Going too far

Northern Colorado Front Range. Heavily processed from original.

We often hear this as a challenge or criticism. “You’re going too far” Meaning, back off. But as an artist, I don’t think I go far enough. I need to push myself to be always going too far. That is how we explore the limits

Too timid

I have written about this before, but it is so important I think it deserves a refresh. In a previous article I encouraged us to go “far enough“. But I think now this is too timid an attitude. We should push “it”, whatever it is, too far.

I know I tend to have too much focus on the actual captured data of the file and what the scene really looked like. Time helps. I tend now to wait to process images until they have aged enough to let me distance myself from the experience of being there.

But still, I tend to hold back and stay too true to the original. I am learning to push beyond to create something else.

As a bonus, this short video by Matt Kloskowski might encourage you to think about editing in new ways. He does not talk much about going too far, but he shows an unconventional approach. The kind of thing I am talking about when I recommend pushing beyond the captured data.

Push it

I know I’ve said it before, but I find truth in something John Paul Caponigro said “You don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far.”

This is something I need to take to heart. The engineer in me tends to make the image look like the literal, original scene. That ends up creating record shots. Sometimes all I need is a record shot, but that is rare. I have to push it more to make the image into art. Into something interesting that goes beyond the original.

For example, I live in Colorado. If I shoot a beautiful scene in the mountains, so what? Anyone could have stopped there that day and taken the same picture with their cell phone. What sets mine apart? It often will be something more than just the literal scene. It has to rely on my interpretation of what I saw.

Be decisively indecisive

So when I suggest going too far, I am not speaking about relationships or physical safety, but my interpretation of the image. I am discovering more and more with time that images can take a great deal of manipulation.

A raw file from a good camera contains a tremendous amount of data that can be exploited. Editing in Lightroom is completely non-destructive. We can re-edit at will with absolutely no loss. Likewise, although Photoshop is inherently destructive, there are processing techniques that can be used to manipulate images with no damage and with the ability to re-edit in the future. I strongly advise learning and adopting these techniques.

Yes, I know of good artists who can say they know exactly what they want to do with an image and it is OK to do destructive edits, because they will never change their mind in the future. That is not me. Every time I revisit an image I usually tweak it some. Sometimes a lot.

Does that mean I am indecisive? Perhaps. I wouldn’t argue the point. I look at it as an evolving artistic judgment. What I see and feel in an image can change over time. So I consciously decide to use techniques to give me the maximum flexibility to change my mind later. Decisively indecisive.

Don’t worry about breaking it

Let me use Lightroom (“Classic”, because I consider it the only real Lightroom) as an example. I said that all editing in Lightroom is non-destructive. Do you really understand that?

Lightroom uses a marvelous design that always preserves the original data unchanged and keeps all edits as a separate set of processing instructions. Don’t believe me? Here is a portion of actual data from the XMP sidecar file of an image I edited today:

crs:WhiteBalance=”As Shot”
crs:Temperature=”5650″
crs:Tint=”-14″
crs:Exposure2012=”+0.50″
crs:Contrast2012=”+6″
crs:Highlights2012=”+19″
crs:Shadows2012=”0″
crs:Whites2012=”0″
crs:Blacks2012=”-12″
crs:Texture=”0″
crs:Clarity2012=”+20″
crs:Dehaze=”0″
crs:Vibrance=”+5″
crs:Saturation=”0″

If you are familiar with Lightroom, you should recognize these adjustments as the contents of the Basic adjustment panel. I’m not sure what the “2012” suffix means on them, but probably a process version. Anyway, this is literal data copied from the XMP file. It is an industry standard format called XML markup. It is just text. If I change a slider, the text value is changed. These text values are read and re-applied when I open the file in Lightroom. The original pixel data is never altered. You cannot destroy the image by editing it in Lightroom.

What are the limits?

There are limits, but not absolutes. If we boost the exposure too much, at some point we will introduce an unacceptable amount of noise. If we sharpen too much we will introduce artifacts around edges. We can make such a high contrast image that it cannot reproduce properly on screen or in print. We can increase saturation to the point that it is out of gamut for the screen or print.

