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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.

A Way To Portray

For many years, I have enjoyed taking pictures of trees and portions of trees that have interesting shapes. However, when viewing those images I have never felt that they demonstrated what I was trying to show or say. They never seemed to fully express my intent. That is, until I recently had an idea.

It suddenly dawned on me that if what I wanted to show was the shape of the tree, than I should just focus on the shape and make it an image about shape and nothing else. In my mind, the way I thought about doing that was to make the tree totally black and ‘blow out’ the background sky. Then I could blend the tree into a pleasing texture which would show off the tree’s shape. I tried it and really liked what I got:,

 
Two Trees © Howard Grill

Two Trees © Howard Grill

 

I am definitely going to be trying a few more of these.

Color Grading

I recently finished viewing one of the fantastic ‘art summits’ over on Shift Art. If you aren’t familiar with Shift Art you really should have a look at it as it is a really superb resource. Their Color Grading Summit went over in detail the many ways to ‘color grade’ a photograph in order to alter the mood it transmits. These techniques included the application of color gradients, gradient mapping, using color look up tables (LUTS), filters, and curves. I thought that the Gothic architecture of my recent photo trip to the Cathedral of Learning would be a great subject for me to try out some of what I had learned.

In this particular photo I decided to try to give the image a ‘suspense’ or ‘horror’ type feel through the use of color. In this case I utilized a LUT applied through a color lookup adjustment layer in Photoshop. It is quite intriguing to see how color alone can really add a mood to an image.

 
 Gothic architecture at Cathedral of Learning at University of Pittsburgh
 

Leaf Self Assignment #4

This is the final image from my self assignment of trying to make several interesting photographs from just a single leaf taken during a visit to my local botanical garden. The others in the series can be found here, here, and here.

I was pleased with the results of this self-challenge and will likely continue with them again when I feel my creativity wane. Sometimes, when the creative juices seem to be lacking, too many choices lead to not doing anything at all because none of the choices are ‘good enough’. Remove those choices so that there is only one thing that you allow yourself to focus on and you have no choice but to start making photos and end up with little else to concentrate on but trying to see what it is you are photographing in many different ways. As Minor White famously said “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are”.

 
Leaf Close Up #4 © Howard Grill

Leaf Close Up #4 © Howard Grill

 

I do have one addition to today’s photograph. Internet friend Lynn Wohlers (check out her fantastic photo blog called ‘bluebrightly’) suggested to me that I try processing these as black and white images. I did that (along with some toning) and ended up with the image below. I found this version quite fascinating because when I removed the color it also removed the immediate recognition that the object was a leaf and rendered it in a far more abstract way. My first thought upon seeing this version was that it could just as well look like an aerial shot of a river winding its way across the landscape, or a seawall, or many other things! Remove certain ‘cues’ and it seems the brain can really wander in an unrestrained way. Or maybe my brain is just ‘weird’ :)

So thanks Lynn!

 
Leaf Close Up #4 Toned © Howard Grill

Leaf Close Up #4 Toned © Howard Grill

 

Leaf Self Assignment #3

I thought I would continue showing some images from my self assignment of trying to make several interesting photographs from just a single leaf taken during a visit to my local botanical garden. I do like how the series flows and shows many aspects of just the one thing.

My friend and teacher, the late Nancy Rotenberg, used to say that by spending time focusing on and photographing just one ‘thing’ you could push yourself to go ‘beyond the handshake’; getting to know it and showing it to others in more depth.

 
Leaf Close Up #3 © Howard Grill

Leaf Close Up #3 © Howard Grill

 

Leaf Self Assignment #2

In my last post, I wrote about my self assignment of trying to make several photographs from a single leaf during a visit to my local botanical garden. And so here we have the second composition. The first can be seen here. I did find this self assignment challenging and hope to have a few more images in the group.

 
Leaf #2 © Howard Grill

Leaf #2 © Howard Grill

 

Self Assigned Challenges

Last week I found myself, along with several friends, at Phipps Botanical Gardens, a place we photograph at quite a bit in the colder weather. Now, I have mentioned on the blog that I plan to try to get out in the snow to make photos this winter, but right now it’s cold, the fall color is gone, and there is no snow. So it was off to Phipps.

