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.

Inner Vision

I just returned from my yearly photography workshop with Nancy Rotenberg, Les Saucier, and Don McGowan. This particular workshop was held in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod and, as expected, was another wonderful experience.

Why return to do workshops with the same instructors year after year? Simply put, it is because I don't believe anyone teaches a workshop with the same focus as they do. Sure, you will learn technique, digital processing etc, but that is not the foundation of their workshop experience. Rather, the emphasis is strongly on 'learning to see' , focusing creative energy, and using one's unique inner vision and heart to create images. Now, imagine doing that with 15-20 other terrific people who are also interested in the same thing. I have never been to one of Freeman Patterson's workshops, but imagine that there are a lot of similarities.....I guess it is therefore not surprising that he wrote the forward to Nancy's book "Photography and the Creative Life".

In the next week or two, even though I know it will delay some of my other projects, I plan to edit and post some of the images from this fantastic trip.


This is another image from the recent workshop that I attended in Zion National Park. I think this image has, in one shot, many of the characteristics that are so special about Zion.....the cottonwoods, the canyon walls, and the Virgin River. When I look at this photograph I really get a feel of the 'Zion Experience'. The park is truly a place that everyone should get a chance to visit.

Copyright Howard Grill

In addition, this is another of the type of images that I mentioned in my post entitles "Seeing". Though these exact elements are obviously not present where I live, there are very reasonable replacements...trees, water, rocks......all that I need is the right mindset. That mindset, as opposed to a lot of nice images (though it is nice to get them as well), is the most valuable item that can be brought home from any workshop!


As I mentioned in my last post, I recently returned from a Photography With Heart workshop in Zion National Park. Scanning through some of my favorite images from the park, I noticed something interesting. Though the presence or 'feel' of the park was in them all, when I broke the images down to their basic components they consisted , for the most part, of things that I could find right here in Western Pennsylvania where I live.

Consider this image entitled "Backlit Cottonwoods". At its most basic, it is 'simply' an image of colorfall backlit trees with fall foliage. I was drawn to the scene not only because of the intense color of the backlit trees, but also because I enjoyed composing it with the diagonal lines of the mountains on either side of the trees along with the hazy, distant canyon wall in the background. I felt that the diagonals added something special to the image and that the canyon wall in the background, together with the classic cottonwoods, gives the photograph a decidedly 'Zion' feel.

Backlit Cottonwoods
Copyright Howard Grill

When I go on a workshop I go with a mind that is hopefully open and 'ready' to try to be creative. I think it is quite natural to have that feeling when going away on a trip. But when I think about it, the basic components of the "Backlit Cottonwoods" image are all around me, even now that I am back home. There are plenty of trees with fall foliage here, and one only has to go at the proper time to find them backlit. True, I may not have a canyon wall available to put in the background, but is that really the essence of the image? Wouldn't the image also work well with the terrain that I have available here at home used to frame the trees or provide leading lines? I think it would!

One of the things that I hope I have accomplished at the workshop is to learn to discard the state of mind that says you have to go 'someplace special' to make special images. Sure it is fun to go away, and a change of scene always spurs creativity, but that should only serve as a stimulus to return home and harness that creativity to make images where you spend most of your time living. One of the things that I hope that I have brought home with me from the workshop is an enhanced ability to be open to 'seeing' what surrounds me the 99% of the time that I am home. If one can do that, I think the odds of making meaningful images increases quite dramatically!

Where I've Been

I just returned from another superb workshop week with Nancy Rotenberg, Les Saucier, and Don McGowan (Photography With Heart Workshops). The workshop was in Zion National Park, a place of indescribable beauty. One of the key aspects of the Photography With Heart Workshops is that though the technical is taught, the journey goes beyond this aspect of photographing and well into the much more difficult process of learning how to see.

While I am spending time sorting through the images I took, I thought I would show another recently taken "landscape in stone" from my rock photography project.

Mountain Sunrise
Copyright Howard Grill

More From Oregon

Two more images from the Oregon workshop I attended. These were both taken at the surreal Haceta Beach near Florence, Oregon. As it turns out, almost every beach we went to in Oregon was surreal. It's that good! If you have any interest in going, check out the workshop here.

