Pick a Number …

At the heart of all photography is an urge to express our deepest personal feelings – to reveal our inner, hidden selves, to unlock the artist. –Galen Rowell

There is value in stepping back from our work and looking at it from different perspectives. In doing so, we will learn more about ourselves and our path and patterns. Our images reveal not only what we see, places we’ve been and what peaks our interest, but also how we see them and, if we’re lucky, how we feel about them. We can observe images and easily recognize and remember our disconnectedness from a subject. We wish for better. Then, there are the images that bring us back to a moment and evoke a palpable sense of engagement and attention. Those are the images and subjects that speak to us and our audience below the surface. Those are the ones we allow to be imperfectly perfect.

MAN ON STREET ACROSS FROM CAPITOL BUILDING This is an image that haunts me. I cannot “un-see” it, and I cannot forget that it was taken immediately after visiting one of the most beautiful buildings I have visited. This man was on the sidewalk across the street.  I wrestled with myself about taking the picture and almost didn’t. In that moment I learned something about myself. I don’t ever want to take another image like this unless I can do more than capture a broken moment in someone’s life. It was only one image, but one I will never forget.

We all know and have seen images that have been worked to perfection on a technical level and yet are void of impact and emotion. (We’ve probably taken them, too.) While we can appreciate the efforts of technical mastery, these are the same images that lose our interest quickly and are easily forgotten. Then, there are images that yank us in, draw our attention and keep us there – not because of technical perfection but because they speak to us on a deeper and more connected emotional or spiritual level. They touch our souls. We as the photographer/artist (and the viewer/audience) connect with what we have chosen to put in the frame and how we have chosen to finish the image in our refinement process.

If you want to learn more about your work, how you see the world, or patterns within your vision, take a closer look. How do you photograph places you spend time in? Are you a “big picture” person, and your images reflect that? Do they speak to the essence of places that touch your heart or do they simply document what you’ve seen and say “I was here”? Do you tend to see and photograph the smaller stories, intimate landscapes, moments that might have been missed by others, or even by you, if you had hurried by? Or do you find yourself going in deeper still to the point that “context” and place are not part of the stories you tell?

FLOWING IN THE PETALS OF A DAHLIA – This image was created using the Tamron 90mm macro lens with Nikon 6T supplemental close-up lens.

Take a good, long look. See what you learn about yourself by looking at the images. Can you remember what made you stop? What held your attention then? What holds your attention now? Are they the same? Do you see something more or different? Do your images reflect those moments? Do they bring you back in time? Challenge yourself to gather a cohesive collection (or more) from your archives. See what you discover.

One way to embark on the challenge is to follow the “Seeing in Sixes” project by Lenswork. To give you some insight, Lenswork describes these sets as “a visual cousin to the haiku or six-word storya compact expression of a single nature, possibly a story, definitely a theme, held together stylistically, and making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Tight, distilled to the essentials, impactful, deeper than what is possible with a single image.”

DAHLIA STILL LIFE – This image was created with the Lensbaby Velvet 85 in my living room and a texture from Topaz Texture Effects.

Over the course of the last six months I have heard in three different ways the call to “see in six.” First, from a fellow photographer who submitted to the Seeing in Sixes project. Then, two other photographer friends shared with me the first two volumes of the Seeing in Sixes books. Finally, a challenge came through an in-depth mentoring course by David DuChemin (The Compelling Frame). I got the message, and I did it.  It has been an enlightening endeavor, even with the constraints I gave myself with the dahlias. It has inspired me to look at and gather more collections that reflect a part of who I am, how I see and what I love.

DAHLIA PETALS IN ABSTRACTION – This image was created using the Tamron 90mm lens and adding the Nikon 6T supplemental close-up lens.

For my set of six, I chose images I had taken within a six-week timeframe. My dominant subject during that time was (and still is) my “dates with dahlias.” Along with the constraints of time and subject, my third requirement was that each frame needed to reflect something more about me and my connection to the subject. Each one needed to be personal and unique to how I see and feel about dahlias. There were no other “rules.” The six images shared here are “me.” Each one speaks to more than “This is a dahlia.” I recognized and accepted long ago that I am not a documenter. I am an interpreter. My best work reflects not only what is “real” and what I see, but rather what I see and how it makes me feel.

DAHLIA IN BOTTLES – This image was created using the Lensbaby Edge 80 optic and a French Kiss texture called Purple Prose.

Whether consciously or not, we notice things that touch us below the surface, that tug on a part of our heart and awaken a sense of wonder and more. What those things might be are different for everyone. They also change along the way as we experience life, learn new things, meet new people and grow as individuals.

Take a look … pick a number. I challenge you. What does your set look like? What does it reveal about you – as a person and as a visual artist? What does that collection say about what touches your heart? Give it a try and see where your “look back” takes you. Discover what your work tells you about yourself. And keep looking. Those touchpoints have and will continue to change and grow as you do. It will reveal insight and be reflected in ways that may surprise you.

