Get Out and Take Pictures

Snowy Colorado Mountains

The image above was taken on a beautiful Colorado afternoon in the mountains. It was 1 degree F, snowing, and windy, about a foot of fresh snow. Awesome! Except for the wind. Still, an excellent opportunity to get out and take pictures!

This is a theme I keep coming back to. You don’t improve your technique or vision by sitting around thinking about it. You have to take pictures. And evaluate them and throw most away. Daily should be a goal. Up to a point the weather shouldn’t matter.

My inspiration comes mostly from the outdoors, so that is what I will talk about. If you do your work in the studio and that is where you get your best, most creative ideas, great for you. I will be outside taking my inspiration from the world around me and getting exercise, fresh air, vitamine D, etc.

Shoot in these conditions

Cloudy day? GREAT. Use that giant soft box to look for those soft light images you have been wanting to take. And if it is scattered, broken clouds that is great too. It gives much more interest to the sky.

Sunny? GREAT. Use it. In Colorado, where I am most of the time, the sun is harsh and clear, not filtered through a lot of atmosphere. Conventional wisdom is that you can’t take outdoor images during the middle of the day when the sun is overhead. I like to challenge that. It is a good creative exercise.

Raining? GREAT. Unless it is a thunderstorm or really pouring down pack up a minimal set of gear and get out. Your camera is probably more water resistant than you think. Just keep it covered as much as possible and wipe it down frequently. And it won’t hurt you to get wet.

Snowing? GREAT. See above. I love good snowy pictures. I am amazed at the range of moods I can find.

Fog? GREAT. I love it. I don’t get nearly as much practice with this as many people do. It is too dry here. But fog is great for moody, minimalistic compositions. And the junk areas you pass by every day take on a whole new interest when blurred by the fog.

Cold? GREAT. Bundle up and get outside. Take an extra battery, because your camera battery is not as robust as you are. Other than the battery, your camera is pretty tough. I have a beard and I sometimes come back with my beard completely caked with ice. You warm up.

Hot? GREAT. For me personally, this is one of the conditions I like least. I grew up in the southern USA. Summer days could be 110 F. I hated it and moved away when I could. Still, I challenge myself to go out almost every day in the summer. (It’s usually only in the 90’s here)

Practice leads to…

You get the idea. If you see a dedicated athlete, musician, writer, teacher, engineer, whatever, how do they get better? They practice. Every day. Obsessively. That is not all they do, but the good ones all do it.

That basketball player may spend hours shooting free throws or practicing layups. That is not playing a game. But the point is it is building the reflexes and the muscle memory that will be used in the game. Making the moves automatic.

When we are out for our daily practice do not have the attitude that every image has to be great. They won’t be. Mine are not even if I am trying to shoot good ones. Practice is to build skill. Plan on throwing most away.

And the process lets us evaluate what we are doing. We can think more about what we like and what we will avoid. We see what works for us and what does not. This leads to helping us to perfect our style.

I have mentioned before that one of my heroes is Jay Maisel. I think he is in his 80’s, but I believe he still goes out walking every day looking for pictures. He’s starting to get pretty good. ๐Ÿ™‚


Have you heard music or other things referred to as a “discipline”? It is a very appropriate term. To build skill you must discipline yourself. The repetition, the striving to improve each time helps you grow into your skill.

Photography is no different. Constant practice helps us improve our skills. Technical decisions become quick and effortless. We learn to more easily analyze a scene and hone in on the part that is important to us. Most important, we learn what we want to bring to our images.

Plan on throwing most of your practice away. The real benefit of these images if learning.

Have you tried this? Do you agree? Let me know.

What is DPI?

An extensively processed image

DPI is simply an acronym for “dots per inch”. It should be a simple concept, but people sometimes get twisted up in knots over it. Our printer manufacturers have not helped the situation.

What are “dots”?

Unless you are reading a printer spec sheet, dots just mean pixels. A pixel is a “picture element” – the smallest piece of a digital image. By convention, a pixel is a triplet of red, green and blue values. That sounds very technical, but it just means they are 3 values carried around together, say something like 95, 134, 47. By convention each value can have a range of 0 to 255. That is not representative of what camera sensors really do anymore, it is the convention. The convention comes from the 8 bit representation of color values way back in early times. The maximum value 8 bits of binary data can represent is 255. The practice has been established and perpetuated by Photoshop over the years. The actual data range we use is a subject for another post.

The image that gets stored in your computer is a grid of pixels. The camera I am using most often right new creates an image that is 8256 x 5504 pixels. That makes a lot of data!

A fuzzy quality metric

Your camera does not know the concept of DPI. As a matter of fact, DPI is a fairly useless term unless you are printing an image.

Have you ever had someone tell you they need a file that is 8×10 inches at 300 DPI? Unless you are sending the file to whoever does your photo printing, it really means they do not understand what they need.

At best DPI is a metric for the quality of an image viewed or printed at a certain size. The more pixels you have in a given distance, the better the image should look, in general.

