Out There

Ice and reflections on a cold winter day

My previous article discussed being an explorer based on curiosity. I absolutely, intensely believe that. But I don’t want to leave the impression that most of the exploration can be done in books and videos and trips to museums and even on the computer. For what I do, I have to be out there. Out there in the outdoors. Thinking about images is great, but you haven’t created art until you actually make an image.

Exploration can happen anywhere

Exploration is partly a mental activity. Feeding your mind with new ideas and new images causes growth, new connections. This is a vital activity for artists – and for everyone if you care about growing. There is a limit to it, though.

Creativity is a balance between thinking and doing. Thinking allows us to consider new possibilities and imagine what we would do. Actually getting out shooting lets us test the ideas, see unexpected things, apply the ideas and discover new ones.

The craft of making something balances and perfects the ideas of what we might do. It is a feedback loop. They reinforce each other. Thinking new ideas helps us see more possibilities when we are out shooting. Capturing images helps refine what works and doesn’t. Then when we see what works we discover new possibilities to try another time. Putting theory to practice is necessary to perfect both.

I shoot outdoor images

At some point we have to stop just thinking about what we want to do and actually go do it. Get off the couch and out the door.

Occasionally I set aside time to travel someplace specifically to shoot pictures. That is a joy. But i don’t get to do it as much as I would like. Some reasons are:

  1. It is expensive
  2. I have to be at my studio to process images and take care of all the things that need to be done.
  3. New places are enjoyable but I’m a visitor there. I feel the need to find fresh images where I live.

So I force myself to get out frequently and explore in my own backyard, so to speak. I consider it great discipline to find new, interesting images in familiar areas. And I do find many that I consider good.

I will confess that I am naturally something of a couch potato. Getting out in all kinds of weather is a significant act of will. Especially when you consider that where I live the temperatures can range from -10F to 110F. It can be easy to convince myself that is is just not fun. But it is a habit I force myself to do. When I am home, then 4 to 5 days a week I go our walking with my camera.

Yesterday, for instance, it was 2F and snowing and we had about 4 inches of fresh snow on the ground. I walked over 4 miles. I’m not bragging. Probably many of you do much more. My point is that it is a conscious decision that I will go out with my camera and explore every chance I get. I am somewhat amazed at what I find.

When I am looking at an image I like, I always remember what the conditions were when I shot it, but that is not a factor in my evaluation of the worth of the image itself. The image must stand on its own. But I sometimes find the best pictures in the worst weather.

Practice makes perfect

Exploration is largely a mental activity. Feed your mind. Take in new ideas and possibilities all the time and assimilate the learnings into your vision. But you have to do it, too. Make images. Express the creative ideas you formed. Realize the idea in a finished product for your viewers. It can be hard.

In his e-book “10 Tips for Aspiring Photographers”, William Patino said

One thing that I feel greatly helped my learning was the amount of time I was willing to invest in being outdoors, playing with my camera and observing light and the land.

Invest the time. Be out looking and feeling. Getting good at anything takes time. Practice. Play.

I find that creative ideas tend to be rather vague. They tend to come as an idea of something that would be interesting. But actually making it happen can sometimes be difficult. It may require planning or more research or travel or, typically, many attempts to capture the idea in a real image.

When I was working on my Speeding Trains project I threw away hundreds of attempts before I learned how to capture the impression of motion and speed and power and presence that I envisioned. Even after I sort of figured it out, my “hit rate” was probably about 1 in 10. Practice makes perfect. Or at least better. 🙂

Believe you are very lucky

Being an artist is hard work. If anyone tells you different, they haven’t tried it. You have to create a huge body of work and continually refresh it. You have to deal with rejection. Gatekeepers are everywhere proclaiming themselves to be the arbiter of taste and style and you are not fit to be allowed in to their select club. You will want to give up. As an artist you have to believe in yourself and your work. Regardless of what others say or do. Push on.

It seems a contradiction, but on the other hand, many people admire and look up to you. They dream of being able to step out of their drab world and create. To have the freedom to make art and tell the world they don’t care if no one else likes it, because it pleases them. We seem an independent rebel, living the creative artistic life. They are right.