DAHLIA IN BOTTLE WITH ANTIQUE PAPER UMBRELLA – This image was created using the Lensbaby Velvet 56 lens and blending two images – one of the dahlia, the other an antique paper umbrella.

Remember, we all begin our photographic journey with little knowledge of the technical aspects of the craft. What we bring first is a good portion of life experience and a sense of wonder that is in a continual state of evolution. Much of what took my breath away in the beginning of this journey still does – sometimes in the same way and for the same reasons, but not always. Life and learning and people and places along the way have expanded my vision and inspiration, and it always will.

DAHLIA AMIDST MAGICAL COLOR — This image was created with a Lensbaby Sweet 80 optic and blended with a Topaz texture called “Dreamy Day.”

So, pick a number … any number. Add your own constraints for this exercise so that your focus will be limited and purpose-driven. Challenge yourself to do something (ie., same subject) differently, to veer from your usual approach and comfortable style of shooting. See what you see, what you learn and what you feel. Be open and inspired.

DAHLIAS IN SIXES – And here are those six images that fall within the boundaries of a timeframe, a subject and that each reflect a part of me and how I see and feel about the dahlias.

Stepping Out in Play

Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.

—Henri Matisse, French Painter (1869-1954)

This was where the light tent adventure began … The dried tulips in a bottle and Topaz Texture Effects. Playtime.

One of the first images inside the light tent. I needed to remind myself that this was a learning adventure, not an exercise in “perfection,” which, by the way, is impossible.

With anything new that we want to learn how to do, there is a learning curve. How steep that curve is depends on where you are when you begin. If you are a beginner in photography, learning a new camera, or you find yourself still struggling with the foundational concepts and application of exposure, then adding a new technique will likely be more difficult. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try when given the opportunity – just cut yourself some major slack if it is harder for you to understand and execute. Recognize any limitations – accept them, and push on.

LEARN FROM EVERYTHING

When all the petals fell off the other stems in an attempt to rearrange, this one flower was all that was left. Getting better …

In a perfect world, we would tackle learning new techniques by doing our research, learning from others and then start working the process. We all know, however, that we live in a less-than-perfect world, and many of us learn by stepping out and finding our way. We make mistakes along the way, and we learn. We learn what works and what doesn’t work. I think we’ve all said at some point (and more than once), “Well, I won’t do that again.” We tried, and our efforts may have been less than successful. Some would call that a “failure.” If we’re kind to ourselves, we will call that less successful effort an “opportunity to learn.”

Well, I stepped out recently in several ways. I’ve started working more textures and image blending into my photography. I’ve always admired the work of those who incorporate them into their work and create images that are drenched in creativity and emotional impact. Thankfully, this learning experience is further along than my latest adventure with a light tent.

For me, this image “feels” better, and the simplicity is more pronounced than with a stark whitish background.

Most of my work with flowers and other small subjects happens outside – in the field or during sessions (aka dates) in my back patio. I grow and buy plants and flowers that I find interesting and beautiful and explore them photographically. Since they are “my” subjects, I can move them, cut them, tear them apart, spray them with water and take my time with them.

MAKING AND TAKING TIME

What I know and accept about myself is that very often I need to squeeze a “learning date” in compressed windows of time. As much as I’d love to come to the table fully prepared with research and directions on how to do something, it doesn’t always work out that way. So, I gather my materials, rely on my current knowledge base and start doing (aka playing). This means that I bring to the table everything I know and then step out … experiment with a degree of logical choices to begin the process. I know before I start that there are things I already know and things I don’t. I will learn by making mistakes and re-framing. There is value in making mistakes. They lead us toward “right” answers.

In comes the small light tent (cube). I acquired it and a set of lights for free. It does not have the easy option of adding backgrounds, and it has a slight lean. And, we’re still in the winter cold season, so an indoor shoot is what I had to work with. I have used diffusers and reflectors for years. They work and are wonderful for controlling light and shaping subjects. I have never worked with a light tent or small lights. Here was my opportunity. I had some dried tulip blooms and small old bottles for the first shoot, and I had some lovely yellow flowers and another old bottle for the second shoot.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM SESSION ONE:  DRIED TULIP SHOOT

A different angle on the remaining tulip bloom in the light tent.

I should add that I don’t have a wonderful window in my house that would or could provide added natural light. So, I set up everything on the dining room table. A fun challenge as I had to figure out the best way to arrange the tent and lights (small with at most 8” stands). What I needed, in addition to the two lights was a good way to light the back panel evenly. I am still working on that.

I started out with several blooms in the bottle and found a design and flow I liked. I started working with it. Then, I had the idea of rearranging some of the dried blooms. Big mistake . . . almost all the dry petals fell off all the stems except one. Re-frame. I worked that one dried tulip instead of beating myself up for the fallen petals.

