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.

Textured Tree.......In Black And White

I decided to see what I might come up with if I tried converting some of the ‘textured trees’ I had posted a few weeks back into black and white images. It turns out that I like the way they look in black and white quite a bit. That does make sense as the focus of the silhouettes is on line and shape, which tends to be accentuated in black and white photographs. Here is an example of one of them after having been transformed to black and white.

textured tree.jpg

More Cacti

The "Cactus Project" continues, in black and white of course!

The focus stacking that I talked about in my last cactus image has gotten me thinking much more carefully about the idea of focus in a composition. Is the image really one where I think selective focus with a limited depth of field would best portray what I am trying to convey, or would front to back sharpness better convey what I am trying to transmit? I had previously been 'bothered' when I wanted to use front to back sharpness and things were 'almost' all sharp. It's not easy being compulsive :). Now, I am more apt to use focus stacking when I seek true front to back sharpness, with the caveat being that compromise is necessary in some situations, such as where there is subject motion. I think my photo buddies and I would be willing to pay Phipps to just turn those fans they use to ensure air movement off for two hours on Sunday mornings :)

In this first photograph of Senecio talinoides flowers, I wanted the depth of field to be limited so as to have the stems and background fade away.

The Flowers of Senecio talinoides    © Howard Grill

On the other hand, in the image below I wanted sharpness throughout, at least for all the spines. That couldn't be achieved in one shot this close up because the angle the cacti were growing at precluded the option of getting the camera parallel to the surface of the 'stem'. Therefore, this image is a blended focus stack of probably 10 or so shots, each made two mm apart without adjusting the focus of the lens.


Opuntia 'Pricckly Pear' Cactus    © Howard Grill


Cactus Spines

I have been fascinated by the spines of this Echinocereus species cactus at Phipps Conservatory for some time. In fact, I have taken several photos of it in the past but have never been happy with the images for one reason. The spines are so long that when I fill the frame with them using my 180mm macro lens it simply isn't possible to get all the needles sharp along their entire length, even at f16 or f22. The depth of field just isn't great enough. 

I really should say that it isn't possible to get them all sharp in one single frame. Last weekend I took out all the stops and brought along my macro rail. The rail lets me take a series of tripod mounted images without refocusing, by manually moving the entire camera and lens closer to the subject as a unit, bit by bit. As the lens moves closer to the subject, a different area is brought into focus. 

I took 35 shots, each spaced 1mm apart (probably more than I needed to) and combined them using Helicon Focus focus stacking software. The software uses computer algorithms to take the sharp parts of each of the 35 frames and combine all of these sharp areas into one single image.

The result is shown below, converted to a sepia toned black and white photo. Those needles deserve to be shown in sharp focus throughout their entire length. And those tips are mighty sharp!

Cactus Spines    © Howard Grill

Euphorbia canariensis

Continuing on my black and white cactus journey of the last couple of blog posts, we have Euphorbia canariensis. As opposed to the other two images, this one was actually made a number of years ago on a trip to London, at the famous Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

I enjoy these images in black and white because removing the green color allows one to focus on the lines and shapes of the cactus which, to me, is the real 'essence' of these plants.

Euphorbia canariensis      © Howard Grill

Fan Ho

Ever hear of the photographer Fan Ho? Neither had I! But when I discovered his work I was simply blown away. Turns out that I had seen and recognized some of his images, but I had never known who took them. Take this one for example:

Approaching Shadow (1954)    © Fan Ho

Approaching Shadow (1954)    © Fan Ho


His use of light and shadow, framing, high key, contrast, and the 'decisive moment' is truly amazing. It made me wonder how I had not heard of him or his work before this. It is always a pleasure to discover an artist who you hadn't heard of and whose work pulls you in and makes you see things in a new way.

Unfortunately, Fan Ho was one of many artists and performers who passed on in 2016.

Here is a video (made, as will become apparent, before his death) that reviews some of his work:

Recently a couple of books of his work have been reissued and I am looking forward to receiving my copies. They can be found here.

Black And White With The Canon ImagePrograf 2000

As I have mentioned in a prior post, I have been very pleased with my new  Canon ImagePrograf 2000 large format printer. I started by using it for color printing and found it to be comparable to my Epson 7900, which is to say that it is able to produce very high quality, vibrant, sharp prints. So I decided it was time to try printing in black and white.

