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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.

Musical Interlude: The Pretenders

It’s been a good while since I offered a musical interlude on the blog. So today is the day. I bring you….The Pretenders. This, a more recent concert, with Chrissie Hynde of course and Martin Chambers, the original drummer. They may be getting a bit older (I believe Hynde is 66 here) but they remain and sound absolutely fantastic.

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
 

Auto FX GRFX Studio Pro: A Brief Review

I own Auto Fx Gen 2, which I utilize from time to time as a Photoshop plug in. I won’t say that I am a ‘power user’, nor do I own all the available modules that can be utilized within the software. I have used it mainly for its ability to apply light beams and weather effects, though it can do much more - however, for me those seemed to be the standout effects that were not easy accomplished by other software programs that I am familiar with.

Gen 2 is being ‘retired’, as it reportedly will not be functional with the new Mac operating system. I am glad to say that Gen 2 still seems to work perfectly on my Windows 10 / Photoshop CC 2019 system. However, while all support is going to be discontinued for this software, there is currently a sale on their new software version - GRFX Studio Pro - with an offer to try it free for 30 days.

So I decided to give the trial version a whirl. What follows is my opinion only……to me it felt like unfinished software.

First, the older Gen 2 software works on 16 bit images, but not as a smart filter. I expected this new rewritten upgrade to function as a smart filter, but, alas, it doesn’t. At least not yet, though the company says that they have such functionality planned for the future.

Secondly, another significant problem in my mind is that the plug in doesn’t ‘respect’ color spaces or profiles. Therefore, when you open an image in the plug in it looks visibly different than it does in Photoshop and yet the software offers color effects that one can apply. But how will they look back in Photoshop? The colors of the image visibly change when the effect is applied and it is brought back into Photoshop and into a color managed workflow. Well, that is a bit unsettling, especially when one can’t go back and readjust the effect as a smart filter.

Thirdly, I just find the older version easier to use. If I am uncertain as to the purpose of a certain slider or control I can just hover over it with my cursor and get helpful tool tips. Not so in GRFX Studio Pro….and some of the slider labels are not necessarily intuitive (though they are the same as the older Gen 2). Also, at least on my system, some of the drop down menus are a bit buggy. Though they sometimes drop down cleanly and hide what they ‘drop down’ over, more often than not they drop down without being ‘opaque’ and obscuring what is behind them, thereby making them difficult to read because the labels are interspersed with the words and controls they drop down over. By no means a deal breaker and perhaps limited to just my system…..hard to know.

Another little irritant is that midway through the trial Auto Fx released an update and included more free effects. It was then that I noted that there is no ‘search for updates’ button within the software that I could find!

Finally, I did not see a way to ‘port over’ any modules from Gen 2 to the newer software. I suspect that such modules will likely be offered for purchase in the future. Even better would be if they were free of charge as updates to the software, but perhaps that is hoping for too much. We shall see.

In this ‘day and age’ premium priced software should, in my opinion, be functional as a smart filter and respect color management. I can see upgrading to GRFX Studio Pro if Gen2 is software that you find very useful (and for some things it really is) and you utilize an operating system on which the older Gen2 will no longer function. As for me, am going to continue to use Gen 2 (which also doesn’t function as a smart filter etc) as it seems to work on my system. I might have purchased the software for the excellent light beam/ray generation functionality alone if I did not already own the Gen 2 software. However, given my situation, I have no plans to purchase GRFX Studio Pro unless and until it is improved considerably.

The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh

Last weekend I had the opportunity to photograph in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning with several friends, a location I had not had the chance to make photos in before. The indoor architecture is quite Gothic, which is not surprising since the building was designed by Charles Klaude, one of the leading Gothic architects of the era. At the time construction started in 1926, the Cathedral was to be the tallest building in Pittsburgh. While it lost that distinction some time ago, it still remains the second tallest university building in the world at 787 feet.

The Gothic architecture certainly lends itself to many different and interesting compositions and I wanted to share some of the images I made. I think the building holds a lot of photographic opportunities that we have just begun to explore.

