Subjects Choose You

red truck in red barn

Subjects choose you. The Canadian photographer Geoffrey James said this. It has stuck with me because I see it happening in my work. Despite my intent to work a certain project I often find myself taken by subjects I did not anticipate.


Most of us have been there. We set out intending to shoot a certain subject or work a certain project, but we find ourselves sidetracked,

I know some photographers are totally disciplined and do not do anything without a plan. And they seldom do anything off the plan. Of course, if you are doing a corporate shoot and you have hired models and a crew and rented a venue and arranged lighting and equipment, insurance, permits, etc. then you have to make sure you complete the assignment and make your client happy.

I am happy that that is not the world I live in. It is great to have the luxury of being completely self-directed. I pursue what interests me, so I am very vulnerable to getting sidetracked. I love it. 🙂

But even I sometimes go out with intent to pursue certain subjects or projects. If I keep my focus and actually work the project, I may get some images I like. But if I come back with almost nothing I set out to do, is that a wasted day? Usually not.


I usually characterize myself as an explorer. But even so, it is not necessarily completely wide open exploration. I am often focused in a certain direction, say a project I am working on.

Human psychology is such that when you fix on an idea or you are looking for something particular, most other things are blocked out. An extreme and humorous example of this is called the “invisible gorilla” experiment. Watch the video before reading the article. You can learn something interesting about perception.

These perceptual blinders are true of almost everyone, even “professional” artists. I don’t claim to be immune. But I do try to examine what is going on sometimes and see if I have blinders on and if that is bad.

Since I am exploring I try to look around and allow myself to be drawn to new ideas or to perceive new stimulus. Quite often these take me completely out of the mode of the project I was working on. I actually enjoy that! It means I was drawn to something that interested me more.

Can’t control our mind

The mind is amazing. It is constantly taking in the stimulus around it and filtering and analyzing it to make associations and meaning. This is not artificial intelligence, it is actual intelligence, and is much better.

Sometimes your mind tries to help you by filtering out things you don’t seem to be interested in, like we discussed before with the invisible gorilla. But if you loosen the restrictions and allow it to associate over a wider range it can recognize interesting possibilities we did not consciously see.

I like to work in this more free, wide ranging mode. I have spent decades training my mind to recognize possibilities I might want to pursue. After all that time I should have the confidence to give it the chance to run free and do its best. It is not unusual for my mind to bother me with a recognition of something I want to see, but am overlooking.

I should let it go, because it will anyway.

The subconscious is strong

“The force is strong in this one”. Actually, that is true of most of us. If you have examined your art and the work of others you admire, if you have spent a long time training yourself to recognize scenes of interest to you, your mind will do it subconsciously. You actually have to work to shut it off.

One common model of competence has 4 stages as we progress up the scale. When we are operating at the unconscious competence level, we are not even consciously aware of what we know and what we are doing. It is “second nature”. We operate on an instinctual level.

This is awesome for someone like me who relies on an instinctual recognition of scenes and compositions and possibilities. My subconscious is always analyzing my surroundings in the background. Sometimes it triggers a recognition of something I should see. I can’t describe the how or why. It is just that, without giving it direct thought, a light or something goes off and I realize there is another scene I should investigate. This is subjects choosing me.

It is very related to a state of flow. That can be a great place to be. The art just seems to move through me. I can’t explain it and then is not the time to analyze it. If I have time, if the stimulus is not coming too fast, I can try to being my conscious mind up to speed by expressing to myself why I was drawn to a scene. Sometimes there is no time and it would kill the flow.

Go with it

If I am smart I will recognize what is happening and just go with it. Let my subconscious lead me to things I know I am interested in but didn’t see. I almost feel guilty calling myself an artist. It seems I am just a vehicle for something larger that is expressing itself through me.

But I am not claiming any spiritual or supernatural basis to this. I recognize that my incredible mind, after long training, is just doing its job. This wonderful machine is helping me recognize things I would have wanted to know about, even if I was not consciously paying attention.

