No Camera

Abandoned house on Colorado eastern plains. Probably abandoned during the Dust Bowl.

I often write about carrying a camera all the time and even using it as a tool to get into a flow state for photography. I just did the opposite. I went off on a 3 day trip with no camera. Well, my phone, but I didn’t use it.

Why take a camera

I have said that having a camera with me gives me license to think photographically. It is true. This technique often helps be get off dead center and get moving.

Most of the time, the feel of a familiar camera in my hand and the click of the shutter propels me into a creative zone. I start seeing possibilities I was overlooking before. After the first frame or 2 things start to flow.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about side trips and excursions. One example I used was taking my wife to the airport then wandering in the eastern Colorado plains. What i didn’t say was that I drove for a couple of hours without “seeing” anything to shoot. Finally I basically forced myself to get out the camera and shoot a couple of frames. After that I “found” over 300 images by the time I got back that evening. About 1 per mile that I drove. Some were quite good. Many more are ones I’m glad I shot, just for the experimental value if nothing else.

Jerry Uselmann said “The camera is a license to explore.”. I find it to be true for me. Besides, as the great Jay Maisel said “It’s a lot easier to take pictures if you always have the camera with you.

Why not take a camera

On the other hand, I sometimes, but rarely, deliberately leave the camera at home. I mentioned the trip I took last week where I did not take the camera.

There seemed to be a need to back off some. This is unusual for me, but I sometimes get so far behind in my processing that I feel like I am just shooting blindly and loosing touch with my work. And getting un-creative and un-inspired. So I decided to slow down producing images and work more on assimilating what I have already done.

I have slowed down shooting for a couple of weeks, but I haven’t completely stopped. Given that, though, when this short trip came up, I reluctantly talked myself into altogether abstaining by not even taking my camera. It is the first time I have done that for a long time.

OK, it was frustrating at times, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Granted, this was a fast family trip and I knew the weather would be bad. Those things helped. But before it would not have dissuaded me.

In a strange sense, it was kind of liberating to not feel any pressure to take pictures. It did not stop me from practicing composing images in my mind. But since it was impossible to shoot them, it as all just a fun creative exercise.


I’m pretty good about having accurate intuition about what I need to do for my physical and mental health. I think I realized I was getting a little burnt out and needed to back off some. This exercising of depriving myself of the opportunity to shoot was actually kind of refreshing.. It was a recharge.

Just the 3 day event was healthy and useful but not enough. I plan to stay slowed down for a few more weeks. It will let me decompress and get back in touch with my current work and what directions I am going. Some of the time can be used to re-evaluate and do some soul searching. And to catch up with culling and filing and processing.

If you are doing intense physical training it is critical to plan in rest days. Otherwise your body breaks down and you do more harm than good. Likewise if you are doing intense mental activities like studying for finals, you have to take breaks to let your brain catch up and process information.

I think it is the same thing with art. We love doing our art. We want to do it. But we need to realize our body and mind need to rest sometimes.

Go off and do something unrelated. Take walks without a camera. Read a book. Write letters – remember paper and pens? Start a journal. These are good for your mind and your creativity. It recharges us and prepares us for the next intense push.

I consider my experiment of leaving my camera at home on that last trip to be a success. Sometimes it is more productive to not do anything.

The image

The image today is one of the ones I shot on that day I described when I took the excursion in eastern Colorado. I like doing portraits of weathered old houses like this. It was probably abandoned during the Dust Bowl days. Nothing but clouds to the horizon.

I didn’t show any pictures from the trip where I didn’t take a camera, because, well, I didn’t take any. 🙂

Eliminate Scale

Pseudo-aerial image. It seams to be an angry sea breaking on the shore.

Photography makes it easy to visualize the world differently. By using various lenses and changing our position we can get closer to or further from the subject and we can change the composition dramatically. A technique I like to use sometimes is to eliminate scale to give a fresh view of a subject.