Most of these are sort of a judgment call by the artist of what the acceptable limit is for the intended application.

But these are just physical limits of what we can do with the tools. The bigger problem, at least for me, is what am I willing to do?

It’s our mindset we need to break

I am the one who usually limits the extents of the changes I will make. I am still too much of a left-brained engineer who is constrained by my memory of what the scene actually looked like.

One way I can tell this is happening is that it is common for me to push an image further every time I revisit it. Upon seeing it again, I think,”that is nice, but I can go further”. And I do. Sometimes the image turns into something different from what I shot. I love it when that happens.

But it is a constant struggle to give myself permission to do it. I am afraid of going too far.

Knowing how the tools work and how to non-destructively edit, I should feel free to slam adjustments to the limits just to see what happens. Then back off to the “right” value for the image. I find that the “right” value tends to be higher if I have over-corrected than it is if I come up from the original. I think this is what Mr. Caponigro means when he says “You don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far.”

Give yourself the freedom to go too far, than back off as necessary. I will try to do the same.

Not for everyone

I know this advice is not for everyone. I still see photographers who say they pride themselves in getting the image “right” in camera and doing minimal editing. That’s their style and their values, so good for them. But if “right” means the closest match possible to the real scene, that seems very limiting. I think we have progressed well beyond the stage of assuming that a photography must be a true representation of reality.

At least, that is my assumption. I operate from the point of view that I am as free to creatively imagine the contents of my frame as a painter is to create on a blank canvas. Even plein air painters take a lot of liberties with what they choose to include or exclude, what colors to use, etc. Some even use the plein air session as a sketch. Later in the studio they refine and complete it according to their interpretation.

That is basically what I do. Some images require more interpretation than others, and my tools allow more freedom for manipulation. One reason I think I could never paint is there is no “undo” with paint. 🙂

Go too far

So I am discovering that what works for me is to consciously push my adjustments beyond what I first think is right. Yes, it may create a bizarre effect and I have to back it off. But I often find that the new setting I back it off to is more extreme than I thought was correct originally. Seeing the extreme helped me understand a new way to view the image.

If you do it right, you can’t damage the image. Give yourself permission to experiment.

Example

The image with this article is an example. This is the mountains and plains about 5 miles from my home. It seems like every time I go back to the image, I need to tweak it a little. And I always push it a little further. I do not back off of what I already did. I think I am nearly to “far enough”.

Learning to See

A scene found walking through an airport

Learning to see is something we all need to constantly practice. Seeing is actually a learned process. Yes, we can image scenes on our retina, but that is not what I mean. With practice we can learn to see more of what is around us, to be more aware and mindful.

We learn to not see

Children seem filled with a sense of wonder at everything around them. It all seems exciting and amazing. But somewhere along the path to becoming an adult, this excitement is squeezed out of us.

In school our peers pressure us to look down on everything with disdain. Being excited about things is “not cool”. In our work life we have to learn to develop a single-minded focus on the tasks of the job. Non-essentials get pushed away. We may get married and have a family. This is great, but it focuses us even more on the day-to-day activities we have to do to earn a living and keep the household going.

Eventually we no longer really see anything except the immediate problem that seems important. To some extent, we have to do this. It is a survival technique. But it takes away so much potential joy and beauty from our life.

It takes an effort to start to see

Are you at a point in your life now where you realize there is more going on around you that you are not perceiving? You look at other people’s art and become aware that it is not just about great iconic locations. They seem able to find beauty and interest in all kinds of places. They are attuned to their surroundings and open to more.

Practice seeing. No, really. That sounds silly, but maybe it is time to re-learn how to see. That vision that came so easily and naturally when we were a child can be regained to a great extent.

You know that it takes practice to develop any skill. Why does it seem strange to practice seeing? Isn’t seeing a critical first step in making art?

Does it seem unlikely that seeing is something that can be learned? We just do it. I believe it is a skill that can be improved. The fact that we used to do it easily but forget how over time means we have the inherent ability to see better. Sharpening that skill can make a huge improvement in our art.

