An unexpected travel shot. It came from taking the time to stop and watch and wait.

I have been traveling more than usual this year. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I shoot and why. Perhaps it will trigger a response in you.

This is not a typical travel photography article. You won’t find the expected rules and checklists and how-to advice.

How I travel

Travel for me is a rather solitary activity. Being an introvert, I work best alone. Having people around who want to talk about what I am doing and “help” me find pictures is almost always a negative. My wife is occasionally along on these trips, but she has learned to get out of the way and leave me alone when I am shooting. Not always, but that is the norm. I don’t want to make it sound like I push her away, it is just that she knows me enough to recognize when I am in a zone and don’t want to talk.

When I am traveling with an option of doing photography I prefer to drive or be on foot in a large city. In either case I preserve the freedom of exploring, setting my own path, managing my time. I strongly prefer to explore out of the way, seldom seen sights, even if it means missing the main tourist attractions. Actually, especially if it means missing them.

As you can tell, if I have to take a tour, especially in a bus, I feel handcuffed, in prison, doomed to follow someone else’s agenda. I may see some interesting things, but there is seldom the chance to explore something as i would like.

What am I seeking

As I learn more about myself, I realize I can never restrict myself to certain subjects. I’m afraid I will never be that guy who is known for mountain landscapes, or still lives, or seascapes. I recognize that this is a disadvantage from the sense of marketing and branding. Too bad.

Of course there are certain subjects I am naturally drawn to. I like particular kinds of landscapes. The area that might be termed wabi sabe – simply things that age and weather with character – appeals to me. It is almost a given a given that I would check these things out. A joke with my wife and some close friends is that, if we see an old rusty truck, I will want to stop and photograph it. Like most humor, it is based in truth.

But in a more general sense, I have learned that what draws me is the chance to exercise my creativity. When I see an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective or a creative treatment to a subject, I go for it. It does not matter if it is an obscure something on a back road that nobody cares about. If I can visualize it fresh and make an interesting image, that is what I want.

This is one reason I seldom hang out at the iconic viewpoints that everybody seeks. I have no interest in shooting the same image that thousands of other photographers have made. Yes, I may shoot it for my memory, but I would seldom publish a photo like that.

How I approach subjects

This is pretty nebulous. I do not have a distinct process I have written down. I’m just trying to reconstruct my thought processes.

Basically I have an imaginary dialog with the subject. “Who are you?” “What is your story?” “How would you like to be seen?” I don’t really express these things verbally or even consciously. But this is a process I think I go through.

In effect, I am making a portrait of the subject. In a good portrait, the photographer tries to get to know the subject enough to recognize the key characteristics and the underlying personality of the person. This is what I try to do, even if I am shooting an old truck.

It sounds kind of silly to write it down, but it is how I work.


There are some powerful environmental conditions I have control of that have a strong influence on the outcome and productivity of my shooting. I have learned over time to manage these things.

A powerful one is to get off the freeway. I have seldom made an interesting image alongside a freeway. Cruising down that wide road at 75 mi/hr or more tunnel vision takes over. My focus is the road ahead and cars around me. The most wonderful scene I have ever imagined could be right there next to the road and, if I noticed it at all, I would probably convince myself it was not worth pulling off and falling behind in the traffic stream.

Another is sound. I find that listening to the radio gives a focus that distracts me from creative viewing. My car radio is often off all day. If I am driving at night I may turn it on to help keep me alert, but that is the only time.

Having mild ADHD tendencies, I find I cannot ignore words, either when someone is speaking or in music. When that stimulus is occupying me I tend to ignore a lot of things going on outside. And it is easy to get in a groove and be reluctant to stop to check out possible subjects.

And having a fixed agenda works against my creativity. If it is the middle of the afternoon and I know I have 250 miles to go before I stop, it becomes too easy to judge that this thing I just saw is not worthy of stopping and putting me behind schedule. Agendas can’t always be avoided, but I try.


Photographers tend to be obsessed with gear and the technical side of the art. Who doesn’t like a great camera and a selection of excellent lenses?

