Find the It-ness

Old rusty International Truck. I finally got it's portrait.

Sometimes you just have to make up a word when you can’t find the right one. In this case Jay Maisel made it up. I think he is referring to seeing beneath the surface. If we find the it-ness, we are starting to get to a level where we understand more about the scene. Then maybe we can show it to our viewers.

See past the obvious

Jay seemed to be telling us to get past the first surface response and burrow down to a deeper response to a subject. The normal mode for a lot of us is to see a scene we like, pull the camera up to our eye, and shoot. Done. Go on.

But I think Jay i suggesting we slow down and not necessarily give in to our first instinct. With a little more thought and introspection we often come to a different relationship with a subject or scene. In other words, stop and think. Get in touch with why you are reacting to it and see if you can bring that out more.

There are 3 very interesting videos about Jay Maisel on Kelby One (I am not affiliated with them and I get no benefit for referring them; but it would be worthwhile to subscribe long enough to watch these 3). In each, Jay is spending a day walking around with Scott Kelby, demonstrating his technique and thought process. They are very worthwhile (when Jay is talking, not Scott). It seems like Jay is shooting quickly and instinctively, but keep in mind you are seeing the result of 50 or more years of finely honed craft. When asked about an image he can always articulate a detailed reason why he took it, what it meant to him, and why he composed it like he did. And when he reviews his seemingly quickly grabbed images, it make you want to tell him “I hate you”.

So maybe there is the promise that, with enough practice, little conscious thought is required.


I always hesitate to bring wabi-sabi up. It is easy to step off into really deep stuff. Apparently you can’t really appreciate it’s true meaning unless you are a native Japanese steeped in Zen Buddhism. There is no simple English translation.

But that doesn’t deter me from trying. Even though I am American and not at all a Buddhism practitioner. 🙂

Explanations often start from breaking down the two words wabi and sabi. One good definition says:

‘Wabi’ expresses the part of simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection. On the contrary, ‘Sabi’ displays and expresses the effect that time has on a substance or any object. Together ‘wabi-sabi’ embraces the idea of aesthetic appreciation of aging, flaws, and the beauty of the effects of time and imperfections. The two separate parts when put together, complete each other. They express simplicity and the truest form of an object.

That seems to be an elegantly simple expression of finding the it-ness of something. Regarding a thing with all its flaws and imperfections and appreciating how it changes and weathers and even decays over time is really getting in touch with its essence.

More than the subject

I recently explored the idea of the subject not being the subject. Going on beyond that is this notion of capturing the it-ness of something may be more important that just representing the thing.

The image with today’s post is an example. This old International truck fascinated me for years. It is about 50 miles from my house, not on the way to anywhere, but I visited it many times. I was never satisfied that I had photographed “it”. I took many pictures of the truck, but I never felt I actually got what I felt about it.

Finally, one day I was going by and I knew I needed to visit it one more time. Some junk was starting to encroach on it and, after it setting there rusting for years, it seemed possible that the opportunity might go away.

But this time, instead of jumping out and taking pictures, I just stared and thought a while. I walked around it slowly. All the while I was trying to explain to myself what my feelings were about this truck and how I would take its portrait.

After thinking a long time, I basically just took this one image. To me, it perfectly captures the personality, the story, the history – the it-ness – of the magnificent old truck. I felt a relationship to it.

The next time I came by there, it was all fenced off and junk was stacked all around. The picture opportunity was gone. That makes me sad, but I finally had the picture I wanted. I believe this is a true and accurate portrait of this giant of the Colorado plains. This will always be my memory of that good old truck that I have known a long time.

This is a wabi-sabi story. It is also an example of another of Jay Maisel’s maxims: shoot it now, because it won’t be there when you come back.

Find interest

I have said several times that we can find interest in almost anything if we try. We have to get over looking just at the surface. Maybe it’s not the prettiest of its kind. Maybe there are imperfections. Do those give it character? Does it tell a story of it’s past?

