Lighten Up

Reflections on flowing water.

By lighten up I don’t suggest we make more high key images. It’s not a bad idea if you don’t do it much. But I mean to give our viewers more opportunity to figure things out for themselves.


Most of us take the world very seriously. Of course, there are serious issues we live with all the time. I don’t minimize them. But I learned from an expert in culture that, being an official old guy, I typically have less anxiety than most of you younger people.

Personally, I’m glad. I hate going around burdened down with angst and fear. Instead, when I’m out taking pictures I see joy and hope and feel uplifted.

I’m not trying to change the world with my images. At best, I hope to help a few people have a better day by looking at my work.

But another way to lighten things up it to be more ambiguous. I notice that most of my work has a clear subject. Low ambiguity. Also, not so many questions for you to answer for yourself. This is probably a fault.


Ambiguity is a marvelous tool. Used sparingly it can liven up our work and give our viewers more challenges and rewards. Ambiguity means being open to more than one interpretation.

I recently watched a video on Creative Live by Renee Robyn. She is a conceptual artist who constructs images as composites of many layers. Some of her work leads to various interpretations. I was interested that she said about one that she asked many people what it meant to them and every one had a different interpretation. And none matched what she had in mind. That is ambiguity.

Ambiguity introduces the option of different interpretation. Of course, that is always possible with any image, but more ambiguity makes it more possible.

Leave questions unanswered

As I get older I find my work asking more questions than answering them. Maybe I realize I know less as I age.

I cynically view that a lot of young people come out of art training thinking they now think deep thoughts and have to raise great questions for their viewers. Later, whether they realize it or not, most of them settle down some and their work says “this is what I see”. Even later, like me, they might come around to saying “these are things I still don’t understand, but I see them different and less rigidly now”.

Intentionally introducing more ambiguity is one way to move away from imposing my own interpretation on a scene. By leaving more room for the viewer to create their own story it becomes more of a conversation.

Say more

It is quite possible to say more by saying less. This is one of the beauties of poetry. Great poetry may introduce deep truths in a few words, but in a way that keeps the reader thinking about it on and off for years.

I have no images where I claim such insight or depth. But I do think that by leaving more for the viewer to fill in from their own experience and viewpoint, there can be more interest.

Giving viewers the clear answer to things can come across like a boring lecture. It may be good information, but it doesn’t necessarily engage you. I have this problem with a lot of landscape images I see (and take). It’s a landscape. Beautiful place, great time of year, I’d like to go there, but there’s nothing else. Nothing left for me to figure out or question.

It seems much more rewarding to hint that there is more depth there to be discovered. To give the viewer a chance to participate, to become a co-creator.

Today’s image

This image is a little ambiguous. I’ll let you figure out what it actually is. I left a couple of strong hints, but feel free to make up your own interpretation, your own story.

Throw It Away

Going to work on a Paris morning

This is a controversial subject. I have touched on it before, but it is time to circle back. My assertion is that most of us should throw away more of our work. Horrors! Kill our darlings? Sounds terrible! But I am convinced that one excellent way to improve our work is to throw it away.

We probably overshoot

It is so easy now days with digital cameras. There seems to be no cost for shooting a lot of frames. We “work the scene”, taking many shots at different angles and positions and focal lengths. Refining it to find the best view. And then shoot a few insurance shots, you know, in case one doesn’t record properly or we jiggle the camera. You know.

That’s a pretty typical process and can be useful. But the reality is these shots are not free. We have to edit them, cull through them to select the best, do some “quick” processing to see if they seem worth investing more in. This takes a lot of time. They take up disk and backup storage space.

So where with film, we might have taken 3 or 4 images of a scene, now we come back with 15 or 20 or more. That can be good. If you really have to work through different views to determine what is best, then do it. Or increased experience might help to get you there in fewer attempts.

For example, you come to a nice waterfall. So you shoot brackets of apertures from f/ 2.8 to f/22, and brackets of shutter speeds from 1/1000th to 10 sec, and exposures from -3 to +2 stops. Just in case. Why? You should know from experience what you prefer. You should know that f/8 +/- a little is what you like with this lens at this distance. The amount of blurring you prefer is usually achieved at around 1/4 to 1/10 second for this kind of subject. You should know how to expose to the right and prevent clipping of highlights.

Just that takes it from shooting all possible combinations to intelligently determining what to do. You have a style and preference and you should be comfortable with the craft. Why shoot things you know you won’t like?

Overshooting creates a huge backlog of work. And lots of wasted disk space. And a cluttered Lightroom catalog. Simplify.

