Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Details, Details....

Most of the photographs I have taken at the Cathedral of Learning have been of large subjects: rooms, arches, hallways and doorways. But the last time I was there I ran across some small details that cried out to be photographed.

On the first floor there is an old wooden bench I found that had hand rests, with each one ending in a carved wooden caricature with varying tonality based on the grain of the wood. It was an interesting change from what I had been photographing while there before, and I found myself wondering what those caricatures would have seen over the years had they been ‘alive’.

Bench Hand Rest, Cathedral of Learning © Howard Grill

Bench Hand Rest, Cathedral of Learning © Howard Grill

Bench Hand Rest 2, Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill

Bench Hand Rest 2, Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill


Cathedral of Learning: A Hallway

The Cathedral of Learning has quite a few hallways that are lit with old fashioned incandescent lights. In this particular hallway, I was drawn to the zebra-like stripes of light and dark that the lights made on the wall. The emptiness of the hallway also gave me a bit of a ‘spooky’ and lonely feel that I tried to transmit in the image. It definitely looks like the Cathedral is turning into a small project!

Hallway at Cathedrtal of Learning

Cathedral of Learning: Nationality Rooms

Lest I’ve bored you with multiple photographs of the architecture in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, there is more than just architecture to be found here. Inside the cathedral are multiple “Nationality Rooms”. These rooms were designed to represent the culture of the various ethnic groups that settled in Allegheny County.

At this point I have only photographed in one of these rooms, the Austrian Room. I was taken with how it seemed like one was entering a separate world when going through the door from the poorly lit hallway. I wanted to try to convey that feeling by photographing the room from outside of it, rather than the inside.

Austrian Nationality Room © Howard Grill

Austrian Nationality Room © Howard Grill


Here is a short video about the room itself:

Cathedral of Learning IV

Two more of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning photos are included in this post. The first is a new image and the second is one I have posted before, but it has been reprocessed.

Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill

Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill


I had previously posted the next photo as an example of color grading, but it was presented as a blue toned image. This version is sepia toned to fit in with the presentation of the other Cathedral images.

Cathedral Of Learning Stairwell © Howard Grill

Cathedral Of Learning Stairwell © Howard Grill


Over time there will be more to come!

Cathedral of Learnng

I have very much enjoyed the two times I have been out to photograph the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning with my friends. The architecture is truly wonderful. For more on the Cathedral see here.

It’s been a while since I’ve really felt drawn to photographing one particular thing, but I think I may be feeling a series coming on……

Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill

Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill


More From Carnegie Mellon University

A week or so ago I had written a post about a pleasant experience I had with law enforcement when photographing architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. In short, the officer turned out to be very supportive of the architectural photography I was doing. If you are interested, the full story can be found here.

But what about that building that the officer was guarding when I first arrived? It really is a special building....and here it is. Or at least one view of it. From the ground. Looking up! 

This particular building is Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall and is the home to both the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture and the School of Design.

Pittsburgh Skyline And Gulf Weather Beacon

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to take some more shots of the Pittsburgh skyline from Mount Washington. This time I went  more long than wide in terms of focal length.  For this shot I focused in tight to make a composition of a grouping of downtown Pittsburgh skyscrapers placed in the center of the photo with the edges of two other buildings making up the left and right edge frames.  Like the last image I posted from Mount Washington at sunrise, this one is also an HDR composite using several exposures blended into one because the contrast was otherwise too great to allow details to be seen in both highlights and shadows. The sunrise was really pretty amazing and lit the sky up in orange tones, though the temperature was a bit cooler than I would have liked it to be.


Pittsburgh Skyline And Weather Tower    © Howard Grill

Speaking of temperature and weather, see the building that is dead center with the multi-colored lights on top of it?  That is the old Gulf building and the lights are actually a weather beacon that relay information about temperature, precipitation, humidity, and wind velocity based on the color of the lights.  Here is a guide to decoding the information.  Using the information in the decoding manual we get a temperature of between 33-49 degrees Fahrenheit, less than 0.25 inches of precipitation, humidity less than 50%, and a wind speed of less than 10 miles an hour.

