be it. The IQ benefits of the tripod have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the steady hands and clear eyesight of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the steady hands and clear eyesight of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos you took and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how many backup hard drives and slide boxes lay before you and how optimistic you really were. Your JPEGs are not as small as you think.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to shoot Olympic ping pong with a Holga. The real troubles in your Photography are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blind-side you at 4 am on some idle Tuesday night before a deadline.

Photograph one thing every day that scares you.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s photographs. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Clean your sensor.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself. Remember compliments you receive. Forget the internet insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how. Keep your old photographs. Throw away your old camera purchase receipts.

Tuck your elbows in.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what genre you want to shoot. The most interesting photographers I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their photographs. Some of the most interesting 40-year-old photographers I know still don’t. Get plenty of filters. Be kind to your lens hoods. You’ll miss them when they’re gone. Maybe you’ll get an assistant, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll switch to medium format, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll stick with film, maybe you’ll laugh at the old-timers when film is gone and you’re celebrating 20 years of shooting digital. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Half of your pictures are blurry. So are everybody’s else’s.

Enjoy your camera. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Shoot macro, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the instruction manual, even if you don’t follow it.

Do not read Photography magazines. They will only make you feel useless.

Get to know your local camera stores. You never know when they’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best models and the people most likely to let you practice your strobe portrait shooting in the future.

Understand that lenses come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in centre-to-corner sharpness and contrast wide open, because the older you get, the more you need fast lenses that auto-focus well.

Shoot Leica once, but sell it before it makes you condescending. Shoot Holga once, but sell it before it makes you artsy-fartsy.


Accept certain inalienable truths. Pixel counts will rise. Explorers of Light will philander with other brands. You, too will buy different systems. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were shooting with another brand, prices were reasonable, lenses were sharp, and customer service never put you on hold.

Use Photoshop.

Don’t expect anyone to buy your prints. Maybe you have unlimited ink from Epson. Maybe you’ll get a big gift voucher for MPix. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your digital files or by the time you’re finished postprocessing that shot of Yosemite it will look like craters on Mars. Be careful whose Photoshop advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Photoshop is a form of cheating. Using it is a way of fishing a crappy photo from the rejection folder, adding layers, modifying the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the tripod.


With thanks to Mary Schmich for her inspiration.

10 Responses to “Graduation Speech to the Class of ’09”

  1. Nicely done – this reminds me of a graduation speech, either in a movie, or as part of a film clip. Practical and inspirational advice all swirled together.

  2. Mis, I never realized you carried a tripod with you, daily. πŸ™‚ But, it’s great advice. I felt like you were describing me on quite a few of those bits – the 40 year old who still doesn’t have a style, and who is watching both eyes and ability to hold the camera steady dwindle with every passing year. God bless those young folks who don’t realize how doomed they all are. πŸ˜€

  3. I am in the same ”class” as RoseyD..Could not have said it better. This was a most enjoyable read and a wonderful way to start my morning. I love your sense of humor that is always loaded with so much hard truth. I am blessed to know you. Now I am off to grab a macro lens and head to work πŸ™‚

  4. Except I hate being tied to a tripod so would advise just the opposite. Untether yourself, be free, be bold… move to where the shot is, practice mobility and intelligence.

    Oh, and use Pentax with Shake Reduction. πŸ™‚

  5. Ewan O'Sullivan Says:

    So did they give you an honorary degree?

  6. Trust me on the sunscreen… πŸ™‚ I recall the song!

  7. This will be hanging on my wall for some time to come…but what about sunscreen?

  8. Absolutely brilliant Mis! This is getting printed out and stuck above my computer! Really great advice and wit!

  9. Mis – I especially should have remembered this: I was introduced to the video by my (now) wife during our courtship! In my defense, I’ve forgotten a lot of other stuff in the intervening decade. Thanks again for recalling and sharing it – and for an adroit adaptation to photography. Well done.

    Christopher: Mary Schmich originally wrote the column wherein the single ‘for sure’ bit of advice was to wear sunscreen. After a bit of confusion over ownership, Baz Luhrmann created a video (which, of course is available on YouTube, and is a good way to spend 7 minutes).

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