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.


I recently returned from a very nice vacation.  We decided to go to Seattle, which we had never been to before, and to Orcas Island, an island in the San Juan archipelago that is off the coast of Washington and near the Canadian border.  This was to be a vacation for me and my photography, because when you are like me (and I presume like many that read this blog) photographing can get a bit distracting when you are on the go with someone who is not a photographer.  So this vacation was photography free.  But, hey, you have to have your iPhone with you!  So, though I am not of the ilk that does a lot of artistic iPhone image processing, it was still fun to have that miniature camera with you all the time.....even if it isn't 'serious' image making. The photo below was taken at Kubota Gardens in Seattle, which we stopped at on our way back from the island to the airport.

Changing Tones

iPhone Image

Copyright Howard Grill

The Center For Fine Art Photography

I am pleased to report that one of the images from my "Dreamscapes" series was chosen to be part of a themed exhibit at The Center For Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado.  The subject of the exhibit is "Dreams".

Dreamscapes #1

Dreamscapes #1

Copyright Howard Grill

The other images that were chosen for this juried show can be seen here.

This One Works

A recent post describing one of my zone plate images that didn't seem to work motivated me to have a look at some of the other zone plate shots that I had taken but not yet gotten around to processing.   As I was going through them I found this one, which though similiar to an image already in the portfolio, still seemed different enough to include. This one, I feel, does work.  What I am finding is that these images work best if there are simple lines, the image is not busy with detail, and the lighting is lower contrast since the process makes the highlights glow and further contrast can be added in post-processing.  The presence of a person also adds interest and adds to the surreal feel.  I find that fact interesting as my non-zone plate photos rarely have people in them but almost all of my zone plate images that work have either a person or a statue of a person.

Zone Plate Image

Dreamscapes #8

Copyright Howard Grill

Not Quite Good Enough

I feel that I can use this blog to not only show my successes, but also to show failures. We all learn from what doesn't work. I was photographing in an indoor botanical garden about a week ago and saw a statue surrounded by greenery.  I thought it would make a nice addition to my "Dreamscapes" portfolio.  This portfolio is a grouping of images taken with a zone plate.  More about the portfolio and what exactly a zone plate is can be found here.

At any rate, when I saw this scene I felt it had a dreamy, surreal quality to it and had high hopes that the image could be a 'keeper' for the portfolio.  I was especially heartened as there aren't all that many images that really work well with the zone plate (but when they work they tend to be very dreamy and emotive).  Unfortunately, I don't think the image quite works.  I am not sure why, but it doesn't seem to express that 'waiting for the maiden' dreamy feel that I was hoping to achieve.  I haven't quite ruled out using it because I just processed it and sometimes it can be dangerous to make up one's mind too quickly!

Zone Plate Image

Copyright Howard Grill

It has been a while since I was able to find a zone plate image that really hit the mark.

Mill Via Pinhole

I was looking over some of my older images and ran across this one, which is from a time when I was experimenting with pinhole photography using film. I could be wrong, but I don't believe I have posted it before.

McConnell's Mill
Pinhole Photo On Film
Copyright Howard Grill

I did enjoy photographing this way, but it became quite cumbersome to develop the film in my basement and then scan the film even before bringing the image into Photoshop. However, I became quite pleased a year or so ago when I found that I could once again do some pinhole imaging using the new LensBaby with drop in optics!

With the drop in pinhole / zone plate optic one can now do pinhole and zone plate imaging digitally, without film. Some might call this heresy.....but when you have limited time you do what is practical.

Infrared is what a scene, any scene, would more or less look like to us as observers in 'infrared' if we eliminated the visible light wavelengths.

Infrared Scene

The point I am trying to make is that when most people talk about infrared photography they are often under the mistaken impression that it represents what we would see if we (humans) could see the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. But, of course, we can't. So if we were relying on the infrared portion of the spectrum to see....well, we wouldn't see very much.