As an extreme example, we have had a lot of forest fires here in Colorado in the last few years. As have many places. It is sad to see a beautiful forest destroyed. But I have found great beauty in burn scars and the re-growth that is happening.

It seems to be more and more a case for me that interest does not equate to pretty. Almost to the extent of being a negative correlation, where pretty implies less interest. So a perfect flower is a thing of beauty, but does that make it the most interesting? I’m not saying it is always true for me, but a “past its prime” specimen may tell a more interesting story of struggle, survival, endurance, and the passing of time.

Try it. Like my example of working on the truck, slow down. Think more. Figure out the it-ness of the thing. Then shoot to capture that.

The Subject Isn’t the Subject

French street scene at night. The comp[osition carries it.

Huh? Wrap your self around that for a minute. When we shoot images, we almost always have a distinct subject. What sense does it make to say the subject isn’t the subject?

Inspired by a quote

This article was inspired by an article by Ian Plant in Nature Photography Network, Feb 8, 2023. In part, he said:

But the single most difficult, most counterintuitive aspect of photography, the one thing that most photographers have a tough time wrapping their heads around, is this: your subject is not your subject. Instead, your subject is just part of the overall visual design. The subject might arguably be the primary element of the design, perhaps the most important part, but it is only a part, nonetheless. To make truly exceptional photographs, you need to include more than just your subject; you also need to include other visual elements that work together with your subject, getting the viewer engaged with the story you are telling with your image.

This requires some careful thought. Many of us tend to be fixated on finding the “right” subject and filling the frame with it. Ian is suggesting that is a limiting view.

What else is there besides the subject?

But if you have a good subject, and if you light it and have adequate depth of field, and you expose it right, doesn’t that make the picture? He says probably not, and I tend to agree with him.

A successful picture is a complex balance of many, often competing, dimensions. Yes, a subject is usually important, but there is the overall visual design, the composition, the feeling, the processing, even the context.

Presenting a badly designed image of a great subject usually doesn’t work well. Maybe in a photojournalism context, if the subject is truly unique it would be considered a strong image. But as a normal visual image, no.

It’s that balance thing. All the parts have to be strong.

It all works together

A well composed image of nothing particular probably doesn’t work. Neither does a not well composed picture with a good subject. We’ve probably all experienced both.

Another statement from Ian Plant in that article is:

Once you learn to stop thinking of your subject as your subject, you instead start seeing your subject as an abstract compositional element, which is a necessary step for making compelling photos. You start to see your subject in terms of its shape, color, and luminosity value. Seeing shapes and learning how to arrange them effectively within the picture frame is of critical importance to successful composition.

So the subject is part of what you build a compelling image around. Everything else you have learned about composition have to be thought through. You know, the considerations of framing and leading lines and balance and contrast and emphasis and patterns and … it goes on. You can find a million videos on the internet with someone ready to give you the secrets of composition.

Viewer perception

Why doesn’t an interesting subject carry a picture by itself? For you, it might. You were there. The image invokes memories of the experience, or the subject is important to you. Not so for the viewer.

To the user, it is a picture. You have to give him a reason to keep looking at it. People are so inundated with imagery that they are going to move on in about 1/2 second unless you can grab them.

So, let’s say there is a picture you like of a heron. It was your first trip to Sanibel Island in Florida and you shot lots of bird pictures. It is significant to you. But put yourself in the place of your viewer. They see lots of heron pictures. What does this one have to offer to make them pause on it?

Is it a significant moment with the bird poised to catch a fish? Is the bird in an interesting pose? Does the lighting enhance the feeling? Have you brought something of the environment where the bird lives that is of interest? Does this tell an interesting story about the bird? A good image is more than just an interesting subject.

Your mileage may vary

Seems funny how most of my articles contain a disclaimer like “your mileage may vary”. Art is intensely subjective. There are no hard rules. There are only patterns that have been identified over time that seems to strongly influence people’s perceptions.

Ian is describing landscape photography. “Rules” may well be different for portraiture or photojournalism or other things. The fine art I do is a lot like landscapes. Sometimes it is straight landscapes. So his thoughts struck me as significant. As always, you do your own art according to what makes sense for you. Never let any so called authority tell you you can’t.

