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.

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.

Capturing a Sense of Place

People aren’t interested in blueprints; they want to sense the painter’s involvement and pleasure in the subject . . . Paint a sense of place.   — Paul Strisik

Think of a place … where you live, where you grew up, or just a favorite place you like to go. If you were to share just one image to tell the story of that place, or why it matters to you, what would that image show? Now, think of another place, like New York City, Washington DC or even Florida. What would that one image be? When we photograph places we love with care and craft, it shows. When we photograph places we’ve never been, we have to work harder to express our fascination and awe.

As photographers, we have the opportunity to be a part of that “want to be there” movement. So, how do we do that? If we want to express the uniqueness or character or what makes a place special, we need to be able to articulate these things – verbally and visually. Sometimes, this means having a list of potential subjects – the “must haves” and the “want” list. However, more often and more defining are the descriptive words and phrases you use when you’re talking about those places. Those are the images you seek.

Shrimp boats in Engelhard Harbor, Hyde County, NC. What I love about the harbors is that the scene is always similar, but different. The boats change, and the names of each one make me wonder what the origin is. I fancy Wonder Woman, Miss Genelle, Miss Peaches, and I wonder about the sinking or sunken wrecks. I admire the fishermen who work harder than anyone I know and wouldn’t trade that life for anything. I also know that there’s an uncertain timeline for these vessels and the lifestyle. It’s why I visit and visit and visit these places as often as possible.

One definition of “sense of place” is a conscious awareness or sensation of a physical environment, region or location. This incorporates the emotional response to the place as well as its physical nature. The places I find special and visit most often are not always the most beautiful at first glance. Yet, my emotional connection to them allows me to present them in ways and on different levels from the first-time visitor who comes as a blank slate.

When we make plans to travel (near or far) and add new places to our “bucket lists,” what factors play into drawing us to those places? What makes us want to return over and over again? How do they make the cut? We may have read or heard about them. The odds are higher that we have seen images that inspire, invite and create a longing inside us to “be there.” What we’ve connected with is a sense of each place, to which we respond not only visually but emotionally and, sometimes, spiritually.

Don’t Give Up. Say It. Show It.

Our first time anywhere can be overwhelming and create in us an anxiety that comes from the desire and perceived need to photograph everything we’re seeing. It is this angst that can cause us to lose focus and detach from the moments and the place to the point that we’re simply grabbing shots or shooting and hoping that we leave with something good. There are various ways to lessen this impulse and calm the anxiety and pressure.

Dogwood tree in fall forest at Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve. If I use this image to illustrate “Say It and Show It,” I would say, “I love how the trunk and limbs of this tree are leaning and dark in contrast with the surrounding tall and straight trees. I love how it is different and how the fall colors of the forest allow it to stand out.” Then, I would work to find the best angle to express that, paying attention to edges around the frame, giving the tree a foundation of leaves and allowing it to be the star. It is among my favorites of trees, and I will visit in different seasons. Spring would be perfect.

I see this happen during workshops. When I do, I talk with each person about slowing down and stepping back to focus on what they find most interesting. I ask them to “say it” first and to clarify with enough detail to get them going. Tell me what made you stop. Then, I direct them to keep photographing until what they said they were drawn to is on the back of their LCD screen. I’ll crop it later” is not a good excuse to leave. In fact, the attitude of “fixing” in post what could be done in the field does a disservice to the subject and the photographer. Leaving it for later is lazy. Remarkable things happen when one stays with anything long enough. This is one of the techniques I use often, especially when I get stuck. Say it, and stay longer. It works. Let’s face it, we all have the potential to become overwhelmed and lose direction. By verbalizing these things, we give ourselves a direction or path to follow and a relative destination.

Icons, Elements and Details Tell the Story

Sometimes a single image can tell someone exactly where you’ve been and why you wanted to be there. More often, the story is told with a series or collection of images that, when seen together, provide the bigger picture.

Capturing the beauty of Pharsalia Plantation and the surrounding area in Nelson County. This collection includes the icons, elements and details of this spectacular place and shares in every image what made me stop.

One way to be sure you leave a place with images that capture its essence is to focus on three things: Icons, Elements and Details. The icons are things that are easily recognizable, well known and familiar to the masses (lighthouses, monuments, land features). They can also yield the “postcard” image that everyone does. Consider the Great Smoky Mountains and Cades Cove. These are the subjects that are uniquely and universally connected with the place. Sparks Lane is a “must-have” image, but do it your way. Doing it differently is the challenge. Get the “standard” shot out of the way, and then “do you.”