Sorry to disappoint, but I find I become less interested in that with time. The key thing is what you see and what you can do, not your gear. I seem to take less gear each outing.

On a 1 week road trip I just returned from, I took one body and I only shot with 1 lens – a 24-120 f/4. I had a couple of excellent lenses with me, but never attached them. The lens I used is surprisingly good and covers the range I normally shoot in. I like to become comfortable and familiar with what I am using so that once I have visualized what I want, I just pick up the camera and it is a quick and automatic process to capture my vision.

Actually the bulkiest equipment I brought was 2 tripods and a monopod. And I didn’t use 1 of the tripods. Next time I will probably not bring it or the other lenses I had with me.

Just me

I readily say these characteristics are peculiar to me. And I am peculiar. I am in no way suggesting you should do things this way.

Over time I have learned what works for me and what I did that increased the amount of images I like. Being an introvert makes it easier for me to reflect on things like this. I like to figure things out. You need to figure out what works for you and maximize it.

We each have our own unique characteristics and strengths and weaknesses. Learning who we are and what works for us is a big step toward improving our work. And being happier along the way.

What Would You Make?

Break all the rules: not sharp, subject centered, subject indistinct, no leading lines, etc.

As creatives, we make things. But are we constrained by sets of rules and conventions? What would you make if those rules weren’t there?

We’re makers

Artists are makers. Maybe that is obvious. We have to be able to realize what we visualize.

It doesn’t do any good to say “I wish you could see what I’m thinking about doing.” It is not real until we do it. But sometimes we are held back by rules that seem to prevent us from doing what we want to do. Sometimes those “rules” are the voice in our head that is trying to keep us out of trouble, since trying something new carries the risk or failure or rejection. That protective voice can’t evaluate the upside of what we do, just the potential downside of loss or embarrassment. That fear can be as debilitating as hard rules someone imposes on us.

Whether it is our inner voice or the things we have been taught, when they prevent us from making what we feel we should, they are in the way.

Follow the rules

Many people seem eager to put rules on us. There is the famous rule of thirds. Then other rules of composition. You must have a foreground, middle ground, and background to have a balanced image. Don’t put the subject in the middle. Watch the edges. You can’t have any clutter or distraction there.

If you make it past all those, there are rules about what a photograph can or can’t be. Have a well defined subject that is in sharp focus. Never shoot in the 4 hours each side of noon because the light is too harsh. Expose (the histogram) to the right, but do not blow out highlights. Always use a tripod. There are many more. You know the routine.

Sometimes it seems impossible just to make an image. It all gets too complicated.

Whose rules?

But as I often ask, where did those rules come from and are they really “rules”?

There is no standards body that certifies artists. No one needs to grant you permission to practice your art, even if you went to art school and they thought they had the right to do that. No one can come and yank your image from the gallery wall because you broke a rule.

Given that, why do we act as if we are bound by rules or conventions? Is it to fit it? To be part of a group? Because we are insecure about our style or ability?

Maybe our favorite artist only does very realistic and dark black & white work, so that is the constraint we put on ourselves. We submitted work for an exhibit and it was rejected. Everything selected was highly abstract, so we think that is what we must do. Our local camera club disallows landscape images that show any sign of man, so that must be a rule for landscapes.

Don’t apply them indiscriminately

All the “rules” may well have been created for good reasons. But they should not be applied indiscriminately. There is a story of the mother teaching her daughter to cook. The mother cuts off the end of a roast before putting it in a pan and cooking it. The daughter asks why she did that. She says she doesn’t know, but that’s what her mother taught her to do. Sometime later the little girl asks her grandmother why she cut off the end off roasts. The grandmother told her it was because when she was young her pan was too short.

The story is probably fake, but it’s point is valid. Even if rules were created for good reason, they may not apply to you in the situation. Always evaluate the reason realistically.

Be yourself and do your own art. Who gets to decide if the work pleases you? Isn’t it only you?

What would you make if there were no rules?

Imagine there were no rules imposed on you. What would you do in that case? What would you create that is different from what you are doing now?

Would you be bold to create fresh new art that may bend genres and go in new directions? Then do it! You do not have to be bound by anybody else’s rules. Set your own values and constraints. That is how creativity happens.