Let me mention the image with this post. I was searching for great scenes on a beautiful fall afternoon. I was racing through the forests, surrounded by peak color leaves in upstate New York at sunset. Suddenly I was compelled to screech to a halt and turn around and backtrack. My subconscious had recognized this scene even though I thought I was only interested in leaves. I’m very glad I did. This was the keeper. I do not remember any of the leaf images.

It is joy. It is instinctual. Letting go and following the flow often leads to things I love. Subjects choose you, and it can happen in the most wonderful ways

Go with it.

Afflicted with Curiosity

Huge blue bear peering in window

I admit, I have the disease. I am consumed with curiosity. It drives a lot of what I do. It pulls me in different directions. I am afflicted with curiosity.

And I’m glad.

In one of his books, Jonathan Kellerman has a character say “Most people aren’t overly afflicted with curiosity. It separates the creative and the tormented from the rest of the pack.” I think he has captured the idea very well.


What is curiosity, really? Is it a learned skill or a inherent personality trait? Is it good or bad? says it is “the desire to learn or know about anything; inquisitiveness”. That is a good start. Like any fairly large concept, there is a lot more to it.

I like that it is presented as a “desire”. There is a longing. Something burns inside you causing you to pursue things. A variety of things. You never know where it will lead you.

Inquisitiveness is a great work, too. It implies exploration, searching, investigating. Curiosity is the basis of learning. I mean real learning, not what passes for it in our education system. Learning comes from wanting to know about something and working to figure it out.

I am no authority, but my thought is that some people have a greater tendency to curiosity than others, but it is a skill that most people could develop. If they really want to.

What ifs

Curiosity starts with a question: what if, how, why? The desire to answer such questions and what we do about it can change us. Sometimes these questions are about something no one else has done. At least, we do not know if they have. The questions can arise because of something we have seen someone do and we wonder how it was done.

Regardless of what sparked the question, something compels us to dig or investigate or try things until we satisfy the need, scratch that itch. A simple question may be satisfied by a few articles found on the internet. Some lead us into years of investigation and experimentation and end up changing our lives. This is the danger and excitement of curiosity – we do not know where it will lead.

A drive or a diversion?

I am presenting curiosity as mostly good, because I believe it is, but is that always true? Have you ever been in a situation with a boss/teacher/parent where the answer is a cold “because I said so”? Have you worked in an environment that had written procedures to handle every situation and you could not deviate from them? Asking too many why or how or why not questions can get you in trouble in these places. There are places that intentionally stifle curiosity.

My reaction is that I have to get out of those situations. I get very frustrated if I can’t ask why and try something new, That is just me. I am driven by curiosity and am generally suspicious of rules.

In some cases curiosity can be a diversion from the path you need. Many skills require repetition and long practice. For example, martial arts or music or golf need an instructor to guide you and you have to put in the hours to master it. Too much curiosity while you are building your base knowledge can delay or interfere with your training.

This brings up the idea that there may be a proper time for curiosity. There is a tension and a natural balance between the right time and the wrong time. Sometimes you are not ready to ask certain questions. More preparation may be necessary.

A base for curiosity

This may be controversial, but I believe to be really effective, curiosity needs a good base of knowledge and maturity. It is something that builds over time and with great effort. The more you know, the more separate concepts you have, the easier it is to build on them and connect the dots.

When you start on the path to learn something new, you are a novice. You don’t really know much about the subject you are studying. It is great to have curiosity, let that motivate your study, but do not believe you understand it yet. Be humble enough to know that you don’t even know how to ask good questions yet. Be patient.

I subscribe to the model that your knowledge is a network of concepts. Learning something new builds on these concepts and ties them together in new ways. The wider your base of concepts the better you can see relations between new things. The more fertile your imagination becomes, allowing you to imagine possibilities that are not obvious to others.

It is a never ending process. I hope to be learning new things and seeing new possibilities until the day I die. The better the mix of knowledge to build on, the richer the environment.

