Book Preview: Insights from the Creative Path

Creative-Path-cover3dI’m happy to announce that my new book “Insights from the Creative Path: Find Meaning, Fulfill Your Vision” will be launching on April 7th.

It’ll be available in multiple formats and hopefully as a hard copy in the near future. I’m really excited about this book and how it can help you become a better photographer and creative artist.

A book is useless unless you act on the ideas presented, so I want to offer a few extra’s for those who join my newsletter.

From now until launch on April 7th, join the pre-launch list and get:

  • an invitation to a Q+A webinar in April
  • Creative Path Companion Guides and worksheets that will help you instill more creativity in your life.
  • Free preview of the first 20 pages
Join the list and get the free preview.

 

 

I appreciate all of the support and feedback I’ve received here from you, and look forward to helping you further along your Creative Path.

Read More

How to Feed Your Creative Energy

Fern and Log

I haven’t made an image in over seven weeks. Sure I’ve taken many photos of my family, snapshots of friends, funny moments, product images for my business and other similar photos. But these are not the pictures I’m talking about. I mean pictures that may become a part of my portfolio, where I try and share my artistic vision.

I used to worry that a lack of inspiration or motivation was some sort of sign that my “creative well” had dried up so to speak. We’re told in society that productivity is the most important aspect of meaningful work, and that lack of productivity is a bad thing.

But I’ve learned that creativity has its seasons, and each requires a different approach so that we can not only be productive, but fruitful. Let me explain.

Planting Seeds

One of the best practices I’ve adopted over my photography career is the idea of “planting seeds.” I’m using the term metaphorically, but it’s amazing how in practice it can be so similar to what gardeners and farmers do naturally. It’s something I focus on in the winter when the days are shorter, and I’m avoiding the cold, but can be any time of the year. Here’s one way to think about it with something we’re all familiar with.

My wife and I enjoy growing our own fresh vegetables like spinach, tomatoes, and peppers, and we’ve got a small organic garden in our backyard. When spring arrives, she decides what types of vegetables she would like to grow that year, and then picks and chooses the right seeds to plant. This involves cleaning up the garden first, getting rid of any weeds, and starting from a relatively fresh patch of dirt. Then we make sure the garden gets plenty of water and fertilizer, and let nature take its course.

A few weeks after seeding, my son inevitably starts to ask why there aren’t any full grown tomatoes as if they should just suddenly appear by some specific date fully formed and ripe. We explain that the process involves not only the seeding, but watering, germinating, and eventually the sprouting of the seeds that grow into life-giving food. Each phase requires patience and proper conditions. While it may seem to him like nothing is happening for weeks on end, there is lots going on that he barely notices. None of us notice really, but eventually we’re rewarded with fresh vegetables that last the whole summer.

The Creative Seasons

The creative process is similar in many respects, especially for photographers where making images by the thousands is a trivial matter. Many of us spend too much time in harvest mode, expecting a good yield every time we go out on a serious shoot. But without proper cultivation that’s unlikely to happen, and we find ourselves staring at Lightroom or Photoshop looking for something special

I’ve been there, thinking the way forward was just to keep going out and shooting, training my eyes to see. But the visual is only part of the whole process of creating visual art. There are the other senses that need to be engaged to connect more deeply with your subject. There are also the opinions, ideas, and experiences we carry from our lives that do influence what we see.

The more we grow as individuals, the richer our photography. There are stories to tell, feelings to share, ideas to cherish.

Practice is essential, and I’m the first to say that you should be practicing as much as possible. It’s good for your technical skills, your vision, and your confidence. But at some point you also need to make time for planting seeds. By this, I mean evaluating your photography in phases, and giving equal time to shooting, learning, getting inspiration, retrospection, and refocusing your goals. And most of all, adapting to changing seasons of creativity, which are different and unique for each of us.

Maybe you’re feeling more introspective, and you’re struggling with motivation or photographic ideas. That’s perfectly ok; it happens to me ALL the time.

Maybe that means you need to feed some part of you that needs more fuel, more motivation to become curious again about the world. For me, that translates to reading books and learning from others. I gain perspectives that I probably would have never had on my own.

A Few Ideas to Explore

Here are a few other ways cultivate the garden, and make sure that when spring rolls around, you’re eager and motivated to explore the world visually.

  1. Re-focus: What themes and patterns do you see on your past work? Have you taken the time to really sit down and evaluate your photography without being judgmental, but simply looking for common ideas?

    Try this: Set aside some dedicated time, put some music on that you love, and just browse through your work. Jot down any ideas, thoughts, feelings, questions, or words that come into your mind into a notebook. Maybe sketch out some compositional ideas. Maybe you notice some technical deficiency. Write it down.

  2. Community: Surrounding yourself with other creative people that are inspired and motivated is a great way to fire your own creative energy, one of the prime benefits of attending a workshop. It’s one of the reasons I don’t treat a workshop as harvest time, but as cultivating time. It’s a chance to engage deeply with your photography without distractions and the daily pressures of life. Why add more pressure by trying to make masterpiece images?

    It’s a time to experiment, try new things, wait for the subject to resonate within, and share this with other like minded people. On my workshops, I don’t do “critiques,” but prefer to offer feedback which allows students to make mistakes without the fear of failure.

