Learning Takes Effort


Contrary to the forest of web sites and blogs and newsletters promising you easy hacks, quick fixes, and effortless skill building, let me disillusion you. Learning takes effort. The more different your new subject is from what you already know, the harder it gets.


I think I can speak to this. In a previous post I said I was afflicted with curiosity. That is stated in a humorous way, but I am very serious. I have a deep and burning curiosity about many things. Learning new things or just extending my knowledge of an area occupies a lot of my time.

I’m the kid who, way back in the days before internet, would spend hours browsing through encyclopedias. Any one remember what those are? Looking up a word in the dictionary could take me an hour. I kept getting sidetracked by other interesting words I see along the way.

It also drives my approach to photography. I am more interested in finding interesting things, no matter what they are, and making interesting pictures from them than I am in looking for particular subjects or iconic scenes. Almost anything can be a good subject if you can “catch” it doing something interesting.


But if we want to go beyond just an idle curiosity, we have to learn new things. That requires significantly more effort.

Learning demands a commitment of time and study and effort. And dedication. And drive. It is not easy to master a new subject or field.

But what is learning, really? It is the ability to independently use knowledge or apply a skill over time and in new situations. As opposed to just recalling facts. The American education system is woefully deficient on this. Our schools teach and measure mainly performance, not learning. That is, what is 3 times 4? Who gave the Gettysburg address and what year?

It is not that performance is unimportant, but recalling facts for a test is just not making us much more educated. For instance, I love studying history. There are usually several history or biography books around me in various states of completion. But I only care about dates as much as required to be able to put things together in a timeline. It is much more interesting and enlightening to find out why things happened, why to those people, why then, what is the back story.


Actual learning is hard. It requires work. And, sorry, but that is the way it has to be. We learn more deeply when we have to work at it and when we fail.

Fail?? Yes. I don’t mean like repeat a grade. Failing as in try to use your knowledge and find you are incorrect or inadequate. Then you have to concentrate more on it to learn the right way. This reinforces the correct way and you know and remember it better.

A small personal experience: one of the things I am learning is French. It’s a long story. You know that old expression that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks? That is true for me when it comes to learning a new language. A theory, that seems to hold true, is that it takes repetition and mistakes to learn new words. Repeating them over time builds memory, but repeating the ones you miss more often reinforces them.

My point here is that the purpose of learning is to be able to use the knowledge or skill independently and with some confidence. We usually can’t do that until we have tried and failed and reinforced it and practiced. This involved making mistakes and correcting them and building on that. This applies to our everyday lives and our art. I don’t recommend that as a way to learn brain surgery.


Another learning topic that I have found to be very relevant to me is called interleaving. Conventional wisdom says to practice one thing intensively until it is perfected. Then move on to the next thing. If you are learning tennis, then, you should practice forehands over and over until you have mastered them. Then go to backhands. Etc.

Interleaving, though, says you should mix a variety of things, even if you have not mastered each of them. So in the tennis example, is says it would be better to mix forehands and backhands and volleys in a match-like experience. There is evidence that this is a better way of learning.

I am sold, because I do it in many ways with good results. I believe interleaving the activities forms more and stronger connections between different components you are learning. The long term benefit is deeper understanding or skill.

Learning builds on itself. The more diverse things we learn, the easier it is to learn other new things.


Steve Jobs famously called it “connecting the dots“. He stated it best in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech. The picture is that we learn many different, unconnected, things and have experiences we may or not welcome. We can’t look ahead to see how they will connect. But somehow, looking back, they form the path we have taken.

I love his example of how his audited calligraphy course led to personal computers as we know them. Read it!

In order to connect the dots, we need a rich set of “dots” in our lives. Because the more we know the more there is to connect to.


What does this have to do with photography and art?

I am suspicious of typical ways photography is taught. A linear process seems logical and fits well in a course outline, but I believe students should be out making bad pictures from day one. They should have daily or weekly project assignments. As they see their results they can be shown what aperture or shutter speed or ISO or lens choices could do and why they would want to make tradeoffs. They can be shown compositional problems they made and pointed to great artists to see the choices they made. Students can quickly get the hang of manipulating the camera to get results they want and can then get on to the harder part – figuring out what they have to say.

But in an environment of experimentation and unlimited choices. After all, we are learning to create our vision.

I believe we should be life long learners and open to new influences. The attitude that we know all we need to know is dangerous. We can always learn something new and get inspiration from new sources. I recently saw work by a contemporary artist I had never heard of. But some of Aline Smithson‘s project The Ephemeral Archive touched me in new ways and opened windows of inquiry for me. And I didn’t think I liked contemporary photography.

Learn to be comfortable with being challenged with new ideas and with failing. It is one of the best ways to learn. It’s not supposed to be easy.

If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.

Neil Gaiman

I want to hear your comments! Let’s talk!

I Want That Job

Imagined unexplored land

I got a job ad recently that really caught my eye. The position was for an “Intermediate Unreal Technical Artist”. My first reaction was: I want that job! But my scatterbrained mind spun up a lot of questions.


The “unreal” part immediately got me. Yes, I know that Unreal is a 3D animation platform. It looks quite capable. You don’t have to write me about that. But that is not the point. Just the surreal nature of the job description gave me a laugh.

Depending on where I am mentally at any time, I like to take flights into the unreal. I never guessed it could be a paying job.

The coincidence I could not ignore is that I have been working on a project I call Terra Incognita. It envisions imaginary, unexplored regions of our world. In doing it, I had to become an unreal artist, for real.

It turned out a little more difficult than I thought to create imaginary, unreal worlds that look real. I want you to look at my images in this project and tell yourself that it could be an undiscovered part of the world. Creating a fake Sci Fi movie scene was not interesting to me.


The “intermediate” adjective added to the surreal situation. The possibility that there might be quantifiable levels of unreal-ness in our artistic abilities jumped out at me.

Well, I knew that I wanted my images to seem real, not fantastic or unworldly. But what would an intermediate level unreal artist be capable of doing? Would I have to be an advanced unreal artist to look real? Or does an advanced unreal artist only do obviously fantastic scenes? Would a beginner unreal artist “fail” in his unreality and create a real seeming scene? Should I be striving towards beginner or advanced level unreal art?

Inquiring minds want to know. I never knew the questions lurking here.


And it says they are seeking a “technical” unreal artist. Again, the surreal nature of the words caught me. If there is technical unreal then is there non-technical real or non-technical unreal or technical real?

Technical real is probably what most photographers do all the time. After all, we use high resolution lenses on great high mega pixel sensors to capture huge amounts of detail. Photography is inherently a technical art. We want our images to be more real than real.

The job posters seem to be seeking someone to create unreal scenes with a high degree of technical precision. Although I know what they mean, it still sounds absurd. Would non-technical unreal be like old 1950’s Sci Fi movies with the rubber creatures and terrible sets? Actually, what they did back then was the highest degree of technical unreality they could do before computer graphics.

Maybe non-technical reality would be street photography shot with a cheap plastic film camera. Terrible technical quality but real scenes. There seems to be a niche market for that with people who value alternate processes.


And they are calling the position one for an artist. Really? Maybe in that industry, which I suspect is movies, that is true by their standards. In my experience, when someone is hired to create visual work as specified by an employer, I would call them a designer or an illustrator.

A Pixar animated film or something like Despicable Me is a great achievement. I know there are large teams of animators and character illustrators and colorists and groups doing hair and fur and fabric. Others doing lighting and other effects. And many other teams doing software and asset management and other coordination roles. It is a large and complex process requiring many people.

I am probably projecting too much of my values on this, but I believe an artist creates work he conceives and in his own style. That does not sound like an employee. I am not in any way minimizing productions like an animated movie, just questioning if the roles are what I would call an artist.

The whole package

So, could I be an “Intermediate Unreal Technical Artist”? Probably not. As much as I like the sound of it, I do. not understand it. And besides, they are looking for someone to work for them. When I retired I vowed I would not be an employee again unless I was desperate. Been there; done that. I want to only do what I choose to do and on my own terms.

Thank you for following this strange diversion. It is quite a sidetrack from what I normally write. But as I mentioned, the coincidence with a project I am working on now was too much to ignore.

