Category Archives: Inspiration

More Thoughts on Art and Competition



The positive response to my previous post tells me people are interested in the topic of art, photography and competition. I’d like to add a few more thoughts.

First, for anyone who might think otherwise, make no mistake, I believe camera clubs offer great value, especially to beginning to intermediate photographers. My friend Chuck Robinson feels the same way. This is what he had to say about his club experience. “I joined our camera club when I first got started into photography.  I wanted to meet people with similar interests and learn more about photography.  I ended up befriending some great people who are awesome photographers and I did learn a great deal through these friendships.  I enjoyed the competitions at first because I thought it was a way for me to gauge the growth of my photography compared to others that have been shooting way longer than I.  I felt that it also pushed me to become better.  As a novice photographer at the time, I felt that it was beneficial to my growth”  I agree with Chuck, his feelings mirror many others I’ve spoken to about their club experience.

Chuck goes on to say, “Nine years later my feelings have changed. Today, my personal view is much different. A little over a year ago, I was becoming frustrated in my photography.  Although I did very well in the competitions, I felt that the comments from the judges from month to month were all over the map. Now I can take constructive criticism, in fact, I look forward to it.  But some of the comments were just ridiculous. More importantly, I felt like I was creating images just to win competitions and I was becoming very frustrated and lost sight of why I wanted to create images in the first place. I was losing my desire in photography. I was chasing what I thought someone else would think was a winner.  I had to stop and regroup and distance myself from the club. I feel so much  better now that I’ve done that”  This too, is common feedback and emphasizes my concern with competition. 

I am currently traveling with my tour partner Dan Sniffin. We have been conversing about the value of camera clubs and the feedback to my last post. We even called Cole Thompson as someone shared with him a Facebook link with some of my comments regarding this subject. We all arrived at the same conclusion. Getting people to think about what and why they are creating images is important and healthy.

Second, In no way am I advocating that everyone who owns a camera or is part of a camera club should ascribe to my way of thinking. There are some who enjoy competing, winning points, pins, ribbons and plaques. If this is what brings you joy, who am I to say otherwise? For instance, I have a friend Gunther Riehle who is one of the highest ranking PSA nature photographers in the world. His work is stunning, yet follows a different vision and the guidelines of PSA. I am simply suggesting that following your heart or your vision could bring a different level of joy or satisfaction. Or as my friend Dewitt Jones says, another right answer. Let me share a two stories that might illustrate what I’m trying to say.

I was on the first day of a fall weekend photography workshop. The colors were astounding, the conditions could not have been better. A participant came up to me and said, “I am going to go home.” I asked if I had said something that offended her, had I done something wrong?  She said, “No, its just I am not finding what I came for.” She then shared that she had a competition at her camera club and her expectation was to find a particular image that she could win with. Rather than find another right answer, a different and maybe better answer, she went home. Isn’t that sad?

Contrast that experience to this story. Dan (tour partner) and I were scouting for our spring Smoky Mountain Tour last year. When we arrived, he said to me, “John, don’t worry if I don’t shoot much. I’ve been to the Smokies a number of times, I’ve got all the images I need. I’m going to just relax. I have no expectations for this trip. I’ll just shoot when something moves me.”  Normally Dan would go on a trip and have a “shot list.”  Not this time, he was going to be open to what moved him, spoke to him and inspired him. Guess what? He produced the best work he has ever produced from the Smokies. His success was so good, he did the same thing in the Palouse a couple of months later with the same results.

These stories capture the essence of what I was hoping to express in this and my previous post. I am simply suggesting an alternative approach.  A more contemplative approach, where you are open to whatever turns your head and will create based on what makes your heart sing.

Art is not a competition


I don’t know about you, but lately more than ever I sense for many, photography has become a competition. Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Instagram all feed us images in what feels like a never-ending stream. Sites like 500px seem to promote competition for Likes. I’m not sure this is healthy, at least for those aspiring to do more with their photography.

Back in ancient times when I used film, I felt more connected to the subject than the technical aspects of photography. When photographing, I was immersed in the experience, many times not seeing developed images for a week or more. Without Facebook, there were limited avenues to share images. The focus was on the experience and image making.