Personally, I think it's easier to open my Weather Bug app!

Monongahela River - Mount Washington

A few weekends ago I was invited to photograph sunrise by a relative who lives on Mount Washington, which overlooks the city of Pittsburgh. Though the city is famous for its three rivers, only one, the Monongahela, is seen in this shot. It joins the Allegheny River just off to the left of the frame, at which time the combined river is called.......geography quiz time.......the Ohio River!

However, out on that balcony this is not the scene that the eye could see. It was before sunrise and the group of trees framing the bottom right of the image were barely lit and looked like a black blob on any single photo that I took.The sky, though dark, was the brightest part of the scene, followed by the water, the lit buildings and then the dark trees and distant hills. This was a classic situation for using HDR.  

For those unfamiliar with HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography, it is a process whereby you take multiple shots of the same scene (preferably on a tripod to avoid movement since the images will all be blended into one) at different shutter speeds in order to allow optimal exposure for both the dark and light areas of the scene and then use software to blend them all into one image. This can be done in a way that gives a natural appearing result or a gritty, grungy, comic-like result. I tend to favor the end of the spectrum that is more natural appearing.

The Monongahela River and Downtown Pittsburgh  from Mt. Washington    © Howard Grill

The photo above was made by blending 5 photographs with shutter speeds ranging from 2 seconds (the exposure for the sky) to 30 seconds (the exposure required to allow detail to be seen in the patch of trees). The five images were merged into a 32 bit file by using the "Merge To HDR Pro" function in Lightroom. That 32 bit image was then processed in Adobe Camera Raw and finally converted to a 16 bit image. From that point, there were a few more routine adjustments made in Photoshop to yield the final result.

And there you have the city of Pittsburgh at sunrise. The blue color of the water is 'real' by the way. That is what it looks like when you photograph it when the sky is a deep blue before the sun is up. The deep blue sky is reflected in the water and imparts the color.

Time for the city to wake up!

Mosaic Abstract, Piazza Lavoro

A few weeks ago I had posted an image from my mural series, taken from a portion of Pittsburgh's Piazza Lavoro mural by Ned Smyth.  I had the opportunity to visit that location again recently and became fixated on another aspect of the mural; something I hadn't seen before.  It is interesting how at times one's mind sees one thing and on other occasions at the same location it sees things which are totally different.

On this occasion, rather than seeing 'stand alone' portions of the mural (as in my prior post), I kept seeing very small segments which made abstract patterns and lines.  I couldn't help but take a whole series of compositions.  This is the first of the bunch that I have processed.


Mosaic Abstract From Piazza Lavoro    © Howard Grill


Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh

I live not too far away from two local historic cemeteries and a short car ride from a third. Though I have always found them to be interesting, I always hesitated to make photographs walking through them.  I guess it always made me a bit uncomfortable because I wasn't sure if it was disrespectful in any way. Then a friend of mine (you know who you are) explained some things to me that convinced me that it really was OK as long as the photos were respectful.....maybe even a positive for those that have passed by bringing their existence to light again.

And so I gingerly started taking some photos.  Making photos in these cemeteries is something I would like to explore further. Below is the name of the East End Cemetery carved into a concrete entry.


Entrance Marker, East End Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA  ©Howard Grill


Will the person who rests here ever be remembered?

Forgotten Grave, Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA      © Howard Grill

It seems like there are images to be made, that while somewhat limited in scope, have the potential to be fairly emotional.  It is something I plan to explore and see what I can come up with.

Piazza Lavoro By Ned Smyth

For quite some time I have enjoyed making photos of small abstract sections of painted murals, particularly the ones I have found close to home in Pittsburgh.  This  photo, while not an abstract portion, is a segment of a beautiful tile mural on Pittsburgh's North Shore (remember, we have three rivers, so we have shores).  



Segment of Ned Smyth's Piazza Lavoro    ©Howard Grill


This particular mural by Ned Smyth was installed in 1984 and is called Piazza Lavoro.  The mural was commisioned by the Heinz family (maybe you have heard of them :) and, as the accompanying plaque notes, "This two-part sculpture recognizes the significant contributions of Pittsburgh to American labor history by a symbolic representation of labor's role in our nation's development. The human figures populating the facades are engaged in this activity, while the palm trees and marine life are reminders of the delicate balance between civilization and nature."

