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.

Working In Projects

No question about it, it’s great to make a fantastic photograph…..that ‘greatest hit’ image that goes up on the wall. But working in ‘photographic projects’ carries a different sort of appeal. It allows you to take the time to interpret something in real depth. Once you make the obvious photos you have to really work to understand ‘how else’ you can see, portray, and transmit the feel of your subject. I certainly don’t intend to write a treatise on working in projects, but I thought I would write about why I enjoy projects and how I approach them in the hope that, perhaps, some part of that might resonate with readers.

You can build a project around almost anything. You most likely have a project already completely photographed in your Lightroom (or whatever other processing software you use) library, though you may not even know it. A project can focus on just about anything - places, inanimate objects, living things, people, ideas, colors, weather, feelings, and, well, almost any subject or idea that catches your fancy. The challenge is to have a very clear idea about what the project is about, so that you can draw associations between the images thereby allowing them to work together as a topic.

In order to transmit real emotion with your images, the project should be about something that you love or at least have a strong interest in. As they say, ‘shoot what you love’, because, if you don’t, you likely won’t come up with a cohesive body of work. It can most definitely be difficult to ‘keep going’ when the subject doesn’t move you.

From a project I’m working on entitled “A Mother’s Treasure”

From a project I’m working on entitled “A Mother’s Treasure”


But, personally, I do have some difficulty with projects. I love working in projects but, while I start many of them, I often either don’t finish them or they go on for…..well, quite a long time. That isn’t to say that I never finish them. In fact, I am quite happy with my Carrie Furnace, Cathy, and Empathy projects. But I have started many more that have not come to completion. So I have done some introspection about this and have put together several thoughts, ideas, and recommendations to help myself bring more projects to completion. These are ideas that pertain to me, but I thought they were nonetheless worth writing in a post in case others might find some of them useful, as I suspect that I’m not the only person to struggle with this issue.

I believe that one of the most important things that keep me from completing projects is fear! Fear that the work I’m doing isn’t ‘good enough’ or that ‘it’s been done already’ or that ‘people will think it’s dumb’. It’s easy to say ‘just ignore that feeling’ or that ‘nobody will do it just the way you’re doing it’ but that just doesn’t seem to work for me. Here are some things that I have started trying that I believe do help:

From a project I’m working on entitled “A Mother’s Treasure”

From a project I’m working on entitled “A Mother’s Treasure”


1) Define the project size from the start - how many images do I think I will need to complete the project? This gives me a goal to work towards. And it can certainly be revisited. If I start by planning for a project consisting of ten images and I get there rapidly and easily and find myself wanting to make more photographs for the project then the goal can be expanded. If I get to the initial goal and feel like I have said most of what I want to say then I have a complete project. If I get stuck after three images that I think are good and can’t make more, well, then maybe it isn’t a topic or idea that I have enough interest in. Move on. Nothing wrong with recognizing that the interest just isn’t there. Who knows, maybe I will come back to it one day.

2) Define how the project will be presented - wall display, magazine submission. PDF, folio, web display? All of these? By defining what the end result of the project will be I get a sense of purpose and I know what I am working towards. These endpoints can be re-examined and changed depending on how the project proceeds.

3) I don’t consider an image ‘done’ or work towards ‘completely finishing’ an image before moving on to the next one in the project. For a project to be cohesive there needs to be some consistency in style. Therefore, when I reach the goal number of images, I plan to review them, see which ones work together, and finish editing the images together as a group to ensure there is some type of consistency and visual flow among them.

4) When the images are completed, processed, and edited in terms of which ones I will include in the project, I plan to actually put them together into whatever the plan was for their final presentation. That takes work, be it printing, posting, learning to make a PDF etc, but if it is worth doing the project then it’s worth assembling the final presentation. I won’t consider the project complete until the planned presentation method is completed.

5) Deadlines - I plan to give myself a deadline to reach that initial number of images so that the project doesn’t drag on. Don’t get me wrong, if things are going well and revisiting the project size leads to a desire for a larger project, that’s a good thing. Then I can make a new deadline for the expansion. There are some projects that are short term projects and some that may take longer periods of time. All good, as long as there is actually work being done towards a goal and the expansion also has a deadline.

As an example, the images in this post are from a project that I had started but never finished. I have now resumed it with all the recommendations I made above. The project consists of photographing a pair of statuettes that were meaningful to my mother, who passed away recently. They were one of her prized possessions, and I decided to put together a project photographing them. My initial goal is for the project to have a dozen images and to have the photographing and processing completed by the end of October. I would like to have, as a finished presentation, a folio and a PDF which I can work on (I will determine a deadline for each) once the images are completed.