So what are we seeing when we look at infrared photographs? Well, we are looking at how the infrared film or the digital sensor reacts to the infrared portion of the spectrum. It is how the film or sensor 'sees' infrared because infrared can be detected by them. That is to say, both are sensitive to the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our eyes are not.

So when we look at an infrared photograph we are seeing the portion of the visible spectrum that the film or sensor has converted the infrared into. What we see is, by necessity, an interpretation. So what does infrared 'look like' to the several insects, snakes, and ferrets that can see this portion of the spectrum? Perhaps it gets philosophical, but I don't know and I'm not sure anyone truly can. These insects and animals were born with eyes that are sensitive to infrared so they probably don't think it is anything special! Perhaps it is like trying to explain to someone that has been blind from birth what 'yellow' is.

That said, here is an infrared digital image of Cucumber Falls at Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania. At least this is how the digital sensor (with visible light filtered out) converts the scene to something that we can see.

Cucumber Falls In IR
Copyright Howard Grill

Zone Plate And High Pass Filtration

I don't usually write many blog posts about Photoshop techniques, but have been asked a few times about my "Dreamscape" images made using the Lensbaby zone plate optic. The "Dreamscapes" series can be seen here. At any rate, the question I have been asked pertains to the sharpness of the zone plate images, and, specifically, how the images are made to appear sharper than a typical zone plate shot.

First, for those that may not be familiar with the term, zone plate photography is ,in some ways, similar to pinhole imaging. However, instead of using a pinhole to allow light into the camera, a series of clear concentric circles spaced at mathematically determined distances are used for this purpose. What this effectively does is:

i) markedly decrease the shutter speed compared to pinhole imaging, as the zone plate lets in much more light than a pinhole per unit time

ii) impart a unique glowing appearance to the highlights in the image and

iii) make the focus of the image even softer than the same shot made with a pinhole.

For a little more information about zone plates see here.

I very much enjoy the 'dreamy' look that the zone plate imparts, at least for some types of images. However, I have to admit that the images sometime do appear too soft focused for my taste, but, yet, the same image made with a pinhole doesn't quite yield the same effect. For this reason I have often added a 'high pass sharpen' layer to the image in Photoshop.

Here is an example of what it can do to a zone plate photograph (the smallish imagesin the blog make it a bit difficult to see, but I think you can tell if you look is much more apparent on a slightly larger image)

Dreamscapes #1....No High Pass Sharpening
Copyright Howard Grill

Dreamscapes #1...With High Pass Sharpening
Copyright Howard Grill

The method is started by flattening the image. Now the image consists of only a background layer. Duplicate this background layer twice and click the icons to turn these duplicate layers off, making them invisible. Now click back on the background layer to make it active and go to the Photoshop filters and choose High Pass (Filter>Other>High Pass). You get a dialogue box in which you can choose a radius. Choose 75 pixels to start, but this is obviously a ‘jump off’ point for experimentation.

Your image will now look totally disgusting. Don’t worry….just click on the duplicate background layer which is directly above the layer that was just filtered to make it active and then click on the icon to make it visible. The image now returns to the way it looked before starting this whole thing because it is a duplicate of the original at 100% opacity lying on top of the filtered image. Now the fun begins. Change the blending mode of this layer from normal to overlay (or try Soft Light or Hard Light) and the image undergoes an interesting change.

Perhaps the effect is too much? That is why I added the second duplicate layer (which is not visible at this point) on top of the others at the start of the technique. Click on that layer to now make it active and click on the icon to make it visible. The image now appears as it did before starting. But turn down the opacity of this topmost layer to let the filtered look come through and see how you like it.

In this example, I think the technique really 'tightens up' the look and puts the focus squarely on the person without losing that dreamy zone plate look. This works best on simple images with strong graphic lines. But I find that zone plate imaging works best on those types of compositions anyway.

