Improvement

Results of an experiment

In a recent post I quoted Todd Vorenkamp saying “Search yourself for improvement, not your gear”. I believe that our improvement needs to come from within us, not from better gear. What is your plan to make yourself a better artist? Do you have one? I am an Engineer. I know that nothing gets better by accident. We all need a plan and strategies to improve ourselves. I am not saying we need a 5 year plan or a 10 step process. But we need to consciously strive for improvement.

Study

Whatever you believe in and value and spend your life doing, you should be a lifelong student of. We are lucky to live at a time when we have so many channels for learning available to us.

If you were an aspiring artist in the 16th century you would have to apprentice to a master. There you would spend several years doing grunt work and menial tasks while studying the basics of drawing. Eventually you might advance to a stage where you were trusted to add some parts to a painting the master started. Someday you might be trusted to make copies of the master’s work. Now after 10-15 years you could be deemed ready to go out on your own. Of course, all you know is your master’s style. You don’t really know what you want to be yet. A pretty poor system in my opinion.

Now, though, there are an abundance of schools and online classes. There are books and magazines. There are mentors available and unlimited examples to view online. Most of us are reasonably close to good museums where we can examine great art at will. We could spend all our time studying and never make an image if we are not disciplined.

Online classes

I have gotten lots of good information from classes at CreativeLive and Kelby One. B&H Explora has a great free library to view, among all the sales stuff. Anything by Julieanne Kost is extremely worthwhile. Some other great instructors are Dave Cross and Ben Willmore. I do not receive any compensation for these plugs. Many of these things require subscription. It is worth paying for good instruction. For free stuff, there is more on YouTube than you could ever watch. Be careful. Be wary in deciding who you are going to listen to, especially on YouTube. It’s the wild west.

One reason I love Julianne Kost, besides that there may not be anyone on the planet who knows more about Photoshop, is that she said “I don’t want a recipe, I want to learn to cook.” This is wise advice. A lot of training presents recipes to do exactly what the instructor did. I don’t want that. I want to know how to fix my own dishes, to create my own recipes. She is good at presenting her training from that point of view.

The real thing is to do it continually. Learning should be a habit we cultivate for our whole life. We never know all of everything. It might be harder to find new and deeper things to learn, but it is there. I suggest you commit to study as an ongoing process, not an event.

Critique

I will put this here, even though I am very bad at it. It has been a long time since I went for a formal critique of my work.

I know it can be valuable. I remember years ago when I was in a camera club the critique was good discipline. As I matured, I also learned that you had to carefully evaluate it, because most critique was normative. It was trying to mold me to fit the biases of the group or the evaluator. Use at your own risk. Be smart about it.

I hear there are some good critique sessions you can submit your work to for evaluation. I have not done it, but I would if I found one I trust.

Possibly the most valuable thing about critiques is that they get you used to hearing negative comments about your work. This, in itself, is good training.

Experiment

There is a big difference between 20 years of experience and 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. A lot of people get trapped by their success. They become known for a style and feel they have to keep doing it for fear they may lose their audience.

I believe an artist grows and evolves throughout their career. Your interests change, your style may change, certainly your point of view changes. How will you follow these changes unless you give yourself permission to experiment some?

That doesn’t mean you have to suddenly make an abrupt 90 degree turn and go a completely new direction. Experiments may be personal. Most of them will fail. Some, though, will have a glimmer of a new idea, a new viewpoint. Follow up on them. Keep pushing.

A willingness to experiment and play is healthy. It will keep us fresh and creative as an artist. Evaluate what you have learned about yourself from the experiments and decide what to keep and build on.

A note about the image with this article: this was the result of an experiment. I liked it. Other people seemed to agree, since it went into a gallery and sold.

Be open and flexible

Are you willing to entertain new ideas? New technology and techniques? New points of view that are alien to your normal thoughts? You don’t have to buy in to them. You don’t have to adopt them.

