How I Improved My Photography in Five Simple Steps – Step One: Fail to Get Pregnant

How I Improved My Photography in Five Simple Steps – Step One: Fail to Get Pregnant

1577 886 James Tocchio

Some years ago, I went from knowing almost nothing about photography to knowing a fair bit about photography. I did so by following these five simple steps.

This isn’t a roadmap for everyone, but it worked for me. Your experience may differ from mine, and your results may vary.

Step One: Fail to Get Pregnant

Begin by never really considering whether or not you’d like to have kids, and then meet someone who you really like, learn that they want to have kids, and slowly realize that you’d probably like to have children too. Try to do that, and when a year has gone by and you’ve not yet made a kid, vaguely wonder why. Begin worrying and keep trying. Six months later, go to the doctor.

Be told that there’s a problem and that you and your wife might not be able to have children.

You’re a practical person and a hard worker, and you don’t like to give up, so contain your emotions and look for a way forward. Assure your wife that it will all work out, and begin to worry about just how much she’s crying.

Step Two: Realize You Have No Control Over Anything

Spend a lot of time at clinics.

Listen attentively to the doctor as she recites what seems like a well-learned presentation, and follow her words through phase one and two and three of plan one and two and three; contingencies comprising a roadmap that stretches years into the future. Feel buoyed by the activity because you’re doing something, and smartly-dressed professionals are speaking in optimistic tones. 

Drive to the pharmacy and take home the thin wax-paper bag full of syringes, follow the instructions, and inject your wife with drugs where and when the doctors tell you to. Be impressed when she doesn’t wince at being stabbed with syringes over and over again for months at a time, but forget to vocalize how impressed you are, because you’re an idiot.

For the next six months, fail to get pregnant. Try to remember that there are hundreds of thousands of people all over the world with worse problems and try to stay optimistic. Fail at staying optimistic. Wonder what you can do to fix things as the emotional distance between you and your wife widens. Tell her it’s fine when she apologizes for being so emotional and withdrawn. Apologize too, and tell her that you’re proud of her for dealing with everything so well.

Do not mention anything about any of this to anyone. Do as well as you can at your job. Try to relax and be normal. Try to make your wife smile. Try to do and say the right things at all times, and constantly feel like the things you’re doing and saying are all wrong. Remember that it’s a lot harder on your wife than it is on you, and that you can’t do anything about it.

Go to the doctor many more times. Begin “plan two,” which is more time intensive, more humiliating, and more exhausting.

Spend thousands of dollars that you don’t really have, and know that you’d eagerly spend fifty times the amount if it would help.

Know that it wouldn’t help.

Stand useless in a room at the clinic next to your wife and talk to her about nothing while a team of doctors and nurses do their work, and correctly assume that what they’re doing to her hurts. Assume similarly that she’s being tough and brave. Be excited and optimistic as you wheel her wheelchair to the car in the parking garage, because she’s the closest she’s ever been to being pregnant. Leave the clinic and smile and spend the day with your wife, and remember how fun your relationship was before all of this, and know that it will be again.

Two weeks later, learn that the procedure has failed and that the fertilized egg was lost.

Listen to your wife tell you how frustrated and sad she is. Tell her that you are as well, but always try to lessen the burden on her. Make a joke, give her a hug. Don’t cry because you know it’ll make her cry.

Spend the next six months repeating all of the above a number of times. Pay for and experience more rounds of fertilized egg implantations. Have them all fail, and when your wife reaches a frightfully low emotional point, try to suggest that the lost eggs were nothing more than that – tiny fertilized eggs, not actual people. Suggest to her that she’s just torturing herself when she thinks of them as anything more than a handful of simple cells.

Know that you’re full of shit. Soon after, worry that your wife doesn’t seem to cry as much anymore.

Step Three : Rediscover Your Camera

Sit in your office on a cold night in August while your wife is asleep in the other room. Think how odd it is that it’s become normal to spend a lot of time apart in your own individual seclusion. Worry about that. Be alone in the house. Have a hard time in the silence.

Around midnight, and for no reason that you can pinpoint, think of your old camera that you’ve not touched in years. Go into the basement and dig around for hours until you find the familiar bag. Unpack the camera and remember that you last used it when you and your wife went to Europe. Remember when you’d taken hundreds of photos of her smile. Charge the battery and be amazed that it still powers the camera.

Do some light reading on photography to refresh the foggy memories of that one college course on photography you partially attended. Attach the prime lens that you bought over a decade ago, but never used, and then pack your rediscovered camera and your 50mm F/1.7 into a bag just before midnight on a cold Friday. Contemplate driving into the city in a few hours, before sunrise, to make some photos during the blue hour (a thing you just read about on an internet forum). Decide not to bother, because what’s the point? Then think better, and go anyway.

