How to get better.

How to improve your photography.

This article is part of a growing series of essays on photography. A table of contents can be found here.

The previous installment covers the topic of "Why Photograph?"

This is the most important and most interesting question a photographer, artist, student, writer, scientist, clown, etc could ever ask themselves. It is eternal. Self improvement is rewarding and frustrating and awesome. Push yourself to improve and be an interesting person. It is that simple. The world runs on people who simply decide to do something and then follow through. Be one of those people and decide to get better - as a photographer, recognize always that you can get better.

Ah yes, but how? It's easy to command someone to be better, but what can we do to transform the simple act of deciding to improve ourselves into results? All I can tell you is how I've improved my photography over time and, though there is a yawning chasm between where I am and where I want to be, I can recognize I have gotten better. Noticeably. Almost exclusively in the past two years.1

Quercus agrifolia at sunset, Arastradero Open Space Preserve

Quercus agrifolia at sunset, Arastradero Open Space Preserve, Nikon D700, 14mm, f/16

I always find it frustrating to want to get better, but not to know how to get better. Success, to me, is knowing how to get better. Period. It’s in the spirit of sharing what few thoughts I have on the subject with others who want to get better that I write this article. I don’t pretend to be an authority or to have all the answers - in fact, anyone who claims to is not to be trusted. Take what you will from the following and I hope the ideas in here help you as much as they helped me. I offer this as a partial roadmap to better photographs.

Photography is and isn't like other visual art forms. Take painting as an example, a painter works within the constraints of his imagination and tools; a photographer does the same. Of course, both must obey constraints of time and inspiration (and the photographer location and the painter palette and canvas), but otherwise they are both free to create a frame as they choose. Yet, look a bit closer and we see massive differences. Let us for the moment consider a hypothetical scenario.

Suppose that two painters had the exact same vision and the same tools - same in every way - one painter produces a masterwork and the other a piece of motel art. Wherein is the difference? Same vision, same tools, different outcomes - the difference must be in the technique, right? One painter is a Turner and the other is a turnip. Painting requires a dexterity and artistic skill that is not easily learned (and likely cannot be learned by just anyone).

The same scenario with a pair of photographers and one could only assume that the same vision and same tools would lead to the same outcome (or at least more similar than the two painters). Same vision, same composition, same tools, same settings, same photograph. A photographer need not be able to handle a brush, and handling a camera isn't the same thing as having the skill to sketch - there is something fundamentally different at the heart of photography that makes it different than any other art (and for that reason, vastly more popular as a hobby).

The Magnificent Machines of Yeserday (House on the Rock)

The Magnificent Machines of Yeserday, House on the Rock, Wisconsin, Nikon D700, 14mm, f/8.0

Of course, photographers need great technique too - but this is technique in the way that learning to operate a computer or a piece of machinery is technique. Once you master the basics of exposure, camera control, etc. then what could it be that makes your photography different from any other's? How do you improve when you are so dependent on light and location?

This entire scenario, obviously, is farcical. No two people ever have the same vision and, in reality, vision trumps all. A fantastic brush stroke applied to a lackluster vision is no match for a poorly painted but truly visionary piece of work. The same applies to photography. In point of fact, I've heard the saying, attributed to Rodney White, "Stillness of hand can't make up for emptiness of heart," in reference to this very notion. In some ways, we all appreciate this intrinsically: despite over one and a half centuries of constant technological improvement of photographic tools (the pace of which has increased lately, I would argue) allowing for better contrast, color, and dynamic range, we are still in love with very old and very blurry and very awesome images. This all has to do with

why good images succeed and others fall flat, a topic for a future essay. As I began photography (and just about every day since, including right now, like this instant) I would look at the work of others and be at a total loss as to how they achieved their image. How frustrating!

I had assumed, once digital became accessible (right at the time I was leaving college), that I would be able to learn so much about how to make better photos from the EXIF data in the work of great photographers.

Oh how mistaken I was.

I would cruise around the forums of photo.net (remember that website?) and see these beautiful landscape and cityscape images. I would click on the EXIF and see an incredibly simple dataset (ISO 200, f/8, 1/2) staring back at me, mocking me, as if to say, "There is nothing you can learn here, you've taken 1000s of images at these settings, think again!"