More information about the mural/sculpture as well as photos of the entire piece can be seen on the Pittsburgh Murals website, which is an absolutely fantastic resource I ran across.  Delve in deep and in one location you can find pictures, maps, and artist information about most of the street murals in the city.

The Doors Of Pittsburgh OR Why I Photograph

I have a fair number of photographs of interesting doors from in and around the Pittsburgh area.  These types of images are pretty common and, in fact, I am sure most people have seen those posters of "Doors Of (fill in the blank)".  But I guess those posters are around because interesting doors are, well, ....interesting.....and fun. They always makes you wonder both what and who is behind them.  

It occurred to me that, though I have a lot of this type of image, I have actually processed very few of them. As I started to consider the possibility of processing a few, I remembered this one photo in particular that I had been meaning to process "for a little while now".

In fact, though I don't remember the exact street in downtown Pittsburgh where I took this, I do remember taking the photo in vivid detail.  I remember the weather, I remember waiting for the cars to go by so I could get into the street to take it, and I remember it was a Sunday. I remember the whole process.  And at this point in life I can't say that I have the world's greatest memory. So I was surprised when I looked at the metadata and saw that the photo was taken just two months shy of NINE YEARS AGO!

And that is one of the reasons I photograph.  It makes life and memories that much more vivid and indelible.  Had I walked by this storefront without making a photograph I'm sure it would just be a faded memory long forgotten.


Big Science Recording Studio    © Howard Grill


McConnell's Mill State Park: Pittsburgh Nature Photography II

Time for the second installment in my compendium of suggestions for nature photography in the Pittsburgh region.  As I had mentioned in my first Pittsburgh nature photography post, the ground rules for this series are:

  • I have to have personally photographed at the location and have images to show
  • The area must be within 1-1.5 hours from Pittsburgh so that it is a comfortable 'day trip'
  • The area has to be publicly accessible so that anyone reading this may go

McConnell's Mill State Park is a wonderful place to explore and photograph.  In my mind I have always divided my park excursions up into four different areas:  

  • The old mill (hence McConnell's Mill)
  • The hiking trails right around the old mill
  • Hell's Hollow
  • Other area in the park 

The mill building itself is usually closed to the public, though there are several times a year when one can go inside, but, for me, the attractiveness of the mill is what lies outside.  

The mill overlook and waterfall in McConnell's Mill State Park.

© Howard Grill

View of Slippery Rock Creek taken from the mill overlook in McConnell's Mill State Park.

© Howard Grill

In addition to the building itself, there is a man made waterfall which was, at one time, used to power the mill.  There is also a very nice walkway/balcony that affords views of the waterfall as well as views up and down Slippery Rock Creek, which is actually more the size of a small river. 

Portion of the waterfall by the mill in McConnell's Mill State Park

© Howard Grill

The covered bridge adjecent to the mill parking area, McConnell's Mill State Park, Portersville, PA

In addition to the mill, there is a lovely old covered bridge just to one side of the mill parking area.

The trails that are on either side of the mill are pretty easy in terms of hiking and terrain and if you want to be minimally more adventurous you can very easily climb down the small hillside to the numerous boulders that line the sides of the creek. You can also climb up the hillside to areas with small waterfalls that might not be present depending on the water runoff and time of year (the highest water levels tend to be in spring with the winter snow melt along with the spring showers and thunderstorms).


A transient waterfall caused by heavy rains.  I have never seen this falls form again.

© Howard Gril


The Hell's Hollow region of the park is hands down my favorite area to photograph. It is also not directly connected to the main park and a bit out of the way to locate....but don't worry, I will tell you how to get there at the end of the post.