Not intimate landscapes

Intimate landscapes are popular and common. This is simply getting in close to a section of a landscape. It allows us to call attention to shapes and colors and relationships that would be lost in the immensity of a wide landscape scene. It is a classic technique and I use it a lot. I love it.

But this is not what i am talking about today. Most often in an intimate landscape, it is clear that the scene is a segment of a landscape or nature view. We get in closer to isolate the part we want to call attention to, but we keep the context of the overall landscape. If I make a close view of a rapidly flowing stream, it is clear that the context is a cascade in the mountains.

Aerial Photography

It is popular to make abstract aerial landscape shots. They can be beautiful and compelling. The shapes are organic and pleasing yet the scene is somewhat abstract because we can’t place what it is. Some well known photographers like Peter Eastway and Tony Hewitt are known for this technique.

Drone photography is also increasingly popular and available to more photographers because it is a lot cheaper. Drone photography is typically done at a few hundred feet elevation, as opposed to conventional aerial photography that is typically up to a few thousand feet.

The common characteristic of these is that the views are looking down, usually straight down, to a relatively flat plane. Scale references are usually missing, so the viewer is left to imagine the size of what is being seen. That is part of the fun of viewing them.


Jumping much further down the scale, another technique to eliminate scale is macro photography. This usually refers to images that are life size or closer. A life size shot is termed 1to1. This signifies that the image is the same size on the sensor as it was in real life. For a full frame sensor that means shooting a scene that is 24mmx36mm. That is getting close. Macro photographers routinely get much closer than this.

This type of shooting tends to get very technology-heavy. There are special optical techniques with extension tubes and bellows and reversing lenses to give the required magnification. Special tripod fittings are used for focusing, because the whole camera system has to be moved to focus. No auto focus here.

Lighting is another consideration that gets difficult. Macro photographers use multiple flash setups with bounces or ring lights or even light tubes to direct the lighting to the very small area being shot and eliminate glare.

On top of that, macro shots have extremely small depth of field. It is more and more common to use focus stacking techniques to record many, sometimes hundreds, of “slices” at different focal points. Special softwar combines it all to produce a final result. I have a friend who designed and built a robot system to automate macro and micro photography with steps of microns.

I am not saying these things as a negative against macro photography, I am just trying to place it in context of what I am discussing. Macro images are often great and intriguing because they show a realm we do not see with our eye. But I don’t have the patience to do it seriously. I prefer a more spontaneous style.


The particular kind of scale elimination I am talking about today I call pseudo-aerial. I haven’t seen the term anywhere. As far as I know, I coined it.

I do not lay out the big bucks to book a plane or a helicopter for a shoot. And I have not gotten a drone yet. I already said I don’t have the patience to do serious macro work. So I figured out a way to do my own brand of simulated scale-less images that mimic aerial photography.

I find small scenes with interesting shape or texture or color and with few if any clues for size and typically shoot straight down from a standing position, basically about 2-3 ft above the scene. The results are my own brand of abstract aerial photography that I call pseudo-aerial. It is sort of the macro version of aerial photography.

One advantage over true aerial photography is that subjects I shoot are often static. I can spend more time composing and moving freely, compared to being in an airplane. And I can spend longer on a scene, maybe waiting for the light to become “right”. Of course, the subject does not actually have to be horizontal, as long as I can get perpendicular to it.


There are some challenges, but they are pretty minor. Making sure my feet or the tripod feet are not in the frame is something to always check for. Likewise, being careful not to let my shadow intrude in the scene.

I often shoot these without a tripod. Without a tripod there is the balancing act of leaning out far enough to be perpendicular to the plane of the image and get my feet out of the frame and not fall over while making sure the shutter speed is fast enough to stop and motion. Yes, I have been off balance. Embarrassing but not yet damaging.

A bigger challenge is to visualize a small scene as if it were an aerial shot. Making sure there are no clues of scale, like grass or twigs or leaves to de-mystify it. Imagining the final image printed to check the impact and interest. Dare I say “pre-visualizing” it?