In a private correspondence my friend Les Picker said:

It’s like a colleague of mine once said: There is no such thing as a bad day for a nature photographer. We’re out there. We’re walking the path. How fortunate we are!

So when it’s 0F and I am feeling frostbite or it’s 100F and I’m about to pass out from heat exhaustion, I remind myself that I am out creating and following my vision. How can this be bad?

My vision leads me to shoot outdoors. So this is where I have to go. I can’t cherry pick and just say “Oh, today is not totally perfect , so I will just stay in”. That would never get anything done. Get out in it. Get dirty or wet or hot. Look past the conditions and discover what is there to see.

Being an artist is about seeing. I have to be out in the place I plan to shoot before I can see. I want to make art, not just think about art.

Your mileage may vary

It sounds like I am saying that you have to shoot landscape scenes to be an artist. Not at all. I think the principles apply to anything you do. If you do portraits, do them, a lot. Don’t just think about doing them. If your thing is commercial or food or street photography or abstract still life studio shots, it doesn’t matter. Do it. Practice. Get in the reps.

My thing involves outdoor photography. I have to kick myself out the door to shoot. If you do your work in the studio then make yourself get up and go do the work there.

You’re not an artist unless you are creating art.

Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.

Andy Warhol

The image this week

I mentioned suffering in the cold. That is the time of year I’m in as I write this. What would be worth going out in that kind of weather? Well, things like this. I love patterns and reflections in ice. It is a very interesting subject to me. This kind of shot makes me forget the discomfort and think of the beauty in unlikely places. I hope you get out and find things like this, too.


A fanciful composited image with interesting processing. Good luck guessing what the original image is.

I firmly believe exploration is a foundation of art. Without it, we become stale and stagnant and eventually just start repeating the same things over and over. Exploration leads to growth and creativity.

Many ways to explore

I consider myself an explorer. It is a fundamental activity that I pursue. But I seldom go off to uncharted lands. There are countless ways to explore. Many without even leaving my studio.

Exploring often involves travel, but it also encompasses the ideas of searching and inquiry and discussion and evaluation. It is more a mental activity than physical. Just being in an exotic location does not automatically classify, for me, as exploring. That depends on what you bring from the experience.

When I read books by artists or view videos about artistic technique and thought, that is exploring. It is an inquiry process. I ask questions of myself and attempt to answer them. The process stretches us. Once stretched, we don’t come back to the same shape.

I sometimes spend hours at a time “exploring” on my computer. No, I don’t mean watching TikTok. Exploring editing possibilities and compositing possibilities. Reviewing images and trying to discover new things in them.

When I go out wandering in my local neighborhood, that is exploring. I do it with an open mind, seeking to see things in a new way. It is amazing that I can usually find new sights or see familiar ones in a different way. That is exploring.

Feed your creativity

At the heart of exploring is curiosity. Curiosity is the fountain that waters art. We need to have an active and healthy curiosity to sustain us.

Most people aren’t overly afflicted with curiosity. Is your curiosity a living and active part of you? We have various needs that have to be met, things like food and shelter and emotional satisfaction. I consider my curiosity almost on that level. I wouldn’t die physically if it died, but mentally and emotionally I would be very damaged.

Curiosity can be fed and nurtured to help it to thrive. There are many ways and I’m sure each of us responds in different degrees to each. Some that work for me are reading, learning new things, looking at good art, listening to intelligent people talk, a change of scenery, and play. All of them are consciously done activities that stimulate my brain. I believe this is very important for a healthy, creative life. The fact that you are reading this means you probably feel the same.

The one that probably seems out of place to most people is play. Are you too serious and grown up to play? I hope not. It is actually very important. In a newsletter, Srinivas Rao once said “When we play, we return to a childlike state of curiosity”. I believe this attitude is important for artists. Through play we discover opportunities to extend our artistic vision.

If you believe something is interesting, you are right. Go with it. Follow it to see where it leads. Considering something play lowers the barriers of expectation. No big deal if it is a failure – we were just playing. Brilliant!