This time I ended up deciding to give myself a challenge. A self-assignment, if you will. And self- assignments always seem to be a good way to spur creativity.

As I was walking around the botanical garden looking for inspiration I just wasn’t feeling any. So the self assignment I gave myself in order to try to see further was….could I make several images that I liked from one single leaf? It actually turned out to be quite a bit of fun to see what I could come up with and I did start to feel the urge to create return! I hope you might be interested to see several views of this particular leaf over the next few posts.

In the meantime, I heartily endorse the idea of self-assignments when you just aren’t feeling it…..if you know what I mean.

 
Leaf Macro I © Howard Grill

Leaf Macro I © Howard Grill

 

More Pete's Lake

This is an image that I have actually posted beofre, but as a straight photo. I reworked it using several techniques in order to better have it reflect what it felt like at sunrise at this beautiful location (Pete's Lake near Munising, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula).

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

What did it look like before I attempted to go beyond a 'straight' photograph? It was an equally valid image that I believe also transmits, in a slightly different way, what it was like to be at this idyllic location at sunrise. However, I believe that one has to recognize that the 'straight' photo is also really just my interpretation of the RAW file meant to transmit my impression of what it was like there. So perhaps I shouldn't call it a 'straight' photo, but, rather, a 'straighter' photo. No photo is truly 'straight'; not in the digital age nor in the analog age.....but that is a discussion for a different day. 

The 'straighter' photo:

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

Again, I think they both work in different ways. Which one works best for you? Why? I would love to know!

In The Woods

Now this is something really different for me, but I am committed to at least trying different things. I think I at least owe that to my parents after years of not eating my veggies :)  The background is composed of three of my tree photos taken from different images and composited together. My idea was not to make an entirely convincing background but, rather, to make an interesting one. That is why the overlap of some of the trees doesn't look quite natural, or perhaps looks a little 'odd'. They were blended together to be just a little 'off', to raise an eyebrow or make you wonder whats not quite right about it.

But when I was done with the background, it needed a subject. So I dropped in a model image that came with the course I am taking (fully licensed for any use, of course). Well, she didn't exactly simply 'drop in' since she was in color, much bigger etc. Lets say she was gently manipulated into the photo in an attempt to make her presence at least look realistic against the background.

Definitely not my usual type of work, but I am having fun playing!

 
© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

 

Another Self Assignment

Another self assignment to digitally transform a photograph utilizing fractals and by 'painting with light'. What are fractals?  See those wavy green and orange lines behind the doll....those are fractals, which are blended into the image at low opacity. And 'painting with light'? That is an enhancement of the yellow glow behind the doll done by using the color picker in Photoshop to choose the color of the existing glow and then painting with a soft, low opacity brush in the appropriate area on a new empty layer. Looks messy, but then change the blend mode to color, or soft light, or just experiment...the messy looks goes away and it all blends together nicely. I also obviously added in the musical note embellishment.

Where is this all headed? I don't know, but I do know that I'm having fun with it all!

 
© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

 

Image Fatigue

There was a time in the not too distant past when a photograph of a beautiful sunrise seen through fog surrounding a mountain range, complete with alpine glow on the tips of the mountains, would be an image that one would ponder for a bit of time. One could well imagine it hanging in a gallery. As a stock photograph it could be expected to draw two to three hundred dollars per sale. Maybe more. That time has seemingly come and gone.

One need only direct their browser (you don't even have to leave the house) to Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, or Google Plus to see hundreds, no, thousands, of photographs like the one described above. True, some are better composed, better processed, or convey feeling better than others.....but there is no denying that there are still many thousands that can be reached with a click that, frankly, are really, really good!

And as one  browses through such images they might find themselves scrolling through them faster and faster and faster. I believe it's image fatigue.......we get used to seeing so many images, photographs that in another era, before the internet was able to feed us image after image after image, we would have spent time pondering...... that we now just zip through spending a second here or two seconds there. Even photo genres that wowed us just a year or two ago (think milky way across a navy blue sky with a well light-painted foreground) are now available in profusion.