Outer Banks Fishing Pier at Sunrise. When you visit the Outer Banks, the piers and lighthouses are among the icons. But we know that there is so much more …

The elements are familiar things that are connected and commonly associated with the location such as geography, plants, wildlife, structures, people and cultures. These can be illustrated within landscapes, grand and intimate, as well as in smaller sections or parts of the place. If I’m photographing coastal North Carolina and fishing villages, my collection of images would be incomplete without shrimp boats, crab pots and fishing nets. If I’m lucky, the collection would also include some of watermen at work in the harbors. Because these places remind me of my father’s work of repairing and building boats, and because I grew up on Long Island near the water, I connect more deeply with these places. Finding the things that make each area special is easy for me around the docks.

At the end of the day, at last light, a long exposure of the shrimpers in Port Royal, South Carolina. With the help of Topaz Impression, I’m able to accentuate the feeling I had as I watched the light go down on these boats.

The details complete the picture of a place. This includes macro and close-ups of the elements. Sticking with the coastal theme, this could include barnacles on floats, work gloves, white boots, the texture and pattern of wear on the boats, boat names and much more. And don’t forget the critters of an area. It’s the slowing down that allows one to notice those unique details that are intimately connected with the location. Wherever you are, put your “noticers” on. Find something? Move in closer, explore more intently. Bring it home.

Gloves, baskets and floats. All details that tell the story of life on the water from the waterman’s perspective near Chincoteague, VA

Use All Your Senses

From the time we are born and in every moment of our lives we use at least one of our five senses. We see, hear, taste, touch and smell and learn how to adapt to whatever environment we are in. Our senses work together and allow us to experience life on many levels. They also allow us to tune into our emotions and develop emotional connections.

No matter where we are or what we are photographing, we use our visual sense to create images that ultimately communicate what is happening in one moment of time in one specific place. However, what we see does not have exclusive rights to dictate what we photograph. What we hear and feel and smell also contribute to the images we create. Our state of mind also plays a part in what we notice and when we stop for a photo opp.

Misty morning fog in the forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

Scenario: You’re in the woods in spring after a rain shower. The lush green soaked with raindrops and saturated colors of the flowers, grasses, leaves and trees telegraph that moment and that place to you – the first viewer. Responding to the post-rain light, the peace and quiet and freshness, you have the opportunity to communicate what you see and how it makes you feel to those viewing the image. If done well, they are right there with you. And, they want to be there.

When creating images, consider how being in a place makes you feel. Work to identify what creates those feelings, and then work to weave them into your images.

Room of arches and shadows at Fort Pulaski, Savannah, Georgia. While most people who entered this “dead end” alcove spent an average of two minutes here, the light and shadows of this small room would have kept me captivated and exploring for hours. I did not want to leave.

Awareness, Meaning and Purpose

When we photograph different locations, we generally want to share something that we’ve seen or that has a specific meaning for us. We have something to say.

Environmental photographers who shoot areas where acres of trees have been clear cut may want to bring awareness of habitat destruction. Their approach to subjects is more literal and documentary in order to shed light on situations that need attention. Photojournalists tell stories with their images. A travel photographer shooting bright colored umbrellas lined up on a white sandy beach under a beautiful blue sky may want to entice people to that place for pleasure. A person who photographs wildflowers or other creatures found in nature wants to share a part of what excites them. We all put in the box what matters to us and present our view of the world. Styles of photography may range from recording to interpreting to artistic or graphic, depending on the purpose behind the images.

This scene, an old boat with the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in the background, felt “old” to me from the start. Interpreting with textures allowed me to express the scene as it felt to me.

With our images we tell stories, capture and preserve moments in places that mean something to us. We photograph to convey what moves us on a sensory level as well as intellectual. What and how we photograph can be very personal or commercial. Either way, we bring our life experience up to the moment the shutter is pressed. We see differently. That’s why when you put ten photographers in the same place, you will likely end up with ten completely different images. “Wow, where was that?” “How could I have missed it?” Common phrases spoken and heard among those who stomp the same grounds.

Becoming a “Local Tourist”

In many ways, whether we’re talking about walking out our back door or driving to New Mexico or flying to Alaska, capturing a sense of place is “travel” photography. If we’re trying to sell our home and take pictures of the house and rooms, we’re capturing a sense of place. It’s all about creating images that communicate what we want others to see and that have the effect we intend.

