Getting There

Illustrating its the journey

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

Where is “there”?

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

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

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

Who sets your goals?

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

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

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

What is the cost?

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

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

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

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

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

The journey is the destination

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

The Magic of the Frame – 2

Sailboat in Maine. Illustrates how framing makes the image more dynamic.

All 2 dimensional art exists within a frame. It is a constraint imposed on us. It can also be beneficial, because it requires choices. This is the magic of the frame. This article is an expansion on a discussion of the frame I did several years ago.


I do 2 dimensional art. Most paintings or photographs are. But besides being flat, 2 dimensional works are also bounded. They cannot extend to infinity, although they may capture images of near infinity.

So a print may be 20×30 inches, or maybe 6×9 feet, but there is a limit. A print of a landscape scene is not the size of the original scene.

And because the print is bounded, there are edges. The edges create the frame, or more precisely the bounding rectangle of the image. I am assuming rectangular prints for the discussion. So in simple physical terms, the frame is the box that encloses the print.

Why rectangular?

Most paintings and photographs, and therefore their frames, are traditionally rectangular. Have you wondered why? And why and how a round lens makes a rectangular image?

I have looked into this and have found technical reasons and pragmatic reasons, but no real answer. Lenses are round for a good reason – they are easier to make and making them rectangular would introduce lots of distortion. The lens throws a circular image on the focal plane of the camera. The the light that falls outside of the sensor is cropped. We never see those parts.

Sensors are rectangular for technical and pragmatic reasons. Sensors are very large silicon chips made by normal semiconductor processes. Rectangular chips pack efficiently on a wafer. If they were, say, round, there would be lots of wasted space between chips. Since they are very expensive to make, the manufacturers are anxious to minimize costs. Also, digital cameras mimicked film cameras which exposed rectangular patches on film. Again for efficiency to maximize the film use.

And finally we expect prints and images to be rectangular. It is the convention developed over centuries of painting. And it is less expensive to make and frame rectangular prints and canvases.

So rectangular prints are conventional and the path of least resistance.

A window

The frame, though, is much more than the constraint of the shape of the sensor or print. Something magical happens when we look through the viewfinder or crop our image in our processing software.

What we see through the viewfinder becomes our window onto the world. This window in where we pour much of our creativity. As we move and zoom and continue to examine our subject through this window we decide how we want to present it. What is important to bring out. What should be excluded.

We may realize the interest is not the whole scene, but only certain parts of it., and they should be presented from a certain point of view. So we adjust our window and keep searching for the magic.

After all, if we are an artist we want to bring something to our viewers that is more than just what anyone would have shot if they walked up on the scene. We bring our own interpretation. Part of this is what we chose to have in our window.


Over the centuries many “rules” of composition have been formed. I put it in quotes because there are no real rules. The “rules” are observations of patterns that have been found to be generally pleasing to viewers.

It was very interesting to me to realize that most of these “rules” are relative to the frame. Let’s take a look at a few.

The rule of thirds helps to increase dynamic tension by placing the subject along the intersection points of dividing the window into 3 groups horizontally and 3 groups vertically. This is totally relative to the frame.

Along with that is the oft quoted “do not put the subject in the center” – of the frame.

The horizon should be level – relative to the frame.

Diagonals can add a lot of interest to many compositions. The diagonals exist because of their relation to the frame.

Leading lines are often recommended. They help encourage the viewer’s eye to lead from the frame to the subject and keep them exploring.

We need to be careful to not have distracting elements at the edges of the frame.

Unless it is really your intent, we must be careful to not cut the subject off at the edge of the frame.

This could go on a long time. Go examine your favorite composition rules and see if they are not mostly describing relationships to the frame.

Artist’s judgement

So really, at one level, the work of an artist is to arrange the elements within the frame in the most pleasing or impactful way. This is the magic of the frame. It is the canvas where we compose. It is the crucible where our creativity is tested.