Digital photography and the “internet” offer value, especially for learning. But, I fear they have changed the “focus” to immediate gratification, and foster competition. I have no desire to participate! I photograph because it feeds my soul. I love and cherish being in the moment. And that is what separates the average photographer from the great ones. Connection. Connection to the experience, connection to subject, connection to others, life, etc.  The photographers I admire, Dan Sniffin, Chuck Kimmerle, Cole Thompson and Guy Tal to name a few, all speak or write about it, and live this idea. They are not out to make the next wall hanger or to achieve front page status on 500px. No, I believe they are more interested in being part of, and connected to, the experience of photography. The images they create are a by-product of that intimate connection. When I look at their images, I sense this connection and feel I am looking at a part of them. Don’t misunderstand, I am human. I enjoy having others like what I do. I just don’t want that to drive my photography. So my question to you is: Where are your boundaries? Is this something you’ve consciously thought about? Is it even important to you?

Mindful Photography


One of the participants at our recent “See the Light” workshop was Flint Sparks. For many years, Flint has been leading his own workshops at the Hui Ho’olana (on Molokai Hawaii), teaching mindful embodiment and meditation. This time he was a participant wanting to learn more about photography. On the first day as we got to know each other, Flint shared his lack of camera knowledge as well as his excitement about learning. He portrayed himself as a “new” or “beginner” photographer. Later that night when the participants shared their 10 favorite images, I was anxious to see Flint’s. His first image came up and I heard an audible gasp from the group. My reaction was the same, the image was magnificent. Then, 10 seconds later as the slideshow continued, his next image appeared. Another gasp, another stunning image. In the end, all 10 of Flint’s images were truly amazing. They were full of emotion and connection with his subject. They were not just snapshots from a “beginner,” but rather images that clearly expressed who he was, what he saw and how he felt. I sat there wondering how could this be? Flint had made it clear that he was a new or beginner photographer.

The next morning we had our first “porch sharing session.”  In this session we asked the participants to think about and then share why they photograph. It was a lively and interesting discussion during which Flint and others shared insightful, thoughtful and meaningful ideas. The next day we had another porch sharing session. This time with the focus on connection with subject. Again Flint shared marvelous pearls of wisdom. Really good pearls, pearls that got me thinking. Here, I was a “leader” clearly being taught by a master teacher! And then, in quiet reflection after the sharing session, it dawned on me why Flint’s images were so good. Flint had already done the work we were asking the group to consider. The work of becoming a mindful photographer. The work of learning to be still, quiet and open. Flint embodies these principals. He teaches them, he lives them, he is them. As such, Flint is already in that place where images just being to appear.

Flint shared his thoughts on the way we have evolved as humans. And to humanize what our brain is constantly doing said, “our brain is like wifi that is constantly scanning and asking the world these three questions. Are you there? Do you see me? Do you choose me?” Isn’t photography much the same regardless of the subject? I can imagine the person in the street that I’ll be photographing in Cuba next week essential asking these very questions. Hello, are you there? Do you see me and do you care about me? Do you choose to photograph me and will you be careful with me?  And while it might be more difficult for some to think of a a dune at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley this way, is it not the same? Isn’t the dune asking, are you there, do you see me, do you choose me?

It was said during the week that we don’t take a picture, rather the picture takes us. Freeman Patterson says, “when we take a picture, the camera points both ways.” During the week, we invited participants to pay attention to what turns their head. In other words, what grabs your attention so viscerally that you must make a photograph. So, I ask you, what are you being taken by?  And, are you being mindful enough to be open to what you are being taken by, so that you can make an image that makes your heart sing? Or that others will connect with and that will make their heart sing?

As a side note, Flint has done and excellent Tedx talk which you can view by clicking on this link.  You might also check out his excellent blog where you can read his comments about his week as a student in our workshop.

Leaning in or Leaning out? Further discussion.

Thanks to all who shared their thoughts about the last two posts.  I posted the two leaning tree images, as they generated an interesting discussion in the field while making them. When Dan (tour partner) showed me the first image (below) with what some of you see as a tree leaning out, I too had the same reaction. It felt like the tree was leaning out of the frame. He responded by saying “I see it as an element that is directing the eye into the frame.” Commenter Rad, has done a good job of articulating what Dan and then I ultimately saw, thus prompting me to make the capture. “The leaning out image for me has a circular, repeating motion to it. I find my eye following the leaning tree into the frame at the bottom, across to the yellow trees on the right, and then up and to the left to do it all over again. The vertical lines are less figural and play a supporting role to the lead characters of the leaning tree and the two yellow trees on the right.” So, at this point, I would argue that the leaning tree in the first image is actually leading the eye into and not out of the frame.