Are there lessons? Just a few.  1) Be careful when you’re working and moving dried flowers. They’re more fragile than you would like them to be. 2) The corner seams of the light tent can be problematic. Raise the set-up to take that out of the equation to minimize the post-processing “fix it later.”  3) Lighting in a light tent can be challenging. If the lights on outside are not enough, you need to find more ways to light your subject. Direct, frontal flash creates shadows on the background. Some could be interesting, but mostly they are a distraction and something you’ll want to remove later.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM SESSION TWO: FRESH YELLOW FLOWER SHOOT

With the fresh flowers, a complementary fabric on box (raising all above the light tent seams), the second learning session is off to a better start.

This time I brought more knowledge and experience from my first attempt at the tent. I decided to use a larger light tent to give me room to raise the flowers in the jar. In setting up the flowers to shoot this time, I brought in a small box about two inches high and large enough to hold the jar. I added a colored cloth to complement the flowers, hide the box and any corner or bottom seams of the light tent. I had a more stable set-up with the lights on the dining room table and didn’t have to fight the sliding stands.

This time I arranged the lights and tested their impact by turning on and off and watching what happened to the lighting of the yellow flowers. I brought in my flash again and worked angles and intensity. I experimented with flash compensation (both plus & minus), bouncing that light off a small, silver reflector, fired direct flash (on purpose) to create shadows, and figured out that directing the flash through the diffusion tent from the top and high sides with both lights on worked fairly well.

I knew this would happen, but wanted to share what happens when you flash directly at your subject while inside the light tent. Shadows sometimes can work with a subject, but not this one.

Flashlights can work to a degree, but not as well as you might think. Firing the flash from outside the diffusion tent works much better when the small lights are also on. Depending on the subject, you might try bouncing the flash or flashlight illumination off a small reflector.

Are there more lessons to learn? More mistakes to make? Did I get everything right? Were my efforts “perfect”? Nope. Other options to try? Of course! But, what I know is that each time I work with the tent, I’ll come at it with more experience, more knowledge and more ideas on what I might want to try.

FUTURE TENT PLANS

Going with the single bloom and same bottle, but firing the flash from above and outside of the light tent.

Now that I’ve had some hands-on experience with the light tent, I’ll do some of the research needed to yield more successes than “failures.” I’ll find more ways to master the light in the tent and to add backgrounds with some sweep that complement the subjects. In warmer weather, and on a sunnier day, I’ll bring the tent outside and see the impact of natural light using the tent. I’ll scare up the flash stands that I know are somewhere (unused) in all my gear and work on remote settings. I have more to discover, more to learn, and more to imagine. I’ve given myself a challenge, and I’m up for it.

What do YOU want to learn? Go for it! Bring what you have to the table and practice DOING. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – you will. Learn from them as much as you do from your successes. In this never-ending road with photography, there is never nothing to learn. Embrace that awesome thought and yourself as a life-long student on a visionary journey.

Do your best and know that in doing so there is always room for incremental improvement.

NOT-SO-FINAL RESULTS

This is a blend of images and textures and Topaz Impression. The dried tulip in the light tent, an abstract of petals in water on a light box and the mixing in of Topaz.

Because I know there is more for me to learn (and know that I will), I can shamelessly share the results of these two sessions as well as how I chose to process the images. In a few, I incorporated textures and blending images. There are more experiments to come. I can’t wait to “bring it” with more knowledge and vision than the times before. I can’t wait to feel more “masterful” with the ten t and textures so I can unleash more of the artist within. What can YOU not wait for? Go do it!

Magic in a World of Smalls

The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.     ‑Paulo Coelho

There is magic in the world of smalls… both in the challenges and the rewards. Those old enough to remember the commercial for Calgon bubble bath will understand what I mean when I say that macro photography is “my Calgon.” The tag line included “take me away” and indicated an incredible, soothing and relaxing escape from the stressors of “real life.” Whenever my world is going crazy, give me a single flower and my macro gear, and everything swirling in my head and life evaporates. I’m drawn into a world of beauty, intrigue and interest that softens all edges and lightens all loads.

Dahlia in close with delicate curls of petals.

I must admit the initial learning curve for my macro adventures was far from stress-free. In fact, that curve resembled the most jagged and bumpy of roads. If it were a histogram, it would be filled with high peaks and low valleys repeated over and over and over. There are mountains to climb, barriers to break and challenges to accept and overcome. The efforts can make you feel like you are on a seesaw all by yourself, up and down, up and down. The goal is to find and achieve balance so that both ends are level and off the ground and your vision is reflected in the image.

Lensbaby Velvet 56 image of pink azalea blooms

A Few Challenges

Initial Barriers to Break. Probably the two barriers to succeeding in any area of photography that come to mind quickly (as I remember the beginning of my own journey)  are 1) understanding your camera and what all the buttons are for, and 2) understanding the fundamentals of exposure. Your camera and all the gear that you add to it are tools for you to use. They do not know what you see or what you want to convey. What can your camera do on its own (Auto or Program) with little help from you besides pointing and shooting?  How much more can you do to express yourself and capture the world as you see it if you become the driver (Manual, Aperture or Shutter Priority)? The difference in the results can be worlds apart.