I will make it concrete with an example. The image presented today is one of these pseudo-aerials. It reminds me of an angry sea breaking on the beach, changing color over the sand and diminishing the violence.

In “reality”I shot it at my local car wash. The camera is upside down on the center console of my car, pointed up through the sunroof. In that position I had to use the camera’s app on my phone to view and control it and take pictures. Very little was done to the actual image data except to color it to match the effect as I visualize it.

A lot of experimenting (and luck) was needed to get the timing of the water and soap and brush movement to get an effect I liked. Plan to throw a lot away. But when it works, it can create a unique and interesting scene.

After describing my pseudo-aerials as shots looking down at a small static scene, I turned it upside down to show an example shooting up at my sunroof at a dynamic scene. I wanted to emphasize that the original orientation and details don’t matter. What matters is if the final result will be accepted as an abstract aerial shot. To me this does.

I like pushing the boundaries of the medium. This technique to eliminate scale seems to me to be a rich area for exploration. I intend to pursue it a lot more.

What do you think?

Expressing Joy

Italy, old friends enjoying a hot afternoon

Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and beaten down by life. But how can we do our art if that is our attitude? It is hard for me because my art is an expression of joy and wonder, not a gloomy negative presentation. If we take a wider view, I believe we will be a better person if we go through our life expressing joy and that should infuse our art.

Beautiful world

It truly is a beautiful world we live in. Sometimes we don’t apply our attention to actually seeing it. It is too easy to get caught up in our problems and go through life with our head down, internally focused.

Go look. Really look.

Where I live I can see mountains, plains, forests, wide open spaces, all basically from my house. If you are in a city you can find parks or greenbelts, bike trails or walking trails, beautiful art and architecture. You can probably find trees and flowers and rivers or oceans close by. We can always just look up at the sky, day or night, and marvel.

Where you are probably has some distinctive characteristics. Learn to see and appreciate them. Mountains are beautiful. Deserts are beautiful. Rolling hills and forests and oceans are beautiful. It is a matter of getting in tune with what is around you. Almost everything can be beautiful in its own way. I won’t argue what “beauty” is, but most people share a view that nature is beautiful.

It is popular these days to see the world negatively. That everything is polluted, global warming is destroying the environment, humans have wrecked the world, the government is not doing enough to fix things. Maybe. There are problems, but decide to see beauty, too. Choosing to see good where we can is not a head-in-the sand attitude. It is self preservation. Besides, nothing is ever as bad as news channels and extremists on either side want you to believe. Look and decide for yourself.

Beautiful life

You’re alive. Life is a precious and beautiful thing. This is our only chance at life. We are living our life right now, this is not a rehearsal. Don’t let it slip by unnoticed. Seize the day.

Each day is precious. Once it is gone, it is gone forever. Find the good in every day and hour.

We can live our life bemoaning all the problems there are or we can choose to take a positive attitude. We can’t change the world, but we can make our lives and the environment around us better.

Next time you are wishing you could change the world, let the sound of your laughter emerge. Be caught smiling, giggling, singing. Demonstrate joy.

Tania Carriere

Something my wife taught me is that we shouldn’t act like we feel. We should act the way we want to feel. Our actions go a long way to determining how we feel. Sounds like some kind of new age hokum, but actually it is true.

Joy of creating

How does this relate to art? I guess it depends on who you are and what you do. I do not relate to or agree with postmodernist,  metamodernism, post-postmodernism views or any of their spinoffs. To me they are bleak and empty, lifeless and devoid of hope or joy. As art, they do not make the world better. They spread depression.

I need to feel that my art will improve us, or at least our attitude. And I need to feel affection or affinity with my subjects. Without that, I am not drawn to shoot or process with any enthusiasm. That does not mean the subjects need to be “beautiful” in any conventional sense, just that I am drawn to them. Even if it is an old rusty car or a dilapidated shack, I need to feel attracted to it. I need to fall in love with my subject and see it in a joyful and positive mindset. Like the great Jay Maisel said, “Photography is an act of love.” and “What you’re shooting at doesn’t matter, the real question is: ‘Does it give you joy?’“.

