Writing about your Photographs

“I realized that learning to comment on my work not only made my work more effective but it also helped me understand my work better and solve certain creative challenges. In fact, I realized that there are many types of writing and many uses for writing. Writing is now an integral part of my creative process from start to finish. Making the Visual Verbal is a useful skill that can benefit everyone, including you.” ~ John Paul Caponigro via Scott Kelby

In my workshops, I encourage participants to write about their photographs in the image description – what they saw, how it made them feel, and how they composed accordingly.

This is not easy to do.

So, I was intrigued when I saw the 1K Photography Blogging Challenge at Photography Marketing Masters. Nigel Merrick says that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then we should be able to write a thousand words about them.

I decided to take the challenge with the image below, taken on a trip to Newfoundland earlier this year. Now, let me first say that writing does not come easy for me and I’m a woman of few words in person and on paper. After several attempts, I still haven’t been able to get to the 1,000 word mark; I’m at just over 700.

However, it was a very worthwhile exercise and I wanted to let you know about it in case you wanted to give it a try. You can even submit your writing to Nigel’s blog.


Tilting, Fogo Island, Newfoundland

We woke to the coldest day of the trip so far, and dense fog too. Even though it was late June, we knew that the weather could be unpredictable on this island of rock in the Atlantic Ocean.

I was on a long-awaited trip with two long-time friends to the only province in Canada I’d not yet visited – Newfoundland. One of my friends has family ties there and had spent time working on Fogo Island, where we were staying.

She was our guide and insisted on visiting the town of Tilting, which is a National Historic Site. That’s where we were headed that cool morning. We put on our layers, gloves and hats and set out in the car for the twenty minute drive.

Newfoundland has a strong Irish and fishing heritage. A few hundred years ago, Europeans made seasonal trips across the pond to fish for cod. Eventually, many of those Europeans migrated to Newfoundland (a British colony at the time) to fish year-round.

“It was fish that brought Europeans to Newfoundland, it was fish that dictated the pattern of their settlement, and it was the catching, salting, drying and marketing of fish that laid down the forms and structures of the society they built.” ~ Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage

Fishing was a way of life for Newfoundlanders for hundreds of years until a moratorium on cod fishing began in 1992, due to the overfishing of the area. While fishing is still part of the Newfoundland economy, it is no longer a growing industry.

Tilting was one of the first places where migratory fishermen stopped. It became a mostly Irish settlement and is home to possibly the oldest exclusively Irish cemetery in North America.

Our first stop at Tilting was at this rocky bay. The fog was still thick and the town seemed frozen in time. Since being named a historic site, many of the old buildings and red fishing “stages” have been restored.

These “stages” are where the fish are processed for salting and drying, and they are prevalent throughout the province. The fog showcased them beautifully. I wondered if they were painted red for this very reason, to be seen in the often foggy days from the fishing boats.

I was struck by how the restored building was surrounded by symbols of decay – the two upside-down fishing boats and the snow fence. I composed so that the “fishing stage” was in the upper right third of the frame, on a diagonal, so that the two upside down boats formed a triangle with the building. The eye is led around this triangle, and not out of the frame, giving a sense of stillness rather than movement. If I were to compose differently, I would probably pull back a little, leaving a little more space around the triangle, especially on the left side.

I loved how the boats were left out in the yard to decay. They symbolize the old way of life, and act as a kind of memorial to days gone by, even though time marches on. They had a sense of dignity to them.

The foggy background gives context – the bay, the rock, a weathered and broken down fence, and the small homes of the town of Tilting – yet, being veiled somewhat, they take a back seat to the building and the boats. I wondered who still lived in this town and what they did for a living.

Outside of the frame were well-preserved saltbox homes, the Irish cemetery, and a small museum (with no one in attendance), open to anyone who passed by. We wandered around a pebble beach and looked for heart-shaped stones. We saw a farm with horses and snowmobiles in the yard. There were very few people out on this chilly morning, although we did meet one man named Foley. That name goes back to the original settlers in this area, and there is an operating Bed and Breakfast Inn called Foley’s Place.

The serenity, the beauty, and the history of this place was breathtaking. And, the cool air literally made me catch my breath as I stood on the rocks at the edge of the bay.

