Creativity Enhancers and Killers

Sunrise, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, CaliforniaI'm not sure why, but it seems like lately I have been thinking a lot about what enhances our creativity as nature photographers and what kills it. There are a lot of things to talk about, so I am going to do this as a series over time. Some of the things that affect our creativity are "baked into" our expectations of what photography is or isn't, and that includes both enhancers and killers. Our culture adds to both, and so do the crazy thoughts that often dwell inside our heads.

For this week, I wanted to start with enhancers, on a positive note. One really strong enhancers for creativity is the ability to ask yourself, "What if ...?" I find it quite interesting that this is something kids do all of the time. They are always trying crazy things. And parents and grandparents will often start doing this, too, even if that is not how they normally act!

Wouldn't it be great if we could say, "What if ...?", every time we took a photo? It really wouldn't take much extra time. Take the shot we first see, then pause before putting our gear away or setting up another shot, and ask, "What if ...?"

What if we moved to the left or right?

What if we tried a different foreground?

What if we tried a different background?

What if we put on a really wide-angle lens and got in close?

What if we looked for really cool light and not just a subject?

What if we looked for great color and not just a subject?

What if we held the camera over head?

What if we put the camera on the ground?

And you will think of many more "what if's."

And the cool thing about digital is that we can answer that question with a photo that costs nothing to take and can be seen instantly on our LCDs!

Posted in Composition, Craft of photography, Landscape photography | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Art and Craft

Craft + Art2Craft in photography is gear, technique, skill in using the camera, understanding things like exposure and depth of field, and so forth. Craft is how you control the image so that it expresses what you want it to express. As you learn your craft as a photographer, you are better able to control the image, better able to express yourself as a photographer.

But craft is not the same as art.

Art comes from your heart. It is about expressing something important to you about the world and putting it out into the world. It is about choice and how you choose elements of your craft in your own unique way. It is personal and can be scary and fragile.

But it is only your personal choices that matter for your art, your expression as a photographer. And you have to make these choices. Arbitrarily using f/22 for a landscape, for example, is not a personal choice, but a "should" that is coming from some place outside of art. Continuing the example, f/22 is "safe" when you know that is what you are "supposed to do" (or evidently there are some photography police who will come after you).

And sometimes photographers confuse craft with art, judging others because they don't have the right f-stop, the right focal length, the right gear. That is not art because the "right" anything in craft is only right for the artist choosing it.

I shot the photo of lichen and moss above earlier this week in the chaparral of the Santa Monica Mountains (it will be in my macro and close up book I am working on). Some of the craft involved: f/stop of f/11 for high sharpness (good compromise between depth of field and problems of diffraction with smaller f-stops), use of tripod, use of shade white balance to match conditions, use of 2-second timer for exposure to minimize vibration, exposure to keep lichen bright, camera kept parallel to flattish subject matter to keep focus over image area, and so forth.

Personal decisions that affect the art: choice of subject matter, how close to get to the subject, how much moss to include, how big should lichen be, where to place lichen in composition, how much space to leave around lichen, what do I think about this lichen and moss, how do I feel about them, what do I want to communicate about them, and so forth.

Choices always become personal when you choose them because they do something for your work, your art. Because they answer your questions like, "How do I want to communicate about my subject?" And that is scary because it is personal, it puts your decisions on the line, it is not necessarily what everyone else is doing, what you "should" do.

Ultimately, I believe it is worth it. That is how we make art, how we affect others by sharing our vision with the world. Our best art comes when we are willing to be vulnerable and share our choices.

Posted in Craft of photography, Nature photography | Tagged , , | 12 Comments


Experiment 3I really believe that nature and photography offer us opportunities to learn as long as we are willing to explore both. For some of you, that learning may mean basics such as controlling depth of field through more than f-stops and that’s okay. For me, I have been doing those things so long that they are second nature.

But I still want to learn. Every place I go, I want to learn about the nature of a location. Yesterday, I was at the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego and had the privilege to spend some time with Keith Lombardo, the Chief of Resources and Science, looking at the Coastal Sage Scrub and Maritime Chaparral ecosystems there. I learned some new plants, discovered some cool places to photograph (I will be leading a photo walk there for NANPA on February 19th). The next image is of a box thorn (Lycium brevipes) from Cabrillo, a new plant for me that doesn't get as far north as Los Angeles.

