Mindfulness for Creativity

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/125 sec@f/5.6, ISO 800, 85mm (EF70-200L 2.8IS)

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/125 sec@f/5.6, ISO 800, 85mm (EF70-200L 2.8IS)

 

One of the most important skills a landscape photographer can develop is a deep sense of awareness. This is defined as a deep knowledge or perception of a situation or environment, and as you might imagine, extremely useful when working in nature. Why? There are many reasons, some of which I’ll outline here based on my own experiences. But in general the more you’re aware of your surroundings, and more importantly how you perceive them, the easier it will be to connect with what you’re feeling inside. Without that critical insight, it becomes very difficult if not impossible to make images that convey what you see and feel to others.

So much of a successful photograph is about conveying personal opinions and perspectives, your unique vision. That comes from seeing deeply into nature in a way that goes beyond the obvious. Our senses are constantly feeding us with all sorts of valuable information, yet often only a small percentage is consciously recognized. This is because our brains are constantly thinking, judging, grasping, and doing all sorts of other mental gymnastics that keep us from perceiving what is actually happening in the moment. Whether the movement of light across a meadow, the gesture of a tree, the subtle colors of the sky during twilight; all of these become more interesting and potentially more enlightening the more aware we become. And as they say, it’s all in the details. Without a certain amount of mental silence, these details often go unnoticed.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” – Ansel Adams

Mindfulness is the key to awareness, and the best method known to develop mindfulness is meditation. I’m not referring to anything religious based, or new agey, but scientifically proven techniques that allow us to recognize our constant thoughts for what they are, thoughts and not reality. I’ve been meditating for almost six years now, and I can honestly say its helped me with stress, anxiety, and deepened my experiences in nature both as a landscape photographer and human being. We have so much going on in our daily lives that often gets in the way of creativity. Taking a relaxed walk or hike in nature is certainly a great way to reduce some of that mental baggage, but combining that with meditation really helps to see what matters from what doesn’t. I’m not at all suggesting that this is some sort of panacea or solution to better photography, but rather another tool you can utilize that has stood the test of time.

Recently meditation has become more mainstream and popular, largely because it has been scientifically studied and shown to provide numerous health benefits. I think it’s a great way to gain a broader perspective on life, reduce stress, and practice photography in a more relaxed, open minded approach. A simple exercise consisting of following your breath every morning for 10 minutes is a great way to start the day, and can lead to more profound benefits down the road. If you’d like to explore mindfulness, here are some great resources to get started. I highly recommend giving one of these a try…there’s not much to lose, and much to gain.

Books

Apps and Websites

Meditation Center and Mindfulness based workshops

Has meditation been beneficial for you?

Thanks for reading as always, and any questions or feedback, please leave them below.

The Practice of Seeing

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Street Reflections, Paris / Olympus E-M1, 1/200sec @f/4, ISO 800, 90mm

As a landscape photographer I’m always looking for light, patterns, color, texture, and all the other elements of visual design that contribute to making a compelling image. This is true whether I’m in a beautiful natural setting or walking the streets of Paris. Regardless of the actual subject matter or situation, training yourself to see the world through that perspective is critical to becoming a better photographer. The practice of “seeing photographically” is key to growth, and when you break down the components of what constitutes a good photograph, you find the same basic ingredients.

That’s one of the basic foundations I teach in workshops and try to emphasize as often as possible; every opportunity to “see” is never a wasted one, even if you don’t make any images worth sharing. It adds to your understanding of light and composition, and enriches your creative abilities. Never take for granted any time you have the chance to practice seeing photographically. In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp says, “If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.” And you gain skill by practicing every chance you get, regardless of your ultimate photographic goals.

Questions or comments? Please share them below, thanks!!

Photokina 2014

I’ve been in Cologne, Germany for the past 4 days attending the Photokina Trade Fair, the largest of its kind in the world. I’m a guest artist with Canson Infinity, and I’m really honored once again to have my prints on display in their large beautiful booth. The convention takes place over 6 days, and is spread over 8 separate halls (or buildings) so it’s a huge event to say the least. There’s no way I’ll have enough time to see everything, so during short breaks I try and visit some of the vendors I’m familiar with.

I spend most of my time in the Canson booth of course, and so far we’ve had lots of visitors interested in the papers and wanting to learn more. I provide support to the Canson staff for those who have specific questions about printing, paper selection, or photography in general which I’m always happy to talk about. I also have one of my portfolios with me, about 25 13″x19″ prints in a Canson portfolio box (new this year), and use that to explain how papers affect the presentation and perception of a photograph. Plus there’s no better way to demonstrate this by letting people handle prints in their own hands—the quality of the paper speaks for itself.

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One of the things that really caught my eye are some beautiful album books that were printed by ACI Lab using Canson Infinity paper. The books have leather jackets, and lay perfectly flat when open which means images spread across the page look seamless. And using a paper like Canson Baryta or Rag Photographique really brings the look and feel of a fine art print to a book format. I’m working on having one made with my images, and will certainly write a full post on how you can get one made for yourself – they really create an amazing presentation in a book form. Hopefully I can have it done by PhotoPlus in NYC next month.