Now, I am not advocating total anarchy. There is enough of that posing as art. It does not have to be disturbing or unrecognizable to be creative. Just make it your own vision.

Learn the history of image making. Study what has been done by masters over time. The things that have been recognized as leading to “good” art. Knowing what has been done will not pollute you.

What will pollute you is taking those things as rules that you must follow. Learn the rules then creatively break them. That is the way to push the boundaries to new limits. Limits you discover and exploit. Be free to take your art in whatever direction feels best to you.

No rules.


I get ideas in a lot of unlikely places. It fascinates me that I got the idea for this article from an interview I heard with Carrie Underwood, the Country singer. A lot of her songs bend and even blur the limits of her genre. She was describing one project she was working on and being frustrated in not being able to come up with the effect she wanted, The patterns and constraints of what makes a typical country song seemed to box her in. Then she asked herself “what would I make if I didn’t have rules?”. After that she felt more free to relax the constraints and take ideas from rock or other sources that she liked. Now she could create her own preferred style.

We can do it, too. What would you make if you didn’t have rules?

Fine Art

Flowing color, impression of spring.

Fine art is a very nebulous term. I don’t like the term, but I don’t have a suggested replacement. What is “fine art” photography? How do I know if I am doing it? Is there a right and wrong way to do it?

Photography genres

Photography is a large domain. It contains many specialized disciplines within it. Each has unique focus and techniques.

I will not attempt to list them all. I don’t even know them all. But some that occur to me are portraits, street photography, photojournalism, architectural photography, food photography, commercial photography, fashion photography, macro photography, and landscape photography. Cross-cutting differentiators within that are things like High Dynamic Range (HDR), Intentional Camera Motion (ICM), and black & white.

In addition, the majority of the photos shot in the world every day are on cell phones. And a lot of these are selfies used to make other people think we are having a better time on vacation than we really are.

Each of these areas has different goals and motivations and markets. It is very hard to talk about “photography” in general.

What is Fine Art?

But narrowing it down, what is “fine art photography”? How do you know if you are doing fine art?

Fine art photography is distinct from most other genres of photography in that it is first and foremost about the artist. It is not about capturing what the camera sees; it is about capturing what the artist sees. In fine art photography, therefore, the artist uses the camera as one more tool to create a work of art.

One thing you should never hear asked about a fine art image is “is that the way it looked?”. It is not intended to be representational. That is, unlike traditional landscape or photojournalism, it is not a literal representation of what was there.

What are the rules?

We have to define our own rules. This form of art is about expression and interpretation. I want you to participate in what I saw and felt about the image. That may be considerably different from a straight photograph of the scene.

But depending on the situation, sometimes the captured image is the artistic impression I want. It is not a rule that an image must be modified extensively. There are no rules except those you adopt. If I am able to achieve my intent in camera, so much the better.

When I capture a scene for art, I consider it to be raw material. It needs to be shaped and molded to become the final image. So even if the captured image is essentially my final vision, approaching it with this attitude gives me more freedom to be more creative. When I expect to modify my images I have little inhibition to doing it.

Politics and causes

I try to avoid politics in my work, but that is a personal choice. Some photographers are very caught up in a cause and want to do work to support it. You might consider Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell to be advocates for the Sierra Club. David duChemin does publicity for the charities and non-governmental organizations he is involved with. There are many more examples. It is natural to want to use your talent to support things you believe in. I do not make any judgement one way or another on that.

I believe, though, that the first job of an artist is to make art. This is completely my own value that I cannot bind on anyone else. I see many artists get so caught up in their cause that everything becomes deathly serious. There is no more fun and enjoyment. No more creativity for its own sake. Everything is pushing their cause, and if you don’t agree, then you are evil.

To me, the end result of this is that you become a propagandist and cease to be primarily an artist. If that is what you want, great. But it seems very difficult to balance creative, inquiring, free ranging art with propaganda. One or the other will be dominant.