Stretching yourself with new ideas is kind of like yoga for the mind. You stay flexible. When a mind becomes rigid and inflexible it shuns new ideas, new thoughts. The creative place within us requires fuel, new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. Otherwise we stay in our comfortable rut.

Creativity is like anything else with our bodies. We have to work at it to develop. If we don’t exercise we lose the ability to move and we get unhealthy. Likewise, being open to new things is an attitude, a habit. We can work to get better at it.

Think about it

We should be our own best critic and our own best evaluator. If you’re an artist, how can you not obsess about your art? It is a major part of your life. It should occupy a lot of your thought.

I am an introvert and an Engineer. That gives me an ability to look at my work fairly objectively. I know that will not be the same for everyone. We are all different.

But whatever talents we have, we need to learn to be able to evaluate our work fairly. You see what other artists do. You know your own work. What you do has to stack up against your own expectations and your evaluation. We never think we have arrived at the pinnacle. And we shouldn’t. Hopefully we will always be growing.

Thinking about where we are and where we need to go will help us plot our course. Being realistic will help keep us from deluding our self and also keep us from beating our self up. Don’t be negative. Improvement is a lifestyle. Look for new ideas. Embrace new points of view. Experiment with things that are very different that what we normally do. Grow.

What’s not here?

Your equipment is probably not holding you back significantly. Learn to think. Creatively visualize new things. Try new techniques. Grow into the artist you want to be. Then you will do wonders with that expensive new camera. 🙂

Talent

Different view of aspen forest

Not everyone can do everything. When your parents told you you can be anything you want to be, they weren’t being entirely honest. Each of us is suited for some things and not for others. We each have certain gifts and talents. It is wired in to us.

I could never have been an NBA basketball player or an NFL football player. I don’t have the strength or physical traits or athletic skill – or the killer drive to succeed in sports – that is required. No amount of work on my part would have overcome the deficiencies i have.

Some things come easy

How do you know what your talents are? One way is to look around at your peers. You will probably find that some people struggle with things that seem easy to you. Many of us have trouble recognizing this. We think if we can do it then everybody else can, too.

Let me give one example. I am OK with math. I don’t love it, but I do it comfortably. A career in Engineering helped a lot, but there was also a natural inclination. They are related. You wouldn’t succeed in Engineering without being comfortable with math. It is frustrating to me to see people struggling to figure out simple things when it should be easy for them to calculate or even estimate an answer. I have trouble understanding that inability because I don’t have it.

But this is supposed to be about art. I find that composition and exposure come easy to me. Yes, I have studied for a very long time, but it always felt like it wasn’t a problem. I still enjoy reading about principles of perception, and leading lines, and contrast and using the frame, and exposing to the right and all the other “theory”. It is comfortable and familiar and valuable. I do not struggle a lot with this. When I see someone who seems unable to get it together, and who worries way too much about what camera settings to use, I’m afraid I just have to walk away. I can’t relate to their mystery.

Some things come hard

Being easy is not the measure of your talents, though. Some things we are capable of doing come hard. It can take a lot of work to develop the ability. I would go so far as saying that if it took hard work to develop that talent, that is better. You will appreciate it and value it more when you succeed. You will probably know it better because you had to work at it. Things that are easy are not very personally rewarding.

If you feel you have a talent for something, don’t give up. Not until you have spent a great deal of time and effort on it. Sometimes talent isn’t recognized until we reach a certain stage of life. Perhaps it has to build on other things or we have to get to a point of maturity to appreciate it.

One thing that came hard for me is giving myself permission to really experiment. To play far outside the norms and the conventional rules. I am getting better now. Hopefully I will continue to grow in that creative direction. I feel a pull that makes me think I should.

My background was very literal and hyper realistic. It was a struggle to break out of that. But I discovered I like the other side as well. Maybe more. Now I am comfortable with intentionally blurring things. I can composite images and play with more extreme colors. It seems the further I go off the normal path of photography the more I like it. Is this a talent? Hard to say. Maybe it is just a preference. I’m not sure where the line it.