The Best Camera

Perhaps you are familiar with Chase Jarvis and his iPhone app for taking and sharing images, as well as his book The Best Camera Is The One That's With You: iPhone Photography by Chase Jarvis (Voices That Matter). I personally wasn't until I heard Ibarionex Perello's interview with him on The Candid Frame.

What I find far more interesting (since, for one thing, I don't own an iPhone) is Chase's website The Best Camera, where one can see a live feed of images being posted from people using his application. The volume of images is amazing....and even more amazing is the creativity behind a very large percentage of them. I have to admit, I don't think I am 'into' the phenomena myself, but it is interesting to watch it all happen.

More Zone Plate

I have previously written about my initial experiments with the digital zone plate process using my Lensbaby with the zone plate 'Optic Swap' insert. I continue to 'play' with it, looking for more images to include in my 'Dreamscapes ' portfolio.

Copyright Howard Grill

I recently took this photograph using the zone plate at a Frabel glass exhibit at Phipps Conservatory. I was drawn to the surreal appearance the zone plate gave to the glass figures. This one may well make it into the series. For each one of these types of shots that seem to work for me, there are many more that end up 'in the bucket'.

More Dreamscapes

I recently finished processing and printing the sixth image in my Dreamscapes series. I particularly like the ghostlike image behind the boy (though it may not show up that well in this small image format), which was caused by the child suddenly walking through the scene during the long exposure. I guess you can tell that it isn't a 'real' ghost because it also casts a shadow!

Dreamscapes #6
Copyright Howard Grill

In addition, another image from this series is going to appear in a "Self-Portrait"(yes, that is me at the end of the tunnel) themed show at The Silver Eye Center For Photography. The exhibit celebrates Silver Eye's 30th anniversary.

Dreamscapes #3
Copyright Howard Grill

While having any image shown at The Silver Eye is an honor, I do have to admit that this particular show is non-juried, with all members of the gallery invited to display one image. The show runs from July 8th to September 12th. Given the intriguing theme, it should be a really creative, interesting and enjoyable exhibit.

Scripted Shots

In the past, other than for the family snapshot, I have never 'set up' or scripted a photograph. Lots of photographers do, but since my main focus has been nature photography there is generally not much opportunity to do so. However, my recent experimentation with a zone plate has me trying new things that I haven't done before.

I was using the zone plate at one of my favorite parks, but didn't seem able to really capture anything that had what I considered a 'special feel' to it. I realized that the zone plate images that I felt were my most successful ones to this point contained human figures in them. Being alone, I decided it was time for me to 'star' in my own photograph. There was a covered bridge that was dark inside with bright sunlight at the other end. Melting ice had generated puddles of water inside. I previsualized an ethereal type of image with bright light behind a figure that seemed to emerge from the 'ether'.

The only way to do this was with the 10 second self-timer on my camera. It was quite cold out and the covered bridge is in a relatively out of the way park.......but it still was a road and every 10 or 15 minutes or so a car would come down the curvy two lane street (at low speed by necessity, given the type of road it was).

So imagine this bizarre and rather funny scenario. I set my tripod and camera up at one end of the covered bridge, check to make sure there are no cars coming (you can see a good way down the road), hit the self timer, run as fast as possible down towards the other end of the covered bridge while counting off the seconds, turn around, pose for the shot, and run back as fast as possible to ensure that no cars are on the way to demolish the camera and tripod.

For those concerned that I posed a danger, I should add that I would never do this on a 'real' road. This was a very low speed curvy road where people stop before going onto the bridge because it is dark inside. In addition, one can see a good distance down the road in both directions. The entire process could be completed before any visible car could possibly make it to the bridge. No one was in danger, save my camera. And even that was more likely to be toppled by my rushing around running back and forth than by anything else.

And the results (after innumerable tries to get it right)..........

