What Excites You?

Pictures of pictures

I believe artists are passionate people. We do our best work when we are excited about it. Have you considered what excites you? Do you seek the excitement?

Do you get excited when you are shooting?

I try to have that level of excitement. Of course, we are just human and it will not be there in full strength all the time. Like everything in life it ebbs and flows with our mood or circumstances.

I find that I have different grades of excitement about the things I shoot. It can range from “I really should shoot this; it is kind of interesting; I might can make a decent image out of it” to “Wow! I’m so excited right now I can hardly be still enough to expose a frame properly”.

I don’t consider anywhere along that continuum to be “wrong”. But the high excitement side is definitely more fun and easier to get, well, excited about.

Not all scenes are great

What makes the difference in the excitement level? One is probably the inherent quality of the scene or subject. When I say inherent quality this is a subjective measure, as is almost everything in art. It can only be evaluated by you for you. I think it is a function of the scene itself and how it interacts with our values and our mood. Sometimes we just don’t feel it, even though the artist right next to you thinks it is spectacular.

It may not be what you wanted or hoped for, but it is what it is. Work with it.

Another difference is our perception of the scene. The reality is that most of us are not surrounded by world-class, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities everyday. Most of what we see is rather average. An average scene offers the opportunity to exercise our creativity by making it interesting. We have to work hard to make something of it. This is valuable exercise. It is not a bad thing.

As a matter of fact I will assert that the rare, unique, wonderful scene may not be that much of a creative opportunity. If the scene is amazing in itself, we may only have to record it. Yes, it lets us use the technical and compositional skills we have spent a long time developing to capture it well, but we actually don’t have to do much. Just don’t screw it up. It can be exciting to know we captured a rare and great moment, but it may leave us a little unsatisfied because we did not contribute much to it.

Dealing with the average

Mostly we encounter more mundane, average, day-to-day scenes. How can we build or keep our excitement going when surrounded by ordinary?

I have stated before that I like to go out empty and let myself be drawn to subjects. Still, just in wandering around randomly I mostly encounter pretty average things. If I think there is something there, the exercise is to be able to make it above average. Can I see it differently? Is there a better angle or lens choice that would bring it out to advantage? Does it need to be simplified? Or juxtaposed with another element to make a different statement? Does it need different light or even a different season?

My friend Cole Thompson says “I believe the real test of creating isn’t cherry-picking great images from great locations, but rather to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To be able to find something remarkable in my everyday surroundings.” Very wise.

When I am able to take an ordinary subject that I am drawn to and make it into something special it builds excitement in me. It gets my energy flowing. I become more conscious of other things around me and more empowered to go after them. It is a reinforcing cycle. It helps me see other things as well.

Ideas to being back excitement

Working with the ordinary is one process that is very important to get me excited. Each of us is different. We have different values and expectations and points of view. So there is no simple list of “hacks” that will work for everyone. But let me give some suggestions to try:

  • Set yourself projects to work on. The thought process of concentrating on a fixed subject causes us to focus and think different. It can be energizing.
  • Travel. A change of scenery can help to change our perspective.
  • Shoot with someone. The interactions and discussions can be stimulating and refreshing.
  • Take on a new style or technique. It doesn’t have to be a permanent change, just something to shake up the norm.
  • Make it look strange or absurd. It helps you see it fresh. This is the Russian Formalism technique called “ostranenie”. It is interesting. More on this another time.
  • Go to a museum. Not just a photography museum. Studying works by masters can never hurt.
  • Look at other work. Read blogs and other artist’s web sites. Get books of art. Get more familiar with the way other artists see the world. Do not copy them, but feel free to steal. 🙂
  • Find what gives you joy. A sense of joy is an important driver for excitement. Know what works for you.
  • Get out and do it. Really. Just making yourself do it can lift you from a funk and get you going.

Shoot for yourself

One of the most powerful motivators is reserved for a select few.

Do you consider yourself a “fine artist”? One of the definitions of that is that we create work for ourselves. If you are in the enviable position of creating art to please yourself, take maximum advantage of it. Follow your instincts. Don’t worry about what you see other artists doing.

When you get excited about a subject or a location or a technique follow your feelings. Work it to see what develops. It may be something entirely new that you become extremely excited about and that changes you. Or it may end up not being interesting to you and abandoned. Either way, you followed your artistic instinct. This builds excitement.

You don’t get a hit every time your swing, but it is important to keep swinging.

Is it work?

What is the difference between work and art? Maybe nothing. Please don’t read this blog as saying we should sit around waiting for the muse to visit us. Or to think you shouldn’t go out today because you just don’t feel any excitement.

Most of the things I describe or suggest are active. Based on taking positive steps toward creating something. We have to work at it. Action leads to feeling.

So whatever inspires you and creates excitement for you, don’t just think about it. Get out of the chair or up from the couch and go do something about it.

Finally, here are some quotes to reinforce that concept:

Motivation exists, but it has to find you working. – Pablo Picasso

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week. – Joel Grimes

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning. – Chuck Close

Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. – John Wesley


Eerie headstones

As an artist, is reality our goal? Should we focus on depicting reality perfectly? Is art just a representation of reality, or is it something more?

