What’s Your Motivation?

Blurred intentional camera motion.

What’s your motivation? What compels you to do what you do as an artist? If we understand more about our personal motivation it will help carry us through hard times.

Motivation vs. creativity

Just so we’re on the same page, let me differentiate motivation from creativity. I wrote recently on creativity. To me motivation is the “why” behind what you do and creativity is the viewpoint or fresh approach you bring to your work. The ideas or substance behind our art.

Motivation gets us up in the morning or keeps us out shooting after the sun is gone or when the weather is miserable. Something drives or compels us to do our work. Creativity may give us a new idea of something that would make a good image. Motivation gets us off the chair and our the door. They work together to create our art.

Motivators

We are all motivated by something, but each of us is motivated by something different. My wife is one of those who is motivated by a check list. Getting everything checked off at the end of the day is her goal. I like to get things checked off, but it doesn’t really motivate me. I need to create, to make things that brings my unique viewpoint to the world.

There are many

Some other possible motivators that come to mind are:

  • People’s expectations. We like to please others. For some of us, that can be more important than pleasing our self.
  • Money. This is why some of us work. Now obviously, we all need to support ourselves, but for some, the money itself is how we “keep score”.
  • Fame or recognition. This can be powerful, but realisticaly, few of us artists actually become famous. There is the dream, though.
  • Helping people. An example is Beth Young who, after battling cancer, discovered that peaceful, relaxing images help soothe people’s pain. Now she tries to produce that to help others.
  • Fear. This is sneaky, but do you ever feel you’re being left behind and want to work really hard to catch up? Perhaps you look at other photographer’s work and feel inferior. Maybe you don’t even know where you need to go, but you are plagued by fear. I think this is a lot of what social media is about.
  • Personal drive. Some of us are driven to look around at the world and see things and we need to capture them and bring them to other people. Maybe it’s ego, or maybe it is just the knowledge that people would miss these scenes unless we show them. Either way, it is a motivation.

I’m sure there are many more motivators. Like I said, we are all motivated by different things. But my point is that, when you think about it, something motivates you.

Study yourself

Introspection or self inspection is hard for some. Learning to do it helps us grow and understand our self better. Do you ever sit back and reflect on your motivation? When you don’t feel like doing anything, what gets you going? Can you detect a cause/effect relationship? That is, when an idea comes into your head that seems to push or pull us to expend the energy to do something.

If we understand our motivation we can accept it and embrace it. Use it to propel us toward our goals. If we can recognize it we might be better at it’s care and feeding.

You’re not always motivated

Like creativity, motivation is not always around when we would like it to be. Like most things in life, it has cycles. It ebbs and flows like a tide. Unlike a tide, it does not have a predictable schedule. We can’t control it. We just accept it as our reason for doing what we do.

What to do when you’re not

Sometimes we have to recharge. Sometimes we are so drained that we have to rebuild. Maybe we are at an inflection points in our life when our subconscious understands we need to change direction but our conscious mind is still struggling with it.

Be patient with yourself. Let it work. Feed your mind – read, study, be with people to keep from spiraling into depression. Wait for the motivation to re-engage and push you along. Motivation is a force. It is neither good or bad, right or wrong. It just is and it works on us.

But don’t just sit passively and watch TV while you wait. Work. Keep doing your art. Shoot; process; market. Stay busy. You may not be happy with what you are creating right now, but doing something is better than sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. Picasso famously said “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I believe it is the same for motivation. When we are working we are more receptive.

There is a “why” behind what we do. Sometimes we have to re-discover it. Occasionally, but rarely, it changes. Reflect on your motivation. Understanding it will help you understand why you feel it necessary to do what you do. That understanding can carry us through the dark times when we do not feel inspired.

Dodging and Burning

Classic Rocky Mountain Balck & White. This exhibits strong use of traditional dodging and burning.

I have mentioned dodging and burning before, but usually in the context of black & white images. Dodging and burning is much more general than that these days. They are techniques that should be known by all photographers.

History

We usually think of dodging and burning as something associated with black & white photography. This is because this is where they were invented and first applied. Ansel Adams and the masters before him used dodging and burning extensively to achieve the artistic look they wanted.

The technique has its roots in the chemical darkroom. Photographers discovered that during the sometimes minutes long exposure of a print, they could change the tonal values of the print by withholding or adding light to selected areas.