    Don’t limit yourself to other photographers but seek out any communities where you can both contribute and receive encouragement—on-line and off-line. (I’m working on creating such a community and will share that here soon!)

  3. Stimuli: I’ve talked about the importance of feeding the mind, but I want to share one of things I use: a stimulus que. This is a list of books I want to read, ideas I want to pursue, documentaries I want to watch, specific artists I want to read about, or maybe just people I’d like to have coffee with.

    Here are a few things from my list:

    Books:

Finally, one of the things I enjoy is just going out for a hike without my camera. It often feels like a burden is lifted, and I don’t have to worry about motivation or goals. I can enjoy nature as it is.

“Nature has always had more force than education.” – Voltaire

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying these things will work for you. Perhaps you need a different approach. But they have worked for me, and I feel refreshed and clear minded after I take the time to nurture my mind and my heart.

You don’t have to follow the yearly seasons either. Perhaps you just need a few weeks, or even a morning ritual that revitalizes your creative energy. What’s important is that you recognize the ebbs and flows of your creative energy and dedicate the time and effort to maintain it at peak levels.

Do you have questions or feedback? I’d love for you to let me know in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share on Facebook or Twitter.

Read More
Learning From The Masters: Michael Kenna

Learning From the Masters: Michael Kenna

“Learning from the Masters” is a regular series where I share useful lessons and wisdom we can learn from others, regardless of their medium. The important thing for me is how we can apply these lessons to photography, and to our lives as creative individuals.


I’ve written many times about the importance of defining why you photograph, what you’d like to say with the images you make, regardless of whether you achieve that or not. It focuses your attention and limits the distractions. You’re able to identify what speaks to you better. If there’s one photographer in the past 20 years that has developed a singular voice, it’s Michael Kenna.

Kenna is a landscape photographer that has a distinct personality and vision, and his images reveal that with out any doubt. When you see an image by Kenna, you recognize it immediately.

When asked what he’s trying to say with is work, Kenna has no hesitation:

“My work is about getting away from the chaos of this life. I find my work as it goes along becomes quieter, and simple in some ways, more stark, a little sparse, more haiku like…it almost becomes for me a place of  meditation, a place of calm, of solitude,…solace, it’s almost an oasis.”

That’s a rarity in todays photographic world, and Ted Forbes does a fantastic job of explaining that in this great video. Pay careful attention to Ted’s comments at the end where he talks about the importance of finding your voice, instead of simply emulating others. Difficult yes, but still worth pursuing.

I highly recommend you spend some time exploring Michael Kenna’s work and his approach to landscape photography.

Read More

Watching vs Waiting

I want to clarify something I wrote recently in one of my Photo Journal posts where I share my workflow from capture to print. After careful consideration, I realized I misinterpreted an important point that for me is at the heart of nature photography.

In the post, I talked about visiting a location and looking for potential images, but not really finding anything compelling at first. But there was something visually appealing, something that I couldn’t identify but was captivating nonetheless. You know the feeling I’m sure, when you can’t quite describe it, but you know it inside.

“So I waited.”

And there is the mistake I made. I chose the wrong words. You see there is a huge distinction between waiting and watching. Waiting implies a sense of expectation, of looking forward to the future with anticipation of some kind. Once that happens, we’ve left the present moment and the noticing of what is actually happening. We’re in the future and that only exists in thoughts, not in reality. It only takes one thought to lead to others, and before we know it, we’re not really seeing anymore.

“Watching” is really the word I wanted to use, because it more accurately captures what I was doing, or at the very least trying very hard to do. Did I have thoughts of what might happen? Of course, I’m human like everyone else, and that means I’m constantly flooded with thoughts. Mindfulness helps us to become aware of these thoughts, and let them go so that we can bring our attention and focus back to the experience. This also helps engage all of our senses.

So often we are simply looking and get caught up in so much thinking and analyzing that we ignore the other senses. The smells, the sounds, the feel of the place. I’lI often touch objects around me to get a sense of how they change my perception of what I’m trying to photograph.
For example, if I touch the cold water of a river, my experience is suddenly richer. I become more curious, more familiar, more aware. I get a better sense of how I might try to convey that in an image. Whether I’m successful is not the point, what matters is that I’m not taking anything for granted. The goal is to make every experience unique, especially when visiting the same locations or photographing the same subjects.

”I shut my eyes in order to see.” – Paul Gauguin

The next time you’re out in the field, try to make that simple shift from waiting to watching. Landscape photographers love to mention how they “waited” for the right light or conditions, and there’s nothing wrong with that as an act of patience. I suggest that to every student I work with. But we can go even further.
Watching brings more attention to what’s happening instead of what you’d like to happen, which reduces our awareness of nature’s intrinsic beauty.

It’s more than just semantics; it’s a clearer sense of awareness. You might think that’s a subtle difference, but it can make a huge difference in the uniqueness of your images.

Comments or questions? Please leave them below and join the community.

Read More

Photo Journal: Branches of Trees, Hudson River – Capture to Print

Capture

“There is always something to photograph; the question is what?”