I took this photograph of One Mellon Bank Center in downtown Pittsburgh. I have always liked the lines and shapes of this building's architecture and wanted to relay the feeling of it being something of an impenetrable edifice. Rather than trying to keep the straight lines straight, I purposely tilted the camera as I thought the 'off kilter' look better conveyed the feeling I was after. 


One Mellon Bank Center    © Howard Grill


We're going to get just a little technical here:

The image obviously started out as a color photo which I converted to black and white. I wanted to try using the printer's 'Black and White' only mode, as opposed to sending the image to the printer in an RGB color space using a color icc profile. The reason for this is that using the black and white only mode supposedly produces blacks that are a bit darker than those that are achieved when printing a black and white image in the printer's color mode. At least that is what I have read. 

One issue to deal with when using the black and white printing mode is that it is somewhat of a 'black box', in that there is no ability to soft proof or correct the output using an icc profile (well, read on, there actually is a way) to ensure that there is linearization of the output (meaning that all the levels of black are equally spaced from a tonal standpoint) with the biggest potential problem being compression of the dark levels and loss of shadow detail. Truth be told, the black and white only modes of printers have generally improved quite a bit over the years, to the point where this is often not a problem. However, I recently purchased an X-Rite i1Pro2 spectrophotometer to make color profiles and fortuitously had read an excellent article by Keith Cooper at Northlight Images about making icc profiles for the black and white only mode using the spectrophotometer and Quadtone RIP shareware. These profiles can only be used for neutral, untoned black and white prints. Nonetheless, I really wanted to give it a try!

The only difficulty was that every article I could find on making such profiles (I found Keith's to be the most detailed and helpful) assumed some knowledge beyond the basics of how to use the i1 Profiler software (knowledge I didn't have). With a bit of Keith's help and a lot of experimenting, I did get it all figured out! In fact, I am thinking of writing a 'how to' post so that anyone else that is considering doing this but is a bit short on profiling experience can easily accomplish it.

So how did it all turn out in the print? I do have to say that the image printed using the profile I made did match the soft proof image to a closer degree than those made in the black and white only mode without the profile or by printing in the color mode using a color icc profile. It also had more tonal separation in the shadows. Not by a tremendous amount, but definitely visible. I made the print on Ilford's Gold Fiber Silk paper which has a slightly warm tone to it. I like the way it looks quite a bit.

Black and white turns out very well indeed using the Canon IPG 2000.

Minimalist Tree

The nice thing about snow (and when you are me you really have to look long and hard to find anything good about it) is how it gives the landscape a minimalist look. I went shooting in the cemetery during a recent snowfall and came away with this.  It isn't the most original of photographs, but the minute I saw the scene it just called out to me.

Tree In Snow    © Howard Grill

How To Remove Toning Beyond The Edge Of A Photo

For some time I have been thinking of trying to produce some Photoshop video tutorials.  But let's face it, there are a ton of them out there and I didn't want to simply repeat what has already been done.

I had been trying to figure out how to remove toning from beyond the edge of a photo.  If you apply toning as well as an artistic edge to a black and white photo, either on your own or using a Photoshop plug-in like Silver Efex Pro, the toning extends beyond the edge of the photo and all the way out through the border of the image.  This is the case even if you use a Photoshop adjustment layer to apply the toning, which gets applied to the white border as well as to the image. This looks very unnatural, as the toning should stop at the edge of the photo, which has been moved 'inwards' by the applied edge effect.  If you were to print the image you would now have the toning extending beyond the artistic edge, forming a perfect toned rectangle around it which itself is surrounded by the white of the paper.  Not the effect one wants.

I couldn't find the fix for this by Googling it. So when I figured out the simple antidote for myself I thought it would make a perfect first video tutorial. I created a "Howard Grill Photography" page on YouTube and posted it.

Turns out it's not as easy as one might think to make a professional appearing and sounding video tutorial.....but this is just my first attempt. So have a listen if this is something that was bothering you as well.  And feel free to give me a thumbs up on YouTube if it helps!

