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Random Thoughts: When great becomes commonplace

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Random Thoughts: When great becomes commonplace

I remember years ago, after submitting images for an article, a phone call from my editor. “Please….no more slot canyon shots. Please…”. I was disappointed, but I understood.

For several years after the slots got “discovered” by people with their new DSLRs, slot canyon and desert southwest images were all over the internet. That’s when the handwriting was on the wall, from what I could see. Images that were inaccessible to all but the most dedicated photographers and requiring specific, finely honed skills, were becoming a matter of googling locations and punching in GPS points. Exposure knowledge became adjusting exposures until the histogram was as good as possible.

Just to clear the air, this is not necessarily a bad thing. GPS points are good and helpful. Exposure by histogram adjustments is easier, although a little slower, than knowing and metering tonalities.

It is certainly valid to want to replicate great images. It’s a way that we all learn. And it’s certainly ok to stop there. A great many people are satisfied replicating great images. One of our jobs as workshop instructors is to get people to the right place at the right time and that certainly includes many iconic locations. However, as human beings, it’s almost impossible to do exactly the same thing over and over again without beginning to stray in a more personal direction. The further one strays from what has been done, the more originality emerges.

How do we begin to move in a direction of more originality? More creativity. To stand out from the crowd.

It’s important to realize that we are in a time when exceptional and even great images are expected and have become commonplace. One only has to troll through photo sharing sites like Flickr, 500px, SmugMug, ViewBug, etal, to get a sense of how much incredible work is out there by a great many people.  The secret weapon we all have is our imagination, aided by software tools to greatly modify our work, enabling us to create more personal and creative images, to stand apart from the crowd.

Here’s an example: Mt. Kirkujfell in Iceland

I made this image 3 years ago after seeing this in a travel brochure and insisting that our workshop group go there.

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Since that time, images of this great place have exploded in every quality of light, every season, all weather conditions, star trails, with aurora, and probably some with E.T., Elvis, and Big Foot in there!

There were dirt roads up to the top of the falls where one could camp, if desired. In the past few years, there is now a parking area for motor coaches and people walk almost non stop up to the falls, making it an exercise in patience to get a desired shot. Again, nothing wrong with this as it is merely a sign of the times, and the more people experience these places, the more likely they are to help to preserve them.

The test for us, is to find our voice in the sea of great photography.

Search for different angles, which is at times, easier said than done.

Use different lenses.

Use long exposures.

Important: Learn how to use software to create what you feel or see in your imagination. 

Upon returning to Iceland in subsequent years, I did long exposures (1-4 min) from different angles, walking down to the various water levels.


Then from the same location a year earlier, I shot a 6 image stitched pan, which is a lead image on the GoogleNik website.

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We will, of course, continue to take workshops to this great location, and will encourage and help our clients to see this incredible venue in a unique way.

The seeming unlimited number of great color images from the most exotic places on earth has moved me more and more into black and white interpretations. The expressive and creative opportunities are unlimited in B&W.

Here’s the lead image original and re-imagined in B&W:



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The Most Important Thing in photography is to enjoy the experience.

A successful photograph is one that you like.

There’s always room to improve and everyone’s aspirations are their own. Some people want to photograph Delicate Arch and some want to photograph Delicate Arch at night with an 8 hour star trail. It’s all about what you like.

It’s easy to get intimidated by the voluminous amount of spectacular photography online, but ultimately each of us only has one competitor, and that’s ourselves. I just want to be better than I was last year. If your goal and your focus is to be a better photographer than you were a year ago, the amount of mind numbing great photography out there will not be intimidating in the least. It won’t even be an issue.

That’s about it!

Thanks for taking the time and we’ll see ya online!


P.S. Please have a look at our 2016 Visual Artistry Workshop schedule.
Contact Susan for more information.

P.P.S. Our Creativity Seminar is now available for digital download.



Random thoughts (turkish taffy)

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Ok, it’s pretty common knowledge that I’m impressionable. I’ve had to deal with bouncing around from one style to another in all three of my professions (to this point), being pulled and twisted like a piece of turkish taffy.

As a jazz drummer/ composer, for years I would try to emulate giants in the profession until I got to the point where I realized that it was time to stop emulating and time to start developing my own musical voice. At that point, I stopped studying what others were doing, not forever, but for years to give my own musical point of view the space needed to develop and to crystallize.