At some point, though, we sometimes have to decide we were wishing for a talent we don’t really have. If we have done an honest job of trying and it is just not working, time to change direction. In the process we have learned something new about ourselves. I’ll mention this later, but I found that I have very little talent for drawing or painting. I had to abandon that.

Do you need talent?

Do you need talent to be an artist? A sensitive topic, and I will probably offend someone. My feeling is yes, you do. The mechanics, the rules and patterns can be learned by almost anyone. What is the difference between someone who can barely take a usable selfie and another person who makes what people recognize as very good art? I don’t know. It could be creativity, or knowing how to use the tools better, or natural skill. For lack of a better term I will call it talent. Something separates the very good from the rest.

But, and this is significant, I believe most people can learn to do a lot. You don’t have to be the best in the world to enjoy doing something. Get over thinking everything is a competition with 1 winner and everyone else a loser. Do what you can. Relax. Enjoy what you can do.

Study yourself

To grow, it is necessary to curate our talents like we would our art. We should evaluate and refine and seek to understand. It is a life-long process.

I see it as a past/present/future sequence. We must honestly evaluate where we have been and what talents we have discovered. We also need to realistically assess where we are now. Are we content with what we are doing? Do we feel we are making the most of what we have? And looking to the future helps us plan a path forward. Where do we want to go? What talents will it require? This obviously is wider in scope than just art. We are evaluating our life.

To be realistic, I’m not talking about forcing myself into a lotus position and doing navel-gazing for days. I would probably need the rescue services to pry me out if I ever got folded up that way. The idea is that we need to be self-aware. We are the only one who really understands what we feel and like and what our goals actually are. I believe we should be intentional about our life.

Optimize your strengths

One of the big disservices of the corporate world is the annual review. We and our manager and maybe our peers are supposed to review what we have accomplished and assess our strengths and weaknesses. A lot of focus is on coming up with a plan to improve our weaknesses.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like the self-evaluation I recommended. What I finally figured out over the years is that it is a normalization process. The corporation is trying to make us interchangeable parts they can move around at will. This optimizes their goals, not mine.

It finally was clear that, if you are a top performer, you get rewarded for what you do excellently. You very seldom get down graded for your weaknesses. It became my goal to optimize my strengths. When my weaknesses were pointed out I could say, yep, that is a weakness, and be confident that it will not hold me back.

Relating this to art, it became clear to me early on that I had so little talent for drawing or painting that I would never be happy pursuing that. Also, I have a relatively short attention span for working on an image. I want to see results quickly. I did not want to spend weeks working on a single painting. But I was compelled to create art. Finding photography worked for me as the outlet that I needed . That became a whole world that was creatively satisfying and challenging. By following my strengths I can honestly consider myself an artist.

Our talents are our strengths. They make us unique. We should try to be very aware of them. We should cultivate them and be looking to develop new ones. I believe we all have a lot of potential. No one but you can really know you. Keep pushing yourself. Learn new things. Try new directions. Find those buried talents and bring them out. Be all you can be.

A Sense of Wonder

A result of following curiosity

Remember wonder? Most of us came with a sense of wonder. Think of a kid at Disneyworld. Or that kid with a brush or a pencil or sidewalk chalk drawing their creations. Or just playing with toys.

Somewhere along the way this sense of wonder is squeezed out of most of us. We “grow up” and see everything coldly and analytically, or we live in fear of everything that could happen to us. Of course we have to grow up, but losing our joy and wonder of the world is a tragedy.

My point of view here is mainly that of an artist, but the comments generally apply in a much broader scope. In a sense this article is a followup to a previous one on learning what excites us.

Wonder drives us

As artists (or well-balanced people) wonder is what makes us take a fresh look at everything around us. It propels us forward to discover and explore. Wonder lets us walk around the block and see something we have never noticed before that interests us or leads us to make a connection with something else.

Wonder is the “what if?” that leads us to see new things or try new things. Without it we tend to do the same things over and over mechanically, routine. As artists we can easily get in a rut. We always produce similar work, because that is what we do. Maybe that is what we became known for.