First Spring Photo - Trees

It has been a long, hard winter here in Western Pennsylvania.  Certainly not nearly as bad as in some places, but, still, the last two winters have been colder and harsher than any I can remember after living here for 25 years.  So it was with great enthusiasm that I had made plans for the first outdoor photo session in quite some time with several friends .  Well, you can't always win, and even though it was the beginning of April it was still only 34 degrees out there.  But a plan is a plan and we went anyway.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that one of the first things to catch my eyes was a stand of trees (I always seem to love photographing trees) with the sun highlighting a small number of them that had lighter bark.  And I thought these trees looked better in black and white than the original color.  Though as my friend said when I showed him the finished image......"You think everything looks better in black and white!".


Trees In Moraine State Park    © Howard Grill


Mesquite Dunes

During the workshop I recently attended in Death Valley, the group had two occasions to photograph the magnificent Mesquite Sand Dunes.  The size and vastness of the dunes are hard to describe! The time to photograph the dunes is in the morning or evening when the sun is low in the sky, particularly on a cloudless day.  With few clouds and the sun low in the sky the light is very directional and certain areas of the dunes that are brightly lit are juxtaposed with areas in shadow, drawing abstract patterns across the landscape.

Making photographs here requires a different way of seeing.  No longer are you photographing sand dunes but, rather, you are making abstract photographs based on lines, shapes, and tones. In my mind, converting the image to black and white removes the last vestige of 'what it is' and allows the viewer to simply dwell upon the these abstract features.

This is the first photo of the dunes that I have processed since returning from the trip.

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley    © Howard Grill

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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I have always enjoyed photographing objects, be they man made or natural, that have very distinctive lines, shapes, and patterns.  Recently, while in the Palouse, I had the opportunity to solidify this idea and make some photographs very focused on geometric shapes.  There are several that I took that I like quite a bit.  Perhaps they may be the start of a new photographic project?

Farmhouse Door


In my post entitled "Interesting Things Everywhere", I described how using Photoshop's invert command converted an abstract image I had made into a much more interesting photograph.  As such, I thought it might prove interesting to try it with my black and white flower images, perhaps one that was particularly abstract appearing. The inversion yielded quite an interesting result with this mum, at least I think so. As a friend of mine pointed out, the inverson seems to really make the spirals far more apparent than in the original, which is below the inversion. I wonder if that is because the inversion removes the idea of the photograph being a flower and allows our brain to now see more, without it being constrained with  pre-conceived ideas about what the subject is. Once free of the label perhaps we can become more aware and start to see shapes and patterns.  I don't know.....just a thought.  But I think this may be something that is worth trying on subjects that have a particularly abstract appearance to them.

Mum.....The Inverted

Mum....The Original

Copyright Howard Grill

Interesting Things Everywhere

One can find interesting things to photograph anywhere!  It is just a matter of seeing. Taking a break from photographing old cars, I took a short walk down what looked like a pretty bland street.  I am by far not the greatest 'see-er' but I happen to be in a creative mood and one thing did catch my eye.

There was an old store that was partially boarded up with plywood sheeting that had been painted white.  The wood was old and the paint was peeling.  Underneath the peeling portions the wood was black and made interesting patterns.  I took a series of shots thinking they would make interesting abstracts, but when I processed the images I couldn't quite draw out of them what I was hoping for. The large expanse of white paint made them look too bland despite the abstract patterns.  Until I tried inverting one of the images......

Wood Abstract

Black And White Cleans Up

There are many reasons why a black and white presentation might be a good choice for an image.  One, which was the reason that I converted this image to black and white, is that it tends to simplify the scene. The shape of the tree branches and the echoing of the branches by the smaller tree in the lower right hand corner is what attracted me to this scene.  It is the reason I took the photo. At the time I made it I had fully intended for it to be a color image.  But when I looked at it on the screen it simply didn't work.  There were too many shades of green and too many leaf shapes distracting the viewer's eye from the broader lines and shapes.  It was the larger shapes of the trunk and branches that drew me in, not the micro-details in the leaves.

So I decided to give it a try in black and white with a higher key effect to help lessen the details in the leaves.  It worked for me.  The image became much closer to my original vision. Black and white saved the image.......or at least allowed it to transmit what it was that I was feeling and what it was that made me take the photograph.