Artistic interpretation of purple iris flower

What about focus? What does your camera do in “auto”? How does it know what to focus on? How do you become the focus driver? You need to learn how autofocus works in your camera and how and when to use manual focus. Remember, no matter how beautiful the subject, or how perfect the exposure and composition, a blurry image that needs to be sharp (somewhere) will inevitably be disappointing. Focus is important. Note: Very often, in the macro photography world, you will need to use manual focus to achieve sharpness and focus on the specific area in the frame that works for your subject and vision. Never let an autofocus point drive your composition.

Tall yellow orchid at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden with black background

What about Depth of Field? Okay, so now you have the focus you want, but is there too much or too little in sharp focus? How much do you need? How do you know? The answer is often, “it depends.” What’s your subject and what’s your vision? If you can answer this two-part question, you’ll be closer to choosing an aperture that brings your vision into the image and before the viewer. What difference does it make?

Sparring With the Elements. Some things are simply out of our control … or are they? The elements we battle in the macro world include wind, water and light. We cannot control the weather, but we can find ways to work with those things that test our patience. With light breezes, we can set up and wait for the still moment. We can bring our subjects indoors or we can create wind shields that work in the field. As for rain, we can welcome it or wait things out. Umbrellas can help (especially with someone else holding it for you). Raindrops and saturated colors are a few of the perks.

Close-up of half a sunflower

Whether the light of day is dark or bright, there are ways to work with any situation. A few lighting tools can combat many challenges. Flash with off-camera cord can light your subject and also help with motion and wind. If you prefer not to use flash, then consider these tools – all of which can fit in one small package and handle a multitude of lighting challenges. My natural light battle kit includes: A 22” 5-in-1 Diffuser/Reflector set, a 12# silver/gold reflector, small flashlight. Tuck the small reflector and flashlight in the larger case, attach a carabiner and hook to your belt loop or camera bag. This is what I use most of the time for me.

Rhododendron Bud waiting to burst. Underexposed entire image and lit bud with flashlight.

More than a Few Rewards

Photography is my soul food. I cannot imagine my life and world without being able to express myself using image making with my camera and all the creative tools available. Macro photography is without question the deepest and richest and most delicious of all the soul foods for me. It allows me to see and enter worlds that fascinate, amaze and entertain. It slows down the pace, invites me to explore, build patience, and to heal. And, while not every image or session with my subjects results in spectacular creations, I leave each measure of time better for the efforts. Being able to photograph the beauty and treasures in nature has a healing effect that is beyond modern medicine.

Close-up of dahlia with five multiple exposures in camera.

I came to photography in my early 30s in between two diagnoses with breast cancer. During the second stretch of treatment, I could not be around people as I had no immune system. And while the medicine and treatment saved my life, it was photography that soothed and healed my soul. And for weeks I sought solace in the magnificent gardens of Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, NC. There was beauty all around me, and all my senses were awakened. It will always hold a special place in my heart. It was there and in another field of wildflowers that I realized that photography was more than a hobby and that macro photography was more a passion than a passing interest. This should explain my having three macro lenses and other tools to help me get closer to my subjects. Better than any therapy I know.

Give me one hour with one flower and a whole new world is discovered – in it, and in me. When I give myself that time, I also challenge myself to see beyond the obvious and beyond the name that identifies the thing. I work every angle, examine the light, the shape, curves, lines, textures and push to find something new and different, to go deeper in the exploration. It takes focus, time, persistence and openness to make discoveries. And there are always lessons in the doing. There is never nothing to learn or nothing to see. Give yourself the gift of time with something that feeds your own soul. You’ll be surprised how good it can be and what you’ll discover.

What it looks like to spend time with one subject for one hour.

If you find yourself drawn to the small details in ordinary objects, it’s possible that macro photography holds some magic for you as well. When the weather is less than perfect or your busy life keeps you off the road, pick a flower or a jar of buttons, or shells or marbles and play. You can step outside and enjoy the weather while you play or find a spot with nice window light to get your fix.

Soft focus, ethereal orange and yellow dahlia close-up with Lensbaby Velvet 56

And if you’re not sure that macro photography is for you, get yourself a supplemental close-up lens (like the Canon 500D) or a set of extension tubes and try them out with the lenses you have. You may have to work through some challenges with working distance and such, but you can do it. I started with the simplest set of close-up filters and knew immediately that the world of smalls held incredible magic for me. Perhaps, you will, too.

Nine-frame, in-camera multiple exposure of pink dahlia close and spin on tripod.

A Look at the Journey: Coming of Age as a Photographer/Artist

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he (or she) grows up.  —Picasso

The Painting_NLP7937

Yup. I did it. This masterpiece is my “first” painting, It clearly illustrates a lack of knowledge and limited passion in the process. We all start somewhere…

Here’s a picture I painted using another much more refined painting as my guide (I added the fish in weeds and the little heart). It’s not good, even though I had the assistance of a five-year old girl directing what to add and when to stop. So, because I painted this, am I now “a painter”? Absolutely not. I know very little about the art and physical craft of painting pictures. In truth, I know more about painting walls and furniture than painting works of art.