Remember that these black & white processes were built around negatives. That is, on the print material, the more light it receives the darker the area is and the less light it receives, the lighter it it. In the limit no light at all will give the white base of the paper.

Hence the origins of the names. The printer (a person creating a darkroom print) might use a small tool, usually a circular or oval shaped piece of paper on a stick, to shield a region from some of the light. This holding back some light was called dodging. It made the dodged region of the print lighter. The printer could also add light to a region, usually by cutting a small hole in a sheet of paper and using it to shield everything except the hole from the light. This was called burning. It made the region receiving extra light darker.

In today’s digital processing, the terms are archaic. I remember them by thinking that burning sounds like it would make it darker. They might better be called just lightening and darkening. In my LIghtroom process, I call these layers just “light” and “dark”.

What are they now?

In the more general sense, dodging and burning are a means of selectively changing the tonal intensities or other properties of regions of an image. We can do this in great detail now and it is not at all limited to black & white images.

I am fairly confident in saying that all images you see a professional fine art photographer print use dodging and burning. The artist may spend hours tweaking the relationships. It is so easy now and we have so much control relative to the chemical darkroom days that it would almost be foolish not to. It would be passing up a great opportunity to enhance the visual experience for your viewers.

Digital post processing

Virtually all software tools that photographers use have the ability to selectively adjust tones in regions. The different tools may use their own names for it, but they all do about the same thing. I will discuss Lightroom Classic and Photoshop since I am familiar with them.

Since we edit on a computer using software tools, we are no longer limited to it being a real-time “performance” in the darkroom. Artists back in the day had to repeat the lengthy dodging and burning process for each print. Now we can do it once to create our “digital negative”. Editing becomes a pleasant creative process we can enjoy in our office with a nice glass of wine and some relaxing music playing.

And because we are no longer limited to black and white and chemical processes, the range of what we can adjust is greatly increased. We use the same techniques to selectively adjust colors and sharpness and contrast. It is even almost trivial to remove distracting elements.

It’s a great time to be to be a photographer!

Lightroom Classic

Ah, a marketing blunder by Adobe. Renaming “Lightoom” to “Lightroom Classic” was an affront to photographers and a thinly disguised attempt to push most users to the (reduced capability) online version. Thanks. Now that I have that off my chest let me just say that I will call the product just “Lightroom”. Know that I mean the desktop version where I have all my images stored locally.

That out of the way, Lightroom is a fantastic product that is vitally important to a large percentage of photographers. It is where we store and catalog and search for and edit our image library.

In addition to everything else it does, Lightroom has very capable dodge and burn tools and they are being enhanced all the time. At the time I am writing this, Lightroom version 12 was just released. It adds some significant new features.

Lightoom has several selection tools for dodging and burning and general editing. They are called the linear gradient, the radial gradient, the brush, and color and luminence range. In addition, there are “AI-based” features to aid in selecting the sky, the subject, people, and objects.

The purpose of all these tools is to select a certain region of an image to modify. Once we have a selection there is a range of editing that can be applied, such as exposure, contrast, texture, clarity, dehaze, temperature and tint adjustments, saturation, and sharpness. This gives us a very fine degree of control of the look of our image, down to arbitrarily small regions. And a wonderful bonus is, all adjustments in Lightroom are non-destructive. Everything can be modified or rolled back however much we want, even all the way to the original image.

Photoshop

Lightroom gets more capable all the time and is used as the exclusive editing tool for many photographers. But Photoshop is the granddaddy, the patriarch. While Lightroom makes it easy to do a lot of things, Photoshop does not restrict us from doing anything. We can mash, bend, distort, replace and modify any of the pixels in an image. You can combine multiple images together. You just have to know how.

Adjustment layers with masks are a primary means of local adjustments. These layers can be used to do traditional dodging and burning adjustments. There are even tools in the Photoshop tool bar that do dodging and burning, but I would not suggest using them, since they directly modify pixels. The ability to use a non-destructive workflow is important in Photoshop. At least, it is important to me. Some people disagree. Do whatever works best for you.

There are probably 2 main ways to do dodging and burning in Photoshop: 2 curve layers or 1 overlay layer. The first uses 2 curves adjustment layers, one set to lighten about a stop and the other set to darken about a stop. Each has a black mask. By painting in white areas in one of the masks we can selectively lighten or darken.

