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

Morning With “Fourteen”

I began to realize that the camera sees the world differently than the human eye and that sometimes those differences can make a photograph more powerful than what you actually observed.                                                                                                         -– Galen Rowell

What feels like a contradiction of seasons is simply a part of nature that I cannot explain. A “fall” leaf fallen on a moss-covered log among the forest still feels fresh to me. This was one of the first images I made during my morning walks with “Fourteen.” What a different view . . .

I feel certain we’ve all had the experience of going to a place for the first time to “check it out.” Several weeks ago, that’s one of the things I did. I needed to see if this place “feels right” for one of my Dig Deeper workshops. It does.

However, to make things even more interesting, I decided to spend a morning walk at this new place with one new lens to “check it out.” I needed to see if I liked it enough to add it to my camera bag(s). I did.

The mushrooms in all shapes, sizes and colors came alive on this wet, misting morning. Seeing the scene through the perspective of “Fourteen” helped me build this image in a way that would not have otherwise happened. The urge to switch to my macro lens, had I taken it with me, may well have changed everything. Herein lies the beauty of focusing on one place with one lens.

So, I spent one of my mornings at this place with a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens and walked. And, I wondered, “Do I need this lens?” and “What can I do with it that I can’t do with what I have?” Ultra-wide is really not my style. Truth be told, for years people thought of me as one who focused on macro photography. And, yes, it is my Calgon … three macro lenses might suggest that. But macro isn’t everything or the only thing I do in my photography.

With Fourteen I knew there would be some challenges and that my first time out of the gate would be a learning experience. It was. I needed to draw on what I already knew and put myself to the task of getting to know the lens, the place, and the potential of both. I also needed to be prepared to “fail” in order to learn. I forced myself to use only the 14mm for most of the morning. Yes, I did take one other lens, but I didn’t break it out until it was obvious that an image I wanted was simply not possible with the Rokinon. That other lens was the Tamron 28-300mm, which gave me a great deal of flexibility and is a light carry.

The ferns of the forest were dancing all along the semi-steep climb to the top of the hill. The vibrant and varied greens of the wet morning were mesmerizing and made the walk all the more enjoyable. Many, many places to stop, notice, absorb and express my vision.

Back to the ultra-wide Rokinon, which is, by the way, a manual focus lens. Some of the things I learned spending the morning with this lens were expected. Others were not. Here are some of those observations:

     First, I really love my circular polarizer filter for outdoor and nature photography. However, using one is not an option as the front element of this lens is domed. This kept me even more mindful of the subjects I chose and the direction of light and its impact on the subjects.

Graceful ferns on the bank of the hill made it easy to take notice. What a wonderful dance to see and capture in this image. Ultra-wide perspective, an even slower approach and patience made this possible.

     Second, you can put a whole lot of stuff in the frame with an ultra-wide lens. The angle of view on this lens is 115 degrees on my full-frame Nikon D810. This means that I need to be super aware of where my tripod legs, my feet, camera strap and other tools (such as diffuser/reflector) are. And, I’ve got to be on the lookout (high alert) for things in the frame that I can or cannot move out of view and what I’m able to compose out of the frame with a step to the left, right, forward or back. A tilt of this lens up or down, I discovered, can create interesting, but mostly unwanted, distortion. I need, as always, to do my best work in the field when creating the image.

     Third, you can only get so close with “Fourteen”. It is not a macro lens, no matter how much I might like it to be. How close can I get? Well, the minimum focusing distance (MFD) for this lens is eleven inches. Since I didn’t research ahead of time and don’t carry a ruler in my bag, I had to figure this out in the field. Fun times. I learned that there’s an obvious advantage with autofocus lenses. When you’re too close to your subject and have crossed the MFD line, using autofocus, you know it. You don’t get the focus confirmation “beep” or the solid ball in your viewfinder. You learn quickly that you’re too close and need to back off. With a manual focus lens, there is no beep; and, depending on where you want to focus, you may not get  a solid ball either.

On this walk we discovered “Chicken of the Woods” (Laetiporus) in all its vibrant waves and intricate design attached to a downed and very wet and moss-covered tree. The ultra-wide lens allowed me to capture a sense of place that would not have been possible in this way with another lens. At least not how I was seeing it.

     Fourth, You need to use your tripod. What??? Yes, you do! I needed to use my tripod. Couldn’t I get a fast-enough shutter speed to handhold? Yes, I could and did. So, why the tripod? Go back and re-read the previous three lessons I’ve shared above. That’s why. If you want  sharp images, do yourself the favor of carrying and using the tripod. And bring along a shutter release cable (or wireless) to increase your chances. Any subtle movement can ruin all your hard work in composing and focusing on exactly what you want your image to look like. Pay attention.

This Chicken of the Woods was about three feet wide. I was VERY close to it (likely 11 inches away, which is the minimum focusing distance of the Rokinon 14mm) . Yet, the ultra-wide lens allowed me to give context. Simply not possible with any of my macro lenses.

I learned a few more things during my “Morning with Fourteen.” I need to study more on how other photographers are using ultra-wide lenses so I can be inspired and learn even more image-making possibilities. And my eyes … they’re not as good as they used to be. With a manual focus lens, ultra-wide or otherwise, I need to work slower and be even more deliberate and attentive. This lens is also great for night photography, which is on my list to learn and do as well.

Finally, I learned that the exercise of forcing myself to use only one lens is a really good one. I will do it again, with this lens and others. You learn to see the world through different “eyes” and angles and push through to reach the lens’ limits as well as understand its potential. Are these images “perfect”? No, but that wasn’t my intention. My goal was to come to a better understanding of the creative tool I had in my hands and where I could go with it.

“Today I have grown taller from walking with the trees” — Karle Wilson Baker . . . This quote mirrors the feeling I experienced among the trees and boulders on “Meditation Hill” on my morning walk.

My “Morning with Fourteen” reminded me that keeping things simple (one lens, one place) opens up a new world of discovery. I gained an appreciation for this new perspective. I spent that morning with my eyes and mind open. I took my time and got to know the lens and the place a lot more than I would have without focus. I had patience – with myself and the lens – and I enjoyed the learning process. (The place, by the way, was Mountain Lens Retreat in Hendersonville, NC. I will be back.)

I enjoyed being exactly where I was, and it felt really, really good. I breathed in the morning mist, listened to the light rain drops hitting the leaves high above. I listened to the birds wake up and smelled the freshness of the forest. I sat down to take it all in – not with the camera, but with my soul.

And, just because I can … though not from my “Morning with Fourteen”, I thought I’d share an image from Looking Glass Falls on a rainy, crowded late afternoon. I clambered down the rocks and under a huge downed tree, laid down on the wet rocks and got dirty. It was an exercise in “careful agility” and an experience that demanded patience. For me, the efforts and “Fourteen” paid up.

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!