So, what would move me closer to being an artist or painter? How about learning the fundamentals of painting and art from those who know far more than I do? What type of canvas do I use, how do I prepare it, what kind of paints should I use, and why? What brushes? How much paint on those brushes? How do I mix colors, create relationships between shadows and light or show textures in two-dimensions? Without direction, guidance and lots of practice, my vision could easily be lost. (Refer to my first attempt at painting, done just for fun and with little vision.)

One of my favorite images as it might have been painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. (Thanks for the help, Topaz Impression!)

These same ideas apply equally well to photographers. It took a long time for me to be able to call myself “a photographer.” It took even longer for me to call myself an artist. It is a good feeling to be able to own and identify myself as a “visual artist”. It confirms for me an understanding of my craft and my vision, and that in my favorite images those two are one. Both are fluid and evolving. If either one becomes static (especially my vision), my growth as an artist or photographer stops.

In the beginning, when I bought my first “real” film camera, a Nikon N70, and two lenses, I knew how to load the film, look through the viewfinder, zoom the lens and press the shutter – not much more. As a result, I took pictures and relied on the camera and photo lab to help me capture things I saw and present them as I saw them. I got “lucky” sometimes, but more often the images fell short of speaking to what I saw and was responding to with the camera. I was armed with a vision, but lacked the technical knowledge to successfully capture with my camera. I needed to know more, but had not a clue as to how much more there was to learn. What I know, even now, is that there is never “nothing to learn.”

Morning Marsh Maple from 1998 captured on slide film at Hoot Hollow workshop with Joe and Mary Ann McDonald

Morning Marsh Maple slide from 1998 at Hoot Hollow workshop with Joe and Mary Ann McDonald

One of the many turning points for me as a photographer came in the summer of 1998. I gave myself a week-long photography workshop in Pennsylvania at Hoot Hollow with Joe and Mary Ann McDonald. I had that Nikon and two lenses, a flash I knew nothing about, and tripod with a head I hated. I drove ten hours to get there and was super excited to learn. That first night Joe said, “And, tonight we’re going to start with a metering exercise!” I cringed and wondered how small I could make myself before I was invisible. I had no clue. I heard comments about metering “here” and adding “+2/3” or there and setting at “-1.”  This confirmed that I was at the very beginning of my journey to becoming a photographer and artist. I thank Joe and Mary Ann for scaring me straight.

From that point in 1998, what did I do to build my skills and knowledge? I joined Carolinas Nature Photographers Association and North American Nature Photography Association in 1999, attended annual meetings and Summits wherever and whenever they were held. I met excellent photographers and some very fine people along the way – people who have become friends and mentors, inspirations and encouragers. I took advantage of every learning opportunity that came along, workshops, seminars, shooting opportunities. I went out and took pictures, not always good ones. In fact, many of the early pictures I took back then had “issues.” I can see them now and have learned from them.

CarversCreekFall_NLP1781

Slow vertical motion blur (in camera) at Carver’s Creek State Park highlighting fall color in the cypress trees.

WV Waterfall_7562

Whether you’re looking to express your vision in a landscape or single bloom, every ounce of knowledge you have in the craft will help you present it as you see and feel it.

I am “self-taught” in that I have no formal training in art or photography, and this is okay. In fact, at least one of my very favorite artists, Vincent van Gogh, did not go to art school. Education comes in all forms. I have learned from all the books I’ve read, all the music I’ve heard, all the art I’ve seen. I’ve learned from every person (including artists, photographers, musicians) I’ve ever met or spent time with. Every challenge and every moment of peace has taught me something. And those are the things that are infused in my art and temper my view of the world. The same is true for you.

Wasp in Nest_NLP4288

Sometimes, when people know you love the small and unusual, they will give you just the right material to work with.

What did I and we need to learn? There’s so much … lens choice, exposure, metering, composition, timing, lighting. And, now, in the digital age, there’s also post-processing and image management. Where do we start? Begin at the beginning, and it doesn’t start with “go out and buy a camera.” My first question would be, “Why?. Why do you want the camera?” Do you want to capture moments with family and friends or do you want to do more? Whatever the answer, it’s all good. The answer simply points you in the direction of what camera and how much you need to learn to do what you want to do well.

I grew up with parents whose favorite phrase seemed to be, “Go outside and find something to do.” I did, there was no negotiation in that regard. They also took us camping and encouraged our plundering the trails, gardens, woods and shorelines of nature. Here is where scenes and light would be stored in my memory. With my camera, I knew I wanted to do more than document. Without knowledge of the craft, I would forever be a picture taker and not the image maker I aspired to be. The tools would rule, and my vision would appear only when luck met chance upon release of the shutter. In those early days, I was not able to articulate vision. Yet, I wanted the images to say more than, “This is a (fill in the blank).” I wanted my work to say, “Look! Look at what I see and feel!” This is the path on which I have been walking and loving and sharing.

Soft Blooms_NLP6268

Freedom from “tack sharp” and creative tools like the Lensbaby open up more windows for expression.