It seems that the strategy for some is to go photograph in ever more exotic and hard to get to places. I'm not saying that this is a 'bad' strategy, it's just that one has to have a good deal of time, money, and good health to make it happen. And, of course, while everyone wants to see something or someplace they haven't seen before, rare or unusual or far away doesn't necessarily make the images 'good'; it just makes them images of someplace most people haven't been to (think Antarctica or Iceland). And the more these destinations catch on, the harder it is to be original, even in distant locations. How many pictures of ice on an Icelandic beach have you seen, for example.

Image fatigue.

Others try to photograph from more and more precarious and dangerous viewpoints (think of those photos shot by folks standing on a wall at the edge of a skyscraper with no tethering or protection from a fatal fall). Yes, everyone wants to look at them, but doing these sorts of things to get more 'likes' is just plain stupid.

Lets face it, everyone with a cell phone is now a photographer. And I don't mean that in a negative way. "iPhoneography" has become a medium in and of itself, and there is an incredible array of apps and post-processing possibilities that enable one to make art (as opposed to snapshots of your lunch - I still don't get why people do that and why they think others care about it - but maybe that's just because I'm old). 

So......what is one to do to avoid having their work get lost in a sea of images, in order to try to maintain some artistic individuality, and to have one's work seen, and, dare I even say, to stand out from the crowd? I certainly don't have all the answers, but have been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Here are some of my thoughts on this, but please feel free to comment and chime in with some further suggestions. In fact, I would love for you to do so. Here are some thoughts and ideas:

  • Not to state the obvious, but shoot what you love, not the hot subject of the day. Only by shooting what you love will you make images that might move people
  • Shoot projects - I'm not implying that one shouldn't take 'best of' images that are meant to hang on a wall, but also do some 'project photography' - examine a person, place, topic, or subject in depth. I think that by photographing projects you are more likely to make meaningful images that reveal more of yourself
  • Consider learning a new technique to see where it takes you - for example, extreme macro, very shallow DOF, long exposure, stop-action, etc
  • Don't fret about having a huge audience - worry about having an audience that really cares about your work
  • Think about trying to have your work published - I think that we tend to look longer and harder at images that are in print, as opposed to flipping through those on Instagram and Flickr. Well, at least that's true for me, though I'm not sure about millenials who grew up with the internet. Images that are published also seem to carry more 'weight' 
  • Learn the art of making prints - yes, I know it's somewhat last century :), but the fact is that it is an art unto itself and, in my opinion, more difficult than making an image look good on screen. It gives the image a physical presence. Holding a print made on a fine art paper is a very different experience than viewing the image on a monitor. And it does set you apart from the many that don't make prints (or don't make them well). I believe it is an art worth learning

Please chime in.....

Creative Doubt

"Doubt is what prevents us from achieving goals"

"Doubt is the necessary evil of creativity"

"Creativity is a lifelong pursuit"

Ted Forbes


A friend of mine introduced me to the wonderful ongoing YouTube video series by Ted Forbes called "The Art Of Photography". It's a great series that I find worth watching in this era when media comes at us a mile a minute.

The quotes above come direct from his episode "Creative Doubt". There are some great thoughts in this episode, which is linked below, and I wanted to share it, as I am sure it applies to every artist in all mediums. You might want to subscribe.....I know I did.

Texture Blending

As you might be able to tell from my last post on in-camera multiple exposures, I have been going on a bit of a creative journey and experimenting with various techniques. With this image I was doing a bit of texture blending, which is to say combining a 'base image' with various (in this case, two) underlying textures using blending modes to allow the textures to 'absorb' into the underlying image instead of just remaining stacked on top of it.  It is a technique that not only blends a texture into an image (which can be useful if there are bland areas without much detail), but also tends to intensify colors because the texture's color and luminosity also blends into the image below.  Needless to say, getting a nice result requires some experimentation with each image as not only can the specific texture be changed, but one can also change blending modes and use clipping layers to change the individual textures any way you would like.