But in most people do not even know the pixel resolution of their screen or printer. If you save a file in jpg format there is a good chance the default is 72 DPI. This was considered the “normal” screen resolution – way back. The main monitor I use is 219 DPI. And it is several years old. And I don’t really care, because that is a number that is never important to me. I never use it for anything.

DPI really doesn’t matter for the screen

One of the reasons DPI doesn’t mean much for most of us is that our computers scale images for viewing on our screen. And they usually do a really good job. But what most apps do is map the pixels available to the pixels of the screen. So if you look at a file that says it is 10″x10″ at 72 DPI, you will see a 720×720 pixel image. It will be however large 720 pixels measures on your screen.

When you view an image on your screen all that really matters is the resolution. The DPI number is generally ignored.

Size matters

If DPI is not as important as many people think, then is resolution unimportant? No. Absolutely not. The number of pixels you have to work with is always an ultimate limitation of what you can do with the file. As is said in many things, size matters.

With plenty of pixels imaged through good glass you have the flexibility to print large, or to crop tightly or to create images of astounding detail. Also, massive numbers of pixels gives sharper edges and smoother gradients.

DPI for printers is a whole different thing

The major printer manufacturers have confused the issue for us. A printer ad may proudly proclaim it does 4800 DPI! This is technically correct, but not helpful. They are talking about the density of ink drops they can lay down on the substrate (paper). But printers do not print pixels.

A drop of print ink is not a pixel. You do not send the printer an image scaled to 4800 DPI!

A printer takes the pixels available in a given area and transforms them to densities of the subtractive colors needed to come close to reproducing the colors and gradations contained in the original pixels. This is a complex technology and I will not attempt to explain it here. Sufficient that you remember a drop of ink is not a pixel.

Where DPI means something

When you know how large of a print you wish to make then DPI becomes meaningful. The number of pixels available combined with the desired print size give us the DPI. DPI is a measure of the amount of information available for an inch of print.

For optimum printing the guideline is supplying a source file of around 250-360 DPI. This gives the printer driver enough information to do the ink transform we talked about above.

My Canon printer, for instance, has a “standard” resolution of 300 DPI. It can print well with a range of values, but this is considered optimal. This means that one of my image files of 8256 x 5504 pixels could be used to print an image of 27.5″ x 18.35″ with no scaling or loss of resolution. That is the size of this image at 300 DPI.

If I want to print one of my images at a more typical size, say 18″x12″ I could scale a copy of my master file down to 300 DPI. Or not, because Photoshop or Lightroom is perfectly capable of scaling it down when printing with little discernible degradation. One person even says that higher DPI gives better results.

If I have an image with insufficient pixels I could just try to print it. Printer drivers do amazing things. Or I could scale it up in Photoshop, which also does an excellent job within limits.

It’s those limits that you have to be able to estimate. If you have a 2 MPixel image and you want to print it poster size, well, your results probably will not meet your expectation. No free lunch.


So what about DPI? Don’t sweat it unless you are printing. Only if printing is it a meaningful metric. And it is only meaningful when you are taking about a particular image printed at a particular size.

There are plenty of technical issues to stress out about. This should not be one of them, unless you are producing high quality prints.


Mountains at dusk

Photographs are memory. Most of us take “snapshots” to record moments we want to remember. Facebook, Snapchat, and most other social media exists on snapshots.

I have a whole image library of family and friend pictures. They are very important to me personally, even though I do not share them on social media (I’m one of the last remaining holdouts in the world).

My images are my memories

I also have a large library of my professional images. These are just as much my memories as the pictures of my grandkids. In some ways these are even more important.

I have a terrible memory for dates, which is weird, because as an engineer, I have a better chance of remembering your phone number than I do your name. My wife can ask me when we went on a certain trip and I might guess a date that is 10 years off.

But when I see one of my images, the whole context immediately comes back as a well formed memory (except for the date โ˜บ). Without hesitation I can tell you where it was, what time of the year, what the weather was like, what trip it was on, who we were with, and what the circumstances of the picture were. And if it was a trip, what we were driving.

Is this relevant to you? Probably not. It definitely is to me. These are my memories. Sometime in the future, if I start loosing my memory, I hope these will still bring back these contexts for a long time.

But I want you to hang my images on your wall. Why should you want my memories? You don’t. I hope to bring other things that are of value to you.


If I tell you that when making a certain image the temperature was -10F and the wind was blowing and my hands were freezing even with gloves on, that might give you some greater sense of the situation. Kind of like the image at the top of this post. This brings a notion of place to the appreciation of an image. You didn’t experience it directly, but you can empathize.

Even better, though, is if I can bring this sense of place into the image. So you can feel the bone chilling conditions by looking at it. If I am sufficiently skilled and if my story telling skill is up to it, it can often be done. I try.

This example isn’t necessarily a place many of us would want to be. I’m weird that way. But I think it illustrates that an image doesn’t have to be about puppies and beaches and sunsets to tell a worthwhile story. And a story can be compelling enough to make you want to have it to look at, even if you’ve never been there and don’t want to. It brings more of the world to us.


More powerful even than a strong sense of place is the connection it can bring you. I believe most of us long for more connection to nature, to the real world. It feels like home.

Unfortunately, most people these days live in cities. Even if they are not directly in a city, most people are so busy with everyday life that they lose touch with the real world. When you are so busy, you forget.

Images, on your wall, where your can meditate and reflect on them, are a powerful antidote to this disconnection. Especially if the images are places or things that symbolize where you want to be, that make you feel whole. Even if they are just of something that makes you stop to look and think.

Some ask me why my landscape images almost never have people in them. This is part of my value system. I feel that if people are there, that is their place, their memories. If no one else is there, it is pristine, unclaimed in a sense. It can be your place, your memory. Even if you have never been there, you feel that it is someplace you would like to be. You can visualize yourself in the scene. It becomes a connection for you to that world.

The knowledge that such places exist, even if we do not see them ourselves, is powerful and centering. Pablo Picasso said “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” I believe this is one of the things that makes art worthwhile.

I hope you will adopt some of my memories to bring more peace to your day.

Is this true for you? Let me know what you think. And check out my online gallery at Contact me if you find something you connect to and would like to have.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Girl and Chandeliere

How do you get good at anything? Practice. Does it apply to art? Yes, practice. When? Now.

Seemingly it is a very simple thing, but constant practice trains your muscles and your brain. It refines your skill and makes your decisions automatic. It improves your concentration and your vision.

The 10,000 hour rule

You can learn to do many things pretty well with about 40 hours of work. Yet it is said that to become great at something takes 10,000 hours of practice. Now realistically, few people will put in 10,000 hours on anything (except maybe watching TV). That is 5 years of doing nothing else except practicing your craft for 40 hours a week. This is the level of effort required to become the level of a Michael Jordon or Tiger Woods. But isn’t that the level we aspire to as artists? I do.

That seems an unrealistically high standard. But in most unrealistic situations, you do what you can. Putting in the time consistently is key. A good discipline is to make yourself get out with your camera every day. Having it in your hand makes it comfortable. It teaches you to see more, observe. You will not make a great image every day. That is not the point. The point is to improve.

โ€œThe discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.โ€

Jascha Heifetz, renowned violinist

One of my exercises is to practice street photography a few times a week. I touched on this in my article on hunting images. It gives great practice in consciousness, fast reflexes, anticipation, using your camera with little thought. Most of my work is not street photography, but this is great skill development for everything else I do.

Carry a camera

It is hard to practice if you don’t have your tools. Not impossible, just hard. Going to the trouble of having your camera with you provides an important discipline. It is intentional. You have consciously committed to making images. It gives you permission (in your mind) to look for and take pictures. It makes you aware and on the prowl.

The great Wayne Gretzsky famously said “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” This is true of photography, not just hockey. When you are carrying your camera, make yourself stop and capture interesting scenes when you see them. As I noted in a another post, it won’t be there tomorrow.

Examine, improve

The purpose of doing this practice is to improve. It has been said that in 20 years, some people get 20 years of experience and some people have 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. Doing the same thing over and over without improving is very sad.

Unless you have someone you trust to critique your work frequently, you have to learn to do it yourself. Be honest with yourself. And brutal. Did that work? Was it what you wanted? Is it technically perfect? Was the composition effective? And one of the hardest to judge objectively: is it actually a great picture?

I used the 10,000 hour rule to give a sense of how long it takes to become an expert, but it is well known that the so called rule is flawed. People often practice for 10,000 hours or more but remain mediocre. Why? They are not learning from their mistakes! They get 1 year of experience 20 times. Don’t make the mistake of not learning from your mistakes.

Be brutal on yourself. Better you than other people. The reality is most of your shots will not be very good. Most of mine are not. That’s OK. You have to get a lot of bad shots out of your system before you can start making better ones consistently. Be honest with yourself. When a frame just doesn’t work, examine it carefully. Understand why. What can you learn from it? A bad shot may lead you to a new understanding and be more valuable than a good shot that doesn’t teach you anything.

The few, the proud

The legendary Ansel Adams said “A photographer does well to get a dozen first-quality shots a year.” Technology has changed a lot and it doesn’t take much time or cost to shoot a lot of digital frames. But how many of yours are really great? Quantity is not quality.

I’ll be candid, looking at my digital collection only, less than 2% of my shots are “gallery quality”. Two out of 100. Is that discouraging? No, in a weird way it is empowering. Based on Adam’s experience I am encouraged to be getting that many. Or I could be delusional. Of course I keep a lot more than that for various reasons. And since I like to do collages I have a lot that are not stand alone but would be excellent material for constructing new composites.

Not the outcome

This leads to the final point for this post. When I am practicing, I need to concentrate on process, not outcome. I am learning, doing repetitions, trying experiments, getting more familiar with my equipment. This improves me over time and sharpens my eye. If I get a “keeper” during practice that is just a happy accident.

Practice daily and plan to throw almost all of it away. It is worth it.

Do you have a regular practice regime? Has it helped? Let me know!