What does one do when a self-contained project appears completed?  Or at least completed enough that it can stand alone now even if more were added later?  This is an important question if one of your goals is to get your work 'out there'......if you want to get it seen. Brooks Jensen, the editor of LensWork, has commented on this issue many times in his writings and podcasts.  In the current era there are many, many ways to get your work seen by an audience.  In fact, any one person might choose to put their project into several different formats in order to have it available to a larger audience.  For example, an exhibit is only available to those who live locally.  Putting together a folio that one could sell might limit the number of people that can see your work because of the necessary price point. Brooks has advocated having multiple formats/media so that you do the work in order to make it easier for others to view and appreciate what you have put together.

Now that I have finished my black and white flower project entitled "Floral Forms" and written an artist's statement, I thought it might be worthwhile to enumerate my plans for the project in terms of making it available to an audience.  One of the issues, of course, is that (unless you are intimately familiar with all the software involved) it does take a good deal of time to learn the software and, at least for me, a lot of time to get the jobs done. This takes time away from new projects or from working on the large amount of images I have waiting to be edited and processed.  Nonetheless, I do think it is time well spent because, in the end, if very few people see the work it might as well just stay on your hard drive!

So without further ado, here are some of my thoughts and plans regarding "Floral Forms":

Exhibit The Prints:

Yes, but where?  When looking for a place to have a show one has to be reasonable in terms of how your project might mesh with the venue.  And, oh yes, you must have thick skin and be able to take rejection well.  I thought the project would go well at the botanical garden where I took a good many of the photos.  But how does one present this possibility, especially when unsolicited?

I am sure there are many ways, but the following is what I typically do.  I don't send digital images when seeking a display that was not solicited.  It seems just too easy to me to click through rapidly and be done.  Since I am proud of my prints, I send a series of 8x10 prints, and not on proofing paper.  I send them on the final fine art paper.  That way the recipient has your best work and is able to handle and interact with it.  I send a cover letter explaining the project and why I think it would be appropriate to display in their particular venue along with a short artist's statement.  If the project is a large one I might send 10 or 20 prints rather than the whole project, to give a solid taste of what the quality is.  Really, it just isn't that expensive a thing to do, especially if you compare it to the cost of matting and framing if the recipient is actually interested in giving you a show!

In addition to giving an email address to return contact, I also mention in the letter that I hope it is all right to follow up with a phone call in a week or two in order to see if they are interested.  You need to make the effort to follow up.  The recipient might well be interested but gets bogged down in a million different different things until your prints disappear under a pile of paperwork.  Just because you don't hear back spontaneously doesn't mean they aren't interested.  Also, if they are not interested, the call still gives you that contact and perhaps an informative explanation of why you are being turned down. There are things one can learn from rejection!

In the case of my project, I found out who the correct contact would be to send the prints to at the botanical garden and they are quite interested in displaying the prints in the gallery they have in their lobby. They are booked until next fall and they would like to consider a show for the spring or summer of 2015.  Yes, it is a way off.....but still a great potential opportunity that I am pleased to have received.


If you are not familiar with the folio concept (also created by Brooks Jensen) you can find information about the two prior folios I have put together here.  I do plan to make folios from this project as well.  Because the folio holder only comfortably holds ten prints with the supporting material, this project will have a volume 1 and 2.

This post has covered what I plan to do with physical prints.  In my next post, I will talk about my plans using electronic media.  I have one plan that I am particularly excited about that involves a collaboration......but more on that next time!

The Artist's Statement

The artist's statement can be very difficult to write. It is often filled with artspeak that is incomprehensible to the average everyday viewer. I found myself wanting to write a very plain and simple statement to go with my black and white botanical project which I am calling "Floral Forms". I wanted it to clearly state what the project was about without a lot of verbiage that would make the average "non-artist" viewer roll their eyes. The following is what I came up with. Have I succeeded?


One of the most prominent characteristics of flowers are their brilliant and varied colors. So why would anyone want to portray them in black and white?

We don’t live in a monochrome world. Colors are our reality and one of the first things we tend to notice. In fact, the more vivid the color the more it attracts our attention and becomes an object’s dominant characteristic. Removing that color from a flower, or any other object, allows us to concentrate on other attributes. We can start to appreciate a flower’s form, shape, curves, and lines. We can pay more attention to the various characteristics that previously had to take a “back seat” to color.

