Taking Your Photography to the Next Level

indianapolis buildingA recent participant in one of my workshops asked me for suggestions on how to take his photography to the next level.

Now, that question could mean different things to different people and I answered him as best as I could according to what I knew about him and my own thoughts on the subject.

My short answer would be – practice and learn every day and trust your instincts.

Below are six more ways to take your photography to the next level.

1. Review your images from the past year. Pick your 10 favourites and decide what makes them work.

Is the subject clear? How does the composition – lines, light, shapes, texture, perspective – contribute to its success? How is the eye drawn around the image? Does it tell a story or evoke an emotion?

Just by identifying these things in your mind, you’re training yourself to see better when out photographing.

2. Know your camera.

The great thing about the Internet is that you can usually find the answer to any technical question you have (and for free). Digital Photography School is a valuable resource I would recommend and they also offer weekly challenges.

3. Photograph daily (or as much as possible) with a contemplative mindset.

This means, don’t photograph with any agenda in mind or subject to photograph. Experience your day, pay attention, and notice what draws you. Then, don’t judge what you see or worry whether anyone else will find it interesting. Trust your instincts. This will help you find your own vision.

A 365-day project is a great way to develop this daily photography habit.

4. Download an e-book from Craft & Vision (or somewhere else).

I have many of the Craft & Vision e-books. They are an incredible value and always teach me something new; especially useful if you actually DO the exercises suggested.

5. Attend a weekend or week-long workshop.

My photography seems to leap forward when I do this and there’s nothing like spending focused time on photography with other photographers. I highly recommend Freeman Patterson’s workshops, as well as Santa Fe workshops.

Of course, I’d love for you to join me for an in-person workshop as well. I have three coming up this year.

6. Study the masters.

Which photographers inspire you the most? Study their work and their lives. I think you’ll find that some of the qualities you admire in them, you also have in you. I’ve written about several of my favourites on this blog – Minor White, Robert Frank, and Tina Modotti, to name three.

Before taking my first photography class, I read about the life of Ansel Adams. I was drawn to his black and white images of wilderness areas – yes – but more importantly, the way he lived his life with passion and integrity. He was a photographer, musician, writer, and activist, but most of all he was a communicator.

How do you take your photography to the next level?


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On Balance in Photography


Poetry by Norah Weir Oulahen, Print available at Imagekind

It’s not until we understand balance and energy that we can wield them well. ~ David duChemin, The Visual Imagination

Photo by Design was the first online workshop I created. It’s based on what I learned about visual design from Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant in their workshops.

The first group went through in Fall of 2011. Last week, the 8th group finished this six-week workshop and I continue to learn from everyone who participates and by repeating the exercises myself.

In our final week, we talk about what makes an image balanced. Balance does not mean symmetrical or serene; it can be asymmetrical or dynamic.

To me, balance is something that is felt and not easily explained.

I often think of that rare fulfilling joy when you are in the presence of some wonderful alignment of events. Where the light, the colour, the shapes, and the balance all interlock so perfectly that I feel truly overwhelmed by the wonder of it. – Charlie Waite

However, in David duChemin’s new e-book, The Visual Imagination (highly recommended for those who like impressionistic or abstract photography), he has a section on balance, and gives us a way of talking about it.

DuChemin suggests examining 10 of your favourite images.

The first step is to circle the element in each image that has the greatest visual weight (or mass) and decide what pulled you there. How is that mass balanced by other elements?

Next, he says to identify how the eye moves through the frame, from where it first lands to where it goes next, and so on, until it ends, gets trapped, or moves out of the frame.

In the image above, my eye first goes to the land (and words) in the lower right. It’s balanced by the water (colour contrast) and the rock in the upper left (size contrast). My eye moves from there to the rock in the upper left. It almost seems to radiate.

The image below was taken recently and felt balanced to me. I’ve shown the visual mass with a black circle and then, where my eye moves, in white. You may experience it differently.


Although, it’s fairly “busy,” the circular theme dominates – from the individual cactus blooms to the edge of the pot, to the spiral shape created within the frame.

The bloom in the lower right third of the frame stands out to me as having the greatest visual weight. While some of the blooms are on the edge of the frame, my eye stays within, taking that spiral shape from its beginning at the bottom left to the bloom at the end.

