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.

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.

Simple Graphic Lines

I enjoy images that have simple, graphic lines that make up the composition.  I was carrying my little Olympus camera when I was walking in Barcelona on vacation this last summer. I was immediately attracted to this scene near Park Guell.


Street Corner, Barcelona, Spain    © Howard Grill


The photo is not really about the corner or the staircase (well, OK, it's about that a little bit). It is really more about the straight lines made by the staircase, banister, corner, and lightpost in contrast to the sweeping curve of stone at the top of the image.

Geometry II

A few months back, I posted a photo which I had made because of its dependence on simple lines and shapes as well as simple tonal contrasts.  In short, I was drawn to the fact that the image seemed to rely solely on geometry.  In the back of my mind, I have had the idea to do a series of these types of photographs.  In fact, some of the images are already taken and just waiting to be processed.

This image represents the second one in my "Geometry" series.  Well, I guess if there are two then that definitely makes it is a series!  I will be interested to see how many of these I get that seem to 'work' for me.


Grain Elevator


Copyright Howard Grill

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Rolling Mountains

Sometimes the whole of an image just doesn't work, but within it is a portion that does.  Such was the case with this photo from my recent trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The entire vista contained in the original image didn't seem interesting enough to hold my attention.  But within it I saw a portion that I liked because of the shapes the lines of the rolling hills made. So I limited the image to what I liked about it.  Sometimes, you just have to know when to crop!

Copyright Howard Grill

Birches In Snow

With it having snowed last weekend, I could not ignore my very public New Year's resolution to get out in the cold and make more photographs this winter than I have in the past.  So out I went.

Birch Trees In Snow

Copyright Howard Grill

I was particularly drawn to the way the tree trees lined up and the way that the snow simplified the photograph and made it all about lines and shapes.

Summer Trees

I enjoy making photos of trees.  But let's face it, it is a whole lot easier to do in the fall when the forest is filled with color, in the winter when the bare trees make interesting minimalist shapes, and in the spring when the trees are covered with colorful, fluorescent appearing buds.  I personally find the summer the most difficult time to make images of trees.  They are!  This was an issue during my recent trip to the Smoky Mountains.  As I mentioned in a prior post, I missed the wildflowers because they bloomed a month early this year and the mountain laurel still had not come into bloom. There were fantastic mountains, sunrises, sunsets, water, and trees...lots of green trees. When out hiking I was constantly looking through the viewfinder, generally with my 70-200 lens, trying to isolate interesting patterns that the trees made. I am was never really quite sure I knew what I was looking for but I would always know when I found it.  It usually revolved about finding an order or a pleasing pattern to the trunks, branches and leaves.  At one point, I was on a trail that was fairly heavily used.  As I was walking and looking through the viewfinder at patches of trees that I thought might contain what I was looking for, I found a pleasing pattern  I stopped and set up my camera and tripod.  I honestly can not recall if the image in this post was that particular one or not, but it really doesn't matter.

A woman who was hiking by walked up to me with some interest and asked what I was photographing.  "Trees" I told her....and she visibly registered disappointment, hoping for something more interesting.  "Why trees?" she asked as she was about to walk away.  Hoping to regain her interest, I told her that it wasn't really the trees that I was photographing but, rather, the interesting shapes they made when you just looked at a area of them.  And I asked her if she wanted to see what I meant by looking at the picture on my LCD.  "Sure" she said.  I showed her the Live View image and she still looked at me quizzically.  "It's just trees" she said, and she walked away.

Summer Trees

Copyright Howard Grill


Every photographer has a different style.  It usually takes a good deal of time to understand what exactly that style is when the photographer is yourself.  As I have mentioned in the past, one of the things I understand about my own photography is that I like portraying clean, simple lines and shapes in my images.  One of the ways to do this is to simplify the photograph.   By this I mean removing clutter and isolating the parts of the image that portray just what you are feeling about the subject. It is often said that what is outside the frame can be just as important as what is inside the frame.  I first saw this demonstrated almost 10 years ago when I 'returned' to photography after a long hiatus (see my bio).  At that point, I attended a photography workshop by John and Barbara Gerlach.  During one of their lectures, John showed a photo of a cluttered, messy forest scene with no organization whatsoever. It revealed what the location looked like when he walked into a forest clearing.  He asked the workshop participants if they could see a picture within the clutter.  He then showed a series of images that slowly honed in on the final composition, with each photo placing more and more of the landscape outside the frame until he ultimately ended up with a beautifully composed image.  Truth be told, I don't even remember what the final image was anymore.  But I don't think John would mind; the fact is that I remember that very important lesson......a lesson that was meaningful enough to me that it ultimately became part of my style of photographic expression.