It is my intent that these images allow the viewer to see a flower’s beauty in a new way; a way that might have been easily overlooked. Black and white allows us to see differently. It affords a way of seeing that focuses on “Floral Forms”.

When Color Becomes Black And White

As I have been working on my flower photographs, I have found that some images just seem to 'work' in black and white.  And I have found that it can sometimes be difficult to predict when that is going to be the case.  What I have therefore been doing is to take photos where the flowers have interesting forms and shapes and quickly try a black and white conversion.  By that I mean spending 60 seconds on it, or, at times, just looking at it in Lightroom by hovering over a series of  black and white presets that I have, even though I don't do my conversions in Lightroom (I use the Silver Efex Pro plug in for Photoshop......not that you can't do a great conversion in can). If one of these quick exercises look promising, then I will start over and spend the amount of time needed to really work on getting the conversion I would like. This generally involves first making a color image with good color and tonal separation (which might mean that it doesn't look the way I would particularly want the finished color version to look), spot it, and convert to black and white with Silver Efex Pro.  I then generally work on local areas of the image with curves and, more recently, both curves and a dodge and burn layer.

To illustrate, below are three color images.  Two of them did not seem to 'work' for me in black and white.  I force myself to 'give up' when I find I am really pushing and pushing and can't make it work.  Which one became the one with a black and white conversion that 'worked' and will become part of my black and white botanical project? Don't cheat.....scroll down slowly and just look at the color images first! See what you would predict.  The black and white versions with my opinion are further on down.

Trillium erectum forma luteum

Copyright Howard Grill

About Face

Copyright Howard Grill


Copyright Howard Grill

And now for the black and white versions:

Trillium erectum forma luteum

Black and White Version

Copyright Howard Grill

The image above (Trillium erectum forma luteum) is the one that 'works' for me in black and white.  There is a nice range of tones and contrasts, from the black background to the dark center with white petals and gray leaves.  I liked it as soon as I saw it.

Aas for the two black and white images below........they don't seem to work for me.  They don't have a wide enough tonal range with enough contrast and they are not going to be included in my collection. However, I wasn't sure of this before I made the conversion.

Both images are ones that I learned a lesson with.  I liked the color versions and kept spending time 'pushing' to make a black and white version that I liked.  But it just wasn't working.  My lesson was that when it comes to these conversions you will generally know pretty quickly if it is going to work in black and white.  If the time you are spending isn't fine tuning, but, rather a continued effort to make the black and white version work....well, there is a reason for that!

About Face

Black and White Version

Copyright Howard Grill


Black and White Version

Copyright Howard Grill

Thinking About The Presentation

I think I am slowly nearing the end of collecting my first series of black and white botanicals. Not that there won't be a second series! There might also be other categories sych as cacti, leaves etc..  Yes, I have a bunch of those as well. But at some point one needs to try to assemble a cohesive group into a series that stands alone.  As I think about what 'holds together' the following comes to mind:

1) Subject - While one could have flower macros as well as flower groupings, I think the idea for one project is flowers. By that I mean that if it is flowers it shouldn'e be interesting leaf macros.  The leaves will be another series.

2) Toning - I believe there needs to be a coherance between the sepia toning among the group.  Interestingly, If I apply the same toning settings in Silver Efex Pro, that doesn't necessarily give me results among the series of photos that seem to hold together.  I suspect this is related to the fact that there I like a difference in toning strength between highlights and shadows.  I tend to like purer white highlights that don't look 'muddy' and so I apply less toning to the highlights.  But holding a higher key image next to a lower key image makes it appear as if there is discrepancy in the toning.  This is something I suspect I am just going to need to adjust by eye, as opposed to having a one size fits all recipe.

3) Editing - Obviously one wants to only show their best work, but, even with a number of photos that might be appropriate, you still need to cull the number down (or up) depending on the presentaton.  The 'proper' number for a show (which itself will be somewhat reliant on the amount of wallspace and image size) will be different from the number that might be optimal for a folio or a pdf or an ebook.  Along the same lines, the image size will also depend on the presentation venue.

I suspect this will still take a couple of months, but I am starting to feel that it is time to start thinking about putting things together into a stand alone project.

Copyright Howard Grill