a peek inside the fishbowl

08 Sep, 2011

The quest to make photos, not take photos

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Publishing/writing/career stuff

Warning! This is a long and rambly and deeply introspective post. It’s all over the place and will touch upon several different largish topics.

Subtitle: Let’s Remember That Blogging Is Therapy

Sometimes, when I’m talking about blogging, one of the things people ask me about is how I know what to write about. Where do the ideas come from? Ha ha. It’s easy. I have a lot to say.

Mark and I have differing opinions about blog-worthy content. He doesn’t think that readers really care about our kid’s haircuts or the first day of school or other scrapbooky family stories. He thinks that you all [insert a wiiiide sweeping gesture with my right arm] come here to get handy information about Ottawa-centric activities. I don’t know. Maybe some of you do come here for that. Sometimes the Fishbowl is more like a family scrapbook and less like a public resource, but I’m ok with that. I like that. That’s how I started out, so it’s obviously something I’m comfortable with. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, and I can only gauge interest levels based on things like comments. But gauging interest based upon the number of comments can be a tricky thing. It’s not exactly a clear indicator of who is reading and why they come back.

Comments are currency in the blogging world. Every blogger deeply appreciates comments, because only through comments (and emails!) can we determine our place in your minds and hearts.

I spent a good chunk of yesterday trying to come up with 200-odd words to sum up my career, which was only slightly more fun than doing the laundry. I had to submit a bio for a conference I’m speaking at and was under the gun AND sleep deprived. There are a couple of reasons I find bio-writing rather challenging:

  1. a) I hate to sound braggy. Look at me! Award winning blogger! Yahoo. And a bio – especially one that is going to end up on a web page for all to view – is supposed to have self-promotional stylings. So how do you promote yourself without sounding like you’re full of yourself? This is the question.
  2. b) It’s hard to be concise when you’ve got your fingers in so many different pies. I wear lots of hats and do lots of different things.

Clearly, it’s time to focus.

This is not a very good segway into the main gist of this post, but I decided to quietly bow out of the family portrait photography biz. I’m not throwing my camera away but I took down my Ottawa Family Photography site and won’t be promoting it for the time being.

I’m a very visual person and taking photographs taps into a deep love and appreciation for visual arts. But but but, my portrait assignments were taking too much out of me. They were taking up too many resources and eating into what little spare time I have to spend with my family. And I have only so much to give.

Unfortunately, in my head, I consider creativity to be a finite resource. I know it can be replenished, it’s not a well that can run dry, but there is only so much water to go around. And some of my plants were starting to wither. What’s worse: my kids were starting to wonder why I wasn’t home more often. Trotting out to photo shoots on Saturday and Sundays was really eating into my time with my family.

I had a lot of email requests for portrait photography services this year. And I really hate to admit this, but I didn’t even answer most of them. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was going. And if I didn’t know, how could I accept their requests? (If you were one of those people I apologize.) I also couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a pretender, just another momblogger with a fancy camera. I wasn’t sure whether I deserved this happy job. But whatever.

My last photo shoot was in July. It was a repeat customer, a really sweet couple who I once photographed with their dog. They were expecting their first child this time and wanted some photos to commemorate it. How could I say no?

The shoot went really well. I marveled, as I always do, at the thought that these two people entrusted me with this moment, and what an important thing that was. But as much as I enjoyed myself, it was not enough to sustain me creatively. It took me a couple weeks to process all the photos, and when I burned the CD and sent it on its way I felt sad and relieved at the same time.

I love all the people I meet this way. To be able to peek into their lives and create a photo of a moment in time is a wonderful thing that I treasure so much. How could I give this up?

Earlier this summer I had the good fortune to be able to cross something off my bucket list. A photo of mine was chosen to appear in an photography exhibition showcasing the non-tulipy grittier side of Ottawa. It was printed, enlarged, framed and publicly displayed at a very cool little gallery on Bank Street called the Fall Down Gallery. My heart felt so big.