Everyone has a different mix. In my case, I have a strange brew of things from photography theory and practice to artificial intelligence, software architecture, software development, user interface design, graphic design, sculpture, business, and general technology. Temper that with Christianity, raising kids, being married for a LONG time, and the lessons learned from making my way in the world over decades. I am happy to have this network of knowledge. I believe it helps my creativity and feeds my curiosity. It makes me the unique person I am.

Do you have to be curious to be a good artist?

This is a tough question to answer in a politically correct way. The simple answer is that I’m not qualified to answer it. I’m not sure anyone is.

A more realistic answer is that I don’t know, but I can’t think of a great artist who was not curious. Think of Leonardo daVinci. He was a scientist, engineer, architect, he studied color and texture and anatomy and the perception of the human eye. Few artists are so extremely wide ranging, but the ones I know of share an extreme curiosity.

In taking classes from artists as diverse as Peter Eastway or Karen Hutton, a theme that comes through strongly is that you have to explore and be driven by your curiosity. They assume that you will bring your own point of view and not imitate anyone else. And why would you want anything else? Your curiosity will draw you in a unique direction with a style that is all your own.

This is not a proof that curiosity is necessary. But it is hard to disprove it.

Give in to your curiosity

I strongly encourage each of you to give in to your curiosity. Allow it to lead you to new places. Be an explorer.

Personal projects are a good vehicle for trying new things. Pick a project that challenges you and stretches you in a new direction. Maybe a subject you seldom do. Maybe a new type of processing you never use. Set a time limit for yourself if that is the way you work. At the end, evaluate it and decide if you have learned anything valuable that you want to carry forward in your work. It does not matter if you end up with “portfolio pieces” from the project. It is the exploration that is the benefit.

Explore, reinvent yourself, follow your creativity, stay fresh. Don’t do things a certain way because you’ve always done it or because a respected teacher taught it that way. This is your art. Go your own way. Follow your curiosity.

I’m definitely tormented. I think I am creative in my own limited ways. It is curiosity that makes it happen. I hope I do not recover.

What Is Color?

Great, saturated color

This is a fascinating question to me. Most of us do not stop to even ask the question, but it strongly influences much of what we do as photographers. So what is color? Is it the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation? Is it just a property of the way surfaces reflect light? Or is it simply the response of our eyes to the impinging radiation? Or is it something more subjective?

Technical Details

Let me hurry through the technical details. Apparently few people care about actual technology.

Electromagnetic radiation is the way signals propagate through space. It is the mechanism of everything from radio through X-rays and gamma rays, including what we know of as the visible spectrum. For the really hard core, what we consider “light” is radiation in the range of 380 nm through 760 nm. This chart does a good job of visualizing this.

The rods and cones in our eyes are sensitive to these wavelengths of radiation that we call light. This provides the sensation of light and color that we perceive. Our window on the world is based on these hidden gems.

I go into this detail to make the point that light is not a “thing”. It is simply our response to a small range of electromagnetic waves. This is significant because much of what you will read about light in art is very “fluffy”. It supposedly has hidden meanings and deep psychological responses. Maybe it does. But don’t forget that it is basically a simple sensory perception. We each respond to color mostly the same, but a little differently. We are human, not a calibrated scientific instrument.


These rods and cones give us incredible perception of color and light. The very best digital sensors made cannot see the range of lightness values the human eye can resolve. The very best digital sensor cannot distinguish the range of colors the human eye can sense.

Digital images are represented as a grid of pixels. Each pixel contains 3 pieces of data, values for red, green, and blue. A very good sensor, mapped into a wide color space like ProPhotoRGB, can use 16 bits for each of these values. That gives 65535 steps for each color. This is only an approximation to what our eyes can do.

Because our eyes are so much better then the sensors, we sometimes have to exaggerate the image data we are working with in order to simulate what we remember seeing. Basically, we often have to trick the eye into believing there is more data there. That is because the eye can perceive more than what we can capture. It is also because the sensor is completely objective. It does not know what we feel when we see the image.