Experiment 2In photography, my learning now often comes from experimenting. Come to think about it, a lot of my learning in photography has come from experimenting! I love to try different things I have never tried before. And if someone says that you can’t do something in photography, I am very likely to try it! Okay, it often doesn’t work, but that direct experience in trying it for myself, in experimenting, means more to me than simply following the “rules” (if you have read my blog for any time, you probably can guess that anyway!). The next shot from Cabrillo of some agave and sun is not particularly great, but I found these agave in a spot that made for challenging photography because of the background, so I wondered what they would look like against the sky with the sun (camera on the ground, using my tilting LCD). I got some ideas for future work with such spiny plants.

Experiment 1I think experimenting is important for every photographer, new or experienced, young or old. It is how you stay fresh. Sure, you end up throwing out a lot of “bad” photos, but maybe those photos are not so bad considering you learn something from them ... even if it is what not to do. The point is not that you have to make every photo a great photo, but to learn.

That said, the aspen from Great Basin National Park at top are part of a photo I quite like. I was in a spot that just was hard to make anything unique. As I walked by these aspen, I wondered what they would look like shot with a very wide-angle focal length up close to them so they would be part of a larger landscape. I had to do a bit of experimenting to get the shot I liked shown here, though. This was not simply a one-shot thing.

In classes, I often find that many photographers get a bit timid about experimenting. They only try things a little differently. They are afraid what someone might say for doing something that they have not seen others doing. I get that feeling of insecurity, but digital is  great because it costs nothing to take an extra photo or two, and anything you don't like, it can be deleted in an instant. If you decide to try something you have never tried before, go for it, but go for it in a big way.

A close-up with a wide-angle? Set the lens to its closest focusing distance and move in until something is in focus. What would happen with less depth of field? Go all the way with your widest f-stop. What would happen with a more depth of field? Stop your lens way down to f/16 or f/22 and see. The light isn’t great for a landscape? Start playing with subjects and compositions to see what it might work with.

And if anyone, including that part of your brain that wants you to play it safe, questions what you are doing, just tell them you are learning something new. If the experiment looks like crap, delete it immediately so it doesn’t occupy your mind, but realize that such an experiment is not a failure, but always a success as long as you are learning!

And it's fun if you go into this with a playful spirit of discovery!

Posted in Locations, Nature photography | Tagged | 8 Comments


Risk2Photography is risky, if you are willing to push yourself to create original and unique work that is special to you. It means putting yourself out there, risking all sorts of comments, being vulnerable.

Using a lens in a way that others say you can't, such as a wide-angle for extreme close-ups, is risky.

Creating a composition that fits the scene as you see it, not fitting some arbitrary rules, is risky.

Using shallow depth of field for a landscape photo is risky (such as the prairie scene above).

Shooting lots of photos when everyone around you is shooting few is risky.

Shooting few photos when everyone around you is shooting lots is risky.

Using Lightroom to control an image the way that Ansel Adams did is risky.

Photographing the nature all around us, when everyone else has to travel to big parks or other states, is risky.

Photographing for you and for what makes you happy, when that is not what pleases the judges at the camera club, is risky.

Doing anything that fits who you are when it doesn't match anyone else is risky.

But it can also be satisfying, creative, joyful and wonderful. If you are willing to risk it. Consider that something for the new year.

As Thoreau once said, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

I hope your 2015 is terrific!

Posted in Nature photography | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Change and Story, Yours and Mine

Change1Change2“Change is the only constant in life.” From the ancient philosopher, Heraclitus (often attributed to Emerson). The two spring aspen photos here are from a day of fast change to the light due to stormy weather – a day of "action" landscape photography.

The changes we have seen in the last decade for photography have been huge! Truly revolutionary and not simply evolutionary. This is much more than just digital photography, and it includes changes in book and magazine publishing, the Internet, the popularity of photography, Facebook and other social media, and I could go on a bit because these changes have been wide-ranging and pervasive. This blog will be longer than usual, but not because I am going to talk about all of these changes in detail. I am not. I am going to talk about how I am adapting to these changes to give you a little perspective on photography today and how that might affect you.