I became a student of magic as the drummer on the Harry Blackstone national tour, where I had the privilege to play on the first HBO special from the Seattle Opera House and played for the show during it’s run on Broadway. I became a student of  close up magic, which is more slight of hand and technique rather than relying on props. After years of studying with Harry, and my most influential mentor, the great Cy Keller, I began to use the numerous techniques that I acquired, re-inventing and re-adapting moves that I had learned to create my own routines.

As a photographer, I had the privilege to work with and learn from my generation’s greatest landscape/ nature photographers: John Shaw, Pat Ohara, Galen Rowell, Rod Planck, John Netherton, Larry West, and more than I can recall, as an instructor with the seminal workshop company, The Great American Photography Workshops. And like many of us, whenever I saw great photography of any genre, I began to chase it, wanting to emulate what captured my imagination. And, as with the other careers, I got tired of chasing the visions of others. Although, I wasn’t sure what my style was, I knew that it was time to create space, as uninfluenced as possible by others, to let whatever style I had develop in an unaffected manner. After all, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to focus when your focus is in a perpetual state of flux.

The question that we all ask ourselves at one time or another is, “What kind of photographer am I?” Granted that most of us photograph  myriad subject material, the main question is, “What is our essence?”  What common thread, permeates all of our photography. In other words, what common, recognizable thread runs through our landscape, wildlife, flower, abstract, cityscape, people, infrared, macro, etal. photography? It’s obviously not the wide variation of subject material, so it has to be how we approach the subject material, how we place elements in the frame, and basically, how we see and present our vision to the world.

An example of recognizable style is the great Freeman Patterson. Being familiar with Freeman’s work long before I took a workshop with him, I could easily discern a “Freeman” image. Regardless of the subject matter, every image had the same emotional pull, the same “feel.” I remember thinking, “how the hell does he do that?” I also remember thinking that it was a process, and in order to get to that place, if even possible, I would have to be more concerned about the feeling of the image, more than the content. So, at that moment, the odyssey began…

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, after a certain point in my development, it was essential to turn off the external stimuli and venture forward on my own. After all, as with any creative endeavor, development of one’s style is a function of dedication, consistency, constant immersion, exposure, and the passage of time.

For me, a common thread between the three aforementioned disciplines is the need to communicate emotionally with others. The need to go beyond the surface; the need to engender an emotional response from me as well as from the viewer. As with all things, it’s ultimately not about the thing, but about the response or, to be more precise, the emotional impact. And as I look back, that always has been my goal, my common thread, regardless of the pursuit.

Two quotes are always at the tip of my thoughts during any creative process: 

  1. If you can’t feel what you’re doing, no one else will either, and specific to photography,
  2. It’s not about depth of field. It’s about depth of feeling.

Keeping these two tenets in mind has gotten me beyond the mere output and more into the feeling communicated in whatever discipline I’m pursuing at the time.

So, that’s pretty much it, just another random thought.

Thanks for taking the time and we’ll see ya online!


p.s. Keep an eye out for our year-end Visual Artistry Newsletter, coming soon!

p.p.s. Please share!


A fresh perspective

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Since a large part of this business is software intensive and moving more and more towards personal interpretation, the first thing I try to do each day is to reprocess a very old image. “Very old” being defined as at least 2 years ago. It’s like practicing an instrument, moving from the technical to the aesthetic. If enough time has gone by since taking the image, differences are noticeable and offer a window into my thought process (or lack thereof) at the time. 

Here’s the raw image:

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The raw material is good: low tide reflections, sea stacks, good clouds, but crooked horizon.

This was made about 10 years ago and my first inclination was to process in B&W.
Using Silver Efex Pro v.1, I chose a preset and modified it a bit. The results follow:


I look at it now and wince. Aside from the garish processing, I can’t discern a subject. I remember when I made the image, what got my immediate attention was the sea stacks in the sky opening, then I obviously got taken by the clouds and wet sand and lost the initial focus and included too much in the frame. Even as I look at it now, my eyes are randomly moving through the frame.

When pulling the original file up this morning, I knew that I could do better.

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  1. I straightened the horizon, then cropped to square to emphasis the sea stacks, cloud framing, and reflection.
  2. rather than a visual cacophony of bright clouds, fog, graphic reflections, and high contrast, I did the following:
    1. Selected the seastacks, saved the selection and darkened to silhouette.
    2. Inverted the selection and slightly darkened the sky and sand reflection.
    3. In the sky only, I burned in the darker parts of the thinly clouded sky, which separated and accentuated the bright clouds, creating a sense of depth and movement.
    4. In the sand only, I slightly darkened the entire reflection.
    5. Then, in the reflection only, I burned in the darker areas around the white clouds reflection to create more separation, then burned in detail in the clouds reflections.
    6. Finally, added a small global contrast increase.

