Tag Archive: learning

Defining ‘good’.

One photo out of focus is a mistake, ten photo out of focus are an experimentation, one hundred photo out of focus are a style.  ~Author Unknown

A Ming vase can be well-designed and well-made and is beautiful for that reason alone.  I don’t think this can be true for photography.  Unless there is something a little incomplete and a little strange, it will simply look like a copy of something pretty.  We won’t take an interest in it.

~John Loengard, “Pictures Under Discussion”

This photo probably should be tossed out.  It’s blurred, and technically far from good.  But something about it made me keep it.  I like the sense of movement and purpose the horses have.  I like the sense of ruggedness that goes with this country.

Good photos are supposed to meet certain definitions – clarity of at least enough of the image to begin with.  Technical expertise and planning.  With this photo – I was probably aiming at all of those good things.  But, the movement, maybe I panned a little as well, and whatever other problems that happened created something I hadn’t planned and yet it still speaks to me.  So – if an image speaks to you – is that a more powerful and perhaps more truthful definition of good?  If I am the only person the image speaks to, is it still good?

So many of my photos do not speak to me.  So frequently, when I see an image that I had great hopes for, I have a little swear under my breath.  I have to throw out something that doesn’t work, and I really wanted it to.  My planning and checking still didn’t make it work.  There is still something wrong with my understanding of exposure or focus or …  Or what I thought I saw, what I planned to create just isn’t there.  This is when photographs become like dreams – powerful and real during the dream, but in the waking state, they have no power and the idea is jumbled and unclear.

This frustration pushes me to learn more about photography, and I think my rate for ‘reasonable’ images is slowly increasing.  I comfort myself knowing that even those photographers whose work I admire and follow have a large ‘rubbish’ bin as well.

I keep many images that I hope will improve with ‘maturing’ in my back-up drives, but often when I review these treasures, they have soured even further and I toss them out as well.  My discernment grows with the more images I take and the more I read and work on improving, and I find it harder to please myself.  I am more critical of my work and my mistakes.

Not every image that looks bad is bad;  not every decision I made in my life that looked wrong, is; what looked good on the surface could often be empty.



In camera decisions and production decisions.  Both contribute to creating a good image.  The in camera decisions frequently have to be ‘snap’ decisions (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).  Quick assessment of light, composition, balance, highlights, focus etc.  The best photographers seem to do these automatically.  No thought really required.  This apparent ease comes from years of work, years of making mistakes, years of learning what works.  No shortcut through that path. For a beginner, I can only sigh as I examine wonderful images. Looking at the whole and then the components.  One day, one day…

When I take my photos back to the computer, that is when I, as a beginner, can more clearly see what I did or didn’t do well.  This reflective time is where I can learn more about my actions and decisions.  And, for the moment, it is where I can make some changes to improve on my mistakes in the field.

I shoot in RAW to give myself the best chance to improve the results.  The more information I have (or my computer has) the more chance I have of rescuing an image, of changing a decision.  I can change white balance, improve colours, remove extraneous bits and pieces.  I can do many things to make my image somewhat better.  There are also many mistakes I can do nothing about.  Those are destined for the trash bin, after I have learned what I can from them. My mistakes are as important as my good images.  Knowing what I have done right is important, working out what I messed up is equally important.  One mistake less next time.

Then, after fixing what I can fix, there is presentation.  How to present the image and the vision I had when I created it and refined it through my work and decisions, so that others can share this vision, or create their own visions from it?  How to see with the eyes of others?  How will my vision be seen by a stranger, with a different worldview?  Here I need to step away from myself, and see the image as unrelated to me.  Is that possible?

Not really, but I think I can gain a little distance from myself, through time away from the image or through refocusing myself on other things then moving back.  Books, photographs, other art work – seeing other visions through my eyes, then returning with my mind filled with those visions to re-evaluate mine.  These help me look at my work, the decisions I make now more dispassionately, more critically.  Moving away from the self is important to be able to see the self more clearly.

