Experimental image

I can’t speak for your goals or interests or learning style, but I know that my creativity is enhanced by actively experimenting some of the time. It is a conscious decision to try something completely different than what I normally do.

Break the rules

If you have read this blog much you have picked up on a love-hate relationship to photographic rules. Rules have a place but also a time when they should be abandoned.

Learn, study, internalize the normal rules of composition. Get excellent at the techniques necessary to create well executed images. These things prevent you from embarrassing yourself by releasing well meaning garbage to your viewers.

Sorry to be so blunt, but not bothering to learn the accepted conventions established over the years for good images is just arrogance and immaturity. Learn the conventions and follow them until they are deeply ingrained in your subconscious. Follow them until they become uncomfortable. and confining You will eventually understand when that is.


At some point you will find yourself saying “yes, but…”. Then the rules are no longer enough for where you are creatively. They are restraining you to do the same kinds of images everyone else is doing. Something inside is compelling you to do it differently.

It is very important then to realize you have permission to change your norm. You don’t have to ask anyone or apply to some authority for permission to do this. Just follow where your now trained instincts lead you.

Now you will begin a period of experimentation and uncertainty. The old foundations you trusted are beginning to crumble. Will you trust your instincts to carry you to a new place?

To be honest, you will probably start doing a lot of bad work. At least, work that is very different from your norm but far short of the vision you have for where you want to go. That’s OK. Push through it. Keep on trying and modifying until you get closer.

At this point you probably better be content to get criticism. The people who enjoyed your old work will not be happy and you haven’t really gotten to a stage where you could develop a new audience to support you. Honestly, if you have to support yourself from your art you may have to continue doing the old style work and confine this experimentation to personal projects and off times alone. For a while.

But you have to really ask yourself why you are changing and experimenting. Isn’t it because your vision is changing and you are no longer content with what you used to do? You will need to decide at some point if you want to be true to your vision or keep in the safe zone of doing what worked in the past.

Do things that can’t possibly work

Let me challenge you to regularly set aside time to experiment with wild ideas. Come up with crazy ideas that can’t possibly work – and try them. Can’t work might just mean no one has tried it like you are approaching it. Or it really can’t work. Either way you learn something.

History is full of failed experiments that led to whole new ways of doing things or looking at problems. Did you know that Post-It Notes came from a failed adhesive experiment? What would anyone want with an adhesive that didn’t stick? Until somebody needed a bookmark that didn’t fall out of the book. They got together and things sparked.

And those things you are trying that don’t seem useful? You are building a catalog of possibilities. A base of knowledge and ideas that will find surprising applications in the future. And you are accepting that not every image has to be “successful” in the conventional sense. Success in expanding your vision and your abilities may be more important long term.

A special snowflake

Please pardon the cynicism, but everybody is told they are unique snowflakes and many of us believe it. But do you act it? Or do you spend your energy trying to make the same pictures everyone else does.?

Most photography tutorials are “how to create the same image I made”. Most workshops take students to locations where they can take the same iconic images everyone else does. Aren’t most online comments praise for safe, conventional images that are just like the norm?

Everybody has the possibility of being truly unique, but you have to develop that uniqueness. You have to reach deep inside and bring a vision that is truly you. You have to be able to express that vision is a tangible way that others can see.

Experimenting with ideas you have never seen before is one good exercise for that.

And now for something completely different…

All right, so I’m old enough to have been a Monty Python fan.

I have preached the faith of experimenting but I haven’t shared any examples I have done. The image with this blog post is a deliberate experiment I did recently that violates virtually all rules I know of. It is long exposure, hand held, taken from a moving vehicle. There is nothing sharp in the entire image. It doesn’t fit normal composition rules. I certify that this is a single original frame with no double exposure or compositing.

What has it got, in my opinion? Intrigue, interest, great flow, visual interest, ambiguity, questions, a staying power that makes me want to put is on the wall and look at it for a long time. Those things give me joy. And hope. I’m very glad I experimented.

It keeps you fresh

Training yourself to have a habit of experimentation will help keep you fresh. Always ask “what if?”. You lose the fear of trying something new and maybe failing. You gain the benefit of letting your vision expand and bloom in new ways.

Do you look at your work and see the same subjects, the same treatment, the same composition over and over? Experimenting and taking on “strange” personal projects outside your norm and with no intent of commercial success will keep you from getting stagnant. You need it to keep your creative energy flowing.

And when your experiments lead to results you are proud of, be confident to incorporate the technique into your mainstream work. You are a dynamic, living being who changes with time. Your work should reflect that. Don’t be afraid.