A rut is stagnant. It always goes the same places. We don’t grow. Eventually we get bored with what we are producing and it shows.

Wonder feeds our curiosity

One of the greatest benefits we have as humans is curiosity. Most of us are not grubbing around to look for our next meal or to simply survive. We want to create, to make our mark. We know there is something more than the day to day activities that occupy us. Questions intrigue us and we want answers. Or at least, we want to try to figure them out.

I believe, and this is totally non-scientific, that wonder leads and drives our curiosity. If you don’t wonder at something why would you be curious? Wonder sparks the “how?”, “why?”, “what if?”, “could I?” side of us. It shows us there are new dimensions to explore, new sights we have not found yet.

Being open and receptive to wonder makes us take a fresh look at the world around us.

Permission

Are you looking around you and really seeing things? Or are you moving through life in a fog, with your headphones on and buried in your phone?

Not to sound judgmental, but that is what I observe of most people around me. The reality is that wonder is a still, small voice that needs quiet to be heard. It is easily drowned out by noise. The world around us inundates us with a constant stream of media designed to keep us captive and tuned in to their stream. I know from my own experiments that I have to unplug to activate my wonder and curiosity.

Try it. Go out sometime without a camera or sketch book, just you. Leave your phone in your pocket. Put away the headphones. Just wander. It will seem very strange at first. Disconcerting. But keep at it.

After a while I predict you will start to look around more. You will start to actually see things, maybe for the first time. Let your curiosity feed on it. What is that? Was this always here? That’s interesting, but I’ve never noticed it.

It basically comes down to giving your self permission to slow down and explore. This is a hard step for some of us. Practice it. It is kind of like meditation. It may seem strange at first, but it gets easier and more beneficial with practice.

And in my experience, it works the same driving in a car. That is, turn off the radio and just look around (as much as you safely can). Give your self permission to take side trips, to stop and look at anything that catches your eye. Let those cars pass you. Try it. It feeds your mind and it gets easier with practice.

Play

I started off talking about the natural wonder we had as children. To some extent we can recapture it. We just have to un-learn some of our adult traits. A good path is to learn to play again.

As kids we played a lot. BTW, I hope you let your kids have lots of unstructured time for play. Not with socially relevant or educational toys, but with a box or some paper or string or … Anyway, adults can play, too. It is good for us. Very good.

Follow your curiosity. Pursue goals that probably won’t lead to a profitable outcome, but that you are interested in. Learn something new.

As an artist, assign yourself a strange project. One you have never done before and aren’t likely to put in your portfolio. Explore the dark recesses of your tools, like Photoshop blending modes for example. Not to create something great, but to explore and find out what might happen.

That’s one of the things about play, it is usually unstructured and just for you. There is no intent to produce something for other people. The benefits are indirect and very personal.

Be different

I highly recommend you redevelop a child-like wonder for your work and the world around you. Give your self permission to be unconventional. You will start to see more. You will become more curious about things. Hopefully you will act on your curiosity. Observe, experiment, plan to throw your experiments away. The joy and learning is in the doing or the seeing.

In my art I have followed my curiosity and am starting to see beyond the traditional limits of my media. I push past the conventional views I have long held and try to re-imagine the normal. I am doing whole new views of common everyday scenes. You may not like it. Nobody has to other than me. But it renews me. I feel like I am opening up new doors.

Please try to renew your art and your life. It is the only life we have.

Do You Need A New Camera?

An early image from my D800.

The reflexive answer is “Yes, of course”. Most of us lust for new equipment. But think about it a bit. What about your camera is holding you back? How will having a new camera make you a better and more creative photographer?

Resolution

Resolution is one of the technical parameters of cameras that increases over time. It is an easy thing to measure and use as a figure of merit for comparing cameras. Is it a good measure?