Then the most fearful part of all – putting this part of the self out for others to see.  How will it be received?  How will others judge me?  Will they see my vision, will I spark some recognition?  Will it be ignored?  Not worth looking at?  How do I see myself if others criticise or ignore?  Fear of exposure, of criticism, of being ignored, seen as valueless….  So much wrapped up in a few thousand dots on a page.


I’m reading Micheal Freeman’s “The Photographer’s Mind”, a follow on to ‘The Photographer’s Eye”.  Oh boy, what a challenge to me as a photographer!

But on a deeper level;, when he talks about balance in an image we can apply this more widely.   “Balance invokes the idea of harmony, equilibrium, and weight.”

When we are ‘balanced’ we are in harmony with ourselves.  We have emotional, mental and physical equilibrium.  When we are out of balance, we lose this harmony. When we ignore our physical needs – nutrition, sleep, exercise – our bodies become unbalanced.  If we ignore our emotional needs we become angry and dissatisfied with the world, ourselves, our partners.  When we ignore our mental needs we follow blindly ‘leaders’ or gurus who tell us how to think, how to react. We lose  our ability to analyse, our ability to make intelligent decisions.

Balance does not mean that we have to blindly follow what came before.  We can still experiment and create.  But in the end, as Freeman says we still need “a satisfying equilibrium”.  My equilibrium need not be yours.

This week I have been out of equilibrium.  I strongly supported the right of Chinese people to stage protests – for any and every cause.  This is the right of any free peoples.  BUT… the current protests have concerned me because I believe they are instigated by the government to draw attention away from internal problems, internal conflicts.  To me they are staged protests, designed to create media coverage, and to take media coverage away from something far more important.  I am concerned because it seems to me me that people are tools to be manipulated and used.  This ‘usage’ of people seems to me to be heinous.

I am frustrated, angry and unable to do anything.  This makes me question my role and position here. Am I supporting something I DO NOT believe in, merely by being here?  Can I make changes by challenging my students and friends to analyse?? I don’t know.  I am out of equilibrium.  I have no balance.


Jane Reichhold

Haiku has always fascinated me as a poetic form.  Such few words, such strong images.  I write poetry, including haiku; I journal, write short stories; write for newspapers and magazines. I teach writing at university level – and yet the ability to create such clarity in two or three lines eludes me.

Is my vision not clear enough? Have I crowded my ideas with too many threads, too much that I want to say?  The words bubble and fall from my pen, leaping out of my mind onto the paper, but without the simplicity and strength that I aim for.

This seems to me to be an echo of my life.  I seek simplicity, peace and serenity. And yet I bounce from one event or group of people to another.  Finding time for meditation or solitude is hard.  My days are filled with people and ‘happenings’ – meetings, competitions, lunches, classes, friends.  I want not to lose any of these – but to stretch time so that I have more space. My days open and close so quickly.  I am afraid without more space and more time, I will look back on my life and see how quickly it also opened and closed.

If my life closes without me being able to clarify and express my vision, is it wasted?  What is the achievement I can look back on?  Family?  True – beautiful daughters living full and interesting lives – but that is their achievement.  Policies written and implemented?  These change with the changes in government.

Then comes a more interesting question.  Do I have to matter?  Do I have to leave behind a legacy?  Is it enough to have just lived a full and interesting life?  My ego says – yes, your vision is important, your voice is important.  My logic (is that my dark side??) says – no, you are one of billions, no more or less.  Your vision is one of billions, your voice is one of billions.  Why do you expect or want to have more voice or more vision expressed than others?

The flower above is wilting. Its brief life is crumpling.  The bud below it opens, showing glory for one or two days before it too disappears into nothing – into my rubbish bin.  These lovely flowers have had a small impact on my life.  I enjoyed their beauty today.  tomorrow unless I look at this image again, they will be completely forgotten. Why should I ask for more?

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.  Not all things are blest, but the seeds of all things are blest. The blessing is in the seed.
Muriel Rukeyser

I love beginnings. The potential in them is wonderful.  Moving to a new country, city, job… all things have the potential to be wonderful. The beginning of a new relationship is the most exciting time.  Even moving apartments has the potential to re-organise and change things.  Every morning brings a new beginning and chances for me to make something wonderful happen.