From a creative, kindred spirit perspective, the person who helped unleash the artist in me was Nancy Rotenberg. We first met in a small add in the back pages of Outdoor Photographer magazine in 1999. I had already bought my first macro lens and was working to create images that captured what I saw and felt in the world of small. I had the vision, but it wasn’t coming through in my slides. One phone call and a weekend with her at the farm in Pennsylvania began a friendship. From there, my work began to reflect my vision more clearly. The gifts I received from my time with Nancy was inspiration, encouragement and permission to be the artist/photographer. Here again was another turning point. There are many others who have helped me grow. I am certain there will be many more.

Finding and going with your own flow . . . be a noticer and let yourself fly.

Finding and going with your own flow . . . be a noticer and let yourself fly.

To echo the questions from childhood road trips, “Am I there yet?” No way. As Robert Frost once wrote, there are “miles to go before I sleep.” There is so much more to see, experience, learn and even more to share. This journey of mine may have had a distinct beginning, but it is one that will not end until my time on earth is done. For that I am grateful.

What fun it is to move and play in a forest tree surrounded by wonderful green grasses.

What fun it is to move and play in a forest tree surrounded by wonderful green grasses.

And for those who are just beginning, might I offer some encouragement? There is a lot to learn along the way. Always will be, that part never ends. Don’t give up. There are images you will only make if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone. Be brave. Be patient with yourself. Be true. Aspire to be the best you, not another version of someone you admire. Your vision will become clear and unique to you. Let it be. Let it grow.

Learning new things, like long exposures, can give you tools to capture the beauty of decay and slow the waves in the ocean.

Learning new things, like long exposures, can give you tools to capture the beauty of decay and slow the waves in the ocean.

Finding Beauty . . . Anywhere.

There is a kind of beauty in imperfection.  –Conrad Hall

Ella_Kylie_NLP8328

Simple beauty is easily found in the innocence of a child.

One might think that finding beauty is a simple task. And, it is, when the object of beauty is obvious. Consider how easy it is to find beauty in a fresh bloom,  a young child, an amazing landscape or a simple scene. Finding beauty in the young or new and fresh is no challenge at all.

Engelhard Shrimpers_NLP7855

Still waters and reflections in the harbor filled with fishing vessels holds its own level of quiet beauty.

Finding beauty in the imperfect, the old and abandoned takes more effort—especially, if you’re not tuned in or open to the idea.  As Minor White observed, “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.” Extended metaphors inhabit scars, wrinkles, broken windows and boards, torn fabric, and even, perhaps, dead flowers.

Painted barn door with grass and vines in Cameron, NC

Painted barn door with grass and vines in Cameron, NC. The boards are no longer straight, paint less than fresh and fading.

Just about everyone who knows me also knows that I love the old and abandoned. I’m a “collector” of all sorts of things. I have a passion for celebrating unseen beauty. And, I love a challenge.

So, in the interest of the challenge to find beauty anywhere, I gave myself one. Much earlier in the year I had picked and photographed some amazing sunflowers (when are they not?).  I also let them wither and dry to crispiness in the same vase and kept them around in their decrepit state – that is, until recently. It was time for me to follow through and find what I felt was still a part of those “long past prime” sunflowers – their inner (and older) beauty.

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Easiest of all efforts to find exquisite beauty in a freshly cut sunflower bloom.

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Here is where the challenge began. Textured paper background and natural light coming through glass door, using Lensbaby Velvet 56. Working and not working.

It was not as easy as I had thought it would be. And, I was most surprised. Remember, I’m the one who loves all things old, falling down, broken and imperfect. I’m also the one who loves, loves, loves flowers. So, I thought, how hard could this be? For the challenge, however, I had to work much harder than I had expected. I had to think beyond what I was seeing – the reality of the dried, shriveled, brittle petals, stems and leaves. I had to follow my nostalgia and vision. I had to find the right tool and best path to share this old bloom’s potential. Experience told me that the beauty was there; I had to bring it out.

It was far too windy in my usual studio set-up – the back patio. So, I set up inside and began shooting the dried sunflower behind the front glass door, making use of natural and artificial light. This worked and did not work at the same time. The background was less than ideal with the blue door, green canvas print, and even the art paper with green textures.

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With light background and Lensbaby Composer Pro with soft focus optic, the potential for finding beauty in the dried sunflower came through. This image is minimally edited.

Surprisingly, even my favorite “go-to, artsy” lens, the Lensbaby Velvet 56, was only meeting me halfway. Could I possibly blame these stumbling blocks on my subject? Was that okay with me? No, and no.  Not to be discouraged, I switched gears. Rather, I moved my set-up to the dining room table, draped a light-colored sheet on the cabinets and switched to my Lensbaby Composer Pro with my favorite soft-focus optic. Now, things were finally starting to click. Add an LED light and small flashlight along with the macro lens adapter for the Lensbaby, and I was “feeling it.”

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The same image as above with the addition of “Rustic Farm” texture by Topaz Texture Effects, brought out the beauty of the imperfect, old, dried up sunflower for me. This image feels good and right to me to celebrate the decay.