Copyright Howard Grill

Zone Plate II

Dreamscapes #2
Copyright Howard Grill

I would like to solicit some opinions on this one. I personally enjoy this image as much as the prior zone plate shot. However, when I have shown this to an admittedly small number of people they seem to strongly prefer the previous one. The interesting thing is the reason. They all seem to say that this one appears much more abstract and that it is more difficult to tell 'what it is a picture of'. I was a bit surprised as it seems pretty clear to me that it was two children at the water's edge.....but then again, I took it, so perhaps it is a bit more clear to me. What do folks that might be reading this think? Is it too abstract? Is it not clear what it is a picture of? Perhaps in some ways it doesn't really matter, but I would like to get a feel or understanding of what the viewer's experience is like when looking at images like these.

By the way, if anyone is interested in some resources that explain the technical aspects of zone plates, here and here are good places to start. However, I have to admit that at this point I haven't really tried to undertake a scientific understanding of the process in order to manipulate it....I have just been shooting to see what I get and trying to see what types of subjects seem to 'work' well from an artistic standpoint.

Zone Plate

Dreamscape #1
Copyright Howard Grill

In my last post entitled "Process", I wrote about using the LensBaby Optic Swap system with a Zone Plate and mentioned that I would post some photos. This image is the first that I have processed from a series I took about two weeks ago. Some people I have shown it to have found it 'interesting' and some have called it 'creepy'. Personally, I really like the ethereal feel.

I usually title my images, but this series is one that I feel should be left without titles so as not to influence the viewer's interpretation.


Over the years there has been considerable debate on the issue of photographic process and the role it plays in artwork. Most recently this has been exemplified by the now old and very tired question “Is digital photography really photography?”. Several years back this question engendered serious debate….now it is hard to understand why, as nearly every photographer would answer “yes, it is….it is just that some fine art photographers choose to use film and others a digital sensor as their method of ‘capturing the light”.

I recently discovered the new LensBaby Composer with the “Optic Swap System” that allows one to swap different optical components in and out of the basic LensBaby format, which is basically a tilt/shift type of apparatus. One of the very neat swappable components is a ‘lens’ that lets you place a pinhole or zone plate on the camera instead of a glass or plastic lens. I have found experimenting with the zone plate to be quite enthralling.

However, I hesitate to post images made with it on forums that specialize in this sort of imaging. Why? The reason is that the tired debate about digital vs film does not yet seem to be dead when it comes to ‘alternative’ processes such as pinhole and zone plate imaging.

In the past I had written about such processes, which I had found quite intriguing (see here and scroll down to the pinhole posts). However, I have had limited opportunity to pursue pinhole photography because of limitations in time, and time is what is required to process film and scan negatives. However, with the advent of the LensBaby Optic Swap System I see an opportunity to explore this type of imaging. I am particularly intrigued in utilizing the zone plate, as it is something completely new to me, something very fresh.

Personally, I don’t think it should matter if the zone plate image was made on film or a digital sensor. But that’s just me, and a lot of people seem to disagree.

Photographing With Flatbed Scanners

Lately, I've been reading about and have become fascinated by the use of flatbed scanners for photography. I am not talking about using them to scan film, but rather to produce primary images by placing objects on the glass and scanning them. Using this technique with today's scanners, one can make extremely detailed high resolution images.

That could open whole areas of exploration in and of itself. However, what I find even potentially more interesting is the ability to scan objects that could be used as background textures to be blended with camera generated images. These would be things that are easy to scan. Think about it....old, weathered paper, cloth, wood, metal etc.

So how many of these types of scans have I made. None! I did say that I was merely at the reading and learning stage. But it does seem to me that there could be a great deal of potential here and it is something I plan to experiment with.

I thought there might be some interest in the background information I have been reading, as well as in seeing some of the artwork that has been produced by others using this technique. Therefore, I thought it might be useful to post some links to resources about using flatbed scanners for photography, much as I did for experimenting with Holgas and pinhole cameras.

So here we go:

1) This article by Vincent de Groot is perhaps the best general article on the subject I have come across.

2) Another source of general information can be found here.

3) Flowers may or may not be your thing, but prepare yourself for what may be the most three dimensional appearing images you have ever seen by photographer (yes, I do think that 'scanographers' should be categorized as photographers) Katinka Matson.

4) Marsha Tudor has also made some beautiful images, I just wish her website would allow one to view them at a larger size.

If anyone reading this has had the opportunity to do this type of imaging, please comment, as I would love to hear what your experience has been!

Different Techniques; Different Aesthetics

The other day, I was showing a close friend of mine one of my pinhole camera images that I had recently taken. As I was doing so, he asked me an interesting question. He was interested in why, if I want to produce and show my best work, would I bother making images with a lensless camera which were clearly not going to be as sharp and free of distortion as images made with my expensive digital SLR? Indeed, a very interesting question.

There is no doubt that the pinhole images are not tack sharp (though the depth of field is infinite). They definitely ‘suffer’ from distortion and light falloff at the edges of the frame. With no viewfinder, composition tends to not be as perfect as one might like. And on top of it all, it takes time and expense to develop the film and scan the shots that one wants to keep. Why go to all that trouble? To be honest, I am not entirely sure why I do it.

Nonetheless, I do know several reasons why I am attracted to the modality, though, from a logical standpoint, I am not sure they completely ‘justify’ the time commitment. In the end, and as in most endeavors such as this, considerable weight has to be given to the fact that I just find it enjoyable.

So what do I like about it?

There are always two sides to the same coin. While a pinhole image is not tack sharp, there is a beauty to the gentle softness that is inherent to this type of photograph. While the image does have distortion and light falloff at the edges, there is a uniqueness and timeless quality to that look that I find attractive.

Perhaps most importantly, pinhole photography is a medium unto itself and therefore can not and should not be compared to lens camera photography. It has its own unique look and aesthetic. Trying to compare sharpness and distortion between pinhole and lens cameras is akin, I think, to asking why one would paint with watercolors instead of the enhanced reality attainable with oils. They are different and each have their own aesthetic. An exceptional watercolor portrays a different ‘reality’ than an exceptional oil painting; neither can be deemed ‘better’ than the other.

Finally, when I started dabbling with pinhole imaging, I was feeling a bit ‘burnt out’ from the creative standpoint. After getting a bit involved with both pinhole and toy camera photography, I felt rather rejuvenated and once again excited about digital. So now, when I go out shooting, I often go both high and low tech, as the added weight of the pinhole camera and a few rolls of film is negligible.

As to the image that I had been showing my friend……it is a shot of Ohiopyle Falls in Ohiopyle State Park, which I have previously written about in my post entitled ‘Western Pennsylvania’s Secrets’.

The Power Of Ohiopyle Falls
Copyright Howard Grill

In this particular instance I far prefer the above pinhole image to the shot taken with my digital camera:

Copyright Howard Grill

By the way, if anyone should get the itch to try this type of imaging there are two wonderful and incredibly receptive on-line communities dedicated to ‘lo-fi photography’. They can be found at f295 and at the forums.

Addenda: Here is an interesting thread I ran across on the f295 forum entitled 'Why Pinhole? Why You? Why Now?' that deals with some of the issues I noted above.

Pinhole Imaging: Motion And Softness

There is something very elemental about pinhole imaging. Nothing between the light and the film itself. I am finding that composition using a camera with no viewfinder and a wide angle of view isn't as easy as one might think. I had some shots from an overlook that kept including a portion of the safety railing. In this shot, I had one tripod leg over the railing and resting on a rock, while the other two legs (and myself) were behind the railing.

The two aspects of pinhole that seem inherent are the infinite depth of field with an associated softness to the image, both related to the pinhole, and the portrayal of motion related to the long exposure times. I think that finding subject matter that plays into and benefits from these qualities are going to be important in producing good images with the pinhole camera.