Grim and terrible and utterly beautiful

Grim and terrible and utterly beautiful, Seal Rocks, San Francisco, Nikon D700, 28mm, f/8.0, 2 minutes

Next, I assumed that I had never really seen any sunset, sunrise, rainbow, double rainbow, ocean or mountain in the kind of light that would make for a great photograph. This thought was very discouraging because it meant two things. First, it meant that despite many months/years spent as an avid hobbiest photographer, I had yet to see magnificent light and therefore in my lifetime might only expect to see transcendent light a handful of times, if at all. Second, it meant that the world in photographs was somehow divorced from the real world - that reality was dull in comparison. It meant great photographs were representative of only a few milliseconds selected from ages of time. It meant all great photographs were lies.

Fortunately, this second assumption was also wrong. The world is bleeding beauty from every seam. Stunning, photogenic light is present at every minute of every day somewhere within walking distance from your feet. It's pouring out of every nook and cranny and just waiting for someone to trip the shutter. In fact, I would argue, infinitely more astonishingly beautiful moments happen everyday away from a camera than do in front of one. So it wasn't that I hadn't seen great light, it was, as we shall see, that I didn't yet understand the technical and emotional currency of images.

Interestingly, discovering and accepting this fact has led me to better undemanding the disconnect between the way the worldand the way photographs look, between the primary and secondary visual experience. I discovered that all photographs are indeed lies: they are lies that we use to tell a truth.

So, what did I do that helped me grow as a photographer, what made the difference?

A few years ago, I got serious about photography in a way that I hadn't been before. A couple of friends were also big into photography and I was hanging out with them a lot. In that time I began to remember how much I loved it. I remembered how much I missed using a camera and I picked mine up again for what felt like the first time. I had long known all the basics of exposure,

but I found myself improving and making more and more successful images than I ever had before. So what was the difference between then and now? Photography had always come in fits and starts for me, but why was it that now, all of a sudden, I was making bigger strides?

Essentially, four things happened:

1) I became fascinated by available light and pre-visualization.

2) I learned how to post-process.

3) I began the age-old process of emulate, innovate, repeat.

4) I designed and completed personal projects.

Often, as photographers, the solution we seek is a new tool. Better camera body, faster/sharper/wider/longer lens, etc. It is true that some exposures are out of the range of some photographer's gear - either they can't get a wide enough field of view or can't reach long enough with their longest telephoto, or perhaps the highest ISO just can't quite render the night sky - good gear opens new horizons of possibility, but requires the photographer know how to reach those limits. Therefore, in the following discussion I am (as before) going to punt for another day on the topic of gear and when and where and how better gear can make better photos. Yes, it is true that good gear enables photographers to turn vision into great photos. No, it is not a sin to want or to buy awesome gear - even if you aren’t “ready” for it. Buying a great camera or lens or tripod isn’t going to make you a worse photographer any more than it will make you a better one. Ultimately though, better gear is a rounding error on vision. That is to say that a lesser vision with a greater camera will always be trumped by a lesser kit used with greater vision (but I’ve already covered this). Moreover, the way to get better is completely independent of gear!

So then, let's tackle the four parts of getting better ...

It is better to be good than to be original.

It is better to be good than to be original, Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming, Nikon D700, panorama

Available light & learning to pre visualize

And by "available" I mean whatever it is that happens to be there when you go shooting. A photographer is only on this Earth for so many days, and the sun sets and rises but once a day - you can do the math on how many "golden hours" you will get. It isn't many. Far less when you consider how often life, love, and hangovers get in the way. I will leave it for another day to discuss all the ins and outs, ups and downs of different daylight hours for quality and quantity of light except to say that the day is bookended with great light and, generally speaking, filled with poor (outdoor) light.

When I picked up the camera again a few years ago it was with the intention of seeing more of these sunrises and sunsets (another example of the meditative/process element of photography is that primary visual experience was the goal here). On the way to those golden hours, I discovered that they were beautiful, but what I REALLY loved were the "blue hours" before and after sunrise and sunset, respectively. I learned to love twilight partly because I was living in Chicago at the time and, if you don't already know, Chicago offers only so many

clear, sunny days a year. Yet blue hour comes without fail on the clearest and cloudiest of days. When the light outside was gone or too bright (noon), I learned that I could head indoors and find pockets of great light. I learned this on the campus of The University of Chicago, but almost any place would do - the world (and Chicago in particular) is filled with great architecture begging to be photographed.