I will keep taking photos. That won’t change. I can’t imagine a life without photography in it, but it will be on my own terms. I want to make more photos, not take more photos.

So, yeah. I have now realized I needed to find focus. Yesterday’s bio writing really hit it home. How can I be a really good portrait photographer, freelance writer, FT blogger, and a mom? Sidebar: whoever invented the term “life balance” deserves a swift kick in the pants. I have been feeling as scattered as the sunlight that passes through Sarah’s treasured bits of crystal that hang in our dining room window. The light comes in from one direction, and out the other side in pretty multiples, reflecting on the wall. It’s pretty, but is it sustainable? And is that original ray of light made weaker when it’s divided into so many parts? Something had to give.

Sometimes I worry that my lack of focus has affected the content of the blog. Sometimes I reflect back upon what I’ve written and I think, man, what is happening in my brain? One day it’s about social media, another day a recipe, another day a portrait, another day it’s about the dog. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, or really, whether I should be concerned or not. Is this lack of focus hurting me in the long term? Or should I just continue to stay on the road I started on, the “this is my journal” road, the “take or leave it” road?

p.s. you don’t have to answer that. I’m totally talking to myself here. Hitting the Publish button in 1, 2, 3…typos and all.

21 Responses to "The quest to make photos, not take photos"

1 | Susan

September 8th, 2011 at 10:23 am


Andrea, keep doing what you’re doing – being true to yourself. I love the variety on your blog and I still read faithfully even though I’m not in Ottawa anymore. It kind of keeps me connected to home, so thank you for that!

As for your bio, I’ve had the same problem writing about myself. But remember, the people reading it won’t realize that you wrote it, right? Brag away! You’re fabulous :)

2 | DaniGirl

September 8th, 2011 at 10:35 am


Oh Andrea, clearly we have to go for coffee. So much of what you have written has been rattling around in my brain recently. I even have half a post written wondering about blog focus, asking similar questions to those you raise above, that I never posted because (a) I kinda ran out of enthusiasm half way through and (b) I’ve been struggling with bloggy direction, too, and wasn’t sure I wanted or needed to do it publicly. I’m glad you wrote this!

FWIW, I would hate to see you lose the family scrap-booky, chatty nature of your blog. It’s the thread that binds the rest of the diverse patches together into a big happy quilt. At least, that’s how I justify my own wanderings off in a thousand different directions. And I think people do like the personal bits, about the kids haircuts and whatnot, because those are the posts that seem to resonate with people on my blog. The other stuff that offers knowledge-sharing is great, but the experience-sharing is what seems to make the rest of it relevant, yanno?

This really struck a chord with me, though, and I’m sad to see you giving up the portrait biz that has been so successful for you (loved the previews you shared) but on the other hand I do totally get that need to narrow down the focus sometimes. As you know, one of the principles of making a good photograph is knowing what to exclude — I guess life is kind of like that, too, eh? To make sure you’re telling the story in a compelling way, sometimes you have to cut out some stuff.

Anyway, I should probably go back and edit my comment for clarity, but like you am running in a few different directions at once. I for one vote for more posts like this! And, maybe a coffee date? ;)

3 | kev

September 8th, 2011 at 10:43 am


The concept of life balance is a steaming pile of horse pucks. You do what you can, and some days you win personally, and a lot of days you lose. I am new to the concept of having a family and a job that both require a tonne of time. It’s a struggle every day, and it’s required cutting a lot of things I used to be able to piddle at.

Photography’s one of them. I love it, but finding the time to do it the way I want to do it is impossible. I also discovered that I was spending so much time capturing moments, I was missing out on experiencing them (small sidetrack – we went to U2 in montreal this summer, and I was blown away how many people spent the whole damn concert taking pics, chimping, and pushing those pics to twitter & facebook. what memories will they have given where the focus was).

Anywho, back on point. I’ve found that not doing things at the level you know you’re capable of, and want to perform at, sucks. It’s demotivating, and completely unsatisfying. I’m still trying to figure it out, because it seems I’m doing a tonne of stuff half-assedly, and am not happy about it. The things that I’m laser focused on make me happy, and I want more of that.