Get out of a rut

Without experimentation that is driven by curiosity, we get stuck in ruts. We repeat the same old way of seeing and thinking all the time. Do you have any self imposed “I always do it this way” limitations? We need to view life fresh. Spend a certain part of your time just playing and trying random and ridiculous things. Do something silly. Have fun.

Brooke Shaden once said creativity is curiosity + experimentation. I think that is a good viewpoint. Experimentation helps us discover new things to encourage us to climb out of the rut. Curiosity drives the experimentation. I think most exploration begins with “what if…”.

Head in the clouds

Has someone told you you have your head in the clouds? They were probably not complimenting you. Most people are so focused and pragmatic that anything other than today’s goals seems useless. As artists, we can’t be that. We are on a lifelong quest to create and see the world differently. Sometimes that is best to do from the clouds.

If I can reframe “head in the clouds” to mean healthy exploration backed by wide-ranging curiosity, then I want to be called that.

Be an explorer

Become an explorer. That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to jump on a plane to a remote corner of the world. Your attitude determines it. It may just mean going outside with a fresh, new attitude. Let your curiosity guide you. Give yourself permission to play, to experiment, to do silly things. Shoot something new. Go extreme in post processing. Find new themes. No telling where that might lead.

I consider myself an explorer. It is the way I live my life. It has nothing to do with how many frequent flier miles I have. Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing I’m looking at interesting sights, examining compositions, thinking about themes or possible projects. Curiosity compels me to always be seeking.

Today’s Image

I love this image. It is built on some things most people would never stop to look at, much less photograph. It was put together in a playful way with some post-processing magic thrown in to flavor it. Complete play. It is a joy to me. I hope you enjoy it.


A freight train speeding by

For an artist, I believe perfection is a false goal. It can lead us to spend our energy in the wrong places. This seems especially true for photographers. Our technology-based art can lead us to believe technical perfection makes good art. It doesn’t. At least, not by itself.

An absolute

I am a recovering Engineer. I know a lot about specs and technical details and I am naturally drawn to “perfection”, whatever that is. As photographers, we tend to be pulled this direction. Are there any overexposed highlights? Do the shadows contain some information and very low noise? Did the lens and sensor resolve every bit of detail that could be used? Was “proper” technique used to maintain total sharpness and low noise? Did it follow the “rules” of composition?

More and more I am convinced these things are relatively unimportant compared to the impact of the image on the viewer.

Normal people view and enjoy prints at a distance of about 1 1/2 times the diagonal measure. Photographers tend to press their nose right against the print to try to see any imperfections. Yes, I do too at times. But this is not realistic or very important for normal viewers.

One of the themes I enjoy at times is images that have super high detail. Images about complexity and texture and the details of the material. I have good equipment and I am OK at using it, so I can do that whenever I want. Some subjects seem to lend themselves to it. But I don’t think I have any images that I consider great solely because of their technical perfection.

A moving goal

And what is “perfection”? Who defines it? Is such a thing achievable?

Our technology is constantly improving and pushing the boundaries back. The camera I use now is vastly better than the one I used 10 years ago. It has higher resolution, lower noise, and wonderful new features like live histogram view. These things let us achieve ever better results with our craft.

Likewise with printers, drop sizes get smaller, allowing for sharper prints, inks get better permanence, and printers get larger. Along with that software technologies improve all the time. We can upscale and sharpen images with much less artifacts. New algorithms can reduce noise without materially damaging sharpness. It’s a great time to be a photographer.

Is this perfection? Sure, a photographer can put his nose up to a large print and see “perfect” detail, low noise, great edge sharpness, and smooth tonal gradation. Is that what perfection is?

So is perfection the absence of any artifacts and a hyper-realism that looks sharper than real life? That is nice, for some images, but I do not believe it is what perfection is.

Why perfection?

Before I attempt to get in over my head, I will ask why we need perfection? Does it make better art?

I have seen prints by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Stiglitz, and many others. Many are stunning and have amazing presence, but not all are technically perfect. At least, by today’s standards. I have also seen many paintings by Monet, da Vinci, Rembrandt, PIcasso, O’Keeffe, etc. Again, I would say that the great ones may not be because of perfection in the sense I have been discussing it.