All in all, this was one of my favourite images from the trip because it points to the essence of Newfoundland in one tiny frame – the ruggedness of the rocky land and the people, the reliance on water and fish, and the preservation of the past and a simpler way of life.


Related Reading

The 1K Blogging Challenge

A Novel look at how Stories may Change the Brain

10 National Geographic Photographers Give Thanks for the Photos that Changed Them

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Thankful for the Details

P1140370Today, I’m wishing a very happy Thanksgiving to all of my U.S. friends and family.

As a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., I get to celebrate twice, although there is no time that is not an opportunity to be thankful.

Today, I’m celebrating with my husband, my three U.S. based children, and our sister and brother-in-law. I’m thankful for them and for many other things, as I’m sure we all are.

But, I was inspired by Marie Forleo this week, when she said in her weekly video, “When it comes to gratitude, the dividends are in the details.”

So simple and brilliant.

And, this is just what we do with photography – pay closer attention and see details we often miss or gloss over, leading to greater appreciation.

So, here are a few details I’m thankful for.


* For the good news in the world that we often have to search for since bad news dominates the airwaves – like this article on the power of small kindnesses (and teachers). I truly believe that these stories are what keeps the world turning.

* For people who think about why they do what they do, instead of going along with the status quo. Like Gwen Seemel with her thoughts on copyright.

* For women’s voices, that seem to be rising at an ever-accelerating rate. This week, I was inspired by Lorde’s music, Julie Daley’s poetry, and Eve Ensler’s activism. These voices are much needed in the world today.

* For photography and sight, my tools for living an adventurous and contemplative life. This photograph in my Going Abstract group made me happy this week.

* And for you, the readers of this blog and those who participate in my workshops. You enrich my life in so many ways – with replies to my emails, comments on my blog, sharing your photographs and aha moments in workshops.

Today, I received an email from someone who attended my Star Island workshop. She was with a photo group, kind of bored, and contemplating the lessons learned from our workshop. She shared a photograph she took at that time. Another small kindness.

It’s so great to find a group of people who resonate with similar ideas, hopes and dreams.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.


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A Daily Contemplative Photo Walk Can Heal Mind, Body and Spirit


Almost every day, I like to get out for a contemplative photo walk. No agenda, no destination. No problem to be solved in my mind. It’s meditative; one where I focus my gaze and my breath on the world around me.

Contemplation is often confused with reflection. However, the two couldn’t be more different.

Reflection implies thought, usually about something that’s happened in the past or anticipating what might happen in the future. Reflection has its place.

The literal definition of contemplation is to “consider with attention.” To go deeper, it’s about experiencing life in a way that brings mind, body, and spirit together, where thoughts of the past or future disappear.

“Stop looking and begin seeing. Looking means you already have something in mind for your eyes to find. But seeing is being open and receptive to what comes to the eye; your vision total and non-targeted.” ~ Thomas Merton, Song for Nobody 

Contemplative photographs come from this meditative space. I photograph what comes up and don’t know what that will be.

Qualities of a Contemplative Photo Walk

* The senses are active.

I often pick two senses to focus on, for example, listening to sounds and feeling my feet touch the ground. This helps me to stay present and to see more than I normally would if lost in thought.

* There’s no agenda or destination.

I let my intuition guide the route, so it’s different every day. I’m open to whatever comes to my attention, and that includes objects or situations that might not be considered beautiful, interesting, or acceptable.

* The mind is at rest.

Thinking, thinking, thinking taxes the mind, especially the left side. In her book, Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor says that our culture cultivates left brain dominance.

“Statistics vary, but generally everyone who is right handed (85% of the U.S. Population) is left hemisphere dominant. Over 60% of left handed people are also left hemisphere dominant.” ~ Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight

By experiencing the reality of life as it is, we give the left side of our brains a rest and tap into the right side, where we can develop its qualities of spatial awareness, intuition, and creativity (UCMAS, Mental Math Schools).

I see contemplative photography as one tool for stimulating the right side of the brain (see Photography for the Right Side of the Brain).


Beneficial Side Effects of a Daily Photo Walk

* Fresh air and exercise is always good for the body and soul.

* Sometimes, when I’ve given my mind a rest, a solution to a problem will emerge out of the blue. It bubbles up from my unconscious mind.