Haceta Beach Sunset I
Copyright Howard Grill

Haceta Beach Sunset II
Copyright Howard Grill

Bandon Beach

One of the nice things about not doing photography professionally (of course there are lots of not nice things about this as well...such as never having enough time to do all the photographic things that one wants to) is that one can take all the diversions they want without worrying about getting certain projects done. One of my recent diversions has been to submit images to Alamy and PhotoShelter, both of which I was recently accepted to. This has entailed processing some of my older images that I have not yet gotten around to doing.

At any rate, one of the images I ran across and processed is one that I had started working on many moons ago and put down. I took the opportunity to complete and submit it.

One of the nice things about going back to older images is that they truly do bring back memories of having been at different locations. This particular shot was taken on a workshop with Nancy Rotenberg on the Oregon Coast.

Bandon Beach is truly a surreal place with amazing sea stack formations. The memory of the location is great, but remembering the great folks who I spent time with on that one week trip is even sweeter!

Bandon Beach Sunset At Low Tide
Copyright Howard Grill


About a week ago, I wrote a post about bird photography and mentioned that it is not the type of photography I usually do, but offered up a picture or two anyway. Along the same theme of photographic sub-specialties that I don't frequently undertake is insect photography. In a way, it is similar to bird photography in that those that devote a good portion of their time to photographing insects can come up with the most amazing images.......when you view them it can feel like you are entering a new and surreal universe. Though this image is far from generating that type of feel, it is one that I have liked ever since I took it on a workshop with John and Barbara Gerlach several years ago.

Crab Spider
Copyright Howard Grill

One of the reasons that I like the image is that it demonstrates some of the concepts of composition that I would typically apply to much larger subjects. I like the way the markings on the body of the spider echo the color of the flower as well as the way the two portions of the flower on the left and right droop downwards, echoing the angle of the markings on the spider's body. On a larger scale, I liked the gentle diagonal made by the whole flower across the frame, instead of its being straight up and down.

I find it interesting that the qualities that contribute to making successful images can generally be applied to most subjects.


Many people remember their family vacations by looking over the snapshots they take. Oddly enough, I am not one of them. I think it has something to do with being a perfectionist when it comes to photography. It makes it difficult to just knock off snapshots. Oh sure, I do have a tiny point 'n shoot and certainly take some quick shots of the kids on the beach and that sort of thing. But I don't particularly enjoy doing that because I constantly find myself trying to figure out how to make the shot better instead of enjoying the moment. Or, if I see something really nice, I will find myself wishing I had my dSLR along. I know this isn't a good habit to have, but it just instead of taking a ton of snaps I live and experience the vacation with joy but without trying to fully record it. My wife ends up taking snaps that we can enjoy years down the line.

What looking through images does for me is to remind me of the workshops and photography trips I have been on. I have many images from these trips and they are associated with memories of working hard with a group of like-minded people to try and make good photographs.

I was recently going through some shots and ran across this one, which reminded me of a terrific evening on a workshop with Alain Briot at Monument Valley.

Mitten With Moon
Copyright Howard Grill


Yet another post regarding something new I learned during the Smoky Mountain Fall Workshop I recently attended. Similar to the zoom abstract post I recently made, it involves something that can also be done in Photoshop.....but it is so much more satisfying to do it in-camera.

Copyright Howard Grill

This type of vignette with a 'color wash' is related to the 'shoot through technique', whereby one focuses on a relatively distant subject through grasses, flowers, or other objects that are closer, and shoots at a relatively wide aperture to ensure that these closer objects appear as an out of focus color that imparts an ethereal quality to the image.

To make this particular image, all that had to be done was to first compose and focus on the sumac. Then I took a leaf, tore a hole in its center, and held the leaf close to the lens. By then looking through the viewfinder, I could get a sense of how the subject was centered within the hole in the leaf. Since the leaf is extremely out of focus, the edges of the hole are very soft. Because of the edge softness, it really doesn't matter if you can't hold the leaf perfectly still. As a matter of fact, you could even play with purposefully moving the leaf. Take a bunch of shots, as they will all look different and it may take some trial and error in the placement of the leaf to get exactly what you want.

Sure, it can be done in Photoshop, but this is infinitely more satisfying and a lot more fun. It is one of those things that, once shown how, makes you say "Duh, why didn't I think of that!" Give it a whirl and see what you get. Thanks to the "Photography With Heart" workshop folks for showing me how!

Before You Leave.....Turn Around

When it comes to photography, I have always found turning around to be good advice. It sounds quite trite, but, nonetheless, it is often helpful.