Step Four: Realize You Can Control Some Things

Get a few hours of sleep and then wake up at 3:00 AM to drive into the sleeping city. Erect your tripod and your camera at the edge of the harbor, aim your lens at the distant buildings, and stand there in the dark and the cold.

Listen to the ocean licking at the land. Listen to your breath, and watch it freeze and vanish in the air. Wonder how a city can be so quiet. Feel small and lonely in the quiet and wonder what you’re doing standing there like a fool before the sun has even risen, while your wife is asleep in bed at home alone. Remember that you don’t really seem to make her happy anymore, because nothing does, and again listen to the ocean.

As the sun begins to rise, turn the camera on, set the dial to “A,” which you assume stands for “Automatic,” and frame your shot. Take a picture and look at the LCD screen to see the horrible photo you’ve just made. Vaguely recall that it’s exhibiting the properties of something called “under-exposure” and try to remember how to remedy that. Incompletely remember your photography professor from twelve years ago telling you about shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Switch to manual mode and set the aperture to a random something, F/2 maybe. Then set your shutter speed. You’re guessing, trying to find something that works. Choose 1/1000th of a second and take a second shot. The photo is slightly brighter, but still dark. Slow the shutter even more and take a third shot. This one is decently exposed. But the auto-focus seems to be struggling, or there’s camera shake, maybe, because the shot is blurry. Do not understand why it’s blurry and feel acutely that you haven’t done “photography” in a very long time.

Switch to manual focus and press your eye against the viewfinder. Focus. Take a fourth shot, and when this one too is blurry, try to remember if small apertures create sharper images or blurrier images. Set your aperture to a higher number to increase clarity, F/16 maybe. Take the fifth photo and review it on the LCD display.

Stand back from the camera and feel the outsized surge of frustration rinse over you. Feel anger grip the base of your brain like an oily fist. Blink against your illogically watering eyes as you fail to understand why this last shot is the worst shot you’ve taken so far. Walk away and sit on the edge of the sea wall and blink down into the water. Notice that a park bench has been thrown into the waves and wonder why a bench would be in such an incongruous place. Laugh at the absurdity of how mad you just were. Be halfheartedly proud that you were able to stay calm enough that the tears didn’t tumble, then sit there for a while breathing deep and looking at the sunrise.

Scoff in self-deprecation at how silly you are. Wonder at how odd it is that you could be so depressed for so long over a lack of a thing that you didn’t even know you wanted. Laugh at the irony. Laugh because you’re practical and stoic, and you’re not someone who cries because crying doesn’t help anything, and laugh that you’re a fool, sitting and staring out at the distant sunrise as if you were a character in a maudlin movie on the Hallmark Channel while remembering that people all over the world are suffering through worse calamities.

Move on from all of that and wonder if your wife is awake yet. Wonder how it’s going to feel for her to wake up with no one in the house but a hasty note. Wonder what the fuck you’re doing sitting alone at five in the morning with a camera you’ve not used in years trying to take a boring picture of a sunrise.

Decide to pack it up and go home.

When you get back to the camera, look at the screen again, and for the hell of it, think one more time about why that last shot might have been so dark. Remember that closing the aperture requires a reciprocal adjustment to shutter speed. Do not know which way to adjust the speed relative to the aperture adjustment, but take a guess. Logic that the shot got darker when you closed the aperture down, so slow down the shutter to compensate. Set it to ten seconds, the longest shutter speed you’ve ever seen. Take the shot.

Frown in disbelief when the entire photo is in focus and the shot is properly exposed. Be unsure how any of that happened, and be even more surprised to notice that all of the points of light are magically flared into multi-pronged starbursts.

Think that the photo is not bad, for someone who hasn’t taken a photo in ten years and feel good.

Decide you can spare another ten minutes taking photos. Adjust aperture and shutter speed independently, then as reciprocals with one another. Learn through experience that you can make the sky darker if you choose by adjusting some dials.

Importantly, you can make things brighter as well.

Take long exposures and walk slowly across the frame. Marvel at the LCD screen when you see yourself rendered as a ghostly blur traveling across the harbor. Get distracted by flowers and take fifty photos of them with varying degrees of depth-of-field. Learn instantly how aperture impacts this, and the offset required in shutter speed to make a proper exposure. Shoot a photo of a homeless man sleeping, realize it’s in bad taste, delete the shot, and lay a five dollar bill next to his pillow (which is a piece of folded cardboard).

Realize that for half of an hour, you’ve not dwelt upon all the things that have tortured your mind and heart for the last couple of years, and realize that photography might be worth doing again.

