Try and Fail

Experimental Image

No, I’m not saying try “to” fail. If you have been there trying to do creative work, you know that you will create a lot of failures along the way to some good work. In creative work we often do not clearly know where we are going. That leads to a lot of failed experiments and dead ends. When we try and fail, is that bad?

Attitude

Our attitude about failure will have a lot to do with our results. A reality for many of us is that, if we are not failing, we are not stretching ourselves and developing new skills or vision. As creatives we cannot play it safe. We have to be risk takers.

I love a quote from a blog by Benjamin Hardy. He was talking about Molly Bloom and said “The moment you realize you can try and fail — and that everything will be okay — then you are free to create.

This is a liberating event in our creative journey. Failure isn’t final. Failure leads to growth. When you fail, no one comes and takes away your camera or your brushes. No one even laughs at us. Realizing we can fail and go on with no consequences frees us to try without worrying much about failing.

Learn by doing

We don’t upgrade our skills and exercise our creativity just by thinking about it. We have to take action. But just taking random action will usually lead to random, unwanted results. We need a way to follow a path that will take us to desired results.

You are probably familiar with the “do it, try it, fix it” loop. It goes by different names, but the concept is pretty much the same. This is an excellent process for improving things.

The basic idea is you try something new. Then you evaluate the results, Was it a success or an improvement? Decide what, if anything, you want to keep of this experiment to incorporate into your tool set. Then, based on the evaluation, plan what to try next. That becomes the basis of the next experiment. It is important to realize this is a cycle, meaning it continually loops and repeats.

Evaluate

At the evaluation stage many experiments may be tossed out. They did not take us in the direction we want to go. It was a failure, but that does not mean we failed. We just tried something that we decided didn’t work for us.

This is part of a process. It is a deliberate plan to systematically push the limits. To do that, we will try a lot of things that don’t work out satisfactorily. The failures are expected, planned even. Not something to be ashamed of. We should be happy to know we tried. Now we are free to do another experiment in a different direction.

Freedom

Freedom is at the core of the process. We are not just trying random things and mostly being disappointed with the results and insecure with our creativity. Instead, we are following a deliberate process of improving our self and our art. And knowing we can try anything with no fear of failure is extremely liberating.

It is easy to get discouraged and think of our self as the failure. We have probably all felt like a fraud who has no right considering themself an artist. Remind yourself that we have to change and grow creatively, and to do that requires a lot of risk taking and failed experiments. Following a process like outlined above makes it a methodical plan. It help us keep in mind that the failure is not a personal failing but a necessary and expected outcome of the growth process. It can be exciting. We can risk more when the fails are not catastrophic.

The image with this article is an experiment. It is probably not what it appears to be. I will leave it to you to decide if it was a failure. I have my own evaluation.

How Do You Upgrade a Boring Photo?

Something said I shoud keep it

I recently got an email with this subject line. Really. And it was from a high profile photographer who frequents the internet. I won’t name names. It made me think, though, about boring photos. What to do with them? How to improve them? We all take boring photos on occasion. Should we upgrade them?

What to do with a boring photo?

My first reaction is to say throw them away. Or don’t take them in the first place. It seems a waste of time to spend a lot of effort working on a boring photo. It is a waste of resources in some ways to even keep them, because they are choking your catalog and disk, filling up your backups, and just creating clutter.

A little further down I talk some about when and why you might want to shoot boring photos, but for here I question your intent. If you are a regular reader of this blog you probably have more than a passing interest in taking photos. Hopefully you have progressed to the point where you seldom make bad images. At least, you know how to do better.

When I am editing a shoot on the computer – never in camera – I sometimes am almost yelling to myself “Boring! Boring! Boring!” Usually I throw almost all of that set away. Yes, I know photographers who say they keep everything, but that seems silly to me. It ascribes too much valuable to a collection of pixels that doesn’t do anything for me. Save yourself a lot of useless future work and throw it away now.

Once in a lifetime images

But what about that once in a lifetime trip or a one of a kind event? Sorry. I’ve been there, too. Maybe I was so excited that I didn’t get the camera settings right. Maybe in my haste the shutter speed was too slow and everything was blurry.

Keeping some bad photos of that special trip to Paris is fine, for your memories only. Working on a few of them to try to make them better is a good idea because they are personal to you. Never think you can show them to anyone else outside your family. And never try to enter them in a portfolio submission. Be realistic. If they are not good, they are not good. Only show your best.