The seeds in this capsicum will probably not have a chance to germinate, as they will be tossed into my rubbish bin, and eventually become landfill under mounds of plastic, oil, metal etc.  Their potential is most likely lost.

So often we don’t see the potential in situations.  We see problems, or mistakes.  In photography we see harsh light or rainy days; we see such common vistas, familiar streets we feel there is no interest or potential in them. There are so many situations where we dismiss the potentials, toss them away like so much rubbish.

We frequently do this with ourselves and people we see on a daily basis.  Looking deep into ourselves becomes frightening, so we may stop this journey of exploration.  The lost potential for growth and development, for the seeds of change to grow….

As an ESL teacher, I am frustrated by those teachers who do not see the potential in their students because of the lack of fluent English.  Not having the language to express ideas does not mean stupidity.

When I see amazing light or images begging to be recorded and I don’t yet have the techniques, I become frustrated.  But I know the potential is there – one day!


At the centre of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

Lao Tzu

I have been playing with my macro lens lately.  The more I use this lens the more I love the images that finally appear on my computer screen.  This one is of the cut stem of a capsicum. Such an ordinary vegetable, but when we look closely at the intricacies of its construction and see the beauty of its colour and design, then we can appreciate the complexity that surrounds us. Sadly we seldom look so closely at the ordinary things around us, and so we miss all of this beauty and design.

I am on holidays for a few days and enjoying myself reading and playing with my images.  One of the books I am reading is “Creative Composition” by Harold Davis. This books has some inspirational images and useful advice on composition.  In one section, he speaks about using a Zen perspective as a way of seeing the world.  The images illustrating that section were beautiful, and I wondered if perhaps this would be useful to adopt to improve my images.

Then I began to wonder – do I need a specific perspective to focus my images or my thoughts?  I already have an understanding of miksang and wabi-sabi which seem aligned to the way I view the world and my photography.  Do I need a more structured way of looking at the world?  If so, is this THE one?

The more I considered it, the more I felt that it would be easy to be a follower of a ‘method’, be it spiritual, philosophical or intellectual.  Methods give us structure and rules and analytical tools; design ideas and processes – all good things if I want to improve my images.  However, the more I thought about being a ‘follower’, the less happy I became with the idea.  I have escaped structures and constraints in other areas of my life, why, in this creative area would I now voluntarily adopt any one method?

My vision comes from my experiences, my readings, my writings, understanding about the world around me.  Looking at the intricacy of a simple stem shows me how much complexity there is in the world.  With that level of complexity, I felt I needed to have no limits on the ways in which I view the world or express my vision.

Yes, that means I will chase off down this path, be side-tracked into that perspective and drift seemingly aimlessly. With every new book I read or experience I have I will incorporate something of that into myself and into my work.   But without this openness to information, experience and understanding, then I will limit my experiences and understanding.  If I channel all my new ideas and experiences through the filter of Zen or formalism ,or deconstructionism or….  Will I lose some of the richness that the idea or experience gives me?

If I stay open, willing to be diverted into many paths, willing to explore and  enjoy the complexity of life, then my knowledge of myself grows. I will have the answers at the centre of my being.