Remember that your wife will be waking up soon and know that you want to be there when she does. Drive home, step quietly into the house, unpack your camera gear, and make two cups of coffee. When she wakes up, say “Good morning.” Ask her what she’d like to do over the weekend, and tell her you love her. Over coffee, show her the pictures and talk about how quiet and peaceful the city was. Talk about how much you miss the hobby photography. When she asks if you’ll keep doing it, say maybe.

Chat casually about the upcoming appointment at the fertility clinic. Agree with her when she optimistically says that it will work this time. Be amazed at how resilient she is. Don’t let on that you had a weird morning, because she’s got enough going on.

Step Five : Have a Baby

A year later, with an emotional depth the likes of which you never suspected you’d be capable, appreciate the miracle that doctors had performed ten months earlier.

Far more powerfully appreciate the miracle your wife has just performed, and watch in awe and with mild terror as your daughter is born. Amidst the commotion, catch the eye of your wife, who’s still crying, but smiling too now.

Two years later, make another miracle baby. This time, with ease. Funny, how that works.

Spend the rest of your life taking pictures of your family.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • What a lovely, lovely piece. So personal, yet everyone connects with it on some level.

  • What a great story, and incredibly how much I recognize. Our first daughter (now a beautiful young woman of 21) was conceived with the help of IVF; after many tries and many fails. And then our second daughter (18 now) just ‘happened’. A lot of emotion and stuff to go through. I have a lot of respect for you to put this in writing here!

  • This is an awesome story! ( Did someone accidentally post this early, because I know I read this exact piece last week, and then I ciuldnco find it until now)

  • Life is a mysterious miracle.

  • Wonderful story, would love to see the initial sunrise picture!

  • Moving. Most heartfelt piece I’ve read in a long time.

  • Holy, moly. That was the most emotive thing I have ever read. I am so happy for you to have succeeded, but sad for the heartache you suffered along the way. What lucky children you have, to be wanted so much. I started my blog for an opposing reason, watching someone slowly die and needing to focus on something else. I think this article will stay with me a while. Well done sir.

  • This is GREAT writing….

    Thank you for sharing

  • “Realize that for the last half hour you’ve not thought about all the things that you’ve struggled to not think about for the past two years, and think that photography might be something worth diving into again”–ain’t that the truth. I had always heard about the power of a hobby (for lack of a better term) to battle depression or depression-like states, yet it can be so hard to find one that does the trick. I’m so glad it does, for you, for me. And thank you for the beautiful story.

  • Just excellent! And congratulations 🙂

  • James, thank you so much for your honesty and reflection, and sharing the wonder of how you family grew.

    Photography is a good hobby, especially when you remember it is about waiting and looking for the light, and how it displays and reflects. So many times we can get caught up in the discussion of the gear, and miss, as you say just capturing light in the eyes of those we love, or a smile, or the beauty of a flower, or a sunrise.

    Thank you for the inspiration


  • James, thank you so much for sharing the story. Congratulations on the babies!
    Thank you for being so true with the readers. Thank you for being so honest with your life and photography.

  • What a great article. Photography has pulled me out of a bit of a dark place also. So glad things have worked out for you James and that we have this great blog to discuss what’s important to us. Even if it isn’t purely photography related.

  • My wife and I were through very similar a few years back and you hit the nail on the head throughout. The hope, disappointment, wondering, worrying… the isolation. Like a great photo often does, your writing transported me and had me standing there with you on the harbor’s edge at sunrise in the cold. Glad it worked out for you and your family (as it eventually did for us). Glad it led to you creating Casual Photophile for the enjoyment of many like me, and for others who may stumble across it at a low spot and discover a hobby to uplift them too.

  • James,
    I read this article, ruminated on it for 24 hours and read it again.
    A couple thoughts:
    First, this has got to be the best piece of writing I’ve seen a quite a while. It is intensely vulnerable and engrossing. Second, congratulations on your growing family and lifelong photo assignment!
    My wife and I haven’t yet started down the path of childbirth, but I still strongly relate to this. I’m sure one of your other readers is currently going through something similar and I hope they will be encouraged by your story. It seems it’s the darkest times in which we feel most alone.

  • Dude this article didn’t give me what it says on the tin, but….beautiful piece all the same.

  • dancomanphotography February 8, 2019 at 7:19 am

    Love this James, thanks for writing it.