Objective or Subjective?

Color has to be objective. It also has to be subjective. Confusing? Yes, but most of the talk about color is.

I’m a professional print maker. As such, my work has to be reproducible. My computer is well corrected to ensure that the colors I see when I am editing are reasonably close to the “actual” colors of the original subject. Through a little more magic, my prints use color profiles for my printer/ink/paper type to make sure that what I print is as close as possible to what I saw on my computer.

This is objective use of color. It has known, fixed values and it can be reproduced over and over again. It may suck some of the life and spontaneity out of the process, but it is necessary to produce professional results.

Subjectively, though, things get interesting. Who says that color has to stay just like the “real” world it was taken from. As an artist, I am free to do anything I want to create a result I want. If I want a world of purple bananas and red oceans that is a valid choice for me. No one can say that is not right because the real world did not look like that. So to an artist, color is a choice, not a limitation or a fixed property.

Our incredible post-production tools allow amazing enhancement of – or damage to – our images.


Now, to get real, my world does not usually include purple bananas. But there is a big overlay between the objective and subjective worlds. Images that come out of the camera as RAW files are flat and dull and lifeless. They contain all of the data the sensor recorded, but not what I remember. I work many of my images to create the impression of color that struck me at the time I took the picture.

I would call this interpretation. I am selectively enhancing or changing the colors to recreate the impression I saw (or wanted to see). A color purist might see this as wrong, since I am changing the tonal structure of the image to reduce or exaggerate colors or contrasts. I am not a purist.

There is an irony here that is not lost on me – my systems are set up to deal with color very accurately, but then I sometimes alter the color drastically. What can I say? It’s art, not engineering.


The discussion would not be complete without touching on the mystical area of color symbolism. People can get worked up over this: no, that can’t be red because that would mean anger; no that can’t be white because that means death, etc. Some of these considerations are reasonable for some applications. If you’re an advertiser, you want to avoid chasing customers away.

But is color symbolism a real thing? Yes… but. A lot of it is cultural. And opinion. Colors seem to have different significance in different parts of the world. One representation of this is the Lüscher color test. It attemped to codify the symbolism of colors, at least to the western eye. Given that it varies for different people, it does not seem that the symbolism is a significant tool to use when creating art.

A small example of cultural differences: in the western world that I’m familiar with, financial reports mark upward trends in green and downward ones in red. In China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan they are reversed. That is, red marks an uptrend and green marks a downtrend. A very simple thing but it can lead to a lot of confusion if you go “out of culture”. I am trained, in this context, to perceive green as positive and red as negative.


Color does touch us on an emotional level. Not everyone reacts the same, but there are patterns and generalities.

It is known that certain colors produce rather similar reactions in people. Blues tend to be calming. Reds tend to increase energy. Yellow tends to cheer people up. So if I was creating an image where I wanted to create a calming mood, I would use a palate of blue and green. If I wanted to be bold and attention getting I would selects strong red and orange hues. This is not relying on the symbolism of colors, as far as meaning, but on general reactions across populations.

Like smell, color invokes a response in people. It is another tool that artists need to be familiar with and be able to use to their advantage. It can require a lifetime of study and practice.

What is color?

Coming back to the original question. Can we say what color is?

Not satisfactorily in a short blog. Color is electromagnetic radiation in a certain range. It is definite ranges of data represented by red, green, and blue values (in photography). Color is a property that invokes an emotional and/or a cultural response. It is so subtle and well measured by the human eye that we cannot yet capture it precisely in imaging or print all the eye can see.

In short, color is part of the magic we live with all the time and that we artists work with in various ways to create our art. Understanding the technology does not really help us understand “color”. Neither does treating it as a mystical spell. It is this wonderful stuff we perceive because we are human.

Even if I spend hours agonizing over mapping color tones and micro-adjustments of hue or saturation, that does not mean you have to know that in order to appreciate the image.