We keep too much

OK, let’s say you intentionally shoot a lot of images of a scene as you work it. How much of that do you really need to keep?

Are you going to keep all the shots in case you later change your mind later about what you like? Don’t. Make an artistic decision and stick with it. Don’t keep that full bracket of apertures “just in case” you change your mind.

We make it hard on ourselves by second guessing our decisions. Decide what you like in the group, what matches your intent at the time, and throw away most of the others. My experience is that if I didn’t know what I liked at the time, one of the variations seldom captures “it” either.

The great gets lost in the sea of good

Are you drowning in a sea of pictures? So much that you can’t locate the shots you like best? I get the impression that this is an increasing problem for a lot of people.

A solution is a more disciplined filing and catalog system. This is made much easier when there are fewer images competing for our attentions.

You don’t need 20 decent pictures of that scene. You need the one that represents your best artistic sensibility at the time. And that one should be processed to bring out your vision as you saw it then. It should never be a case of wading through many competing images to pick out the best one.

Here is a hard lesson I have had to learn: good images are usually worthless. Only great images have any chance of making it. You seldom need the ones that are only good.


I am arguing for decluttering our catalog by removing images you aren’t going to need. But yes, that means you have to kill some of your darlings. Delete perfectly good images.

This hurts. Why should you delete good images? Because as I said earlier, we are artists. We have to have the confidence to make a decision and a statement. This is my vision of that scene. None of the other attempts matter. DaVinci didn’t paint 20 variations of the Mona Lisa.

If you have a catalog of 100,000 images, are they 100,000 excellent images? What good are all those OK images that you will never use? Wouldn’t it be much better to only have 10,000 great images? The numbers are just for discussion. My point is, declutter your environment.

But, we say, I need insurance shots in case my great image gets corrupted. Really? How often does this happen. And if it does, that is what your backup strategy is there to correct.

But I really like all those shots. Yes, but when is the last time you used one of them? Why would you use one of them? If they are not the great image you love, their value is close to zero.

To use the example from before, if you have 100,000 pretty good images, how do you locate that 1 great one you want to submit to a gallery? It is hard to find the signal in the noise.

Declutter. It hurts at first, but is healthy.

Tighten up that portfolio

The same applies to our portfolios and projects. Less is usually more. This is another of those painful lessons experience teaches if we listen.

Your portfolio should have a max size you pick. If you want to add a new image to a portfolio, make yourself decide which one you will replace. This is hard. But here is a truth: every time you take one out, you make the remaining set stronger. Taking out a picture you love doesn’t mean you don’t love it anymore. It just means that it is not the strongest in the group.

I don’t think I have ever damaged a portfolio by taking something out.

Same with projects. That is a little trickier, because sometimes we need images to set a context or help tell our story, but still, they should all be strong. Less is still usually more.

A personal example. I recently needed to pull together a group of images for an exhibit. The subject was one I love, so I had a lot of images I really liked. In my first pass, I pulled out 162 images I loved that I thought would be great for it. I knew that was a ridiculous number for this exhibit, but I really liked all of them.

So hard core culling mode on. After my next pass, it was down to 125. Progress, but way out of range still. I had to remind myself that deleting an image from the set doesn’t mean I don’t like it, just that it was bumped by a stronger image of mine. So with a great struggle, I was down to 69. So far I have taken out nearly 100 of my favorite images!

Narrowing my focus and getting even more selective got it down to 44. It hurt, but now I have narrowed it to 23. I’m kind of stuck right now, but I know I need to get it down to about 15.

A funny thing has happened, though. At this point I believe ALL of them are great images and I could almost randomly select the next 8 to cut. That is an interesting realization.

Be reasonable

In all things you have to make reasonable judgments for yourself. I’m not saying never keep alternate shots of a scene. I routinely keep a few. But I don’t keep duplicates that do not add any value. And I don’t keep alternate images that I know from experience are not my style.

And there are those shots you know are flawed, but you just love them. Fine. I have a lot of those. Generally they are segregated from my “main” images, but they are important memories for me. Or they tell a behind the scenes story that is valuable to me.

I use a multi-pass editing process and I usually let images age some before making many final judgments about them. But I figure if I don’t delete about 1/2 of my shots, either I am on a great run (it happens sometimes) or I’m not being critical enough. Often it runs to 2/3 deleted. And by deleted, I mean really gone, erased, trashed, removed, never to be seen again, digital dust.

It hurts, but the remaining ones are stronger. I want to always be biased toward making the survivors stronger.