They have affected everyone who photographs, and especially pros. Newspaper and magazine photojournalists have lost jobs due to layoffs and the challenges facing the publication industry. The work there has changed dramatically, from what it is to what people are paid (and this has declined) to the jobs available (including freelance). Books are more difficult to do with major publishers and get approved by publishers’ acquisition people.

Not all things are negative, of course. Digital photography allows us to do things we could only dream of in the past, including superb image quality at high ISOs … and I am not even talking about the crazy high ISOs, but the more generally used ones such as ISO 400 and 800 that few pros would have used during the height of film.  The quality of lenses has increased greatly, even at low-price points. The LCD has given everyone the chance to check their photos to be sure they got them right, then correct them on the spot if not.

But I have often heard pros complain that the nature photography business is not what it used to be. That is definitely true. Even top pros that you would immediately recognize have commonly had their incomes drop precipitously. But that is a fact of life for today and isn’t going to change. One cannot adapt to such large scale changes by pining for the old days. One can adapt only by making changes yourself.

I find it very odd and troubling to hear politicians imply that changing one’s opinion is somehow wrong and just flip-flopping. Okay, I can hear some of you saying that some politicians on both sides flip-flop their stances just to pander to voters and not because it is right for either them or the country. That is not so good. But seriously, if I learn something new that changes my mind about something, why would I not express or act on that? A lot of people who thought digital photography was a terrible threat to photography are now passionate digital photographers and to call them “flip-floppers” is insulting to them and to how people really think deal with change.

Over the past few years, I have seen a lot of changes to the work I have been doing, changes at every level of my work, changes I cannot control anymore than anyone else can. Now admittedly that can be depressing to find your life’s work isn’t working the way you had planned, but on the other hand, if you want to continue to work, you have to find out how to adapt. This certainly applies to much more than photography.

One of the things I have learned has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we deal with live. We all are programmed to love stories. That is so obvious when we notice how hard it can be to learn or even pay attention to long passages of information compared to hearing stories about how that information either came to be or how it is used.

This recently really hit home when I was listening to an interview of author Elizabeth Gilbert by Oprah on Super Soul Sunday (an often thought provoking show). Gilbert talked about how we all have a journey through our lives that is our story and that we need to ask ourselves, “Are you the hero of your story?”

That got me thinking about how much work I have done over the years that had little to do with my story and a lot to do with supporting others’ stories. Most freelance work for businesses is about creating work for those businesses’ stories. I did this for many years when I lived in Minnesota and before I worked for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Even working on that magazine and others was rarely about my story, though my story could influence the work.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One’s story can be about being a professional photographer who helps others tell their story. In fact, if a photographer strongly believes that, then he or she is likely to have more success working professionally.

Yet, for me, I have realized that this was not enough. I also at times had been so engaged with the stories I was working on for others that I lost track of my own story and who I was.

I have realized that I often have not been the hero of my story that is important to me. Nature and photography have been key parts of that story, though there is more to it than that.

I really believe that as nature photographers, we all have a story to tell through our images that we often neglect. I know this because I have been guilty of it, too! We start thinking we have to take a certain type of photo because that is what will be published/approved/liked by the camera club/liked or approved by dad or mom (and that can influence you far beyond childhood)/etcetera/etcetera/etcetera.

I would be dishonest with you if I said I had this all figured out today. Sometimes you think (okay, at least I do) that when you reach a certain age, you should have this all figured out. But that is a bit unreasonable because it assumes there is no change to the world around you. If the world is changing, and it always is, then it is pretty hard to “figure it all out” related to a moving target.

But I do feel that paying attention to my story, to becoming the hero of my own story is important, just as it is important for all of you to find your own hero story. Gilbert and Oprah talked about how this really was a key part of finding meaning in our lives.

I think this definitely applies to our photography. Does our photography represent our story and what it means to be the hero of our story? I think this is actually easier to do for an “amateur” who does not have to shoot for a client. Yet, often I see photographers not stepping up, finding that core of who they area, and boldly expressing that in their photography without worrying who “approves.”

I have been very impressed with the work of Todd and Brad Reed of Michigan because it seems so authentic to who they are and their story. This is a father/son team who has developed a wonderful body of work that celebrates their home state, and they have pursued ways to share that with others that fits who they are. Theirs is an inspirational story, not as something any other photographer can or should model, but a story that indeed has Todd and Brad as the heroes of their own story.