In addition, it fits in with a long term theme I keep bringing up about whether or not photography is about reality. To me, it is not any more. Unless an image is presented as documentary, it is not to be believed as reality. And with the rapid encroachment of AI, I suggest we be very skeptical of all images, even if they claim documentary status.

So maybe all photography is an unreal art. Maybe the job description I saw is redundant.

Today’s image

The image today is from the series Terra Incognita that I mentioned above. It tries to represent unexplored areas of our world. Maybe it just has not been seen before. Maybe it only exists in our imagination. Either way, consider yourself a modern day explorer flying over this never before seen vista.

I want to hear your comments! Let’s talk!

If We’re Not Moving Forward…

Rise Against, representing the daily struggle

We can get trapped in our own mind. Fear can pen us in. We must constantly remind ourselves of what happens if we’re not moving forward.

Can’t stand still

The actual quote, attributed to Sam Waterson, is “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling back.” There is a lot of truth in that. As much as we sometimes would like to lock things down, we can’t. Time moves on. We move on. Relationships change. People grow apart or together. Our knowledge and tastes and perceptions change.

Have you ever gone back and looked at some of your art or writing from a few years ago? It can be depressing. Our first reaction is probably that our work was terrible back then. But no, that is not necessarily true. That was the best work we could do at the time. We are seeing what we were at that moment in the past. But we have moved on now and are in a different place. And it’s an ongoing process.


Some of us get trapped in the past by fear. We did some work we thought was very good. Maybe we received some recognition for it. Perhaps we even were so unfortunate as to become famous. Now we are afraid to move away from what we became recognized for in the past, even though we are feeling a pull in a different direction.

Past work becomes an anchor on our creativity unless we consciously cut it loose. But it is all to easy to fear that we have peaked and will never be able to do any more work as good.

Well, maybe that is true. Maybe the next body of work we do will be inferior. We won’t know until we do it. When we strike out in a new direction it is quite natural to grope around hesitantly for a while until we find our footing. The first versions of new work could be fairly bad. But if it is where we are being pulled, we will find what we are looking for.


We are growing creatures. Life constantly gives us new stimulus, new knowledge, new ideas. We meet people and have good discussions. We learn new things and connect ideas and resolve old questions and ask new ones.

At least, we are intended to do that. Some people stay in their rut, doing the same thing over and over without advancing. It’s like the question do you have 10 years of experience or 1 year of experience repeated 10 times? When put like that it seems obvious there is a big difference. But a rut is safe and comfortable. There is no risk. No one criticizes us. But where there is no risk, there is no change, no growth, no reward.

As artists, we should be comfortable learning and changing. Experimenting with new ideas and ways of looking at our art and the world. Having confidence that our best work is yet to come.

It really is true that there are only 2 paths. If we stop growing, we start dying. When we find ourselves in the inevitable rut, they can be hard to get out of. You have to very deliberately and carefully steer out. Let the wheels grab the sides and climb out slowly. Your car will complain, but change always causes criticism. Hopefully, you are not in too deep.

We are different every day

We are not the same person today that we were yesterday. Like the expression that we can never step in the same river twice. Of course, that does not mean we are jerked around in some type of schizophrenic fugue. We don’t bounce randomly to wildly inconsistent states. At lease, I hope you don’t.

Who we are, our values and beliefs, stays relatively constant. We build on that base and develop as a person. Growth is usually incremental. Hopefully becoming a better person as we progress. Our art may seem to jump more as we embrace new expressions of what we are feeling. Like Picasso going through a blue period or an African period or a cubism period. He never changed who he was, he just responded in different ways at different phases of his life.

Our art changing as we grow is natural and healthy. It is much easier said than done, but we should not fear letting go of what we have done in the past, even if we are well known for it. We should trust that we are growing as an artist and being led to new and better work.

It is exciting to look forward to what is to come and what we have yet to create.

What would be of life if we didn’t have the courage of doing something new?

Vincent van Gogh

Today’s image

I chose this to represent the daily battle we all face. The internal struggle to rise above conformity and create what we have inside us. Don’t settle. Don’t give in.

What Is Creativity?

I’ve discussed aspects of creativity before. Mostly from a practical standpoint. It is a topic that has a special call to me. But what is creativity actually? I decided I would do research to find out what the experts say.