That’s something I used to tell myself every time I went out into the field with my camera. I believed that if I thought positively about each and every situation, it would help me to see better. After all, vision is as much about what is inside our minds as is  what is outside. And it was helpful to the extent that it made me much more aware of the environment, the light, the details.

But I realized over time that it also created a different problem, one of expectations, or what eastern philosophers call attachment. Because I was starting from the perspective of “wanting” to photograph, it rarely resulted in images that were personal. And personal images are the most important images you can make because they keep you on the only path that matters, your path.

“Branches of Trees” was not an image I was looking for. In fact, I had walked past this spot several times before finally setting up my camera. But from the beginning something had caught my eye even though I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

So I waited and watched.

I didn’t need to make an image to be happy, I was already happy just being there. From the moment I had stepped out of my car and onto the trail, I was grateful. It was a cold but clear morning, and it felt good just to get out and feel the stillness, the silence, the space between each breath. And I was in nature.

“Art will never be able to exist without nature.” – Pierre Bonnard

Sitting by the shore, I watched the surface of the water get brighter as the sun rose higher on the horizon. Clouds appeared and then slowly drifted away, reflecting their ephemeral shapes against the deep blue water. And as I focused on the open spaces in the scene; the sky, the water—I suddenly realized what attracted me, even if I didn’t know whether it would work.

I setup my tripod with an Olympus E-M1 and a 20mm lens at f/8, and framed the jumble of branches in the foreground right in the middle of the composition. I wanted them to anchor the image, because it was the repetition of the branches that lead my eye towards the background and the sky. It’s the patterns within the patterns that held my attention the most, and I think using the negative space of the water and sky helps make it the “story” of the image. I focused slightly in front of the farthest branch (using the water as a guide) and exposed to make sure I didn’t overexpose any of the clouds. 1/100 sec @ISO200.

I made a few exposures, then moved slightly to the left and made a few more, but by then the light had changed, and I didn’t have the same clarity about the image as before. Did I know I had captured a good image? Not really, because I have my doubts about almost every image I make. But I try and remind myself that the experience is more important than the result.

Editing

Lightroom

Original RAW file and histogram.

 


Final edit before converting to black & white

In Lightroom, I started editing the image in color, but converting to black and white brought the image to life for me. Removing the color emphasizes the tones and shapes, and that’s what caused me to pause, to think, and to feel.

There are several themes for me in this image. One is the contrast between the chaotic rhythm of the branches in the foreground and the water behind them. The other is the seeming stillness of the image even with all of the visual activity created by the repeating shapes. There’s a certain tension between those two ideas that I noticed initially, but didn’t really “see” until I decided to slow down, to wait.


The red circle shows the main subject area that “points” to the repeating themes and patterns in the image, highlighted in yellow. The orange lines represent the negative space that slows the eye, and creates the tension I wanted to convey. There are also groups of threes in various places which are helpful in visual design.

The Print

I’ve written before about why I think making prints  adds greater depth and direction to your photography. Because of this I make a print of  any image I think is strong enough to be in my print portfolio.

When you print an image, the papers character becomes part of the photograph, and so you have to have a good idea of what the image is about, what you’re trying to convey, and how specific papers either enhance or weaken your vision for the final print.

I chose Canson Infinity Platine Fiber Rag for it’s rich black density and organic subtle texture that still preserves the high frequency detail found in this image. Separation between the branches and surrounding water is important, as well as all of the textures in the trees, branches, and grasses in the background.

Screen-LR
The Lightroom Print module with the image centered on a 13×19 layout.

Lightroom_2
Here is the image’s native resolution for a 13×19 paper size with 1″ borders.

 


Because the native resolution of the image is higher than 300ppi (the native resolution of Canon printers) I chose to interpolate to 600ppi and print at Canon’s highest print resolution which os optimized for 600ppi. I explain this in greater detail in my printing workshops and also my Digital Fine Art Printing Book

 

2015-03-01-13.02.29
Printing on the Canon iPF8400.

 

2015-03-01-13.00.00v2
Final print on Canson Platine Fibre Rag 310, my favorite fiber paper.

 

2015-03-01-13.03.56
Here you can really appreciate the subtle but dimensional texture of Platine and how it helps give the print that extra depth in the smooth areas without being distracting.
2015-03-01-13.05.31
Fine detail of the grasses and tree branches is nicely enhanced by the surface of Platine, and printing at the native resolution of the iPF8400 (600ppi) helps as well.

Final Thoughts

I’ve covered a lot in this post, but I wanted to provide you with an overview of my thought process from “capture to print.” It’s not meant to provide a formula for making images and prints, but inspire you to think about your process, and question any assumptions. We all need that in every part of our lives, and I want to share as much as I can as I learn myself.

Many of these ideas may seem a little abstract or non-specific, but it’s the only way I can express a thought process that happens without words, and relies on patience and intuition rather that specific steps.

For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Don’t be afraid of intuition, learn to trust it when it speaks loudly. It’s the only way to develop your vision, whether or not you choose to make a picture.

Don’t look for photographs, let them come to you.

Questions, comments, feedback? Please join the conversation. Thanks for reading!

Read More