The method I more often use is to create a layer filled with 50% gray and a blend mode of Overlay. Then when I paint lighter than 50% gray on the layer it lightens or darker than 50% grey it darkens. I like this better because it is only one layer and it is more intuitive to me to use white to lighten and black to darken.

Either method is easily alterable and non-destructive. Each can be set up by a simple Photoshop action.

It has been edited

So in today’s photography world, assume any image you see has been edited – a lot. It is easy. It makes our images better. We are making art, not documentary.

There are photographers who think any modification of an image is wrong. They are, of course, free to feel that and act on their beliefs. I feel sorry for them. They are severely limiting their artistic potential. And they are probably “stretching the truth”. They do some color and contrast correction. Maybe a little dodging and burning and vignetting. Take out an errant twig sticking in from the side. Be skeptical when someone tells you an image has not been modified. What is the limit of “purity” vs. “artifice”? Who sets the rule? Why should there be a limitation?

Dodging and burning and related transforms have been used since the early days of photography. Masters like Ansel Adams would never have become famous without them. That is why it took many hours to print an Ansel Adams print. Most people would say it was worth it.

If you are doing photography today, I believe you need to master dodging and burning and all the related tools we have to work with now. The tools are there for us to use to make our images better. The concepts are timeless, only the technology changes. The editing controls are there because we need to use them to achieve our vision for our images. Not using them is like tying one hand behind your back. Maybe it makes a statement, but it artificially limits you for no good benefit.

Making a Black & White Picture

Processing the image, not the real scene

I seem to be following a couple of converging streams lately. Several times recently I have discussed whether art, specifically photography, should be “real” – e.g. faithful to the original. I have also been thinking a lot about black & white. Today I am merging these thoughts (don’t cross the streams!). I want to talk about making a black & white picture. That is explicitly chosen rather than saying “taking” a black & white picture.

A unique art

In my last post I mentioned some of the history of black & white imaging. This is important to keep in mind. This is not just general photography. It is a specific art form with a long tradition.

We are not talking about just taking the color out of a picture. How many times have you heard someone say “that did not work in color, let’s try it is black & white”? As if to say that black & white processing is a last ditch effort to save an image. What a very limited view.

When we step into the black & white world we are now following a different path. The way we look at the image, the way we work, the results we try to achieve are all very different from working a color image.

It is art

By its very nature, a black & white image is an abstraction. It is removed from reality. We use black & white to reinterpret scenes we see. This is art.

As art, the results do not have to recreate the reality we originally started with. Did VanGogh actually see what he painted as Starry Night? If he did, he was on some serious drugs. Are Monet’s water lilies a faithful representation of the original scene? No, they are an interpretation. This is a characteristic of art.

Likewise, black & white images are not meant to be a colorless picture of the original scene. It should capture a unique view or feeling about what it was.

Recent videos

This was brought home to me when watching a recent video by Serge Ramelli. The course was “Mastering Black and White Photography in Lightroom”, available on Kelby Training. (I get no compensation from Serge or Kelby One.)

What hit me was not that Lightroom is a pretty good tool for doing black & white – I knew that. I came away with a new view of how Serge approaches modifying a picture to become a good black & white image. Not just the techniques, but the boldness.

Serge has the ability to forget about the scene as shot and just look at the image on screen and ask what should be done to it to make it interesting. What it was originally is not even a consideration at this point.

Realization – I haven’t let go

The realization the hit me is that, despite all my talk about art not necessarily being representational, I have trouble making that transition in my black & white images. I get stuck too much in my memory of the scene as shot.

All that matters is the image I am working with on the screen and the final print. That is the art. What I started with doesn’t matter.

I have to get better at letting go and just working the image.

No sales pitch

I don’t want you going away thinking I am just promoting Serge. No, while he is unmistakably a very good artist, he is too commercialized for my taste. He has a neatly packaged set of products encompassing books and training videos and actions and tie-ins to other photographers and their training, etc. There is a strong a flavor of “follow my instructions and you can make pictures just like me”. Thank you, but I don’t want to copy you, Serge. I just want to improve my ability to realize my own vision.

I have learned good things from Serge’s videos, and I recommend you checking them out on Kelby One or Creative Live. He presents a lot of excellent information, but I do not want to be a Serge Ramelli clone.

