What’s on Your List?

Be passionate and bold. Always keep learning. You stop doing useful things if you don’t learn. So the last part to me is the key, especially if you have had some initial success. It becomes even more critical that you have the learning ‘bit’ always switched on.       –Satya Nadella

No, not “that” list … Not the “what I want for” list. I’m talking about the OTHER one–the one you make that holds all the things you want to do or learn or master. Whether you have it written down on paper or in your head, we all have one. My list continually grows, ebbs and flows. In fact, so do all my lists. I have at least two lists–one with things I want to learn and another with reminders. I don’t refer to either of these as my “bucket list.” That’s another one entirely.

Soft peach azalea blooms blended with lace curtains. The azalea image was taken in Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, SC. The lace curtain image was taken in Canada. Experimenting with the paring of unrelated images.

THE WORD LIST

I have one list with just words to keep me mindful. You can call this one THE REMINDER. This list has had one word at the top for the last three years. The word? INTENTION. I keep this word in my mind and bring it out when I’m photographing. Often, I find that asking myself what my intentions are in the field is helpful. It keeps me on track and focused. The other helpful word is OPEN. It’s easy to have the best intentions, but when the results don’t match, being open to something different is incredibly helpful. Another word that helps keep me sane and focused is PATIENCE. This one reminds me to be patient with the elements (like wind and light) and with myself. There are times when everything comes together smoothly and others when nothing seems to be working. Having or practicing patience can make a world of difference. There are more words, but those are my favorites.

THE OTHER LIST

So, what’s on that other list – the one that has that I want to learn or master? You can call this one THE LEARN AND GROW.” This list never ever gets shorter. One thing I know for sure is that there is never nothing to learn. When we stop learning or think we know it all, we stop growing. That is why this list will never end …

Blended images of Baptisia blooms. The background images is a portion of a motion blur of the same flowers.

Therefore, my favorite list keeps getting bigger and longer – even though I check things off now and then. Many different things land on this list, and there are many ways that it grows. For starters,everything on it begins with inspiration. I’m continually amazed at the creativity that abounds in all things from photography to art and beyond. Visual artistry in photography is an evolutionary process. It begins with a subject or an idea and an approach and incorporates an attitude of openness. The words “should” and “can’t” are not allowed in. Guiding light comes from words like, “what if” and “I wonder.” And the learning lessons come from trying and doing. So, back to the list … Here are just a few things I’ve been exploring more deeply.

Blending flower ruffles with rust. With this image, I pulled two completely unrelated images and played to see if there was something I could do in the blending of them that was pleasing to me.

Textures and Image Blending  – I’ve been watching what others do and am amazed and often in awe. I’ve been learning and practicing and exploring more of this in the last year and plan to keep moving forward. What I know is that I haven’t even tapped into more than the surface of potential in this area, but I am excited and inspired. A lot happens in the doing. It also helps tremendously to refuel with the knowledge and experience of others who have been digging deep in this area. When I ask myself, where can I go from here, the answer seems to be “anywhere you want.”

Teddy on my sister’s handmade blanket. Textures helped to hide a busy sofa background.

Lightbox WorkIf you love flowers like I do, it’s likely you may have seen the work that Harold Davis does with translucent flowers on a lightbox. I love it and am inspired to learn how to do it! This explains a recent purchase of a large, flat-panel lightbox. I haven’t had time to do much with this large one, but made a few attempts on a small one from the “slide-viewing” days.

Pink bloom on lightbox and interpreted with Topaz Impression, Van Gogh

I am eternally in love with flowers. And, I see tons of potential for creative interpretations with this tool. I plan to play, experiment, learn and master “the box” so I can open up even more levels of creativity in my work. As this happens, I will discover that there is more to learn. I am open and excited.

Focus Stacking – Now, this is a more technical technique that has its own level of potential in the macro world as well as the larger landscapes. Since one of my passions is macro and close-up photography, I see this as an area to study and practice more. And, while my style of macro is more “interpretive” and leans heavily toward selective and soft focus, there are subjects that simply “need” focus stacking to achieve the maximum level of depth of field. One thing I’ve learned, so far, with some of my spontaneous efforts is that one likely needs more slices of focus (more images) than one would think for the optimum results. I know. I’ve tried, and I’ve learned.

Close-up of fucshia and gold orchid with focus stacking (11 images) Lesson learned was that this subject could have used even more images in the stack.

WAITING IN THE WINGS LIST

Those things above are just three of the many things on my “Learn and Grow” list. Among other items that are waiting in the wings (or just not first in line) is to learn more about still life and working with black backgrounds. I’ve been playing with the black backgrounds more than I thought and lately had a race with light, black fabric and dahlias.

Dahlias cut and arranged on black fabric.

And as one who does not sleep much, night photography is on my list. Surprisingly, I feel the call to rekindle my relationship with my flash and will answer it this coming year. (I used to use it all the time in my macro work in the film days, then veered in the direction of diffusers, reflectors and flashlights. Time to revisit the other light possibilities.)

Another surprise to me is that I’m feeling the urge to equip myself with the proper tools to engage with the birds and wildlife. There are plenty of worthy subjects within a few hours of where I live. And even though I think the bears get the memo that I’m coming and hide on me, I plan to add some bigger glass to my bag. Perhaps, during one of my trips to the refuge, they will have missed the memo. And when that much longer lens gets in my bag, I’ll have no excuse to excuse myself from the party. (It’s been very easy to opt out ever since I sold my “big glass” 200-400mm lens to a bird photographer many moons ago. I wasn’t using it all that much and only periodically missed it.) Recent travels have inspired me to reconsider . . .

Egret preening at Chincoteague NWR, Virginia. Just one of a series across the channel. Paying attention to light and shadows and behavior.

I encourage you to examine your list. I find it helps to write things down. Then again, I love the thrill of the highlighter … you know, when you run it across an item on your list that indicates “complete”. I might have to color-code the highlighter system to indicate progress rather than completion. I’ll keep you posted on the highlighting.

What is on YOUR list? Get going! As Jim Clark would say, “You’re  burnin’ daylight!”

Doe and fawn at water’s edge at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR – interpreted with Topaz Impression.

Arrangement of male and female crab shells. Photographed near fish house, edited for black background in post.

Fall leaves caught in a stream and interpreted with texture, masking out portions of the leaves.

Wasp in Nest – A perfect candidate for focus stacking.

Dahlia and the Lightbox still life

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!

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!