Overcome lazy habits

As I mentioned before, we tend to narrow our circle of interest as we “grow up”. Part of this is a coping skill, but some of it is just laziness. We’ve seen it all. We’re bored with it. It is all the same, so why pay attention?

You would be surprised at the interest all around if you were just looking. Seeing more is rewarding in itself. It brings more interest to our life.

Like developing most new habits, a key first step is awareness. When you are out walking or driving or riding your bike, make a habit of reminding yourself to look around. Changing any habit takes time and you will need to remind yourself over and over to do it.

Pay more attention to where you are and what is going on. Even if you do not improve your art, improving your situational awareness will keep you safer.

Try to become more curious about what is around. Where does that road go? Those tree branches make an interesting shape. I’ve never noticed that this little stream is quite lovely at certain times. Look at the great reflections in that glass.

Curiosity is the magnet that helps pull us to look more. It is also a trait that can be developed. If you re-awaken your curiosity you will find it almost impossible to keep from seeing more interesting things around you.

Becoming mindful

I almost hesitate to say we need to become more mindful. The concept is great and true and is a good description of what we need to be able to see more. The problem is that too many people go overboard with it. It gets all wrapped up in transcendental meditation and eastern religious practices. You do not have to be a yogi to be mindful.

As the link above states, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing”. That is harder than it sounds. Consequently, many say “we don’t want to spend time to learn what this means. Give us a quick hack that will let us do it in 10 minutes”. So it becomes a program someone is selling. Or a mystical incantation. Or something you wedge into a daily meditation regime.

Instead of all that, just pick out a certain time and place and practice for a little while clearing your head of the normal clutter that vies for our attention. When you go out for a walk, whether or not you bring your camera, forget about the project that is due tomorrow or tonight’s game, or what you will fix for dinner – and especially Facebook or your personal social media addiction. Instead, try to be fully aware of just the moment. Where you are, what you feel, what sensations you are experiencing. Look around with curiosity. Try to see things you have never seen before.

It may be hard or even frustrating at first. Push on. It gets easier.

The more you see

When you really get in to it, you will find this exercise relaxing. Getting out of the normal grind for a few minutes is refreshing. It is a vacation for your head. And you start to see more things. Interesting things you never noticed before. Even right there in your neighborhood. You will probably find the experience to be invigorating and something you want more of.

As a matter of fact, it is a feedback process. The more you begin to see, the more you see, the more you like to see, the more you want to see. Each outing, it becomes easier to see new things. You find it easier to focus you attention on the external things in your environment. Things that you used to pass by with no recognition start to become very interesting in themselves. It is a mental game that sparks new interest and awareness. You come back from an outing refreshed instead of tired.

Practice

Start slow. You will “fail” a lot at first. That’s OK. As long as you keep trying, you will get there. Just commit to doing it.

Don’t think you have to go out for 3 hours with a totally clear head, completely open to new sights and sounds. Maybe someday, but don’t frustrate yourself with setting a goal like that initially. Start with 10 minutes. Just walk around and note a couple of things you haven’t seen or haven’t paid much attention to. Then celebrate by rewarding your self with a coffee – or your preferred beverage or treat.

It is a cause for celebrating. It is a step toward re-awakening your awareness of the world around you. Dare I say, you are becoming “mindful”?

Today’s image

The image with this article is an example of what I suggest for your exercise. I was stuck in the Orlando airport. Everything was shutdown temporarily by a thunderstorm. I got bored reading and walked around to stretch a little.

Then I noticed the trains coming in from the terminal. This one was mostly empty because no flights were going. It was beautiful. I shot several images and this one captured the spirit of the occasion.It brings me joy. I am glad I noticed it.

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. 🙂

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.

Reflecting

On mountain top looking toward setting sun. Reflecting on life?

At the beginning of a new year, I guess it is natural to reflect back on the one that just ended. To remember our successes and analyze our failures. Reflecting on the past puts us in touch with the flow of time.

