Happy Accidents

Burned forest. Like a pen and ink drawing.

We like to promote the impression that we are a professional, so what we do is always deliberate and we know exactly what the result will be. Too bad it is not true for many of us. Sometimes our best discoveries are a result of happy accidents. If we are open to them we can learn a lot.

Have a plan

Shouldn’t we have a deliberate plan before we go out shooting? That depends on what you are doing and what your personality is. If you are shooting for someone, of course have a well thought out plan. You are contracted to produce agreed on results. You have to deliver.

I am a “fine art” photographer, though. My only client is myself. This “client” is looking for great experiences and images that are meaningful to me and that excite me. Those are very hard to plan.

I find it best to have one or two project themes in mind and then put myself is harm’s way, so to speak, by getting out and shooting. My best work is done by being in the moment and reacting to what I find rather than just thinking about what I might do.

So no, I don’t really plan. A plan for me might be to decide to go east today. That determines the general nature of what I will find.

Accidents happen

I expect accidents to happen and I expect many of them to be happy ones. An accident does not imply something bad or disruptive. It just means it was unforeseen and unexpected. An accident in my terms is not usually an event that happens. Rather it is the recognition of an opportunity I had not considered.

If I have a few project ideas kicking around in my head to seed my thoughts, I wait for something to trigger some kind of recognition. I have to stay wide open to what is there so I allow myself to recognize what I am seeing. This is my own brand of mindfulness.

Be receptive

Being receptive is the hard part for many of us. Especially you Type A personalities. If you are heavy on control and planning you tend to put blinders on to other opportunities that present themselves.

Not being a Type A, I am usually content to go out empty, as Jay Maisel would say. I enjoy just having some vague ideas in mind to slightly focus my thoughts and wait for things to come to me as I wander around.

Let’s say I am thinking about a project on “The Forest”. I go to a forest cause, well, that’s where you find forest pictures. I wander around aimlessly for a while, shooting a few frames to get the creative juices flowing. After getting the obvious shots out of the way, I start asking myself more questions. What is the essence I am feeling? What is a forest, really? Is there anything unique about this group of trees? Can I offer any insight on this? Things like that.

If my mind is engaged and things go well, I will get past the obvious, shallow first impressions and start delving deeper into my feelings about this place and what I am seeing. Magic can happen then. I seem to be operating on a different plane. Suddenly new worlds of sights open up and I see a different forest than I had before. At this point I can do creative work.

By being receptive to my feelings and what I am encountering, I can create images that show a new perspective on the subject. This usually will not happen unless I can get into a mindset of being grateful and receptive and respectful of what is around me.

Get out of your own way

Finding this state is not easy until you have done it enough times to trust the process. You have to get out of your own way. Stop trying to control so much. Gratefully take what is there and use it to the best of your ability.

There is a yin/yang battle going on in my mind. Part of me is instinctively framing and shooting as I intuitively recognize good images. Another part of me is questioning. Asking “why?”, “what am I drawn to here?”, “how could I get deeper to the core of this?”. This questioning dialog subtly guides the instinctive shooting process and helps refine my view of the subject.

But there needs to be a healthy balance. Don’t become paralyzed by over-thinking what you are doing. On the other hand, don’t just go totally open loop and shoot all day without any self-examination of what you are getting and why.

Results

Results count. For me it may be better to say the quality of the results count. When I went out to shoot I may have had a vague notion of what I expected to find and capture. If I have taken advantage of the happy accidents I encountered, what I ended up with may not have been at all what I expected. Hopefully I will think that what I ended up with is much better than what I expected to get.

It is kind of a mental game that takes practice to master. In a way it is probably like being in a flow state. If you have never experienced it, it is just an abstract concept. Once you have experienced it, it is “Wow! That’s great! I want to do this a lot more”.

That is how I feel about happy accidents.

Today’s image

This is one of those unexpected, happy accidents. This is sort of a follow up on the idea of working on a “The Forest” project.

When I went out to shoot this day I had no idea I would end up with pictures of a burned forest. I went up high and came to a burn area of a few years ago. Usually I would avoid a scene like this. It makes me sad to see so much of the forests near me burned. Knowing they will never come back in my lifetime.

This time I found the sights and designs of the burned trees fascinating. It reminded me that there can be beauty even in death and destruction. It is a natural cycle. Besides, just taken on their own it kind of reminds me of a stark pen and ink drawing. Something I really appreciate.

This was my introspection on a forest that day.

Don’t Repeat Yourself

Abstract study in texture and shape

Your parents or teachers probably told you this when you were growing up. Generally it’s good advice, but I am going to take it to a different context. In our work as artists, we must be careful to not become complacent and stop trying new things. Don’t repeat yourself artistically.

Stuck in a rut

We’ve all been there, haven’t we. Going over the same ground all the time. Playing it safe, Not trying anything new. It is the easy path. Or, it seems like it for a while.