Art is a creative activity. To me, creation is a positive thing. It is difficult for me to “create” when I feel the outcome is negative and depressing. I am constantly asking myself why I am shooting this and how can I bring what I feel to my viewer. Any image I show you I hope is uplifting in some way.

Joy is an attitude

We tend to confuse the notions of joy and happiness. They are very different. I am happy when I look in my wallet and find $20 I didn’t know I had. I am happy when the sun shines nicely and warms the day up, or I sit down to a nice meal. The stock market being up makes most of us happy. These are all external events we do not control. Things that happen to us.

Joy, on the other hand, is an internal decision. It comes from within us, based on our attitudes and values, not just feelings. It actually is a decision. We decide to be joyful or not. It may not be a conscious decision for many of us, but it is our decision.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Mr Franlk was writing this based on observing extreme circumstances: people in Nazi concentration camps. The point being, no matter what circumstances are pressing on us, we are free to choose our response, our attitude.

I have to choose an attitude of joy and wonder to do the work that wants to come from me. My art seems to be tied to that.


I cannot make art unless my head is in the right place. A significant part of getting my head in the right place is having a joyful attitude. When I am expressing my joy, I feel most creative and alive.

For me, I have to get out and explore to find images. But when I am out, if I am not grounded by joy, I seldom am drawn to subjects to shoot. Being out where the images are is necessary, but I have to see and feel them. I find that without joy, I don’t recognize or feel enthused to make images.

My art is an expression of joy. This is the way I work. Your mileage may vary.

This image

This is joy? Yes, to me and for me.

It is in a small town in Italy. A miserably hot day (at least 100F). I was trudging back to the hotel, dying from the heat. But looking down this side street, this group of old friends was making the best of it, enjoying each other’s company as they have probably done for decades. It was a shady spot with some breeze. Probably the most comfortable place around. They knew how to cope with it. And how to live a good life with joy.

After seeing this and capturing it, I felt better, too. Expressing joy is contageous

Side Trips

Medieval manor house

I love to wander, to travel slowly. Side trips are a refreshing joy to me. Let me encourage you to join in the adventure.


I am a wanderer. It seems to be deeply ingrained in me. A good way to frustrate me is to put me in a situation with a tightly planned itinerary. It feels so scripted and limiting.

For years I resisted my wife’s pleas to go on a cruise. I knew I would not like the regimentation and fixed schedule. Reluctantly, I finally relented, but only because we would be gong with close friends. I was right. It was frustrating and I was always concerned about getting back to the ship in time. Seems like we are always leaving port just as the light was getting good for photographing on land. I don’t totally hate cruises. We have been on several now. but I have to put myself in cruise mode and accept that I am not going to be doing much photography that is interesting to me.

Some of my peak travel experiences came back when we owned a timeshare. Ours was exchanged in blocks of 1 week. They were very nice properties, but often in out of the way places. After a day or so we had “seen everything”, but we were there for a week, so then I could get down to hard core wandering. I would get the most detailed map I could find (can’t count on data service in these places) and we would head off. We encountered places we had never heard of or envisioned. Things that were not on any tourist brochures. It was a great joy.

BTW, don’t buy a timeshare now. the prices and rules have changed so much that they are not a great deal. Timeshare now is VRBO.


This kind of wandering I described from our timeshare I would call excursions. We had a great fixed base and went off exploring on day trips. I prefer this to planning a route, packing up every day, estimating where we will get to, and trying to arrange ahead for lodging in unknown places. What can I say, I am spoiled.

I also frequently do similar excursions from home. Recently I had to take my wife to the airport for a short trip. The airport is about an hour from our house. After dropping her off, I went for an excursion in eastern Colorado. It turned out to be a 12 hour trip. No itinerary, no real goals, just the freedom to wander and explore the wilds of the plains. I loved it. I haven’t processed them fully yet, but I think I got some shots I will love long term.

