Have You Already Done Your Best Work?

Red pepper in blue water

Have you already done your best work? Have you taken your best image or painted your best picture, or sculpted your best piece? In other words, have you peaked and it’s all down hill from here? What a frightening idea.

Yet I believe this is a great fear of many artists. Me, too. You love what you have already created. How can you ever top it?

You have to believe in yourself and in your process.

Your body of work

Does your portfolio define you? Many of us believe it does. I think it would better to look at it as saying your portfolio represents the best of what you have done up to now. You will change and move on and do different things with time. Your portfolio doesn’t define you, it reflects you. Who you were up to today.

If you destroyed your whole library you should be able to go on from here and build a new, better one. Of course, none of us would want to do that. We have done a lot of great work in the past. We have many impossible to recreate scenes. Our library or portfolio represents a huge investment of both time and creative energy. We should embrace that and celebrate it.

But the creator is much more important than the creation. If I go to the Louvre or Orsay (back in the good old days) or another great museum I see people lined up admiring some of the important and enduring works of history. But the focus is on the art. This is only appropriate at these museums because the artist is dead. It is much more interesting to study and appreciate the people who created these pieces. They are the genius. The art is just a reflection of their vision. These famous works came out of their minds and through their skills. What was it about them that allowed them to create and overcome?

In the same way, you are the one who makes images. If you have made great images in the past you almost definitely will in the future unless something changed to take away your skill. This can happen, through life-altering events like a wreck or a stroke. But barring something like that, it should be true that your creativity grows and persists. Very few of us can use this excuse.

An idea

A great image is just an idea you had at a particular time. You will have more. It is your ideas and your vision that creates. Ansel Adams famously said “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!“. In other words, images are made in your head, not in a camera.

The “muse” or our creativity has ups and downs. Sometimes it seems like you are empty. You fear you will never do great work again. Be patient. Keep working at whatever you find while you wait for the spark to return. It will. Always.


Don’t be limited by fear of trying something new. Even if you are famous for one look or style, at some point it limits and boxes you in and you start to become stale. Then it is time to re-invent yourself. Don’t be afraid to make a sharp 90 degree turn and do something completely different. If that is what your creativity is calling you to do, follow. Better to follow it into uncharted territory than to have it leave you behind.

And sometimes we look at the work we have done and think “Wow, I can never do better than that”. This creates fear of failure. We become afraid of creating anything because it might not be as good as what we have already done.

This is because we are trying to do something like a work we did in the past. Don’t worry about trying to recreate an old look. Go with where you are now. It probably won’t be the same as what you did before, but it is you. It represents where you are now in your life. If you are growing as a person and an artist, it will be better.


Always be pushing yourself. You are the only standard of measure that matters to you. Learn, grow, experiment, be open to new thoughts and ideas.

When you don’t feel creative, work anyway. Just doing the work is refreshing and therapeutic. It is like “putting in the reps” that is required to learn and master almost anything. Keep pushing and when the creativity floods back, you have improved and can do even better work. You will be better equipped to keep up with the inspiration.

Keep moving. Don’t ever just sit and feel sorry for yourself. Get out and do something. Don’t try to recreate your best works, do new things that are better.


Very high contrast, pen and ink effect

Man is a tool maker. Tools are used in most activities in our life to extend our performance or help us get our tasks done faster, easier, and more accurately. The same is true in most of our art. Some people say that it is our tool making nature that allowed us to become the dominant species.

A tool using artist

I’m an artist. Specifically one who works with images originating as photographs. A camera is a tool I use. So is a computer. So is a printer. These tools do not create my art. I use them as part of my creative process.

Yes, the tools allow me to create things I could not do otherwise. That just means they are good tools. My Jeep allows me to go places I would rather not have to walk, especially carrying my gear. That does not mean the Jeep creates my art. I know a sculptor who now prints a lot of pieces on a 3D printer. Does that make them no longer art?