Some practitioners of this technique really let the texture come though vigorously, but I personally enjoy a more subtle application. The finished image is seen directly below while the original is underneath that.

Pete's Lake In Michigan's Upper Peninsula - Textures Applied    © Howard Grill

With the blended texture, the yellow and pink/purple of the sky have intensified and the slight rippled effect best seen in the sky and lake add interest to areas that were otherwise fairly bland. It is a bit difficult to really see the rippled appearance with the small blog photograph, but if you click on the image it will open as a bigger 'lightbox' photo and the effect will be more apparent. Overall, I think it turned a pretty reasonable image that in my mind lacked a little something into one that is much more pleasing. 

Below is the original with no textures blended in.  It served as the starting point.

Pete's Lake In Michigan's Upper Peninsula - No Textures Applied    © Howard Grill

So let's have a look at the textures I blended into the bottom image to yield the top one.  Here we go....

Texture 1

Texture 1

Texture 2

Texture 2

Finally, here is a screenshot of how I have the layers stacked and arranged in Photoshop:

Layer Stack.jpg

The bottom layer is the blended 16 bit HDR image with Lightroom adjustments as imported into Photoshop.  Right above that is a curve applied through a luminosity mask and above that is a tonal contrast effect applied via Color Efex Pro. Above that are two Hue/Saturation layers with their effects targeted to specific tonalities, once again using luminosity masking, as well as two curves adjustment layers. Finally, we have the two textures applied via the soft light blend mode at <100% opacity. The bottom texture has a clipping adjustment layer to change its hue and saturation a bit.  Finally, there is one more curves adjustment layer at the top of the stack.  

If there are any questions as to what was done please feel free to ask in the comments and I would be glad to explain the process in more depth. 

In Camera Multiple Exposures

One of the nice features that are on recent Canon cameras, including the 5DsR that I purchased, is the ability to do in-camera multiple exposures. I believe that this ability has been present since the 5D MkIII (and way longer if you are a Nikon owner), but, since my prior camera was the MkII, that was a creative option I never had. Sure, it is something I could have accomplished in Photoshop, but the spontaneity of the whole thing in-camera is something that I find interesting and more akin to the feel of shooting multiple exposures on film.

So I think it will be fun to experiment and play a bit with this option as a creative tool. The image below is one of the first ones that I have made and was taken on my recent trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The leaves did finally start to show nice color the day before we left!

 
 

This is certainly not the greatest multiple exposure, but it does get my creative juices going a bit and makes me wonder what interesting images could be made by combining multiple images into one frame.

Is The Tide Turning?

There has been a good deal of talk recently (by photographers whose work I truly respect) about the possibility that landscape photography has slowly been getting quite cliche, and that this process has been exacerbated by social media.

You know the type of image I am talking about.  They often tend to be wide angle, often (over)saturated, often (over)sharpened images made at sunrise or sunset in iconic locations. These are the type of images that tend to trend well on social media.  I don't have to try to verbalize the issue, as it has already been done extraordinarily well by others.  Here is some light reading for you about this (seriously, these are really worth reading):

"Cliche, A Four Letter Word" by black and white photographer Chuck Kimmerlee in his blog The Unapologetic Photographer. Chuck's work makes a personal statement even when made in the most iconic of locations and his thoughts about photography are ones that I deeply respect. I recently participated in a fantastic workshop with him, John Barclay, and Dan Sniffin.

"Closure" in Thomas Welborn's Hololight Journal blog.  Thomas is a photographer whose images sing about the Oklahoma landscape

"Photo Consumption, Conformaty, and Copying in Landscape Photography" by Sarah Marino in her Nature Photo Guides Blog

"Will the Real Landscape Photography Please Stand Up" by Ugo Cei in his blog

OK, go read those.  No, really, you should....then come on back!

So what are my thoughts about this? Perhaps there is not any strong reason you should care, but, heck, it's my blog so it's what I get to do!

