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. ๐Ÿ™‚

A Handful of Days

Heavy Snowstorm. A peak day when everything clicked.

The best images come from a handful of days. I have observed this from my own work and I have come to recognize it as a pattern. This is both comforting and frightening.

Ups and downs

Our creativity and our productivity is not linear and always increasing. It is more like the stock market: generally rising, but always fluctuating – especially lately. We can’t control our passion and interests much more than we can control the stock market.

I have heard photographers almost brag about the number of shots they take at a location and the percentage of “keepers” they get. Good for them, if that’s the way they work best. It doesn’t work for me. I do not follow metrics or rules. Quantity is not my goal.

Something has to draw me to set up and snap the shutter. I have to believe there is something there worthwhile of capturing and editing.

Beauty isn’t enough

I hate to admit the number of times I have been to a beautiful location and felt like I had to take a number of pictures. Even though I wasn’t really feeling any great draw to the scene. It’s just that I knew it was beautiful so I had to shoot some.

What do I end up with in those situations? Usually a few nice record shots of the location – and a lot of throw-aways. It is a shame to throw away nice pictures of a beautiful scene, but the reality is, there is no substance to them. They are just looking at the surface of the scene.

While I’m at it, let me vent a pet peeve. When it is known that you are a photographer, everyone around feels compelled to guide you to shots they think you should take. “You’ve got to go here and shoot this! You’ll love it!” No, actually I don’t. Maybe, occasionally, very rarely yes. But these are their visions; their beauty and meaning. It seldom aligns with my interests. So I politely shoot a few frames and thank them. Sigh. I’m better now. ๐Ÿ™‚

Don’t be discouraged

If beauty is not enough, then what is?

My friend Cole Thompson once said “I used to think that vision was what inspired a great image. Now I believe that it’s both vision and passion; something that just gets you excited and you can’t wait to work on it.” I think he hit on a great truth here.

Sometimes you have a vision of something that would make a great image. Or perhaps you are at a location where you know you could make a pleasing picture. That’s great, but if it is not touching something within you that gets you excited, it is just another pretty picture.

A few weeks ago I was at a favorite area up in the Colorado mountains, a historic old mining area up at timberline. I love the location and the sights there and I have shot many images here that I like a lot. This time, nothing. Oh I shot, of course, I was there. But nothing was inspiring me. The images were technically OK, but not exciting me. So far I have not pulled any of them for a portfolio or collection.

This can be discouraging. I feel like a failure for not being able to “make” a great image in such a location. But if I’m not feeling inspired, the rest is just mechanical image gathering. That was not one of the high value days.

When we’re “on”

But then there are those times when we do feel that passion. Those times it seems we can’t turn around for being called to shoot something. Everywhere we look it seems we can make an interesting image.

What’s the difference? A lot of it is how we feel about the subject or area or theme that day. Or maybe how we feel about our self. When everything resonates with us it just clicks. Everything works. At those times we get a high percentage of images we like. And more that we are drawn to and only realize later why and they become even more special.

These times are is like Cole said – I can’t wait to shoot and I can’t wait to work up the images to see what I will get. I’m loving it. Things are flowing and I’m in the “zone”. Images seem to be competing for my attention. I can’t shoot fast enough. Those peak days make it all worthwhile. Adrian has a very good description of the sensation here.

It’s not work for hire

Let me point out I am talking about the fine art images I take for my artistic expression. These only have to satisfy me.

If I were doing a commercial shoot for a client, I would have to produce good results at the scheduled time, regardless of how I was feeling about it. Luckily for me, this is not the situation I am in.

I do not worry about good, consistent, professional results. I want to seek those peak times where I can produce special things. That is what drives me.

Embrace those days

Let me suggest, to both you and to me, that rather than getting discouraged that we aren’t always at a peak, instead joyfully embrace those exciting times when everything comes together. That special handful of days. It is a game of quality, not quantity.

Sure, it can be disappointing when we have a great opportunity and we come away empty. Just accept that it was not the right time for you to be there. Another day it may be different.

Trust your intuition. That is your guide to creativity. Listen to what it is telling you. It may tell you something completely different from what your logical mind says. If you are trying to make art, logic will probably not get you there. Producing a few great images is much better than a huge stack of mediocre ones.

Am I A Failure?

Dead tree in snow. Bent, broken, but still trying to stand.

It’s the end of a calendar year. For most of us, it is a time of reflection. Are you having doubts and insecurity about your art and your capability? Do you, sometimes, deep down inside, fear you are a failure? I know I do. At this time of the year especially, I wonder if I am a failure.

An ongoing problem for most creatives

I have written before about failing. We all feel it. I think creatives feel it more than most.