In the spring there is an incredible array of wildflowers....trillium, phlox, trout lilies, columbine, and wild geranium to name a few. And with the water levels being high at that time of year, Hell's Hollow Falls puts on a nice show (I am not posting any images of the falls as, though I have taken many, I still don't feel that I have processed any that truly capture their essence). In the autumn the forest puts on a nice show. Summer is green time.  And in winter, well, lets not talk about that as I hate going out in the cold. Yes, I am a temperature wimp!


Trillium grandiflorum, Hell's Hollow, McConnell's Mill State Park

© Howard Grill


Trillium erectum forma luteum, Hell's Hollow, McConnell's Mill State Park

© Howard Grill


Trout Lily, Hell's Hollow, McConnell's Mill State Park

© Howard Grill


And then there are the other areas of the park.  There are lots of them, as the park encompasses 2,546 acres of forest, creek, and bridges.

Getting There:

From Pittsburgh, take 279 North to 79 North and get off at Exit 96.  Turn left at the end of the exit ramp and continue driving through Portersville, PA.  A few miles down the road there will be a small sign indicating that you need to turn left to get into the park.  The sign is not, shall we say, big. The sign for the pizza place (which you can only see the back of from this direction) is larger than the park sign.  If you pass the blue water tower on the right you have gone too far.  Once you make that left turn there are no side roads until you get into the park. 

Once you enter the park you are at a "T" and must turn left or right.  Turn left and there will be two parking areas with restrooms  a short distance from each other on the right.  The second parking area is larger.  Or follow the signs down to the mill where there is another parking area, but it is small and only accommodates six or seven cars.

What was that?  You want to go to Hell's Hollow?  Here is a link to the park map.  From the mill parking area cross Slippery Rock Creek using the covered bridge (you can't miss the bridge) and continue along McConnell's Mill Road (which is what you are on) to Fairview School Road and turn left.  Continue on Fairview School Road which, at one point, will make a sharp 90 degree turn to the right.  A mile or two down the road turn left onto Shaffer Road (there is a really, really small and low to the ground sign on the side of the road saying Hell's Hollow as you make the turn).  A short distance down the road, after you cross the very short one lane bridge, you will see the Hell's Hollow parking area on the left.  Trust me, it is worth the drive!

Where To Eat :

One place, three words: Brown's Country Kitchen. It is in the town of Portersville, PA, which you drove through after getting off at Exit 96.

Brown's Country Kitchen, the place to eat in Portersville, PA

Brown's Country Kitchen, the place to eat in Portersville, PA

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Pittsburgh Region Nature Photography I: Ohiopyle State Park

If I am planning to visit an area in the hopes of doing some landscape and nature photography I typically do some background research first, which always includes an internet search.  It recently dawned on me....I have been photographing nature and landscapes in the Pittsburgh region for years....why don't I do a series of posts about what my favorite locations in the region are.  Hopefully this helps out some folks  that are either visiting and/or those just starting out and wondering where to 'shoot'.

The ground rules for this series:

  • I have to have personally photographed at the location and have images to show
  • The area must be within 1-1.5 hours from Pittsburgh so that it is a comfortable 'day trip'
  • The area has to be publicly accessible so that anyone reading this may go

The first spot I would like to talk about is Ohiopyle State Park, which is on the outer edge of the 1-1.5 hour driving time frame. There are several other state parks in the area but, in my opinion, they all pale in comparison to Ohiopyle.

Getting There:

Take 376 to the PA Turnpile. Take Exit 91, Donegal, off the Turnpike. Turn left onto PA 31 East. In about two miles turn right onto PA 711 and PA 381 south. Travel ten miles to Normalville (yes, the name is for real) to a "T".  At the "T"  turn left onto PA 381 south. Drive for 11 miles into the park.

All the other information you could ask for is on the PA Dept of Conservation and Natural Resources site.

My favorite spots to photograph:

Ohiopyle Falls

You can't miss it.  The falls are located right on the main drag as you enter the park and right by the new visitor center.  There is a public parking lot available. You can hear the falls before you see them.

Get there early so the sun is still low in the sky (or go on a cloudy day) to avoid the bright sun on the water as there isn't much cover to block the sun. There are several nice viewing platforms from which to photograph.  The photo below was just taken earlier this month from the viewing area outside the newly built park office. It was a bit early for fall color, as the leaves were just starting to change.  But it was a very still morning with almost no wind, allowing the leaves to remain sharp during this 11 second exposure at f8.