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination. – John Lennon

Can a great image be “real”?

To be honest, no. A 2 dimensional image expressed using pigments or pixels is not the same as a real scene. But you say, “yes, but the image ‘looks just like’ the original”. Actually, in most cases it looks either the way the artist remembered it or how they wanted it to look or how they wanted you to think of it looking.

All photographs must be processed a lot to be presentable. Even Ansel Adam’s famous prints are based on many hours of darkroom work for each one. And for Ansel or any of us, the prints produced of an image change over time. So either reality changes with time or art is not reality. That is, as the artist’s vision and taste changes, the processing of an image changes to reflect it. This represents the artist’s interpretation, not reality.

Is reality the goal?

I don’t know of any genre of art where reality is the actual goal. Let’s say you are shooting images of birds for a birding book. Is reality the goal? I would say no, you want images that allow the reader to see the important characteristics of the bird. If that means distracting elements must be removed or colors enhanced or “corrected”, then these will be done for the sake of clear communication.

The beautiful landscape print you bought to hang on your wall because it reminds you of a favorite place is not “reality”. Colors are enhanced, contrast is boosted to make it more dramatic, even mountains may be “stretched” some to make them more pronounced. None of this makes it a fake. It resonates with you as the way you remember it.

This article will use a lot of quotes. I want to make the point that this idea is not just my ravings.

“My goal as an artist is not to try and replicate reality , but to cross into the world of fantasy. This is a much easier sell because reality is what we see every day. The world of fantasy is a way of escape.” Joel Grimes

“Fine art photography should be an escape from reality.”  Joel Grimes

“A photograph is not reality, it is at best, a representation or illusion of reality.” Joel Grimes

One reason Joel Grimes has credibility with me on this topic is because he is color blind. Yes, a color blind photographer. And he is famous and well respected. Rather than considering it a handicap he uses his color blindness to further his artistic vision. He is obviously not trying to duplicate reality when he does not even see the same reality most of us do.

I’m not suggesting we all try to copy Joel Grimes’ work. I will not. It is very good, but it is not me. My hope is that you will see that reality can be a false goal.

Did it really look like that?

I get asked this a lot and I often struggle to answer. The obvious answer is “no, of course not”. But I have to try to read the questioner to try to determine what they mean by the question. Is the questioner just naive because they do not understand the process of art? Do they really believe that the picture should look like the reality? Are they wistfully hoping there is a place that really looks like that? Or are they trying to “trap” me into admitting that I “faked” the image?

Usually I reply with a fairly generic answer like “that’s the way I saw it.” When the question is asked like this it is probably not the time to get into a long discussion of art vs. reality.

But you probably understand that reality is not my goal and that all images are heavily processed. Never accept a picture as truth.


What, then, is the purpose of an image? In a way this is another way of asking what is real. I will go out on a limb and say that the artist helps bring reality to an image by their interpretation. The great Australian photographer Tony Hewitt says to “Look at the everyday ‘real’ in an entirely different way.” And he does this very successfully. His images are “of” real scenes, but they don’t look like what you would have seen standing there with him. They are more.

A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing. Geoffrey James

It is my responsibility as an artist to try to make you feel what I felt about the subject. If you see an image that is just a factual portrayal of a scene it will not hold your interest for long. But if I can give you an emotional connection it will have lasting power.


Let me introduce the concept of resonance. In physics it is sound emitted from an object based on its vibration. That’s precise, but cold.

Think of a bell. Strike it and it rings with a certain sound and it continues ringing for seconds. That is the bell’s response to the energy you gave it with the strike.

In an artistic sense, I see resonance as the thought or feeling or memory invoked by a piece of art. Something about the work “resonates” with you – it, in effect, makes you vibrate or tingle. This resonance can happen when I am able to convey to you the emotion I felt when I discovered this scene and captured it.

A resonance like this goes beyond the surface image. You feel a connection or it produces an emotion in you that makes you keep coming back to look at it. This is what I seek to do.

This resonance is different than just “reality”. It is more important than the reality. What you feel is what you will remember. This is the significance of the image.


So, perhaps the “reality” of an image is the way it made you feel. This was your subjective reaction to what the artist gave you. It is your interpretation, your internal processing that lets you buy in to it and embrace it. It becomes reality through your personal response.

Do not confuse what is visible with what is real: despite a degree of overlap, they are not the same thing. What’s real about an expressive image is never its objectivity, but how it is subjectively perceived.  – Guy Tal

It may be a misconception to talk about art as “real” or not. Art cannot, of itself, be reality. The reality is what you create for yourself based on your emotional reaction to the work that the artist put his effort into.

So, the “Real World”, what is it? Where is it? I believe that for art, the “real world” is our personal reaction to the piece. Was the artist successful in making you feel what he felt? Did you feel something completely different but meaningful to you? If you didn’t feel anything, you won’t remember it or have any attachment to it. We create our own artistic reality through our personal reaction.