The fact that we are creatives means we have to create. But when we show our creations to the world, we are very likely to get rejection and criticism. That hurts. It bruises our ego and makes us insecure. As creatives we have to be out doing new, fresh, interesting work that sets us apart from our peers. But we can’t always feel the inspiration or be on top of our game. When we look at other artists work or awards, it is natural to feel inadequate. A failure.

My reading tells me most artists feel this way at times. Sometimes a lot. Even the famous or well known are troubled with this doubt.

What are your metrics?

We have to be careful to select what we are measuring and how we are doing it. When we feel a failure it is usually compared to what we see other people doing, or our goals, or based on some negative feedback we get.

So one problem is who do we compare our self to? Remember, what you see on social media or magazines or gallery shows is the very best work they can do. But we compare our everyday work, or even our throw-aways, to them and feel a failure. What if you took your carefully selected portfolio of a few great images and compared those to these other people? Would you compare better? Even if you say they are better, can you justifiably say, “but mine is very good”? Don’t assume you are not up to the measure.

External metrics

And we tend to tie our sense of worth to external measures. Like money or recognition or winning contests. One problem with this is that these are things out of our control. We might work hard and market our self extensively, but still we cannot control our sales success. We may enter a lot of contests and open exhibits, but the fact that we are not picked very often is mostly dependent on circumstances we cannot know or understand. And no, saying we just need to get better doesn’t ensure success there.

Recognition is more subtle and in some ways more dangerous. What artist doesn’t want recognition? It makes us feel significant. It validates us and our work. We may seek it, even need it, but we have little control over it happening. The “best” artists are often passed over for seemingly inconsequential reasons. Personal preferences of judges or curators, biases, maybe entering subject matter that is not popular with them. Any number of reasons.

Who said you failed?

But when we are not selected for the show or contest or gallery, what do we internalize? When no one is rushing to buy our prints, what do we assume? We tell our self we are a failure. We are not good enough. No one said that. It is what we tell our self. We are our own worst critic. We rush to think the worst.

Of course, we could try to game the system. We could study the styles and opinions of the judges or gallerists and design work to match their preferences. This might get some show entries and even sales. But whose work are you doing at that point? Are you still an artist if you subvert your vision to the opinions of others?

The moment I decide to create my work first for your approval, and not because it scratches some creative itch within me, I have lost.

David duChemin, “The Soul of the Camera”

All critics have their own opinions. Many are locked in to certain positions because they have developed a reputation in that movement. Some cannot rise above their training. A few are just narrow minded. A lot just may not like our style of art. I’m not saying it is useless to listen to them, just that their opinion is just that, an opinion. It is not law or given from God.

Take the failure or criticism as just an input. Think about the merits, if any, but feel free to discard the advice. Your own opinion must direct your art.

Understand your goals

Be careful of needing to seek the approval of others. They can reject your work, but they cannot judge your art. David duChemin also said, in the book cited above: “Craft can be measured; art cannot”.

The reality is, no one but you can judge your art. Our creativity is a gift from God. When we create art, we are giving back a praise and thanks to him. It is from within. The judgment of our art is our own.

Sure, we can, if we are lucky, find one or more trusted mentors who can give us good feedback. But even then, it is up to us to accept or reject their input.

Out art must scratch the particular itch within us. That is the goal that matters. We must create what we have within. This is internally driven, not dependent on the whims or opinions of other people.

Never give up

I have heard it said that if you can be talked out of your goal, you should give it up. Some disagree, but I think there is a good core of truth to it. Being an artist is particularly difficult. You must be driven and willing to follow your heart despite rejection. It was much easier to become an engineer than to become an artist. The goals were clearer and more easily attained.

I like the phrase what is the thing you can’t not do? This is your art. I think it is a good description. If we have art in us, we are almost compelled to produce it. It doesn’t matter if it is rejected. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get rich with it. This is our art. We have to do it. Other people’s opinions may hurt, but they should not knock up off course.

If I do the art that is within me crying to get out, and I’m happy with it, I am not a failure.

Despite what I may feel today.

Time Builds Perspective

Water flow, mountain ranges, abstract oil painting?

I find that a distance of time often builds a healthy perspective on my images. Sometimes, when the images are “fresh”, the experience of the capture clouds my judgment. Letting them age can build a clearer judgment of them. They can take on a new life.

Let go

I have written that we need to fall in love with our images and capture the emotions we were feeling at the time. That is true, but the experience of the moment is not sufficient to make it worthwhile. I could point to many images in my catalog that bring back great memories. Ones where I felt alive and on fire when I took them.

