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.

Come-Back Places – A Look at “My Barns”

They aren’t always beautiful. In fact, they’re sometimes plain. Yet, over and over and over again, they simply call your name.

This is “Book Hen.” One of my favorites in 2004 (from a slide). It is now gone – building burned as a result of spontaneous combustion from damp hay.

If we think about “come-back” places, we will realize that we all have them. Some are across an ocean or continent, others cross-country. Some are just down the road and others even further. A “come-back” place is one that inexplicably draws you back and calls your name. Some of these go back to our much younger days, and most of them hold a special place in our hearts. The reasons why can be very different – memories, solace, excitement, peace, and so on.

“Book Hen” just a few years later, maybe 2006. Already fading and peeling.

EARLY COME-BACKS When I was growing up in a small town on Long Island, NY, I was a bike ride away from several places along the edge of the Great South Bay – ones that gave me a sense of peace and quiet. They were places to think and to be present with all my senses. What I remember about them was the cool, quiet breezes blowing through my hair, the smell of salt air wafting above the water, the lapping of small waves making their way to the shoreline. I remember the warmth of the sun on my face with eyes closed pointing up toward the sky. I remember a simpler time.

Abstraction of the Love Barn.

I’ve been away from that town for thirty-five years now, and the last time I went to see my childhood home, I had to count houses, and still wasn’t sure if I had it right. It had changed so much, and there was no house number on it. I suspect those long-ago come-back places are either no longer around or are so changed that I would not be able to find or recognize them if I did. So, I am happy and comfortable in remembering them, the person I was then, and the peace they provided and why I kept going back to them. They were a good beginning.

Corner of the “Love Barn” when you could actually read the words and see the face.

AND THEN, THERE ARE MY BARNS.  I have a collection (growing) of “come-back” places. Each one holds my attention and brings me back for different reasons. You cannot imagine how many GPS pushpins are in my Garmin for “awesome” trees. They are everywhere. Why is that? And, I love old barns and buildings and farms and the rural landscape. But why? When I dig a little deeper into what makes each place resonate with me enough to create a “must return” attitude toward them, it’s clear that some of those reasons are rooted in my childhood and the experiences I had and their influence on me – even if I didn’t recognize or acknowledge the impact as it was happening. Something else, my “come-back” places are only good. I am not drawn back to revisit negative things of old.

Meet “Cameron,” the little kitten we rescued along with her brother while visiting the barns. She just sat and watched us as we photographed. I still wonder what lucky people got the two of them. A rescue took them in for us after seeing how awesome they were.

So, these places draw on something below the surface, even when they are not inherently or obviously beautiful. Excellent example – MY BARNS – this wonderful place of the “not so beautiful” nature that continually calls me back to visit the barns just outside of Cameron, NC. I first “met” them and began photographing them as best I can remember in the summer of 2004. This was early in my photography journey, and I was excited to be introduced to new, different and quirky places off the beaten path and under the radar (still am).

Section of Cameron Barns with hand and electrical box

Always finding something new and different in these barns.

I’ve been visiting and sharing my barns ever since. Why is that? I’ve figured it out. These barns resonate with my personal history, and they continually feed my desire to discover new things, beauty and something different in what others might easily and simply view as old and broken down. The barns challenge and inspire me. Each visit delivers something I haven’t noticed or seen before. Each visit reminds me that “my barns” – like me – will not be here forever. In fact, each visit brings news and discovery that one more is gone and sometimes forecasts perhaps the next one to go. Even as I make the two- hour trek several times a year, I know that someday all of them will be gone. I’m relatively certain that the “Barnstormers” will not be back to repaint the old or find new barns to paint. Very likely, this “come-back” place of mine will one day become a very fond memory, not unlike those places along the shoreline of the Great South Bay. The barns will no longer exist, but will be ever retrievable in my mind, memory and photographs. They are a piece of my life history.

I called this side of the barn and images from it “Mutt Barn.” The entire barn is gone now.

This side of the barn (now gone), I called “The Race Barn.” Many a group photo were taken in front of this.

THE BACKSTORY OF THE PAINTED BARNS OF CAMERON, NC. They had their start with a young local artist, David Ellis, in 1999, who organized a group of artists, The Barnstormers, from near and far came to Cameron and painted on almost all sides of at least seventeen barns and buildings, trucks and tractors and other farm equipment. The community rallied around the artist with food, lodging, supplies and enthusiasm. They returned, I believe, a few times, but have not been back since 2004, when I began my visits. Cameron is a small crossroads town in Moore County about eleven miles south of Sanford, known for its antique stores and semi-annual antiques street fairs than for the barns.