  • Amazing, so human…

  • All the Best to Your Family 🙂

  • Randy Lynn Keeler February 8, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    I just read (or almost) I could not get by #2. I was crying uncontrollably.. This described my son and daughter-in-law almost to a ‘T’. I was not aware of the many issues. If you don’t mind I wish to re-print this and try to read it to them… and apologize. There must have been so many times that my son felt alone. I can only hope that he did not want to burden me with his highs and lows, as I suffer from PTSD from fire fighter service and can be a piece of junk at times. I wish he had though. My son and daughter-in-law now have 2 children (two year old twins) all I have to do is get a camera into his hands and convince him to put away the phone as a camera. My wife and I have 4 grandchildren and I am always the guy with a camera in hand. I am now experimenting with B&W and my Konica IIIA. Yes my photography is therapeutic, it works most times.
    James, did you ever think your words could be so powerful? Just goes to show…we all have ‘it’, we just have to find it.

  • All i can say is thanks, i am a photographer, a doctor and in a simular situation. Apart from everything else, your writing ability, even in the midst of probable instability, is very fresh and i hope something you will persue. Photography hmmmm 😉

  • My favourite site just got better.

  • Best thing I’ve read in years. Thank you.

  • James, this literally moved me to tears. Had to subtly dab my eyes on my commute home. Photography is a great release for me, and was through my grandfathers death, and you’ve certainly inspired me to write about that.

    Thank you.

  • Hi! Just wanted to say that this is amazing – I ended up using photography to cope with the end of a relationship that meant a lot to me and I’m familiar with its amazing meditative and healing powers! So glad that this one had a happy ending, and many happy photos to come.

  • James, thank you for writing and sharing this post, it’s very poignant and emotive. Photography – like any creative outlet – is an essential in life, like eating, breathing and sleeping, not just an occasional treat.

    I confess while I used to be a regular CP reader, I stopped maybe a year ago because I was just done with gear posts generally and trying to find more blogs about the cerebral and emotional sides of photography. I’ll certainly be reading more often again after this post.

    • PS/ Came here via Jim Grey’s Down The Road post which featured you yesterday.

    • Thanks Dan! I appreciate you stopping by and giving a read. We’ve gained some new writers last year and they’re more interested in writing on craft and process, so hopefully that will help us balance a bit. Thanks again!

      • Good to hear James. (And from one father (and soon to be again) to another, so much of your post resonated. I don’t think us guys are ever ready for children, however much we adore them and wouldn’t change them for the world once they arrive!)

  • James, I echo what everyone else has already said. Such a well written and emotive story and one I am glad had the best ending (or perhaps beginning). As a 2nd time (with a 21 year gap) father to be, for which we had nothing like the difficulties you had but which felt bad to us, this piece touched me. I should have heeded Peggy’s warning and not read this at my office desk, luckily no one was looking.

  • Shit, James, that’s not fair. I’m sitting in an airport lounge and crying. And I’m a guy. And people are staring.

    What an amazing piece of writing. Thank you for being so generous in sharing your life. And thank your wife even more.

    Just promise me one thing. Warn me before you do something like this again.

  • We lost a son at birth, then had a daughter the next year. We then struggled through losses over and over, and learned that our daughter being born and healthy was sort of miraculous. We’ve spent the last 5+ years trying to get a healthy sibling for her, and her little sister (also an IVF baby) is due in July. The past year has been one of the hardest in this whole ordeal, and taking up photography last summer has helped. I appreciate you writing this piece, both because your experience has been similar to mine and because it’s important that more people understand how common and painful pregnancy loss is. Thank you.

    • Congratulations on the good things that have happened, and sorry you’ve had to go through the challenging parts. You mentioned how common this sort of thing is, and that was one of the most shocking aspects of going through this. Before, I thought I knew no one who’d had these kinds of problems. Afterwards I learned that three of my closest friends had the same experiences and we all went through it at the same times without saying anything to each other. There should be more discussion about it. Maybe this article will help that in an infinitely small way.

  • Great, emotional article. It really reminds about how great it is to be a husband, father and photographer. Thanks a lot for sharing this story with us. That’s the reason I keep coming back to your site. Because you show that photography is more then only gear.

  • Wow. Of course, I was crying, the Mrs. was looking at me like I was nuts. She asked me why I was crying, I said “I’m reading casual photophile”. That left her a little perplexed. So I read her the article and she was rather emotional also. Now I’ll go listen to Luna, smashing pumpkins.

  • This is a really lovely article – thank you for writing it.

  • As someone who works in healthcare this was an emotional read. Thank you for sharing this. I won’t overstate my praise because that would not appropriately reflect the depth and sensitivity inherent in this. That final line was indeed a kicker. Stay safe James.

  • What a great piece! Unexpected and wonderful. I’d say your talents are wasted at Casual Photophile, but I don’t want you to leave. Ever! Seriously, very well done. Thanks for exercising my tear ducts!

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio