Results of an experiment

In a recent post I quoted Todd Vorenkamp saying “Search yourself for improvement, not your gear”. I believe that our improvement needs to come from within us, not from better gear. What is your plan to make yourself a better artist? Do you have one? I am an Engineer. I know that nothing gets better by accident. We all need a plan and strategies to improve ourselves. I am not saying we need a 5 year plan or a 10 step process. But we need to consciously strive for improvement.


Whatever you believe in and value and spend your life doing, you should be a lifelong student of. We are lucky to live at a time when we have so many channels for learning available to us.

If you were an aspiring artist in the 16th century you would have to apprentice to a master. There you would spend several years doing grunt work and menial tasks while studying the basics of drawing. Eventually you might advance to a stage where you were trusted to add some parts to a painting the master started. Someday you might be trusted to make copies of the master’s work. Now after 10-15 years you could be deemed ready to go out on your own. Of course, all you know is your master’s style. You don’t really know what you want to be yet. A pretty poor system in my opinion.

Now, though, there are an abundance of schools and online classes. There are books and magazines. There are mentors available and unlimited examples to view online. Most of us are reasonably close to good museums where we can examine great art at will. We could spend all our time studying and never make an image if we are not disciplined.

Online classes

I have gotten lots of good information from classes at CreativeLive and Kelby One. B&H Explora has a great free library to view, among all the sales stuff. Anything by Julieanne Kost is extremely worthwhile. Some other great instructors are Dave Cross and Ben Willmore. I do not receive any compensation for these plugs. Many of these things require subscription. It is worth paying for good instruction. For free stuff, there is more on YouTube than you could ever watch. Be careful. Be wary in deciding who you are going to listen to, especially on YouTube. It’s the wild west.

One reason I love Julianne Kost, besides that there may not be anyone on the planet who knows more about Photoshop, is that she said “I don’t want a recipe, I want to learn to cook.” This is wise advice. A lot of training presents recipes to do exactly what the instructor did. I don’t want that. I want to know how to fix my own dishes, to create my own recipes. She is good at presenting her training from that point of view.

The real thing is to do it continually. Learning should be a habit we cultivate for our whole life. We never know all of everything. It might be harder to find new and deeper things to learn, but it is there. I suggest you commit to study as an ongoing process, not an event.


I will put this here, even though I am very bad at it. It has been a long time since I went for a formal critique of my work.

I know it can be valuable. I remember years ago when I was in a camera club the critique was good discipline. As I matured, I also learned that you had to carefully evaluate it, because most critique was normative. It was trying to mold me to fit the biases of the group or the evaluator. Use at your own risk. Be smart about it.

I hear there are some good critique sessions you can submit your work to for evaluation. I have not done it, but I would if I found one I trust.

Possibly the most valuable thing about critiques is that they get you used to hearing negative comments about your work. This, in itself, is good training.


There is a big difference between 20 years of experience and 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. A lot of people get trapped by their success. They become known for a style and feel they have to keep doing it for fear they may lose their audience.

I believe an artist grows and evolves throughout their career. Your interests change, your style may change, certainly your point of view changes. How will you follow these changes unless you give yourself permission to experiment some?

That doesn’t mean you have to suddenly make an abrupt 90 degree turn and go a completely new direction. Experiments may be personal. Most of them will fail. Some, though, will have a glimmer of a new idea, a new viewpoint. Follow up on them. Keep pushing.

A willingness to experiment and play is healthy. It will keep us fresh and creative as an artist. Evaluate what you have learned about yourself from the experiments and decide what to keep and build on.

A note about the image with this article: this was the result of an experiment. I liked it. Other people seemed to agree, since it went into a gallery and sold.

Be open and flexible

Are you willing to entertain new ideas? New technology and techniques? New points of view that are alien to your normal thoughts? You don’t have to buy in to them. You don’t have to adopt them.

Stretching yourself with new ideas is kind of like yoga for the mind. You stay flexible. When a mind becomes rigid and inflexible it shuns new ideas, new thoughts. The creative place within us requires fuel, new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. Otherwise we stay in our comfortable rut.

Creativity is like anything else with our bodies. We have to work at it to develop. If we don’t exercise we lose the ability to move and we get unhealthy. Likewise, being open to new things is an attitude, a habit. We can work to get better at it.

Think about it

We should be our own best critic and our own best evaluator. If you’re an artist, how can you not obsess about your art? It is a major part of your life. It should occupy a lot of your thought.

I am an introvert and an Engineer. That gives me an ability to look at my work fairly objectively. I know that will not be the same for everyone. We are all different.

But whatever talents we have, we need to learn to be able to evaluate our work fairly. You see what other artists do. You know your own work. What you do has to stack up against your own expectations and your evaluation. We never think we have arrived at the pinnacle. And we shouldn’t. Hopefully we will always be growing.

Thinking about where we are and where we need to go will help us plot our course. Being realistic will help keep us from deluding our self and also keep us from beating our self up. Don’t be negative. Improvement is a lifestyle. Look for new ideas. Embrace new points of view. Experiment with things that are very different that what we normally do. Grow.