I understand the logic in these posts and actually totally agree with them....but with a bit of a different twist:

Chuch Kimmerlee perhaps said it best during the opening hours of our workshop.  I paraphrase, but he said something along the lines of ".....see what it is that you can ADD to the conversation".  I like that analogy because it still allows for me to take the cliche image, in order to get it out of my system. Let's face it, it is hard to say no to the rising sun illuminating Delicate Arch.  I have never been to Arches National Park, but if and when I go, yes, I probably do want to get that shot (if I can manage to get there before the other fifty tripod laden photographers, that is).  If I don't, I will always wonder what type of image I could have made. But does the world need yet another photograph of Delicate Arch at sunrise......probably not.

But here is the important part (sticking with the conversation analogy). To me, making that cliche photograph is like the opening part of a conversation with someone you have never met. It is the "Hi, I'm Howard, what's your name.  Oh, where 'ya from, what do you do, and how long have you been photographing?" part. But once you get that stuff out of the way, if you feel a connection to each other you keep talking.  Maybe it takes an hour, maybe it takes a day, maybe it takes years,  but if you keep talking to that same person at some point you will know something about them that not many do. You will start to generate your own impression about what they are all about. And THEN, you can make photos that add something new to the conversation!

Making that cliche image can be like a 'warm up', getting to know the location in a superficial way.  Once I get by that I can hope to perhaps speak with my own voice about what a location means to me and add to the conversation.  Those images are the first step in what my teacher Nancy Rotenberg used to call 'going beyond the handshake'. But first you have to get the handshake out of the way.

What about the social media issue....about how these warm up images are so pervasive there?  So what, I don't pay attention.  You know that study where it was shown that, on average, people look at each picture in a gallery for only a couple of seconds?  Well, I think that is what you get on social media. The vast majority of people scroll through images quickly and like or plus or comment 'great shot' in a matter of seconds.  That doesn't bother me because my expectations of social media are low.  Do I like getting plusses and likes...sure, who wouldn't.  And you can give them to me here and here if you want. But my expectation is not that I am going to have deep and meaningful discussions about art, photography, and images on these sites.  Not to sound cliche, but it is what it is, and what it is is people scrolling through rapidly often expecting a quid pro quo.  Sure, on occasion there is a meaningful comment made by someone who you immediately feel you would like to speak with (that's how I 'met' Thomas Welborn and several other good friends who I have never actually met 'face to face').  And if you can get those people to visit your blog and spend some time with your images then the social media thing was well worth it. Better to have a smaller and more involved audience than a larger one that flits by, at least in my opinion.

So, in summary, I do hope the tide is turning. But I do also take those cliche images to warm up and start the conversation.  Perhaps they should be taken and not shown. I only hope that a significant number of the pictures I show are sentences from when the dialogue gets good.  Only you can judge that. And as for the social media aspect, I think that will always foster the trendy and the popular.

Just my two cents!

 
"Stone Trees" from my Scene In Stone Portfolio  © Howard Grill

"Stone Trees" from my Scene In Stone Portfolio

© Howard Grill

 

© Howard Grill

The Rule Of Thirds

I think the "Rule of Thirds" ought to be called the "Guideline Of Thirds".  It is certainly a good 'rule' to keep in mind and most often gives very pleasing results.  But to call it a rule implies that nothing good will ever come from breaking it.  A guideline is, well, a guideline.  Something to be considered and used when appropriate, which is not always. 

The "Rule of Thirds" says that the strip of land at the bottom of this image should take up the entire bottom third of the photograph. But when making the photo (this was one from my trip to the Palouse last spring), I found myself thinking about what the image was really about.  It was really about the sky.  So I made it about the sky and left only a thin strip of land at the bottom in order to 'ground' the photo.  Rule broken.  For the better in this case, at least I think so!

 

Palouse Sunset

 

As an aside, my blog commenting problem that existed for some browsers in some circumstances has now been remedied. So, if you are so moved, comment away!  It is always fun to get comments....