But listen to opinions of people who have a track record of doing good work. Don’t necessarily follow them, but listen, try it on, see if it fits before rejecting their advice.

Today’s image

This is a quick shot of a street scene in Paris. It is not a carefully planned set up shot. I was out for dinner with family when this grabbed me.

Quick or not, it passed the test of “I’ll think of a reason later“. The more I worked with this the more it went up in my estimation.

Why? It is a pretty standard tourist shot of Paris streets. Look at the things that help make it more. The curve of the street and sidewalk draws us into the scene, as does the diagonal line of light and color., as do the people walking into the scene on the right. The bicycles give movement and make it more alive. The light and color on the building draw us to the side of the street that has most of the interest. As you look along the lighted street, the people in the cafes each seem to have their own story and interest. They all seem to be enjoying the evening out and that is pleasant and inviting. The receding perspective of the buildings on the left also direct and guide us along the street and through the scene.


To me, there is a lot of interest to explore and reasons to keep moving around the image looking at things. A simple shot of a street at night blossomed into an interesting picture. It moved beyond a street scene and became a study of living in Paris.

Most all of that was instinctual, not planned. A (metaphorical) bell went off alerting me there was something here. I got in position and framed the shot quickly. I really didn’t want to hold up my group, and I didn’t.

It’s a fairly standard and common subject. Design improved it to something more special. Instinct helped me craft the interest. What do you think? Is it interesting? Am I kidding myself?

Packaged Experience

Do you create your own photo experiences and adventures or do you rely on packaged experiences? I hope to encourage you to have the confidence to create your own most of the time.

Packaged experience

What is a packaged experience? It is any situation where you purchase a ready made happening from a vendor. Someone who offers you a ready to go vacation or adventure you can just step into and passively enjoy.

A classic example of a packaged experience is a Disney World vacation. Space Mountain and Epcot may be fun and maybe somewhat magical seeming for the kids, but not much for an artist. Another example is a typical vacation cruise. New scenery, good food, but it seldom qualifies as an adventure or a unique experience.

In both cases, everything is wrapped up in a neat package, all the sharp edges are protected, and a manufactured packaged experience is provided to you. These are exactly the reasons I recommend you avoid them.

It’s not really an adventure

An adventure is “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity”. Packaged experiences are seldom unusual, since you are buying the same product sold to a million other people before and after you. A simulated rocket ride or a roller coaster may seem exciting for a few minutes, because they shake you around and it seems dangerous. But the reality is they are carefully controlled and not at all dangerous, unless you have a serious heart condition. They are a simulation of adventure. Once you reach an age where you realize the Pirates of the Caribbean are not going to stab you, no matter what you do, it should cease to hold much excitement. Unless you step into a Westworld situation, but that is unlikely.

The packaged experience is in no way unique or dangerous. It’s effects are short lived. There is no long term benefit or learning from it. And even worse from an artistic point of view, it gives you little chance for creativity or exploration of new ideas.

Maybe the worst part, from my point of view, is that in a packaged experience you did not have to put any of yourself in it. You are a passive spectator.

Roll your own

I guess it can seem intimidating if you’re not used to being responsible for your own adventures. And if you are taking the family maybe you want to be extra careful for the kids. But even for them – especially for them – wouldn’t it be wonderful to give them a legacy of being able to amuse and entertain themselves in strange places?

What does it take? Just a good attitude and the willingness to try it. No special training is required. You have to be open to accepting things as they come and learning to like them. It is almost all your attitude that determines what benefits you will receive.

Let me give an example of a pattern of things that formed some of my belief in this. Way back, when timeshares were a good thing and not yet ruined by greedy developers, we bought one. Kind of on the spur of the moment. No real planning or investigation. Well, the real utility for us was that we always traded for other locations in some part of the world. So we had a week tied to some location we had never been to. Initially we would get somewhere, explore the area a day or 2, then ask ourselves what we are going to do now? But we were stuck there. Sometimes these places were way out in the middle of nowhere.