Now, here comes the hard/sleepy part. I can tell you blue hour is a very special time of day, when the night world of the 10 feet in front of your nose begins to grow and expand until the whole Earth reveals itself once more. I can tell you there is a stunning moment, 15 minutes before sunrise, when all manner of water fowl awake and greet the dawn; or I could tell you that, as a deep, blue twilight steals in over the Earth, another day's restless energy spent, bats pour silently from every aperture into the cool blue atmosphere to revel in the night. I can tell you these things, but you want get any better at photography until you refuse to take my word for it and head out into the gloaming, into the 4:30-AM of a Saturday morning and see for yourself.

Redwoods in blue hour fog

Redwoods in blue hour fog, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, California, Nikon D700, 70mm, f/8.0, 1/4 sec

Similarly, I can tell you that old, gloomy buildings lit by tungsten bulbs in the dead of night are quiet, stern places to bring a camera and a cup of coffee, but the only way to get better at this thing is to get into those buildings and do your best to distill the mood (notice the language here isn't to "take photographs" but to document your emotional response to a place - again ... you guessed it: a topic for another day!).

My advice is to find a starting point and begin pulling at that thread until the world of beautiful light unravels before you. I started looking for sunrises because I loved the pale beauty of sunrises in other peoples’ photos. I became fascinated with finding a bit of that beautiful light in my images (more on emulation below). I would recommend photographers living in or near a great city look for that last few minutes of blue hour after sunset or the first few before sunrise, when the city is aglow and orange and the night is violet shroud, wrapped tightly around stone buildings.

Look for light that makes your heart quicken. Make images of that light. Repeat.

Along the way you will discover new and untapped sources of beautiful, available light. Research (via Flickr, 500px, etc) how it is that photographers you admire treat that light, how they photograph it. I have, since moving to California, fallen in love with the grays and blues of the overcast seascapes. Many a photographer would wait for a clear day to hit the seashore, but not I. I am captivated by the mood of the sea and sky when wreathed in gloomy hues.

Here's the rub: I never would have taken the seascapes on this page two or three years ago. These images were taken in late afternoon, completely overcast light, but the light was there, so I shot it.

So far I haven’t said a word about the second part of step 1 - previsualization. The truth is that it is impossible to pre-visualize a photograph without considering/deciding/hoping for a particular kind of light. Light determines everything - composition, exposure, mood, etc.

Indian Gardens in moonshadow

Indian Gardens in Moonshadow, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, Nikon D700, 34mm, f/4.0, ISO 200, 241 sec

The process of pre-visualization is a topic that has been written about continually by photographers. Starting out in photography, I was completely mystified and a bit put off by the idea that you would have a pre-conceived notion of what it is you wanted to photograph before you went out. I thought, if you know what you want to shoot and how you want it to look, what’s the fun in going and doing it?

Now I feel very differently: pre-visualizing is essential to creating a great image. I think part of the confusion surrounding pre-visualization is quite simple. If you are like me, you assumed, as I just said, that pre-visualization is a straightforward pre-conception of an image made way beforehand. It’s not. To me, pre-visualizing is a process of conceiving of an idea for an image ahead of time and away from the distractions of the shoot and then cramming that vision into the lighting and scenic constraints of the shoot. I will offer you these two images as examples.

There was to be a full lunar eclipse just before dawn as the moon set over the Golden Gate

Bridge. I, along with 1000 other photographers, had decided to place the setting, eclipsed moon over the Golden Gate. The concept was good and the photo works (see first image below). As this was going on, part of the story and part of the scene for me became just how many photographers were on the beach. It was truly an event, a flashmob of lunar worshippers, come to the sandy fringe of San Francisco to take in the once-in-a-lifetime event. Images taken along the beach, capturing the hundreds of photographers, however, didn’t tell the story. I decided, therefore, as I was moving, to place the bridge, moon, Marin County and a smaller line of 4-5 photographers into the frame to complete the story. Simple enough idea - half pre-visualizing the entire scene and the other half a spontaneous reaction. What’s really cool is that after I posted this image, every single one of these photographers contacted me to say they recognized themselves!

Chrysopylae and Lunar Eclipse, Chrissy Field, California, Nikon D700, 200mm, f/5.6, ISO 800, 2 sec

Chrysopylae and Lunar Eclipse

Photographers capture the conjunction of the full lunar eclipse and the Golden

Gate Bridge, Chrissy Field, California, Nikon D700, 200mm, f/5.6, ISO 800, 4 sec

Photographers capture the conjunction of the full lunar eclipse and the Golden Gate Bridge

As another example, I headed early one morning with a friend to Baker Beach. We wanted to get the Golden Gate reflected in the wet morning sands. My pre-visualization went as follows: vertical photograph, distant pylons, rocks and beach below and mirror-like reflection of the pylons inverted on the sand. The tide was a bit high, all but eliminating the possibility of reflections. Instead of a reflection, I saw this bit of driftwood getting pushed to and fro in the surf. It had a shape and position reminiscent of the bridge. I set up and waited and waited and waited for a long, flat wave to crest the strand and end just right at the piece of wood.

Therefore, pre-visualizing an image is forming an “idea” that is the centerpiece of the image. It starts beforehand but isn’t over until the instant you click the shutter. It can be, but almost never is, coming up with an exact idea of the finished product. In fact, I would go so far as to say that finishing the image in your mind will lead to disappointment and Collectorism. Instead, good pre-visualization blends the meditative vision with spontaneous, reactionary creativity. As a bit of practical advice, before you set up the camera to take a photograph next, just pause and ask yourself: What exactly is it that I want the audience to see here? Then start composing.

Falling in love with available light and visualization is part one in our recipe. Earlier, I told you that I hadn't made many successful photographs before a few years ago - that I always felt the light was just out of reach for me. What I am here to argue is that I didn't understand the visual and emotional currency of photography in order to convey that light to the viewer.

It was Galen Rowell who said,

"If we limit our vision to the real world, we will forever be fighting on the minus side of things, working only to make our photographs equal to what we see out there, but no better."

and,

"One of the biggest mistakes a photographer can make is to look at the real world and cling to the vain hope that next time his film will somehow bear a closer resemblance to it."

and,

"I began to realize that film sees the world differently than the human eye, and that sometimes those differences can make a photograph more powerful than what you actually observed."

Your photographs will never look just like the real world - but after all, why would you want them to? Moreover, how could they? Your photos are two dimensional, digital readouts of a projected image - the only reason we can even interpret them in the first place is that our sight is predominantly a system of constantly updated two dimensional projections.

Let go of the idea that your photographs should represent the real world perfectly, embrace the idea that your photographs should communicate the emotional state of a person, place or event to your audience. The world speaks to us in diverse ways - a beautiful sunset is composed of more than the light - there is the moment, the context, the texture and temperature of the air, that special someone's hand in yours, and the sound of the trees and water - all these things form your primary experience. If you are to convey that emotion to your viewer, you will need to know how to push and pull every pixel to maximum effect.

The chandeliers are going to need to be "overexposed" in the image to convey their bright, warm glow. The shadows on the stone are going to need to be strong to give the audience a sense of its age and texture. You are going to need to drag the shutter a bit to capture some motion blur in the water and then you're going to need to give the white balance a bump to convey the warm glow that permeated the scene. This brings me to part two of our recipe, post processing.

Driftwood on Baker Beach, California, Nikon D700, 24mm, f/16.0, 10 sec

Driftwood on Baker Beach
One Tree Hill

One Tree Hill, East Hills, California, Nikon D700, 14mm, f/4.0, ISO 1000, 30 sec

Post processing.

Purity in a photograph is a myth. No photograph is untouched and pristine. No photograph wears a white dress to a wedding. Even without digital or darkroom manipulations, all photographs are subject to the imaging medium's and camera's tone curve, not to mention the exclusionary vision if its author.

Those message boards on photo.net I mentioned earlier, they all eventually devolved into flame wars, but at that time in photograph circles the fulfillment of Godwin's Law was to accuse someone of "Photoshopping" his or her image.

Drop the PS word and the comment thread would swell to a mile long. Tempers flared. Mothers would be insulted.

We've come a relatively long way since then. The idea that a serious photographer wouldn't put his images through a Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, DxO or Bibble before publishing is at least now laughable, but back then all this discussion and vehemence gave the impression that the real photographers, would never, ever post process.