They will always be meaningful to me, but that does not make them great images. I have to learn to let go of my emotional attachment to them and look at them with detachment. That is the only way to begin to see if they could bring satisfaction to other people.

Be analytical

I have said that we need to balance our emotional side with our analytical side. This is one of those times. Looking at one of my images may bring back a flood of joy or suffering or pain or other feelings. But I must coldly and analytically figure out if I have brought any of that to my viewers.

Just because it was significant to me does not mean it should be to you. This may be the last picture I took of my father before he died, but that doesn’t make it meaningful to you unless it brings out something significant about the human condition.

I may have a group of shots I took in 2 feet of snow in white-out conditions where hardly anyone was dumb enough to be out. The images may be beautiful to me and bring back the experience as a pleasant memory, but what can they convey to you?

If I can’t bridge from personally important to an exciting image from your perspective, it is only a selfie.


One way to be able to see this is to use time as a distance mechanism. I have found myself instinctively doing this a lot, but it was interesting to see it discussed by Alister Benn, CaptureLandscape’s 2020 Photographer of the Year:

When I turned professional, I suddenly found the time between shooting in the ๏ฌeld and getting around to processing was extending from a matter of hours, to months, or even years. I have thousands of images I have never looked at since importing them (apart from rating and deleting any obvious weak ones.)

Alister Benn – Luminosity & Contrast

He goes on to describe how this separation helped him by allowing him to view images more objectively. They are distanced from their original meaning. How he perceives and reacts to the image right now is all that matters. Sometimes he looks through old images and “discovers” ones he was cool to at the time that he can now develop into a great image. Seen on its own without the baggage of the emotions of the shoot, it means something new. Distance builds perspective.

See them for what they are

Alister asks how, then, does he decide what images to work on? “Simply, I work the ones that speak to me.” Sitting in front of the computer days, or even months after the shoot, they look different. They have different meaning. A meaning may arise independent of the original context.

He is in a different place – literally and figuratively. He has different feelings and emotions. The images are perceived different. Some become more important. Presumably some become less important. But he is processing them from the point of view of where his head is at the time.

At the time

Interestingly, this means that there could be a kind of ebb and flow to our perceptions. At any given time our feelings will be different. We may be happy, sad, melancholy, reflective, hopeful. How we feel at the time determines how we perceive our images and how we process them.

In a recent article, I suggested an exercise to discover our natural themes: pick your “best” 100 images from your portfolio. Brainstorm descriptive terms. Group those into categories and name them. I also gave the opinion that this was not deterministic, because repeating the exercise at another time could be a little different, because you would pick different images as your “best”.

I think I was discovering the idea that even our portfolio is not a fixed set. There is not necessarily 20 or 50 or 100 images that is fixed in time that represent me. The members can change, not only as we do new work, but as we change our perspective. Time brings new points of view. Distancing our self from the emotions of when we captured the image changes how we view it. We are always growing and learning.

It’s actually exciting for me to look back through old images in my catalog. The excitement is when I have one jump out at me and I look at the way I processed it and say “what were you thinking?” Then I re-process it from a different point of view and create a new, different image.


The image here is an example of this idea. Every time I come back to it, I see something different. Sometimes I love it, sometimes not as much. It is in or out of my portfolio on any given day. The longer I live with it, the more I like it. I am tending to see more layers and ideas swirling through it. Right now I would say it is a definite “in”. It speaks to me.

Apples or Oranges

Old man pushing bicycle up hill in Italy

If you’ve taken a personality test, it probably showed you to be either rational or emotional. This may be true for most people, but you are an artist. This notion of your personality being a binary, either/or relationship probably presents a false dichotomy. It is based on built in assumptions that go back many years. People are not such a simple thing where you can label or classify them easily into rational or emotional, apples or oranges.


People have been trying to figure out human behavior, well, as long as there have been humans. There was a flurry of activity in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century time period. Two prominent psychoanalysts of the time were Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

I won’t attempt to go into their beliefs. It is too deep and depressing and actually not that useful. One outgrowth of Jung’s theories, though, that has become ingrained in our culture is a model of personality theory.

Jung postulated that there are patterns of personality common to most people. Many personality tests have been developed. You may have taken one or more of them. They can seem very insightful, but in the same way a horoscope can seem to predict events or behavior. We tend to believe what we are told from an “authority”. I do not recommend you bother with any of the tests.

Anyway, one part of Jung’s theories is that people’s personality tends to be rational or emotional.

Only choice?

What I observe is that people are complex creatures. A simple model can predict some behavior of large populations of people, but is too simple to say much about an individual. Each individual has innate tendencies, but they are also modified by past experience, beliefs, education, circumstances, age, and a host of other factors.

