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What Willie Nelson taught me about Photography

Willie and Trigger.jpg

Being a photographer for roughly 20 years, I have shot Nikon almost exclusively.  Not because I feel that they are superior to their competition, but because they have always made excellent gear and that’s what I chose at the very beginning of my journey.

I never got into photography to collect equipment.  In fact, looking back, I can tell you I have made more regretful purchases on gear than finding true keepers for my kit.  Lenses that collected more dust than light.  It happens, even with someone like myself who tries to spend his money wisely.

You never really know how a camera or lens will shoot until you actually get it in your hands and knock out a few thousand clicks under extreme circumstances.  Shooting in low-light or fast action can stress the design of your equipment.  Specifications alone cannot tell the story of your gear.  

There is a relationship that forms between you and your gear over time.  The hope is that the two of you can learn to understand each other on a level that you no longer have to think about what each other are capable of.  You hope to get to a point where you just “do.”  This allows you to focus on your work and the relationship between you and your subject.

I for one fell into the trap most of us do early in my time shooting.  If I had this lens I could do X.  If I upgraded my body I could do Y.  Truthfully, at the end of the day I was just lying to myself.  Every camera you pick up today is technologically more advanced than anything Ansel Adams ever used.  Yes, he had the best of glass for his time.  But by todays moderns standards, he was shooting an antique.  To become a master of anything, only relentless passion and experience can get you there.  You learn through doing.

A few years ago Rolling Stone published an article in which Willie Nelson told the story of his legendary guitar “Trigger.”  If you have ever seen Willie perform, you probably have a pretty good idea which guitar I am writing about.  It has a massive hole in the side where the pick guard either once was, or should have been.  The body being held together with a strap.  This Martin N-20 acoustic classic is almost as recognizable as Willie himself.  It has become such a legend that people will arrive well before the show begins to take pictures of it before it ever hits Willie’s hands.

Willie has always been known as a phenomenal song writer.  He has made a legendary career out of telling the stories of others, so it’s only fitting that someone told his story.  The story of a man and his guitar of almost 50 years.  A guitar he ran into a burning house to save back in 1969.  A guitar he asked his daughter to hide from the IRS when they were seizing his assets.  Through all the ups and downs of his life and all the amazing songs he has written, Trigger has remained by his side.  

So how does this relate to photography and what could Willie Nelson teach us?  It’s simple.  We need to love what we have so we can love what we do.  We need to focus on learning the art and less time focusing on the gear.  Learning our gear inside and out is more important than upgrading it.  As I look down at my camera body released back in 2012 and see the grips starting to peel away and all the small dings littering the corners.  I am not sad at all.  I am happy to think about all the great times we have shared along the way and how many more clicks we have in us.

Willie taught me to be a collector of light, life, time and art.  Not camera gear.

Life - Balance of Equity

Life is more than the size of your bank account or the size of your home.  It's true.  Somewhere outside the trap of modern consumerism is a great big beautiful world out there larger than your brand new OLED TV.  And believe it or not, it has higher dynamic range.

As you go to work to earn a living to pay your bills, ask yourself this.  How truly happy are you?  Is your happiness sustainable?  Does it stay with you as you walk down the street like a ray of sunshine everywhere you go long past the possessions you have accumulated through the years? It is all too common today, to find people who value their lives based on their possessions and wealth alone.  A monetary value that at the end of the day, doesn't truly bring any direct emotions.  When you hold a dollar, do you feel better?  What about a hundred dollar bill?  Does it give you sense of pride or happiness?  No.  What you can do with it may, but the bill alone is only a piece of paper that sits quietly in your hand waiting to be traded for something else.  But it comes at a cost too.  Your time.

Now ask yourself this?  When is the last time you spent the same amount of energy on paying a different bank in your life?  Maybe your creative bank.  Or your spiritual bank.  What about your relationship bank?  You see, in todays fast moving world, it's so easy to get caught up in the consumerism mindset, that we are selling our real lives for "things" that give us very little.  

I am far from saying that we don't need money to survive.  It's a necessary requirement in our lives.  You need a home, food and clothing.  Running water and heat.  But beyond that, how much time and effort do we put into filling our other banks.