My takeaway

Serge opened my eyes some. I realize that the boldness I thought I had is only a shadow of how I ought to be behaving. What I saw Serge doing was just working with the image until it was the artistic piece he wanted. I need to completely let go of my “knowledge” of what it is and where and how it was made. Those things are not important at this stage. All that is important is how can I make this set of pixels an interesting black & white image?

The image here is an attempt to follow this advice. This is where I live and this is a snapshot I took on a daily walk from my studio. This is basically the original image, no compositing or major editing. Creating this result was frustrating and a little painful until I really broke down my inhibitions and got in the spirit of the process. What you see here is very different in feeling and impression to the original. It works well in black & white, but it is not a faithful representation to the original. This picture was made, not just taken. I like the result.

How about you? What do you think? How much liberty should artists take?

Fall in Love

Organic flow. Creative expression. Fall in love.

I advocate it, but I’m not talking about a romantic meeting. Making art should be an act of love. We should fall in love with our works, or else, why do them?

Because it’s there

I mostly wander and explore without a lot of planning or result in mind. Sometimes I shoot pictures just because something is kind of interesting and I’m there to see it. That can be good, but usually not.

Being an explorer, I follow my curiosity. I tend to try a lot of experiments to see what happens. So if something tweaks my interest I often see what I can do with it. Occasionally I have a tingle and excitement when I press the shutter, knowing that I have captured something I love. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until I am reviewing the image large on my computer. Then I discover that it is far more interesting than I thought at the time I took it. Both are joyous occurrences.

More often than not, I find I have well composed, well exposed pictures of – nothing much. I look at them later and say “yeah, it was an interesting scene and it’s an OK picture, but it doesn’t grab me.” Usually I think it is because I did not feel strongly about the subject or scene. I didn’t fall in love with it.

If I don’t feel passion for the image, how can I expect you to when you view it? It is pretty obvious to me which ones really grab me. I think you can perceive it, too.

Over-planning

At the opposite end I see some photographers occasionally get trapped by over planning. Conventional wisdom from many renowned photographers is that any photo trip or outing should be planned out in great detail. They will research a location extensively, looking at pictures from other photographers to try to find the “best” places and positions and angles and times and seasons. In addition, they will use tools like The Photographer’s Ephemeris to select the exact time and day and location to get the exact sunrise/sunset/moonrise/ etc. shot they want. And they may book an outing with a workshop or guide to help with the logistics and transportation.

Is there anything wrong with doing it this way? Absolutely not, if that is the way you work. Different personality types need to approach things in different ways. Do what works for you, but don’t get into a mental trap.

One of the traps I see is that we tend to get so invested in the preparation for the shot that we have to take it. We spent a lot of time and money to get to that point. It becomes a quest. It has artificially become so important that we have to take the pictures to validate and justify the trip.

But what happens when you get there and the weather is “bad”? Bad being not what you planned for. Maybe you don’t like the workshop leader or structure. Worst, what do you do when you get there after all the planning and expense, look at the scene, and feel “meh”?

Of course you take the pictures. You have to. But if you’re honest, they may not make your portfolio set you are excited to show people. There was just no life there. You can check off that you got the iconic shot, but maybe it ends up not being very important.

Having our expectations too high can lead to disappointment.

Anti-planning?

You can guess from what I’ve written that detailed planning is not for me. I am almost an anti-planner. I tend to come at things the opposite way. Going to iconic locations and fighting for a tripod location and taking the exact same image 10,000 other photographers have taken just in the last month is not a motivation for me.

Yes, the scene is beautiful. Yes, it is probably salable because it is the type of image people like to have on their wall. Economically it is foolish to not get this image and pander to the crowd.

But for me, even though I think the scene is beautiful, I probably will not feel great passion for it. How can I distinguish myself from the thousands of other photographers shooting the same things? How can I tell my story or share my feelings?

In love

Back to the original statement of this article, I believe I have to fall in love with my images. If I am going to show you something I have made, it has to be much more than good. It has to have a passion you can sense. How can I bring you art you want unless I feel strongly about it?

Thoreau said “A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.” The famous photographer John Sexton said “Too often we attempt to force a photograph out of a situation rather than allow the situation to speak to us.”

I am guilty at times of trying to force images to be there when I’m not actually listening and feeling. I recognize it. It is painfully obvious when I am reviewing them in Lightroom that I have a bunch of well executed pictures that mean nothing to me. Trashing them is the best thing to do. And use it as a reminder to follow the passion more than the light. If I don’t have a sense of wonder and passion for the image that is a good sign that it probably didn’t work.