When concentrating on trying to photograph one particular scene, we often have blinders on and don't keep our minds open to other possibilities. It can be hard, and perhaps even detrimental, to try and break one's focus in the middle of photographing and, therefore, I do like to finish what I am concentrating on before moving. Once finished, my mind can then be receptive to new possibilities....and so I force myself to turn around and look behind me at what else there is that I might have missed or overlooked.

It sounds quite simple, after all, once you are done photographing at a particular site you pack up and can't help but see what's around you before leaving. Sure, but are you receptive to what is around you, or is your mind already in the 'I'm done and leaving' mode? It is one thing to look at what is around you when packing up and another to see what is around you with the idea of making images.

It really is amazing to me how often what I find behind me ends up making a more interesting photograph than what I had been concentrating on. This might be because once my attention has been caught by something I am unable to give ample consideration to other possibilities or because some aspect of the scene behind me, such as the lighting, might have changed. Either way, I am often glad that I took the opportunity to turn around while keeping an open mind.

This occurred during the recent workshop I attended in the Smoky Mountains. I had been photographing a field of tall grasses in front of colorful fall foliage, but wasn't really happy with the compositions I was coming up with. I was planning to move on but 'turned around' before I left and was treated to this magnificent dew covered tree in a bit of fog that looked gem covered, sparkling while it was being backlit by the sun. I underexposed a bit to make the glistening stand out against a darker background.

Copyright Howard Grill

This image was far more satisfying and interesting than anything I had been concentrating on before making the turn!

Waiting For The Sun

It has been said that one of the biggest mistakes that can be made in photographing sunrises and sunsets is leaving too soon. Often, there is beautiful color to be seen and photographed for twenty or thirty minutes after the sun sets. Likewise, when waiting to photograph sunrise, things can change rapidly and unexpectedly. Such was the case when we were photographing sunrise during the recent Smoky Mountain Fall Workshop that I attended with Nancy Rotenberg, Don McGowan, and Les Saucier.

And what a glorious sunrise it was:

Sunrise Over The Smokies
Copyright Howard Grill

But it didn't start out that way. When our group arrived at the overlook that had been chosen for that morning's shoot, the sky seemed quite densely 'fogged in'. It didn't appear that we were likely to be able to make good images from that location and there was talk of trying to move to a different spot, perhaps one at a different elevation in the hopes of getting better conditions for photographing. By that time, however, it was getting late and it was a bit questionable that we would be able to find a new locale and be able to get set up in time for sunrise. So, with a tiny sliver of clearing in the distance, we decided to stick it out in the hopes that the dense fog would lift as the sun came up.

What developed was unexpected and truly exhilarating. Over the next few minutes, the little sliver of clearing continued to open and we were treated to a truly moving experience. The cloud cover was such that there was a number of 'God Rays' that emerged and, one by one, they swept across the valley below in a spectacle that was akin to a natural laser light show, only better. As I rapidly 'play back' the many images I took that morning by quickly viewing them one after another in Lightroom, they seem like a movie that allows one to relive the entire experience, complete with the rays sweeping and dancing rhythmically along one side of the mountain, into the valley, and back up the other side.

Rather than frenetically chasing after the perfect shot, sometimes it is better to stay put and let the shot come to you.

Away In The Smokies

No, the blog is not dead! I haven’t posted in over a week because I have been away and didn’t think it prudent to broadcast that fact over the internet.

I have been off on a photographic journey to the Smoky Mountains on my second workshop with Nancy Rotenberg. Since my first workshop with her, she has been joined by Don McGowan and Les Saucier to form ‘Photography With Heart’. I could talk on and on trying to describe what a workshop with Nancy, Les, and Don is like, but I am sure that I would not be able do the experience justice. Let’s just say that their workshops embody all the emotional and spiritual journey that photography can and should be. It simply doesn't get any better.

I will certainly post more images and thoughts from the trip, but for the moment, and until I unpack, I offer just an image or two:

Copyright Howard Grill

'The Road Less Traveled'
Copyright Howard Grill


Today, I have a bit of a personal note. I will be giving a slideshow presentation on Wednesday, June 6 at the REI store on Pittsburgh's South Side. The topic is nature photography in and around the Pittsburgh area and is sponsored by REI and Venture Outdoors, a great group whose mission statement can be seen here. In association with the talk, I am also taking a group out Sunday, January 10th to Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve for a nature photography field session. Though the program is aimed at beginners, anyone out there who is in the area is certainly welcome to attend.

This is my first attempt at any type of photographic teaching, so I am really looking forward to it. I tend not too be 'big' on public speaking, but am excited about doing this. I just hope that I am able to convey, in some small way, how much I enjoy photographing and how it can really open up a deeper appreciation for and understanding of nature. I hope it goes well, as I think that it might be something that I would really be interested in doing more of.

I'll let everyone know how it goes in a future post!

The Image Within

I was planning to use a second photo for yesterdays post about monochromatic images. This picture, which was also taken on a workshop to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is another example of the monochromatic presentation. I didn’t use it yesterday because I remembered something totally different about it that I wanted to share.

Pete's Lake
Upper Peninsula Of Michigan
Copyright Howard Grill

Almost two years ago, I attended Alain Briot and Uwe Steinmueller’s excellent Print Summit and Workshop. As part of that experience, the participants were to bring, for a private critique session with either Uwe or Alain, five or ten images that they had completed prior to the workshop. There was something that really appealed to me about this print, and it is one that I brought to the critique session. It is not easily seen on the small screen, but there is subtle visible detail in the distant land and trees on the right side of the photo. This, as well as the gentle tonal and color changes within the fog, really appealed to me.

The critique I received from Alain was very interesting and quite unexpected. He generally liked the photograph, but with reservation. To him, it didn’t seem to convey a particularly unique vision. One very nice aspect of this session was that he and Uwe actually spent a good amount of time with each participant. The quick “its OK” was therefore not the end of his analysis. As he spent more time with the print, he said that an interesting approach, and one that would more fully ‘personalize’ the image, would be to totally crop out the left side, thereby removing the identifiable land and trees, and use the remaining portion as an abstract involving color and tone. He felt there was a more unique and personal vision contained within the original image.

Abstract Crop
Copyright Howard Grill

I have mixed feelings about this version. Sometimes I really like it, as it focuses on the content of the image that attracted me to it in the first place. Other times I think that it misses by not conveying the experience of having been at the location. However, that might be a feeling that would only be meaningful to me, having been there. I am curious as to what others think about this version of the photo.

Either way, the session was a superb learning experience and one that gave me insight into another way of looking at and thinking about images. I learned an interesting approach and one that I will keep myself aware of in the future.

What Is Real?

Visiting Antelope Canyon, which is located on land belonging to the Navajo Nation within Arizona, USA, is a deeply personal experience, even if you must work your way around the crowd. It is very easy to see why the Native Americans considered this a sacred location. About two years ago I attended a workshop at the canyon, which was given by Alain Briot and Uwe and Bettina Steinmueller.

The shapes and twists of the canyon walls are amazing. The colors are surreal, which leads to some problematic issues when portraying the canyon photographically. First, it would be useful to offer a brief explanation of how the colors arise. The walls of the canyon are made of sandstone. When the sun is high in the sky, one of the two canyon walls are illuminated by direct sunlight. Because of the composition of the sandstone, the wall shines brightly and reflects red light onto the opposing wall, causing it to appear an unbelievable fiery red/orange. The reflected light is very intense on the opposing wall because the canyon itself is very narrow; in many areas a person can touch both sides of the canyon with outstretched arms. However, this same proximity of the two walls causes the reflected light to be fairly focal so that only localized areas take on this fiery appearance.

What color, then, is the part of the wall not receiving reflected light? That is where the difficult issue starts. There are areas of the walls that are illuminated not by the sun nor by reflected light, but by the blue sky overhead. This blue light in conjunction with the sandstone produces an odd blue/purple color, and this is where our brains start to get in the way.

As most people undoubtedly know, the brain and optic system has an uncanny way of neutralizing color casts. That is why we don’t ‘see’ a blue cast in the shade or a green cast on the white dress of a little girl romping in a field of green…..but that cast does appear in our photographs. Is the cast as seen in the photograph real? Sure. If we have the option, do we take it out in Photoshop? Unless looking for an unusual effect, I think most people would. Though the color cast is ‘real’, it is not something we normally see and because we ‘know,’ or think we know, what a girl running in a field or in the shade looks like, the cast becomes something we want to eliminate. However, at times, such as sunset, we welcome the color cast because it seems to enhance what we ‘want’ to see even though our brains don’t really view the surrounding landscape as glowing orange.

Back to the canyon. Our brains tend to neutralize the bizarre blue/purple cast on the walls that are illuminated by the sky and we, or at least I (that raises another issue of individualized color perception…but let’s put that off until another time), see the color as a bluish grey, not unlike the flagstone used in garden walkways. The instructors showed prints that had the shaded rocks portrayed as a deep blue/purple. After some discussion, I learned that what I had initially thought was marked manipulation was, in fact, an accurate portrayal of the way this rock appeared when taken with slide film such as Velvia, and that if one used a colorimeter to actually ‘measure’ the color it would fall into a wavelength that would appear similar to the slide . The final print matched the slide’s reality, which came close to what an objective measurement of color indicated was real.

Images Taken In Antelope Canyon
Copyright Howard Grill

So what should a print of Antelope Canyon look like? What our eyes see? What the colorimeter says is fact? What slide film suggests is reality and, if so, what type of film…high or low contrast, high or low saturation? Is adjusting the color of a digital image captured in RAW format to match what is real less valid than what our eyes perceive? I am not talking about ‘Real vs. Feel’ (see my post here ) but am speaking of perception vs. reality.

These images are my interpretation. There are certainly other different, yet equally valid, portrayals possible. Reality can be a thorny issue.

One More Real vs. Feel

Not to belabor the point, but I wanted to post one more example of manipulating an image in order to allow it to better convey a mood. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to read yesterdays entry regarding this issue.

"Siren's Song"
Bandon Beach, Oregon
Real vs. Feel
Copyright Howard Grill

I took this particular image on the Oregon Coast workshop with Nancy Rotenberg that I mentioned in the January 18th post. The picture was taken at sunset, on a gorgeous beach, with a group of workshop participants who were really a pleasure to be with. Even if I wasn’t photographing, I would have wanted to stay on that beach just to take in the sea stacks, the breeze, and the sound of the waves. I wanted to convey both a sense of calm as well as the feeling that there was an almost magnetic attraction to the water, as if you just wanted to walk right out into the sea. The image was therefore named “Siren’s Song”.

In order to try and convey this, I needed to combine two exposures, one for the ocean/beach and one for the sky and then adjust the contrast and saturation to give it the appropriate ‘feel’. Once again, not a ‘real’ visual documentation, but one that, I think, better conveys what it felt like to be there.

Interestingly, most ‘non-photographers’ are unaware that there really is no such thing as a standardized ‘right out of the camera’ truth since the sensor data is not ‘in color’ and that while they might not be doing post processing ‘manipulation’ the camera itself IS. Likewise with the ‘truth’ of film and the use of high/low contrast and high/low saturation emulsions.

In closing, I don’t want to give the impression that a great number of my images are of this genre because, in fact, they are not. They tend to fall into the category of ‘real’ much more frequently than ‘feel’, but in certain situations I do think this type of manipulation can help an image to more successfully communicate what the photographer had intended.

Tomorrow, on to another topic.

Self Portrait

In yesterday’s blog entry I wrote about photographing rock surfaces in Oregon and wanted to take the opportunity to show one more image before changing the subject. During that weeklong workshop, one of our assignments was to take a self portrait. This particular assignment was made interesting by the caveat that we need not appear in our own self portrait.

Copyright Howard Grill
Shore Acres State Park, Oregon

This image, another of the photos that I took at “The Wall”, is the one I used for that assignment……and, yes, I do wear glasses.

I also wanted to mention that, in regards to the topic of photographing rocks, people might be interested at taking a look at the more recent work of Bill Atkinson, who published a book of interesting rock images.

The Wall

The wall…I am not talking Pink Floyd here. I am talking about rock, real rock. George Barr, in his blog entitled Behind The Lens, recently had a very interesting entry entitled Rock Details As Project, in which he discusses photographing rock surfaces as art. I commented on that post to say that I had attended a photography workshop at the Oregon Coast back in August and that during that trip we spent a day photographing in Shore Acres State Park. Within that park is an incredible rock seawall that contains a multitude of shapes and colors. During the workshop, we spent several hours photographing this particular wall. Apparently Minor White, I am told, ran workshops at that same location during which his students would spend the better part of a week photographing segments of just that one single seawall. Besides being a fascinating location to photograph (though I am not sure I would want to spend an entire week at that one location alone) it was an inspiring experience knowing who had photographed there in years gone by.

Copyright Howard Grill

Taken In Shore Acres State Park, Oregon

The two photos above were both taken at “The Wall”.

Though the primary purpose of this entry is to discuss rock photography, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this particular workshop was given by Nancy Rotenberg, who is a truly inspirational teacher. Anyone considering a workshop would do well to consider hers, as the workshop that I attended was simply superb.