* A daily photo walk can make us feel more connected to the place we inhabit, including the natural world and the people in our community. The more connected we are, the more invested we are.

* More than anything, my daily walk makes me more appreciative and aware of the life I’m living and my place in it.

Do you wonder how you can fit a contemplative photo walk into your day? It doesn’t have to be long – 15 minutes or so – and you can do it anywhere; on your way to work, walking the dog, going to lunch, or on an afternoon break.

Do you already take a daily walk (with or without your camera)? If so, what effects has it had on your life? If not, will you try to fit one in?


Related Reading

On Looking – Ideas for Photo Walks
Cultivate Seeing
Maira Kalman on Walking as a Creative Device
Photography as Meditation

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I’ve Looked at Clouds


Clouds’ Illusions

I’d originally planned for today’s post to be about a trip to Chicago this past weekend. And, although I took a few photographs in the windy city, it was the clouds outside the airplane window coming and going that really drew me in.

As you’ll see, the classic Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now (listen below) describes the experience beautifully.

Clouds are endlessly fascinating and especially so from an airplane, where we see them from a different perspective. They’re constantly moving and changing, and so are we. New compositions appear every second.

Going to Chicago on Thursday morning, the view was one of blue skies above fluffy clouds that looked like cotton balls. It felt as if we were bouncing all the way to Chicago, in anticipation of a fun weekend ahead. I felt carefree and relaxed.

“Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way.”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

Coming home mid-afternoon on a snowy Sunday, the clouds looked very different, quite mysterious in fact. They were mostly blocking the sun and the blue sky, not fluffy like cotton balls, but more like a soft, snowy landscape.

Amazingly, the second stanza in Both Sides Now fit perfectly.

“But now they only block the sun,
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done,
But clouds got in my way.”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

As we began our descent, down through the clouds and back to reality, I felt as though the clouds were slowly enveloping me (and the airplane). It was time to get my head out of the clouds and start thinking about the practicalities of the week ahead.

Again, Joni speaks to me.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

Joni Mitchell wrote this song as a young, twenty-something woman on the edge of stardom. In this interesting article by Brad Wheeler for the Globe and Mail, he quotes singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan.

“Both Sides, Now is, at first, a meditation on clouds, the whimsical way a child sees them, as “ice-cream castles in the air,” but there are two sides to everything, and as we mature, we stop seeing clouds for their simple beauty, but as a sign of rain or bad weather. It is like that with all things that seem at first so simple and beautiful, such as love and life. We start out with such natural optimism as children, and then as adults we tend to learn a bitter pessimism or brutal honesty, seeing clouds/life/love for what they are.” – Catherine MacLellan, PEI singer-songwriter

It’s best to be able to see both sides. Listen below.


Related Reading

Cloud Symbolism

Alfred Stieglitz – Clouds as Equivalents

A Short Film Reflection on Clouds from The School of Life


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The Value of Uncertainty


“When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” ~ Margaret Drabble

The quote above is such a paradox, because we really don’t like uncertainty, yet we want to experience everything being possible.

Ellen Langer is one of my favourite mindfulness researchers. I previously wrote about her interview with Krista Tippett at On Being – The Science of Mindlessnes and Mindfulness, with regard to photography as a practice of direct mindfulness.

What I didn’t know then is that Ellen Langer is also a painter and came to that medium later in life. I recently read her book on creativity and mindfulness, called On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity. In it, she speaks of the value of uncertainty.

Below are some of her thoughts on this topic (with my applications to photography).

* Making “right” decisions is not easy because the outcome is never pre-determined.

How often do we paralyze ourselves by trying to make the “right” decision? Langer suggests we make one and then adjust until it feels right. What if we were to shift our perspective from making a “good” photograph to playing and experimenting until we get the photograph that feels right?

* Our purpose in life is not to bring about an outcome, but to bring about ourselves.

When we focus on bringing about ourselves, the outcomes will follow. If we bring about ourselves; if we’re tapped into our intuition, trust our instincts, and know what we want to say, our photographs will naturally reflect that knowledge.

* Langer says that small, daily annoyances are what causes most of our stress – things we cannot control.

But, she explains that once we realize that we have control over our psychological experience of these annoyances, our experience of them will not be so negative.