I do fine art

Whatever fine art is, I have concluded that is what I do. I want you to feel what I was feeling, and see what I thought was significant. Whether I achieve that in-camera in one snap of the shutter or through something that is edited extensively or even composited from multiple images is immaterial. No more important than how many layers of paint a painter applies to his canvas. He does what he feels he needs to do.

My work is intended first and foremost to satisfy my creative urges. It exists purely for its aesthetic qualities. I am my primary audience. No one gets to tell me, no, you should do this. Well, my wife can, but even then I may not listen to her.

My work is intended to be art, not documentary. I am not presenting literal truth, I want you to respond to it emotionally. And for an introvert like me, dealing in feelings is a stretch goal.

How To Be Creative

Keeping Knowledge locked away

Is creativity a talent only certain people have? Is it a process to be learned? Did you ever wonder about how to be creative?

The Muse

People often speak of being visited by the Muse. Or more likely, not being visited recently. The muse seems to be this mysterious, invisible force that comes on us at times and endows us with tremendous creative force. For a while. Until she decides to leave. The muses are almost always described as female.

I can’t deny that sometimes I seem to be filled with creative energy and sometimes I can’t come up with a single good idea. Is that because of muses? I don’t want to jinx myself, but I don’t think so. It is too easy to blame external things. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. I think creativity is part of that. It is unreasonable to expect to be on a creative high all the time. It would be nice, but we have to recharge sometimes, too. If it was constant, we would appreciate it less.

A talent

OK, so is creativity a talent a few have naturally and most of us don’t? It seems like that sometimes. Have you ever met someone, maybe an artist, maybe someone in your work life who seems to exude a flow of creativity? Someone who seems to get more done than anyone else?

I have. Several times. It can be humbling. It can make you want to change careers because you seem so inferior.

Talent is a real thing. Back in my life as a software developer I did some investigation into this and found evidence that there can be a 20 to 1 difference in productivity between developers. That seems to imply that some have a natural talent for doing the work. But, don’t let this slip by, they evaluated a 20 to 1 difference in productivity. That is not necessarily creativity. Creativity is much harder to measure.

Here is a truth of life that is important to remember: just because something is easier for someone than for you does not mean their work is better. So while there are differences in talent, that does not exclude anyone.

A process

On the other hand, we can demonstrate that creativity is a process. We have to do it, not sit around waiting to be inspired. A couple of quotes from my article I reference above:

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning.” – Chuck Close

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week.” – Joel Grimes

One thing we seldom talk about as an element of creativity is domain skill. That is, to be creative you first need to be good at what you are doing. Whether it is photography or writing or software development, you have to be skilled in your domain to be able to rise above the average.

So a good part of our process is to always be working to improve our skills. When “the muse is gone” and we do not feel inspired, at least be working on our craft. I have often seen in my own life that sometimes just focusing on a technical skill can lead to new thoughts and ideas for new work.

Am I creative?

Ah, the question that haunts most “creatives”. We often doubt ourselves. After all, what we think and do is obvious to us. So it must be obvious to everyone else. Right? Probably not.

Almost everyone is creative is some areas. But I have never met someone who has all their faculties who does not have the ability to create at some level.

But we set a very high standard for ourselves, don’t we? We expect massive, glowing creativity. World changing things. Really? Not many things change the world to any measurable extent. Our insecurity about our creativity is right up there with our imposter syndrome fears.

Try this experiment. Look at a lot of the published work by other artists is your field. There will be some that blow you away. That really impress you and make you feel inferior. But think about 2 things. First, remind yourself that you are only seeing their best of the best. You never see the 99% of the failures. Are you comparing your failures to their best?

Second think about what you consider the fails among that work. Will there be a significant part of it where you will say “Really? I throw away stuff like that.”? This should convince you that you can be just as creative as most of them.

Ebb and flow

Human nature is such that we don’t just go through life at an even level. There are peaks and valleys, ebb and flow. Sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. Don’t get disappointed when your creativity follows this pattern.

But one of my points above is, get to work. Do something. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself and waiting for the muse to come back. Work. Maintain a discipline of doing things anyway. You may throw away most of what you do in this phase, but you can learn and improve your skills and it can be effective at getting you out of the valley more quickly.

