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?

Getting There

Illustrating its the journey

We all have ambitions, goals, dreams. We seem to spend our life “getting there”. Have you ever gotten there and not found it was what you hoped?

Where is “there”?

When we talk about getting there, we have to ask, where is “there”? Seems obvious, but I find that a lot of people don’t spend much time establishing those targets. That is a shame. The place you are trying to get to determines a lot of your life’s journey. You better be sure you know where you are going or sure you trust your instincts to follow a constantly unfolding path to an unknown destination.

Seriously, a lot of people assume they know where they should go because it has been told to them by someone, probably parents or advisors or counselors. So they commit their life to reaching a goal they may not have considered carefully.

It is a tragedy to get to your life’s goal only to discover you did not care about it. This applies to all aspects of life, but I will try to focus us on art.

Who sets your goals?

Who actually sets your goals? Do you investigate and analyze and try out things to select your goal? Or do you accept what is expected of you?

Let me give a personal, non-art example. As a young Engineer, I assumed the goal was to “progress” up the management chain. It was projected (by managers) as the normal growth path. Well, I worked hard and was given the opportunity to step onto that ladder. I fairly quickly discovered I hated it. It did not fit my talents and interests at all. My love was Engineering. Luckily, my company was very good about wanting people to be in the most effective role. I went back to being “just” an Engineer and loved it. When I moved up, it was on the Engineering track.

It was kind of traumatic, but I clarified my goals. I felt like a failure as a manager, but a success as an Engineer. That was when I began to understand that I am responsible for my own goals.

What is the cost?

Working toward a goal always involves some costs. Make sure you understand them and are willing to pay what is required.

It is fairly easy to quantify the direct costs. As a photographer I need rather expensive cameras and lenses. There is also the high powered computer, lots of fast disk storage and backup, memory cards, etc. Add in travel, workshops, training and other education. If you listed it all it would be pretty intimidating. But this is just the direct cost.

There are indirect costs and opportunity costs. I am a fine art photographer. Basically this means I do what I do for the love and the creativity and the personal reward, not to make a lot of money. I better have an independent means of supporting myself and my family. Right now I am OK with that. It could change in the future.

Don’t forget the opportunity costs. Any time you pursue a goal you exclude other things. Did you trade off becoming an artist rather than being a doctor? It is a safe bet to assume you would make a lot more money as a doctor. But if you hated it, would the money be worth it? Maybe our choices are not so clear cut, but we always make tradeoffs.

Be honest with yourself about the costs you are willing to pay for the destination you want to get to.

The journey is the destination

People often tell youthe journey is the destination“. They are usually right, but make sure you understand what they are saying.

Here is the reality I have discovered. Yours may be different. Starting from where we are now, we usually do not know what the destination will actually be. We may have a vague idea or a wish, but the reality will usually be different than what we imagined.

So we cannot really plot a path to the destination. It is a moving target and we cannot anticipate the twists and roadblocks along the way. What we can do is take a step that seems to take us in the direction we want to go. Just a step. Then evaluate where we are now and decide what direction to take the next step. And so on. When we get to that destination, it is probably the one we have determined we actually want, not necessarily what we set out to do.

Along the way we experience life. This is what it is about. That is what the phrase means. Live your life today, not in the future. Appreciate everything you find. Be grateful for the day and its experiences. To really appreciate the journey you have to be mindful and living in the moment. When we live this way, we get to the end having lived a full and joyful life. Regardless of what state we arrived at.

Will you sacrifice your life for a goal you may not even want or will you live your life every day as a mindful, joy filled experience? I hope you clarify and find your own rewards. And make your own art.

Don’t Rush

Unsuccessful Panorama. I decided on reflection that I do not like it.

It seems most people rush to share results of any photo outing on social media immediately. But why? Does that make sense? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until you have a few great images ready? Let your work and vision mature.

Don’t be a slave to social media

I am freely admitting my prejudice here. I am not a fan of social media and I don’t participate in much of it.

A lot of people I see feel compelled to post some of everything they do to social media as soon as they are within cell phone range. They put themselves under a lot of pressure. If you are dependent on the “likes” and upvotes you get online, you serve a very capricious master. And what if several people don’t like your work? What do you do? Change? Abandon what you are doing? Who is deciding your style and artistic interests?

It’s not collaboration

Is your art a group process or are you, the artist, solely responsible for your creations? “Collaboration” is one of those powerful sounding words thrown around in corporations these days. I’ve been there. I know there is a place for it in corporations where they’re trying to achieve at least an average result and wanting to make several special interest groups feel included. But I claim it is not appropriate for our art.

Our art should be a highly personal expression. To a degree, it should not matter if it is not universally popular. Maybe we should not try to be universally popular. If it appeals to the masses and looks like “everybody else’s” art, is it a creative expression? My work is going to be my own total responsibiity.

Ask why you are sharing

If you are sharing on social media, I think it is important to ask why you are doing it. Likes feel good, but do these people actually buy your art? Sorry to be crude and talk about money, but isn’t that the grease that lets things run?

If your social media strategy is well tuned and you have a good mailing list of people who are real customers and eager to buy your work, good for you. That is a reason to publish on social media.

But, how fast should you do it? Conventional wisdom on social media is that you should show work in progress. This is where I tend to disagree. I believe we should never show our work until it is ready.

Curating takes time

A lot of my art has to mature. I may have an idea of something I want to pursue, but my first attempts are usually not representative of where I will end up. It is typical for me to have to work with an idea or a subject for a while to refine my view, to understand my underlying feelings about it. The ideas have to age, to mature some. This can take from days to years.

So if I’m shooting a project, the first images I shoot may be scatter shots all around the idea I haven’t really “discovered” yet. After dong work on the project a while I begin to understand what I really want to say and what will make the best visual presentation. It could be that one or more of those original images actually work for the final project, but that is almost an accident. It usually means I shot an image instinctively even though I did not consciously understand where I wanted to go. But projects can last from weeks to years, so my vision likely evolves over that time.

In a similar way, it is sometimes the case that I shoot an image, I like it, but something tells me it is not complete yet. Maybe it needs to be worked as a low key black & white image. Maybe I need to do some serious cropping to isolate the part that really interests me. Perhaps I need to composite it with some texture or other elements to complete the look. Or maybe it just isn’t as good as I originally thought.

Be patient

If you’re like a lot of photographers, you shoot a lot of images when working a scene. Sometimes it is not immediately clear to me which is the pick of the group. I often have to live with them a while to understand what I was really drawn to. It may take days or weeks before I can look at the set and say “this one” is the one that captures what I was feeling at the time.

If I am under pressure to get a quick look out to social media, I would find that what I am publishing is not really representative of what I end up with. Maybe that is OK for you. But I do not want anyone to see what I would consider inferior work. A secret of most photographers is that they seem very good because you only see about 1% or less of what they shoot. They throw away or rework what doesn’t work before it ever gets out of their studio. What you do see is good.

A line from a famous old Paul Mason ad said “We will sell no wine before its time.” I don’t know if this is still true or if it ever was, but the idea has merit. Don’t be in such a rush to get things out. Wait for them to mature. A few great images is more impactful than a bunch of mediocre ones.

Today’s image

This is a pano I shot earlier this year. At first it was a pick of the day. I really like the clouds and mountain shapes. After living with it for a while, though, I realized I do not like the foreground or the middle ground (the lower forests are too dark). And there is more visual clutter to remove than I wanted to do. So this went into the “eliminated” pile. There was another one that I liked much better.