A calendar page

Most of us have just “put up a new calendar” – does anyone (except my wife) still use paper calendars? Regardless, the metaphor holds. It is a new year, untracked, fresh with possibility.

For some reason, the act of starting a new year causes us to spend a little time reflecting on the year that has just ended. This can be painful, because most of us did not accomplish all our goals or live up to our dreams. But it is also useful and necessary.

The process of considering what we wanted to accomplish in the past year and making plans for the coming year is very useful. It helps focus our minds on our goals. Without it, we would tend to drift along year to year never going anywhere. Because the reality is, to accomplish our goals requires intense focus and detailed plans to get there.

Limited resource

Time is a reality none of us can escape. We travel along in the stream of time and have no choice but to flow with it. The amount of time we have is unknown, but is ultimately limited.

Let’s put some hypothetical numbers to it. There are 8760 hours in a year (ignoring leap years and leap seconds 🙂 ). Sleeping 8 hours a day, as you should, takes away 2920 hours a year. I assume here you work a “normal” job to support your art habit. So that is 8 hours a day for 50 weeks a year, totalling 2000 hours.

What’s left is 3840 hours, But wait. We can’t use all that. This is ALL the time left over. There is cooking and cleaning and home repair and mowing the yard and picking up the kids and family activities and being with friends and watching TV and … For most people, all of this is used up each year. Our lives are busy and we can’t figure out where the time goes.

But let’s say you are very committed and disciplined and you save 1000 hours a year for creating, producing, and marketing your art. That doesn’t sound like much, but that is 1/2 of a full time job – basically 4 hours a day 5 days a week devoted to your art. Do you set that much aside for something so important to you?

The point is that our time is a limited resource. Every moment we can set aside to spend on our art is precious. We should be disciplined and mindful of what we do. Isn’t this more important to you than following your favorite TV show?

The dream life

Are you living your dream life? Did you know that many people envy you?

People in general look at artists through a romantic lens. It is a life that seems desirable to them, as they go though their day-to-day lives, all the same, no time to do what they think they want to do. The artist seems to have a life of creativity and independence.

Now, you know that is a skewed view. You know that the artistic life is difficult. We deal with rejection all the time. Disappointment is routine. And yet we must push on and rely on our creativity driven by our will power to carry us through. We have to be tough and resilient.

But use this year end time to step back and see it from a larger perspective. Maybe they’re right. Unlike most people, we get to use our creativity. We create things that other people appreciate and probably can’t do. Most people don’t think they are creative and they envy other people who are openly and consistently artistic. To them, what we do is almost magic and must be highly rewarding.

They are right. It is rewarding. We love to exercise and display our creativity. While most people are too afraid or timid to do it, we proclaim our self as an artist. Isn’t that a dream life? Try to look at it the way non-artists do.

New Year’s Resolutions

So here we are now at the start of a new year and it is traditional to make New Year’s Resolutions. I would say, don’t bother. They are ineffective. A resolution is just a suggestion, really a wish. You are just telling yourself “I wish I would do this, but I don’t really hold myself responsible to do it”. Most are totally broken and discarded within a month.

Either commit as a definite goal with plans and determination to make it happen, or don’t bother. Being an artist is hard. You won’t get there by just wishing it would happen. We have to believe in our self and push through the hard times.

How are you going to direct your creativity this year?

Looking back, what have you done well this past year that needs to be built on? What did not work and needs to be changed? Many dream of doing the things you do. Few follow through and actually believe in themselves enough to do it. There is an old saying “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are probably right.” What do you think?

Those 1000 or so hours we have to devote to our art are precious and valuable. Do you hunger enough to do it? Do you believe you have a gift that needs to be used? Are you willing to put in the hard work? To deal with the rejection and criticism? Are you willing to persevere when people tell you you aren’t good enough?

Don’t have a New Year’s Resolution. Instead be resolute. Nothing but yourself and your fears and doubts can keep you from using your talent and living the artistic life.

Believe in the worth of your talent. Make a plan and believe in yourself. Don’t look back.

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.