Today’s image

The project I described above is on France. More about the joie de vivre rather than a tourist view. To present more of a mirror than a window, to refer back to a recent post. This picture is one i am struggling with. Would you keep it? So far I have. I think it says a lot about the environment and culture and spirit of the people. I love it for a number of reasons. If it doesn’t make it into the final set, I will be disappointed, but it means the overall group has a higher bar.


Tree growing from rock. Grow where you're planted.

This article is going to be published around Christmas, so I will be going off the normal artistic or technical track. I think it is important to keep an attitude of gratitude. It focuses us and keeps us open to more of what is going on around us and keeps our life balanced.

What is gratitude

Gratitude is an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation. That can seem out of place in today’s world, but I believe it is just as appropriate now as ever.

Gratitude comes from the realization that I am very fortunate. I am very blessed in my circumstances. When we think soberly about it, we all know that none of us deserves good things, just because we are alive. We may have worked hard for what we have, but hard work alone will not determine the outcome.

I am healthy and fit enough to do what I want. Even at my age I do not take any medications and I do not have any chronic diseases. I get to set my own schedule and priorities. Few people consider that they have enough money, but the reality is that right now I have all I need and don’t have to worry about it. That in itself gives me tremendous freedom. My mind is still mostly intact (some people may disagree). I love to exercise my creativity in my art and I get the opportunity to do it about as much as I want. And one of my great joys is learning new things.

This is not bragging. I am telling you I realize I am blessed. I am not smart enough or talented enough or skilled enough to have created this situation on my own. The odds are way against it.

Basically, gratitude means I do not believe everything I have comes from my own talent and effort and I am extremely grateful for what I have.

Why is it important

Gratitude helps keep us humble. It makes it easier to see our self in context: we are limited and occasionally foolish and occasionally bad tempered and we make a lot of mistakes, but sometimes we can be creative and generous and giving. And it helps us realize no one really cares much what we do, so we better do what helps satisfy our own goals and gives us satisfaction.

So if we make a mistake or if our work is not selected for a show we entered or even if someone criticizes what we do, so what? We are just human like anyone else. Those things may hurt, but it is just part of going through life. Other people’s opinion should not affect us too much.

What effect does it have on us

A healthy sense of gratitude leads to contentment and inner peace. Contentment is a decision to accept and get the most out of whatever comes. Not to say you don’t try to change things and better our circumstances, but still be grateful for what we do have and are.

Contentment is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness depends mostly on our circumstances. Happiness is the temperature is just right. I had a very nice lunch. A friend called and asked me out. I received some unexpected good news. These happiness moments are rather ephemeral. When something goes wrong it can quickly go away.

Contentment, though, being an attitude or a decision, tends to have a long term flow through our lives. It is not so influenced by circumstances or events. It is an internal value that warms and comforts us all the time.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity, a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie

And emphasizing the receptivity that comes from gratitude, the great Paul Caponigro says

I strive to undo my reactions to civilization’s syncopated demands and hope that inner peace, quiet, and lack of concern for specific results may enable a stance of gratitude and balance – a receptiveness that will allow the participation of grace. This meditative form of inaction has been my true realm of creative action.

Paul Caponigro


I couldn’t really talk about gratitude without pointing out that it acknowledges something bigger than us. My belief is that the gifts I have and the opportunities I have received are a gift from God. I don’t expect or require most of you to share my specific belief, but I have to mention it. It is the basis of so much.

If you are your own god, you will eventually realize that you are a very poor god, with no power and no promise for a better future.


So I urge you to cultivate a spirit of contentment and gratitude. Be at peace within yourself. This leads to a rich life and a joyful spirit of exploration and creativity.

In the Christmas season when this was published, I urge you to seek contentment and realize the greater blessings we have.

Depth of Field, Again

Sacred Places. Memorial celebration of WWII liberation

In my last article I discussed, in probably too much depth, the technical aspects of depth of field. But I try to keep this series focused more on artistic issues and creativity. Let me take a different look at depth of field again as a concept.

Purely technical

On the surface, depth of field is purely a technical concept. I went into some of the issues in my last article. Sorry for the math. 🙂 I know most people don’t like that. Actually, I don’t like it much either, but some level of understanding is necessary for mastery of the art.

Maybe the most challenging concept from that article was “circle of confusion”. The idea that there are acceptable levels of unsharpness. Perhaps there are analogies in our understanding of what we shoot.

Looking deeper

Let’s set the math and technical details aside for now. I can hear the sigh of relief.