Side Trips

Another example: on a family trip coming back from the southeastern part of the country, we were passing through Arkansas. We were on 2 lane highways, as I prefer, when I saw an intriguing sign talking about a marker for the Louisiana Purchase Survey. Never heard of it before. Curious, and always up for possibly interesting side trips, I turned off on a very small road that took us about 5 miles out into what became swamps! Did you know Arkansas had swamps? Neither did I.

Anyway, after the Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800’s the government devised a system for surveying the land so they could start parceling it out. Two survey teams were sent out and where they crossed was designated the”Initial Point of the first survey of the American West” . A marker stone was set there. in the middle of the swamp. Lucky for us, it is in a nice Arkansas park now with boardwalks to take us over the swamp to the survey marker.

This was a fascinating bit of history I did not know and the location was spectacular – to me, since I love swamps. We probably took over an hour seeing this bit of interest we did not know existed. A great side excursion. Sure it put us “behind” on our trip, but so what? This side trip is what I remember.

I love interesting side trips to find obscure things I did not know existed.


Long ago I figured out that I am an explorer by nature. Not a Lewis & Clark “head out into the uncharted wilderness for years” guy. But someone who likes to discover new and interesting things. I will get out in all kinds of weather, but I don’t sleep on the ground anymore. 🙂

Exploring doesn’t require long treks in the wilderness. I explore all over my small town all the time. I am surprised that I can still find new and interesting sights. When I’m in town, almost every day I take side trips a few miles around my studio. I have done it so much that is is getting harder to see compelling new sights, but sometimes there is the thrill of discovery. Sometimes familiar things take a whole new look in different light or weather.

If I go to a new city I usually head out on the streets to get oriented and familiar with the sights and looks. Sometimes I even take a camera. Exploring is creative fun. There are always surprising new things to discover.

Don’t be in such a hurry

I know it is totally counter to the modern lifestyle and expectations, but slow down. Look around more. Find new interesting things where you thought you had seen it all. Be willing to take side trips and excursions. It is a creativity exercise that keeps your mind open to discovery.

Not all side trips pay off in great images. Probably most don’t. Even if not, there is the joy of trying and learning something new. As has been said by wiser people, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. But sometimes…

This image

Today’s image is a classic “found along the way” find for me. This is in the Lake District in England. We knew roughly where it was, but, as I am prone to do, we came in from a non-normal way. Basically we came in the back door. I won’t say more because I don’t want to rental car company to know what we did. 🙂

it was a great and beautiful place and I’m glad we did the side trips and wandering necessary to see it.

What Can it Be?

Evening barn and tree. Dramatic sky. Blue tones.

You saw something that excited you. All your experience and great camera gear was used to capture it. You poured your heart into representing what you felt. Now what? For fine art, no matter what we felt, now we have to make the best image we can. We have to let go of what we saw and figure out what can it be. Now it takes on a new life.

Capture time

When I am in the field with my camera, I have to use all my skill to compose and create the best image I can. I’m speaking for myself, because all my work is captured outside. The same idea would apply in a studio.

Something caught our eye. We were reasonably sure there was a subject there worth spending the time on. We completely fell in love with what we saw. That is great. If we can show that emotion and enthusiasm to our viewer, they should be drawn to the image just as we were.

So we work the scene. Design the composition. What is the best position to capture this? The right lens to use? Decide when and where the light is best, Does the background and foreground need work? What depth of field does this need? Work through the technical settings: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus, expose to the right but don’t burn out the highlights. It is on a tripod, of course.

In the field the process becomes a pleasant dance intertwining the technical details, the changing light, compositional tweaks, and the “decisive moment“. If we are new to it, there is a lot to try to think about in real time. If we are extremely experienced, we tend to get in the flow and let our subconscious take over. Either way, at capture time, we are intensely focused on getting the shot.


This (potentially) great image we just shot has a lot of personal baggage attached to it. We bring back all the associations we had in the field. This image has meaning for us in various ways. It may remind us of something significant from our past. We might be proud of a compositional trick we used that we have been wanting to try. It could be one of our favorite places we love to go back to. Or possibly our association is how cold or hot or wet or windy and uncomfortable it was.