There are places in Chincoteague NWR that can be simply magical in early hours. This is one of them. Visit this spot every time I’m here. Different every time. Even though I’m not here often, I still have favorite places and could describe each one clearly. As a photographer, my job is to put those words and thoughts and feelings into my images so that the viewer understands as well.

There’s a difference in the way we photograph places we know, love and are intimately familiar with and places we’re visiting for the very first time. There’s a difference in the images people take as tourists, and the images people take when they know an area well or have lived there all their lives.

The “tourist” (even you or me) may be at a location only once. It may not be possible or affordable to return. We are stuck with the existing light and weather conditions. That said, a well-tuned tourist/photographer knows how to work the light and weather to create appealing images in spite of less than ideal conditions. What if you could never return to a place, what images would you regret not taking or rushing through?

If I were never going to walk this trail ever again, I’d want to take this scene home above all others – even the spectacular views across the mountain tops. It is the one thing that made me stop and say, “I can’t leave here without this.” Every place speaks to us differently.

The “local” photographer is familiar with the area, knows people to talk with to gain access to places not open to the public, knows the best time of day or year to shoot certain subjects, and knows the right place to be for the best shot. The local can come back when the light or weather is best. The local tunes in to those “character and culture” elements and works to maximize the opportunities.

The best way to become a “local-tourist” is to do your homework. Learn as much as you can about your subjects and the area you’re planning to visit. Use guide books, the internet, network with locals who know and shoot in the area. Build relationships with those who live and work in the places you visit, respect their wishes regarding access to their property. It’s important to be good stewards and good examples.

Parking on Ocracoke Island is slim to none. Your best modes of transportation are your feet or a bicycle. One trip to the island provides that lesson. Homework …

The Beauty of Networking

There are very few “secret” places. The internet has taken care of that. There are, however, always new places to discover and experience. Learning from and sharing with other photographers can be a good thing as long as we behave as we should and share as openly as we’re able. Networking builds relationships and also allows us to discover beauty in places we might have missed.

One of the photographers I reached out to was NANPA member, Jerry Monkman. I was new to NANPA and photography and had limited time to photograph on a trip to New Hampshire. I told him I had three days in the area and asked what should I NOT miss. He sent me an amazing list and told me not only to check out Nubble Light (Cape Neddick Lighthouse), but also what time of day. There were scenes I would have missed were it not for Jerry’s list and generosity.

Without the help of fellow photographer, Jerry Monkman, I would have likely visited at a less flattering time of day.

Another one is Jim Clark, former NANPA President, mentor and friend. Jim is an amazing photographer, storyteller and instructor. His images can teach anyone quite a lot about capturing a sense of place. Some of my favorite locations are ones that Jim introduced me to or reminded me of. While looking for new places to explore in West Virginia and, more recently, the Eastern Shore of Virginia, I reached out to Jim and learned even more about places he’s photographed for years and connected with people he’s met – good people. Over these many years since we first met, I have learned a lot more than photography from Jim. I’m thankful. Networking is wonderful, and we should share the wonderful places and people we know.

When the tide is high in Greenbackville, VA, on Eastern Shore, fishermen fish and floats float. Without Jim Clark’s tip, I would have missed this very small fishing village. My advice – bring boots.

Finally, Remember to Pay Attention to the Basics

Whenever and wherever you’re shooting, always remember the basic tools and techniques that will allow you to capture quality images: the right lens, a good, stable tripod, proper exposure, good composition and clearly defined subject. These are the elements you can control. Weather, on the other hand, is always subject to change. Good shooting techniques, creative thinking and vision will enable you to produce good images in most situations. Cloudy or white-sky days are wonderful for macro and close-up photography because the light is even and diffused (no harsh shadows to compete with your subject).

By putting on your “noticers,” you’re able to interpret a scene differently. (Roan Mountain trail on the way to Round Ball)

Work the scenes (great and small). Many a treasure can be found when you explore the scene and extract from it. Shoot vertical and horizontal formats. Don’t forget the nooks and crannies that hold even more good stuff. Be patient and persistent. Be a good editor in the field – learn what to leave in and what to leave out. Don’t put the viewer to work to figure out what you want him or her to see or feel. Engage yourself, connect with the place and invite the viewer of your images into your favorite places. Share your experience through the imagery.