Pinhole Image
Copyright Howard Grill

Look Ma.........No Lens

The childlike playfulness of this post's title was chosen with just that feeling in mind. Because that was what it was like to watch my first pinhole images come off the developing reel ...... and even more so getting the first glimpse of the positive images after the rapid prescan.

A sort of amazement that it could actually with no lens, who are you kidding.? Sure, I know the physics of it and had seen other pinhole shots, but they seemed so foreign compared to anything else that I had done. So when making various exposures with my Zero Image pinhole camera, I half expected nothing to be there when I developed the film. But lo and behold, when I pulled that filmstrip off the reel there it was:

Copyright Howard Grill

Sure it required a bit of contrast adjustment etc. after scanning, but the information was all there. Now, I am not saying this is necessarily the most dynamic image in the world; it was meant as a 'proof of concept', at least to me. So, yes, it really does work! And, yes, it really was fun! Go ahead and give it a try, you might like it. My prior post lists lots of pinhole resources.

Pinhole Photography Resources

Pinhole photography also fits into what might be considered the 'alternative camera' niche, albeit a different niche than the plastic lensed 'toy cameras'. Having developed some interest in toy cameras, I felt compelled to look into pinhole photography as well. If I found the idea of taking pictures with a cheap plastic lens interesting, what could be more interesting than no lens at all? Talk about going back to the origins of the medium!

I have not tried pinhole photography just yet (though I have a camera) but am looking forward to giving it a whirl. If only there were time to experiment with everything I might like to.

First off, here is a very nice article about the history of pinhole photography and then some. A very nice Pinhole FAQ is also available on-line.

Here is a link to "Pinhole Resource Online", a really excellent source of information by well-known pinhole photographer Eric Renner.

It is also the source of the now defunct Pinhole Journal (back issues still available....I just bought a few but haven't yet received them).

Mr. Renner has also authored one of the classic books on pinhole photography entitled "Pinhole Photography: Rediscovering A Historic Technique", which is available from Amazon or from the Pinhole Resource website itself.

There is a website called Pinhole Visions that will keep you up to date on pinhole photography events.

By the way, I have recently discovered that one of the premier pinhole photography groups, f295, was born right here in Pittsburgh and has a yearly symposium that I am going to try to attend. The next one is scheduled for May 29 - June 1, 2008. Their website has a pinhole discussion forum.

So where do you go to get a pinhole camera? If you Google pinhole camera or buy any of the previously mentioned books you will get umpteen plans for how to make one yourself. However, for me, the process of making a camera was not as important as the making of images, so I went and bought one. There are lots of places to purchase them, with film sizes ranging from 35mm all the way up to 8x10 sheet film.

I personally bought mine from Zero Image (I purchased the 6x9 multi format version). Though it was shipped from Hong Kong, it reached me in only about three days....VERY impressive! The camera itself is literally a work of art with very impressive craftsmanship. I am very much looking forward to using it.

By the way, Randy of Holgamods, which I mentioned in my post about Holga resources, also sells pinhole lenscaps to fit Holgas and many digital cameras as well.

There is plenty of time, by the way, to get 'pinhole educated' in time for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, which is held each year on the last Sunday in April.

Finally, even though this is a pinhole resource post, I will end it with another Holga image I recently took.

Copyright Howard Grill

First Holga Shots

Since I have been posting about Holga and alternative camera images, I though I should probably post an image or two of my own. I am just learning about the Holga's idiosyncrasies and the aesthetic, so I need to say that I don't think these are particularly accomplished or dynamic Holga images, as they are from my first few rolls of film that I have put through the camera. I present them merely as an example of the type of results that the Holga gives. I hope to have some better examples in the future.

I have to say, I think the camera / film imparts a very 1940's look to the images and that urban type images will benefit from this particular 'retro' type of appearance.


"Wiener World"
Images Copyright Howard Grill

With the next post I will delve into some pinhole photography resources and then back to 'regular' photography for awhile.