We were forced to amuse ourselves. We would start to explore the vicinity more slowly and carefully. It amazed us what kind of interesting (and photogenic) things we discovered. Looking back on it, I can see what should have been obvious then. Almost every place has interesting things to find, quirky and interesting people, local things they pride themselves on, unique history, local food specialties to try, and just things you have never seen.

Trust your ability

We’re just not used to slowing down and looking at what is right in front of us. Instead, we’re looking for the tourist attractions with bright neon signs. The places listed on the tour brochures as welcoming busses of tourists (and having a big gift shop).

The time share experience taught me to settle in and look around to see what I can find. I can’t remember how many time share trades we did, I would guess at least 20. In all of those, even when we were initially disappointed with an area, there was not one where we went away at the end of a week saying we will never come back there. I remember the very first one we went to was in Palm Desert CA – in August – it was 120F every day. And we loved it. I found fascinating places and sights I had never imagined. We would definitely like to go back, but maybe at a somewhat cooler time.

I labeled this section trust your ability, but really, little ability is required. The biggest factor is attitude. Keep open and receptive to what is there. This is a learned skill more than any innate ability. I always had a bent toward traveling this way, but the time share experience taught me to recognize and develop it. Now I trust that this is the best way for me to travel.

Don’t go overboard

To keep it balanced, let me tell you about a friend I have who is a wilderness photographer. He goes on solo treks in the Rockies all the time, all seasons and weather. He has probably climbed all the peaks around here over 10,000 ft. Many in the winter. Wildlife encounters are not too rare. He builds and stays in snow caves. Blizzards and storms do not dissuade him. I think he is a little crazy. But that is his thing. He gets unique pictures of places and times few other people have seen.

However, this is not what I am suggesting. It is not at all necessary to go to that kind of extreme to create unique adventures. Just go somewhere new and be open to what is there.

Try it

I encourage you to give it a try. It may take several outings before it becomes comfortable. That’s OK. Being uncomfortable is not a bad thing. Sometimes that just means you are learning something new and exercising a new skill.

To get started, take some short trip, maybe one night. Head out someplace you haven’t been before, but not more than a few hours drive. Stay overnight – I recommend a nice local motel, not a big chain. It will be a little more adventurous and without the sterile industrial feel. Besides, small communities need your money. Then home. During the entire outing, give yourself a mission to stop and see and take pictures of anything even remotely interesting. An overlook, some nice trees, a classic old rusty car, a silly local tourist trap – whatever piques your interest. Let yourself go. Tell yourself you’re not in a hurry and you have permission to stop whenever you like. One of the purposes is to learn to find interests on your own.

Photo Tours

Many people I know host photo tours, so I want to address those. Different tours have a variety of goals. For this, let me divide them into 2 groups: tours that take you to famous sites and promise you to make the same well known pictures, vs tours that provide stimulation, discussion, and training while also taking you to interesting locations you have never been. I would call the first kind a packaged experience and advise you to avoid it. The second type, however, would be an enjoyable growth and learning experience. The sights and actual images you get are secondary to the adventure and new experiences. That is the kind of experience I would appreciate.

Do it

I know this isn’t for everbody. Some of you are such hard core Type A personalities that you can’t go to the hardware store with out written goals and a definite plan. So the idea of heading off anywhere without a well researched plan would be horrifying.

But for the majority of us, I encourage you to give it a try. And persist long enough to get over the discomfort and have a fair test to see if you like it. When you learn to see like this, every outing becomes an adventure. Walks in your town become new and filled with sights you never noticed. Trips where you actually get away are more exciting, because you are constantly discovering new things that are not on the tourist brochures. Things that are special to you, that become “yours”. It can revolutionize your life.

Today’s image

An interesting road sign found on a tiny back road in Devon, England. We were staying at a time share miles out in the middle of nothing. Wandering around, we found many terrific discoveries. It was a lovely area that is a special place for us still. No tourist map or guide book would have taken you here.


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.