Chasing Trophies

Stay on track

I’ve come to wonder about people whose goal is to win prizes or duplicate famous shots. What is their reason for shooting? Is there a joy in recreating a shot someone already did? What motivates you? Are you satisfying your personal vision or chasing a trophy in a competition?

Prizes, rewards

I have to admit I used to chase prizes. Back when I was involved in my local camera club we had monthly competitions. Usually with a defined subject. I would spend hours thinking about the target subject, planning shots, and executing them. I must say that I got good at winning blue ribbons (I have a stack of them in my basement).

There was a discipline to this that was good training. Those days were not wasted. For anyone wanting to be a commercial or portrait photographer this is good exercise. I believe we had an exceptional camera club that generally did a lot of good.

But I got to a point where my vision went a different direction. One problem with our club or any organization that is “judging” art is that it has a culture and value system that narrowly filters out work that does not conform to their norm. Whether this is a local club or an international competition it looks to me like this is true.

So in our local club, I quickly learned what would place well and taught myself how to win. I am ashamed to admit that I helped perpetuate the culture by spending years as a judge critiquing other entrants and helping inculcate them. The day I was the first to win a blue ribbon with a heavily Photoshopped image was a time of soul searching for them and me. I decided I was going my own way and following my vision regardless of their likes and dislikes.

Recreate great images

Many people seem to see popular or well known images as a pattern or template they feel they should use. I have seen people researching where and when certain images were made. They want to know what equipment the artist used and how they processed the image. All with the goal, seemingly, of going out and shooting the same image.


That image has already been done. You may, at a chance, do it better, but it is still a copy. It is another artist’s work that you imitated.

Maybe imitation is the most sincere type of flattery, but it does not help the imitator. You are not using your creativity to make wonderful new works. You are not showing the world what you see. I suspect that people doing this feel that they do not have sufficient creativity or vision to come up with their own unique work, so they copy other artists.

An exception

Every rule has at least one exception. That is a good reason to avoid rules.

In 1998 Colorado photographer John Fielder began a major project to recreate many of the famous Colorado images of William Henry Jackson from the 19th century. He drove 25,000 miles and hiked 500 miles to locate each Jackson image – 156 in Vol 1 – and stand in exactly the same spot as Jackson to create a parallel image of what the scene looks like now.

In this case, Fielder was a well established photographer with his own vision and a huge, respected body of work. This project was creative and historical, documenting the changes that had taken place in a little over 100 years. Fielder could not be accused of being imitative. It has become the most popular Colorado regional book of all time.

Few of us are is the same position. If you are working on a project of this significance, good for you and best of luck. I would never imply that it is being an imitator.

Guided tours

I have heard photographers bragging that they offer guided tours to take clients to famous spots to recreate well known images. Really?

I can’t fault them for trying to make a buck if clients will pay for it. It is plenty hard to support yourself as a landscape or fine art photographer and any sources of income are welcome.

What I can’t believe is that customers will pay to be guided to these locations and told how to recreate these scenes. At the end, maybe they had a fun outing, but they have a bunch of imitation shots. These are somebody else’s work. The person who took the tour is kind of a passive tool, basically like a camera that somebody else is manipulating.

Wouldn’t it be better to be inspired by these great pictures and use that as motivation to go create your own unique work? Be yourself. Express your own vision.

Workshops can be a great experience. The right instructor can do wonders to educate and motivate you. I would stay away from template formats, where the instructor is trying to mold you to take exactly the images they take.

What is your reward?

Is the reward a prize? Is it a copy of a famous scene on your wall?

I guess I am not sufficiently competitive. I don’t see the “game” as a contest where there is 1 winner and everybody else loses.

The reward that matters to me is how I feel about my work. If it won prizes or was copied by other people I guess that would be satisfying. But that satisfaction would quickly fade. What remains is my work and the joy I feel in it.

In my long life I have discovered repeatedly that I get much better long term satisfaction from things I really earn and from the works of my own creation.

So enter contests if that motivates you. Get a guide to help you create your images if that helps you. But make sure you are making your images. Make them because it is your vision, not to please or imitate someone else.

Are you being your own person in your work? Let me know how it is going.

How Fragile is my Style?

Deserted playground

Some photographers say you should look at and study as many examples of other artists work as you can. Others say you should not view other’s work. Underlying it is an assumption of how much our own style might be affected by other artist’s work. Is my style fragile and easily influenced or is it inherently robust?

I have been reading the book More Than a Rock by Guy Tal. (I have no financial incentive in recommending this) Guy is a very thoughtful writer and the book is challenging. I recommend it. It has no tips for taking pictures, it is about why we take them.