So I set out to find out what people who spend their career studying creativity have to say about it. I have mentioned Teresa Amabile and some of the intriguing papers she has written. They led me to believe there might be useful insight to be learned.

After some internet research I saw several mentions of a book “The Nature of Human Creativity“, published by Cambridge University Press. It is a collection of papers by 24 psychology scientists that are frequently cited in textbooks and other papers. The first page describes it as “an overview of the approaches of leading scholars to understanding the nature of creativity, its measurement, its investigation, its development, and its importance to society.” Wow! That’s exactly what I wanted!

I eagerly bought it and jumped in, only to find it was like wading through a swamp. Turns out the giveaway I should have caught was that this was by “leading scholars”. Works like this are written by PhD’s to impress other PhD’s. There is little thought of communicating practical advice to real people. But I have read a lot of PhD and above papers, so I pressed on, although with diminishing enthusiasm.

Spoiler alert: I gave up about half way through. It’s not that I couldn’t understand it. Instead, I found it very unsatisfying. I could tell there would be no light at the end of the tunnel, because the real answer is that the scientists don’t know. Sure there are lots of theories. Scholars live by making and publishing theories. That does not mean they are very meaningful.

So, what is it?

A lot of psychologists accept the statement that “creativity involves the production of original, high-quality and elegant solutions to a certain class of problems – novel, complex, and ill-defined, or poorly structured problems.” [Mumford, Medeiros, and Partlow, 2012] This is one of the simplest and most concise statements defining creativity I have found by the psychologists.

In practice, though, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions for me. The one word I definitely agree with is production. You cannot evaluate the creativity of something until it is made or built. Someone has to be able to see it, hold it, examine it, compare it to other things. Otherwise it is just an idea.

But then what about terms like “original” and “high-quality” and “elegant”? What do they mean? Who defines them? And is art included in the set of “novel, complex, and ill-defined” problems they study? To me art is definitely all of those.

How to measure it

One of the greatest problems I had with the psychologists, though, is how do you measure creativity? If something calls itself a science then its theories must be measurable and other scientists must be able to repeat and independently verify the results.

Most of the psychologists agreed, probably correctly, that creativity varied by domain. They pretty consistently solved the measurement problem for their research by using a panel of domain experts in each specific area to score the creative works. The expert scores determined the creativity judgment for any work being evaluated. The fact that the expert’s scores had decent statistical correlation was their “proof” that the measurement was valid.

That is easy and it takes the researchers off the hook. They do not have to be the judges. To me, though, it is the thing that invalidates the whole research approach.

Is art different?

The psychologist’s measurement approach will work OK for engineering or math or software or accounting. Most any problem solving discipline where the problems can be expressed and solution quality can generally be analyzed and agreed on.

I believe art does not fit this pattern and has a terrible history of valid critical judgment. There are no clear right or wrong solutions in art. Critic judgment is often strongly biased by their opinions and background and training. Just look at the resistance and rejection a new movement like the Impressionists got when they opposed the established Realist intelligentsia. Or look at Paul Klee. History seems to repeat itself about every generation.

On a much smaller scale, look at typical photography contests or exhibition competitions. Perhaps I am just an arrogant curmudgeon, but I often look at the winners selected and think “you’ve got to be kidding; I throw away better ones than that”. I have done judging (forgive me) and I know judges can come to consensus and select the top 3 entries they like best according to the criteria they have set. But unless a work is a blatant copy, I disagree that they can reliably determine a quantitative measure of its creativity.

To me this shows that we should have little confidence in the ability of critics to judge creativity in art.

If we don’t know what it is, how can we do it?

Sherlock Holmes seems to be the first to state “I know what is good when I see it”. Don’t we as artists do that all the time? Isn’t that the only criteria that can guide us?

We could say “I don’t know what creativity is, and judges seem to be telling me I must not be creative, and I can’t always do work that is demonstrably original and novel, so I will give up”. If we did that no art would ever be done. At least not by honest, truth seeking artists. It is easy to copy what seems to be popular, but really different work always fights against a headwind.

But think. Who is it that is telling you your work is no good? The same people who told Monet and Van Gogh and Klee they were no good. I’m glad they didn’t listen. They kept their head and did the work that was unique to them. And the world is better for it.