I believe it is my duty as an artist to help you feel my emotional connection to an image. If I can do that the image will become reality to you in a whole new way. If I cannot do that, I have failed and the image will be unimportant to you.

So in a sense, reality is my goal. But it is not the reality of a faithful rendering of what was in front of the camera. It is the reality of trying to have you share my emotional reaction to the scene, and having you reawaken this feeling whenever you see the picture.

Seeing Better

Impression of ship passing in the night

Beginning a new year might be a good time to think about seeing better. Many of us have been mostly looking at the interior walls of our homes for a long time. If anything, this leads us to see worse. Seeing better is not just our visual acuity, I refer to our ability to perceive, to notice, to be aware of what is around us.


When we think of seeing better we naturally think about the sharpness of our vision. Technically, this is called acuity. When we go to the optometrist and read the letters on the wall we will hear some number pair, like, say 20/30. This means we can see at 20 feet what most people can see at 30 feet. We would like, of course, to hear that we have 20/20 (normal) or even 20/10 (extra sharp) vision.

The doctor will be glad to prescribe corrective lenses or contacts to bring our acuity up to par. There are also other visual conditions like glaucoma or astigmatism that need attention. It is good to visit a vision specialist regularly.

The ability to see well is very important, as an artist and a viewer and to lead a rewarding life. My art is a visual medium. If I cannot see to make it or appreciate it I am greatly handicapped.


But it is not simply a matter of getting good glasses. Most people see, but don’t see. That is, they are able to image the world around them very well, but they do not think about or perceive what they see. This is head skill, not a visual ability.

I hope I am being too critical. I hope you do not have this problem and you really pay attention to the world around you. If you are a regular reader of this blog perhaps this is so. What I observe of the people around me tells me I am not wrong, though.

Put away your phone for a few minutes – I’ve tried it; a few minutes without it is not fatal – observe people around you. Are they glued to their mobile device? Are they in a daze, oblivious to what is around them? How many people do you see with their heads swiveling, really observing the people and sights around them? What about you?

Before you can perceive, you have to see. Seeing is not perceiving, but it is a necessary step. To actually see you have to detach from the attention grabbing time wasters that have mastery of us. When we get to the point of taking the time to intentionally see, we can start to learn to perceive.

Perceiving is an attitude. It is a skill we develop with time and discipline.

Observation skills

Have you watched a good Sherlock Holmes? I recommend the most recent series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. IMHO it is the best version ever done.

Anyway, what sets Holmes apart from other people, other than being a self-described “high functioning sociopath”? It is his observation skill. He can take a quick glance at someone and describe their story in detail. He picks up on the clues and tiny details that everyone else overlooks.

Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a fictional character. But he serves to show a contrast to the way most of us go through the world. Most of us do not take the time and effort to look closely and really see things. To pick up on the details, the story.

A large part of perception is attitude and training. It is a mental skill. I believe any of us can learn to perceive more of the world around us if we work at it. It takes conscious effort and awareness. Some people are more naturally attuned to it than others, but it is not impossible for anyone.

See from inside

Unless you just want to take “pretty pictures”, you cannot make a very interesting image unless you have something to say. I’m not dismissing beauty, I’m just saying even a beautiful scene doesn’t have much staying power unless we can see through the artist’s eyes. Unless he can make us see what he felt about it.

We have to find something inside of us to connect to so we can interpret it and express our feelings to the viewer. To connect to something, we have to truly see the subject. Not just forming the image on our retina but really taking it in and letting it affect us. This is perception. Jonathan Swift said “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others”. It may be lonely and nobody else may “get it”, but an artist is compelled to share his vision.

Good or bad, beautiful or ugly, grand or tiny, we have to be able to have an emotional reaction to the subject to give our reaction to the viewer. Any worthwhile image is not just a record of what was there. It is our interpretation of it. You can’t really interpret unless you have taken it in, processed it, examined it, contemplated it, thought about it. All enough to be able to give it meaning.

I’m not saying you have to develop a deep relationship with the subject, or write an essay about your feelings, or spend weeks visiting it. Any of these things might help, but none are necessary. An artist should build a broad base of experience and interests. That allows a quicker perception and reaction to encountered subjects.

I find some excellent images driving down the road. It is probably something I can react to quickly because I have thought about the type of subject a lot. Also, I give myself permission to stop and get out and examine it. To set up and frame it give my best interpretation of it. Do you ever stop when you are driving and just look at things?


Beethoven? I mention him because he is an inspiration and example to me. Toward the end of his life he became deaf, yet he created what some consider his greatest masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony. He never heard a note of it, except in his mind. What he was able to perceive in the silence of his mind was greater than what anyone else could hear.

That, to me, is true perception. He could hear without hearing. We should learn to see without seeing. It is in our minds, our experiences, our feelings. We can create experience at a deeper level than just pixels. But first, we have to be able to operate on that deeper level. That takes time and self-discipline. We have to train ourselves to perceive.

Seeing better is a responsibility of the artist. If we do not perceive and feel, how can we bring something meaningful to our viewers? They want more than just a record of something. We have to see better so we can bring more to them.