Familiar Things

“In order to see, you must first forget the name of the thing you are looking at.”

— Monet

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen leaves in my pool and thought only about the effort it would take to skim them out. I’ve seen them so many times that each one became a familiar label: “leaf in pool”.

APAD-20D-041111-5183 One day, though, while making an effort to see things in a different way, I looked harder at the leaf, and began to See it. 

I saw the colors; the beautiful blue-cyan shades, the aging brown. I saw the shapes; the symmetry of the leaf, the velvet-like signs of surface tension in the water.

And I saw something other than “leaf in pool”. The label was gone, or at least temporarily misplaced.

When we are children, we think primarily in pictures, not in words. But as we learn the analytical skills of an adult, we depend less and less on the part of the brain that encourages visual thinking. This pattern becomes so established the we try to label everything we see. We rule out visual exploration, and concentrate on the data. How many of us, when photographing a bird, are concerned about the species more than the image?

FP-10D-040131-7624 I fell into this rut (“Oh, that’s an ordinary bird”). By doing this, all I saw was a bird.

I didn’t see how the sun from behind gave him a gorgeous rim-lighting, how he cocked his head to look at me with a very obvious curiosity.

If we want to learn to see, we need to learn to learn the recognize the value of the familiar.

How can we do this? This first thing we need to do is slow down.

“This benefit of seeing… can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image… the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate. ”

— Dorothea Lange

mirrorcandle Try this: Close yourself into the bathroom. Give yourself at least twenty minutes to take ten images. If you aren’t feeling desperation by the tenth image, take ten more.

Force yourself to look at familiar objects in a new way. Look at things you see each and every day, and try to look at them as if you’re seeing them for the first time.

Take what you’ve learned and try it someplace else. Try another room, or your backyard. In my bathroom, I found a candle and two mirrors. A little experimentation, and I came up with this.

Abandon your labels. Learn to See.


Photographing smoke is a great exercise in creativity, since there is no wrong way to do it and a bazillion ways to do it right.

That being said, there are a few guidelines that make it easier.

I like to use incense sticks (or "joss" sticks) as my smoke source. It provides a steady source of smoke, and you can take many different images using one stick.

smoke1Candles can also be used, but the best smoke comes just as you blow out the flame.

This image was taken with an ordinary red taper candle. I had a black velvet background about two feet behind the candle, and an on-camera flash set to minimum. I lit the candle, pre-focused and composed (this is highly cropped), blew out the candle and made several exposures. Be careful not to create too many air currents when you blow out the candle. Or, deliberately create them and see what you get!

With a joss stick, I used the same black velvet background. This time, however, I used a studio flash with a grid below and to the left of the smoke. To get the cleanest lines of smoke, you need a small aperture (for a large depth of field) and a lot of light.

Be sure to ventilate the room every once in a while. Not only do you want to clear the room so you can breathe, but the halfway dissipated smoke can interfere with the light, contrast, sharpness and detail in your images.

You want to keep the air movement in the room to a minimum, and controlled deliberately. See what happens if you just let the smoke rise, then try slowly waving your hand near the smoke. Very small air currents work better than large ones. Also try letting the smoke curl up under a spoon or other object.

smoke2 Once you have an image you like, you can try and turn it into a work of art with Photoshop. Here’s how I created this image.

First, I captured the left part of this image on its own. I brought it into Photoshop and adjusted levels to get a higher contrast and completely blacken the background. Then, I inverted the image to turn the background white.

Next, I extended the canvas to the right. I duplicated the layer, selected free transform, and dragged to the right to create a mirror image.

Then I created two hue/saturation adjustment layers; one masked on the right and one masked on the left. By adjusting the hue on each, I was able to create some colors that I liked, roughly opposite to each other.

dragonsmoke Here is another version we created during this session. Julie explains her process of editing this on our After & Before photoblog, where we post before and after images along with our techniques for creating them.

orig_dragonsmoke Here’s the original with the black background.