Do you have any ideas that motivate or push you to complete projects. If so, please share them in the comments. I would love to hear them.


Sometimes you want to exercise your creativity…..but you just are stuck working. In this particular instance I decided that even though I had to work overnight I would try to see if I could make some photographs of what was around me at work. I found hoses. I photographed hoses. Sometimes you have to make due with what’s available :)


Hoses © Howard Grill

More Hoses © Howard Grill

More Hoses © Howard Grill


A Way To Portray Finale (For Now Anyway)

In my last three posts (here, here, and here) I explained how I had found a way to display my bare tree images in a way that really focuses on what I wanted to show….their shape. Today, I am posting another two pieces of ‘tree art’.

In addition, while I am not much of a writer, I decided to (believe it or not) write a poem to accompany the tree images. Maybe I should stay away from the poetry and stick with the imaging!

In the winter,

When most living things

Cover themselves for warmth,

Trees take the opposite tact,

Shedding their leaves,

Exposing themselves to the frigid cold,

And baring their souls.

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


A Way To Portray II

In my last post I explained how it dawned upon me to display my bare tree images in a way that accentuates their shape and makes the intriguing shapes that nature can take the center of focus. For the next few posts I would like to show some other images from that series, which I continue to work on.

Tree #2 © Howard Grill

Tree #2 © Howard Grill

Tree #3 © Howard Grill

Tree #3 © Howard Grill


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


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.

More Pete's Lake

This is an image that I have actually posted beofre, but as a straight photo. I reworked it using several techniques in order to better have it reflect what it felt like at sunrise at this beautiful location (Pete's Lake near Munising, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula).

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

What did it look like before I attempted to go beyond a 'straight' photograph? It was an equally valid image that I believe also transmits, in a slightly different way, what it was like to be at this idyllic location at sunrise. However, I believe that one has to recognize that the 'straight' photo is also really just my interpretation of the RAW file meant to transmit my impression of what it was like there. So perhaps I shouldn't call it a 'straight' photo, but, rather, a 'straighter' photo. No photo is truly 'straight'; not in the digital age nor in the analog age.....but that is a discussion for a different day. 

The 'straighter' photo:

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill

Again, I think they both work in different ways. Which one works best for you? Why? I would love to know!

In The Woods

Now this is something really different for me, but I am committed to at least trying different things. I think I at least owe that to my parents after years of not eating my veggies :)  The background is composed of three of my tree photos taken from different images and composited together. My idea was not to make an entirely convincing background but, rather, to make an interesting one. That is why the overlap of some of the trees doesn't look quite natural, or perhaps looks a little 'odd'. They were blended together to be just a little 'off', to raise an eyebrow or make you wonder whats not quite right about it.

But when I was done with the background, it needed a subject. So I dropped in a model image that came with the course I am taking (fully licensed for any use, of course). Well, she didn't exactly simply 'drop in' since she was in color, much bigger etc. Lets say she was gently manipulated into the photo in an attempt to make her presence at least look realistic against the background.

Definitely not my usual type of work, but I am having fun playing!

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill



When I was at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris a few years ago, they had a display of paintings by one of the grand old masters.....unfortunately, I can't remember who (if a reader knows, by all means, please remind me). At any rate, given some of the techniques I have been learning and practicing I couldn't help but 'grunge up' the photo I took of the painting a bit. Well, maybe more than a bit. I sort of made it mine. With apologies to that grand master of painting.

old master.jpg

Another Self Assignment

Another self assignment to digitally transform a photograph utilizing fractals and by 'painting with light'. What are fractals?  See those wavy green and orange lines behind the doll....those are fractals, which are blended into the image at low opacity. And 'painting with light'? That is an enhancement of the yellow glow behind the doll done by using the color picker in Photoshop to choose the color of the existing glow and then painting with a soft, low opacity brush in the appropriate area on a new empty layer. Looks messy, but then change the blend mode to color, or soft light, or just experiment...the messy looks goes away and it all blends together nicely. I also obviously added in the musical note embellishment.

Where is this all headed? I don't know, but I do know that I'm having fun with it all!

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


Self Assignments

In my last post, I wrote about trying to get my photographic thoughts and plans together after having 'completed' my Empathy Project.  One of the ideas I had mentioned was delving further into 'Photoshop digital artistry'. I had taken an excellent course in this some time ago, but had really gone through the tutorials listening and watching but not doing.....and that's a mistake. So I have started going through it again, this time giving myself self-assignments to utilize the techniques taught in the tutorials of compositions that seem to be in a style that I like.

