A Freshman no more

Can you recall that feeling? The last final exam of the semester is complete, you aced the test, and now you are free for a while anyway. Remember how good that felt? I do because it happened yesterday. 

I wrapped up the second semester of my Commercial Photography program, and it’s time for summer break. Being a 46-year-old college freshman has been interesting, weird, and fun, but being on summer break again is bizarre. I haven’t experienced this feeling in over 25 years. 

I wasn’t alone in my experience as there were a couple of other “gray-beards” in my degree program, both also former military utilizing their GI Bill to pursue new lives. But we were seriously outnumbered by wide-eyed youth barely removed from high school and trying to figure out how to be their own person. Many of whom have a lot of promise and will do well; others will encounter hard lessons. 


It was easy to fall into a class “Dad” role because of the gulf in life experience, and my classmates appreciated the help I offered. But I am careful not to offer unsolicited advice because I know some things people need to figure out independently. Figuring things out yourself has a lasting impact on people, and I have no desire to rob that of my new peers. 

People are resilient, and I am grateful for the opportunity to insert myself into what is, to me, an alien environment with people so young and imaginative. Even in the military, I rarely worked with 19-year-olds; most of my contact was with young officers or enlisted who already had a few years of life experience. As we age, it seems all too easy to forget there was a time when we knew so little of the world and ourselves, when we had absolutely nothing figured out and everything to discover. Because of that, it is also far too easy for us to judge younger people as wrong, foolish, that they “don’t get it.” All of which are mistakes not by the younger generation but by us. We used to be those people our parent’s generation looked on as foolish, reckless, and lazy. 

The students I get to study with are inspiring to me. Sure, I think some will have a challenging time in “the real world,” but I bet they will do better than I think. The others show a level of creativity and courage that I admire, and they are the ones who are teaching me.  

One of my photography teachers gave me a lower grade than usual on an assignment and smiled when I asked what I did wrong. He said my photos were technically perfect and I had followed all assignment instructions. It was true, I latched onto the details of the assignment, made them my priority, and executed them with precision and accuracy. And by doing so, I exhibited zero imagination or creativity and produced a series of “perfect” boring photos. 

That is when I realized the yin and yang relationship I had with my fellow students. I have technical expertise not from years of being a photographer (I’ve only been taking photography seriously for a few years) but from an entire career distilling technical information in search of critical points. That is where I am of value to them, to help them distill the technical settings and workings of the camera, to help them see why the details are essential. To start with the goal first, working from the “target back” to determine what is needed to accomplish a task. 

The flip side is how they help me break out of the decipher, analyze and attack mindset, and embrace the “fuzziness” that enables creativity. If the photo looks off-balance or isn’t perfect, so what; keep shooting. Being creative can be difficult. I struggled immensely working in the studio this semester, where you have to create the entire scene. 

The lights of lower Broadway

I purposely paired up with one of the most wildly creative, and maybe just outright wild, people in my class because I knew it would help me. He was technically a mess, but his photographic creativity was off the charts. By the end of the semester, he improved technically (not all my doing, of course, but I like to think I helped), and I have learned a lot from him about just seeing how something looks. To try things that if I thought about, I would run mental simulations and dismiss because I would not see how they would lead to a good result. 

This is not to say I am a full-on creative now; I still have so much work to do in and out of the studio. But I discovered and embraced new lighting setups and techniques I enjoy and produce great results. More importantly, I think more creatively about a project or assignment, not just the perfect light, color, or camera settings. I embrace that I have so much to learn from my teachers and fellow students, and I look forward to that journey. 

I know, I haven’t even mentioned cars yet, so if you’re still reading this, you may wonder if you clicked on the wrong link or stumbled on someone else’s blog. Rest assured, you haven’t; this is just me being a little reflective after a fun and influential school year. Many of the photos I took this year were of cars, to the point that I think my classmates are surprised when I throw a landscape or architectural image into the mix. 

Sunrise at PCA’s Werks Reunion Amelia Island event

Some of my favorite photos from this year are in this post, and more will be popping into the gallery section of my website throughout the year. I hope you enjoy them because I enjoyed making them, even the ones I think are far from perfect. 

As for my summer break, I don’t plan on waiting tables anytime soon. I am in the home stretch of planning and making arrangements for a pretty epic trip, but you’ll have to read about that in the next post. 

Author: Ryan Carignan

I am an automotive enthusiast, writer, and photographer; welcome to my blog!

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