If we focused our energy on the more enlightening and rewarding portions of our life, would be be happier?  I think so.  Your time is shorter than you think and more valuable than you know.  If you had a single day left in your life, would you go to work to earn enough money to buy a new ottoman, or would you go spend it with the people you love?  Would you spend it shopping for your thirteenth linen set, or hiking in the mountains?


If we don't learn to pay all our banks, then we can quickly lose track of the value of our lives.  In my personal life, I have broken my life down to the following banks: Relationships (family and friends), Creative (Photography), Spiritual, Educational (Teaching and Learning), Health (Both mental and physical) and Career.  The order may vary, but at the end of the day each and every one of these banks is important.  Without balance across these banks, I can feel the tension and lack of purpose creeping back into my life.

My hope is that each and every one of us finds balance in our lives.  That we all find areas outside our daily responsibilities that give us a sense of purpose far beyond our monetary worth.  Think about whats truly important to you and write it down.  Maybe adding a little consciousness to the table will bring you better clarity on where you are in your life.  The real life, that doesn't care about a new ottoman.


My Heroes take Portraits of your Heroes

"Wings" by Gary Nolton 

"Wings" by Gary Nolton 

Do you remember the image titled “Wings,” which was an image for a Nike Ad of Michael Jordan, with his arms straight out holding a basketball?  Of course you do.  It was one of the most iconic images ever taken of Michael Jordan.

I would guess that many of you, around my age had this image hanging on their wall in the nineties or knew someone who did.  I would even suppose you are envisioning it right now or are wondering what ever happened to yours (if you were one of the lucky ones who owned one).

Now, can you remember the photographers name?  Probably not.  His name was Gary Nolton.  And like many of my heroes, he was tasked with creating an interesting and unique image of one of your heroes.  And what he did was create one of the most iconic images of all-time.

That’s the life of a photographer.  We stand in the shadows, living our lives through our lenses, looking to create interesting images of others.  While our images are often seen, we are not.  And for most of us, that’s the way we like it.  I have always wondered what it would be like to photograph a celebrity.  On one hand, you would think it would be easy to get traction on an image of a celebrity.  I mean, they are famous, right?  People know them.  They watch them play sports, are in movies and we listen to their music.  How hard could it be to take a great image of a celebrity?  Ummm……..extremely difficult.  

Taking a strong image isn’t enough.  You also have to make it interesting.  How do you take a face that is everywhere and make it interesting?  How do you make it stand out?  How do you make it timeless?  Getting your lighting and exposure right isn’t enough.  You must think outside the box to capture the essence of an individual.  To show them in a light that stands out from the thousands of images that have been taken before.

When I think about Michael Jordan, this is the image that comes to mind.  This is the timeless piece I always come back to.  This is the art of portrait photography.  “Wings” by Gary Nolton.  It is my Mecca of portrait photography.

Behind every iconic image of one of your heroes is one of my heroes.  

A great portrait almost has a journalistic quality to it.  It tells you a story through visual storytelling.  When I look at the "Bo Knows" ad from 1987, it basically tells the story of Bo Jackson.  A multi sport super athlete who could do it all.  Or Claudia Shiffer's Guess Ads from the 90's.  As beautiful as she was, there was such a gritty yet dreamy quality to these images.  They weren't like any of the other ads out there at the time.  This was the amazing work of Ellen Von Unwerth.  And if you have had the pleasure of looking at any of Danny Clinch's work, it is filled with unbelievably soulful images of many of your favorite musicians.  Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.  As much as I love these artists, I love Danny's work even more.  The mix between candid moments and posed shooting gives us a behind the scenes look at the humanistic side our favorite artists.  In the end they are just like you.......only extraordinary at their craft.  Just as Danny is.

The image "Wings" was paired with a quote by William Blake that said, “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.”  There are kids out there right now counting down from 3....2....1 dreaming of hitting that last second shot to win the championship.  Somewhere else out there is a kid picking up a camera, dreaming of being the one who takes an image of that athlete that lasts well beyond the moment of that shot.  We all want to fly, but that doesn't mean we have to choose the same sky.  