Transience and control

What is actual is actual only for one time. And only for one place.
T. S. Eliot
Wandering around the evening streets in China always brings something of interest to see.  This man in engaging in a traditional activity – water calligraphy. The intensity of his expression and the care he used for his work caught my attention.  Calligraphy takes many years to learn and many, many hours to perfect.  Here he was, out in the public arena, demonstrating something he knew well and loved.  But in this demonstration, he also knew that within a few minutes, his work would disappear.  The water would dry and we would see nothing of where he had been and what he had created.
This empherality was accepted, planned for and seen as an absolute given.  He could have used paper or carved his work into stone, but instead, he chose to acknowledge that we cannot control the elements, we cannot change the way the natural processes occur.  He chose to work with these processes.  In doing so, he created a momentary beauty for all of us watching and he perhaps gained a few coins for his skill as well.
It is hard for us to accept that there are so many things we cannot control.  Our ego demands that we have the world circle around us and that things change to fit our needs or our wants.  For me, this is perhaps the darkest side of our dark side. We push and manipulate others to give ourselves that sense of control. Our dark side, the deepest unconscious somehow tends to believe that the world and the people there exist only to fulfill our needs, remove our insecurities and make us feel powerful.
How do we learn the lesson that control is not the real need?  That we are only what we are and no more? That  acceptance and tolerance of the world around us, and for the people within it are more important?  Sometimes we need others to push back – each time we try to control them, to take away their rights of action, speech and independence we have to have them say or demonstrate NO!  For those trying to meet their needs by attempting to control us, we need to be able to say clearly NO!
This is not easy for many people.  The fear of upsetting others, of being unpopular or unwanted prevents many people from clearly saying or demonstrating their ‘NO’.  But by not using our voice or by allowing others to close us down, we become lesser people ourselves.  We lose the chance to strengthen ourselves and we lose the chance to give the manipulator the understanding that s/he cannot meet needs through controlling others.
If we do not want the sharpness and the hurt of others abruptly stopping us to teach us our limits, we need to take our own journey into our psyche and look for the insecurities that make us want to control others.  Making the journey into that dark side is not easy, because it means that we have to face our own ephemerality.  We are not the centre of creation; the world will move and survive well (or better) without us, and worst of all, that the people within our sphere are not ours to manipulate or control  We need to find other ways of becoming secure and of feeling real.
In this image, I have been able to preserve this moment in time.  But I know that I can never recreate it exactly as it was. The artist has written and moved on, happy with his art, accepting that he cannot control the drying air.


Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death. ~Anaïs Nin

I’ve spent the last couple of months playing with my baby granddaughter.  Of course, as her Nanna, I think she is totally gorgeous and I’ve had a ball cuddling, singing and playing with her.  Watching her reach vital milestones – smiling, giving big sloppy kisses, laughing, rolling over and having her vaccinations – has been wonderful.

In all of this the wonder in her face as she ‘finds’ and recognises parts of herself is fascinating.  Her hands first, took her attention, and she became adept at finding her mouth with them.  Then she could reach and clasp objects.  She found her feet and loves to catch them, pulling them close to her mouth.

After a little while she could recognise herself in the mirror and smiled at that beautiful ‘other’.  Knowing where she finished and others began developed.  She recognises and looks for ‘her’ people.  Touching and tasting everything is her way of learning about herself and the world.

For me this learning in a baby is repeated as an adult when we begin to look inward, to discover what parts of ourselves have been hidden and undiscovered.  Often we fear this discovery, believing that all of those undiscovered parts in the unconscious are dark and ‘bad’.  We don’t push ourselves to go on this journey of discovery because of the pain we fear will hurt us or our family and friends.

There will be things in our unconscious that make us feel unhappy and bad.  But there will also be many things there that strengthen and nourish us.  We may find intelligence and skills we have hidden, fearing ridicule or bullying. A greater spiritual awareness and connection could be sitting waiting to be released to help us and others on our paths.

Until we take the chance of these discoveries we will never know what we could be, what we could do.

Like my wonderful granddaughter, we need to keep discovering ourselves to learn our capabilities and is ‘me’ and what is ‘other’.


Individuality and creativity

.. .(presenting)  your personal work is a central part of creative art; in exposing your ideas and expressions to the cold light of impersonal inspection, your work – and your own attitude to it – gains strength.  … Diffidence inhibits creativity. Tom Ang.

I find it difficult to show my work.  I question why anyone would be interested, why people would be bothered to look at my photographs (slide night anyone??)  or read my writings.  I frequently ask ‘WHY”  I have a blog, why I put photos on on my blogs or Facebook. And the only answer I was able to find until I read Tom Ang, was that I am a photographer and writer and therefore, it is something I need to do. I have to express myself..

But, if I look at the process from the other point of view, that I am aiming to strengthen my work, then this gives me another acceptable answer.   Knowing that others may view my photos  drives me to consider, compose and  take shots that express what I want to say.  Thinking that someone may read my writing makes me choose my words more carefully, and revise more.  Sometimes I find this revision and culling process very helpful in developing my craft and attitude.  I have to ask myself what is it about this shot, what about this idea that expresses what I mean.  Often I see that I could have improved my technical skills, or that what I saw in my mind’s eye was not what appeared on my screen.  Other times, I feel as if I just want to relax and enjoy the shots for their memories or the weird way they turned out. I want to play with the words.