And so I thought I would post some of my self assignments, of which this is the first. The assignment was (utilizing my own main image):

Construct a background from multiple textures

Add the main image and mask out the edges  using a 'grungy' brush

Add the frame with the main image 'spilling out'

Add some embellishments to create visual interest, including scribbles that I make and scan in myself

Blend in a 'line drawing' version from Topaz Impression


And the final result is below.


© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


What To Do When The Project's Over?

Readers of my blog know that over the last year or so I have been working on my Empathy Project, which took up quite a bit of my time. It really was an all encompassing project for me, both time-wise and emotionally. I ended up with 32 portraits and interviews. Once I had completed those, it took me a couple of weeks to prepare the material for submission to a magazine (more on that in a future post, when I hear back). Once that was completed.....well, it's sort of a let down. What does one do next?? How do you decide on the next project? How do you know where you should redirect your efforts? Because I hadn't really done any longstanding projects like this before (well, maybe one, The Carrie Furnace Project) it's a problem I haven't really previously faced. And I know it may sound trivial, but I really am unsure as to where to find inspiration next.

So I am doing a few things to help me along. First, in the past, I have had an interest in and taken some courses on 'Photoshop Artistry', the idea of using photographs and Photoshop to create composited pieces of artwork. Though I had gone through the courses and used some of the techniques, it isn't something that I really delved into deeply. And, while I had tried to do some of the 'assignments', I am really not too good at following other peoples project suggestions (despite it being a good way to learn). It just isn't a way that I take to very well. So, I am taking another tact. I am reviewing some of the lessons and when I review a tutorial that shows work and technique that is in 'my style', that I can see myself using, I make up my own assignments to practice the technique. I think I can work and practice better that way.  It is something I am trying and we will see where it goes. Who knows, maybe I will even describe and show some of the self assignments and results here.

The second thing is that (and here is something that readers probably don't know about me) many years ago I used to raise orchids as a hobby. In fact, I had constructed a growing room in my basement using with high intensity lighting and various sorts of climate control. I finally gave it up because the time involved became too overwhelming. At one point I actually had an article published in 'Orchids', the journal of The American Orchid Society, about how to construct and maintain such a growing area.

Well, I am starting to do some growing again, but in a much more constrained way.....on a stand under  some fluorescent lights. And in addition to growing a few orchids that I kept, I have also taken to growing something new that has captured my fancy....carnivorous plants. The reason I mention any of this is that the plants are so bizarrely interesting that I would like to make photographs of them. Think I'm crazy? Well, check this out...... 

This is a beautiful book with wonderful fine art images of carnivorous plants.

And then there is Beth Moon's wonderful black and white portfolio entitled "The Savage Garden", named after the classic carnivorous plant growing manual by Peter D'Amato

Several years ago Beth's carnivorous plant portfolio was published in LensWork. These plants really are bizarrely photogenic in a very abstract way.

At this point, I am just trying to put ideas together. If anyone would like to share ideas about how they get inspired or get motivated to 'move on to the next thing', I would love to hear them! 

Blazing Stars - The Annual Pilgrimage

Every year, at the end of July through the beginning of August, my 'photo friends' and I make our annual pilgrimage to Jennings Environmental Education Center to see the blooming Liatris spicata, more commonly known as Blazing Stars. While you can perhaps find them growing in gardens, the open prairie of Jennings is the only place in Western Pennsylvania where they grow naturally. The open prairies of the Midwest is otherwise their natural habitat.

Every year, besides the 'standard' type photographs, I try to do something a bit different. This time around, I tried to not only photograph the plants, but to also photograph what it felt like to be there surrounded by them out in the open fields.

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


The Year Of 100 Rejections By Charles Chu

Lately I have been taking a number of on-line courses trying to learn new types of photo artistry techniques, learning to use flash, learning to make composites etc. And the one thing that rings true for learning and improving at all these things is that the improvement comes from the doing. Doing over and over and over again. Defining what you want to learn. Forming projects. Setting deadlines.

One of the best ways of describing the process comes from an article I read by Charles Chu, whose method for becoming a better writer is to plan to have his short stories get rejected 100 times during the next year.  The idea is that by the end of the year he will have done so much writing without being concerned about rejection that he won't be able to help but become a much better writer.  As he notes in his post:

'Ray Bradbury, most famous now for his novel Fahrenheit 451, once advised that writers write one short story a week. Why one story a week? Because “It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”'

Intrigued? it really is a great article about how to get better at anything really!

"The Year Of 100 Rejections".  It's a good and quick read that I wanted to share. And it pertains to photography as much as it pertains to writing fiction.

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.....