Nature Photography: How To Eliminate The Competition

With the advent of digital photography, it seems like photographers and their images are everywhere.  Some sobering statistics:

  • Based on 2013 data there are 350 million pictures uploaded to Facebook A DAY
  • In 2013 Facebook hosted 250 BILLION images (sure, a good portion of them are my pet cat riding on the back of my pet dog, but many of them are also good photos).
  • Image Shack 20 BILLION images
  • Flickr - 135 million images FREE for use under Creative Commons
  • Salable photos?  In 2015 iStock had 11.3 million while Shutterstock has over 42 million of them.   
  • Microstock too cheap?  How about Reuters 25 million, Alamy 19 million, AP 6 million, Corbis 4 million

Yes, there are images everywhere. So how do you eliminate all that competition?  It can be done in two easy steps.  Here's how:

  1. Ignore them all.....forget about all those millions and billions of images and hundreds of thousands of photographers you think you're competing with
  2. Become your own biggest competitor.  Try to make images that speak clearly and loudly and are meaningful to YOU. And then try to make your next one speak even more clearly

One thing is for certain, and that is that with the explosion of digital photography you could literally be learning new techniques all the time and not spend enough time on any one single technique to master it.  You could literally study so hard that you might never have time to actually make a good photo.

I can't be an expert at Milky Way photography (even if I could find a dark sky where I live), light painting, panoramas, HDR, HDR panoramas, focus stacking, video, time lapse and a host of other modalities and styles.  I can't photograph at Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Southwest or any number of other places throughout all the seasons and at all times of day. I can't be an expert at all those things.  I can only hope to learn the techniques that advance my style of imagery.

Recognize that you can't eliminate the competition.  Moreover, why would you want to?  Their audience is different from your audience.  But if you are true to your vision and make images that speak to you and for you then you will garner an audience that likes hearing what it is that your images have to say.  They will be YOUR audience.

There are 7.62 million people in the world as I write this (you gotta check out that link for real time world population!) and they won't all be interested in my work.  They won't all be interested in your work.  But wouldn't it be nice if a few hundred or even a few thousand really cared about what YOU produce because it also has meaning to them? You can't attract those folks by copying somebody else's work. There is already an audience for that work.  And why would that audience come see you try to copy that style when they can see the original? You can't attract people by trying to do something that you aren't passionate about. It will show.

The secret then, I think, is to make photographs of things that you care about, that you are passionate about, and to welcome with open arms the audience that speaks your language whether that encompasses 5 or 500,000 people.

And, by the way, I am not implying that you shouldn't learn new techniques or visit Yosemite to make photographs.  But do it because it is something you have developed a true passion for, not because you think it is a card that needs to be punched on the way to stardom.

This writing was inspired by a post on photographer Stacy Butera's blog, which got me thinking about these issues.

<Steps down from soapbox :)>

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Finding Your Vision

We all want to find our own unique artistic vision.  It is not a quest that one sets out to do on any particular day....or month or year for that matter.  It is a slow process that involves many, many factors.....some external but most internal. Certainly developing one's vision is not something that can be rushed. However, it can be fostered, supported, and given the right conditions to grow. So how does one foster, find, and express their vision?

I could try naming some of my ideas, but I doubt I would be able to do nearly as good a job as photographer Cole Thompson in his blog post entitled "How I Found My Vision", in which Cole describes how he found, fostered, and developed his personal artistic vision. Cole is a remarkable photographer and one whose work I find so compelling that I have purchased it for myself.  His advice on the concept of finding one's vision is inspirational. Read it here.

The Best Is Yet To Come

I take my photography pretty seriously and, as such, I am a very harsh critic of myself.......as it should be.  Because of this I find that I am rarely really happy with what I produce and constantly feel that I can improve on my image making and post-processing skills.  Sometimes this is a bit disheartening because I find that there is completed work that I feel I could have made better and, since improving takes time, I am not producing as much as I would like.  But at some point one must move on. Nonetheless, a few mornings ago as I was walking to my car my thoughts took another angle that was much more comforting to a person who is trying to produce the best work they can.  What made me smile was the realization that with continuing to work at improving my skills comes the fact that, although I have been making images and prints for many years, my best work is yet to come......

I suspect the same holds true for many people!