Sometimes we feel trapped by success. Gallerists are quick to label us as something to make it easier to know who to sell to a client. So we may become known as that flower photographer, or a street photographer, or the guy who does abstract composites.

Whatever our label is, it often serves as a limit on our freedom. If our success is measured in sales then we become reluctant to do anything to jeopardize our supposed success.

Let me use Thomas Kincade as an example. I’m not criticizing him, and besides, he is dead. If you say his name you immediately know what one of his pictures looks like. He was a factory. I never talked to him, but I wonder if he ever wanted to paint something other than the cute little English cottages with dramatic lighting. Some of his work was interesting to me until it became monotonous.

I can’t be critical of you, either. I don’t know your motivation. Perhaps you love a certain subject so much that that is all you want to do. Great. But still look for ways to bring freshness to what you do. Don’t just do the same thing over and over. That is crippling and repetitious.

Challenge yourself

Who are you competing with? Isn’t it yourself? You may have a favorite artist you would like to be like, but you can’t. They are them and you are you. You have your own set of talents and values and perceptions. No one else will see the world quite like you do.

If that is so, then you are your own standard and critic. I better be doing work that matches my standards and interests. I am the one I have to please.

It is apparent to me from my history that without new challenges to excite me I become stale, bored. Once I have done a subject or a theme enough to feel I “got it”, whatever that may mean, I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m done with that. I need continued challenge to keep me fresh.

Some of my students are surprised when they learn that I am still experimenting and trying new things (for instance, I have started only recently to use focus stacking with regularity). They assume that my creativity has fully matured because I am somewhat established (old). But when we experiment — testing not only our tools’ limitations but also our creative sensibilities — we help ourselves to grow creatively and our work to remain fresh.

Chuck Kimmerle in Nature Vision Magazine, #1

Going back over the same ground too many times makes me complacent. No new challenges remain. I have nothing fresh to say about it. And it doesn’t hold any terror for me.

It should be scary

Terror??! Yes. Maybe that is too dramatic, but trying something new is scary. There is a strong fear of failure. The old “imposter syndrome” kicks in big time and makes us doubt our capability.

But for us, the fear is overwhelmed by the knowledge that I have new ideas that I have to try it. It could be a complete failure, but I won’t know unless I try. And I have to try, because it could be the next step in my development as an artist. Without trying this new thing I am cheating myself and letting myself believe I’m not good enough or creative enough to do it.

The fear of the unknown becomes less than the pressure within us to try it. Holding back is the beginning of a death spiral. Fear and inertia sets is and it becomes harder and harder to move on to new experiences.

Doing something new is scary. You are not sure you can do it, you won’t be good at it at first, you are not sure it even works for you. but you won’t know unless you do it. An artist has this drive in him that compels him to push on to new things. To shove aside some of the limits that are around him now and let his creativity flow in a new direction. The challenge of creativity makes the obstacles seem small.

Moving target

I don’t know if it has occurred to you or not, but the line where we move into the challenge area is a moving target. That is, as we confront our fears and push into new areas and become proficient, now we need further challenges. You may, at first, see this as a problem, but actually it is a good thing.

It is a good thing because we will never get stale. There are always new challenges to confront. Your art should excite you. To excite you, you will have to keep it fresh and alive. We can find new limits to push against. So we have a lifelong learning and growth opportunity. It is up to us. It is like a fractal figure. No matter how far we push into it, there is always new shape to discover. Will we accept the challenge to grow or stay in our comfort zone and eventually stagnate?

What limits you?

What limits you? It is easy to blame external things: those judges didn’t appreciate my work, those galleries can’t see what I am trying to do, I can’t “break into the club”. Don’t waste your energy on blaming those things. They are just there, like taxes. Keep trying, but realize you can’t control them.

And remind yourself that the only judge and critic of your work that matters is you. Are you happy with your work? Don’t be complacent. Set your standards high, higher than is reasonable. Exciting work doesn’t come from low goals. They are your standards. This is the bar you have to try to clear. Not something someone else sets for you.

I started with the idea of not repeating yourself. I hope you see it in a higher context of pushing yourself to new levels of vision and technical achievement. It is your art, it is your life. Be the best you can be. If you are happy with your art, that is the audience that counts most.

Don’t repeat yourself means be always growing and finding new ways to express yourself.

Bring Mystery

Deep, rich, crushed blacks

Some art lays everything out for you. What you see is what you get. Some art, though, seems to bring mystery to the image. You, the viewer, must become involved with it and imagine what you cannot see. I find I am being drawn more to the mystery side.

Note: this article was inspired by an article "The Imaginary Shadows" in Better Photography Magazine #112.

Reveal all

I used to think full tonal range realism was the ideal for most art and photography in particular. I loved hyper realism. Honestly, I still do. Super detail throughout, Textures so crisp you think you can feel them. That is one reason I use a camera with good lenses and lot of pixels.