The same goes for photography. Conditions will never be perfect. We will never have exactly the right gear. Every artist and every photographer has always worked with the materials at hand to create their art.

* Every choice we make affects every other choice to come.

Therefore, we can never truly know the outcome of our choices. We grow when we become responsive (to what is), rather than reactive (to the way we think it should be).

This is the essence of creativity, responding to our environment in a truly connected and authentic way, and expressing that connection through our work.

* Those we call talented don’t know what they’re going to create any more than we do.

They just start and see where it leads them. Having expectations in photography sometimes causes us to miss incredible opportunities, because we’re not expecting them and therefore don’t see them. Letting go of expectations opens us to infinite possibilities.

Photograph without expectations today. Play. Experiment.

Related Reading

The Problem with Belief
Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance by Jonathan Fields

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The Perils of Photo Critique

“Who can you count on to notice things in your work? Well, mainly yourself. If there’s something there, viewers may respond, but usually inwardly. And, if the vision is not fully realized, responses will be even muddier.” ~ Sean Kernan, Looking into the Light

There are all kinds of places online (and in photography workshops) where you can get critiques of your photos. I visited one such site and clicked on an abstract image that had eleven replies. Each reply was totally different and very subjective.

So, what does a photographer do with this information?

I have nothing against getting feedback as long as we put it in its proper place. In this post, I’d like to share some ideas on critique and suggest that you already know inside what feels good or not so good about your images.

Tara Mohr, in her book Playing Big, says:

“Feedback doesn’t tell you about you. It tells you about the person giving the feedback. It gives us facts (information) about the opinions and preferences of those giving the feedback. It is vital not because it tells us about our own value but because it tells us whether we are reaching the people we need to reach.” ~ Playing Big (Chapter 4, Unhooking from Praise and Criticism)

In other words, when it comes to a photograph, the feedback doesn’t tell us if it’s good (or if we’re good), it tells us whether or not it resonates with that particular person.

Sean Kernan, in his book, Looking into the Light, also has a chapter (10) on feedback. He says:

“The trouble with asking people what they think of your work is that they tell you. You need to listen to people very carefully, and to your own voice most of all.”

The most important response is your own. Take in external feedback but don’t make it the most important thing.

I believe that we intuitively know how to compose (especially with practice) and we know if we’ve been able to express what we saw. Some photographers will say that the photographs that they took “didn’t turn out,” meaning the images didn’t reflect what they saw. In some cases, it probably wasn’t possible. In most cases, they didn’t take the time to really explore how to do it or to clarify their intention.

Those who’ve taken my online workshops know that I’m not big on photo critique. My main goals in the workshops are:

1. That participants will photograph daily and broaden what and how they see. This requires practice and an openness to play and making mistakes.

Critique often shuts that down.

2. That they will learn to trust their instincts about what they see and why and gain greater self-awareness in the process.

They learn to critique their own images.

3. That they have a safe space to express and share their vision with others.

They’ll feel free to post without worrying about harsh criticism.

In the online world, interaction is fraught with misinterpretation and misunderstanding. When someone posts an image, they are sharing a little piece of themselves. Therefore, critique should be minimal and constructive.

I prefer to focus on the positive – whether their intention or vision comes across and to point out what does work.

I encourage participants to write about why they are posting an image and what decisions they made in the creation process. To me, this is by far the best way to learn – by analyzing our own images, writing out our intentions, and seeing how others do the same.

For example, in the photograph at the top of this post, I was drawn by the constant movement of the water towards the right. The sun was setting and lighting up the autumn trees on the far shore. By intentionally setting a longer shutter speed and panning my camera to the right, I was able to show the colour and feeling of movement – in other words, my experience of the moment. The longer shutter speed did overexpose the image, and I’m not thrilled with the white band at the top. Overall, I’m happy with the way it turned out. And, that’s what matters most.

It’s not easy to express what one saw and felt in a photograph. However, it’s a good practice to develop. In my next post, I’ll share an exercise I’ve been working on to do just that.

Sometimes, it’s not possible to say it in words and the image must speak for itself. I think that these are usually the best. (Read: Guy Tal on Visual Fluency.)

What are your thoughts on critique? Have you had an experience that shut you down?


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