Now, lets look at the other image. This one, most agree, has the tree leaning into the frame.  Again Rad does an excellent job breaking down what my eye is doing.  “The one leaning in takes me in a clean, horizontal but staccato ride from left to right. It’s about the horizontal line of color contrasted with the staccato rythym of the vertical lines of the trees. I can almost hear it as a cymbal crash, followed by a drum beat with a thread of yellow “melody” holding it all together. For me it flows in one direction – left to right- and exits at the right.” Man, I love the drum and cymbal analogy! Thanks Rad.


I think it instructive to reiterate what commenter Frank said as it is why I added the leaning tree to each composition. “This is a great example of a comp(composition) based on a pattern and a break in pattern, with all the verticals except for one. ” Frank is correct about adding an element to break a pattern. Pattern images are fine, however, when we add an element that breaks the pattern, we add visual interest. This element may direct the eye in a very clear way. Other times it may simply break the pattern giving the eye a place to go and then bounce back to the pattern. I’ve cloned out the leaning tree in the image below to illustrate. I think the leaning tree makes for a more interesting and impactful image.


As evidenced by the varied comments, there appears to be no right or wrong image. We each see or read images differently. Ultimately, you need to decide what works best for you. And fight for your vision by the way. Just because someone does not agree, this does not make them right and you wrong. 

Lastly, I believe discussions like this are important. Not enough people carefully assess their (or others) images. Doing so allows you to make a more thoughtful decision about your composition in the field. 

Which image do I prefer? The second one.

Beware of expectations


My tour partner Dan Sniffin learned a valuable lesson over the course of our last two tours together. His story is worth sharing as it illustrates a point I make in my presentation, “Discovery & The Creative Choice.”  And that is to beware of expectations. Up until the Smoky Tour this spring, Dan has typically arrived with expectations. He might say something like, I want to find a lone tree in fog or I am looking for such and such situation. Then during the tour and even the pre-tour, he would be focused on finding such. This time, as Dan arrived in the Smokies he said to me, “John, I have no expectations on this tour. I just want to relax and whatever happens, happens.” And guess what? Dan produced what I believe to be some of his finest work. And, he produced more “keepers” than on any other tour we’ve done together. Next, he arrived in the Palouse a few weeks ago and said, “John, I’ve shot in the Palouse 10 times, I’m not sure I’ll be doing much shooting. I’m going to relax but if I see something, I’ll get a camera out. If not, thats fine too.” Guess what? Yup, once again Dan produced stellar images and more of them than any other trip to the Palouse.

What is the point? By removing expectations and by being open to what was being given to Dan, he was actually able to see more! I would suggest that you don’t try and force images to fit an expectation you have. Rather, just be still and let the images come to you! Beware of those pesky expectations. You know, the expectation to come home from this trip with 10 “keepers.” Or, I saw these killer images of Iceland on 500px. Now I have to go to Iceland to make similar images. These kind of expectations can be dangerous and can potentially influence your “seeing” in a negative way as you’ll be under pressure to succeed against false or unattainable expectations. As evidenced by Dan’s success, it is much better to relax and be open to whatever right answer presents itself.

Todays image is from the Palouse. We had been out chasing late light and a storm. We finally stopped on a road where there is a wonderful red barn scene. We waited and waited for the light to come through the thick clouds behind us to light up the barn. Then it came, lasting for less than a minute. The problem for me, was the red barn didn’t have enough clouds above it when the light came. So, I searched for another right answer and found this! I love the streak of gold light and the tremendous clouds. So glad I followed my own advice for once and did not stay focused on the expectation we had of shooting the red barn in last light.

If you’re not following Chuck Kimmerle on his blog you should.  His latest post about light is excellent.


What Matters Most


What matters most to you? For me it is certainly not photography. What? What did John just say?  Let me put it this way. I was recently made aware of a friends newly revealed battle with cancer.  Roxanne has a great attitude, however, the doctors are demanding she take off at least six months from work to diagnose and treat her cancer.  As such, she and her husband Doug will face some stiff financial challenges. With this in mind, they have set up a  Giveforward Hope for Roxanne  website where YOU can help support them during this challenging time. I have faith that my friends who frequent this blog will stop and realize what is important.  I love to share my photographs with you.  I love the lively discussions we have about photography. But, today I’m asking you to consider what matters most and give what you can to Roxanne. Thank you!

If there was ever a blog post to share, this would be it.  PLEASE click the share button so more can have a chance to be of service!

The blog image is from the Palouse where my tour partner Dan and I will be leading two back to back tours starting in just over a week!  I can’t wait as the Palouse is one of our favorite locations in the United States.

The rest of the story….