You know the drill, especially if you are were in a camera club. Expose to the right, but no blown out highlights. Full histogram down to a few spots of rich blacks. The subject must be in the sharpest possible focus. Well sharpened overall, but with no halos. Printed using the best available paper and techniques so another photographer can come right up to the print as close as he can see and it all looks smooth and sharp to his critical eye.

All these things are good ideas, but not a formula for making great art. I spent years honing my craft to be able to capture all those pixels in the best way. And more learning how to process the files to bring out all that detail. The technician in me loves the technical challenge. And the purist in me loves to see all that gorgeous detail and texture.

Contrasts

There is a problem I am starting to see, though. When you clearly show the viewer everything there is to see, it gets boring quickly. There is little holding power in the image. It is like a movie preview that gives away the whole plot. There is no mystery left. Viewers pass on fairly quickly.

It is starting to sink in to me that in art and life, a lot is about contrasts. Contrasts put things in opposition. We are drawn to regions of sharp contrast. It is in our hard wiring.

Contrasts are a way of comparing things by showing opposing qualities. The contrasts can be light vs dark, in focus vs out of focus, warm colors vs cool colors, moving vs still, hard vs soft, textured vs smooth – there are too many to enumerate.

But we instinctively know that contrasts define a comparison that is important to the image. So we are drawn to the contrasted areas. We spend time looking and trying to figure out the meaning or importance of the contrast.

It helps guide our understanding of the image and we become more involved in figuring out the artist’s intent.

Use contrasts

So, perhaps, viewers actually appreciate some need to think about and spend some time with an image. I call this introducing mystery. The viewer wants to get engaged and invest some energy in it. Contrasts are one primary way to do this.

Unlike just a flat field of pixels, contrasts help the viewer understand the artist’s intent. It shows what relationships the artist wants to point out. What comparisons he wants to make. Contrasts help point out what the artist wanted us to notice.

The mystery of black

There is a special type of contrast often used in black & white images: areas of black. An article by Len Metcalf in a recent issue of Better Photography magazine brought this to my attention. It was kind of an “Aha” moment. You know how when you know something subconsciously, but then you see it written down and it is like a flash of insight?

Len is an excellent photographer and teacher in Australia. He was describing a realization that came to him while teaching one of his master classes. They were surrounded by prints from great photographers, from Ansel Adams to contemporary artists. He says

As I looked around the room, I became acutely aware of the intense blackness in each of the prints. As I stared, I realized that these were not little black speckles as we are cautioned about by judges in camera club competitions. … These were humongous areas of beautiful, deep rich velvety, black black, blacker than black blacks.

He goes on to observe that some artists, like Ansel Adams and Bill Brandt for example, tended to make their prints darker and darker as they got older.

Why? What were they seeing?

Hold back

One of his conclusions was that they realized that, in some cases, the less said, the better. That is, areas of blacks added a new quality to the images.

He speculates that areas of highlight show all their information clearly. You see everything there is to see. The whole story is laid out clearly for us, so we do not have to work or use our imagination. But the dark areas, the spaces where we can’t see what is going on, hold interest for us. We wonder what is there. We make up our own story. it engages our imagination.

Maybe this is why artists like Ansel Adams printed larger and larger areas of deep black as they evolved in their art. By holding back some information from the viewer the image actually becomes more interesting.

Crush the blacks

So I seem to be on a campaign to crush the blacks. What this means is intentionally pushing some of the darkest grays down to pure black. Yes, it eliminates information from the image. That is something we were always taught not to do.

But it is an artistic choice. It brings the benefits I mentioned about introducing mystery and drama into an image.

It is not for all images in all situations. But when you decide to use it, go for it. Be heavy handed. Overdo it to see how far you want to take it. When I overdo it and back off some, I find that I do not back off as far as I would have if I didn’t overdo it. In other words, after seeing the result, I often want to retain more of the effect that I would have thought

It is surprising. Sometimes less is more. Experiment with making your blacks darker to see how it feels to you. I like what I am seeing so far. I used to consider dark images as somber and melancholy. Now I would more likely refer to them as mysterious. Try it and see if it feels better to you.

Today’s image

For fun and an experiment, I went back to an old image and re-processed it to crush the blacks even more. The result is more dark and mysterious than the original. I like it much better. Maybe it is approaching the “humongous areas of beautiful, deep rich velvety, black black, blacker than black blacks” that Len was talking about.

One other reason for doing this is to investigate a point Len made that an advantage previous generations of photographers had was that, to re-print an image, they had to go through the whole darkroom process. This gave them a chance to think about the image anew and re-interpret it according to their current sensibility. We tend to just hit print to make a new print. No thought involved.

I found, indeed, that I changed the image when I took a new fresh at it.

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.

Macro

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.

Pseudo-aerial

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.

Challenges

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?

Example

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?

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.

Wandering

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.

Excursions

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.

Exploring

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.