Praise vs Judgement

Mystery Shore, Maine

I’ve been teaching workshops since 2009, and have probably lead over 60 workshops in total. It’s been a fantastic experience so far, and I’ve learned much more that I would have ever imagined had I not decided to become a workshop instructor. It’s also a privilege I am grateful for.

One key thing I’ve realized is that there are multiple approaches to teaching, some more effective than others, sometimes by a large margin. You can imagine the different scenarios based on your own experiences in school. There are the easy going teachers who simply recite information and knowledge, the teachers who intimidate us (the ones who do the most damage in my opinion,) and teachers who judge us.

But there are also the teachers who encourage and inspire us to be better than we think we can be. It only takes one to make a lasting impression for life.

I’ve had my fair share of all types, but the ones I remember fondly were the ones (perhaps only one from my childhood) who changed my way of thinking, the way I way I saw myself and the world around me. Not only did that profoundly change me at the time, but it also had a lasting impact on the way I approach teaching myself.

I prefer to inspire rather than to criticize or judge. The former places the focus on the student’s well being whereas the latter places the focus on my ego. That’s not to say that those who criticize are wrong or misguided, or even ineffective. But within the context of what I’m trying to accomplish in my workshops, inspiration seems to provide better results in my experience.

And in this context, we’re talking about personal creativity, not winning the Super Bowl or curing someone of cancer. Art is something we do for ourselves first, then for others second. We satisfy a yearning to articulate how we feel, and we gain confidence and validation from how others value that articulation.

But it’s not a life or death situation. For me, it’s far better to work from a place of confidence than a place of insecurity. That confidence can be razor thin, but it must exist to some degree. And I want my students to have that confidence as well.

Without it, sharing your vision will be really difficult.

Why I’m Not An Expert at Anything

You’ve probably heard “the beginners mind” quote before, or are at least familiar with the general idea. But have you tried to apply it as a mindset in your growth as a photographer?

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. The more we allow ourselves not to know, the more we are able to discover. “ – Shunryu Suzuki

This concept has always resonated with me because it’s the principle I’ve always tried to apply to my creative life. I believe it’s one you can use to great benefit as well.

You see I’m much more interested in what I don’t know than what I do know. How else can I grow as an artist?

As a photographer I’m constantly trying to discover new ways of seeing the mundane or familiar. Sometimes though, my own thoughts and judgements get in the way.

About a decade ago I suffered a major injury while I was out hiking with my camera. Suffice to say, it included broken bones, screws, and about 4 months of rehab before I could venture out into nature and 12 months before I felt “normal” again.

While I sat at home in a cast watching reruns of Star Trek, I dreamed of simply being able to walk amongst the trees in my back yard. I yearned for the day I could return to my favorite hiking trails. And when that day came, everything seemed so fresh and new to me, like a child discovering a new playground for the first time.

It’s then that I realized how much my thoughts and my perspective were interfering with seeing reality as it was, not how I wanted it to be.

Have you ever experienced a sudden sense of disorientation when visiting a familiar place? Perhaps you got lost, or wandered out of familiar territory, or simply decided to explore a little beyond where you’ve been in the past. Almost immediately when this happens there is a sudden increase in awareness, and you become instantly more present.

Yet once we regain our sense of security or familiarity, we switch our heightened sensitivities off and revert to our thoughts of judgement. Yet this is exactly when you need to see a little deeper, to feel more of what nature has to offer. Just when you think there is nothing more to discover, a simple mind shift, from “I know” to “I wonder,” is often all you need to become inspired.

There are so many times that I was sure there was nothing more to capture or explore, yet the simple act of remaining open to any possibility rewarded me with a great image, or even better a great experience.

You see it’s not the act of making an image I’m after, it’s the moment right before I press the shutter button that excites me the most. What happens afterwards is a function of technology and mechanics, most of which I’m not interested in.

But that moment is worth cherishing because it’s where you have an opportunity to do a courageous act. To try and convey to someone else what you see and feel.

To make known what is in your heart.