Craft trumps perfection

Take Ansel Adams for example. He shot mostly 8×10 negatives and spent many hours producing a print. But, the film technology he had was arguably not as good as modern high-end medium format sensors. And his lenses were not particularly good compared to modern designs. Some of his prints are not as technically “perfect” as many artists at their studio today making a print on their Epson or Canon printers.

But there is something else that overrides the technical limits. There is a magic in what he brought out in the printing process. He was a marvelous craftsman. He knew how to work an image until it changed from an average original to a stunning final print. “Moonrise, Hernandez” is a classic example of that. He shot it quickly because he was losing the light. So quickly that he couldn’t find his exposure meter, so he had to guess. Because the negative was badly exposed, it was very difficult to print. It required many hours of work in the darkroom to create a rendition of it. But it became one of his masterpieces. The final print is far superior to the original capture.

As he himself said

A photograph is not an accident it is a concept. It exists at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative. From that moment on to the final print, the process is chiefly one of craft; the previsualized photograph is rendered in terms of the final print by a series of processes peculiar to the medium.

Ansel Adams

Adams was very good at all the aspects of photography. But in my opinion, it was his craftsmanship that made him rise above most everyone else. He would work a print until it glowed and had a life in it. The tones and contrasts and lighting were amazing. The results he created went far beyond considerations of technical perfection.

Story trumps perfection

I include story here because I believe it is powerful. But in general I struggle some with the concept. In a sense, story happens automatically. If you pause to examine a print for more than a couple of seconds it is natural to build a story. Humans naturally seek meaning and story. Guiding the viewer into seeing a more interesting story is a plus, both for the viewer and artist.

I do prints. Generally single images, meant to hang on a wall. To me, it is difficult to tell an extensive story with one isolated image. Not that it can’t be done, but I don’t see it happen as much as critics and some artists want us to believe. Probably the Engineer in me is still too literal.

But I see examples sometimes that make me wrong. A great one is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Place de l’Europe, Gare Saint Lazare, Paris“. Long name, but you’ve seen it:

Place de l’Europe, Gare Saint Lazare, Paris

I think this is a great story captured at, what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”. As you look at it, you tell yourself a story about what is happening, why he is doing this, what he is thinking, what happens next. It is still a memorable image today, even though it is under exposed, the subject is slightly blurry, and, depending on your notion of proper composition, the guy being about to disappear out of the right frame can be a problem.

It is a great and famous and beloved image. Being technically perfect would not have improved it at all.

Emotion trumps perfection

Emotion is something I have struggled with for a long time. I now believe that if I can’t make you feel something about my print, it is cold and sterile. I believe it so much that I feel that emotion far outweighs technical perfection. This is one reason I have been doing more ICM (intentional camera motion) projects lately. It throws out all notions of sharpness and detail and focuses mainly on capturing a feeling or impression.

Emotion in art has been written about a lot lately, but let me repeat and reinforce it. If I can’t make you feel something of what I felt when I made the image, I have probably failed.

There are techniques for creating an emotional response, but I am not concerned with them here. The fact is, we have to do it. As an artist, I have to share my feelings in an image or there is not much interest for the viewer.

Sharing and being transparent is a challenge for some of us (me). I am learning. The results are apparent to me. An image with a depth of feeling has more impact and staying power. Sigh. I will just have to force myself.

But the point is that an image that touches you emotionally is more meaningful than one that is just technically perfect.

Table stakes

So perfection, mostly technical perfection. Where does it fit? Am I saying it is not important? No. A technically perfect image may be excellent, but not just because it was perfect. It also has to embody emotion and story and excellent craft. Perfection is a table stake. It has to be there in order to get in the game. It is not the game itself. Art has to go beyond technical measures.

Today’s image

Earlier I mentioned ICM as a tactic I have been using occasionally to break away from the feeling I needed technical perfection. This image is an example of that. It is from a series I did called Speeding Trains. The intent is to capture the sight and feeling and power of a huge train speeding by. I hope you like it. Read the artist statement and see the rest on my web site.

When Do You Make a Picture?