Since the camera sensor captures everything in the frame, it is not only critical to arrange the elements as we wish, but it may be as important to know what to exclude. That is one of the tricks of photography. What is in view of the sensor will be in our image unless we consciously figure out how to eliminate it.

I think Henri Cartier-Bresson had great insight when he said “A photograph is neither taken nor seized by force. It offers itself up.” There are amazing scenes all around us. We have to see them then be able to compose them to create a great image.

Much of the artistry is in working the frame: figuring out what is significant and how to present it within the frame. It is the stage where we work our magic. The frame is more important in our work than we usually express. This is what, to me, is the magic of the frame.

This image

This illustrates framing. The diagonals and leading lines make it much more dynamic. I was intentional about what to include and exclude and how to frame it. At least, as much as I could on a tossing sailboat in a strong wind.

Go Out Empty

Lake Louisa. Calm before the storm.

I often advise us to go out empty. This, at least, fits my working style and my personality. I don’t always follow my own advice. And regret it.

Go out empty

Go out empty is famous advice from the great Jay Maisel. What he meant is to not have preconceived ideas of what you want to photograph. Instead, be mindful (I doubt if he used that expression) and react to what you find.

That way you will get the maximum good from the situations you encounter instead of being disappointed with not finding exactly what you wanted to find. What’s there might make an interesting picture. What’s not there, well, that doesn’t make much of a picture.

When he lived in downtown Manhattan, Jay was famous for going out on the streets every day just wandering and taking pictures. He would occasionally get great images. Sometimes nothing. But even with nothing, he was not disappointed in not finding what he was seeking, since he wasn’t seeking anything in particular.

I have been to New York City and I will be quick to admit that the streets there are far more interesting than the streets of my small little town. But still, I believe the principle applies wherever we are.

I believe the basic premise of what he is advocating is to find joy in what you are shooting. Really look at it, Discover the interest. Be receptive. Inspiration is overrated. Shoot interesting things.

No planning?

Does that mean we should never plan anything? No, there are times to plan. Even Jay would plan carefully when he was doing commercial shoots. For instance, he shot the first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit covers. He had a crew and models and scouted locations, etc.

When someone is paying you for results, you have to deliver what they want. This will involve careful planning and preparation.

What I am discussing, though, is what most of us “fine art” photographers do when we are shooting for our own satisfaction and creativity. Different people have different personalities, but I am in the group that does best when reacting to scenes rather than trying to set them up.

Falling into the expectation trap

I advocate going out empty and I usually do it. But on a recent trip I fell into the trap of setting expectations for what I wanted to photograph.

I was in central Florida visiting family. One afternoon I was able to slip away for a few hours to visit a favorite nearby place, Lake Louisa State Park. It has lakes and beautiful trees and swamps and incredible red water.

A few times before I have found and photographed some gorgeous trees. In my mind, that is what I wanted to revisit and explore. It didn’t work out well. This was summer, not winter, and the foliage was very different. Some trails had been re-routed and I could not find the trees I wanted. And it was miserably hot and raining. Not al all pleasant or condusive to what I wanted to do.

I was very disappointed until I reminded myself to explore what is there, not get stuck on what wasn’t. It was actually beautiful when I let myself see it. With the storms, the sky was very different from what I had seen before. The rain give a different look to the tree trunks and foliage. After some false starts, I was able to get some interesting shots before the thunderstorms and pouring rain chased me out.

Don’t do what I did

Do not fall into the trap of letting preconceived ideas block your creativity. Be mindful of where you are and what is there. Get into the flow and work the scene. Make something out of what you find. Look at your surroundings fresh and discover the good that is there.

Today’s image

The image today is from this aborted trip to Lake Louisa. It was during the calm before the storm. That really is the color of the water. It contains lots of decayed vegetation that has flowed slowly through the swamp and turned that color. Not what I expected to shoot, but beautiful and interesting.