Artistic Promiscuity

A recent chapter titled Artistic Promiscuity made me examine some of my beliefs. Like many artists, I occasionally have self-doubt about my style – about whether I really have one. Guy poses the situation ‘I was baffled when I recently heard from a fellow photographer asking if I would recommend avoiding viewing other people’s photographs as a means of isolating one’s own “vision”.’

A vocal proponent of just such a position is my friend Cole Thompson. His blog is well written and has some great insights. But he has a controversial position for his own life, he does not look at other people’s images. He calls it Photographic Celibacy.

Guy attacks this straw man he set up, arguing about artistic history and how creativity flowed and developed over time as artists were inspired by other artist’s work. And he talks about how seeing great art is inspiring and elevating, especially to another artist.

He goes on to say “So be promiscuous, at least when it comes to art. Seek and study and contemplate and revel in art of all kinds and genres and styles – the more the better. Find what inspires you and articulate to yourself why it inspires you. Borrow but don’t steal; incorporate but don’t imitate. Find inspiration, wisdom, and knowledge in the works of others, and in return strive to inspire others with your own work. Such has always been the way of artists.”

Guy’s advice is very mature and inclusive. He has a strong world view and belief structure. A self-confidence that comes from experience and values. It is good advice, at least for him. It may not be universal advice for everyone in every stage of development.

Photographic Celibacy

Cole, on the other hand says; “As I stopped looking at other people’s images and focused on what I was creating and what I thought of my work, my Vision began to emerge. The work I am creating now is my work, not an imitation of someone else’s.”

He has been on this path for years and is not likely to change his mind. He says “Ten years later and I’m still practicing Photographic Celibacy because I find it a useful practice for two reasons: first I’m still inclined to copy other’s work. … And the other reason I still find Photographic Celibacy useful: it keep me focused on what I am doing and not what others are doing. When I look at the work of others I find myself comparing their images and successes to mine. Sometimes I get discouraged at the large number of great photographers out there and all of the great images being created. All of this is an unnecessary distraction that keeps me from my purpose: creating images from my Vision.”

This seems to work well for him. Cole has a distinct style and he is a great photographer.

What is Vision?

These two good artists disagree in how to develop your vision and grow as an artist, but what do they believe “vision” really is?

Guy says “There is nothing to find – your vision, voice, and personal style are already in you by virtue of the unique amalgam of experiences, sensibilities, stories, and beliefs that make you who you are.”

On the other hand, Cole says of vision “It is the sum total of your life experiences, it is the lenses you see the world through, it is your photographic personality and it is your inner voice (or the ‘force’ for you Star Wars fans). There is no need to be able to define, identify or describe your Vision. All you really need to know is that your Vision is there and then follow it.”

Put these side by side and they are really saying the same thing – our vision is a unique property of who we are. It is inherent in each of us.

Who is right?

It seems that the Artistic Promiscuity position and the Photographic Celibacy position share the same belief of what Vision is. The difference is how to get there.

Who is right? I believe Guy is right for Guy and Cole is right for Cole. They each recognize something about themselves that requires or allows them to behave in a certain way.

Cole adopted his philosophy early in his formal career when he had doubts about his vision and style. He recognized that he was being influenced by other artists and needed to isolate himself to discover his vision. He recognizes and clearly states that this path is not for most people.

Guy seems to be have a personality that thrives on the inspiration from other artists. He is confident in his vision and does not feel any temptation to imitate them.

They are both right – for themselves.

Fragile style?

So is style really fragile? Probably not, but following and expressing our style is a very personal and individual journey. We may be going to the same place but we all take a different path to get there. Some of us get lost on our path and end up in the weeds.

I admire that Cole recognized his nature and need and acted accordingly. It would be great to have the confidence of Guy, but in reality I am more like Cole. I am getting better, but the artistic spirit is a strange mixture of fragile and robust.

Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I think this is a wise warning. It is well proven that spending too much time on Facebook is destructive because you compare your everyday life that you know has problems to the happy, exaggerated image others portray.

Likewise, being a photographic artist is a difficult thing these days. Everyone in the world is a photographer it seems. We are flooded with beautiful images all the time. It is hard not to compare ourselves to the best work we see out there and not feel doubt. It is hard sometimes not to think we should do work more like something we admired.

Promiscuous or celibate? I think we have to know our own nature enough to decide.

Is style fragile? No, not if it is really just who we are. It is probably not the style that is fragile but it can be hard to have the confidence to believe in ourselves and follow our own style. It can be hard to go against the stream of popularity. And some of us may need a quiet place to recognize our style and get to know it.