I have reached the age where I hear a lot of folks talking about retiring. When I reach that age, I cannot imagine retiring. I think I have a new story for my work that is just beginning and I can’t see stopping just because I reach a certain age. While the totality of my story is evolving and hard to fully articulate, I can talk about some of the work I am doing and why it is important to me now.

My blog – I have gotten so busy with projects lately that it has been hard to keep up with steady blog entries. I am even doing this one on Sunday because I felt passionate about the topic, it was fresh, and I could actually get it done! I will continue with my blog, but I am going to change what I am doing to make it shorter and easier to both produce and you to read. It will stay true to my story and my journey.

Podcast – I have started a podcast, the Joy of Nature and Photography, and I am quite enjoying doing it because it definitely is true to my story and who I am. It is now up on iTunes as well as at My plan is to do a podcast a week. There is no question I am learning and improving as I go. I hope you will take a listen and then please add comments to the show notes for any show, all at that website. I would love to know what things you might like to hear about on that show.

Books – Books are still a very important part of who I am and my story. I am working on a book for Peachpit Press on Macro and Close-Up Photography that will be out in the spring. I am really excited about this book because it is the closest I have come to being the hero in my own story, and it is probably one of the most personal of my photography books. I will keep doing books, including exploring more eBooks, and that will include some children’s nature books.

Right now, that also means a free eBook if you are interested. If you go to, you will find a place you can sign up to be on my email mailing list and get this free book, 6 Steps to Better Nature Photography, in return. I have no intention of bombarding you or anyone else with emails. I have enough trouble keeping up with my blog and podcast! I just want to be able to connect with people to let them know of special things I am doing, books, classes, and I will always include something special to think about for nature and photography.

Classes and workshops – I am changing this quite a bit. I am tired of doing “expert” workshops like everyone else is doing. That doesn’t mean I won’t do them anymore, just that I will be very selective. I want to develop more classes for discerning photographers who want to take their photography to the next level through thoughtful mastery of craft and discovering their own story about nature and photography.

And I have other ideas for projects that will develop over time.

And, as I “state” in the title to my podcast and new website, joy of nature and photography, I want to further develop my own expression of joy of discovery and exploration in nature and photography as well as encourage others to do the same.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Winter [Photography] is Here

Cold1Growing up as a photographer in Minnesota meant dealing with winter. Actually, Minnesota has four seasons: pre-winter, winter, post-winter, and springsummerfall. No matter how you look at it, Minnesota has a long winter, and if you were going to be a nature photographer there, you had to deal with winter photography.

This winter, I have an article on photographing snow and ice coming out in Outdoor Photographer. But seeing as it is winter now through much of the country, I thought I would offer some ideas on dealing with the cold.

Years ago, cameras had to be taken apart and prepared for cold weather or they would fail. That is no longer true. All cameras today can function just fine to temperatures well below zero, except …

  • The battery. Batteries quit working as the temperatures drop. They will work fine again once they warm up. I keep extra batteries in a pocket in my jacket with a handwarmer. You could keep an extra battery in a pocket next to your body, but then exchanging batteries is going to be painful.
  • Condensation is a big problem with cameras so never keep it next to your body. Even in winter, your body is putting off a lot of moisture which will condense on a cold camera body. Also, never bring an exposed cold camera inside a house or a warm car because serious condensation can happen that can mean camera failure and shipment to a repair location. Put your camera away inside a sealed camera bag or a plastic garbage bag until it warms up.
  • A cold camera is a good thing when it is snowing because the snow can be brushed off without it melting. But never blow the snow off with your breath or you will add a layer of condensation, which is really a problem if that happens to be on your lens.
  • Warm clothes in layers are key, along with good, insulated boots, flexible gloves, and a warm hat. Warm, insulted boots are very important because as a photographer, you are going to be standing around a lot as you set up shots and wait for the light. Cold feet will send you home quickly.
  • Warm fingers. For gloves, check out hunting stores. Think about it, a hunter needs gloves that are both warm and flexible, plus they usually have some sort of gripping material to allow you to grip things (such as a camera and its controls) with gloves still on. Growing up in Minnesota, I never found “half” gloves or mittens that exposed fingers useful. Cold camera bodies and tripods were way too brutal for bare skin.
Posted in Nature photography, Winter | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments