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.

Not The Smokies

I have always loved going away to new locations to photograph, either with friends or on a workshop (where I meet new friends.....met quite a few on this last Death Valley one!). Nonetheless, when photographing 'away', there are always only a limited number of days, seasons, light conditions, and times of day in which one can photograph that location.  You can never assemble a true portfolio in the same way that someone who lives nearby can.  No wonder some photographers have chosen to live near iconic photo locales.

I have always felt that the place to truly assemble a portfolio in which a location can be portrayed in full is near your home.  Only then can you photograph in all the conditions I mentioned above.  Don't get me wrong, I love travelling to photograph, but when away the simple fact is that you can only capture what is offered in a limited time span.

The title of the image below is "Not The Smokies" because, well, it's not the Smokies even though that might have been the first thing I would have guessed, having been to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park several times.  It is actually a glorious morning sunrise through layers of fog in Moraine State Park; a place I frequently go in order to make photographs. Does it look like this often?  Not a chance.  But on that morning it did.  Because I am able to photograph there frequently, I was lucky enough to catch it like this. And I didn't even have to fight the crowds at Morton's Overlook!  In fact, as far as I could tell there was nobody around for miles. Mornings like this always remind me not to overlook places near home......

"Not The Smokies" Early Morning Fog In Moraine State Park    © Howard Grill

First Spring Photo - Trees

It has been a long, hard winter here in Western Pennsylvania.  Certainly not nearly as bad as in some places, but, still, the last two winters have been colder and harsher than any I can remember after living here for 25 years.  So it was with great enthusiasm that I had made plans for the first outdoor photo session in quite some time with several friends .  Well, you can't always win, and even though it was the beginning of April it was still only 34 degrees out there.  But a plan is a plan and we went anyway.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that one of the first things to catch my eyes was a stand of trees (I always seem to love photographing trees) with the sun highlighting a small number of them that had lighter bark.  And I thought these trees looked better in black and white than the original color.  Though as my friend said when I showed him the finished image......"You think everything looks better in black and white!".


Trees In Moraine State Park    © Howard Grill


Sunset In The Valley Of Fire

After spending the first evening of the recent Death Valley Workshop I attended photographing some remarkable architecture in Las Vegas (more of that in upcoming posts), our group made our way to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.  We spent almost two days photographing this surreal landscape, but I do believe one could easily have spent the whole week photographing here. 

One thing that was quite remarkable at this location was the color of the twilight sky. It was a deep blue hue that I have not often seen.  And the warm light at a low angle during sunset and sunrise seemed to make the landscape light up with a fiery orange color. Oh, maybe that's why they call it Valley of Fire!

Sunset in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada   © 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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528 In Moraine State Park.......Yet Another Mood

I have previously written posts about the Rt. 528 boat ramp on Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park. More specifically, I had explained how on most mornings the scene is quite bland, but on some special mornings it just comes alive.

Well, several weeks back it went and did it again....strutting its stuff and showing what it can do when the sun and clouds cooperate.

For this image I used a neutral density filter to obtain an 80 second exposure, allowing the clouds and the water to blur.

Sunrise at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park, Pennsylvania

528 Sunrise V

Copyright Howard Grill

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Accept The Gift You Are Given

My late teacher and friend Nancy Rotenberg was a very wise woman as well as an extraordinary photographer. She recognized that by having too rigid or narrow an expectation of what you were going to be photographing you were simply setting yourself up for disappointment.  After all, how many times does one go out to photograph sunrise only to find the sky locked in with heavy clouds?  How many times has it rained during the workshop you were waiting so long to attend?  If you are not open to receiving other gifts when those types of things happen you are very apt to go home disappointed or feeling like you 'wasted your time'.

Nancy always felt that one has to have an open mind and an open heart and be willing to take the gift that you are given when it is offered to you.  Often that gift isn't what you planned for or thought it would be.

A couple of Sundays back, my friends and I went to photograph sunrise at Independence Marsh about 40 minutes from my home, only to be confronted by a 'double whammy'.  First, there was little water.  The marsh tends to dry out if there isn't enough rain and, while the marsh is frequently beautiful, when it is dry........well, you get about a twenty foot shoreline of mud. Second, the sky was extremely cloudy and there really wasn't much sunrise to speak of.

At first I was quite disappointed.  But then I finally remembered her words and let myself look around and openly accepted the gift I was given:

Autumn Colors At Independence Marsh In Western Pennsylvania

Autumn Colors At Independence Marsh In Western Pennsylvania

Copyright Howard Grill

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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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Michigan's Upper Peninsula In Fall

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is one of THE places to see and photograph fall foliage.  I had the opportunity to visit the Upper Peninsula during fall about eight or nine years ago, but haven't been back since.  This is the year of my return!  In fact, by the time this is posted I may well be on my way back home. 

Timing is always somewhat hit or miss (like the time I showed up for spring wildflowers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park a few years ago when we had a very warm and early spring, only to be told that the wildflowers were gone, having bloomed three weeks earlier than usual). I am hoping that we will have arrived there in time for some great color.

