Unplug. Drop out. It sounds like strange advice in our frantic, 24×7 world. But I advocate learning to detach, to slow down and take time to reflect, think, and enjoy.

Our technology operates round the clock. We are strongly encouraged to be online all the time. One of the most common fears today is FOMO (fear of missing out). If we’re not checking Facebook or newsfeeds or our email frequently we might be left behind. We might miss a viral trend. We fear if we do not respond to a message immediately our “friends” will leave us out and just talk among themselves.

Humans don’t operate on a round the clock cycle. Our technology that brings us so much information and entertainment also robs us of some things that are very important to our mental health: thought, reflection, relaxation. The human mind has to have time to think and assimilate. To have some down time to reorganize and regroup. Some time off the continuous treadmill. Downtime is also necessary to us physically, but I’m not talking about that side of things in this blog.

Since this is nominally about photography, I will use that as an example. One significant aspect of creativity is to be receptive to what is happening around us. To learn to clear our minds and actually see. We are less than receptive when we are on social media or thinking about our schedule or an email we need to send or the project we are behind on. Contrary to what some so called productivity experts tell us, our minds don’t multi-task. It is very inefficient to switch focus between different projects. Much better is to be fully engaged in one task at a time.

Because our society is pulling us in so many directions all the time, focusing on a single thing is something we have to relearn. And we can. Try this: Take a camera and one lens, turn off your phone, clear your head, and go out in your neighborhood or town and just take pictures of things you see. Actually see them for the first time. Don’t think of what you need to do afterwards. Don’t wonder about what people are saying on Facebook right now. Those things don’t exist. It will be weird at first. But try it. Practice until you can really unplug for a while and be 100% “there” for your images.

An “advanced” exercise to try is disconnecting while you’re in the car. I like to drive (actually drive, not sit in traffic). When I’m driving I always turn off the radio and I do not text or check the phone (I certainly hope you don’t ever text while driving- it is very dangerous). At first you will go crazy with boredom, because we are used to non-stop entertainment and distraction. But you learn to be alone in your mind. You re-learn how to think, to review things, to make connections between ideas. I have come to believe that drive time is much too valuable to waste with external distractions.

Unplug. Take time alone to think, to consider ideas, to make connections between ideas, to just let your mind wander. These are what humans have always done and it is an important skill we need to fight to relearn in our high tech age. Try it. You will feel strange at first, even guilty, but I believe it will have good long term benefit for you.

Constraints are Important

Most of us would say we don’t like constraints. But I believe constraints are fundamentally necessary for art and most things.

If there were no constraints, everything would be possible. There would be little or no creativity or learning because everything is too easy. Any art form I know of relies on its constraints. Take painting: paint on a canvas is (mostly) 2 dimensional, canvases are usually rectangular, they are (somewhat) constrained in size, they don’t glow or move or talk. In addition, each particular sub-medium of painting introduces more constraints. What you can do with watercolors is different from what you can do with oil.

Or consider a cello, one of my favorite instruments. It does not have the range of a piano, it is designed to play only 1 note at a time, it is relatively slow because it requires fairly large movements of both hands to play it. But it has a wonderful mellow sound that can produce very pleasing music, when played in a way to take advantage of the constraints of a cello.

Likewise photography is a very constrained medium. It is 2 dimensional, rectangular, static (I’m not discussing video), limited in resolution and speed, depth of field is limited, and so much more. Sounds like a real pain. Why even try to use this? Because great images can be made by recognizing the constraints and using them to advantage.

Consider the image above. Taken at night it required seconds to expose well. That would possibly blur the subjects. It was especially difficult since I did not have a tripod and an 8 second hand held exposure would just be a blurred smear of light streaks. Now, I sometimes like to do things just like that, but not this time. So by bracing the camera on a park bench and pressing it down firmly, I was able to get a sharp image of everything except the airplane taking off, which is exactly what I wanted. This uses the constraints of the medium to show the passage of time, something you could not see live.