Enjoy! Don’t over-think it!

It’s Been Done

Sunset on the Plains, Moonrise

It’s been done. A dreaded phrase we hear all the time that is meant to dismiss and disparage our creative work. Don’t fall for it. Just because someone says it has been done does not mean you don’t have just as much right to do your own take on it.

Over and over

Artists have always done the same subjects over and over. There are only a limited number of subjects and not that many truly different ways to approach them.

Are you not going to do ponds because Monet had “done” them? Are you not going to do a night sky because Van Gogh was the only one to be able to do that? Are you not going to do landscapes because there are no more to do after Ansel Adams finished? Are you going to forever avoid flowers because O’Keeffe did everything that could be done?

Of course not.

Are you going to avoid shooting any subject that has ever been photographed?

Let’s see, landscapes have been done; portraits have been done; street photography has been done; abstracts have been done; food has been done; travel has been done… It is getting pretty hard to find something that has never been shot. Near impossible.

So “never been done” must not be the important test.

Every artist repeats subjects other artists have done before. The real question is, do I have something new to say? Can I make this fresh and unique? Can I offer something that will make my viewers think new thoughts?

Writers, for instance, all write the same stories but try to make them fresh. It is said that there are only, depending who is giving the data, 3 to 36 fiction plots. All books are a variation of the basic patterns. A. Hyatt Mayor has an interesting take on it when he says: The really original artist does not try to find a substitute for boy meets girl, but creates the illusion that no boy has ever met a girl before.

Likewise, can we create the illusion that our work is original?

Do it different

Just because a famous artist did the subject before does not mean they created the definitive work that can never be topped or even equaled. An artist should have an unshakable belief in his vision. We should not be timid and shy away from controversy. No critic owns the right to disallow your work.

Creative thinking may simply mean the realization that there is no particular virtue is doing things the way they have always been done. Rudolph Flesch

If we are going to do things the way they have always been done, then why bother? If we are just copying other work,that is not adding anything interesting to our art. Re-envision what has been done. Do it different.

Creativity is not usually something radically new. Usually it is an incremental build on the past. It is the little twist we came up with that makes it uniquely our own. It is our own spin on the conventional way it has been done.

I think artists of necessity are a little crazy. Obsessed. Focused. This drives us to separate ourselves from the crowd. To share our vision and show that we see things differently. I seem to be putting in a lot of quotes this time, so here are 2 more:

Follow your enthusiasm … The only quality common to all great artists and creative people is that they are obsessed with their work. Richard Avedon

If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much. Bill Swanson

Apply your style and vision

Our vision usually applies to the unique way we see the same thing other people see. We will not often see something that no one else in history has ever seen before. The secret is what we bring to the common. Can we make something new out of things everyone else sees? Can be see different? Be different?

That is what we are called on to do as artists. Everything has been seen or thought of before. But how can we bring a new interpretation, a fresh point of view, an unencumbered view?

Finishing with a final quote:

I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it. Garrison Keillor

Most people are burdened with reality. A thing is what it is and can’t be anything else. What a limiting view! A thing can be almost anything we can envision it to be. That is creativity.

Don’t waste time being an imitation of anybody. Spend your life being yourself.

Try it Different

Blurred carnival ride

Ruts. It is human nature to get in them. They are safe and comfortable. These days, safe is sometimes welcome. But ruts become boring and our work starts looking all the same. We do not grow as an artist if we are stuck in a rut. A great way to shake ourselves up and break out of a rut is to try it different. Force ourselves to “break the rules” we impose on ourselves. Do something we wouldn’t normally do.

When we try it different, sometimes we learn new things about what we like and want to do. A great photographer, Karen Hutton, says “Whatever you usually do, try it different.” This is wise advice. It is self-help to maintain our edge.

Different lens choice

An easy way to start slow is to spend a few days using a different lens. Something you don’t normally use. This makes you look at your surroundings differently. It is amazing, but a simple thing like this can change your point of view enough to freshen your images.