Even before I started this particular challenge, I felt that the dried up sunflower would be a subject that would lend itself to soft focus and later, in post, to some textures. I was right. Reality is not always kind, but vision can be. And this is where I landed.

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Another experiment with the tops of the dried sunflowers using Nik Color Efex Pro as the “beauty tool.”

So, you see, this challenge was a mix of several elements: a less than perfectly obvious “beautiful” subject, an open mind, frustration, persistence and vision. If we give up on anything because it’s not easy, we miss out. We miss out on seeing what is, and what could be. We miss out on the “woohoo” of success that sometimes comes slowly and even painfully.

Will I try to convince anyone that the results of this challenge are some of my best images? No, absolutely not. They aren’t, but they did satisfy the requirements of the challenge. What I see missing from them is that little bit of heart and soul that accompanies images I love (even if no one else does). What these images are, however, and represent are lessons in stepping up, keeping on and finishing the challenge.

Canal dock with crab pots in Hyde County

Canal dock with crab pots, broken basket and makeshift stairs found in Hyde County

As visual artists (and in life), it’s not always obvious or easy to see the good side or the best or the beauty. We have to give ourselves and those things that appear at first glance ugly, old or disposable a chance. We have to open our minds to see the potential we think is not there. We must be willing to make mistakes, and not only “not succeed,” but to fail.

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Embracing the imperfections of fading paint and rust in the rural landscape.

Embracing imperfection is not easy, but it is possible and valuable, given time and the right set of circumstances. The dead, dried-up sunflowers are disposable. The lessons, for me, are not. Thank you for letting me share.

 

 

Finding Your Pony

. . . And today’s digital shooters often seem to use the camera like a machine gun, reeling off a virtual movie roll of images and searching for the best frame at a later date, assuming that in the midst of all that manure, there’s got to be a pony somewhere.

‑ Bruce Barnbaum, The Essence of Photography

Yes, there are pink ponies with purple hair that sparkle with magic.

Yes, there are pink ponies with purple hair that sparkle with magic.

Remember when you were little and there were certain things you really, really, really wanted? Mostly, those things might have been a new bike, that special doll or latest game. Maybe, some of you even really, really, really wanted a pony of your own. If you’re young enough, perhaps a “My Little Pony” character would have been on your list. Not mine. I got the bike, hated dolls and spent most of my time outside finding things to do (per the directive of my mother).

Family vacations were all about camping, hiking, exploring cool places and my parents tolerating the car rides full of, “she’s touching me, breathing loud, and are we there yet” from us four sisters. It was on these long drives that I began to notice light on trees, reflections in water, billowy clouds and fantastic skies. At some point, I realized I wanted a camera to capture those drive-by moments. It took until my mid-thirties before I gave myself a “real” one. The pony I wanted were those moments on film and in print.

From the window seat, it was difficult to imagine any ponies to be found ... but resisted the urge to give up or "find them later."

From the window seat, it was difficult to imagine any ponies to be found … but I resisted the urge to give up or “find them later.” Describe this image in one word? “Terrible.” There are others, and they are not pretty. I did not even want to get out of the car. I planned to wait for my fellow photographer to be done so we could head back to the hotel and warm up.

For a long time, several years, I took lots of pictures looking for the pony… And while not movie reels, I did take a lot of pictures with very little knowledge and a whole lot of hope that something good would turn up. Sometimes, usually by luck or accident, I found those metaphorical ponies – the ones that live inside every successful image. They were elusive buggers, at least for me, until I set my mind to learn what I needed to know and the tools necessary to marry the vision with an image that matched the goal.

Lo and behold ... I found one!! Good thing I learned to put on my "noticers."

I couldn’t do it. I found myself unable to sit tight and wait in the car. Lo and behold … I found one!! Good thing I learned to put on my “noticers.”

There are times when I am incredibly thankful that I started my photographic journey when there were only rolls of film to contend with and either 24 or 36 frames of opportunity to either use wisely or to waste. That’s not to say that there were not bad pictures made in those days (or now), but the mistakes were not all wasted. The discipline of learning how to use the tools (camera, lenses, filters, etc.) was much clearer when every roll had a measurable cost of time and money. Back then, memories were not “free.”

And, what do you know? Found another one!

And, what do you know? Found another one!

It takes more than a pile of wood, a hammer and nails to build a house capable of withstanding a storm. Likewise, it takes more than a camera, bundles of lenses and filters to build images that can also withstand time. To create images that speak to your vision, that hold the viewer’s attention and evoke an emotional response, you need to start with the right tools, learn how to use them and work on refining your goals. It takes work, time and patience (with yourself and the tools of the craft). It takes thoughtfulness, meaning you want to think about what you’re seeing, what you like, what you don’t, and consider carefully what needs to be “in the box” and what doesn’t.

In the hunt for ponies, I discovered one of the hunted.

In the hunt for ponies, I discovered one of the hunted.