Combine this impression with the missives of the myriad misinformed photography pundits of the day (I admit that once, in college, I was under the impression that Ken Rockwell knew his ass from a hole in the ground)

and I shot JPEG for years and years.2 I was under the impression that RAW was some niche, speciality tool that I certainly didn't need to use. Photoshop was for cheaters, RAW processing for fools.

I suppose it is possible for me to give a pass to some of the early outspoken critics of the use of digital processing tools on the basis that, at the time, film was the serious photographic tool and film wasn't by necessity bound for a computer for viewing, editing and distribution. Yet, at the heart of the rejection of Photoshop was a double standard: darkroom technique (dodging and burning, pushing and pulling and variable contrast papers) was long accepted amongst photographers, as was the development of hyper saturated film colors by Kodak and Fuji. Somewhere between these innovations (some of which predate the microprocessor and others the 20th century, mind you) and how virtually every competent photographer now functions, a line had been drawn. To cross that line, for me, was an exceedingly important step.

I'd have to say that what got me into and excited about post processing was HDR.

Pure Gotham.

Pure Gotham, Tribune Tower 25th Floor, Chicago, Nikon D700, 14mm, f/8.0

One of the principle frustrations of my early efforts in photography was the treatment of shadows too dark and highlights too bright for the film/sensor. As it turns out, all photographers face these same limits and some do well where others fail. Enter HDR photographic processing circa 2008. I was so excited and infatuated with the idea that I could render all light levels on a single photo! I HDRed everything. I gave the HDR treatment to landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, exteriors, people, pets .... EVERYTHING.

But, eventually, I started to see the gap between the great images of others and the dreck I was producing. I saw the artifacts of HDR more and more in my photographs, until, one day, that was all I could see. The original photograph had disappeared beneath the processing technique. I still loved (and love) a good bit of HDR, but I started

to get serious about processing images to achieve excellent tonality with as few traces of HDR as possible. My new philosophy became, "It's a good HDR if you can't tell it is an HDR."

What HDR did for me was teach me to think about contrast and lighting in scene. I had, by 2010 or so, a really good appreciation for the dynamic range of my camera’s sensor and for the contrast of a room/landscape. Moreover, I began to realize that it was the contrast, saturation and color of HDR that really made them beautiful. Clipped shadows and highlights were simply not that big of a deal. Properly exposed, brilliant highlights lend a photograph an airy, shiny quality. Deep, dark shadows give a frame weight. I still use HDR and, more often, a program called Enfuse that blends exposures differently, but I’ve transitioned into finding the sweet spot between traditional “straight out of camera” images and heavily post-processed images.

On the rocks

On the Rocks, Michigan Avenue Bridge, Chicago, Nikon D700, panorama

Okay, so let’s get down to brass tacks. There are two reasons I say post-processing has made me a better photographer. First, it has allowed me to make images that are expressive, that stir other peoples’ emotional responses as well as my own. Imagery is only successful when it resonates and I am here to tell you that the base tone curve coming out of your camera rarely resonates. Why is this? Well, to dance around another lengthy topic, I’ll simply say that camera sight and eye sight are very different. Camera sight is engineered to be very precise and to fit a massive variety of imaging needs. Our eyes are more flexible and, together with our emotions, process visual information dynamically. It has been said many places that HDR photography recapitulates eye sight more closely. Whereas it is true that HDR photographs are “tonemapped” by using a logarithmic tone curve (a few $5 words for what our eyes do), I think the artifacts generated by cramming that much information into the paltry space of an image file and computer monitor is enough to distract from the benefits.

What HDR does do, I will argue, is bring tons of texture and contrast to an image. If you love HDR, please don’t stop shooting it because others make fun of it or because I said that you can move away from it safely. One of the reasons I got better was because I did a lot of HDR and found its ins and outs and learned about light (see above - HDR was absolutely critical to my learning about available light).

Now, I simply can’t take the time and effort in this article to go through all the wonders of post-processing and all of the programs and tips and tricks. What I can do, however, is give you a flavor for what my favorite program, Adobe Lightroom, is capable of doing. It should be noted here that I am shooting RAW. Always shoot RAW. Period. Only a fraction of what I am going to talk about here is possible without shooting RAW so just do it and thank me later.

Below is an image I took at Davenport Beach one late afternoon: a JPEG straight out of the camera.