I propose that there is an analogous concept concerning the sharpness of our intent when we are shooting. That is, did I just point my camera at a subject, make a decent composition, and shoot? Or was I clear in my mind why I was taking the picture and what it was really about?

I have often referenced the Ansel Adams quote that “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” There are 2 reasons for that. First, it is a brilliant observation. Second, it is something I struggle with, so it is very real and close to me.

Yes, I can compose and I can use good technique to get the sharpness I want. I can use light to my advantage and I have a lot of experience post processing. But even so, I often look at my images in despair. Too often they are sharp images of a fuzzy concept. When I am honest with myself, I know I didn’t have much in mind when I shot them.

Art happens in our head

Maybe it is too obvious to state, but art happens in our head, not in the camera or the computer. As with any definite statement about art, this is a generalization. Sure, there have been many times when I was working with images on my computer and experimenting (e.g. playing) and things seemed to come together. That is the exception, though.

All too often I look at my images and realize they are, at best, just record shots of a place I was at. No “depth of focus”. Not much below the surface to give you a reason to pause over it and consider it.

The fault is entirely my own. I didn’t have anything to say, and I said it.

There is a marked contrast with the images I get when I go out to shoot a project, or ones I shot when I was feeling strongly about the subject or the situation. Many more of them are strong and satisfying.

We all know this: the more we put into something the more we are likely to get out of it. Why don’t I remember it more when I am out shooting?

My excuse, other than simply laziness, is that I like to go out exploring and shoot interesting things I come across. I don’t always find interesting or “deep” things. That is just that, an excuse. Maybe it is as much that I didn’t have much to say that day. I try to remind myself of Jay Maisel‘s quote that “If you talk with nothing to say, that’s bad. When you shoot with nothing to say, that’s worse.”

Circle of confusion

So, is there a “circle of confusion” concept for our shooting? Maybe so. If we can’t get our ideas into focus, maybe we shouldn’t shoot. Do our ideas have to be in perfect focus? No. Like the technical term, maybe there is an acceptable level of unsharpness. I hope so.

What do I mean by this? Well, sometimes I realize exactly what the scene means to me and I can determine exactly how to shoot it. That is great. I am often happy with the result. Sometimes, though, I just have a feeling, a sense of what I am experiencing. I have learned to follow those instincts even if I cannot clearly express their meaning at the moment. If something is drawing me, there is probably a reason.

Later, while editing, I may realize what was calling me to it. If I was diligent enough to work the scene a bit to get several views and takes , I might be lucky to find that one of them captures what I was feeling.

Maybe I am being too hard on myself. Jay Maisel also said “You always end up with too many pictures to edit and too few that you feel ‘got it’.” I suppose the feeling is common to all photographers, but it still is frustrating.

Projects to focus

I am learning to use projects to help me focus more clearly. A project is a chance to think deeply about something, decide how I feel about it, and then find opportunities to express it.

It is basic psychology that when you are concentrating on something you are more attune to it. A simple example: a friend was thinking about buying a Nissan car. I don’t think about there being many of them around, but after that conversation it seemed like every other car I saw was a Nissan. I was more attuned to them.

A somewhat more relevant example is from a recent trip to France. It was a family trip and we were going to be traveling around quite a bit but I didn’t want to come back with just random tourist shots. So I created a few projects to keep in mind to focus my thoughts and energy. One of them I called Sacred Places. It helped me be much more aware of cathedrals, of course, but monuments and memorials and standing stones. Even a small village celebration of their liberation in WWII. I felt more aligned with the concept of the project, it helped me to see more opportunities, and I felt I looked deeper at the occasions I found.

If I don’t see it, why should you?

Circling back to Jay Maisel’s quote: “If you talk with nothing to say, that’s bad. When you shoot with nothing to say, that’s worse.” If we can’t focus our feelings and experience, are we shooting with nothing to say? Just taking a sharp or well composed picture isn’t enough. If you can’t participate in the experience I felt then I’m not bringing you anything other than an “I was there” picture. Maybe it is pretty, but there isn’t much to feel or remember.

Perhaps I do not have to be able to precisely express what I was feeling at the moment. Maybe there is a “circle of confusion” associated with our understanding of the image we are creating that gives us some margin for imprecision. But the circle of confusion in focusing helps discuss a range of acceptable sharpness, not permission to be out of focus. Maybe there is a range of acceptable understanding of our feelings leading to making an image. But little or no understanding is definitely out of range. With no real understanding or feeling, there is little interest for viewers. Have something to say.