When I look at my periods of deepest personal growth, they have happened most often when I have been placed in a situation where I had an impersonal eye looking carefully at me. Therapists or colleagues, friends or enemies can all call us on our behaviour and our barriers and challenge us to move past whatever it is that is holding back our growth.

What do we fear most from critiques?  That we will be told everything we have done is wrong?  That we are hopelessly inadequate ourselves?  Are we afraid that if others look at our work or us too carefully we will be exposed for frauds as artists or people?

Once we have heard this challenge, it is still up to us to decide whether we can take it on or not.  Will we by-pass this call for change?  Will we be happy enough with the level we are at, ignoring the potential for improvement?

If we accept the need for change, for growth – are we afraid our growth will take us in directions others do not understand?  That our work will be too different, that we will be too individualist to fit within the comfortable framework we have operated in for the last few years?

Improving as a photographer or writer could bring more opportunities for more critiques.  Am I willing to move down that road?  Am I willing to put more work, my vision and my individuality out there, for more and more people to see and to critique?  They will continue to challenge me.  I will continue to have to make a choice between more learning and saying ‘Enough’.

The more I place my work in public, the more I open myself to challenge as well.  Am I prepared to continue on the journey of self-discovery and change in public?  I think Tom Ang’s words apply equally to our inner growth.  We need to critique ourselves, our actions with a dispassionate eye. We cannot allow ourselves to hide behind comforting excuses, blaming others, the situation, our birth order for what we are or for our actions.

Fear of turning the cold light on ourselves means that we hide in the shadows and lose the chance for taking the next steps forward.

Bring on the critiques!

The ‘good eye’.

Light and Water

My readings in the world of wabi-sabi have also lead to readings about ‘miksang’ – a Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of seeing.

Miksang is a Tibetan word meaning “good eye” and represents a form of contemplative photography based on the Dharma Art teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, in which the eye is in synchronisation with the contemplative mind. The result of this particular perception of the world, combined with photography, produces a peculiar and open way of seeing the world. Miksang pictures tend to bring the observer back into the original contemplation  state of the author of the picture. The pictures can bring one back to a purer perception  of reality that is often neglected. Miksang involves nothing fancy, no special setup; only a visual capture, in the proper state of mind, of everyday reality .

This combination of the contemplative mind with looking deeply at things from daily life seems to fit beautifully with the wabi-sabi concept of seeing the beauty in impermanence and the peace within natural objects and shapes.  Wabi-sabi and miksang both call for an acceptance of things as they are and of allowing our inner being to respond to the beauty of the imperfect, of the melancholy of the beautiful, of seeing ourselves within these deeper simplicities.

Both philosophies call for a stripping away of the externalities and complexities that fill our lives, asking us to see more clearly and more deeply.  Looking at the world this way from a meditative state where the eye and the camera become one,  expresses the inner sight and at the same time, the inner being.

Miksang photography or art takes us into the small hidden things of the world – the patterns that create the world we see.  Examining the patterns of sand or leaf veins or the patterns made by bubbles in water opens our minds to the patterns we create in our own lives.  Are they permanent patterns, or like bubbles, transient?  Are they functional patterns, like those found in rings on a  tree or have these patterns lost functionality and we now follow them without thought, because we have always done so, or because it is the accepted behaviour for ‘people like us’?  Are our patterns of behaviour and thought natural or forced upon us?  Did we chose them to meet a need, now long forgotten?

Nature’s patterns have a purpose and we can examine them in detail to understand the reason.  We need also to examine our own patterns to see if they too have a purpose, and to see if the purpose behind this pattern is still good.  Do we hide behind the patterns we create to keep ourselves safe or protected from the world?

If we work with these ideas we may find that our patterns of thinking and seeing and behaving are no longer patterns, but prison bars, limiting our functionality, limiting our creativity, limiting our understanding..