Every image has associations from when and why we created it. We have memories, feelings, expectations.

But guess what? No one cares. Sorry. Well, the associations may make the image significant to me, but that is a don’t care to someone else unless I have a chance to tell them the story of why it is special. I seldom get the chance to describe my feelings, except in the image itself.

The reality is that my viewer is going to look at the print and decide what they feel or like, without having those associations I have. They see it fresh and in a completely different context. The image has to stand on its own and be accepted for what it is.

Letting go

So I’m back in my studio working on an image. At this point, I’m working on the image to be seen and appreciated by someone else, not myself. To get in the right mindset for this, I have to let go of the associations I feel for the image. The image has to stand on its own.

This is not saying I should forget the feelings and emotions I had. No, they are important. They form the base of why I responded to the picture. But what can I do to help my viewer see something of what it meant to me?

A technique that works for me is letting the image age. If I wait long enough before processing it, there is time for the raw emotions and the visceral experience to develop context in my mind. It helps me to see past the excitement of what I felt and look at it with more objectivity.

Let me give a not entirely made up example. Say I trekked in to a beautiful spot through deep snow. I’m standing on fairly slick rock at the precipice of a canyon. It is snowing lightly and very windy. I’m a little concerned about the wind and the slick rock sending me over the edge to a 100 ft fall. It is very cold. I’m tired and chilled, but the scene is beautiful. Worth the challenge and discomfort. I love it.

As I snap the picture, all these feelings are imprinted in my memory along with the image. The difficulty and stress and physical sensations impart more importance to the image than it may deserve.

It is all new in post

My point is that in post processing, our job as an artist is to finish the image into something our viewers will appreciate. We have to be free enough of our own associations that we can look at the picture and see what the viewer will see.

The feelings we felt and bring with us are still extremely important. This is the reason why why we made the image in the first place. But the viewer does not know what we felt unless we can convey some of that in the image itself.

What can we do now, sitting at our computer in a warm, comfortable studio, to bring those emotions to the viewer?

One thing I am learning is that I have to let go of a technician’s purist view of the reality of what the scene was. We have a wide array of tools available to us in post to make the image stand out without destroying the “truth” of the scene.

We’re expected to remove that offending tree or boulder that interferes with the sight line or takes attention away from the part we want the viewer to concentrate on. We can do color and brightness correction to get the overall tone to match what we felt. Dodging and burning will do wonders to change the perceived tonal values and let us emphasize or de-emphasize areas.

Crop it to a different aspect ratio? Of course. There is nothing sacred about the camera’s default crop ratio. Stretch things in one dimension? Sure, the wide angle lens made the mountain range seem less impactful than I remember. Stretch them some. That is not being false.


Many authorities say we should always pre-visualize our images. I take this to mean we should have worked out the details of what the final print should look like before we take the picture. That works for some people, not for me.

I’m more ADD. When I am in the field, I like to be in a flow state. I shoot instinctual, emotionally, drawn by what inspires me at the moment.

Of course I have a good idea of what I will end up with based on my experience and knowledge of the technology. I usually can predict how far I can push something. This is in the background, though. I try to not spend much conscious time thinking about the details while I am shooting.

Two images

So for me, every shot basically creates 2 images. The first is what i see and capture in the field. The second is how I interpret and morph the final print. They can be very different.

Both the images are dependent on my mood, perception, mindfulness, creative flow, health and intent at the time. All images are interpretations of a scene. If I went back to a scene another day, I would shoot a different picture. If I post processed an image I love a second time, I would probably end up with a different result. It is art. It is subjective. There is not right or wrong, only better or worse.

All of this is to try to convey our feelings and impressions to our audience. A straight, unprocessed image will never let my viewer see my intent. Like a movie, what matters in the end is the effect it has, the feelings it makes us feel. My image has to stand on its own and be accepted for what it is.