“Art is the articulation, not the stimulation or catharsis, of feeling; and the height of technique is simply the highest power of this sensuous revelation and wordless abstraction.” – Philosopher Susanne Langer

Photo Journal: Snow and Trees, Hudson Valley

Olympus E-M1,  f/5.6 @1/100th sec, ISO 640, 80mm (35mm format), no filters

We’ve had some significant snow fall in the Hudson Valley recently, and wth the forecast calling for more during the morning hours, it was an invitation I couldn’t resist.

Hiking in the snow is one of my favorite activities, and if it’s snowing, its all the more special. Instead of the sublime silence that you normally experience in the woods with snow on the ground, there’s the almost inaudible, yet unmistakable sound of snow crystals in the air. 

There’s also the ephemeral diffusion that snow imparts on the landscape, similar in many respects to fog, yet more energetic and transitory-the individual flakes create movement, streaks, and even directional lines.

It’s all fascinating visually, but capturing something that has a sense of harmony is difficult at best. I’ve been in situations like this many times, but often return with images that seem like a bunch of elements thrown together haphazardly.

As I came across this scene however, I recognized the potential for a good composition containing the three elements that I look for in every image – otherwise known as “LCU.”

  • Does the composition Lead the eye? Yes, the staggered pattern of the tree roots creates a diagonal starting at the bottom left and moves up through the middle ground continuing up along the dark shapes of the trees.
  • Is there a Center of interest? Yes, the trees themselves have the strongest tonality and visual weight in the image, and they create a pattern and rhythm that is easy to see. This promote a sense of importance, distinct from the background.
  • Does the composition look Unified? Yes, and this is where the falling snow and the effect it creates as I mentioned above, helps to add a sense of continuity from front to back, and also adds a diagonal component to add tension to the vertical nature of the trees.

While I was using a tripod, I did raise my ISO to 640 because I wanted to make sure my shutter speed froze the snowflakes just enough to prevent them from becoming white streaks only. A quick check on my LCD at 1/30th sec (ISO 200) showed that wasn’t the case. I also wanted to maintain a good depth of field so that the background trees looked distinct, adding to the sense of rhythm and pattern of the whole scene.

All of this is an exercise in analysis, important to understanding the compositional decisions I made in the field. But I really don’t think about these things in such specific terms until it’s time to explain them in writing, like I’m doing now.

Otherwise, I prefer it to remain more organic, more intuitive, more improvisational. I made other images, reacting to tonal variations, the changing snow, and most importantly my own emotional response.

I walked slowly, stopping often to simply observe, respond, and smile. I realized how fortunate I was to feel the snow hitting my face, the cold awakening me to the simple beauty of nature, and life.

The red lines show the main path leading the viewer, established at the bottom corner, and repeated by other similar shapes and tones diagonally and dimensionally (front to back) adding to the sense of depth. The yellow lines show the rhythm created by the vertical shapes of the trees -notice the variation in their tones and their spacing, no two are the same. That mostly comes from moving the camera ever slow slightly left and right to change their relative positions, and relationships. The green boxes represent the major division of the composition creating the background, and tonal balance, for the dark trees. 

Simplicity Inside and Out

Snow Color, Hudson Valley / Olympus E-M1, 1/100sec @f/8, ISO 400, 100mm, no filters

“If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.” – John Daido Loori

For any given situation, a nature photographer is faced with a myriad of visual choices, yet there are usually only a few that actually correspond to what really excites and inspires. By that I mean that we look more than we see, and by doing so are often tempted to make images that are just images, which doesn’t correspond to what we feel.

Simplicity for me is trying to capture what matters, leaving the rest out of the frame. 

How do you know what matters? Pay careful attention to your emotions, to the way you react and respond to your surroundings. Then try not to filter them out with all of the self talk that often inhibits creativity – doubt, fear, self-judgement, distraction, and expectation. 

That’s the simplicity that can really offer a window into your personal vision without the baggage that fear brings with it. Of course that’s difficult to accomplish—I work at it constantly—but not impossible.

The complex is both the chaos of the landscape and our mental activity. Mastery is essential in both areas so that the creative side we all possess can grow and flourish.