Ohiopyle Falls, the widest falls in Ohiopyle State Park, PA

Cucumber Falls

My favorite falls to photograph in the park. They are far, far narrower than Ohiopyle Falls, but higher and more delicate looking. To get there, turn right out of that parking lot for Ohiopyle Falls and drive for 1-2 minutes, taking your first right (onto Kentuck Roud, SR 2019).  About 30 seconds further and you will see a small parking area for the falls on the right side of the road. There are wooden stairs that lead you down to the falls with plenty of vantage points for photographing along the way.

Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

The Flumes:

OK, get in that car and turn left out of the Cucumber Falls parking lot, retracing your steps.  But instead of turning left at the "T" to go back to Ohiopyle Falls just go straight across the road into the parking lot for the flumes.  This area has some terrific flat rocks for abstracts, rapidly flowing water cut into solid rock (hebce, the flumes) and, at the entrance to the narrow flume some nice views upriver.

Autumn scene at the entrance to The Flumes, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

What Else:

There is more.  Lets see.....

  • Acre upon acre of forest
  • Lots of water, slow and fast, lazy and rapid cascades
  • An interesting old railroad bridge that you can walk on )by the old visitors center
  • There is one weekend in the summer when kayakers are allowed to go over Ohiopyle Falls making for interesting photos....but it is crowded

Where I Eat:

In my opinion the best place is The Firefly Grill!

If the weather is warm don't forget to stop at for Moose Tracks ice cream.  My favorite!

Falls Market in Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania.  Get the 'Moose Track' ice cream!

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View Towards Mount Wahington

This is another in my continuing series of Pittsburgh, PA bridge photos.  This one is taken standing on the Smithfield Street Bridge but does not include it in the photo.  In this case, my interest was drawn to another set of bridges that could be seen in the distance, looking towards Mount Washington.  I was particularly intrigued by the layers of trees, bridges, and tones capped by the houses near the top.

Copyright Howard Grill

Smithfield Street Bridge Sculpture

When making photos of the Smithfield Street Bridge, I was surprised to find the metallic sculpture below incorporated into one of the steel beams.  I have been across the bridge in my car many times and had never noticed it.  I guess that is what photography is supposed to do.....make one see clearer and deeper! I have been trying to learn more information about this sculpture and what it represents, but no luck thus far.....

Sculpture On Smithfield Street Bridge

Copyright Howard Grill

The Smithfield Street Bridge

by Howard Grill I recently went to make photographs of  Pittsburgh's Smithfield Street Bridge and, from a compositional standpoint, found it a bit tougher to photograph than the Clemente Bridge. Of course, sometimes it is merely one's mental state and their receptiveness to seeing that is the issue.  I will be making more trips to the Smithfield to see what I come up with.

This image is one that I made at the Smithfield Bridge some time ago but never processed. Given my new-found interest,  I am going to be revisiting my older bridge images that I never 'did anything with'.  Such are the benefits of Lightroom keywording!

The bridge itself was designed by Gustav Lindenthal, built between 1881-1883, and was widened in 1889 and then again in 1911.  It was rehabilitated in 1994-5. The Smithfield Street Bridge is actually the third bridge to sit at this site, with the first one being made of wood and having burned down and the second being a wire rope suspension bridge that ultimately proved inadequate for the traffic.  The current bridge is of the lenticular truss type and is said to be the second oldest steel bridge in the US.

Smithfield Street Bridge

Copyright Howard Grill


by Howard Grill If there is one thing that Pittsburgh has, it is bridges.  I have just started exploring the idea of how they might be portrayed photographically.  This, of course, is not an original idea, but one that has been played out many times by many people.  But I love the architecture, the 'rawness', and the abstract nature of the lines that these bridges make, so I am toying around with how one might get some 'different' perspectives on them as well as what type of processing might work. Here, I went for the 'vintage' look.  We will see what comes of these efforts.

Copyright Howard Grill