What’s not here?

Your equipment is probably not holding you back significantly. Learn to think. Creatively visualize new things. Try new techniques. Grow into the artist you want to be. Then you will do wonders with that expensive new camera. 🙂

Try it Different

Blurred carnival ride

Ruts. It is human nature to get in them. They are safe and comfortable. These days, safe is sometimes welcome. But ruts become boring and our work starts looking all the same. We do not grow as an artist if we are stuck in a rut. A great way to shake ourselves up and break out of a rut is to try it different. Force ourselves to “break the rules” we impose on ourselves. Do something we wouldn’t normally do.

When we try it different, sometimes we learn new things about what we like and want to do. A great photographer, Karen Hutton, says “Whatever you usually do, try it different.” This is wise advice. It is self-help to maintain our edge.

Different lens choice

An easy way to start slow is to spend a few days using a different lens. Something you don’t normally use. This makes you look at your surroundings differently. It is amazing, but a simple thing like this can change your point of view enough to freshen your images.

I discovered over the years that I naturally have a “telephoto eye”. That is, I tend to zoom in on details rather than shooting wide angle views. About a year ago I got an awesome 24-70mm lens for my new camera and it has become my standard lens. I now shoot the majority of my images with it. My POV has changed to adopt its range.

Perhaps that means it is time to get a super wide angle or go back to telephoto. Just to “try it different”. 🙂

Different time of day

Ah the magic hours, the golden light within an hour after dawn and an hour before sunset. It is beautiful. It is warm, the sky has great color, and the light is horizontal so it emphasizes texture and form. I tend to go crazy if I am in a great location at those times.

But I see it presented as a “rule” that you never shoot between those times. Especially for landscapes. This is so bogus. The goal is to find the right light to create the effect you want for the subject you have chosen. I sometimes find the best light is at high noon. There is not a hard rule.

Experiment. Work backwards from the light to the mood and subject. For example, you are out at, say, 1 pm. It is a sunny day with harsh light streaming directly down. Figure out what kind of mood is emphasized by this light and what subject would work best in the light. Look around with this mental filter and you may be surprised. Deep canyons often fit this. Also, vertical walls or buildings where the harsh parallel light shows off interesting texture or shadows. There is always something.

Here is a short but good article that discusses choice of light. It emphasizes that “good light is light that matches your goal for a photo“.

Do you find that must of your work is shot at the golden light time? Habits can be re-examined. Experiment. Learn to see the possibilities of different light.

Different composition choices

Now this is getting harder. I suggest you start shaking up some of your fundamental style beliefs. Photographers tend to spend years agonizing over whether or not we have a “style”. When we convince ourselves we have one, we’re afraid to step outside of the confines of what we believe our style is for fear of being lost again. The more mature we become as an artist the more we understand that we are our style.

Compositions are made up of our choice of subject, lighting and mood, arrangement of forms, contrasts, and exposure. I recommend that you give yourself permission to play with all of these and more.

If you are a landscape shooter, spend some time doing people, street photography. It will sharpen you eye and reflexes and it can be a joy. If you pride yourself on “perfect histograms” start playing with high key (overexposed) or low key (underexposed) images. It helps to impress the point that an exposure is proper if it creates the effect you want. A perfectly shaped histogram may be completely wrong if you were going for something else. An image is for the effect it has on the viewer, not its technical perfection.

I have a love of super detailed, “crunchy” sharp images. To explore that, I have challenged myself to experiment at the other extreme. I now sometimes do projects with little of no sharp or even identifiable subjects. Sometimes they are motion blurred or out of focus. Sometimes they are post-processed beyond recognition. I have come to love many of them and it has helped me discover new spaces I want to work in. The image with this blog is an example.


Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We listen to what a teacher tells us and follow it without judgment. We get into patterns and stop questioning. Our work becomes routine, habitual. We stop learning.

But just like we may be our own worst enemy, we can also be the agent of changing ourselves. Start experimenting. Take workshops. Study online courses. Read books. Tryout what other people tell you, but only keep what works for you. Examine yourself and your work, clearly and without bias.

Does the work you are doing today look exactly like what you did 10 years ago? You may be satisfied with that, but for most of us, if we’re not growing, we’re dying. I know that my artistic vision is an evolving thing. It is always a little out of my grasp, so I have to follow it and try to keep up. I like it that way. I’m growing.

Stay fresh

Artists work on the edge. If we have just done work we like, we are compelled to better it on the next project. We are usually our own measure. That is, to see if we are getting better we compare our current work to our past work. It is part of staying fresh. We have to keep ourselves invigorated, rejuvenated, challenged. It is how we do our best work. We are driven by curiosity. The “what if” questions keep leading us in new directions. Habit kills thought.

A good shock often helps the brain that has been atrophied by habit.” Napoleon Hill

How about you? Do you have a process for challenging yourself, for questioning conventions and norms, for keeping yourself sharp? A significant part of this is forcing yourself to sometimes try it different.