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A high school friend reminded me of an image that was on my old site but not part of this one.  It is a personal favorite and one my Mother has hanging in her house. I used it as part of a blog post back in November, but today I wanted to share the rest of the story as Paul Harvey would say.

The image was made in South Africa in 2004.  I was there with mentor Nancy Rotenberg and friends Dee Whittlesey and Ferrell McCollough attending a Freeman Patterson workshop. Freeman has been a major influence from the beginning of my photography journey.  It was Freeman who inspired me with his creative techniques such as multiple exposures and slide sandwiches.  Both techniques were used to create this image.  All this is well and good, but the more important thing is the impact an image can have.  This image is meaningful to me because each time I look at it, I am transported back to this magical moment and reminded of the important life lesson learned.  I was there during a time when my business was not doing well.  I didn’t feel I should go because I could not afford it, but my loving wife demanded I go.  It was a “trip of a lifetime” she said, and “I needed to be there to learn from Freeman.”  I was excited to photograph the flowers in the fields, the “secret waterfall” and other iconic scenes I had seen in Freeman’s books.  And then Freeman said, we would spend a day in Nourivier, a small town of 300 people and 90 homes.  I was disappointed, I had no interest in photographing people in a small desert town, but reluctantly I went.  And then, after spending about an hour with the people, especially the youth, (who giggled at how tall I was) I found myself in tears, sobbing actually.  Nancy asked if I was okay?  I said I think so, but I’m not sure what is going on.  Then on our “free day” later in the week, I had to go back! Yes, at first I didn’t want to go at all, but now I had to go back to understand that was going on. On the return trip, I realized what it was. I was there in this poor town surrounded by people who had nothing. No electricity, no running water, no shoes, tattered clothing, etc,.  And here I was with $20,000 of gear on my back. I was feeling selfish for even thinking I had it bad because my business was floundering.  I had a very nice roof over my head, nice clothes and plenty of food. I had all I needed, but was feeling anxious, stressed, worried, etc. Yet these people wore big smiles and were happy with what they had.  Indeed, I realized I was needy and selfish and ashamed for being so, thus the tears. I was not sad for them, I was sad for m.  It is this lesson I am reminded of, each time I see this image.  

The woman is from Nourivier dancing at sunset on the rocks surrounding her town.  I montaged (put two pieces of film in together in one slide mount) this image with a multiple exposure I made in the fields of flowers making a slide sandwich. This image sums up the essence of my journey to South Africa where I was able to learn from my hero AND from the wonderful people of Nouriver.

I find it interesting that this image resonates with so many other people. Once again this confirms that when we get in touch with our feelings and attach them to our work, we will create images that make our hearts sing!

And for my high school friend Suzanne, the image is now part of the “Others” folio on this site!  :)

Mount Whitney – Finding another right answer


As Stephen said in his comment to my last post, you can’t plan on great conditions when you’re on a schedule leading a photo tour.  You’re at the mercy of what is given you.  As I see it, that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Let me share a story.  I was leading a workshop, a short weekend type.  It was during the fall and the colors that year were stunning! We had not spent more than 3 hours together when a participant came to me and said they were going home.  I asked why, was it something I had done?  She replied, “no, its just I’m not finding what I came for.”  Perplexed, I suggested, maybe you will find something better!  But you see, she had an assignment for the photo club and was focused on that.  The conditions and the area I picked that morning might not have been good for what she was looking for but they were great for many other things. She was simply not open to finding another right answer.  I found that to be sad.

Fast forward to the Alabama Hills.  We arrived late in the day during the scouting portion of our last tour. When I go to the Alabama Hills, I’m thinking about the rock formations and hoping for great clouds. When we arrived, there were no clouds. No problem, I turned around and saw this great situation brewing around Mount Whitney.  Another right answer!  I could have said, “I’m not finding what I came for” but instead I found something else!  Its all about attitude.  If you don’t think you’ll find something, you probably won’t.  

More on Photo Celibacy


Recently I featured a terrific post written by my tour partner Dan Sniffin about his ideas with regard to photo celibacy which Cole Thompson tries to live by.  Dan’s article was written before we spent the week with Cole and the group.  The tour started with a wonderful lecture by Cole titled “Why B&W.”  In it he spoke not only about B&W but also more about his ideas on photo celibacy.  But what happened after the talk was quite powerful. I asked the group to respond to Cole’s ideas specifically about celibacy. What did they think? It was one of the most stimulating discussions I’ve been part of.  Some agreed, others challenged Cole with good honest questions. Some spoke about the need for a basic understanding of technique. We spoke about technique versus vision.  We spoke about the value of others opinions.  We spoke about rules and guidelines and much more. It was a stimulating hour of discussion!  I’m not sure we resolved anything but we carried the spirit of the discussion with us throughout the week. In fact, I am still pondering on the matter and would like to continue the discussion here.  