Totally get it, and agree whole-heartedly. Doing things to my satisfaction makes me happy. That’s really all the justification required :)

4 | Josee

September 8th, 2011 at 10:48 am


I look forward to reading your blog posts, no matter what the topic. I think that their variety is fun and real – because it reflects what’s going on in your life. If you decided to focus only on one aspect I think it would get dull – and really, wouldn’t you find it dull to write just about one thing all the time?

I was hoping that the whole work-life balance issue would get easier to deal with as the kids get older, but maybe it’s something we struggle with all our lives…

5 | coffeewithjulie

September 8th, 2011 at 1:55 pm


Unless your numbers are dropping, then people clearly like all the different types of posts on your blog. And it’s clear that your sponsors see value in them too. (My 2 cents)

6 | Ginger

September 8th, 2011 at 2:03 pm


Well…you can tell Mark that I read for the family scrapbooky part! I don’t live in Ottawa so I tend to only skim those parts that are specific to Ottawa, like the giveaways and such. I do read the posts about your adventures to Chinatown and Biking around the city and such.

There is so much I like about your blog. I am glad that you write.

On the topic of life balance…I think it is a “whole picture” kind of thing. Some days I am more work focused and other days I am kid focused and every once in awhile I get to be me focused. I know when my life is “out of balance” because I feel burned and drained and frustrated. I realize I am searching for something and that is when I know my life has tipped out of balance. That has happened to me this summer and that is why September is our “off” month. A month to be a family and not focus on therapies and strategies and no worrying about all the ifs of the future. I do think that life can be balanced even if every day is not balanced. I know I am balanced when I feel content.

Anyway, I hope that one day, when our little family makes it to Canada (and we will make it to Canada because there are so many things we want to see up there!) you will be willing to snap a few shots of us. Mainly so I can say when I point out one of the shots that it was captured by someone I admire and respect and who has a great eye for photography! :)

7 | Lara

September 8th, 2011 at 2:15 pm


People like the personal stuff because it makes you a real person and not just some reporter talking about things to do in ottawa. I think blogging the way you’re blogging is great!

As for the photography, we can’t do it all. I think it’s awesome you did it because you wanted to and are stopping because you want to. There are some projects I’m about to drop because of that. It’s hard though – isn’t it?

8 | Mark

September 8th, 2011 at 2:30 pm


Sheesh. Warn me next time you are thinking of calling me out on this public forum :)

9 | Hellcat13

September 8th, 2011 at 2:39 pm


The scrapbook aspect of your blog is my favourite part. I love the little peeks that you give us into what is important in your life at any given time, and I love how frequently that changes. Life is not static; it would be boring if it were. We change and we grow, and our interests develop and change with us. I love how your blog reflects that. I tend to lose interest in blogs that stay focused on only one topic because my life never stays focused on only one topic. (Food and cooking blogs are the exception.)

What you see as perhaps slightly scattered is the thing I most value about your blog.

10 | Carly

September 8th, 2011 at 9:54 pm


I love it all, it’s what keeps me coming back. Sure, every blogger I read occasionally posts something I’m not as interested in, but that doesn’t stop me from returning.

What keeps me going back to a blog, is actually less about the content and more about the style and most especially the quality of the writing. Yours is fantastic and I’m always eager to see what’s on your mind today.

11 | Carla

September 8th, 2011 at 10:06 pm


focus is overrated! I actually really love that you talk about so many things in your blog, it makes it interesting…. I never know what there will be on post on any given day, but it’s interesting and if it’s not my cup’o tea well, there will be something interesting on the next post for sure.

Having said that, I think you do have focus, it’s just not linear or single, which is well, life.

12 | Alison in Ottawa

September 8th, 2011 at 10:19 pm


My girls are both a little younger than yours (ages 8 and 6) so I like it anytime you drop kid book information, shopping ideas, birthday ideas and general activities. I also like your Mom/parent focused stuff. I also like musings about school related stuff.