Simple curves in the marsh grasses on an overcast day on Cedar Point Tideland Trail in North Carolina. Many folks walk this mix of boardwalk and dirt trail in search of birds. On this day, birds were scarce and light was sketchy. The sky would not have added to this image.

And, by the way, don’t forget your own backyard – where you live. Photograph the familiar in different ways. Look for the hidden gems – they are there. We often miss what is right in front of us or don’t photograph things because they are in or near where we live. We have a misguided impression that they will be around forever. This is simply not true.

We knew its days were numbered, but hoped the state would let nature take its course and give us more time to capture the rustic beauty of Frisco Pier in the, Outer Banks, NC. Numbered days before this icon is only a memory.

McNeel Mill in West Virginia near Cranberry Glades Botanical Area on Hwy 219. The fate of this mill is uncertain. Without attention or interest to restore, this, too, will be history.

Challenge yourself to photograph close to home. Celebrate what makes it special. Visit and revisit places and continue to photograph them. You’ll find that the place you see now is not the one you will see in the future. Both the place and you will change. You will not regret having taken some time to make those memories of where you live. In fact, doing so may even help you refine your seeing and noticing skills for when you travel afar.

Night shot of the Renaissance building in Uptown Greenville, NC. I live here and have never paid attention to this building. Thanks to an evening photo walk, I will in the future. The city is growing and changing every day. It is not the same town I moved to 35 years ago. Wishing I had known then what I know now about how time changes places.

Night image of light fixture and shadow on textured building. Another detail I would have missed in my own town without a scheduled photo walk event. The scene did not look like this, but it felt the way you see it here.

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!

More . . . or Better?

Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons. – Ruth Ann Schubaker

There are many ways to consider how you approach your photography. It’s a new year, and I’m giving a lot of thought to my own. So, I figured it might be a good time to share a few observations on what has helped me grow as a photographer, improve my skills and find the courage to dance to my own beat and discover how to express my vision. Yours may be similar and yet entirely different. And the question that comes to mind is “More or Better?”

Mountain Trees in Fog - A Quiet, Peaceful Moment to Savor

Mountain Trees in Fog – A Quiet, Peaceful Moment to Savor

What has troubled me over the digital years is the idea of “more is better,” “I’ll crop it or fix it later,” and “even a blind squirrel finds a nut.” And, how about, “If I take a thousand pictures, surely there will be at least one good one!” Really? There are elements of truth in these phrases, but little potential for growth. And none of them are efficient or effective approaches for a photographer who wants to grow in the craft and find their vision.

Dunes and Clouds in Time - Taking it All In

Dunes and Clouds in Time – Taking it All In

I’m reminded that I began my journey with rolls of slide film … 36 frames of opportunity to capture what held my attention, excited me, made me wander and wonder. Any frame wasted in hopes of “getting lucky” was just that … wasted. At least a basic understanding of exposure and composition was needed to bring home images that made me smile. I love digital imaging for the freedom it gives us to practice, play, experiment and express ourselves. I’m thankful for the film days that provided me with discipline and purpose. They are what has helped me resist being lazy or sloppy in my shooting. Not perfect, but intentional.

Nets and Clouds - A Life of Work

Nets and Clouds – A Life of Work

 

On the concept of More, what might I want more of as a photographer? I’d like more time with the people I love and care about and images that preserve those moments. More quiet time to appreciate the gift of life and the wonders and miracles of nature. More moments of connecting — with everything, including myself. I’d like more time to learn new skills and practice my craft, more time to travel and explore beautiful places. I’d like to have greater awareness, more compassion and more inspiration. More time to focus on and express my creative vision would be wonderful, along with more opportunities to teach, inspire and encourage. (Notice I didn’t say more money for more gear? I have enough.)

If I could have all of the above, that would be better… but having it all is not always possible. So, where does Better fit in all this? No matter where any of us are in our journey as photographers, it is safe to say we want to continue growing, to improve in many different ways. I’d like to find better ways to use my time so that I’d have more time to pursue my passion. I’m always on the lookout for better ways to tell the stories of the people, places and things that resonate within me.

Eye of Polyphemus - Noticing Beyond the Thing

Eye of Polyphemus – Noticing Beyond the Thing

And while More can be a good thing, it isn’t always Better. We live in an time when most everyone has a way to take pictures and share them with the world. Which is better? To share a single image that speaks to why you stopped and took the time to capture the moment? Or to fill an album on social media with 200 images from one day’s shoot and leave it to the viewer to figure out what in all of them really spoke to you?