“Follow your passion” is not always good advice in life – you have to do a lot of things you don’t like. But in art it is great advice. It may not be the clear path to fame and fortune, but you will feel good about what you create. And your viewers can tell. Love your work.

This example

I have used this image at the top before. It is a good illustration of my point here, though.

I love this image. I could stare at it for a long time. It speaks to me at a level I can’t even describe. The rich color, the organic flow, the streaks of movement over time, the standing wave shapes, the minimalist simplicity all move me.

This as shown here is almost straight out of the camera. It is what I shot. Yes, it has been cropped square and had some minor tone corrections, but this is what I discovered and jumped on. The color and the time effects of the flow are as shot. I liked it as seen through the viewfinder. I loved it after I saw it large on the computer.

It is one of the few pictures I have hanging on my wall at home.

Raw Material

Heavily post processed image

I have come to consider many of the images I shoot to be raw material. They don’t become a finished picture until I have worked the raw material in post processing.

Bits

Today’s cameras are great generators of data. Every time I press the shutter I am sending around 50-60 MBytes of data to my memory card. And that is using a compressed RAW format.

A funny thing happens, though. The more data there is, the less the importance of each bit. For instance, even though my camera has great metering and a live histogram, I may shoot several frames of the same subject. This will allow for minimizing motion or camera shake. Or, if I am intentionally moving the camera (intentional camera motion) I will shoot many frames to up my chance of getting a keeper.

I never would have been so “wasteful” with film. It was too expensive. But digital images seem free. The perceived value of any frame is smaller.

But a side effect of this commodity view leads to a different relationship with the image data. It is no longer necessarily a “picture” as an indivisible unit. It is data. I feel more free to repurpose any of the picture data for other uses.

Repurposing

So now I have new ways to look at an image. Maybe I like its texture and want to apply it to another image. Maybe there are one or more elements in the picture that I think would be good included in another image. There could be a form structure that could be used to build another image.

I have moved from a “take it or leave it” judgement of an image as a whole to a sense of “parting out” a picture to harvest the good parts. That is so much easier now than it ever was in the past. The tools are there, it is a matter of adjusting the mindset.

Post processing

In today’s world, post processing is where a lot of the magic happens. Photoshop and Lightroom and some of the other editing programs have developed marvelous feature sets. They can handle large files and 16 bit depth and work comfortably in good image spaces like ProPhotoRGB, Photoshop is the choice (IMHO) for heavy duty pixel pushing.

It is almost (not quite) true that is you can think it, you can do it. The tools are not perfect, but they are so good that, for the most part, they stay out of the way and let us create fluently with them.

A lot of us have come to believe that a picture does not become a picture until we have spent some serious time in post processing. There is no reason anymore to be limited to what we originally captured, unless it turned out to be exactly what we want.

Vision

We artists are no longer “stuck” with what we captured at the moment we pressed the shutter. We have huge latitude for changing the look, the content, the color, and the whole feeling of the image.

Some people are threatened by this, but I see it as an opportunity to realize my vision. There are few excuses any more. Photography is very different from painting, but we have one new similarity: if we can think it we can create it.

Emotion

To bring you a good image, I have to show not only what I saw but how I felt about it. Revealing the emotion behind it is easier now. Because we do not have to take the original bits of the image as fixed and unchangeable, we can add or subtract as necessary to achieve the effect we desire.

This can be a very freeing and empowering realization. Those of us who have done photography for a long time have to re-learn how to approach image making. We have to give ourselves permission to do any amount of modification, even to the point of completely creating a new work out of raw material from others. But it gives us a medium for expressing ourselves more fully.

This image

The image with this article is an example. That is not what the original scene looked like. No in-camera technique could have given the resulting image. A lot of Photoshop time was spent in blurring the image except for the evergreens. It is not what I saw when I was there. I did not even envision this at the time. I spent time thinking about surreal variations and eventually visualized this.

Dishonest?

This is not dishonest. It is the same thing as a painter painting in what he likes and leaving out what he doesn’t like. The end result is art, not documentation.

Art is neither honest or dishonest. It is art. It means what the viewer takes it to mean. We are long past the time when we assume a photograph is “truth”. We should assume that every image is altered, composited, tweaked, and blended. That’s not just OK, it is healthy.