One of the self help gurus I for some reason get stuff from recently said “Confidence is a byproduct of action”. I happen to agree with this. And I would add creativity is, too.

Little C or Big C

Notice that I have never defined what creativity is. This is intentional. Don’t most of us say “poor me, I’m not creative” without defining what we mean.

One conventional definition from Psychology research is that creativity is “the production of ideas or outcomes that are both novel and appropriate to some goal” (COMPONENTIAL THEORY OF CREATIVITY, Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School). The clause about goals is there because the motivation of the research was the corporate environment. Talking solely about art, I would remove that and concentrate on the novelty of a work product.

So, what is novelty and how novel does it have to be to be considered “creative”? Amabile and others say that almost everyone has some degree of creativity. It is expressed in different ways and with different impact.

She uses an example of what she terms little C creativity vs big C creativity. The dentist who came up with the idea of letting kids wear fun sunglasses during exams to protect their eyes from the bright lights is what she calls little C. It is creative but not hugely novel. At the other extreme Schawlow expressed the principles on which all lasers are based. He won a Nobel Prize for that. Definitely big C.

So maybe we ought to give ourselves a little more freedom. Creativity does not have to be Nobel Prize winning. A novel composition or idea in our images is genuinely creative if you have never seen it before.

Novelty for its own sake

So if creativity revolves around the concept of novelty, how novel and new does something have to be? I think many artists are too caught up in this and try to do novel things regardless of their artfulness. Just browse through most contemporary art galleries or The Hand Magazine.

The definition of creative above brings together novel and appropriate. Maybe doing something solely because no one else has ever done it is not good enough. Don’t forget that the idea is to make art while we are doing it.


So maybe we shouldn’t be expecting lightning flashes of brilliance in our daily work. Maybe we should work our craft and perfect our skills to make sure we are about as good as anyone else. Then “connect the dots” as Steve Jobs used to say. If we can be open and receptive to thinking in new ways, we can look for opportunities to apply novelty as an edge to differentiate our self from the pack. Then the novelty is actually a creative enhancement to our work, not just something novel.

Today’s image

I seldom try to create “message” images. When I came across this scene, though, it was too powerful to pass up. It connected several dots with me. I think I have made a creative image that can express a strong idea. Maybe more than one. What do you think?

Limiting File Size

Simple Photoshop example. File size is 22x larger.

In a previous article I talked about the “bloat” that happens when we edit in Photoshop. Is there anything we can do about it? Should we be concerned about limiting file size?

RAW vs Tiff

RAW files are fundamentally different from Photoshop files. A RAW file captures and preserves the data directly from the camera sensor. This data still contains the artifacts from the Bayer filter technology, that is, each pixel represents 1 value of red, green, or blue. Data in this form cannot be shown on your computer monitor until it is processed and expanded by a RAW converter like Lightroom Classic.

It is very important to realize that this data is unaltered, no matter what fancy processing you do in your RAW editor. The adjustments you make are kept as a collection of “processing instructions”. These are applied in real time whenever you view your RAW file.

Because of this design, Lightroom can only change the look of pixels. It cannot in any way add or remove or alter individual pixels. No matter what it looks like on screen.

For instance, even if you use the Healing tool to completely remove a person or object from the picture, the original data is always still there. What it saves is instructions telling it what region to select and what region to copy from. This processing is applied, again, each time you view the image in the editor. Actually, it usually just keeps an edited preview of the image to show quickly, but that is getting too deep.

Photoshop manipulates pixels

Photoshop, though, is the heavy duty pixel pusher. It has no moral imperative to prevent you from doing anything to image data. You can freely add or remove or alter or stretch or shrink or copy over anything. Unless you take steps to edit non-destructively (more on that later), you can remove something from the image by simply copying other pixels over the area you want to remove. The original data is permanently gone. Photoshop doesn’t care.

To do this level of manipulation requires Photoshop to expand the original RAW data to a pixel structure. The pixel data has 3 values, red, green, and blue, for each pixel and each of the values is probably 16 bits if you are editing in one of the “safer” color spaces. I recommend it. This expansion automatically makes Photoshop’s file size at least 3 times larger than the RAW file.