I believe in using tools to make my life better and to take my creativity further. Indeed some images don’t really start coming to life until I am manipulating them in Photoshop. As I try things and apply ideas and tools the essence of the image may start revealing itself to me. Note, though, that I – the artist- decide how the image should develop. I don’t sit back and watch Photoshop create it for me.

Limits of tools

There are probably some sharp Adobe computer scientists working on that right now., Maybe someday you will be able to point your phone at a scene and a “perfectly” composed and processed image will appear instantly in your social media feed. I hope for all of our sake that they decide that even though they could, they won’t. (Note: it came faster than I anticipated. Adobe announced many “AI”-based tools at Adobe MAX 2020. Now anyone can do almost anything to an image without know how they did it. Too bad.)

Tools should be used as force multipliers. Not a crutch to let people with no skills seem to create something. That’s like going to DisneyWorld and believing you went on a pirate adventure. It is a manufactured experience that you did not contribute to. If you are over the age of 5 you know deep down inside it is fake.

At the risk of being unpopular and sounding like a Luddite I will say I do not believe an image created entirely by a computer without an artist is art. It is just software combining patterns it has been trained with and throwing is a little random variability. Maybe this could be said of some artists, too. Let me just add that I spent an entire career working in advanced computer science, including artificial intelligence. So it’s not like I just hate technology.

Digital fits my personality

I am ADD enough that I don’t like there to be much lag between seeing something interesting and capturing it. It would be hard for me to work in a world of making multiple sketches of a scene to work out the best composition and staging, then spending weeks laying down the image slowly in layers with dry times between. All in order to create one work. I would abandon it after the first couple of sketches and be off to another idea.

Photography is much more immediate and rewarding for me. See a scene. Click. Nice, but maybe move a little to the right. Click. Better. Maybe raise the camera a little higher. Click. Almost there, maybe reduce the depth of field. Wait for the right moment. Click. Good! Now I have a good starting point to work with on the computer to create a final image.

In the computer I use a fairly disciplined non-destructive workflow. That just means never commit to something that can’t be undone. This does not slow things down and it actually makes it easier to get in a creative flow. That is because whenever I hit a dead end or even just decide I’m not liking the direction things are going, I can back up to any point I want and modify what I’ve done or even throw large “experiments” out and take a whole different path. The tools let my creativity flow naturally.

This ability to freely experiment and take risks is wonderfully empowering. I even sometimes create several versions of an image. It is an embarrassment of riches to be faced with a hard choice of which one I think works best. The ability to be spontaneous and free is very important to my creativity.

An artist

I create art. My camera or my other tools do not create the art, I do. The fact that I start from a photograph should not matter at all. Some people think something is not art unless the artist had a long and difficult process from training through making an image. How myopic and judgmental.

It had been said that an artist has to suffer. This is true, but you hear the statement from critics more than artists. Critics think they can analyze the process the artist went through to determine the worth of the art. Real artists know that art is suffering and what we learn and the feelings and vision we develop in the process guide our outcome. Art can be a cathartic expression of a deep experience, but that is not required.

But this “suffering” is very personal and internal, at least for me. It may be the result of decades of failures to realize our vision. A suffering born of frustration that drives a continual renewal and a reach for what we feel but can’t quite express.

It has almost nothing to do with a camera. That is just a tool, part of the technology used in creating art.

Any tool

When someone picks up a tool to create something as art, they become an artist. It doesn’t really matter if it is a brush, a pencil, a welder, … or a camera. What matters is what you do with it. Is something better and more worthwhile because it is carved from marble? Is it better if it is oil applied to canvas? Careful. These are dangerous judgments.

The art I create is not because I’m a photographer. Photography is a medium that works very well for me. It fits my personality. I use it to create my art.

I look at the creative process different from an oil painter or sculptor or author or graffiti painter. That is good. Artists are not supposed to be all alike. They should be as unique and individual as possible. That extends to the medium and process and tools, too.

So, I’m an artist. I use a camera to capture pixels that become my art. I’m proud of it. I like what I create and it works for me. I’m very thankful for the tools I have. They help me create, they do not define me.

The Problem of Mega Pixels

Hidden man in walkway

I love the capabilities of modern digital cameras, especially the wonderful sensors and great lenses available. But nothing is free, and I’m not just talking about the price of the gear. Having too many mega pixels can cause problems you may not anticipate.

Resolution is wonderful

I love extreme resolution. I’m not a fanatic about it, but I really appreciate it. I have not gone to 100+ MPixel sensors yet and I don’t normally do very large panoramas. Still, I get a thrill when I zoom in to 1-to-1 and see the great detail that is there. Then when I sharpen or contrast it more and the detail pops – wow!

Having large resolution allows me to create large prints. It is a necessary thing since I do this for a living. It is also something I really like to do. I don’t think an image is complete until it is printed. For me, a print is the physical expression of the image.

All things being equal, which they seldom are, higher resolution usually leads to sharper images. I love certain images to be “crunchy” sharp with great detail. It is part of my values that I can’t get away from.

Also, larger files allow for more cropping freedom. I try not to rely on this. It is much better to compose the image the way I want it at capture time. But sometimes it cannot be avoided. Maybe the image works better in a square format, or maybe I’m only carrying a lens that goes to 70mm and I want to shoot something I can’t get close enough to. In that case I have to “zoom” in post processing by cropping the image.

Or maybe I realize later that the real interest is in a smaller part of the frame. I have to crop the image heavily to salvage it. It’s not good practice, but I admit to doing it on occasion.

For me, a great print from a well executed, high resolution file is a joy.

Resolution is a pain

On the other hand, high resolution can be a pain. It increases the cost and time of all the downstream stages.

Every time I press the shutter it drops around 60 MBytes on my memory card. That is just the raw capture. It requires CFExpress or XQD cards to keep up. They are very expensive.

As long as I can process the image in Lightroom the size stays around this, but when I step into Photoshop each image balloons to several hundred mega bytes. And that is even without adding a bunch of layers.

Did you know that a Photoshop psd file (the native Photoshop format) cannot exceed 2 GBytes? Or that a tiff file cannot exceed 4 GBytes? I have found this out the hard way. Some of my images now have to be stored as psb files, the large file format version of Photoshop’s data.

Processing and editing time goes up with pixels. I use a powerful computer with 64G RAM and very fast Thunderbolt3 disks, but it can take seconds to do a simple stroke when I am masking or burning or dodging. I have seen multi GByte files containing one or more embedded smart objects take 2 minutes just to save to disk.

And you have to get to know disks in multiples of Terabytes. If you have a disciplined backup strategy, something I am fanatical about, then there are layers and layers of them.

I have bought in to the need of powerful and expensive equipment for editing and storing my images. The biggest problem, though, is the slow editing speed. This interrupts the flow of my mental process. I don’t like waiting on the computer.


One of the unfortunate truths they seldom tell you when you are looking at a shiny new high resolution camera is that it is harder to take good pictures with it. This is partially because of the geometries you are dealing with.

A full frame sensor, by convention, is 36 x 24 mm. My Nikon Z7 places 8256 x 5504 pixels in this space. That makes each pixel site 0.004 mm square. That is 4 microns from the center of one pixel to the center of the next. If you do not work in the world of integrated circuits or advanced physics you may have trouble conceiving these sizes. We do not directly encounter these dimensions in the real world.

As an example, human hair ranges from 17 to 180 microns in diameter. Therefore the thinnest strand of hair you can possibly find would cover over 4 of these pixels. An average sized hair, around 50 microns in diameter, would cover a strip of at least 12 pixels wide across the sensor.

A fun fact, but so what? The so what is that with each pixel being so small the problems of focusing and holding the camera steady are greatly compounded. Focus is critical and you almost have to rely on the very sophisticated focus system in your camera. Especially if it is contrast detection – meaning that it is searching for the best contrast, hence sharpest focus, measured directly on the sensor pixels.

And for the sharpest results, don’t even think of taking a picture without using a good tripod. I don’t know how steady you think you can hold something, but consider that for optimum sharpness the camera cannot move or shake as much as 0.004 mm while the shutter is open. I can’t do that, especially after coffee.

You need new lenses

Another sad truth is that to realize the full benefit of your high resolution sensor you need lenses designed to match it. Current lenses achieve resolutions significantly better than was the norm a few years ago.

The requirements for lenses for these new sensors greatly exceed the standard required for film or, say 6 – 10 MPixel cameras from just a few years ago. I have tried older lenses on my Z7. The results might be usable for some things, but nowhere up to the quality of something like a Z 24-70 f/2.8 designed specifically for the Z series.

So another cost and problem of trying to achieve very high resolution is that you need to use lenses that will achieve the quality you are seeking.

Why have lots of Mega Pixels?

With all those problems, why should you want to shoot high pixel images? Maybe you don’t. That is what I am leading to here.

Your gear should be chosen based on your intended use. These days many people will only post images on social media or put together a slide show of a trip or event. If they print at all it will probably be 8.5×11 inches (about A4 for you in the rest of the world). Quite honestly, a good 6 MPixel camera is all you would need for any of these things. Almost any mobile phone is great, except for the lack of lens choices.

I have images from a 6 MPixel camera in my portfolio.They are good files and the quality of the pixels is good. I just would not try to print them very large.

About the only thing that requires huge files is making large prints. This is a world I live in, but if you don’t then why bring these other problems on yourself? A good 12-16 MPixel camera is probably more than adequate for most people. They are smaller and lighter and cheaper. It is easier to take good pictures with them, it is easier to process them if you want to, and they require far less disk space. You can probably keep most of the images you want in online storage.

But human nature being what it is, we can’t discount the lust factor. Pixel lust. Just like I know people who do some woodworking and have a workshop outfitted with an array of near commercial quality equipment. An expensive overkill, but if they have the space and money to burn, why not? You might need it someday.

If you want to be logical and save some money and time, resist the lust for lots of mega pixels. You won’t need them.

Its an OK problem to have

Some of us are convinced we need them. Some of us just want the biggest and best. Many are just caught up in the hype of shiny new products.

If you are going to have a high mega pixel camera, be aware going in of the costs and problems. But if you “need” it, go for it! The results are marvelous if you use the tools well.

I love the results I get so much that I forget about the size and processing problems. I love the results so much that I gladly learn the required techniques to achieve them. They make all of my images better.

Cameras and gear have advanced to the point where many of us cannot achieve the maximum they are capable of. But that is an astounding problem to have. What an embarrassment of riches! If we are the weak link in the process, we can learn and improve. We get better and our results get better.

It’s a great time to be a photographer.

What have your experiences been with high resolution photography? Let me know!

Play by the Rules

Almost symmetrical

OK, I admit it, I don’t do well with rules. I’m a “ask forgiveness, not permission” guy. I don’t cheat and I never take advantage of people, I just don’t necessarily play by the rules. And for context, this discussion is mainly about the world of art, so don’t extrapolate my malady too far.

Even if you don’t read the rest of this post please study this cartoon. A classic Calvin & Hobbs from the great Bill Watterson. This has been on my wall for at least 20 years. It perfectly captures my feelings about rules. 🙂

Whose rules?

Ah, this is a root of the problem. Who has the authority to make up rules I have to follow? Where did they get this power? What governing board set the standards?

Now, I’m not an anarchist in my everyday life. Not entirely. But in my artistic domain I do not give anyone authority to dictate rules about my work.

It seems to be human nature to want to control other people. Perhaps it is a power trip. Perhaps it is financially motivated to protest self interests. Maybe it is insecurity. I am a big believer in the old saying “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have seldom seen successful and respected artists put themselves forward as a critic. They do not see any need to, they are too busy creating. And if someone else wants to go off a different direction, fine.

What rules?

The art world has no shortage of rules to live by. Each little group wants to exclude you if you don’t play by their rules. So my work may be criticized because it it too realistic, too abstract, too colorful, too little color, lacking in social message, too much social message, too sharp, too blurry, too painterly, no people, only people, etc.

Even on a more safe level of visual theory, there is the “rule of thirds”, rules of balance, of leading lines, of framing; there has to be a definite foreground, middle ground, and background; don’t put the subject in the center, expose to the right, the subject has to be sharp, water should be smoothed with long exposure, never shoot in the middle of the day, always shoot on a tripod, …

Being Conventional

None of these so called rules make a work of art. If you are new to the craft these guidelines help you quickly learn to make images that are accepted as “conventional” and inoffensive.

Let me give an anecdote from my own experience. It goes way back, so I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired. I was an early adopter of Photoshop. The excellent camera club I was a member of had monthly competitions. I was the first to enter a “Photoshopped” image. It, of course, won the blue ribbon, because the post processing improved the basic image a lot. When I “confessed” how it had been processed and modified there was a lot of hand wringing and discussion. Some people even wondered if such images should be allowed in their competition. What I did was outside the norm and the expectation, therefore maybe a violation of the rules. At the least it was suspect as not being fair or in the proper spirit of photography. Yet, they chose it as Best of Show.

I have not been associated with that group for a long time, but from what I have seen, it would be almost impossible to win a contest there now without significant Photoshop processing. A new normal. Since it is conventional it is acceptable.

Why have rules?

I think I was on the right track earlier when I said rules create works that are accepted as conventional. Rules are normative, to use the proper term. Accepting a set of rules defines a baseline, a norm, it regularizes things.

There are times to follow the rules exactly. My accountant needs to follow accepted practices. I fully expect my doctor to follow best practices as he has learned them and as his profession requires. If I go to a restaurant I want them to follow all the health and safety and food preparation regulations.

But for artists? Well, yes. This may seem like I’m spinning 180 and shooting down my own arguments, but I believe the widely known rules are valuable for artists. Knowing and following them would protect the world from some of the useless stuff thrown around by people who do not know the history of their medium, its limits, or the social conventions people like to abide by.

I believe all new artists should learn the rules and spend quite a bit of time creating boring and conventional work. It is good practice and it instills some discipline. I’m not saying artists should go to art school. That works for some but not everyone. I don’t believe there are any valid credentials that qualify someone to be an artist.

After the rules are well understood, then comes the time to start exploring the edges. To start experimenting with breaking the rules that are limiting you if that is consistent with your style. Most experiments will be failures and the learning is that the rules are there because they point out something of general truth. But sometimes… Sometimes some new truth is discovered. Sometimes creatively breaking a rule leads to good art.

If I break the rules?

What happens if (when) I break one or more of the rules? Do the art police come and confiscate my computer? Do I go on a secret list shared by galleries and collectors to blacklist my works?

Actually, nothing happens. If I break a rule it is an experiment. The experiment will have one of 3 outcomes:

  • I love it, do more like that;
  • I hate it, don’t do it again;
  • or that’s interesting, it has promise, I need to modify it and try again.

And the people who view and potentially purchase my work will look at it and either say:

  • wow, I love it
  • yech, I hate it
  • or eh, don’t care.

The combination of these 2 sets of votes determines if breaking the rule was a success. And my opinion about what I like is the overriding vote. Note in my value system customers have a vote but people who are just critics do not.

Creating somebody else’s art

Playing by the rules guides us to create art that is acceptable to the largest audience. Like the paint by number cartoon above, we, in effect, create somebody else’s art. Our art follows the pattern that many other people follow. “Wow, it looks like Ansel Adams.” “Wow, it looks like John Shaw.” “Wow, it looks like John Paul Caponigro.”

These are good people to look like, until you develop your own style, your own vision of what you want to say. Then the rules are holding you back. At some point you have to make your own rules. To be you, you have to make something different.

Nothing new is ever created without a painful break from the past. Impressionism would never have been established if Monet, Renoir and the others had listened to conventional wisdom. John Rewald, in History of Impressionism, said The only thing to be learned from the critics was how to suffer the sting of their attacks and carry on just the same, accomplishing a task which more then any other required serenity.

If you play by the rules you will just get better and better at what everybody else does. That is not a waste. But to create something new and creative, rules, like eggs for an omelet, have to be broken.