The only major exception I can think of only applies if you are a photojournalist. A key shot of an important event can be perfectly acceptable and publishable even if it is flawed technically. In this case it’s the subject that is important.

I’m not being judgmental. Your mileage may vary. Set your own standards.

Why shoot boring photos?

Circling back to the idea of shooting boring photos, why did you do it in the first place? You know how to do better. Why not always try to take exceptional photos?

I’m not saying you need to interrupt the family trip and spend 3 hours “working a scene” with tripod and a selection of lenses, waiting for the right light. That would be rude unless you have a very understanding family and a flexible schedule. No, but you can apply what you know of composition and lighting quickly in most situations.

You know, the basic stuff that makes a huge difference: look for a good vantage point, try a step to the left or right to see if that improves the composition, think leading lines, contrast, pattern and repetition, foreground/background, nail the exposure. I’m sure this is familiar to you. Learn to do it fast and automatically when you need to. Applying decent workmanship to a photo when you are taking it can improve a lot of them.

I wouldn’t presume to tell you to never shoot a photo if it is boring. Doing that is your decision and there are times it is valuable to you. Just make sure it is a conscious decision. That is, don’t be surprised when you look at the photo and find it is boring. Know when you took it that it will be boring and do it anyway if it is valuable to you.

One compelling reason why I sometimes shoot boring photos is when I am experimenting. When I am trying new techniques or styles the results may not be exciting at first. I do this a lot. This is that area where I knew I was taking a chance, and if they came our boring, well, I can still evaluate the results of the technique I was trying. One way of another, I learned something. I’ll improve it next time. I wouldn’t do the experiment where I was very concerned about getting a lot of keepers.

When to keep boring photos

I freely admit I keep some boring photos. I even intentionally make some. Usually this is to use parts of them as raw material for compositing or texture or skies. Not every image needs to be great and complete in itself.

Compositing is a creative and fun exercise. It is interesting to build a new image from pieces of others. It is a new way of thinking. To do it, you need a good library of “parts”. This is challenging and needs some time to build.

Building your library is not an excuse to keep bad images, though. When you want to composite images together, each part must be strong enough to carry its weight in the resulting image. Say you want to “mine” a photo for its sky. The sky has to be large enough, the right perspective, the right lighting, exposed the same way, and sharp enough to be included with the other pieces. That is a reason to rescue a boring photo, if the part you want to use for something else is not boring.

The other reason I routinely keep them is for my memories. But I hide them. That is, I do not show them or kid myself they will ever be anything other than a boring photo.

Sometimes, rarely, I am undecided about a set of images. I may keep them and let them age. Later on, maybe weeks or even months later, I may find there was something there calling softly to me that should be explored. Usually not, and I throw them away. 🙂 The image with this article is one of those exceptions. Something told me I should keep it, although I didn’t know why. Years later I noticed the rock and fallen trees in the foreground looks like a dead horse. That was the interest that didn’t register with me consciously. I like it now.

If it comes out boring

Despite your best efforts, sometimes you find you have shot a batch of boring photos. It is a learning opportunity. Evaluate why. What were you thinking when you shot them? Is this the result you anticipated? You were excited when you took then, why did they come out boring?

This batch probably cannot be salvaged, but maybe you can avoid repeating the experience in the future.

So boring photos? Don’t do it. Learn to do better. You should seldom shoot boring images unless you have a well reasoned need to. Make your compositions and camera handling smooth and automatic so your photos will improve. Don’t give in to wishful thinking – bad photos are bad. Don’t waste too much time trying to polish them. It will be disappointing.

Seeing

Stress your perception of what you see

We take it for granted. Of course we “see” things. But seeing is a marvelously complex and personal process that warrants more thought.

Forget the mechanics

The typical way “scientists” study something like sight is to break down the details of the mechanisms involved. So they investigate the ability of the cornea and lens to focus images on the receptors at the back of the eye. On the way the optic nerves process and transmit the data. On the rather large section of the brain that processes the data into what we recognize as “seeing” something and recognizing it.

It is a very complex process. But looking at it this way is a classic “can’t see the forest for the trees.” It matters little to us what mechanisms we use to perceive images. What matters is that we do. And the process is vastly more complex than the scientific mechanisms would lead us to believe.

Perception

When we take visual stimulus into our brain it elicits different responses in different people. Sometimes, different responses in the same person at different times. This is part of the vast complexity of “seeing”.