Silhouetted tree at sunset

When do you make a picture? Have you thought about that? On the surface, it seems an ambiguous or simplistic question. I have been asking myself this, though.

Time, place?

I could be flippant and say I make pictures Tuesdays in the canyons west of my home. That is not true, though. I capture images at least 5 days a week, in general. And I make pictures most places I go. There is no special place for making images.

Looking for things to satisfy my curiosity is not about a time or place. Even traveling to an “exceptional” destination is a special case of just making images wherever I am, of whatever interests me, whenever I have a chance.

The click

OK, so you could say I make a picture whenever I click the shutter of the camera. While it is true that the shutter release is the event that causes the recording of the data in front of the lens, I have written before about sometimes needing to think about and process the data before I am done.

When I go out shooting and come back with 200 images on my memory card, does that mean I have made 200 “pictures”? No, but it is a subtle semantic distinction. My answer would be that I have 200 new possible pictures at this point. However, I am going to go through them, cull out the defective ones, decide which of the duplicates I want to keep, and then try to decide if there is any merit in the ones that are left.

When all is done, maybe I would end up with 0-10 that are worth doing something with. Your mileage may vary. Mine does, too, depending on time and place and my mood. Note that I still have to do things with them. In my mind, they are not “pictures” yet, since I am not ready to show them to anyone.

Post processing

So, of course I have to post process the ones I have kept so far. This may only involve simple exposure processing, especially corralling highlights and shadows, color correction, and contrast adjustment. Typically there may be some spotting and minor blemish removal.

At this point I “may” have a picture. For straightforward scenes, this may be enough. I am done. It may be beautiful or interesting and no more than the literal scene before the camera. A lot of pictures are just that.

Deciding what it is and it is going to be

But not always. Sometimes an image is trying to tell me that it is something more. It may take a while for me to hear it. This often manifests as a discomfort I can’t quite identify. A suspicion that I am missing something.

When this happens during the initial culling process, I usually keep the frames I am struggling with. I might not be able to articulate why, but I know I’m not ready to eliminate them yet.

Even after the image is processed and is a nice picture on its own, sometimes it keeps trying to talk to me. Deep down inside, I know I have not understood or brought out all it means to me.

Sometimes I realize I have been capturing images of a certain subject or mood. I may recognize a theme that is emerging. Recognizing it helps me identify and clarify a truth I was not consciously aware of. This could put me on track to follow the idea for a while as a project. With these nagging images in context, I learn more about why they were talking to me. All seems different. Sometimes I don’t even need to modify the images more. Just understanding what I was feeling may be enough.


And sometimes I recognize an image is an interesting piece, but not complete in itself. I will often file these away as raw material, expecting to revisit it is the future and decide what it needs to say what it wants to say.

There are times when it comes to me and I know that these pieces have to fit together in a certain way to create a new image. This can be satisfying, fulfilling, exciting. It is a true creative journey.

It is time consuming but often very rewarding to spend sessions in Photoshop playing with various combinations of pieces and parts, doing “what if?” games. These often end up in “failure”. Failure in the sense that I did not create a new picture. But it is seldom actually failure because I explored ideas and tested new things. It often sparks new ideas for the future.

Disconnected from capture

This comes around to an idea I have presented before. Sometimes I have to let an image age before it becomes whole. It can take me an indeterminate time to recognize what the image wants or needs to be.

Images are raw material until I become comfortable with how they should be expressed and presented. This is a separate creative process from image capture and a necessary part of how I make a picture. It is not until the end of this journey that I feel I have a picture to share with the world.

Today’s image

The image with this article is a minor example of what I describe. I was fortunate to find this scene late one winter afternoon in what I considered an unlikely place in the back country of northern Oklahoma. I’m a sucker for lone bare trees silhouetted against the sky.

I liked it, but I know it was not “done”. A few months later I added the birds, because I felt they built and reinforced the mood of the image and added some dynamic interest. Just today when I came back to it again after about another 6 months, I saw I wanted to eliminate some distracting foreground elements, crop it to emphasize the sky, and make it overall higher contrast and more saturated. I’m good with it – for now. 🙂