Smoke photography can be lots of fun, but it can get a little frustrating, too. You can take many, many images before you end up with one you like; I know I did. Keep at it, and have fun!

Think differently. See differently. Create art.

The Bathroom Exercise

One of my all time favorite books for inspiration and creativity is Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson. In it, he discusses principles of composition and visual design, and provides techniques and exercises for exploring untraditional concepts. He also talks about barriers to seeing, and how to observe, imagine and express your art in a personal and creative way.

One of the exercises in his book is called the bathroom exercise, and I recommend this in all my seminars for photographers (and other artists) learning to see instead of look.

Take your camera and lock yourself in your bathroom for at least 20 minutes. Take at least 20 photos of something unique. If you’re not struggling to find images by the end of the 20 minutes, stay a little longer.

The key to this exercise is not to get wall-quality images. It’s to look at familiar objects and begin to see them in unfamiliar ways.

For example, look at the chrome on the faucet. Really look at it and see it. What’s there? Do you see reflections? Are they distorted or clear?

Turn on the water and let it drip. Can you capture an image as the water has just dropped? Watch the drops for a moment. Are they regular? Can you anticipate the next one? Or are they random?

If there is a window in the bathroom, look at the screen. What do you see? If you throw some water on the screen, what does it look like now? If you look really close, can you see reflections from outside?

mirrorcandleWhen I first read about this exercise, my first reaction was "20 minutes in a small bathroom taking photos? How much can there be?"

But once you stop to think about it and actually start seeing instead of looking, you’ll find that there is a wealth of images, just waiting for you to discover them.

This candle image is an example from my first try with this exercise.

(All images on this blog can be clicked to enlarge)


One way to force encourage yourself to look at photography in a new and creative way is to use an unconventional lens or camera. Back in the long ago days of film, many people turned to the Holga toy camera. Plagued by vignetting, light leaks and a plastic lens, it still managed to produce some wonderfully artistic images.

I, for one, never saw the attraction of the Holga. I like my images sharp and crisp. Blur? Delete. Vignette? Delete.

But the time comes where you need to stretch yourself, to learn new techniques, to put yourself in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.

Enter the Lensbaby. The Lensbaby is a flexible, selectable focus lens that captures images with a "sweet spot" (an area of sharp focus), with the rest of the image surrounded by gradually increasing blur. Here are some examples:





Can you get this sort of effect in Photoshop? Sure. But where’s the fun in that?

We have two of these: the Lensbaby 2 and the Lensbaby 3G. The 3G is by far the better version, since it allows you to lock the lens at a particular angle and focus.

We bought the 3G at the PPA (Professional Photographers of America) Convention in San Antonio. This was the year of the Great Ice Storm, and all of us were trapped for an extra day in San Antonio. So, of course, there were hundreds of photographers all over the city, having fun and taking photos for themselves. We ended up at the Alamo with the entire Lensbaby sales team, and we had a great time.

If you ever use of these, though, be prepared for some strange looks.


Look for the unexpected

I do a lot of photo shoots were I know the type of image I’m expected to get. Sometimes they aren’t particularly exciting, but it’s what I need to do. A customer might want a particular look, people might want a standard group photo, or a business person might want a conservative headshot. Those are all well and good (and they pay bills!), but sometimes you have to look beyond the job to maintain your creativity.

For example, I recently was assigned to photograph Mardi Gras float krewes and float heads. This is the type of image they wanted:


But while I was walking around waiting for some of the krewes to get ready (750 women + lots of booze + party atmosphere = a considerable amount of time to coordinate), I saw something unexpected:


I guess he either had a hard night the night before, or was expecting a hard night tonight. Or both. I didn’t think anyone could ever sleep on a tractor seat.

Either way, it was something unexpected, and it broke me out of the mindset that I was only there for group photos. Not only did I take this photo because it caught my interest, it made me feel more creative (by taking a photo just for me), and I began to see the group photos in a more creative light.

Things like this remind me of why I became a photographer, and why I love it so much.

Stay creative. See, don’t just look.