Our perception is based on, among other things, our experience, age, education, health, environment, personality, even what we had for lunch. Because of this, what we perceive is different from anyone else in the world. Even identical twins perceive images slightly differently.

We should always keep in mind that our perception of a scene or a work of art is unique to us. When anyone tells you that you should see it a certain way or this is the interpretation of the image, walk away, quickly. They can only tell you their perception and they are giving you the message that their visualization is better and more complete than yours. Yes, there are societal norms and statistical groupings, but those only apply across large groups of people. They do not say what any of us as individuals should see or feel.

Verbalize

Have you ever tried to describe what you see or what it means to you? It is an interesting process. Speech is a very different mental transformation than visual interpretation. Some people are more verbal and some are more sensitive to images.

When we see something, it creates something in our mind. Perhaps we file it as a memory. Maybe it invokes other memories. It could create a sensory impression on us, like calm or fear or stress. An image may even bring up a song or a smell.

When we then try to express in words what we perceived it is an impossible task. We can give impressions. We may be able to paint some aspects of it in words. But we cannot create a verbal description that exactly represents the image we perceived in our mind. Words and speech are inherently linear. Information is conveyed through a sequence of symbols over time. Images are much more non-linear. We tend to “grock” the whole image before starting to isolate parts.

Poets and authors have tried for centuries to paint images with words. They have some success, but the image I get from reading them is different than the one you get. And both are different from the one the author had in his mind. It is a beautiful and fascinating process, but it is different from our visual perception.

What we experience

If it is true that we all experience something different when we see a visual image, then is it hopeless to try to analyze it? No, because despite the range of experiences, most of us share enough common experience to appreciate similar things.

We have all experienced beautiful sunsets. The experience may mean somewhat different things to each of us, but there is something built into humans that appreciates a sunset. Likewise, most people enjoy looking at portraits of people. We are wired to be interested in other people. Again, we each may see something different, but we like it.

And an image may touch something in you but completely miss the mark with me. That does not say the image is good or bad, but it creates a different response in different people. This is part of the wonderful complexity and depth of viewing images. But can we get deeper in the process?

Examine it

I said we should be afraid when people tell us what we are supposed to see in an image, but that does not mean it is wrong for us to analyze what we see. One difference between casual viewers and those who really appreciate a work of art is how deeply they examine what they see.

Most people are content to be at the “that’s pretty” or “I don’t like it” level. The art creates a response, but they do not reflect on why. To appreciate art more it is necessary to develop a “vocabulary” to express our understanding of it. I don’t mean we need to be able to write a detailed verbal analysis of it.

Art is seldom created in a vacuum. It builds on traditions, on work of other artists, on classic subjects or themes, on recognized styles or techniques. As we mature and get more familiar with a range of images we can understand a piece in context. We can examine the color pallet used, the style of representation, the tradition it aligns with, and other images we have seen of similar subjects. Then we can start to understand more deeply. We can see that this artist is kind of like this other but departs in these certain ways. It is clear that this is a new twist on something commonly done by a group of artists we have seen. All of this is just a layering of understanding to help us see the work more clearly.

Trying to be explicit about our reaction to an image forces us to examine our feelings and even beliefs more closely.

Art should elicit a response

It seems a truth to me that art should create a response in the viewer. Otherwise it is just documentary or illustration. I want my images to have an immediate and visceral effect on you. I hope it is not just a dismissive “it’s pretty” as you go on to the next image.

I will go out on a limb and state that if you don’t love my image you are viewing, I hope you hate it. It is better to me for you to react strongly one way or another rather than to be indifferent.

Do I need you to spend significant time analyzing my images in order to appreciate them? No, I cannot demand that of you. I hope you do want to contemplate them a while, but it would be foolish of me to expect everyone to view them as an artist or an art historian.

I hope something about my images grabs you, compels you to spend some time with them. As you view them I hope you are intrigued and want to figure out things about them and why you like (or don’t like) them. The process of figuring this out for yourself will help you come to a better ability to express and understand your interests and likes.

Understand your preferences

Ultimately your response to a piece of art is your personal experience. It doesn’t really matter if the artist is famous or respected, you have the right to decide for yourself if you like or dislike their work. Who knows? You might like work by an unknown like me better than a Picasso or John Paul Caponigro. 🙂

One reason there is so much art and so many artists is that it is all very personal. There is no “one size fits all”. Each of us is still at liberty to decide what we like. I recommend that it is healthy to think about what you like and prefer in art. Learn to articulate it, at least to yourself. This way you will understand your preferences better and have a firmer grasp of your interests. Then, when a well meaning friend tells you “no, you can’t like that” or “you must like this” you can gently and persuasively correct them and defend your decisions. They will be impressed. So will you.