In the meantime, I have posted some of my photographs from that trip I took eight or nine years ago.

I will let you know how the conditions were upon my return.

Addenda: I wrote the post above before actually taking my trip.  Unfortunately, I had to cancel the fall visit to Michigan.....but why not show the Upper Peninsula images anyway?  I am looking forward to rescheduling this adventure next year!

Fall colors at Council Lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Lake Superior shoreline at sunset in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

An autumn leaf at AuTrain Falls in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

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Moraine State Park: The Many Moods Of Lake Arthur

I have previously written about the 'secret' 528 boat ramp that my friends and I often visit to photograph sunrise.  Of course it is not 'secret', every fisherman in Portersville, PA knows about it as a way to get their boat into Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park.  But the boat launch is quite small and poorly marked.  It is one of those places that you just have to 'know about'. 

I would estimate that about 90% of the time the landscape there is dull and uninspiring. However, it is that other 10% that calls us back.  Last Sunday was one of those times that waking up at an ungodly hour was richly rewarded.

If you would like to see more of the 528 boat ramp during those 10% of the times when it is magical you can have a look here and here.

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Rolling Hills Of The Palouse

As I mentioned in my last two posts, I recently returned from a superb workshop in the Palouse region run by John Barclay and Dan Sniffin.  The workshop started with a visit to a location meant to orient us to how to see and photograph what is so characteristic of the area.....rolling hills that seem to go on forever.  The best way to portray them, at least in this particular area which did not have barns or grain elevators (and, yes, we visited many areas that did have both and that added another dimension to the photos), was as abstract images using a long lens.  The long lens (in this case a 400 mm f5.6) was able to isolate interesting areas of the landscape while also 'compressing' the distance between the hills. As you can see from the crop, even a 400 was barely long enough on my full frame camera.  So if you visit, bring the longest lens you have and/or a body with a crop factor that uses less than a full frame sensor.

The rolling hills of the Palouse form an abstract image.

Rolling Hills

Trout Lily

One of the wildflowers that I seem to have missed in years past is the trout lily. They are quite small, which is one reason I may have missed them, but they also have beautiful speckled leaves.  This year I was a bit early, as they were out, but the flowers had not yet fully opened.  However, even closed they possess a very dainty beauty.  They are a bit tough to photograph on their long stalks with the flowers drooped downwards, as the slightlest breeze makes them bounce all over. It was this constant movement that made me want to make a photo with a shallow depth of field, which I felt would impart that feeling of motion by blurring most of the flower but still show the delicateness by leaving a small area of the plant sharp.  The connection of the stalk to the flower seemed to me to be the best area to focus on.

Trout Lily

Photographic Personality

Over time, I have been to many photographic workshops that I have really enjoyed. But several years ago I went one that was was the only workshop that I did not like attending.  And the reason for that helped me to understand a bit about my photographic 'personality'. This particular workshop was about five or six days in duration, and during that time we photographed at Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Monument Valley, and Canyon De Chelle.  What could be bad?  Well nothing really, as long as you like moving from spot to spot fairly rapidly and are OK with ending up being at some prime spots during the bright afternoons when conditions for photographing are not optimal.  It made me realize that my photographic 'personality' is to move slowly and take in all the nuances of a location; to steep myself in the feel of a place and photograph it under many conditions and times.  I would much rather have spent the entire week, or at least half a week, at one of those locations and gone back to multiple areas within it for sunrise and sunset and to get an opportunity to explore it more fully rather than get the classic roadside shots that have made the locations famous for being a photographer's paradise.

Please understand, I am not complaining about or denigrating this particular workshop.  I am just talking about how participating in it made me realize more about my personal photographic technique.  Not that it's always good.  I often do need someone to push me along a bit, lest I not move for hours to see what is around the bend.  But it is the way I am most comfortable working.  Others like to shoot and run, and that works for them.  But I do think it is helpful to understand the way you work best and plan accordingly.

This particular image was one where we ended up at the right place at the right time.

Monument Valley 'Mittens'

Copyright Howard Grill


I know I have posted this photo on the blog before, some time ago.  But it sees to convey what I am feeling, so out it comes again.  We need spring here in Western Pennsylvania.  I know people have worse winters than ours.......but it really has been a brutal and never ending frigid winter here.  It has to end soon.....I just wish the Earth would get through this tilting thing and get us oriented in the right direction. This is what we need.  Some warm green growth with flowers that you can walk among without being bundled up.  And a nice tree to sit under as well!

This particular photo was taken at Jennings Environmental Area.


Copyright Howard Grill

Springs A Comin'

To quote The Beatles, "it's been a long cold lonely winter".  Yes, this winter has been quite bad, particularly in my neck of the woods, and perhaps in yours as well. Sub-zero wind chill, constant snow, and gray skies.  I know some people thrive photographically in the monochrome of winter, but I am not one of them.  Call me a wimp, but I just find it difficult to be creative when I am ....well, cold and uncomfortable.  And this year has been worse than most. But we can soon put that behind us because, as the title of this post suggests, springs a comin'.  And soon.  And spring is my absolute favorite time of year for photographing.  One day I look forward to being able to photograph throughout spring and not just a day here and a day there.

One of my favorite spring subjects are trillium.  I find it particularly difficult to make compelling trillium images because of the forest debris that typically is scattered all among the flowers, but, still, every year I go out there and try.  Even when you don't come away with winning shots (why does it always seem windy on the days I get to go out) it is hard not to enjoy shooting on a spring morning.  It's the process, not necessarily the product!

The following trillium photos from years gone by were all taken at one of my favorite spring wildflower locations, Hell's Hollow, an out of the way area that belongs to McConnell's Mill State Park.

White Trillium

Copyright Howard Grill

Trillium erectum forma luteum

Copyright Howard Grill

Sea Of White

Copyright Howard Grill

What Is Real?

Way back, in 2005 I believe (well, that IS way back in digital imaging years), I wrote an article entitled "Photography And Truth", which was published in Digital Outback Photo. That article can be read and downloaded in pdf format here. In the interim, software has become even more advanced.  What made me think about my 2005 article is a recent purchase I made of Thomas Knoll's  (the developer of Photoshop) Knoll Light Factory.  It certainly isn't inexpensive but I was very intrigued with what it could do.  It allows lighting effects with exquisite control of every aspect of a digitally produced light source.  Any and every aspect of the artifical light and its artifacts, including many that I would never have thought of, is under software control.  The developer really knows and understands light.  For an example of what the software can do, see this short training video by Mark Johnson.

I believe the main users of this software are those that use artificial lights as part of their images (ie portrait and product photographers) but there is also the possibility of using it to enhance landscape photography. This is my first attempt at trying this software.  It is easy to use and very deep in terms of control. Below is my original photograph of the 528 Boat Ramp at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park.

Copyright Howard Grill

My first attempt at using Knoll Light Factory was to add some sun, causing a subtle, but nonetheless important, change to the image, as seen below.

Copyright Howard Grill

I was able to add the sun on the left, controlling the size of the disc, the clarity of the edge of the disc and the haziness of the glow around it to reflect the cloud cover and could have added flare effects had I wanted to.  For a first attempt I think the effect is realistic.

Will the sun ever, during the course of the year, be in that position......I don't know.  Is it "OK" to do this with 'fine art photographs' that are not photojournalistic?  I certainly can't answer that for everybody.  The thoughts and conclusions in my article "Photography And Truth" reflect my own thinking.  Is it OK for a painter to paint the sun into his image if it isn't out?

More Black And White Botanicals

By Howard Grill

It has been 'between seasons' here lately.  Fall color has pretty much moved on but the trees are not yet bare (I like photographing bare trees) and (thankfully) the snow has not yet arrived.  So it has proven to be a good time to photograph at my local botanical garden in order to add some images to my black and white botanicals collection.

This mum had beautifully pristine white petals with bright pink at the center. The minute I saw it I wanted to process it using  a 'high key' approach.

Mums II

Copyright Howard Grill

The Farmhouse

By Howard Grill A few days back, I mentioned that I had taken a week off to photograph fall colors in Western Pennylvania.   I also mentioned that this year was perhaps the least colorful that I can remember since having moved here.  But that won't stop me from posting some photos from the week.  This is from our first day out....the warm up phase, so to speak.

After two friends and I were shooting from the side of a rural road, the owner of this house drove out to us because he thought that perhaps our cars had broken down and he wanted to help.  When we told him that we were photographing the question (you can predict this one) was "Well, what are you taking pictures of"?  We explained we were taking pictures of the trees and fall color.  He looked a bit puzzled at that idea but was nice enough not only to offer us the unneeded car rescue, but also to invite us onto his property to photograph the trees and forest up a hill he owned.  By that time we were already starving and about to pack up for lunch (and didn't see any stupendous scenery around) so we thanked him heartlily for his kindness and went on our way.

Interestingly we picked a random and pretty isolated place for lunch.  It looked like it might be a dive and so it was with some trepidation that we went into Rachel's Roadhouse.  It turned out to be an absolutely fantastic place for lunch with great fresh cooked food and the inside looked like anything but a dive.  I would go back there in a heartbeat and the folks making comments on Trip Advisor seem to agree!

High Key At Moraine

I woke up to fog two Sundays ago, which was a day I planned to go out photographing. This is one of the few times that I actually knew exactly what I wanted to make a picture of before I got there.  The fog (and perhaps a bit of looking at Huntington Witherall's work) had me interested in making a high key image.  My original thought was a wharf jutting out into the fog.  But when I got to Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park, the wharf I had in mind was not fogged in.  The fog seemed further out on the lake.  So I put on my 400mm f5.6 lens and went for my second choice.  A fishing boat emerging from the fog.  And with the idea of high key, black and white just seemed to suit the photo:

"Fishing In The Fog"

Copyright Howard Grill