And we have this annoying habit of jumping around all over the map at different times as far as our behavior seems to go. Let me use myself as an example. I have a rational mind trained by decades of engineering experience. I fit that mold well at the time. But I also have become intuitive and emotional. I follow my feelings and intuition first. Rational thought is generally used to analyze my intuitive decision and justify or reject it.

Also, in another completely different dimension, I am very introverted. If we were together at a networking event there is a very good chance you wouldn’t know I was there, because I probably wouldn’t come talk to you. I’m too shy. Yet I have little trouble speaking in front of a large audience. I actually enjoy it and feel relaxed and welcome spontaneous discussion and questions. Weird. Complicated. Contradictory. But that is what people are.

Artist viewpoint

This is about artists, though. Let’s focus down on this strange group.

I believe artists have to be both rational and emotional. At least if you are a photographer.

Rationally, we have to know our tools and processes. We have to understand what we can and can’t do and how to use the technology to accomplish what we want. Using the equipment, both camera and computer, need to be second nature. No matter the actual complexity. As effortless as a painter using a brush.

The rational mind also gives us purpose and continuity. We decide where we are going, what our goals are, and how to market our self. Without a conscious focus on these things, we will drift. Our rational side helps us work out composition, framing, exposure considerations, and lighting.

But on the “soft” side, we have to understand our feelings and intentions. Why are we doing what we do? What experience are we trying to bring to our viewer? If we do not have strong feelings for our work how can we expect our viewers to? For most work, if we are not conveying strong emotions, it will fall flat.

Those of us who are naturally rational may have trouble with this. But it is possible to bend, to learn, to open up. We have to.

It’s a balance

The trick for artists is that we have to balance these two sides. Most non-artists can get away with not having to do that as much. Think of your stereotype of an accountant. Cold, objective, numbers person? Unemotional?

An artist needs balance. The rational side will decide what we are trying to do and what path we will follow to get there. It keeps us focused. Yet if we are totally rational our work will be static and dry. Precisely composed and technically perfect, but empty.

Our feelings will bring us passion and emotion, love of the image. Our viewers will sense this. They want to feel what we were feeling when we created it. But if we live totally in our feelings we will drift. We will follow every whim that tweaks our interest at the moment. We could even become one of those self-indulgent stereotyped artists whose personal life is a mess, who can’t keep focus on any goals and neglect their family and friends and even personal care.

Talking about that tendency to go too deep into the emotional side, Sean Tucker said:

Our rational minds are the foil that serves to balance those tendencies. They allow us to go deep but stay tethered to something truer and more stable than our shifting moods. They allow us to make our way far into the maze, knowing that we still have a thread to follow back into the light when we are done.

Sean Tucker, The Meaning in the Making

I love this image of the rational mind providing a safe path back when we have run off too deep into the wilderness of our feelings. We need to explore this maze, but we need to be able to get out, too.

Don’t be put in a box

Never allow yourself to be defined into a box by other people. Always surprise them, and yourself. Do the unexpected. If someone labels you as something, understand that that is just their opinion. It does not make you into anything. Other people’s expectations should not define us. You do not have to be either an apple or an orange.

Likewise, do not put yourself into a box. It limits your thinking. It artificially places bounds on what you can and can’t do. What thoughts you will allow yourself to even think. How much freedom you have to experiment.

Always do new things and try new ideas. This self-limitation is an even more serious problem, because we do not think there is anything we can do about it. Be aware of it and fight it.

When we feel trapped in one of these boxes, rather than accepting it we should ask “who put the box there” and “so what?” That is someone else’s box. If someone comes up to you on the street and draws a chalk box around you on the sidewalk and tells you you are in this box, just step out of it and keep going. Let them have their box. You don’t have to be in it.


I believe, as artists, we have to be both rational and emotional. I’m not trying to give a new personality theory. Are we exhibiting both conflicting traits at the same time or are we bouncing back and forth between them? Don’t know and don’t care. The results are all that matter to me.

It doesn’t have to be either apples or oranges. That is letting someone else define the problem. We are walking a tightrope. If we get overbalanced too far one way or the other, we will fall off into the pit. We won’t like that and won’t be doing much satisfying art there. But we have to walk the tightrope. It is part of the artist calling.

Today’s image

The image above represents this tightrope. I took a brief time to get a reasonable composition, proper exposure, depth of field, balance of forms, etc. That was mostly instinctual. But mostly, I hope you get how I feel about the guy. And I hope it makes you feel something, too, and think about him. I have my story, influenced by the range of sights and emotions at the time. I’ll let you tell your own.