As you walk along sidewalks, trails, shorelines and pathways, put on your “noticers.” Put them on your eyes, your mind and on your heart. Know that there are times when the ponies run away. The light changes, the bird flies off, you don’t have the right lens to match your vision. And, sometimes, the pull of real life things clouds up your noticers, and they don’t work as well as you’d like them to. Don’t despair. Keep on. Steer clear of the “crap shoot”, the “spray and pray,” and the barrage you’ll end up wading through later. It can get very deep and daunting.

As a visual artist, you’ll find your very best ponies in the field, not on the computer. And very rarely, hardly ever, almost never will you find your best ponies from the window seat. You must step out. You must explore, take calculated risks, learn and try new things to grow. There are millions of wonderful ponies waiting . . . just for you! (And who knows, maybe some of them do have pink bodies, purple hair and sparkle.) Go on. You can do it!

There are those times when the search reveals "Beauty and the Beast."

There are those times when the search reveals “Beauty and the Beast” in the most unexpected places.

And other times when the discovery of metaphorical ponies is a matter of time and patience as they unfold.

And other times when the discovery of metaphorical ponies is a matter of time and patience as they unfold. Go find yours . . . they are waiting!

Responsibility and Freedom

. . . As a visual storyteller, you are responsible for everything within the frame. . . . If it’s in the frame, it’s because you allowed it to be. If it’s missing, it’s because you chose to exclude it, or you neglected to include it.      –David DuChemin, from “Within the Frame”

For a while now, I’ve been hearing things during workshops and in conversation with fellow photographers that are troublesome to me. Some have said, sadly, that they’ve considered quitting photography altogether because whatever they share is not well received. Others have said that they’ve stopped submitting images in their camera clubs because they “never win” or “nobody likes what I do.” And the same type of scenario plays out on social media.

poppy pods, texture overlay, artistic, interpretive

Artistic interpretation of poppy pods with texture overlay.

We are all different in how we view the world. That’s a wonderful thing. We should celebrate our uniqueness. And when we share our way of seeing the world, we should make our vision clear but also be prepared for mixed reviews.

To each person I talk with and hear these words, I ask them, Why do you photograph? What makes you want to go out and take pictures?” With different words, each one shares that they want to capture what they see (or rather how they see) in their world. That, to me, is the very best reason of all to take whatever camera you’re using to preserve those moments in time. It is why, at the age of 34, I bought my very first “real” camera. I wanted to capture what I was seeing and responding to in my own little world – plays of light on trees, flowers and buildings, gatherings of family and friends, places I visited in my travels and simply things that I found interesting or unusual.

Roots, rocks and stream shadows landscape on trail at Falls of Hill Creek, West Virginia - landscape

Roots, rocks and stream shadows landscape on trail at Falls of Hill Creek, West Virginia – landscape

I did not see myself becoming a photographer, selling my images, speaking to groups or leading workshops throughout the Southeast. I simply wanted to capture the moments of my life. And while my own path as a photographer veered into a career, photography has become my passion and vocation. It was not on my radar or in my plans. It happened because I could not stop and because of a hunger to learn and grow.

Thankfully, I have been blessed with mentors and teachers who pointed out areas where I could improve (as they should) and encouraged me to find, express and be true to my own vision. Not one of these people told me that I should be like them or that their way was the only way to photograph. Many thanks go out to Joe and Mary Ann McDonald, Jim Clark, Bill Campbell, Dewitt Jones, Nancy Rotenberg, Les Saucier and others. Their influence may be seen in some of my work because of the things I learned from them or because we were kindred spirits, but the voice is mine because each one encouraged me to find and own it. Find yours.

Landscape of the Manteo waterfront with old boat and lighthouse with textures

Landscape of the Manteo waterfront with old boat and lighthouse with textures

If you’re one of those people who have become discouraged in your efforts to grow as a photographer because of the words of a few critics or because your images “never win” contests or aren’t well received in your photo club or don’t get “Likes” on social media, TAKE HEART. Go back to the reasons why you started taking pictures, and do it for you. Find your own path. Learn what you need to learn to grow and improve your skills. Listen to those who honestly (and kindly) share how you can refine your work. Keep on taking pictures no matter who sees or likes them. DO IT FOR YOU.

Faux color infrared landscape of Lefler Mill, Georgia

Faux color infrared landscape of Lefler Mill, Georgia

As a photographer, I am responsible for everything I include within the frame, for everything I leave out, and for being true to my own vision and voice. Because I accept this responsibility, I am free to express myself in my own way. It’s a process that evolves continually, and I didn’t start out that way. The beginning of my journey held many technical insecurities and concern for doing things “right.” Learning the fundamentals gave me comfort and freedom to step out and veer into my own lane.

artistic blending of Century Plant in snow with soft focus flowers

artistic blending of Century Plant in snow with soft focus flowers

The images you see in this post are ones I know I never would have taken (or shared) in the early years, even if I had taken them. I encourage you to listen to your inner voice and BE FREE to choose your own path – for you, not for “likes” or prizes. Be the best you!