I share this exercise so that you might try it with one of your images. It’s a good tool to have in your repertoire to be able to know what makes an image work and what doesn’t.

Perhaps the most effective way of learning about balance is by looking at photos that don’t have it… Achieving Balance in shots is something that photographers learn over time. The best way to learn it is to scan through some of your older images, looking for those that could be more balanced. ~ Darren Rowse, Digital Photography School

Learn more about The Visual Imagination by David duChemin.

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What is Real?

In contemplative (or meditative) photography, we talk about taking a long, loving look at the real (Merton).

But, what is real?

I believe that our perceptions are certainly real for us and we can always practice widening our lens. However, we will never know the whole story.

Photography helps us to widen the lens.

Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg shows us the Hidden Miracles of the Natural World at TED2014. Through time-lapse photography and powerful microscopes, we see what cannot be seen through the naked eye. Schwartzber asks,

What is the intersection between technology, art, and science? Curiosity and wonder, because it drives us to explore; because we’re surrounded by things we can’t see.


Technology helps us to widen the lens.

Physicist Brian Greene goes even further in this interview with Krista Tippet at On Being – Reimagining the Cosmos.

IMG_4409Greene describes the evolution of our understanding of the universe. With Newtonian physics, we were able to describe the world through our senses, yet Greene shows how limiting that knowledge can be.

I mean, if you went by your senses, you would think that this table is solid. But we now know that this table is mostly empty space. If you went by your senses, you would think that time is universal, it ticks off the same rate for everyone, regardless of their motion, or the gravity that they are experiencing. We know for a fact that that is not true. We all carry our own clock, and it ticks at a rate that is hugely dependent on those features of motion and gravity. So there’s a very long list of things that you would be completely misled by if you relied on your senses to understand how that feature of the world works.

Greene goes on to describe the hidden realities (possibly even parallel universes) that are facets of the quantum world, which we human beings can’t see.

Both of these people provide lessons in staying open to wonder and being continual explorers of new perspectives. There is always more beyond what we see. They make me appreciate the mystery at the heart of our world.

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5 Lessons from Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work

red wheel

Seeing Red and Practicing Simplicity

Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of three illustrated books: Steal Like An Artist (Workman, 2012) is a manifesto for creativity in the digital age; Show Your Work! (Workman, 2014) is a guide to sharing creativity and getting discovered; and Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010) is a collection of poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker. Learn more here.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes is widely quoted as saying that in our eccentricities lies our giftedness (The Dangerous Old Woman).

That quote certainly applies to Austin Kleon, who creates newspaper blackouts – poems by blacking out words in newspaper articles. The remaining words are the poems.

After graduating from college, Kleon worked as a librarian for a couple of years. During this time, he read and wrote and drew. Much of what he does now involves executing the ideas he formulated then.

Recently, I finished his latest book, Show Your Work, and thought I’d share my 5 most important lessons.

1. Don’t wait for your final product.

We don’t have to wait until we have an exhibit or product before showing our work. We can and should share our process – knowledge, ideas, and what we’re learning along the way.

This can be through blog posts, social media, or speaking at conferences. We gain a following or network through generosity and the ensuing conversation. This is the antidote to self-promotion.

This type of sharing becomes our body of work or even our resume. People learn about us by what we share online.

2. We learn as we show.

I can certainly attest to learning as I go. Through the act of writing a blog and teaching workshops and photographing every day, I’ve improved as a writer and teacher and photographer.

Think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. Wear your amateurism on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you. ~ Austin Kleon


3. Start small and daily.

When I committed to posting at least twice weekly on my blog, I had no idea of the body of work that would develop. I now have 465 published posts and my page views and email list have grown substantially. Those posts are often used as research or links for the workshops I develop.

Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine. ~ Austin Kleon

Kleon suggests posting something somewhere every day, whether it’s a blog post or tweet that will be helpful to someone else. He says to give it the “so what?” test – a great tool for discerning what to share online.

Tell people what you’re working on or what you’re reading or inspired by. I love sharing what and who inspires me (which is what I’m doing right now).

But also, don’t let the sharing take over from doing the work.

Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do – sometimes even more than your own work. ~ Austin Kleon


4. Trust your instincts and tell your stories.

Remember to celebrate your eccentricities and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about what you love (or what you photograph). By being open about who we are, we’ll find others with like minds.

What we share all adds up to our story.

Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. Kleon says to study the great stories and then find some of your own. Your stories will get better the more you tell them.

If you need some help writing your story, I highly recommend wordsmith Alexandra Franzen, who has a number of free resources that will help you write yours (thanks Norah, for reminding me of this).

5. The world owes us nothing.

And finally, how do we share our work without becoming human spammers?

By spending more time listening, having conversations, and sharing the work of others and those who influence us. This is how great work and collaborations happen.

In other words, be a fan. Be a good citizen in your online communities. Be interested and curious.

If you want to get, you have to give. If you want to be noticed, you have to notice. Shut up and listen once in awhile. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Show your work, and when the right people show up, pay close attention to them, because they’ll have a lot to show you. ~ Austin Kleon

There’s a lot of great advice in this little but powerful book, whether you have an online business or blog or not.

Try sharing more of yourself and what you love on social media and with the important people in your life. And conversely, get curious about others. What are they not sharing with you?


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What is Good Photography?

Photographer Chris Orwig asks us to think about this question near the beginning (5:30 mark) of his fabulous talk at Google (see video below).

My immediate answer was that good photography makes me feel something and then the feeling is conveyed through visual design.

Thanks to The Minimalist Photographer for this video.

Photographing is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second. ~ Photographer Marc Riboud

Orwig goes deeper into this topic over the next 40 or so minutes of his talk. He begins by talking about how the camera helps us to see life differently because it makes us look deeper.

Here are some of the highlights of his talk. I highly recommend that you watch the whole thing.

1. Good photography tells us who we are.

Orwig believes that who we are is mirrored in our best photographs. There is no separation between us and our cameras and our subjects. The way we see is unique and that’s why we can often recognize a photographer’s images before we even know it’s theirs.

It’s about more than style. Something deep in them is reflected in their images and this makes the images better.

Not everyone believes this. Some say that the photographer should not have his or her fingerprint on the image at all. Even in contemplative photography circles, this is a common theme as it is about photographing what is without judgment or interpretation. I believe that we can photograph what we see without judgment or interpretation, yet what we see is unique to us (see #3).

2. Good photography depends on how we pause and reframe.

Orwig advises us to go beyond the first image we make. Take the first “postcard shot” and then move on to really work it. Go deeper. What’s there and what do we really want to convey? Here’s where we open up to different possibilities and perspectives.

Zero in on the subject and then travel around the edge of the frame. The art of learning how to reframe helps us to create images that are more clear, which convey, and somehow draw people in, and change the image from something mediocre to something possibly magnificent.


3. Good photography conveys the inward significance.

A good photograph is about more than the visual elements – it’s about the inward significance or meaning – the story being told. There is a subtlety that draws you in. It’s about your passion or engagement with the subject. Photograph what matters most to you. Don’t impersonate. Don’t be a spectator. Find the photograph and resist perfection.

This is where the feeling comes in for me.

I’ve enjoyed Chris Orwig’s writing in the magazine, Photograph, as well as on his website. But, this video gave me a whole new appreciation for his philosophy on photography. He also offers photography tutorials through Lynda.com.

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The Story Behind the Image – Rimmed By Light

If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you’re setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time. Personally, I’d rather feel good most of the time, so to me everything counts; the small moments, the medium ones, the successes that make the papers and also the ones that no one knows about but me. The challenge is avoiding being derailed by the big, shiny moments that turn other people’s heads. You have to figure out for yourself how to enjoy and celebrate them, and then move on. ~ Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life

LightCommander Chris Hadfield captured the imagination of the world by sharing videos and photos and even music from the International Space Station.

After returning home and retiring from the Space program, he wrote the book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, about how what he learned as an astronaut can be applied to life in general.

It’s a fascinating book, full of wisdom and the quote above was one of my favourites.

These words also describe the experience of contemplative photography, where everything counts and is celebrated, especially those small, ordinary and often unnoticed moments.

The image to your right is one example.

It was taken last summer while sitting outside in my backyard, working and reading. When I took a break and looked around, I noticed the rim of light on these ties attached to our table umbrella. Within a few minutes, the light was gone.

It was a small moment – but one filled with magic that added richness to my day.

** More on The Astronaut’s Guide to Life from Brain Pickings

** Awesome Lessons Learned from Chris Hadfield by Kaarina Dillabough

** Chris Hadfield’s 30 Best Photos from Space

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