What brought all this to mind?  In my last post, I showed this photo that I took at Jennings Environmental Education Center (for more on Jennings see the 8/3/11 post):

Blazing Star

Blazing Star

Liatris spicata

Copyright Howard Grill

What I didn't show was what the prairie scene looked like when I first came upon it.  When I looked out on the prairie, the first thought that came into my mind (after admiring and being amazed at its beauty) in regards to composing a picture was the lesson that John Gerlach had taught that day.

Some photographers have styles that are very effective at communicating a feeling using the whole prairie at once.  But without a foreground that could be set apart from the rest of the image, I felt a strong need to simply simplify.


This photograph was taken during my recent trip to Cuyahoga National Park.  Because of recent torrential rains, our focus was drawn away from the water, which was colored a cocoa brown from mud and silt that had run into the river and eroded from its shore.  Not very photogenic! While hiking along the shore, I was drawn to a dogwood tree that seemed to be in the final stages of blooming.  My goal was to make an image based on the idea of simplicity.  Using a fairly wide aperture, I selectively focused on the center of just one flower.  At first, I was concerned that the flower was not perfect, showing early stages of wilting on one of it's petals, but then I decided that this actually added to its appeal.

I liked the image in color, but a toned black and white conversion seemed to better convey the mood I was looking for:


Copyright Howard Grill

Under Rt. 80

Last weekend I went on a photo trip with my "Sunday Morning Shooting Buddies" to Cuyahoga National Park, just over two hours from my home.  It was a great weekend and we managed to get in a very reasonable amount of 'shooting time' despite the very frequent downpours.

One of the things I discovered during the trip was a greater self-awareness of what I would have to call my photographic 'style'.  I realized that, even when making nature photographs, what I was really drawn to was the arrangement and organization of lines and shapes in the frame, even more than the specific subject matter.  That is perhap one reason why, despite the nature orientation of the trip, I found myself compelled to make some photographs underneath the trestles that support Route 80, the Ohio turnpike!

Under Rt. 80

Copyright Howard Grill


Today is the first time I have 'played with' the really very interesting Silver-Efex 2 plug in by Nik Software.  Version 2 really blows away the first version.  The original photo above was made using a black and white conversion layer in Photoshop.  I tried Silver-Efex Pro 2 on the image and in very short order was able to generate what is, in my mind, a more compelling image!

Under Rt. 80

Processed Using Nik Silver-Efex Pro

Genesis Of an Image

People sometimes ask me how some of my images got to look a certain way, particularly when the finished photo does not appear as we naturally see things, such as a black and white image. So I thought I would use the blog to show the genesis of an image that really changed quite a bit on its way from camera to print. When I took this picture, I originally envisioned it as a toned black and white print. I had actually visited this location to make this photograph several times, but initially was unable to get a good exposure either because the wind was blowing the leaves around or the lighting was too harsh resulting in high contrast and deep shadows. Ultimately, I ended up visiting on a bright overcast day, giving me just the right conditions to take the photo.

Here is the image as it came out of the camera and the processed RAW file:

Three Trees In Schenley Park, Pittsburgh

The Image Straight From The Camera

Although I had initially planned on including the whole height of the trees, I found the sheer volume of leaves distracting, since what drew me to the scene in the first place was the placement of the trees in relation to each other and the shapes of their branches and trunks. So I decided to go with a rather severe crop.....much more than I usually would. Sure, I wish I had thought of that in the field, but sometimes the insight just doesn't happen until later. And luckily I use a Canon 5D MKII camera which has enough pixels to allow me to throw away all that data and still retain enough information within the crop to make a large sized print. I am not recommending random shooting and severe cropping after the fact, but sometimes it just happens that way!