How about you? What are your thoughts about style?

Your Transformation


In a Luminous Landscape article David Osborn said “The subject is not unique to you – your transformation is. ” This seems significant. Unless an image is an illustration or completely created as fantasy, the original is out there for anyone to see. The reason many people can paint or photograph the same subject, yet create fresh and unique works is because of what they add – their transformation.


My friend Cole Thompson calls this your vision. He says:

Years ago when I was challenged to find my own Vision, I immediately faced a dilemma: I really didn’t know what Vision was. Sure, had a vague idea but I could not define, identify or even understand it.

I had this notion that it was some sort of creative ability that you were either born with or not. This caused me great apprehension as I set about to find it: I feared that I might be one of those unfortunate individuals who did not “have it.” That scared me enough that I actually questioned if I wanted to go down this path: what if I discovered that I didn’t have a Vision?

Well, I did go down the discovery path and I did find my Vision. With that discovery I learned something very important:

We all have a Vision, every one of us is born with one. Unfortunately for many of us, and this was my case, it can become buried when we conform, follow the rules and value other people’s opinions more than our own. For some of us, me again, my Vision was so buried for so long that I came to believe that I didn’t have one.

As a summary he concludes:

Vision is simply the sum total of our life experiences, that allows us to see the world in a unique way.

This was captured very cleverly by a French priest and philosopher:

Everyone looks at what I am looking at but no one sees what I see.

Félicité Lamennais

No one sees what I see

In my interpretation, it implies that each of us individually perceive something different about each scene. We”transform” it differently because of our viewpoint and experience. This is our vision coming to play.

If we do not transform a scene and make it our own, we are at best just a web cam pointed at the world and recording the events that happen in front of us. You look at a web cam for facts, e.g. is it raining there. You are not tempted to print out one of its images and hang it on your wall. It has no soul. No vision.

My history and experience and values are different from yours. This means I see most things differently. As an artist I am not only free, I have a responsibility to interpret an image according to my personal filter.

An experiment

Try this experiment: take a couple of artist friends with you and go together to some location – any location. All of you spend, say, 15-30 minutes photographing the location. No fair getting more than about 10 yards from anyone else. Then go back and compare your images. Yes, probably you will all shoot a “record” shot of the location. I often do for context. But if the artists are each confident in their own vision they will begin to diverge. At the same location and almost the exact same position, you will see different images.

Maybe one artist sees in telephoto. Maybe another see wide angle. One is drawn to “intimate landscapes” (in the style of Eliot Porter). Another thrives on chaos and another captures order and serenity. Black and white, dynamic composition, high key, low key, extreme color, ask are reasonable approaches..

The point is that there will be different results at the same location because each artist sees and perceives the scene differently.


So like Cole Thompson, I give up wondering if I have vision. I do. It is the effect of my life experience, history, education, values, and outlook. Because it is unique to me, I see something different than you.

This is powerful and good. Life would be a lot more boring if it were not true.

Stick to Your Own Vision

You have a vision. It’s your own and it is different from anyone else. This is a hard thing for many of us to believe and accept. It sounds pretentious to say “I have a vision”. And it is hard because we are insecure and, deep down, don’t really believe we have one.

A friend of mine, Cole Thompson, tells this story about a defining moment in his career. It happened during a portfolio review. I will tell you that Cole is a B&W artist:

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.”  I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.  What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

That sent me on a journey to find out if I had a Vision. I did and it changed not only my photography, but my life.

What is your vision, then? It is the way you perceive things, based on your history of experiences and your values and beliefs. That is why it is yours and unique compared to anyone else. That is one reason you should not try to copy anyone else’s vision. It would be artificial. You need to do you.

Have you ever been our shooting with a friend and later compare your results? Isn’t it amazing that your images are different, even though you were both is the same place? Sometimes it doesn’t even look like you were together, because you perceive different things as significant. That diversity of results comes from our differing vision.

But what if you submit some images to a competition or a call for entry and they are rejected? What if you go to a review like Cole did? What if they tell you, in effect, that your vision is not worthy. Don’t believe them. Even the so called experts (I’m not sure they actually exist) can only answer for their own vision. If they reject your work, they have a different vision. That does not mean yours in not equally valid. That is so hard to remember when the sting of rejection is fresh.

So when I get insecure and wonder if I really have a vision, I look at a lot of my images and discover that there really is something there. There is something unique and different from what I see from other artists. There is even something I might even consider worthwhile.

Trust that you have a vision. You do. You are a person and you have a history of experiences and values that have shaped you. You will choose what you photograph and that will be based on your vision. That is you.