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.

Atomic Levels

I know it’s a little unusual, but one thing that I really enjoy reading are layman’s books (by which I simply mean that the math isn’t delved into deeply) that explain and discuss some of the findings and unusual paradoxes that are generated by quantum mechanics. And so for some time I have been particularly drawn to abstract images that seem to illustrate principles of physics, and quantum mechanics in particular. When I saw these shadows on my bathroom wall (made by wooden window-shade slats on a sunny day) I couldn’t help but think of electrons jumping from one energy level to the next… the camera came out to capture them.

Atomic Levels I © Howard Grill

Atomic Levels I © Howard Grill

Atomic Levels II © Howard Grill

Atomic Levels II © 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


Seeing The Abstract

Lately I have found myself thinking about style, or, more specifically, about how people see.....about how I see. They are the same thing, style and how you see, more or less. I think it really is an interesting topic for everyone to ponder. What lenses you most often use gives some insight into this. For me, I tend to use a macro lens and lenses with longer focal lengths more than my other lenses. Of course that doesn't mean ALL the time, but there is a definite preponderance.

I tend to see things in little segments or abstract pieces. It's just the way I naturally see best.

Glass Abstract    © Howard Grill

Glass Abstract    © Howard Grill


The image above is a segment from a very large piece of glass art which was on display at a show in the botanical garden that I frequently go to. The piece is actually a massive pitcher plant, but I enjoyed the abstract shapes and colors that you could see in small portions of the glass even more than the piece as a whole.

Mural Abstract    © Howard Grill

Mural Abstract    © Howard Grill


Another good example is my "Mural Project", where I make photographs of very small abstract sections of large urban murals. I got to make some more of these on a trip to San Francisco a week or so ago. The Mission District is absolutely wonderful for murals (and food too)!

How do you see? How is that reflected in your photography? Give it some thought.....

Flowing Petals

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow!

Flowing Petals    © Howard Grill

Flowing Petals    © Howard Grill

With my next post, I will be introducing a very special project that I have been working on. It is one that has been extremely meaningful to me. So I do hope you will 'tune back in' to see my first project post, I think you will find it interesting and worthwhile.

Entrance To Another Universe

About a week or two ago it was warmer than usual here and so I went out to make photographs (I hate the cold). As is typical for this time of year in Western Pennsylvania, the sky was totally gray despite the warmer temperatures. I ended up going to a local nature reserve that has a large pond, thinking that maybe I would find something interesting there.

Well, the light was uninspiring in terms of making landscapes, but I did find reflections of the bare trees in the water of the pond that looked pretty interesting to me. When I showed them to a friend the comment was made that they looked like an entrance to another universe or dimension. That comment really stuck with me and so, while processing them, I decided to make them just that in my mind.

Welcome to an alternative universe:


Tree Reflections    © Howard Grill


There is also an entrance to this strange place in black and white:


Tree Reflections In Black And White    © Howard Grill


The Edges Are Always Interesting

There is a saying in photography that goes something like this:  'if you are looking for something interesting to photograph always look at the edges'. The edges are where interesting things occur. Look for photographic opportunities where water meets land, where sky meets horizon, where storm-clouds meet clear skies. It is where 'the battle' takes place. I think that looking for interest at the edges is a good strategy even for simple everyday things. Like plants.


Edges    © Howard Grill


Digital Artistry

An Instructional Video On How This Image Was Made

Some time ago I had signed up for a very interesting on-line course on how to utilize Photoshop not for digital image processing, but to learn how to composite images and apply artistic effects. I wanted to learn some of these approaches not so much to produce photo-realistic scenes but, rather, to produce not so realistic looking artwork.  There is obviously a rather large spectrum between 'straight' photography (which typically isn't as 'straight' as one might think) and surreal alternative worlds.  I wanted to discover where I might sit along that spectrum.

As can often happen, I was constrained for time and never really got to go through the course like I had wanted to. But there was recently a Facebook group formed by others like myself who sort of got 'left behind'.  So I decided to take it up once again, along with this group.

After learning from the video training, one is encouraged to perform weekly 'challenges'. These are an exercise to reinforce the techniques and typically come with very specific rules, such as take one of your images and choose two out of these 10 textures and then chose a vector from group one and then utilize a certain technique.  I'm not very good at following rules and doing exercises but decided to give it a try.  I became enthused by what I produced and started thinking about how the piece might look if there were no strict rules. I then reworked the image and ended up with this:

The composition was built upon the base photo below, which i took at a cemetery near my home during the winter last year.

Since I had wanted to produce more blog posts that show how I did things, I thought that this might be a good image to make a video about, showing how I put it together. I am new at this sort of work but would like to pursue it further and also integrate some of the techniques into my more traditional photography......but, on with the video!

If you are email subscriber, the video, unfortunately, does not come along with the email so you will have to go to the actual blog to view it or click here to watch it on youtube.

More Molecules

It turns out that all murals are not the same when it comes to photographing small sections of the whole. In my post where I explained my thoughts behind this "Molecules Of Art"  project, I showed several examples from one mural I had photographed. That mural was painted onto a relatively smooth concrete wall with a very thick layer of paint. The next mural I have been working with has a very different substrate. In this case the mural is painted on a very rough and textured concrete wall with a thin layer of paint, making the texture of the wall itself become integrated into the mural.

In some ways the integrated texture makes the abstract nature of the image harder to work with, as I would prefer to direct the viewer's mind to the colors and shapes. On the other hand, maybe there is something different here. Maybe the texture just becomes part of the experience. 

Needless to say, I am still playing with these ideas.


Mural Abstract 4    © Howard Grill


Molecules Of Art?

There is an idea I have had for a photographic project that has been nagging at me for several years. I keep trying to ignore it because I don't know if others will find it interesting, but it just won't let go. Realizing that others not finding something interesting is really not a good reason to not pursue it, I decided to give in to that little voice.

So what is this project? I have spoken about it before, but just touched on what it is about. The truth is that I am not yet sure exactly what it actually is about.....but perhaps that makes it a good idea to talk about.

Murals. I see murals. Well everyone sees them. You know the kind I am talking about.....the kind that are painted on the sides of buildings. Well, I can enjoy the mural taken as a whole and as the artist meant for it to be seen. But then I see these little segments of it. Little segments that themselves look like small pieces of abstract art in a way that is different from the original intent of the artist


Mural Abstract 1


These small pieces of the whole somehow look like they could be complete works to me.

Mural Abstract 2

A somewhat bizarre thought, that a piece of artwork could be composed of many, many smaller pieces of art that have nothing to do with the whole and don't resemble it in the least. Molecules of art?

Mural Abstract 3

The colors are vivid, but I think it also works reasonably well in toned black and white.


Mural Abstract In Toned Black And White    © Howard Grill


New York, Zoomed

A few weekends ago I visited my son in New York City. Up in the hotel room there was a pretty nice view out the window. But it was the typical big city buildings and lights type of view. I decided that in addition to the standard shots from the window I would also try to do something a bit different. Something that might give the 'big city' feel but be rendered a bit abstract. So I decide to zoom the lens while shooting handheld long exposures.

Needless to say, I had to take quite a few photos before I got any that just looked 'right' and that appealed to me. But, by looking at the results on the LCD, I was able to make adjustments to the zoom speed and eventually I did make some that I liked. And thus we have "New York, Zoomed". It's always fun to play a bit and see what happens!


New York, Zoomed    © Howard Grill


Repeating Patterns

Recently, I have had somewhat of a renewed interest in photographing architecture. Not so much the 'literal interpretation' of the building (though that is fun to do as well), but more so the details, particularly in an abstract way. I am particularly fond of repeating patterns and contrasts.

I was recently photographing at Carnegie Mellon University and had an interesting experience. In the past, when photographing buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, I have had building security guards tell me to leave because I am not allowed to photograph 'their' building, based on rules from building management. Of course, they fail to recognize that this is the United States and that one IS, in fact, allowed to photograph any building they want (short, I believe, of Federal Buildings and military installations perhaps) as long as they are on a public street and not on private property. I have made several posts over the years about being kicked out of various areas for doing perfectly legal photography.

At any rate, I went to Carnegie Mellon to make some architectural photos and there was a CMU police car parked in front of the first building I went to photograph. Inside was a police officer apparently guarding the building. Rather than get involved in debate (since these are not city policemen, who I assume would know the law) I decided to go photograph another building first and then return later. The image I made at that other building is the one seen below. I liked the repeating pattern and the repeating contrast.

So, what became of the first building? Well, the story ends well.  I went back and there was no longer a police car there. I set up to photograph, standing in a public street.  As I was photographing, the police car returned and drove up the street. I try to look nonchalant and pay no attention. However, as I was looking into the viewfinder of my tripod mounted camera, the car pulled up along side of me and the officer rolled down the window. "Here we go again", I start thinking.

But to my surprise, the officer said "They don't build them like that any more, do they? It's a great building to take pictures of!". And with that we got into a very pleasant conversation regarding craftsmanship and architecture in years gone by. In fact, he told me some other places he thought I would enjoy photographing!

I guess there is a lesson here. It is probably a good idea to expect the best in people and be prepared for the worst than to expect the worst to start with. All in all, it was a very pleasant morning out photographing on the July 4th holiday weekend.

Chapel In The Woods

While at Callaway Gardens in Georgia, I had the opportunity to visit their gorgeous Chapel In The Woods (the Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel). It was just outside the chapel that I took the picture of an iris that I posted a few weeks ago. I had the opportunity to go into the chapel at just the perfect the sun was streaming through the stained glass windows:


Window I    © Howard Grill


Window II    © Howard Grill


In Camera Texture

One thing I am growing more fond of is layering textures on photographs. But despite the appearance, that is NOT what today's blog post image is.  In fact, except for the conversion to a cyanotype tinted black and white image and the edge treatment, this image was made totally 'in-camera', which is why I couldn't resist taking the photo. And I should add that despite the fact that I took the photo right after the recent big snowstorm (well, it was big on the coast, but being about 400 miles inland we only got about 5 inches of the white stuff) it was not snowing at the time the shutter was clicked!


"Snow"    © Howard Grill


So how did the image get this textured appearance? As I was going on my post-snowstorm photo-walk, I took a stroll through a nearby college campus.  As I walked by the library, I noticed that the front facade of the building was covered with a dark brown granite or granite-like polished stone that had large 'flecks' of other colors in it.  If you stood at a specific angle to the stone you could, because of the way the sun was hitting it, see a strong reflection of a university hall, lampost, and a snow covered stone wall that was behind it. I thought it looked pretty cool!

After taking the photo through Lightroom to make basic adjustments it was brought into Silver Efex Pro to convert it to black an white and apply the vintage edge. Then , in Photoshop, I used a curves adjustment layer to increase the contrast a bit and I applied the slightest amount of Gaussian Blur to try to decrease the harsh edges of the 'flecks'. Then I toned the image a blue color to fit the cold subject.

I thought the final image had an interesting 'dreamy' appearance such that you know what it the subject is, but with a sense that you aren't quite sure if it is 'real' or how it was made.