Back side of Race and Mutt Barn in Cameron, NC. Another view of the barn that is gone.

If you find yourself in Cameron (not on Sunday or Monday), you must have lunch at The Dewberry Deli & Soda Fountain, which is downstairs below The Old Hardware Antiques. As long as I’ve been visiting my barns, I’ve been coming to and bringing others to the Deli to enjoy the great food and unique, old-time atmosphere. If you must visit Cameron on Sunday or Monday, pack a picnic lunch.

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THESE BARNS? – Anyone who has been with me at the barns can tell you how passionate I am about these now much older, painted, faded, peeling, weather weary warriors of another time. In part, this passion comes from being a photographer and being attracted to things that attract my interest. These barns are perfect subjects for Wabi Sabi images – challenging anyone to find the art and beauty in decay. However, I believe my connection to them goes deeper and further back into my family history and influences from childhood.

My father grew up on a farm, and everyone in his large family worked it. His parents and my great-grandmother came to America from Poland. They were farmers. Farming then (and even now) is not an easy life. It requires long, long, long hours, hard work and an acceptance that the rewards reaped in part rely on a dependence of nature to provide the right amounts of sun and rain to produce a worthy harvest. It is my belief that most farmers farm because they share a passion for the land and what it provides, and they love what they do, and they are not afraid to work hard. I’ve never met a lazy, land-hating farmer, so that’s my take.

When my three sisters and I were growing up, we had what I remember to be a very large garden (felt like a mini-farm).  Whether it was or not, it felt as I remember like it was as big as a football field. It probably wasn’t. We grew corn, potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, peas, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, strawberries, peppers and much more.

Long ago view of four of the barns in this section. Just this past year, the first barn disappeared. Vanished without a trace.

Each day, as the garden grew, my sisters and I would have to hoe and weed at least two rows each, pick whatever was ripe and ready, carry it “all the way back to the house” (such drama), and help do what needed to be done with it. We had to “work” the garden. I remember loving when the sweet peas and string beans were ready and usually tried to claim those rows (the “snacker” rows). I also remember hating the potatoes and their dry dirt harvest. We had to follow behind my father’s tractor as he plowed up the dirt to reveal those potatoes. No snacking and much harder, dirty work.

Sisters in the garden. Think this is where the potatoes grew. That’s me, wiping the sweat from my brow. (Notice the outfits and anklets. My mother made most of our clothes, too.)

I don’t think any of us really liked all those “hard hours” and work in the field. However, I do see now how those times influenced me and provided me with a strong work ethic and sense of pride and understanding the value of putting in the time. The work ethic of both my parents was instilled in me by way of example and experience, by being made to do what we would have preferred not to. We raised the garden not for fun, or to see what would grow, but to feed our family. My parents married at age 21. By the time they were 25, they had four girls to raise (and feed). I cannot imagine what that was like. I’ve never had children and didn’t marry until I was 43. The life I lead, in comparison, has been so very different. However, if I had been blessed with children, I know I would have made them “work” as well.

“Bliss Barn” on the corner in infrared.

So, when I drive through rural areas of the state and country – through farmland – and see the barns and buildings that belong there, I am reminded of that part of my upbringing that helps me appreciate what those places, barns, buildings, trucks and tractors represent. For me, they illustrate hard work, a passion for the land, providing for families, a sense of pride and responsibility, and the knowledge and acceptance of the dependency on the whims of nature on the harvest.

Pokemon Kid nestled in the autumn leaves.

My emotional and spiritual connection to these painted barns – my barns – goes deeper than the peeling paint, the grain of the wood and the leaning of walls from time and the elements. They bring me “home” on a level I have only in recent years figured out. Photographically, these barns just keep giving from an endless supply of potential in subjects, approaches and creative possibilities.

Do you have a “come-back” place (or many)? Somewhere you can’t help but going back to year after year or as often as possible? Think about what it is that makes you return … and why you can’t help but go back. The reasons may surprise you as you connect the dots. They may explain or confirm some things about you and your history, and may also give you new perspectives on these old, favorite places. Like me and “my barns, you might understand more fully why these places matter to you, and why they keep calling you back.

As for my barns, they are fading and falling and vanishing. Still, I will go until the last one falls …

“Falling Down.” I knew when I took this image (infrared) that it would be the last time I would see it. I was right. This past year the four other barns that remained in this section either fell or were taken down.

 

The door is nearly off the barn now, and some of the paper is missing.

American Gothic with a twist

Children on the side of the barn. This scene is no longer accessible as the trees and briars have overgrown and claimed the space.

The front side of the Love Barn in its early days.

The front side of the Love Barn with faded paint and autumn leaves.

Magic in a World of Smalls

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

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

Dahlia in close with delicate curls of petals.

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

Lensbaby Velvet 56 image of pink azalea blooms

A Few Challenges

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

Artistic interpretation of purple iris flower

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

Tall yellow orchid at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden with black background

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

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

Close-up of half a sunflower

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

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

More than a Few Rewards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Painting_NLP7937

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CarversCreekFall_NLP1781

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

WV Waterfall_7562

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

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

Wasp in Nest_NLP4288

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

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

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

Soft Blooms_NLP6268

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding 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!

For the Love of Trees

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.  ‑-Albert Schweitzer

Etherial image of bamboo and leaves in forest as the wind whispers through it.

Ethereal image of bamboo and leaves in forest as the wind whispers through it.

“Go outside and find something to do.” This was the mantra of my mother for as long as I can remember. And, so, we did. We climbed trees, hiked in the woods, made up games using trails of leaves. For years, we camped in the forests up and down the East Coast. Our lives were filled with all sorts of outdoor adventures.

Grand old live oak in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, SC. This tree survived many storms in its life. Sadly, now, the entire top bend of the tree is gone.

Grand old live oak in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, SC. This tree survived many storms in its life. Sadly, now, the entire top bend of the tree is gone. (Faux color infrared image)

It’s no wonder that I have an affinity for trees. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I am drawn to them in my photography or that I connect with them on a poetic and metaphoric level.

Infrared landscape of Black/white infrared image in the Pixie Forest on Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina with trail leading through woods

Infrared landscape of Black/white infrared image in the Pixie Forest on Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina with trail leading through woods

When I was younger, I wrote poetry under the shade of many trees in many seasons. Now, instead of words on paper, I see the poetry within the forest and the trees. The stories their life rings could tell are likely nothing short of amazing. I imagine the stories told and written beneath their branches, the storms survived and the seasons shared.

Rare snow-covered trees inEastern North Carolina

Rare snow-covered trees in Eastern North Carolina

The trees are survivors, rooted and grounded to the earth and all its miracles. In their life and death, the trees are safe havens, providers of food and life. In their span of years, long or short, they offer opportunities for renewal and rebirth. Trials by fire, wind and rain are withstood in ways similar to our own.

Their character is revealed in the curves and lines of their branches and limbs. In the bulk and bend of their bones the years on this earth are revealed.

There are those that bend and those that break and snap. If I could be a tree, I might wish to be a blend of oak and willow – strong, beautiful, protective, graceful, flowing, tolerant and flexible.

Detail of young Rhododendron growing out of crack of rock wall.

Detail of young Rhododendron growing out of crack of rock wall.

It is in the trees that I see a magical dance of swaying and rustling leaves and limbs, wafting scents of flowering buds, the sight and sounds of birds and bees and butterflies wafting through pollen showers of spring and finding a landing zone on the bare branches of winter. There is the dance of flying, falling showers of gold and red and orange that covers the forest floor with an amber blanket. In every season there is a new dance, never to be repeated … ever.

Roots and moss and autumn leaves on a trail in West Virginia

Roots and moss and autumn leaves on a trail in West Virginia

It is in the trees that I see solitude and strength, mystery and beauty along with the wondrous gathering of tree next to tree next to tree and so on to blanket the land with community and a place to commune with the natural wonders of the earth. It is in the trees that I see life, each one unique, each one with its own struggles and triumphs.

In each one that draws and holds my attention, I see hope and beauty from seed to sprout to mature trees and snags through to the rotting, fallen logs. In each there is a home to new and different life.

It is that lifetime of experience from early years in the forests and among the trees that has shaped my interests and direction in the journey of photographer/artist. From their roots and trunks to leaves and branches . . . I see them. And I see me.

Heart in tree at Chincoteague NWR seen after getting news that my great niece, Ella, was born early. Just love in the trees...

Heart in tree at Chincoteague NWR seen after getting news that my great niece, Ella, was born early. Just love in the trees…

Exposed roots in park in Greenville, South Carolina

Exposed roots in park in Greenville, South Carolina

Blanket of autumn leaves on the forest floor.

Blanket of autumn leaves on the forest floor.

Interpretive landscape of live oak and pine forest in Outer Banks

Interpretive landscape of live oak and pine forest in Outer Banks

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!