We each have to determine what evaluations we choose to accept for our art. Do not give weight to the negative talk by the critics when your inner voice disagrees. Your inner voice may not be right. It may need new training and experience. But you have to trust yourself, and go with your instincts. You really don’t have any other reliable standard.

Talent or skill?

So is creativity a talent or a skill? Does it come from the Muses or is it something we are born with? Can we develop and enhance it or are we stuck with what we have? Can other people reliably measure our creativity?

Probably some or all of that. Don’t expect the answers to come from psychology research . They are at least as blind as the rest of us. If scientists can’t give us objective answers, we have to decide who we listen to. As an artist we need to give greatest weight to our own evaluation. It is the only way we will follow our path.

One thing I do know is that creativity seems to reward hard work. If we sit around waiting for inspiration, we may be sitting a long time with nothing to show for it. Get busy. Go out in the field or go to your studio and make trash if necessary. Do something. Movement seems to generate creativity. Make your own path and don’t look back.


I am not belittling psychologists. Most of them I have studied seem to be very intelligent, hard working people. I’m just saying I don’t think the methodologies I have seen used in studying creativity are destined to lead to much success in understanding art.

Maybe they can understand why 2 software developers with seemingly equivalent training and experience can exhibit vastly different levels of creativity and productivity and quality in their work. Something I have often seen first-hand. But that is a different and easier to study domain.

I wish them luck. But for me, I will not look to psychology research for future help in understanding artistic creativity.


Long exposure with no tripod or monopod

Even the most adventurous of us need a certain amount of stability. But I’m not talking about financial or mental or interpersonal stability today. I’m referring to the never ending debate about tripods vs. monopods.

Why do we need them?

Many people today value crisp, tack sharp images. To achieve this requires good cameras, good lenses, and good technique. One primary factor of the technique is minimizing camera shake.

We tend to talk about camera shake as a binary thing: yes/no, on/off, shake/no shake. The reality is that it is a range. It is kind of like focus. If something is considered in focus, we really mean it has an acceptable level of focus. Good enough for our purpose, not an absolute.

Likewise, for camera shake, we must take the point of view that it must be minimized enough for our need.

Most people tend to hand hold their cameras. I know I do when I can. It is much faster and easier. Achieving sharp images hand held requires special techniques that we will discuss later.

But when we know we need maximum sharpness, the standard response it to pull out the tripod, or monopod. It’s a debate.


Tripods are the three-legged things we are all familiar with. They seem to have been around forever and they tend to be pretty large. The three equally spaced legs provides an optimum stable platform in all directions.

Tripods used to be made of wood. Classical and lovely to look at, but heavy, Then they moved to generally bring made of aluminum or alloys. These were lighter and durable. A problem they had, though was vibration. Referred to as dampening when we’re talking about stability. The metal was kind of springy. It would vibrate when perturbed by a force. Like bumping it or when the mirror of your big DSLR “slaps” up to take a picture. The metal legs would vibrate for many milliseconds before stopping. This caused distortion while the shutter was open, which was probably for those same milliseconds.

Later, most high end tripods moved to carbon fiber construction. This material has many advantages, but, of course, it is more expensive. The carbon fiber is strong and relatively light. It has much better dampening than metal, so vibrations are smaller. And if your hand has ever frozen to a metal tripod in the winter, well, carbon fiber doesn’t do this nearly as bad. For me, that by itself is a reason to switch to it.

I have an excellent carbon fiber tripod with a great ball head. I use it for some critical images or long exposures.

Tripod disadvantages

Good tripods, used correctly, provide excellent stability. But this means you have to have it, there, when you need it. Perhaps this means carrying it miles over rugged trails for that one shot.

Personally, I don’t do that much anymore. For me, a photo expedition should be a joy. I’m too old to enjoy carrying a heavy tripod a long ways. Sure, there are small versions that strap conveniently to your camera bag, but they have their problems too. Usually the small ones are short and I have to squat down uncomfortably to use them. Or if they are tall enough, they are not stable enough.

I have a small one that fits nicely in a checked bag for air travel. I often take it. And just as often do not use it.