Here is the image after the crop:

Image After Cropping

Cropped Image

I think the crop really pulled the image together and brought the focus to what attracted me to the scene in the first place. Looking at the picture reinforced the feeling I had from the start that this should be a black and white or toned black and white print. The sheer amount of 'green' simply distracted from the shape of the trees in much the same way that the volume of leaves had. So......I tried making black and white versions using both the Photoshop black and white layer technique as well as by using the Nik Silver Efex Pro plug-in, and, while they both gave pleasing results, I liked what I was able to achieve with the Nik version better.

Black And White Version

Finally, came the toning. I thought a sepia tone would give an 'old fashioned feel to the picture' and though I generally don't like vignettes that are bright (if I use a vignette it is typically one that is darker than the image in order to force the viewers eye into the picture), in this instance I thought that a bright vignette added to the old photo look. I actually did not like the vignette that Silver Efex generated and so I modifies to it by 'painting in' a bit of brightness along the bottom of the image in addition. Here is the result of the toning and vignette:

The image following conversion to black and white and toning.

Toned Image

Of note, depending on the accuracy of the color calibration of your monitor, the exact toned color you see with your computer may or may not be correct, and this is particularly an issue with monochromatic images.  On my carefully calibrated "Photoshop" monitor the photo has a nice sepia tone while on my cheap laptop it has an odd pinkish brown hue.  The actual print is sepia/brown toned.

The last, somewhat subtle (at least in this small web-based image) thing I did was to remove the toning from the brighter highlights. I find that I generally like my brighter highlights white, as opposed to the bit of muddiness that toning can add to the brightest areas of the image. And, thus, we have the finished image:

The final image with the brightest whites excluded from the toning process.

"Standing Firm" - Final Image

Copyright Howard Grill

A slightly larger version can be seen on my website, here.

15 Composition Tips

A short post today with a link to some inspirational thoughts about composition.

Here are 15 great tips for photographic composition by photographer Alain Briot that are definitely worth reading.

A Different Way Of Seeing

The other day I was out photographing some widflowers, specifically Columbine and Buttercups, in a local park. As I was composing my images, I couldn't help but get the feel that I had done this before. I don't mean taking these particular photographs of these particular flowers. In fact, I had never previously photographed either Columbine or Buttercups. But I had photographed using that particular style many times.....maximizing depth of field, looking for a nice close up composition, even a spritz of water for 'drama'......and I really felt that I wanted to try something different. I thought about the shoot wide open with selective focus technique, and, likewise, I have recently been doing more and more of that. Done well, both techniques can produce stunning images.

However, neither style satisfied my desire of the moment, which was to do something totally different; something that I hadn't done before. So I thought about what it was that really drew me to the flowers and made me want to stop and spend time with them. It wasn't so much their form (which was beuatiful) as it was their color. That was what I thought the essence of the scene was, at least for that moment. How could I isolate just that one attribute of the flower?

I decided to try something that was totally new or, more properly, something that was totally new for me. Why not 'defocus' the lens until the flower's color was broken down to its most basic level. Eschew form and convey color.

Copyright Howard Grill

Copyright Howard Grill

Does it work? Honestly, I am not really sure it matters. I think it is a good exercise to 'break loose' every so often and break convention, or at least the conventions that one has adapted for his or her self. In this case, I feel the process was more important than the actual results.

That said, I am intrigued with the images. My first reaction was that it was too simple and that anyone could simply defocus and fire away willy nilly. But then I realized that, like most things that sound simple, getting really good results takes a lot more effort than is apparent on the surface. This idea is something that I plan to at least 'play around' with some more. I think with more experimentation and effort some pleasing compositions can be had. It is too bad the wildflower season here is rapidly fading away.


G-L-O-R-I-A, Glooooooriah…can’t you just hear Van Morrison belting out that song? Well, since I would like to intermittently post about other blogs and websites that I have enjoyed, I am going to talk about another Gloria. I just couldn’t help myself with that opening, as every time I think of her name I just can’t get that song out of my head!

Well, if you don’t already know of her, let me introduce you to a different Gloria, and quite a unique one at that. Gloria Hopkins is that rare breed of person who excels in more than one artistic endeavor. She is a painter, a photographer, and a writer.