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New products from Canson this year include a Photo Lustre Premium RC paper, two Canvas’ in Museum and Photo Art grades, and black Archival Photo Storage Boxes in 8.5 x 11(A4) and 13 x 19(A3+) size, great for storing and protecting prints. The boxes include 25 sheets of glassine (light tissue paper) to protect each print from scuffing and damage. These are great for anyone who prints their own work, especially when presenting your prints to others. This is my preferred choice of presenting prints to prospective customers, galleries, or industry contacts.

I’ll have some more to share in the coming days, including more photos and hopefully some news on a new potential partnership. Stay tuned!

Hudson River School Photo Workshop Report

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We had a great first run of the Hudson River School photo workshop this week, and the weather truly cooperated with great light, dramatic clouds, and constantly changing conditions. I much prefer unpredictable weather over stable forecasts, especially on workshops even if it means there’s more risk of rain. It teaches students so much more about awareness of light, working in changing conditions, and dispels the myth that the only great light is at sunrise or sunset. I see so many photographers leave a location after the so called “golden light” time frame, and miss out on great opportunities to capture unique images.

In addition to shooting in some of my favorite locations in the Hudson Valley, much of the workshop was focused on the paintings of the Hudson River School, and how to look at and learn from their interpretations of the landscape. Their use of light and shadow is something we studied and discussed in-depth, and then applied in the field on later shoots. In addition to other compositional concepts, it was the drama and emotion the painters conveyed that really made an impression on students. A highlight was our tour of Olana, the home and studio of Frederic Church, one of the major painters of the movement. Seeing his original paintings in person was great, and definitely provided lots of fresh ideas to all the students.

Twilight in the Wilderness - Frederic Church

Twilight in the Wilderness – Frederic Church

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Jamaica Bay – Frederic Church

I thoroughly enjoyed exposing students to the many ways we can learn from painters, and they left the workshop with renewed interest to visit their local landscapes with a different perspective. That for me is really special, because it means we can indeed photograph great landscapes anywhere, not only at an iconic location. Ordinary and mundane subjects become interesting when our frame of mind is open rather than closed. Approaching photography with this way means there’s the potential of interpretation, and not merely capturing a vista. There’s room for the photographer to express his or her vision and way of seeing. When you’re intimately familiar with a landscape, you can connect so much better because it means so much more, like an old friend. That friend for me is the Hudson Valley, but it can be any place that makes you feel special on the inside.

That same connection is what made the painters of the Hudson River School unique. Their passion for the landscape motivated them to hike miles and miles, recording their emotional experiences to the new wilderness of America during the 1800s. We can do the same today. All it takes is commitment to your vision, and the patience to let nature show her true gifts. Taking a workshop where everyone is seeking the same meaning in their work also helps tremendously.

A big thank you to all the students who attended and made it a success. I’ll post some of their photos soon.

Look for an extended and more ambitious version of the workshop in 2015!

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My son Bryce getting an early start in landscape photography…and assisting his Dad.

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Photo Journal: Hunter Beach, Acadia National Park

 

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Olympus E-M1, 1 sec @f/11, ISO 200, 24mm, 6 stop ND

During our stay in Acadia National Park last week, my family and I visited this beach one foggy morning,  I had no real expectations of capturing anything special, we were just there enjoying nature and this special place. In fact, at the parking area it was rather clear and sunny, and I almost left my backpack behind, but thought “better safe than sorry.”But as we hiked further along the half mile trail, a thick fog slowly started to permeate the forest. By the time we reached the rocky beach, we could hear the waves crashing along the shore, but could barely see them.

Over time the fog slowly started to clear somewhat, and I realized it might be a great opportunity to capture some of the mood and feel in this beautiful cove. There’s a fine balance between too much fog, where the light is really flat and too soft, and not enough fog to diffuse the light and provide just enough shadows to create depth and dimension. There isn’t any right or wrong way to photograph in foggy conditions, it all depends on the type of image you want to make, and more importantly the mood you want to convey.

Light, of course, is the ingredient I am most interested in, and therefore I tried to wait for the right moment when it created enough depth in the rocks to make them feel as dimensional as possible. But I also hoped to keep the trees and shoreline in the distance soft and elusive, creating as much contrast between the two. I used a 6 stop ND filter to slow down my shutter speed to 1 sec – any slower and the water became too murky, plus I want to maintain some of the movement that can be seen in the white foam flowing around the rocks. (I also didn’t want to use too small an aperture, diffraction becomes a problem, plus I didn’t really need infinite depth of field, just enough to keep the trees sharp.) I made several exposures, experimenting with the movement of the water, all the while trying to keep the filter dry from splashes. I wanted a very low perspective to make the rocks as dramatic as possible, so my camera was about 2 feet above the rocks, tripod in the water.

While I wasn’t certain about converting to black & white at the time, I knew it might be an option, The color wasn’t that strong given the fog, and I hoped the differences in the colors of the rocks made for more varied tonalities. And it did once I converted to b&w in Lightroom. It also adds an added sense of mystery to the image which I think better conveys how I felt at that particular moment. In fact, my family was much further up the beach at the time, and by the time I reached this particular spot and setup my tripod, I couldn’t even see or hear them, adding to my sense of isolation at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Original RAW file

Much of my work is a reaction or response to nature and its infinite variables. Much like my earlier days as a jazz musician, reacting to the spontaneity of the other players in the band, I try and remain open to any situation, without any preconceptions. In a sense, this become the ultimate challenge, because you never know what to expect, or how you will react, and creativity has just a little more room to grow.