13 | Alina M.

September 8th, 2011 at 11:41 pm


I read your blog every day, although I don’t live in Ottawa. I enjoy every topic that you write about. The diversity of topics makes me come back. Thank you, Andrea!

14 | Mandy in Nova Scotia

September 9th, 2011 at 7:50 am


I read your blog every couple of days because no matter what the topic I like your style of writing, and my favorite posts are the ones about your family.

15 | Mary @ Parenthood

September 9th, 2011 at 8:38 am


When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in Canada, we lived in Belgium and some of my cousins lived in Zambia / Kenya (boarding schools). We wrote letters and took videos that were added to and then sent around the world round robin fashion as a way to stay in touch.

Now that my parents are in Angola, I write for them, and my blog is my version of our old round robin. I’ve also experimented with adsense and other stuff mostly so I can have a sense of how it works (clients for my day job ask about it all the time).

So I’m very clear on why I write. I don’t think it matters so much WHAT you write about if you are clear on WHY and for WHOM. I also agree that I like the variety. Many people think the minutiae of daily life is boring, at least when it comes to themselves.

I find it fascinating because we are all so different. A typical day for you is likely exotic for someone else. And stuff like haircuts? For me that just proves you are a real person. Cut
them out and how can I trust that your posts about family activities are real and not just advertising copy?

Plus, you are modeling an important concept for your kids. In any given day you’ll experience a moment that is worth sharing. But when asked, most people will say “nothing” happened at school or work. And don’t get me started on what’s “blog-worthy” or not :)

16 | Lynn

September 9th, 2011 at 9:01 am


I like your blog because it’s just you. It’s always authentic and interesting because you write about things that you care about. Your writing makes anything and everything exciting!

I’m sorry to see the photography business take a back seat for a while, although I totally understand. There are so many things I want to do and so many things to try – how will I choose? I need a life guru to help me sort it out!

17 | andrea

September 9th, 2011 at 9:23 am


Thank you all for your comments and emails about this. I really appreciate it. I’m just going to continue to follow my gut on this one and pick up the camera when it suits me, and put the fingers on the keyboard when I have something to say. And try not to overthink it too much. :)

Thank you!

18 | Alan Viau

September 9th, 2011 at 10:53 am


Andrea, Life Balance also comes with Life Rhythm. There was a time when photography was good. Now that time may be passing and it may be time to let it go… with no guilt. It is just time for it. Just when my kids were growing up, there were phases and times for things. Piano lessons and choir gave way to driver’s licenses and jobs to university and college to coupling and marriage. Now my Sweetheart and I are adjusting to empty nest. Life has times for certain areas of focus and when they pass … welcome the memory and look forward to new adventures.

19 | Marianne

September 9th, 2011 at 3:14 pm


I love your blog, it’s one of my favourites. Along with DaniGirl, actually … for a lot of the same reasons. I like the mixture of topics and the blend of personal anecdotes and stories with information about Ottawa or other subjects. It totally works for me.

20 | EmmyB

September 10th, 2011 at 9:18 am


I can’t remember how I found your blog, but have been reading for a couple of years now, and I really enjoy the mix, including the family scrapbook part. The best part is not knowing what I’ll find when I pop in.

The one thing about the family stuff, though, is that on the few occasions when I’ve run into you and the girls in the aisles of the grocery store, I’ve had to remind myself that I don’t actually know any of you and that maybe a big smile from a stranger might be a little odd for them…

21 | Kathleen

September 11th, 2011 at 8:53 am


Andrea, I’ve been really enjoying your blog for at least two years now. I love the variety, your voice, your thoughts on writing and parenting and living in Ottawa. And I also love reading all the thoughtful comments posted here by other interesting and interested readers. You’ve created and you nurture a really fun, dynamic, reflective and motivating space here.

I love the eclectic mix — fancy sheds, glorious vegetables, bike rides home and camping recipes.


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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (24) and Sarah (22). During the day I work as a writer at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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