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.

It's just a blur

When I first started taking photos, I strived for the sharpest images possible. I wanted the widest depth of field and the crispest details. Once I started expanding my art, though, I began to experiment with blurring.

20050608081049_nyc-10d-040806-9233One example we’ve all seen before is light trails from cars. It’s easy to do; set your camera on a tripod or brace it with something, set a low ISO and long shutter speed, and click away. This particular example was taken on a busy New York city street for 10 seconds, braced against a traffic signal pole.

PWOOD-20D-060428-9754 The street scene was nice (and one of my favorites), but it’s not really abstract. I tried a slow shutter speed again with some grasses waving in the wind, and came up with this image. This is something I would have hated in my earlier days, but now it’s a wonderfully abstract image, showing colors and motion.

Now that I’d taken photos of objects that blurred themselves during a period of time, I wanted more. I started experimenting with zoom blurs, where you zoom the lens during the exposure.

PWOOD-20D-060224-3565My first tries were during a night-time Mardi Gras parade.

Both of these were taken at a 1/2 second shutter speed, and zoomed during the exposure. It took quite a few tries to get the hang of zooming at just the right time.PWOOD-20D-060224-3765

The trick is to start zooming and then click the shutter. You’ll have many, many images you’ll trash, but you might come up with several keepers. Don’t be afraid to try; digital images are cheap.

PWOOD-20D-060427-9222 Next I tried moving the camera as I took an image. I found a field of pretty flowers, set a long shutter speed (this is 1/25; I really could have used an ND filter), and moving the camera straight up as I took the image. This works really well with vertical objects such as flowers and trees, but almost anything will give you a nice abstract image.

I’m a big fan of flower images, and this is a wonderful way to create new images.

And finally, two of my favorite zoom blurs.







The red flower in the middle of the zoom really makes the left image, I think, and I’m really happy I found these blue and yellow flowers together. It’s like an explosion of bright colors.

Just Say Click

Sometimes, you just don’t have time to spend with a personal creative project. Sometimes, your weekend consists of 13 hour days at work, and you’re too tired to pull out the camera.

So try taking photographs without one.

Composition is a visual exercise; no camera is needed. You can do it anywhere: driving your car, sitting at your desk, or almost anywhere.

Take a look around you and pretend you have your camera with you. What would you take a picture of? How would you frame it? How do the compositional elements come together? Picture all of this in your mind and say "click".

You’ve just taken a mental photograph.

Sure, you say, that’s all well and good, but how do I show it to people?

That’s not the point. The point is to learn, to practice, to grow in your own personal creativity.

There’s a story that’s been going around for a few years about a basketball experiment. I have no idea if it’s true or not, but it doesn’t really matter.

Three groups of people were taken to a gym, the story goes, and asked to shoot a series of free throws. They were then divided up into three groups.

The first group did nothing. The second came to the gym every day for a month and practiced free throws for 30 minutes.

The third group was told to think about free throws. Visualize it in their minds. See themselves step up to the line, see the ball leave their hands, see if fall effortlessly through the hoop. Nothin’ but net.

After 30 days, they were tested again. The first group showed zero improvement, which was expected. The second, the group that practiced for 30 minutes each day, improved by 95%.

The third, the visualization group, improved by 90%.

This can easily be applied to photography. How many times have you heard "it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer"? How much effort goes into creating a photograph before you even pick up the camera?

Give it a try. It’s important to say "click" (you can say it to yourself, if you’re self-conscious) so that you have that feeling of completion and accomplishment. "Click" means that you’re happy with your composition and ready to take the image.

Visualize it. Practice it. Create art.


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)