DSC_7187
DSC_7187

Here’s the same image with the right adjustments to really bring out the cold, briny and dramatic mood of the scene.

Whorl

Whorl, Davenport, California, Nikon D700, 14mm, f/16.0, 0.6 sec

I showed this to a friend and a fellow photographer as a before and after series and he laughed and said, “Wow, I would have deleted that image - would not have known how to bring it to life.” Remember, images lie to tell the truth.

Here’s another seascape as an example. It should be noted that both of these images (and almost all of what I post nowadays) are single exposures processed exclusively in Adobe Lightroom.

The Rolling Tempest - Pescadero State Beach

The Rolling Tempest, Pescadero State Beach, California, Nikon D700, 14mm, f/8.0, 1/800 sec

DSC_2174
DSC_2174

This is the power of post-processing, it allows you to bring your photographs to life. It allows you to create in your audience an emotion response. Learn everything you can about it. Experiment, try new and drastic things that you learn from tutorials online (there are an overabundance - just search what it is you want to learn and start pawing through the links). If you are worried about “overcooking” your images take this little bit of advice - use the 24 hour rule:

Process an image, save a copy and do something else for 24 hours. Load the processed image back up and gauge your reaction. If you don’t love it, go back to the starting point. There is nothing like perfecting your taste for your own post-processing.

This is a journey - you are going to evolve and change. You may end up hating your early work. Relax and keep moving. Like I said earlier, success is figuring out what it is you can do to get better.

Arastradero Open Space Preserve

Spring Grasses, Arastradero Preserve, California, Nikon D700, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/640 sec

Emulate, innovate, repeat.

No one is born a great photographer and no one learns how to compose images from a book or blog article. Seeing is everything in photography and there is no better way to learn about a great photospot or framing idea than seeing the work of others. I believe firmly in the method of emulate and then innovate.

There are so many channels to view the work of other photographers nowadays. Open one of those (500px is my recent favorite) prior to a shoot and see how others have treated the scenery. This accomplishes two things. First, it gives you the chance to see the lay of the land and pre-visualize. Second, it gives you the opportunity to knock out that first, obvious, distracting shot.

I blogged previously about the dangers of collectorism. I want to share another anecdote related to the problems with collectorism and contrast that with the value in emulating and then innovating. I was in Tahoe and I had just (after much scouting on Flickr) found the Bonsai Rocks on the Nevada side. These are a few majestic boulders just out into the water of Tahoe that have stunted, knurled natural bonsai pines growing from their bald tops.

The spot where these rocks are is unmarked and difficult to see from the road. To get there, one has to park in a pull-out, hike back along the road and shimmy down a very steep bank. When I finally made it I was surprised to see how many other photographers were already there (four in the 20 minutes before these photographs were taken)! All of them were vying for a spot that afforded a view of the rocks dead on, the coast in the background and Tahoe on the right.

So why fight for this one spot? Well, it turns out that, like me, these photogs had found the rocks due to one or two extremely popular images on Flickr made by one or two of the most

famous area Flickr photographers - Patrick Smith or Jim Patterson or some other such person. Images, especially really, really popular ones, have a life of their own and inspire others to make similar images. Emulating the great work of others as a starting point, I am arguing, is a great way to learn how to photograph. Emulating others as the end product is a very slow way to grow. What I like to do is bang out the one or two popular vantage points right away and get to the real meat of finding a new vision. Maybe I’m just not as big a fan of the aforementioned photographers as the others who shared that evening next to the Bonsai Rocks, but I just wasn’t satisfied trying to re-capitulate their vision of this spot.

On this particular day, the sunset was obscured by a massive cloud-bank. This meant no direct light from the setting sun and, you guessed it, disappointed photographers who were hoping for ruddy hues on the west side of these boulders. They packed up before the last rays had finished filtering through the gathering storm.

Now, I had just driven up and down 10 miles of the Tahoe coast repeatedly to find this spot, shimmied down a gravel and mud embankment and watched a couple of other enthusiasts blanket the area with off-camera flash. I wasn’t about to head off until I’d seen the blue shroud of night and storm envelope the slumbering lake. I wasn’t about to leave until I had distilled the mood of a gathering storm and gathering twilight in a simple frame. So I waited until the bats began to flit from the hollows in the rocks and until the cool of the night set in. I had climbed around the banks a bit, trying to find a new vantage point and decided that the brooding tempest across the lake, caught in motion on a long-exposure, with the silhouette of the Bonsai Rocks in the foreground and the blood-red glow of the sunset behind would make for an iconic composition.