I have never met Gloria in person, but you really feel as if you know her from her blog entries, which run the gamut from the artistic to the personal, and from her images.

Copyright Gloria Hopkins

This is one of my favorite photographs of hers, and one which won an award from Nature’s Best magazine. She has kindly given me permission to use it in this post. For me, it works not only as an image of reality, that is to say of a gorgeous valley, but even moreso as an abstract composition of lines and color.

Check out her paintings as well, which she is currently devoting a major portion of her time to.

Finally, she has written a superb series on photographic composition that is well worth a careful read.


The Trouble With Tribbles.....I Mean Trillium, Part 1

I think you probably have to be at least 40 years old to get the weak joke reference in the title. Well, either a ‘regular person’ over 40 or a rabid Star Trek fan. (Kirk: “Scottie, let’s get this post back on course.” Scottie: "But, Cap’n, I’m given her all she’s got.”) All right, I'm sorry, but I just couldn’t help myself.

Six weeks or so left to winter.....please let it be over. Some folks just thrive out in the cold. Me, I despise it. I try to force myself to get out and photograph, but I find it exceedingly difficult to do so. Every winter I say that this is going to be the year I get out into the cold and get some really great winter images. I do go, but it ends up being only two or three times. I enjoy myself when I go, but it is exceedingly hard to motivate myself to get out there.

But it is almost over, no matter what the groundhog said, and that makes my thoughts turn to the multitude of gorgeous spring wildflowers that we are blessed with here in Western Pennsylvania. And the first ones to emerge are generally Trillium. For those who are unfamiliar with them, take a look here. (As an aside, finding that page is truly fate. I couldn’t believe the page started with a Star Trek reference. It just happened to be the first Trillium website that came up when I Googled 'Trillium'!)

The purpose of this post is to ask for some advice regarding a problem I have with photographing the flower. I ask for advice now, before they emerge, so that I might have some assistance in solving the problem.

However, before I explain the problem, let me first state that I am about to break a taboo; one that I actually think should be broken much more often. I am about to show you some bad photos. These are some of my duds that I would never plan to show an audience. But reviewing failure is, I think, an important step in self-improvement.

Trillium grows in large patches. When you look at them, your mind sees a field of unbroken flowers. But the camera sees differently. I think I see a 'sea of unbroken white flowers' with trees ‘poking up’ between them. The camera’s reality is that the flowers are spaced far enough apart in the field so that there is ‘too much’ space between them to give an image the feel of ‘a sea of unbroken white’. In addition, since they are among the first flowers to emerge, there is always a lot of ground clutter (dead leaves etc) that can be seen between them. What I seem to end up with are images that look like this:

Mediocre Trillium Images

Not at all compelling, not particularly good, and, additionally, they don't convey the feel I am looking for at all. I have made successful close ups of the flowers, but I would like to portray the larger scene as it feels to me.

I have tried using a wide angle lens, but then there seems to be too much empty space filled with clutter, even if I move up very close to a foreground flower. I have tried a long lens to compress the space between flowers, but then I get too few in the frame to give the ‘large never ending sea’ feel.

Perhaps there is no good solution and this is just the way that nature has given us these beauties, to be enjoyed as they grow. But if anyone has any ideas that I might be able to use to help convey what I am after, I would certainly appreciate it.

Oh, and will someone please add to the comment section what a ‘tribble’ is for those under 40 or I’ll be forced to do it myself!


The last few days worth of blog posts have been about pretty ‘heavy’ ideas. I’m worn out from it! I need a few days of simpler stuff.

Compositional elements. OK, that can get pretty involved as well, but at least one doesn't have to get overly philosophical. And to get deeper into the elements of composition I can strongly recommend a look at some of Gloria Hopkins’ excellent articles here, here, here, and here. By the way, more about Gloria next week.

But for now, the word of the day is ‘curves’. I think the curved line is one of the most elegant of compositional elements and there are many ways of having it presented within an image.

Nature's Curves
Copyright Howard Grill

As opposed to the more linear aspects of composition, I find that the presence of smooth and gentle curves can add or accentuate the feeling of peace in an image, as opposed to harsh lines and diagonals that can sometimes be used to add tension. I find it very intriguing that certain graphic elements can really effect the underlying ‘feel’ of an image.