Well, yes, more is better, some of the time. It depends on your needs. Will you be making and selling prints that are 48″ or larger? You probably need a lot of resolution. But even then, it depends on what you shoot. If your subjects are highly detailed and you want your viewers to be able to come up nose-length to the print and see every bit of the fine detail, well, it comes with a cost. You want all the resolution you can get. And more.

Be aware there is a cost. Not just the price of the camera. File sizes get huge. After I’ve taken an image into Photoshop for editing I sometimes end up with files that are more than 4GBytes in size. Everything has to scale up with this: the computer memory, all my disk sizes, including backups, memory card size and cost, and my speed of working slows down.

So far it is worth it to me, but there will be a limit.

Speed

One of the other metrics people use to justify a new camera is image capture speed. If your current camera can “only” take 5 frames a second wouldn’t it be a lot better to have one that takes 10 frames a second?

Maybe. It depends on what you do. I no longer shoot sports so this has become insignificant to me. Occasionally I need to take a burst of a few frames to try to capture a certain moment. It is becoming more and more rare, though. I usually challenge myself to use my instincts developed over the years to know how to recognize and capture the “decisive moment” instead of blasting through a group of 20 frames hoping the one I want is in there somewhere. It usually works well for me and I feel like a better craftsman.

Again, your mileage will vary. It depends on the real needs you have. Don’t just optimizing specs.

Dynamic range

Dynamic range is one that can draw me. This is the range of dark to light values the sensor can reliably record.

I often have very wide exposure ranges in my images. It is much better for me to be able to capture the entire range in one frame instead of relying on putting together an HDR set. This is because many of my pictures are strongly oriented to motion. That makes each frame unique. It is almost impossible to stack them for HDR.

But are you really at a disadvantage with what you have today? I shoot Nikon, so that is all I can talk about. Full frame Nikons since at least the D800 (about 2012?) have excellent dynamic range. So if you have a high end camera that is not more than about 10 years old it probably does a very good job. Note, the image with this blog is one of my earliest pictures shot on my D800. Great camera.

Are you really being held back?

I suggest you give it careful consideration before laying out a lot of money on a new camera. Unless you just have thousands sitting around that you want to get rid of. If so, congratulations. Check out my prints. 🙂

Instead of “do I need a new camera” maybe a better question for yourself is “how do I make better images?” This is much more difficult and important. And it is something you can do without spending much money.

Ansel Adams once said “The single most important component to a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Meaning, of course, that the photographer, the artist,, determines the quality of the image. Do you have the skills to get the best from the equipment you have now? Do you really know all the ways you can edit and improve your “negatives”?

Todd Vorenkamp, whose opinion I’ve come to respect, said:

“Search yourself for improvement, not your gear. A great photographer can make a great photograph with any camera. A poor photographer can make a poor photograph with the world’s most expensive camera. Photography is a technologically based art form, but the technology does not make the art, the human behind the camera does. Do not look for solutions in something that runs on batteries and arrives in a box. “

I believe this. And it is a gutsy thing for Todd to say, because he works for a large camera retailer. BTW, B&H is a great place to buy your equipment. Be assured I get no compensation for this plug.

We have come to a time where camera designers are pushing the limits of physics. Improvement in resolution and dynamic range are getting much harder. Incremental Engineering improvements still happen all the time, but true breakthroughs are more rare. Newer cameras usually have small improvements and more bells and whistles to have to learn.

How to move forward

Most photographers are always shopping for shiny new equipment and the greatest new technology. I include myself. Nikon, if you’re listening, I would love for you to bring out a 100MPixel mirrorless body. I would probably put my deposit down immediately.

But Todd is right, and Ansel is right – it is the photographer that makes the difference. I believe you should not go for a new camera (and the computer processing to go with it) until you are confident you can wring all the performance possible from your current one. Best to master your current tools before getting new ones to learn.

Are your techniques good enough to make the best image the camera is capable of? Are you confident you can edit well enough to achieve your goals? Maybe hardest of all, do you understand your vision for what you want to create?

When you can honestly assess those questions I think you will know when it is time to move on. Maybe you do need a new camera.