I discovered over the years that I naturally have a “telephoto eye”. That is, I tend to zoom in on details rather than shooting wide angle views. About a year ago I got an awesome 24-70mm lens for my new camera and it has become my standard lens. I now shoot the majority of my images with it. My POV has changed to adopt its range.

Perhaps that means it is time to get a super wide angle or go back to telephoto. Just to “try it different”. 🙂

Different time of day

Ah the magic hours, the golden light within an hour after dawn and an hour before sunset. It is beautiful. It is warm, the sky has great color, and the light is horizontal so it emphasizes texture and form. I tend to go crazy if I am in a great location at those times.

But I see it presented as a “rule” that you never shoot between those times. Especially for landscapes. This is so bogus. The goal is to find the right light to create the effect you want for the subject you have chosen. I sometimes find the best light is at high noon. There is not a hard rule.

Experiment. Work backwards from the light to the mood and subject. For example, you are out at, say, 1 pm. It is a sunny day with harsh light streaming directly down. Figure out what kind of mood is emphasized by this light and what subject would work best in the light. Look around with this mental filter and you may be surprised. Deep canyons often fit this. Also, vertical walls or buildings where the harsh parallel light shows off interesting texture or shadows. There is always something.

Here is a short but good article that discusses choice of light. It emphasizes that “good light is light that matches your goal for a photo“.

Do you find that must of your work is shot at the golden light time? Habits can be re-examined. Experiment. Learn to see the possibilities of different light.

Different composition choices

Now this is getting harder. I suggest you start shaking up some of your fundamental style beliefs. Photographers tend to spend years agonizing over whether or not we have a “style”. When we convince ourselves we have one, we’re afraid to step outside of the confines of what we believe our style is for fear of being lost again. The more mature we become as an artist the more we understand that we are our style.

Compositions are made up of our choice of subject, lighting and mood, arrangement of forms, contrasts, and exposure. I recommend that you give yourself permission to play with all of these and more.

If you are a landscape shooter, spend some time doing people, street photography. It will sharpen you eye and reflexes and it can be a joy. If you pride yourself on “perfect histograms” start playing with high key (overexposed) or low key (underexposed) images. It helps to impress the point that an exposure is proper if it creates the effect you want. A perfectly shaped histogram may be completely wrong if you were going for something else. An image is for the effect it has on the viewer, not its technical perfection.

I have a love of super detailed, “crunchy” sharp images. To explore that, I have challenged myself to experiment at the other extreme. I now sometimes do projects with little of no sharp or even identifiable subjects. Sometimes they are motion blurred or out of focus. Sometimes they are post-processed beyond recognition. I have come to love many of them and it has helped me discover new spaces I want to work in. The image with this blog is an example.


Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We listen to what a teacher tells us and follow it without judgment. We get into patterns and stop questioning. Our work becomes routine, habitual. We stop learning.

But just like we may be our own worst enemy, we can also be the agent of changing ourselves. Start experimenting. Take workshops. Study online courses. Read books. Tryout what other people tell you, but only keep what works for you. Examine yourself and your work, clearly and without bias.

Does the work you are doing today look exactly like what you did 10 years ago? You may be satisfied with that, but for most of us, if we’re not growing, we’re dying. I know that my artistic vision is an evolving thing. It is always a little out of my grasp, so I have to follow it and try to keep up. I like it that way. I’m growing.

Stay fresh

Artists work on the edge. If we have just done work we like, we are compelled to better it on the next project. We are usually our own measure. That is, to see if we are getting better we compare our current work to our past work. It is part of staying fresh. We have to keep ourselves invigorated, rejuvenated, challenged. It is how we do our best work. We are driven by curiosity. The “what if” questions keep leading us in new directions. Habit kills thought.

A good shock often helps the brain that has been atrophied by habit.” Napoleon Hill

How about you? Do you have a process for challenging yourself, for questioning conventions and norms, for keeping yourself sharp? A significant part of this is forcing yourself to sometimes try it different.