Today’s image

I mentioned having Sacred Places in mind and encountering a memorial celebration in a small village in France. This image was a result of that. We happened, by accident, to be there on the day of their annual celebration of liberation in WWII. They still remember and memorialize it to this day. That in itself is heart warming.

This flag display was presented while local dignitaries and military officials made speeches. I didn’t understand enough French to follow it, but it was moving.

Having the Sacred Placed project in mind made me more attuned to this. We actually stayed for all of it and loved being there. When they discovered that we were Americans I barely avoided having to give a speech at their village celebration afterward.

I hope a little of the dignity and solemnity of their memorial comes through.

The Product or the Experience

Rolling to the horizon.

There is a lot of contradicting statements and articles floating around, especially about photography. I think a lot of it comes down to the statements being more or less true, but the assumptions behind them are different. One of the biggest and often unstated assumptions concerns whether the focus is the product or the experience. Should the focus be the final produced piece or the artist’s state of mind?

What is the output?

I am talking about fine art, not commercial photography. What is the purpose of an artist? How do you measure art? Is the artist to be graded on the number of works he creates? Or are there other values or metrics that are important?

Have you ever been to a great location and not taken any pictures? I have. Sometimes I just want to soak up the experience as it is happening. Enjoy the wonder of the moment. Or maybe I get there and discover I am drawn to something completely different from what I anticipated.

I will go where my interests take me and not worry about the original plan. Does that make the outing a failure? Not to me. For me there are other considerations besides getting a planned shot or even getting any at all. So the results I value may not be just a particular image.

That does not seem to be true for some people. There are those who plan an outing to the last detail. Making sure they show up at the “right” spot and time to get the classic light on the subject. If the weather is not what they wanted or conditions have changed, like a forest fire that alters the landscape totally, they are devastated. Not getting the planned shot is a failure to them.

The product

Is the goal of an artist to make the most nice works he can? Is an outing a failure if it didn’t result in some minimum number of “keepers”? I think this is a mindset many have. We tend to be very production oriented. Society in general pushes the idea of efficiency. . Sometimes we believe it for our art.

So, for those times we have gone out to photograph a well known, iconic location , what is your attitude if it doesn’t work out?f Is that a wasted trip? What if all you got was a memory? If your only goal was to recreate someone else’s photograph, I guess it was wasted for you.

What of the experience you had? Did you experience wonder at the great scene? Did you let yourself be drawn to some smaller scene within the scene? Maybe to something else entirely? Or was the disappointment of having your goal thwarted overwhelming?

Even if it is not a great icon, what is your goal when you go out? Are you desperate to collect a certain number of good images? Why?

What is a good image worth compared to a great one? If you create 1 image that you consider shows the peak of your ability as of now, isn’t that more worthy than having a whole memory card full of mediocre pictures?

My point is that, for art, it is not a game of numbers. Quantity is not better than quality.

The experience

Some would say photography is about the experience. That if the artist experiences significant emotion or awe or connection, and if he is able to capture it in a way that helps others participate in the same experience, then maybe he has created art.

There are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” there. That is part of the problem. I tend to buy in to the intent of this, but there are a lot of pitfalls.

One problem with the equivalence postulate is that it can be very difficult to transfer a feeling or experience from one person to another. Or from a piece of art to a person. You have seen it. Have you ever made an image that is dripping with meaning for you, but have someone else look at it and say “meh…”.?

It is easy to say that I must not be skilled enough as an artist if that happens. Perhaps. But our viewer wasn’t there when we were. The image may not touch the same things in them that it does in us. We all have different experiences and values and feelings.

I think the point for me is that we should first make images that touch something significant in us. If we are able to do that, them perhaps our viewers can see some of it, too. Then we will have been successful at communicating our experience. If we cannot share our experience through our image, then at least it is notable for us.

Which are you?

I have made it pretty clear which way I lean. My images should capture an experience or an idea that is meaningful to me. It is my goal to have you see significance in some of them, too. That said, it can be significant sometimes to just say “wow, that is beautiful”.

If you are on the other side and feel like you need to collect images of famous scenes or make works that are popular with many other people, then that is your decision. It is your life and your art. I don’t understand why you would let things external to you dictate your interests, but whatever makes you happy.

Whatever you do, enjoy your artistic life.

Today’s image

This article came across as kind of heavy and preachy. So I Iightened up some on the image. But not going off theme.

This was from a visit to a “famous” landmark in Kansas. It was interesting and I’m glad I went there, but when I turned around, the road leading in to it was more interesting than the landmark. There was no reason to dream there would be a picture here, but I remember this more than I do the landmark. Look around. Be open and flexible.