The Paint is Never Dry

"Almost" overprocessed

I find there are 2 categories of images in my library: ones I am “done” with and ones I want to tweak each time I open the file. Furthermore, it seems the ones I want to do something to each time I see them are the ones I like best. I refer to this as the paint being never dry.

A significant advantage of digital image manipulation is that it is so easy to make changes. This can also be a problem.

Wet paint

Modern technology gives us great freedom to edit and express ourselves. It is so easy to make some changes every time we open the file. Oh, I didn’t see that little flaw. I really don’t like the relation of these tones now that I look at it again. Maybe it would have more punch if I pumped some of these colors some.

But this is a subtle trap. A trap of time, because this is a never ending treadmill of editing, and of lack of confidence. I will write about this confidence problem in the future. Basically, it has been hard to accept that, as an artist, no one can tell me what is “right” or when I am “done”. I am the only one who can decide.

Prints

I wrote once about prints being a frozen moment in time. This is one of the great things about prints. They are not changeable.

A print represents my interpretation of the image at one moment in time. It is very tempting for me to modify it a little every time I print it. But now that I do editions of prints, I have to discipline myself to create exact duplicates for each print in the edition. It would be dishonest and a disservice to the purchasers if each one was different.

Part of the process of growth is deciding that an image is “done” and is ready to be shown and purchased . And I have to be able to stand proudly and represent it as my art, that I am proud of, even if I see opportunities for improvement.

Creative vision

But my creative vision is evolving all the time. It is frustrating to be locked in to printing a series a certain way when I may see it different now. I am resolved, though, that that is the requirement. I will have to exercise my creativity on new images.

The images are my children, in a sense. But any parent finds out that after they grow up, you have to let them go. Send them on their way to be independent. I can no longer control them or manage them. Kind of the same with my images. When one is sold, the whole edition is frozen, out of my control.

Oh, but the new images, the ones that haven’t sold yet. They are free to be interpreted and re-interpreted at will. I love to do this, but I recognize the need to let the paint dry at some point.

As the artist, all my images are resources to me to use any way I wish. Even the editioned ones can be recycled by compositing, over-painting, or radical cropping. Anything that makes it into a whole new work of art. My creative vision can best be applied to new work rather than reworking old things.

Growth

I don’t believe doing a great image “uses me up”. I have to believe I have a boundless well of creativity. It is better to go out and create new work. Learn what I can from the best of what I have done and go on from there. Explore a theme and do variations. Discover new themes.

My curiosity will lead me to new subjects, new visions for old ones, new points of view. I will learn new techniques for shooting and processing.

It would be devastating to feel that my best work is already done. I would have to quit if that were the case. I feel sorry for the old rock bands who still tour. No one wants to hear their new work. They only want to hear the hits of 40 years ago. They are trapped. I couldn’t do it.

So, yes, my tendency is to want to constantly rework and tweak everything. I often see things I would change in my work. But discipline has to be applied. Most old work should be left as a memory and a signpost along the way of my journey. Apply the creativity to the new images. Let the paint dry.

A confession: even after writing all this about letting the paint dry, I went back and did some minor edits on the image with this article. This is an old image, scanned from film. The quality is not up to today’s standards. But I really like the feeling of the image and the memories it brings back of Chartres Cathedral in France. So I indulged myself in one more little tweak. Do what I say, not what I do.

Is It Interesting, Part 2

An interpretation of my feelings for Trail Ridge Road

In the first part of this I made a point I learned from a book on poetry, that if it isn’t interesting, no one will read it. It doesn’t matter how formally structured or well composed it is. More and more I am coming to believe this is true for most art, too. But how do we get from boring to interesting?

Familiarity

It is conventional wisdom that you do your best work in an area you are familiar with. I sort of believe this, but I violate it all the time. Being an explorer nature I get a lot of energy out of photographing in new areas. Things seem fresh and waiting to be discovered. I get really psyched in interesting new places.

I am getting enough experience to see the other side, too. Yes, having familiar places can help us to make more interesting images. We learn the range of possibilities. We see the variations with seasons and weather and light. Familiar subjects give us an opportunity to pick and choose. To wait for the best conditions without having to feel rushed because this is the only time we will see this location.