I am reading a book suggested by Chuck Kimmerle titled “Why People Photograph” by Robert Adams.  These quotes resonated in lieu of our discussion.

“I really didn’t have much to teach. I didn’t even believe in it. I felt so strongly that everybody had to find their own way. And nobody can teach you your own way…. in terms of art, the only real answer that I know of is to do it.  If you don’t’ do it you don’t know what might happen”  Harry Callahan,1991

“Can photography be taught?  If this mean the history and techniques of the medium, I think it can….. If, however, teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible. We would be pretending to offer the students, in Wililam Stafford’s phrase, “a wilderness with a map.”  We can give beginners directions about how to use a compass, we can tell them stories about our exploration of different but possibly analogous geographies, and we can bless them with our caring, but we cannot know the unknown and thus make sure a path to real discovery.” Robert Adams
“Even now I don’t like to discuss work that isn’t finished, because until it is revised over the span of a year or several years there are crucial parts that are present only in my minds eye, pieces intended but not yet realized……  “Art is made by the alone for the alone.”” Robert Adams with inserted quote by Luis Barragan.
“I knew I didn’t want to study at length contemporaries’ pictures, fearing that their work might come close to mine and blur my vision.”  Robert Adams
What do you think?  Are vision and technique connected?  Can you achieve your vision without some guidelines about good composition?  Can vision be taught?  Does looking at others work influence yours?  

With regard to the blog image from the Alabama Hills. Yes, the recent tour was focused on B&W and my folder of images is 99% B&W, however, that did not stop me from processing this one in color!  Why color versus B&W?  I wish I had a good answer, sometimes color just makes more sense and I run with my gut feeling.  In the dunes, I can’t imagine anything but B&W yet I’ve seen some wonderful images that are color.  So color or B&W becomes a creative choice, there is no right or wrong.  


The other day Tony Sweet emailed a picture of his Mom. He made the image with his iPhone while taking his iMom to the eye doctor or iDoc as he calls her.  


Tony made a blog post about his thoughts on his image here.

These are my thoughts. Great photography creates an emotional response. This is a classic photograph that underscores the idea that it is not about the camera but rather about connection. Connection to subject, be it a person or a sand dune for that matter. This image is full of connection. Full of joy, silliness and fun. And that is clearly felt by the photographer and now by me, the viewer. Thus, Tony has created a very successful image, no matter the camera, because of the connection. I love this picture and can’t stop looking at it.  Tony emailed me this morning and simply said, “I’m still giggling”.  Me too!

To further cement my thoughts.  Our special guest instructor for the Eastern Sierra tour last week was the amazing Cole Thompson.  One of his most successful images is  “The Angel Gabriel”  Cole has given me permission to use it and his words below. Yes, the image is special but read the story and tell me that connection was not part of its success.

2006-5-20 The Angel Gabriel - Final 10-15-2007 750

The Angel Gabriel – Newport Beach, CA – 2006

This is the Angel Gabriel.  I met him on the Newport Beach pier as he was eating French Fries out of a trash can. 
He was homeless and hungry.  I asked him if he would help me with a photograph and in return, I would buy him lunch.
The pier was very crowded and I wanted to take a 30 second exposure so that everyone would disappear except Gabriel. 
We tried a few shots and then Gabriel wanted to hold his bible.  The image worked and the only
people you can see besides Gabriel are those “ghosts” who lingered long enough for the camera. 
Gabriel and I then went into a restaurant to share a meal; he ordered steak with mushrooms and onions.  When it came,
he ate it with his hands.  I discovered he was Romanian and so am I, so we talked about Romania.  He was simple,
kind and a pleasure to talk with.  I asked Gabriel how I might contact him, in case I sold some of the photographs and
wanted to share the money with him.  He said I should give the money to someone who could really use it; that he had
everything that he needed. 
Then the Angel Gabriel walked away, content and carrying his only two possessions: a Bible and a bed roll.



Now, with the idea of connection clearly in mind, pay attention to how you feel and respond to the images below. 








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This is a favorite image of Nancy Rotenberg.  My regular blog readers will know who she is and what she meant to me.  Now that you know who she is, does it affect your reaction?

The more you connect with your subject, the more those who view your image will too.

If you’re finding value in this site, might I ask that you share with your social communities?  Thank you!