The final image reflects a more mature, focused process. Cleaner and more organic.

It’s not a bad idea to get in the routine of practicing processing, in general, but also in reprocessing older images, which can be quite enlightening.

Workshop UPDATE:

Our first workshop of the season is our Smokies Winter Shootout, Feb 21 – 25. 
It’s a great time to be there. Gallery 1 and Last year.

Please visit our 2016 Visual Artistry Nature/ Landscape workshop schedule

Also, Check out our new “Visual Creativity Seminars” DVD (HD download) from MasterPhotoWorkshops.

Thanks for taking the time and have a great holiday season!

Tony and Sue!

p.s. We have a “like new” Tamron 150-600 for sale. Email if interested.

Please click below to share. Thx!


Composition challenge


As recorders of light, we tend to shy away from or talk down conditions that aren’t dawn to sunrise and sunset to dusk. I remember many years ago leaving a scene when the light got hot, especially with no clouds, unfortunately indicative of a lack of imagination. 

There are two photographers always in my head: Pat Ohara and Freeman Patterson. Pat Ohara was the first photographer with whose work I felt an affinity. I love the feel and depth of Patrick’s work. Fifteen years ago, during my “rite of passage” workshop with Freeman Patterson, I inquired about Freeman photographing in harsh light. His response, which still resonates was, “There’s only light.” The implication immediately apparent to me at the time was, to complete the thought, “It’s how you use it.”  Since that moment, time of day became irrelevant. Of course, magic light is the big jackpot, but there are mini-jackpots available any time of any day.

Here’s a case in point. Obviously, the lead image isn’t much, but following my first instinct on location to look for a frame, I was encouraged by the snags. There is a tree to the left of the lead image.

Here’s the process, imaged in retrospect. The bright  examples were shot after the finished image at the bottom to use and illustrate the process in presentations. I used my Nikon D810 and 16-35mm lens.

Note: I always move around a scene hand holding the camera (that’s why the process images aren’t tack sharp), taking many shots, evaluating each composition on back of the camera, and fine tuning until I get in the ballpark, then I move the tripod in to work on the final composition.

On this example, I found a nicely shaped opening with the snags, but did not like the way the graphic was truncated. So, I backed up.



Here, I’m seeing the whole picture and the final frame that I think will work. Now, it’s just moving around in small increments to finalize the image.



On this “final” image, I moved in to fill the frame with the framing graphic, minimizing the cloudless blue sky. Then to add interest, with the tide just starting to recede, I added the Singh Ray 15 stop MorSlo to get the 4 minute exposure.

Trade offs (there’s always tradeoffs): In order to get the image to feel right to me by balancing the negative space, so as to not pull the eye away from the subject, there is a small opening at the bottom right, not completing the curve. If the camera was turned downwards to include the full curve, I would have altered the balance of the negative space and the placement of the subject balance within the frame. Zooming out had the same imbalance.

Self critique: Notice the slight halos? Halos are undesirable, and they will be corrected when processing for print.

NOTE: This entire process was done (unrecorded) before recording the final image. The brightly lit images above were shot after the fact to illustrate the process.


This image was made at sunrise at Botany Bay during our Charleston workshops:

March 28 – April 1          Visual Artistry Workshop (spaces available)
                                            Please contact Susan for more info and/or to register

April 3 – April 7               Digital Edge Workshop (full)
                                            Please contact Susan to be placed on our waiting list

Thanks for taking the time.

Have a great holiday season and we’ll see ya online!



Random thoughts: Why B&W?

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Why Black and White?

When and why does one decide?

The answers are subjective? There is no definitive answer. But, with enough experience, one can pretty quickly see a scene in B&W. The above image looked nothing like the reality, but this was what I was imagining. Below, is the reality.


  1. I “saw” the large, curvy lines, reminiscent of swimming fish, in very high contrast, which would blacken the water. With that, the basic dark nature of the rest of the image was easy to imagine.
  2. The small white cloud would be much more prominent when the blue sky was processed to become almost jet black.
  3. The sand and water under the clouds was noticeably brighter than the sand and water under the blue sky. I figured that the difference and the separation could be enhanced in processing.
  4. At the end, I added a small contrast punch on a separate layer, so that I can dial it back, if needed.

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NOTE: It’s not what it is, it’s what you want to make it.

Just a random thought.

Thanks for taking the time and we’ll see ya online.


p.s. WHOA…almost forgot… Our Visual Creativity Seminars are now downloadable from Masterphotoworkshops!

p.p.s. please share

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