Week 36: Read, practice, read

Distract yourself from sham pregnancy advice with a late pregnancy hobby. |  Science Museum, London

Distract yourself from sham pregnancy advice with a late pregnancy hobby. | Science Museum, London

For the last 35 weeks, we’ve been discussing the research skills that will make you a more thoughtful, relaxed, and happier parent. But what, exactly, is research?

Everyone knows that research is boring. When strangers on airplanes ask me what I do and I tell them I study how people learn to research, I can be guaranteed of a quiet uninterrupted few hours. That’s in part because so many people associate research with the least pleasant of school tasks, like keeping notes to one fact per index card or writing Works Cited lists in perfect MLA format. We might think of research as busy work.

But research, broadly speaking, is a process of creating new knowledge. That process can be personal (when we learn something we didn’t know before) or societal (when researchers discover a new planet). In each case, research makes our universe a little bigger.

But that knowledge isn’t fixed for long, because research is a never-ending process. The very word suggests that we search again. We can research to gain understanding of a completely new topic, or we can research to adjust or change our view of something we thought we knew.

A lot of your parenting research is going to be the first kind: you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, so you read, experiment, and draw new conclusions. But parenting also offers you an opportunity to revisit and question things you thought you knew already.

You know how to take a photo. Snap, filter, and ‘gram. Right?

In a few weeks, you’ll know that you have the cutest child in the world, and you’ll want to show everyone photographic evidence of that truth, whether it’s in a printed birth announcement (good for you for staying off social media!) or Instagram (who can fault you for logging back on to share that cherub with the world?).

But you’ll have to confront an awkward fact: lots of post-birth photos are really ugly.

The subjects can of course be excused for looking exhausted. You might even be hoping to capture that thrilled exhaustion that comes with childbirth. But all of the other elements are a problem. Hospital lighting, bed height, and the photographer’s frazzled nerves all combine to create terrible photos. Better research skills can get you the photo you want, without expensive gear or precious minutes of sleep wasted picking out the perfect filter.

First, well in advance of that once-in-a-lifetime photo op, you need to start reading. You can Google “tips for better photography” and find lots of websites with great advice. You can buy or borrow photography books. In both cases, your reading can help you develop a list of techniques to improve your photography. I recommend Henry Carroll’s Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs, which I’ve written about here and here.

I like Carroll’s slim volume because it’s portable, making it easy to refer back to when you’re working on the next step of your research process: low-stakes practice. You don’t want to wait until you’re in the delivery room to learn how to use your phone or the fancy new camera you out on your baby registry.

See how the quack uterine tonic at the top of the page has a weird shadow and reflected lights? Those features make the tonic look a bit spooky, which may be the effect Wellcome’s cataloguers were going for: it is, after all, dubious and untested medicine. The tonic’s sinister affect comes in part from the angle of the photograph. If it had been shot from a lower angle, it may have looked less shadowy and menacing. If it has been shot from a much lower angle, it would be towering menacingly above us.

Babies are like bottles in that they are smaller than us and are best photographed from their own level. So get a water bottle and start practicing. Use your water bottle to practice getting to the right height. When you get the angle right, you’ll avoid either towering over your family and producing weird shadows or shooting from below the bed and giving everyone double chins. After you master the angle of your shots, start practicing with other elements like lighting and aperture.

After you practice, find more reading material to sharpen what you’ve learned. If you liked the book you read and the tips worked for you, see what else the author has written or mine the Works Cited for more helpful books. If you didn’t like the book you read, find a new one. Sorting Amazon search results by average customer review or picking the most dog-eared book in the library can help you find a better book.

Read. Practice. Read some more.