A creativity exercise I use and recommend is to limit yourself to 1 camera and one lens on a photo outing. It will seem frustrating at first, but with practice you will learn to see just as you lens sees. You will automatically recompose things to fit what you have. It is exciting and freeing and it helps your creative eye by training it to use the discipline of constraints to improve your vision.

So stop viewing constraints as a hinderance. When you push against them it is an opportunity to improve as an artist, writer, teacher, employee, manager — person.


Gesture has become an important concept to me. I was introduced to a more broad meaning of it by Jay Maisel. Jay is one of my favorite photographers to follow. I hate him for his work (it is so good) and he is an abrasive New Yorker with an outspoken opinion on everything. But I tend to agree with his opinions.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says gesture is “a movement usually of the body or limbs that expresses or emphasizes an idea, sentiment, or attitude“. Boring, but we know what that means. We see people using gestures all the time. It is instinctive to us. Jay has taught me to look for and be more aware of those gestures. It is usually a key instant, a decisive moment as Cartier-Bresson would say. Looking for moments punctuated by gestures has improved my candid people photography immensely.

But even more important to me, Jay expanded the concept. He says that almost anything can express gestures: trees, buildings, lamp posts, anything. I look at it as an implied relationship between things. That has broadened my creative vision. When I can find it, I now look for more than just an object in isolation. I look for implied relationships between it and other things in its environment.

The image with this post is a good example. I see an implied gesture between the tree and the cloud. I know, this is just silly anthropomorphism and the tree is not aware of the cloud. In a pst life I used to be an Engineer; I’m used to cold rationalism. But don’t take it away from me. Seeing the tree as being curious or longing to touch a cloud makes it deeper and alive for me. And I will pretend like it is true. Finding and expressing gestures has become part of my creative quest. The artist part of me wants to believe it is real.

A Road Less Traveled

(Apologies to Robert Frost for misrepresenting his great poem)

If you shoot from your car, I believe the way you travel affects the results you get. Following a road less traveled can be as important as where you go.

I was visiting with my friend Cole Thompson (a great black & white photographer; check out his web site and blog) and we discussed the way we like to travel and how it affects us. We agreed that freeways and main highways are something we avoid when possible.

This is something I have long held as a personal belief, but I had never really tried to express why. I’m very intuitive and I trust my instinct, even when I don’t have a conscious, rational argument for it. In trying to get deeper into my belief I see that I relate driving an interstate highway to watching TV. You are in a brain dead state. You are switched off. For the driving, you react to what’s around you, but you don’t really see anything. Even if something interesting manages to catch your attention, you are unlikely to overcome the inertia of the highway and pull off to do some photography. Your mind set is to get on down the road, keep moving, rack up the miles, get to your destination on schedule.

Smaller roads

In most of the country there is a marvelous secondary network of roads. US highways (think Route 66 ☺), State highways, even county roads are often very good ways to explore more scenic and interesting places than you encounter along the freeway. Speeds are generally slower and you go through towns. Actual little towns with cafes and gas stations and people sitting on park benches visiting. Have you been there recently?

But, this is SLOWER! Yes, and that’s a key. Slow down your pace. Take time to see new things. Don’t be in such a hurry that you hesitate to stop to explore someplace new or experiment with a photo that may (or may not) turn out interesting. If you are traveling on a smaller road it seems much easier to hit pause and take a detour.

Dalhart discovery

On a photo explore recently I was traveling back from Texas to Colorado. I took a back road out of Dalhart, just because I had never been that way. To my surprise I spent nearly 3 hours going from Dalhart to Texline, and it’s only 36 miles as the crow flies! I got caught up in the incredible beauty of this wide open high plains area on that particular cold morning with frost on everything. No regrets spending the time, even though it did put me later than I wanted getting home. I won’t remember or regret being late. I will remember this area. When you find something worthwhile, stop to explore it.

And that, to me, is what it is all about. If we call ourselves an artist we should be working our art. Our brain should be engaged and our head should be swiveling every chance we get. If we are in a semi coma on the freeway we are not following our art. Slow down, look around, take the path less traveled.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.