For starters, I was very taken by the flow of the lines and beams in the Commons Room!

 
© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

 

Quick Quotes: Minor White

"Everything has been photographed. Accept this. Photograph things better."

Minor White


In this age of intensive social media, where people seem to be in a race to photograph places that are more and more exotic, out of the way, and difficult to get to…….it is perhaps a good time to remember that the degree of difficulty in obtaining a photograph does not directly correlate with how good or emotionally moving it is. The greatest challenge, in my mind, is to stay where you are and photograph and make beautiful the nuances of the everyday things around you. To see them in a fresh way.

Remember that everything HAS already been photographed.

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

 

Quick Quotes: Don McCullin

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

Don McCullin


I couldn’t agree with this more. It’s step one to making a meaningful photograph. Another way of saying that it is important to go ‘beyond the handshake’!

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

 

Intentional Camera Movement

‘Intentional Camera Movement’ (which until a few years ago was simply known as ‘hey, look at this cool photo I made by shaking my camera’ - but I guess ‘ICM’ is a bit easier to say than ‘HLATCPIMBSMC’), is a process by which one can make abstract images in-camera. While usually one wants the camera to be perfectly stable when the shutter is open in order to make sharp images, the technique of intentional camera movement seeks just the opposite. Here the idea is to intentionally move the camera while the shutter is open in order to make abstractly blurred photographs.

I have seen many ‘guides’ that suggest different techniques, but my feeling is that there is no right or wrong when it comes to this……experimentation is the key. It is difficult to state a ‘proper’ shutter speed because it depends on how fast one is moving the camera and if the subject is itself moving or not. Once you get a composition that looks promising, the key is to try multiple different variations in shutter speed and speed of camera motion until you get something the is pleasing and ‘just seems right’. It really pays to experiment, as sometimes even when it looks good on the camera LCD the image isn’t quite as compelling on the larger computer screen. It pays to change it up and decide if you have a ‘keeper’ later, once you get home.

That said, here are a few tips I can offer:

  • Your shutter speed can be slowed down by choosing a smaller aperture; the image isn’t going to be ‘sharp’ anyway, so don’t worry about diffraction effects at very small apertures

  • If a small aperture doesn’t get you a slow enough shutter speed for the effect you are looking for, add a polarizer or a neutral density (not a graduated neutral density) filter….or both

  • Even though you will be moving the camera, I still like shooting these types of images on a tripod….it makes it easier to keep the camera moving in just one direction, if that is the effect you are looking for. Of course the tripod is not at all necessary, I just personally find it useful

  • I find that I most often get pleasing results if I move the camera in the same direction as the dominant lines in the composition (ie up and down for trees and side to side for a shoreline). But try other directions as well

 
© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

 

In this particular image of trees, I moved the camera along the vertical axis while the shutter was open. In specific, this was made at ISO 100 at f11 with the shutter open for 2 seconds. I actually liked the appearance of the left side of the photo better than the right, so I selected it in Photoshop, used CTL-J to duplicate it onto its own layer, CTL-T to go to transform in order to flip it horizontally, and then the move tool to shift it over so that the left side of the image was mirrored on the right.

Another Mural Abstract

I have mentioned in prior posts that when I see a wall mural I enjoy taking photos of small sections of it that look like separate pieces of artwork, at least to me. It seems too bland and documentary to just take a photo of the entire thing. But playing around making little pieces of art out of it……now, that’s fun. Maybe a little weird, but I do like doing it!

 
© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

 

Quick Quotes: Arnold Newman

“A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart”.

-Arnold Newman


So true. When people ask me if they should get a better camera I usually tell them that these days, unless there is some very specific and special attribute they are looking for, all a better digital camera will do is to allow the images to be printed larger. And if you are going to print them large they ought to be good to start with. It’s really difficult to make an excellent photograph.