Once we become well acquainted with an area we can develop a more sophisticated view of it. We won’t waste our time on shots that have little hope of being good. This is a progression to shooting more interesting images.

I do not feel this is an absolute. That is, it is incorrect to take it to the extreme and sat you will only get interesting images of areas you are familiar with. But I do agree that familiarity probably makes it easier.

Recording

Most of us have a progression we go through. We start out making record shots of places we visit. Of the billions of photos taken every day most are record shots or selfies. Have you ever gotten stuck being forced to watch 2000 pictures of someone’s trip to Disney World? Just shoot me.

I call this taking pictures “of” something. We are recording the superficial. We have not formed a refined artistic opinion of the subject. This is still operating at the “oooh, pretty; I will take a picture of it” level.

If you follow this blog you probably do a much better job than average. Our record shots can be well composed and exposed. They are decent images. But mostly they are there to record an event that will trigger a memory for us. That doesn’t make them very interesting to other people.

I’m not being critical, really. We all react this way when we see a new thing that captures our interest.

Interpreting

After we get over the initial excitement of a great new location, we can start to examine what we are being drawn to. We become more aware of our feelings and perceptions. Now we can peel back some of the superficial and uncover deeper aspects of the subject.

I call this taking pictures “about” something. It reveals to our viewers a new side of the subject or our emotional reaction to it. We are giving an interpretation of what we see. These images are probably more appealing than simple record shots.

Being intimately familiar with a location or a subject does make this easier. Take trees as an example. I have aspen trees where I live. If I didn’t know them well, the first time I saw them I would get a “wow, an aspen tree” shot. After having seen thousands of them in all conditions I have a much more focused appreciation of them. There are far fewer situations where I will capture an image, because I look for certain compositions that appeal to me.

Hopefully I now make images about aspens, not just of them. Because I appreciate them more, I shoot them more selectively.

Saying something

At this point, we have figured out what attracts us about the subject. We have refined our emotional attraction to the subject to the point we know what we want to represent to viewers. Now we can bring our creativity in to allow us to synthesize an interesting image based on our vision. This is above and beyond just our emotional reaction.

To continue the aspen example, it is the difference between “I like aspen trees because” and “here is a fresh and interesting image; it happens to be of an aspen”.

Unfortunately, I have to give up the description of what makes an interesting image. I don’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary to be able to quantify it. Actually, I don’t think it is possible to do it.

Thousands of tutorials and books are out there to teach us how to become better photographers. They can help boost us from the taking pictures “of” to taking pictures “about”. We can study vast amounts of description about composition and gestalt psychology and eye movement and contrast and lighting and color harmony and art history and … All of this is extremely valuable and should be studied.

I don’t think it is possible for any of the training to give us the secret of making an interesting image. It is too complex and subjective and personal. I sincerely hope it cannot be quantified. If it is ever reduced to a formula then there will be no room left for artistic vision.

Vision

At the end, artistic vision is the secret ingredient that creates interesting images. You develop it through your training and experience and self examination. It is unique to an individual. No two of us will have the exact same vision.

People may not like your vision. It may not be popular – remember, van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime. But what emerges is your vision. Embrace it and develop it. Use it to make unique and wonderful images.

Familiarity with an area or a subject probably helps speed the process. I do not believe it is a requirement. If it were, it would be foolish for me to go to any new locations to try to make images. I do not believe that. Once we have developed our artistic vision I believe we can quickly apply it it new situations.

Example

Since I do not know how to describe the details of what happens, I will give some examples. I love the Trail Ridge Road area in Rocky Mountain National Park. I am a frequent visitor there. It resonates with me and I have refined my view of it a lot over the years.

I give 3 examples here of that progression. The first was taken many years ago. It is a picture “of” Trail Ridge Road.

Image “of” Trail Ridge Road

This next image was shot years later. I have a much different feel for Trail Ridge Road. This captures much more of my emotional reaction to it. Notice that here the road is less visible and important than the setting.

Image “about” Trail Ridge Road

Finally, the image at the head of this article is a very recent interpretation. I feel I am getting down to the essence of Trail Ridge Road and, I hope, it is interesting also.

The first time, I usually skim off the outer layer and end up with photographs that are fairly obvious. The second time, I have to look a little deeper. The images get more interesting. The third time it is even more challenging and on each subsequent occasion, the images should get stronger, but it takes more effort to get them.” – Michael Kenna