The tempest

The Tempest, Lake Tahoe, California, Nikon D700, 28mm, f/8.0, 246 sec

I really love the way the image turned out, but I will leave it to you to decide whether it lives up to the infinitely more popular vision found in nearly every Tahoe photographers’ portfolio by now.

Emulate, then find room for improvement. Normally I find myself deleting the one or two “obvious” images in favor of the more unique compositions I develop later. After I had taken the long exposure above, I was left with almost no more available light and I decided then to return to the very popular spot to try my hand at something in the deep dark of blue hour. I shot it a bit wider than is customary, but came away with the following frame (I think it is an 1 minute exposure).

Late twilight bonsai rocks

Late Twilight Bonsai Rocks, Lake Tahoe, California, Nikon D700, 14mm, f/4.0, ISO 800, 62 sec

In these two images and in this story, you can begin to see my previous points working. I was there because I was fascinated by available light, I worked to visualize how the image would come out within the constraints of the scene and then I post-processed to recapitulate the lighting and mood of the environment.

Again, this process of imitating/emulating the work of others you admire is a great way to dip your toes into the

deep compositional waters. It is a wonderful crutch to get you into motion. But where real improvement comes is in identifying flaws in those compositions, in identifying areas that are even more interesting from which to shoot.

As you do more and more of this the payoff will be greater and greater.

Much Loved.

Much Loved, The University of Chicago, Nikon D700, 14mm, f/9.0

Personal projects

A discussion of the path to better photographer wouldn’t be complete without briefly touching on personal projects. For a purely amateur photographer, everything is a personal project, of course. What I am referring to here isn’t a loosely defined personal project, but a deeply focused series of images.

The steps above are a great way to see solid gains in your photography, but by providing yourself with goals, laser-like focus, and a working within a series is fast-track to success.

I consider myself has having started and partially completed at least one personal project that fits the bill. I attended the University of Chicago for some ten years in earning two degrees (I know - seriously long time). At the end of that decade, I wanted to make a record of the architecture with which I had fallen in love. I set out every now and then, when I had a spare moment at the end of the day, to make a document of these Gothic, serene spaces. What I came away with was an appreciation for making great architectural images and a name for myself in the niche of University of Chicago images. I say partially completed because I just can’t stay away - I know I’m headed back in a month to add to the project. Personal projects

like this one not only focus your energy in ways that the random image here and there can't, they also benefit from the love you have of your subject. Remember, "emptiness of heart"? Well, this is the opposite - make images of things that fill your heart to bursting and the photographs will show that love.

I received an absolutely humbling response to these images, which still generate as much or more interest than the rest of my work combined. You see, it’s the body of work to which people respond, not necessarily the odd image here and there. Give people something pretty to see and then give them a whole lot more of it and you’ll hold their attention and learn something about yourself in the process. Photographs do not exist in a vacuum, they feed off one another. A single, perfect photographic expression is as much of a myth as a pure, unaltered image.

Finally, the value of focused, cohesive projects is that they give you a foothold into a niche. For those who want their photography to have a broader audience or for those who want to dip their toes into the waters of professional photography - find a niche at which you can absolutely excel and then fill that niche.

The City Gray that ne'er shall die.

The City Gray that Ne'er Shall Die, The University of Chicago, Nikon D700, 17mm fisheye, f/8.0

Concluding thoughts

So that’s it. In a ridiculously rambling 6,000 some words. I don’t know if this information is of any value to those of you out there who, like me some years ago, were frustrated at the lack of straight answers to the question, “what can I do to get better.” I hope it helps just one of you break through whatever block you might be experiencing and improve your photography and your interaction with the photographic world.

Footnotes

1. I had long ago learned the basic relationships between exposure, ISO, and aperture. This article isn't about how to physically control the camera, but once that is known, how to progress to making more effective imagery.

2. With apologies to Ken Rockwell. I'm sure he's a very nice person and there are probably some who find his pages interesting, but with every ridiculous claim (like how JPEG is better than RAW and film is better than digital) I suspect him more and more of simply being a troll, spouting or willing to spout ridiculous BS as link bait.