Back to the heart thing :)

My Squirrel Hill

Most people reading my blog probably don’t know that I live in Squirrel Hill, about three blocks away from last weekend’s horrific Tree of Life Synagogue mass murder. This was not the Squirrel Hill I have known and loved for close to 30 years, a richly diverse community where all are welcome and all are treated like neighbors - what else would anyone expect when they are literally living in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Here, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and people of all colors have lived together in peaceful harmony for many years, taking joy in discovering each others differences. This can be seen in the ethnic restaurants, in the street fairs, and most easily by just walking down any street. Squirrel Hill is just about the last place in the world I would have expected something like this to happen. Sadly, if it can happen here, it truly could happen anywhere.

Perhaps nobody and no place is safe from a madman with a weapon who is intent on inflicting harm. Perhaps the mettle of a place is its response to adversity. If that’s the case, than I shouldn’t be surprised at the response of our community. Within hours of the murders there was a vigil on Murray and Forbes - the epicenter of ‘The Hill’ - which was organized by the local Presbyterian Church and several Taylor Allderdice High School students. Hundreds upon hundreds of people from our community and the communities that surround us attended. A wound that has been inflicted upon anyone here is treated like a wound inflicted upon us all. This was the Squirrel Hill that I knew.

The next day there was a more ‘official’ vigil/service for the entire city at Soldiers and Sailors, a large memorial hall “dedicated to honoring the men and woman of all branches of service, from all generations and conflicts”. This seemed uniquely appropriate given what our soldiers have fought for through the centuries - our freedoms, including the freedom of religion. On this night, there were not hundreds upon hundreds, but thousands upon thousands of people who came to show solidarity and support.

There were inspirational talks from the clergy of all faiths. There were words of support from our Mayor and other elected officials. Their words all led to the same conclusion - that we will not tolerate hate here. That we stand together as brothers and sisters to fight hatred and to call it out wherever we see it, so that it will not have an opportunity to grow.

The Muslim community has raised over $120,000 for the families of the victims and the synagogue. They have volunteered to do whatever is necessary to help, even stand guard outside our synagogues and other houses of worship (a short video worth watching). They offer this because, besides being brothers, our entire community, Jews and Christians alike, treated them with respect, dignity, and equality after 9-11. To quote (via NBC News) Tarik El-Messidi, the founder of CelebrateMercy “We are tired of being grouped along with the crazies, they scare us just as much as any American”. “We need the administration to talk about the 3 million Muslim Americans who just want to pursue life, liberty, and happiness just like everyone else in America”.

That night, as a community, we also all gave and continue to give gratitude to the police officers from all locations that converged in Squirrel Hill that afternoon and ran straight into mortal danger, risking their own lives for people that they had never met. We can only hope that the injured officers along with the injured, but surviving, congregants recover fully and quickly.

That night I once again saw the Squirrel Hill that I knew, a place of peace, a place where all stand together against hatred.

Squirrel Hill will never be the same, yet Squirrel Hill hasn’t changed one iota.

Heliamphora heterodoxa

Time for another photograph of one of the carnivorous plants I am growing in my basement. And so here we have a plant whose leaves are truly beautiful. Heliamphora heterodoxa is a type of ‘pitcher plant’ whose entire leaf is a pitcher, as opposed to the pitcher growing from the tip of a more ‘normal appearing’ leaf (some photos of these to come). Nectar is produced from the reddish appendage at the top of each leaf in order to attract insects, and when one falls into the pitcher its ‘look out below’, as they drown in the water and digestive enzymes at the pitcher’s base.

These beautiful plants are native to the high mountains in Venezuela and Brazil. While they are slow growing plants, I can see some definite growth in the few weeks that I have had mine.

The plant’s, color, shape and symmetry are what made me want to photograph it almost as soon as I received it. I think you’ll agree that they are very ‘photogenic’!

 
Heliamphora heterodoxa © Howard Grill

Heliamphora heterodoxa © Howard Grill

 

And here we have ‘live action video’ of an ant falling to its death (not for the faint of heart :)

These plants are both beautiful and intriguing!

Photo Artistry Publication

I have mentioned in prior blog posts that I’ve been spending time taking on-line courses in ‘photo artistry’, which is to say using Photoshop to composite and alter ‘straight’ images into various types of digital artwork. It isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward, so I was very encouraged when two pieces of mine were accepted for publication and appear in the current issue of an excellent magazine dedicated to the genre called “Living The Photo-Artistic Life”. The on-line version of the magazine is free for download and if you think you might enjoy this type of work you should definitely take a look at the artwork of the many talented individuals who are far more accomplished in this genre than me. Did I say it was free :)

Below are the two images that were published, and I believe I have posted them before. The first is based on a synagogue in Prague that I visited about two years or so ago that had tens of thousands of names printed on the walls of the building….the names of all those in Czech lands that were murdered during the Holocaust.

 
“Holocaust Memories” © Howard Grill

“Holocaust Memories” © Howard Grill

 

This second image is of a tree in Harrisburg, PA that I took many years ago that I combined with text, textures, birds and lighting effects.

 
“Reaching Out” © Howard Grll

“Reaching Out” © Howard Grll

 

The fact that the images were chosen for publication encourages me to explore this path further to see where it leads.

Carnivorous Plants - The Sundew

I have previously mentioned that I’ve taken up growing carnivorous plants- insectivorous would really be a better term - in my basement under fluorescent lights. One of the most interesting of these plants is the ‘sundew’. In addition to being fascinating, alien appearing, beautiful, easy to propagate, and inexpensive, they are also very easy to grow under lights. What more could you ask for in a plant that also helps rid your basement of small insects?

If you’re an insect you don’t want to find yourself anywhere near those gooey tentacles that are so enticing to visit. Once a small insect touches the ‘dew’ droplets they become stuck, and as they struggle come into contact with more of the flypaper-like droplets. Then the tentacles, as well as the entire leaf itself, wrap itself around the insect and secrete digestive juices to obtain a nitrogen laced meal.

The entire process can be seen in the video below the photographs of my very own Drosera capensis “albino”, the albino form of the Cape Sundew which is native to South Africa. The albino form has greenish, as opposed to red, leaves, though under strong light the tentacles take on a pink blush. There are other Sundew species native to different regions with different leaf shapes and growth habits. But they all have goo.

 
Drosera capensis “Albino” having a bite to eat © Howard Grill

Drosera capensis “Albino” having a bite to eat © Howard Grill

 
 

Did I mention they were easy to propogate? This is the graceful emerging flower stalk from the same plant. The small flowers self-pollinate and form seed in this particular species!

 
Drosera capensis “albino” flower stalk

Drosera capensis “albino” flower stalk

 

And for some real action, watch a short sundew time lapse from the BBC!

Isn’t nature amazing. I mean you can’t make this stuff up!

A Disturbing Trend In Photography Article

I have this messy tendency…..I save things in my email box that I think are interesting and want to come back to. Every 6-12 months I say ‘OK, no more of this’ with plans to clean out the email box and either delete things I don’t need, read some of the things I’ve saved, and move tutorials and such that I still want to listen to or read into a more permanent folder. The mess ultimately accumulates again, but that’s my problem and not the point of this post :)

I was just starting to do some cleaning when I came across an article that I had saved from 2016, and that meant that it had continued to be saved over many cleanings…..so probably worth reading. And indeed it was, so I thought I would share it.

The article was originally published on PetaPixel in May of 2016 and is entitled “Opinion: A Disturbing Trend In Photography”. Well worth a read. If you happen to read it and have an opinion, I would love to hear it….do feel free to comment!

The End Of The McConnell's Mill Hike

Several weeks back I decided to take a hike in McConnell’s Mill State Park. I hadn’t done so in some time and the hike I had been thinking about was short, but not the most accessible in terms of terrain. I had heard that if one hiked on this route they would be treated to some interesting water flow. And so I was. And it was definitely a hike worth taking.

I find myself wondering what this location will look like with the heavy fall rains we usually get or after the winter melt. I guess there is only one way to find out….

 
© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill