A Passion for the Image

A Passion for the Image on Lighting Essentials

37,000 feet over the Great Plains of these wonderful United States and I find myself drifting off a bit, as the days have been long and nights short lately. The workshops are the most fun I have had in a long time, and they keep me pretty busy. As well, time must be given to this site and the other sites I manage. And I am photographing a project, working on a book, and running my design business.

I don’t tell you these things to complain (or brag), but as a preface to the words I am going to write below. Loving what you do means that even being dead tired from the multiple endeavors that one is working on, one rarely ever ‘works’. My workshop folks can attest to the fact that we go full out for two days. And when it is over, I wish I could stay and do another day with them. I love what I do.

That is the gift that creativity has given me. Most of the things I have ever done have involved creative work… I crave it. From building competition class model cars when I was a kid to playing drums for a rock band that traveled the Caribbean. My own jazz quartet led to some amazing play dates, and sessions with musicians both famous and incredible. And I have stood on the stage at Grady Gammage Auditorium and conducted three of my original compositions for orchestra and voices. I have also loaded trucks, short-order cooked, washed cars, hauled dirt as a landscaper, and sat my ass in a chair as Creative Director of the third largest Advertising Agency in Arizona (2000).

But the act of taking images holds some of the greatest memories for me. Making a still image is one of the most powerful and exhilarating things I have ever done. It is ego driving, selfish, self-centered, magnanimous, charitable, and selfless all at the same time. The world of dimension and time caught forever –  with no dimension or time. A laugh, a glance, a moment that will never be seen again, and I captured it. My way.

Think about it. Most people have the gift of sight and can perfectly see the world around them. But photographers take it a bit farther –  we want to show other people what WE SEE. “Hey, I know you have seen the Grand Canyon a dozen times, but look what I SAW there. And I captured it and brought it back to show YOU what I did.”
Ego? You bet it is. Without the self-assuredness to believe I can actually show something to you that you haven’t seen before, it would be a totally empty act. Devoid of the surety that I would give you a glimpse into a place you “thought” you knew, showing a picture of your hometown would be met with smile and a nod.

I want more than that. I want to show you something that has an emotion tied to it. I want to use cropping and color and light and shadow and gesture and point-of-view and size and dimension and texture and saturation or the lack of it to make an image that the viewer has an immediate reaction to. It is all important to me for the viewer to be engaged.

I recently read on a forum this statement “anyone with some knowledge of Photoshop can take any old crappy picture and make it great.” I was simply stunned (yeah, like them interwebs don’t continue to stun)

I should be used to it). I think that statement summed up a lot of young approaches to photography. And by young I am not referring to chronological age, but the amount of time that one has spent working their craft. It is a shame. No other art form seems to have that low self-image from the artists that create it.
Imagine a musician showing up on a gig without having practiced or played his instrument for a year or two. (“Anyone with some knowledge of ProTools can record shit and make it really great.”)

Imagine a poet telling an interviewer “oh, I just write stuff down and then type it up over coffee while watching the soaps. (“Anyone with some knowledge of Word can type up shit, hit ‘Auto-Summarize’ and have it sound pretty good.”)

Or imagine a world-class cook telling you “I rarely cook anything. It’s Taco Bell and Panda Express for me. Occasionally I make weenies and eat them with mustard.” (“Anyone with some knowledge of a Wok can cook up gourmet food with world class appeal. Just add ‘sun dried’  tomatoes!)

Put me in the skeptical column when talking to the above “experts”.

Musicians play every day. For hours and hours. Poets write all the time, and we see maybe 2% of what they do. Cooks –  well, they cook. A lot.

I am a photographer. I make images. I use tools to do that. Cameras and lenses, lights and the sun, film and bytes, papers, chemistry, inks, and a whole studio full of gear that helps me do one thing – make the best pictures I can. If it doesn’t help me make images, I don’t really need it. But tools are merely a medium for capturing, they are not the art. Without a camera, I cannot make a photograph. But without the best camera, I can still make a photograph that I love. I love my iPhone camera, and my little red Kodak P&S.
I take photographs with them. I make snapshots with them. I record moments and places to share with my daughter with them. I make pictures that help me relive the workshops or the shoot with that great model, and without any muss or fuss. They are capturing devices that let me make photographs everywhere, anytime and without thinking about anything but the image. They are practice tools for seeing.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers”, talks about 10,000 hours of practice to get to a level of proficiency to make one a contender for being an expert. I don’t think he is referring to exact numbers, nor should it be taken in that black and white sort of way. (“Yep, next Tuesday will be 10,000 hours and I will be great on Wednesday.) If you are not great at this point, you most assuredly will NOT be great next Wednesday. I would bet the farm on that.

And if you think that you can approach the work with a half-assed, half-hearted attempt and amass enough time to put yourself over the top with the hours spent, sorry –  that wont work either. A figure skater who practices a jump wrong for two years will do that jump ‘perfectly wrong’ when given a chance. If you practice crappy photography for 10,000 hours you will be a crappy photographer on 10,001 hour. Just a fact.

It takes focused practice, with levels of outcome expected and reached to become good at something. There must be a progression of competency, with deltas and points along the way to measure the result of the work. Is it getting better? Are there places to improve? Are there new things to try to help move the level up to the next? It takes even more and a little special thing called talent to be great at something.
Perseverance to stick with something difficult until it is no longer difficult, but something that is second nature, can be a challenge. It isn’t taught, nor is it revered in most of our culture. Working and practice are no longer held in esteem. At least that seems like the case to me. I see and speak to too many people who are looking for an easy, fast and simple way to reach the point where people recognize you for your achievement. Fame without excellence is fleeting and daft.

Wanna be a famous singer? There’s a reality show for that. Just show up and ‘œbaddabing’ You are America’s Next Top Idol/Model/Talent. Hell, it’s easy. Watch the show in the first few episodes and you will see dozens of people who show up with NO PRACTICE or PREPARATION then are devastated when they don’t make it. They suck, but they showed up and wanted it. Dancers who can’t want to be famous at it. Singers who don’t want to be famous at it. (And while this may say a lot about the insipid fascination with fame, I think the same correlation can be made in the search for excellence in the arts.)

I find those people to be pathetic, and insulting. Do they think that all Ella did was show up at Basie’s gig one night? Do they think that Bonnie Raite just picked up a guitar and BAM – she could write and sing music that touches people across all genres? Baryshnikov simply put on some ballet slippers one day – and flew? Is it really a stretch to understand how long the great creative talents in our culture have to practice and work and work and work to get to that level? What an insult to the great artists who work so hard to think that all it takes is a lunch-break audition to catapult one to the top. Morons.

(Caveat: Disney. As far as I can tell, one can be devoid of any talent at all and be a star on the Disney channel. Kids and adults who cannot deliver a line spew from the tube with the ever-present laugh track –  needed, because the crap isn’t funny. (Why don’t you tell us what you really think — ed?) )

Sorry for the digression. We were talking about practice and hard work. It is the fuel for our successes. It is the only sustainable fuel. Fame wont do it. Money wont do it. The newest camera on the block wont do it.

Neither will a bag full of gear.

You, a camera, and a lens. Making images. That is the essence of photography. Not “The” camera… any camera. A P&S, an iPhone camera, an old film camera… just a tool to transfer your vision of the world into a two dimensional representation… a photograph.

I talk about two different types of photographers in my workshops. One type of photographer loves the act of taking photographs. The gear, the tools and toys, the challenge of getting the image captured on card or film is fulfilling and exciting for them. The images may not have that emotional grab of an art piece, but the image is perfect for the challenge presented.

Many commercial photographers are in love with the process. The finesse it takes to shoot a jewelry shot, or food, or even a catalog of auto parts with lots of chrome that the client wants to see shot on a nearly impossible background. Get to work – struggle with it – get it – got it! Will that image go on someone’s wall? Nope, probably not. But it is a perfect image for the job it is to perform in the ad or catalog. It is a successful photograph. It is a point of excellence for the photographer. Pride in the work.

The other type of photographer is the one who is looking for a “final” image. A print or final digital image that can convey what is in their minds-eye to a point to share with others. Utilizing the tools in the best way, and meeting the challenges of getting that image down is just as important as the previous shooter. This photographer wants to take it to one more level… an emotional level. A connection with the audience means success. Editorial, portrait and fine art photographers readily come to mind for this type of photographer.