And using a tripod slows you down a lot. Deciding where to set it, setting it up, mounting the camera, adjusting and leveling it all take quite a bit of time and effort. Some say this is an advantage, because it makes you spend more time considering what you are shooting and the composition of the shot. I partially agree and have experienced this. But often I am in a flow and shooting instinctively. The tripod absolutely gets in the way of this.


A monopod is just one leg of a tripod, right? To some people that makes it 1/3 or less as useful as a tripod. Others (including me) would say it can be as useful or more so.

If you are not familiar with them, try this experiment. Take a broom and hold it upside down with the handle down on the floor. How does it move?

You will see that it does not move up or down in the vertical axis. It does more fairly freely in a circular arc left and right, back and forth. Is this minimal amount of stabilization worth it?

To me it often is. The vertical axis is one of the most vibration prone areas for me. And being constrained on the monopod seems to add mass or resistance in the other axes. Either it is real or it is psychological. But in any case, it makes my images more stable.

Monopod advantages

Yes, it is unfair to only talk about tripod disadvantages and monopod advantages, but I want to make a point. There are often ways to overcome the disadvantages of a monopod.

I have a great monopod. It extends to about 7 ft. and has a small but very nice ball head with quick release on it. It is my walking stick. I like that it is light enough and very strong to serve well as a useful and comfortable walking stick. I am far more likely to take it on a hike than I am a tripod.

When I want to take an image, it sets up quickly – basically just attaching my camera to the quick release. It provides a decent degree of stability, and there are techniques I can use to improve if necessary.

For instance, if a railing is handy, I can brace the foot of the monopod against my shoe and force the leg tight against the railing. I have taken very sharp 30 second exposures this way. Trees work fairly well, too. Lean the mounted camera against a tree for added stability. It can be a great tool.

Which to choose?

I probably seem biased. It is more of a pragmatic choice. Tripods are great for stability. It is usually the best choice for long exposures.

Monopods are great when you are out on the trail or otherwise away from your car. If you practice and learn to work with it instead of against it, it can improve many situations to an acceptable level.

I own a really good tripod and a really good monopod. The monopod gets used about 10 times more than the tripod. But I hand hold about 10 times more than either of them.

Parameters of sharpness

To put things in perspective, today’s high pixel count sensors force us to use very good technique to get the results we want. If the image moves as much as 1 pixel during an exposure, we can often detect a blur.

Pixel pitches are measured in microns today. A micron is 1 millionth of a meter. The length of a bacterium is about 1-10 microns. A strand of spider silk is 3-8 microns in width.

How is it ever possible to take a sharp image?


Several things can work for us. The amazing technology in our cameras provides things like in-body stabilization to minimize the effect of camera shake. It usually improves things a lot.

And the electronics are improving to allow higher and higher ISO settings to be used. I consider 400 ISO to be my normal setting rather than the 64 ISO native value. That automatically gives me about a 3 stop speed advantage.

The old “rule” when I was shooting film was that, if you are good, you could hand hold at a shutter speed of twice the focal length. This doesn’t work anymore for our high density sensors. People say the shutter speed should be 3-4 times the focal length. But with the better electronics allowing higher ISO with good results, this is often possible.

Don’t overlook simple but obvious tricks. There may be something to brace the camera on or against. I often lean against a tree or a pole or a wall for added stability. Or I have put the camera on a rock or a bench and used a self timer to trigger the shot. Simple things like these can let you take amazing images in unlikely places.

And there are simple techniques you can adapt that increase the stability of hand held shots. Things like bracing the camera against your forehead and forcing your elbows close against your body. And exhaling slowly as you slowly press the shutter. A video on gun shooting technique could be helpful. They have studied the problem a long time.

So tripod or monopod? I lean toward the monopod. But it is not necessarily an either or choice. There are many creative ways to stabilize your camera. Unless you’re out in the desert with nothing around, there is often something that can be used.

Today’s image

This was shot in an airport (obviously) with no tripod or monopod. I couldn’t set the camera on the table in the restaurant where we were eating because there was a joint in the glass that was in the way. I put my camera on my camera bag on the floor. This is a composite of several 4 second shots.

I used a 2 second timer to allow me to get my hand away and not shake the fragile setup. I could have used the camera app on my phone to trigger it, but that is always so tricky and slow to set up that I seldom do it.