Once the file has been expanded to pixels and edited, there is no going back. It cannot be reprocessed back into a RAW file. You can’t put the genie back into the bottle.

Even RAW files can get big

I am presenting this in a rather black & white (metaphorically) contrast. RAW file editing is no longer immune from growing quite large. The “culprit” is masks.

It used to be that RAW processing was rather coarse and simple. If I adjusted the exposure of the image it applied to the entire image. And the processing instruction was small and simple. This is the literal data that is saved for that adjustment:


Don’t worry about the exact meaning of all of it, That is for the Engineers. The point is that only these literal 24 characters are stored to change the exposure of the entire image.

But then the designers at Adobe and others created very useful and necessary magic. We can mask areas and selectively adjust them! This is an awesome and very welcome change. It pushes back the boundary where we have to go to Photoshop to finish our files. These masks and edits are stored as text with the other processing instructions. As you might guess, it can get large.

After doing a lot of masking and editing I have seen some of these “sidecar” files grow into 10 megabytes or more. So if my original RAW file is 50 MBytes and the editing instructions add another 20 MBytes, that is quite a lot bigger. Still nothing like going to Photoshop, but I needed to point out that RAW processing is not entirely free.

Non-destructive editing

Please give me a moment to plug a non-destructive editing style in Photoshop. Photoshop can do amazing and totally un-undoable things. I know that I often change my mind or have new insights about an image after it ages a while. So weeks of months or more after an initial edit, I may look at an image again and see a different direction to be taken. If the Photoshop edit has gone down a path of no return, this can be hard.

Sure, I could go all the way back to the original RAW file and start over, but this is usually not what I want to do. I don’t want to repeat the hours of detailed work I already did. Typically there was a branch, a fork in the road while I was editing. I chose one path and later I decide I would like to explore the other one.

With discipline, Photoshop edits can be almost totally non-destructive. This means you can undo any decision later. Or perhaps strengthen or reduce the effects of an edit.

Probably 2 techniques serve for about 80% of the goal of non-destructive editing. The first is to use a new blank layer for pixel changing edits. So if I want to remove an element from the image, I will typically create a blank layer, then use stamp or move to overlay changes onto the image. the original information is still there is I later want to expose it or do a better job of removing it.

The second powerful technique is adjustment layers. Use adjustment layers rather than doing adjustment directly to the image layers. This allows the adjustments to be changed in the future. It also allows for masking to limit the effects to selected areas.

Steps to limit Photoshop file size

It is a tradeoff: do all your processing in Lightroom or go into Photoshop. Adobe and others are constantly pushing out the boundary by giving us more and more power and capability in our RAW editors. This is very welcome.

But there comes a point when we may have to do things Lightroom cannot do. There are things we can do to limit the overall Photoshop growth to the minimum, about 3 times the original RAW size. Basically, these destroy the non-destructive edits I recommended before. So all of those edit layers can be flattened down before saving the file.

This commits the edits permanently. They can’t be undone in the future. But the file size will be smaller. And rasterizing smart layers will save a lot of space. Also making changes permanent.

If it sounds like I am negative on doing this, I am. Once I invest a lot of time editing an image in Photoshop it becomes the “master” image. I usually want to keep the freedom to change my mind.

Why bother?

Maybe it’s the wrong attitude, but I try to act as if the file size does not matter. A large file is just a price to pay for the ability to craft an image I am pleased with. Disks are relatively cheap.

It’s a pain when I out grow the 4GByte limit for Tiff files and have to go to a .psb file. Lightroom does a bad job of the user experience. But I put up with it because I want to hold all that work in an editable state.

So officially my attitude is “why bother?”. Don’t sweat the file size growth. You went to Photoshop for a reason. Use it. Do your work. Files get large, It’s just a cost of doing business.

Today’s image

This is an example of a very simple looking file that grew dramatically. The final Photoshop file is 22 times larger than the edited RAW file!. From 61.5 MBytes to 1.34 GBytes. It sure doesn’t look that complex. It was necessary and I would still do it the same way again.