Neither type is better, or more creative than the other, but the goals may be a little different. And most of us who do this for a living find that we shift between the two types of photographer depending on the job. I may want to connect with that portrait I am doing on Tuesday, and struggle to get the highlights just right on a tabletop setup of hard drives for a catalog on Thursday. Such is the nature of a professional photographer in a smaller market.

I know many of both types of shooters. The ones who are successful work very hard at what they do. And they are taking pictures when they are not Taking Pictures, ya know. Looking at, studying, taking workshops, giving workshops, reading and practicing. Finding new ways to do old things. Finding old ways to do new things. Striving, striving, striving to be better than yesterday. Every artist I have ever known was in a constant state of striving for excellence.

My kids often laugh when I will simply stare at the way light is playing against a wall, or highlighting the edge of a building. I love to look at light. My iPhone lets me capture the simplest things to simply delight me. Not earth shaking images that will rock the art world. Just a play of light, or an interesting shadow fall. I dunno, I just love to get that captured so I can look at it. I love to look at photographs. (My youngest is developing a pretty good eye…maybe she will inherit dad’s love of the medium of still imagery.)

So what is the point of this column? We have talked about creativity, perseverance and work ethic. Now we tie it together and we get:

Passion. A passion for the medium of photography. A passion for the captured moment. A passion for connecting with people, the still image and a passion for perfection of the craft.

It’s all passion, baby. Without it, there are no tears, no desperate longing, no amazing joy no glow of success. Without passion there is no striving. When the road gets hard, the gear goes up on Craigs List. And the challenges are many, and they come at all levels. Without something driving you to get from where you are to where you want to be, the climb can be more difficult than imagined.

So now it is time for the self-exam.

Do you have a passionate desire to make images? Images!

Do you look forward to trying things that are new, different, demanding?

Are you satisfied with your images as they are? No need for improvement?

Do you know about the deep and rich history of the medium? Does that fascinate and interest you?

Do you take pictures, images, photographs every day? Or does it seem that there are thousands of ‘reasons’ that you don’t?

I love it when one of my students, or a photographer I am working with one-on-one has that moment – an epiphany maybe – where they realize they would rather make photographs to nearly any other activity. The quest for images becomes insatiable, and the gear become the conduit – not the art. Focus turns outward from megapixels to dancing light, from transfer speeds to sublime smiles, from steel and glass to images that delight.

I read too frequently about how hard photography has become as a profession.

“There are too many photographers.”

“There isn’t enough work.”

“How do you compete against the CL guys who do it for free?”

“The bar has been lowered too low.”

“Digital means everyone can be a photographer.”

“I live in a place where no one will pay for photographs.”


A photographer with PASSION wont be stopped by that crap. There are lots of people with cameras, there are still few ‘photographers’ in relation to the GWC’s. There ARE jobs, there are. There is no reason to compete with CL shooters if you aren’t one. The bar has been lowered at the beginning level, no doubt… but it has been raised at the top. And at the top is where you want to be. That rarified air can fill the senses. Of course digital can make everyone capable of making a well-exposed image – so what… if you think that is the mark of a ‘photographer’ think again and research the great work being done by photographers all over the world. And if you live in a place that wont support you, and your work… move. Just move. Yeah, its hard to do and all that… Passion will sustain you if you have it.

Being passionate about the work and working hard to better oneself at any endeavor is probably one of the most successful methods of achieving more than one imagined.

Work hard, practice, revel in the successes, and learn from the failures. It is a recipe that has worked for creative people from the beginning.

Thanks for joining me at LE for a somewhat different post. I hope you enjoyed it.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Print Friendly


  1. Don,
    Nice article. Thanks for sharing. Keep shooting!

  2. Thanks Don, I really enjoyed this post.

    I wake up in the night and think about what I photographed the previous day. I wonder how I could have improved it and what I should try to do to improve todays photos. I worry that I spend more time contemplating my photos than I do my day job, but I don’t worry about it long.

    I want to learn every thing I can about photography and then try to apply this knowledge to what I want to ‘create’ – even though I’m still not real clear on what it is I want.

    So I found this article very comforting for it makes me realize that I am on the right path, I just need to keep going.

    Thanks again Don!!!

    • Mark,
      I can tell you from experience that the passion will become more focused and the work you love will reveal itself. I started with landscape (wanted to be the next Ansel) and evolved into still life, then fashion and beauty. These days I am totally interested in environments and portraits and the combination of the two.

      Keep shooting and thinking and contemplating. And look at as much imagery as you can… from the masters to the new kids… it all helps build a visual literacy that will help you become better.

  3. Don this is a beautiful and moving piece! thank you!

    I was doing a shoot recently and Vicky made a comment about how I always seem so happy when I am shooting. Made me think of that while I was reading your piece :-) Passion indeed!


  4. One of the best blog posts I’ve read in my life… Simply amazing! So much truth there…

  5. Don, it can’t be said any better. I loved your Nashville workshop this year and I can’t wait to attend another in 2010.

  6. Don, what a column!!! I can truly relate so some of the things you said. And even though I dont have kids yet, but when you said “My kids often laugh when I will simply stare at the way light is playing against a wall, or highlighting the edge of a building” I can finally explain to people I am not the only one who does this!

    Love all the work


  7. Holy smokes that was breathtaking! About halfway through that masterpiece I realized I was starting to feel like my soul was being pulled out of my body and sucked into every word. I’ve got 78 posts clamoring for attention in my RSS feed and I’m not going to get to them for a while. This one deserves more time.

    I love to teach almost as much as I love to learn but sometimes the naivety behind a request to, “show me how to do that” can feel a little insulting. I want to accommodate but sometimes what they are asking without realizing it is for me to distill a 15 year tutorial into a concise little lesson that won’t disrupt their afternoon.

    I don’t get insulted of course because I balance that against my own naivety that drives me here looking for a quick download of a lifetimes worth of experience from every teacher I can find. Thanks for investing the time. You are connecting and it is appreciated.

  8. dang.

    This is what boils around inside me constantly. Its hard explaining this to people around me, they don’t get it, and when I try, I end up feeling silly.

    Thank you for articulating these things.

  9. Thanks for reminding me that I need to shoot for myself more often, just to keep the creative juices flowing. What are CL shooters though? (I know GWC is guy-with-a-camera.)

    I appreciate your thoughtful and informative blog!

  10. Thanks for this great post, Don! I love the “thoughts” on photography as much as the lighting info! You hit the nail on the head in your post, and you even mentioned me by name at the end 😉

    It’s this kind of stuff that makes this one of the very best photography sites out there!

  11. Great post Don. All about the passion to take it to the next level.

  12. Don, thanks for another great post on the more important aspects of photography. This will give me something else to think about, in addition to all the shouldas, wouldas and couldas from the last photoshoot.

    Well said.

  13. As much as I can agree with the premise of this post, ( and I agree with everything ) I must object to the over used, easily misunderstood label which is the word “Passion”. There has to be a better word, a different word, one that is clearer to the message and less burdened with emotional baggage.

    I run into the word “passion” everywhere. It has become so trite ,diluted, and misleading. People apply Passion to everything, and yet it doesn’t improve anything.

    Enthusiasm used to be used a lot to describe this same concept. “Anything done with Enthusiasm will be better.” Style used to be used as well. How about courage, determination, or confidence.

    Passion is also easily spoken of by a man at the top of his game. He seems to have it, it seems to have make a difference, it makes it easier to keep up the good work.

    But when the stack of chips is gone ( when the chips are down) and you are wondering what happened to your success, you’ll likely find that all the passion in the world wouldn’t have kept it from happening.

    • Thanks Paul.

      I disagree about the word “Passion.” I don’t see it used that much these days. And I don’t believe a word can become trite or diluted. I think the use of the word by people who may misuse it is a shame, but I hardly think that I am misusing it here.

      You say there must be another word. If there is, I don’t know what it may be. “Enthusiasm” may be a good choice but it doesn’t have the emotional or scalable ability to mean the same thing. I may be enthusiastic about playing soccer with my kids, but a passion runs deeper. Enthusiasm is a momentary emotion usually devoted to a single endeavor, while a ‘passion’ for something is an over-arching, deeply felt need to do something.

      1. A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger.
      1. Ardent love.
      2. Strong sexual desire; lust.
      3. The object of such love or desire.
      1. Boundless enthusiasm: His skills as a player don’t quite match his passion for the game.
      2. The object of such enthusiasm: Soccer is her passion.
      4. An abandoned display of emotion, especially of anger: He’s been known to fly into a passion without warning.

      I don’t see courage, determination or confidence as having the same, deep emotional meaning as the word passion. If I said that “John is passionate about reading”, it would certainly be a more powerful statement than “John is determined” about reading. And one can be courageous and confident, without being passionate.

      The question is can one be passionate about something without being courageous, determined, brave and enthusiastic. Then answer as I see it is no. All of those emotions and feelings must be present to be passionate, while by themselves they may be less powerful.

      Not sure I agree at all with the statement that it is easily spoken of by someone at the top of their game. I think it is something that is harder to have while at the top, and much more a trait of someone getting there. Once there, maintaining that passion may be more challenging than getting there to begin with.

      “But when the stack of chips is gone ( when the chips are down) and you are wondering what happened to your success, you’ll likely find that all the passion in the world wouldn’t have kept it from happening.”

      True, but I certainly do not believe, nor advocate, that passion alone will win out. Skill, deterimination, perseverance, will, good business practices, risk, safety nets, planning, marketing, branding, keeping fresh, staying relevant, working hard, playing hard, balance, health, and a list of more too long for this reply – all go into success. Passion is one of the elements that help keep one focused on doing all of those things without going bonkers… the glue, so to speak. Can it alone stave off disaster. Of course not. And sometimes, as the famous bumper sticker says, shit happens.

      Passion can help one stay focused and productive through those times.

  14. Good post. You referenced “Outliers”. I’ve read it several times, also If you haven’t seen it, there is also a book called “Talent is Overrated, What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody else. It contains some of the same material from “Outliers”.

    I’ve never meant anybody who was talented who didn’t work really hard at their craft. lol

  15. Good stuff Don. I do have to hang out with you. Maybe your tact would rub off.

  16. Brilliant – what a great antidote on the internet to all the sillyness about instant success that seems all too pervasive at the moment. Applicable to photography of course, but the message is so true across so many endeavours. Phil

  17. I’ve re-read this several times and continue to savor and applaud every word. I’m compelled to add one point to the following observation:

    I recently read on a forum this statement “…anyone with some knowledge of Photoshop can take any old crappy picture and make it great.” I was simply stunned…

    I heard that! Show me. I bet you could tattoo the Photoshop manual on that poster’s forearm and they still wouldn’t know where to begin backing up that claim a year from now, not even close.

    I started digital manipulation back in the DOS days working scans of my slides in Altimira Composer and a little program called Photostyler. Photostyler was later purchased by Adobe and became what we know today as Photoshop. I’ve been at this a while. My 10,000 hours in Photoshop came and went a while ago. In the process I have made some pretty ugly camera work look fairly good. Some of that crappy camera work was mine and when I couldn’t tolerate that of myself any more I set out to bring my camera skills up to par with my post processing skills.

    The camera and studio lighting skills were harder to learn than I expected but I submit to you that between the hardware and the software, Photoshop offers the greater challenge (gasp!). At this point I’ve made a HUGE investment in both of them and I don’t make that claim lightly. I can’t imagine forfeiting either skill set and being able to make up for it with the other, but man-oh-man, has anyone ever counted the buttons in that software? Why do so many of the people who don’t have a clue how to make Photoshop truly sing look down on those who are able to use it proficiently?

    The guy that can “take any old crappy picture and make it great” in Photoshop has likely invested a huge amount of time and energy mastering that part of his craft. I’m simply amazed that so many people continue to look on that discipline and ability with such contempt. Were print and darkroom masters ever subject to that kind of scorn from photography “purists?”

    • Well,
      My first Photoshop was 2.0.5.
      I have seen that button list grow quite a bit, and I certainly agree with the comment.

      To be able to work within Photoshop as a knowledgeable worker, and not one who takes the skill set lightly, I also think that without understanding photography to begin with, it is still a bit challenging to do something great in Photoshop. Especially of a ‘crappy’ image.

      Let’s examine what we could do with a crappy photo… one that lacks emotion, gesture, composition, lighting or ‘correct’ exposure settings. I can change the composition, add some lighting, redo the exposure – and by doing that, create a totally new image… one that MAY actually work to bring out the first two. That may mean that the original wasn’t really an image on its own, but fodder for making a photoshop ‘collage’ or illustration. And there is NOTHING wrong with that. But we haven’t made ‘a crappy old photograph great’, we may have created a pretty cool photo illustration using a multiplicity of imagery, some of which may be crappy on their own merits, but wonderful within the new illustration.

      And I don’t really want to argue about photo-illustration being or not being a photographic art. To me it is a photographic art. Just as Jerry Uelsmann’ s wonderful darkroom created montage/collages were. And I have seen Ansel’s negatives and the notes on printing for some of his work. Manipulation of the negative? You bet your ass, they manipulated the negative. Most of my time in the darkroom was manipulating some negative/paper/chemistry/after-print manipulation/toning/split toning/acids…. sheesh.

      I understand what you are saying, and agree with you wholeheartedly for the most part.

      I just don’t want to define a great image as something purely technical. Whether PS was used or not, does the image connect with the viewer, tell a story, divulge a secret, generate a response, create an interest… To me, that is what makes the image truly great.

  18. totally agreed man!
    passion is what keeps us going =)

  19. Absolutely and amen brother! My comments were strictly intended as a comparison of the technical skills it takes to master both digital capture and digital manipulation. I’ve turned overcast noon day shots into dramatically lit night time scenes in pursuit of the story, but it took days, not hours. I always say, a light on the stand is worth two in the brush (groan).

    My point is that, to me, controlling and bending light, shadow, color and tone to my will is usually easier on set than it is in post. Shaping that will with an artistic sensibility is a separate discipline that is far superior to both but I keep running into photographers who regard someone with strong post processing skills as if they were a leper who might infect the entire body of photographic work with the rotting stench of that insidious disease – PHOTOSHOP.

    Come on guys, let’s be honest, the good old days of formaldehyde hardeners were far more toxic and the perfume of sulphur toning could affect your social life for days. Photoshop is a welcome breath of heavily “filtered fresh air! (groan… again)

    In the end, it comes down to the story though and there are technical (technique – al) skills there as well. They all have to be mastered and they all have to be in harmony or great images will elude you but the story telling skill set deserves the most attention. There will never be a powerful man, woman or child on this Earth who lacks the ability to tell a good story in a way that elicits a strong response in others. It’s not the nuclear weapons scientist who wields the power, it is the story teller, working with the nuclear scientists, who compels others to contemplate the application of that technology. Sometimes I think it might actually take a rocket scientist to master both digital capture and digital manipulation but the true genius is the one who can capture and manipulate the minds of others.

    For those of you who stuck with me all the way to this sentence, wow, that determination will take you places, thank you. My thoughts on this just keep erupting. I’ve got to stop. Wizwow, this whole article and comment string is the bomb dude – Thanks again!

  20. You’ve done it again Don! I got up at 5 this morning and went straight to this site-I just knew you had inspiration waiting for us-and there it was. I agree with Kevin-that was breathtaking! I must admit, every single statement you said you had read about how hard photography as a profession has become are things I have both believed *sigh* and said to those people closest to me whenever I felt discouraged. But they are not true, and you are right, “a photographer with passion won’t be stopped by all of that [stuff]”-which is really just a bunch of excuses for giving up. That passion is what has carried me through those moments when I wasn’t quite sure of myself, but kept going anyway, kept striving for “the work [I] love to reveal itself” (from your response to Mark, above.) Best.site.ever. Thank you Don!

    • And thanks to you, Alicia. And to all the comments above. I love to get feedback.

  21. I only dissagree on one point, great photography doesn’t take a lens. Drop the gear addiction and start a pinhole project. This forced me to slow down, and actually look for the light, plan a shot, and make a great print. The 5D’s still pay the bills, but a piece of paper and some light renewed my passion.