I vote for the single image. It shows that the photographer took the time to think about what to shoot and share. You’ll lose me every time around the 5th image if I see the potential for an album that reads like this: “Here’s where I went. I couldn’t decide what I liked best, so you decide for me”. The problem is that it’s your vision an your job to tell your story, not mine. Remember, I’m looking for more opportunities to connect, to learn, and appreciate. Show me the images that make your heart sing. I’ll listen and learn, and so will you.

Eye to Eye - Connecting With a Ghost Crab

Eye to Eye – Connecting With a Ghost Crab

In the seven images included in this piece, what I hope you’ll see and feel is a bit of my visual story. Each one is different and represents moments in time that held my attention and made me think through how I could best portray what made me stop. I often talk to myself and ask, “Why am I stopping? How does it make me feel? It may help you to do the same. You will slow down, see and feel more. Notice in these images what I saw and felt at the time of capture and where I went in processing to further extend the vision. Quiet time, connecting and noticing coupled with textures, long exposures, HDR, macro and panorama — the blending of ideas with techniques. Each image was intentional and part of small series of images, not thousands.

North Carolina Farm Barns in Pitt County Panorama

North Carolina Farm Barns in Pitt County Panorama

 

So, do we want to simply photograph more and produce more images? Or could we be satisfied with being more intentional in our seeing, shooting and sharing and having less volume, more depth and better quality? It’s up to you to decide. More or Better? It depends. Do you want to “level up” in your photography or stay where perhaps you may be and fill more hard drives? For me, I’ll stick with what has been working so far — more of the slower pace, more awareness and photographing from the heart.

A String of Bleeding Hearts

A String of Bleeding Hearts

 

Interpretive Nature Photography: A Blend of Art & Nature

Rose Curls

Rose Curl – Selective focus on edge of petal

What does interpretive nature photography mean? Nature is nature ; art is art, and never the two shall meet, right? For some, perhaps this is true. But only for those who have never walked in the woods, sat in a flower garden or watched the sun meet the day or settle in for the night. Or for those who have never stopped long enough to explore a dandelion or to watch a butterfly break free of its chrysalis.

Nature IS art, in its finest and purest form. Capturing this essence is what nature photographers live for. It is what makes us unable to imagine doing anything else. It is what brings me peace, healing and joy. It is what pushes me as an individual to be present in the moment and to slow down long enough to see and feel and connect.

So, how do we do this and what do the results look like? Most of begin our photographic journey with our eyes, hands and mind— seeing something, grabbing the camera and figuring out how to set the camera correctly. This is natural, as we need to see our subjects and to learn how to use our equipment to capture the moment. The sticky piece in this equation is “correctly.” True, technical knowledge is necessary. What is missing, and what moves our work express the “art in nature” is vision and heart. When we see and connect at the heart level, our work begins to shine; and what we share with the world resonates at a deeper level than a pretty picture.

When “in the zone” (not rushed or in a hurry), this process of connecting works very well. I have found that an abundance of time is not required. Rather, a mind open to possibilities and focused on seeing and being present is what elevates our work. The rose petal curve is an example. With hundreds to choose from, this one rose stood out. By stopping, slowing down and seeing, the gentle curve of the petal’s edge was what drew my attention most.

On a visit to a garden in late summer, most of the flowers were past prime and the light was harsh. Diffused light was on the ferns. While the patterns and texture are attractive, using an in-camera multiple exposure with slight spin created a more playful image.

Soft light on ferns with patterns and texture

Soft light on ferns with patterns and texture

Another visit to the same garden revealed the seasonal transition and petal-free poppies. These two pods were intriguing both in their design revealed and in their relationship to each other.  A Lensbaby soft focus optic was just the right tool to create the diffuse background and draw attention to the essence of the poppy that is often dismissed or overlooked.

Pair of petal-less poppies

Pair of petal-less poppies

One morning I dipped into my stash of milkweed seeds and pods. The ever-so-slight breeze made it challenging to contain these wisps with seeds. I used my camera to capture the wind’s presence. With the creative tools of the digital darkroom, I was able to transform an imperfect image into one that spoke to the lightness and flow of my milkweed dance.

Dance with a milkweed seed

Dance with a milkweed seed

It does not take hours to create images that speak to your vision. More than anything, it takes a blend of technique, craft and vision. It takes a willingness to be present, open and free of the voices that tell you what not to do. It takes the decision to wonder “what if…,” and then forge your own path that reflects your connection with the subject.