Breaking the Broken

There is a scene in the movie "Fracture,' where Ted Crawford, who was played by Anthony Hopkins is telling a story to the prosecutor about growing up on his grandfathers farm.  As a child he was tasked with "candling eggs."  This is the process of holding a candle up to the light to look for imperfections.  Those eggs with cracks went to the baker and the others went to the grocery stores.  After his first shift, his grandfather came back to see their yield, and much to his surprise the bakery basket was filled with all of the eggs.  It was at this point in the film when Ted said, "You look closely enough, you'll find that everything has a weak spot where it can break, sooner or later."

As humans, we are quick to hide our imperfections when possible.  For some reason we take these imperfections as weakness.  We spend all of our time to try to prevent being flawed, knowing that in the end, it's an unreasonable expectation.  We are humans, and it is in our very DNA that we are built to handle our flaws, not be perfect.  

I suppose you could say that we are all broken in some way.  It's not a question of "if", as much as it is a question of "how".  And the way we deal with our flaws is what helps us move forward in life.  This past month has been a month of great loss and tragedy for me and many others I know.  I lost one of my very dearest friends.  One of those special friends that was there for some of the most incredible moments in my life.  The good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the in between moments.  We shared the types of laughs that made your face and stomach hurt from laughing so hard.  The type of friend that would own multiple chapters in the book of your very life.  And it was hard.  In fact, after 40 years on this planet, I can say without question, it was the deepest pain I've experienced in my life.  I lost a great friend in tragic fashion.  

In hindsight, I learned that my friend was dealing with some things and in the end those things consumed him.  This world is not an easy place to live sometimes.  It can be difficult and downright cruel at times if you allow it to grab ahold of you.  I can empathize with those dark feelings and the heavy sadness he must have been feeling before his death.  You see, like many other people in this world, I have had to deal with my very own problems, many of which are the same issues he was feeling.  

Roughly 8 years ago, I was diagnosed with a case of clinical depression and anxiety.  And, nobody but my wife was aware.  In fact, you could say I even hid it pretty well.  Professionally I was successful.  I accepted promotion after promotion.  My personal life seemed to be in order, I was recently married and had a baby on the way.  I had all the right reasons to be extremely happy in life, and I was buried in my own head, unable to emotionally breathe.  I just couldn't seem to handle all life's changes coming my way.  It was both an exciting time in my life, and completely overwhelming.  The thought of being responsible for another human life, all while juggling a career and dealing with my own flaws, was absolutely overwhelming.  

If I would have tried to handle it all on my own, I don't think I would have been able to.  It was time to reach out and ask for help.  It was time for "breaking the broken."  The only way to break the chain of depression is to think about the things that are consuming you, learn to handle them differently and look to things that can bring a little light back into your life.  For me personally, I had to stop spending every hour I was alive solely handling my professional and personal obligations.  It was time to carve out time for me.  I needed to let go of the time I spent with the wrong people, and carve out time to spend with the right people.  The people that I could be myself around without judgement.  

For some reason there is an odd stigma around dealing with mental issues and quite frankly I just don't understand it.  If someone injures their ankle, they see a doctor, get prescribed medication and in some cases go through therapy.  Nobody blinks an eye.  I think its fair to say the human brain is far more complex than your ankle.  So why are people treated differently when they need to navigate through the most complex problems the human body can experience?  

I believe that there is great strength in knowing when to ask for help and having the courage to make the necessary changes in your life.  If you or someone you know if going through tough times, do them a favor and let them know we are all broken in one way or another and you love them no matter what.  This might come as a surprise, but some of the worlds most successful people see a therapist on a regular basis.  Whether for treatment or for prevention, it keeps them centered and on the right path both mentally and emotionally.  

It's about time we toss the stigma to the side, and realize that we are all broken in one way or another. We need to do everything in our power to use the tools at our fingertips to navigate this world the best we can.  We owe it to ourselves to get help.  We owe it to our friends to give them support.   We owe it to our loved ones to receive the help when given a chance.  

My greatest regret is that I couldn't be that person for my friend.  I just wish I would have known.  Whether I could have helped him or not, I'll never know.  But I would have done everything in my power to try.  He truly meant that much to me.  Rest Easy Jimmy.  I love you man.

Chasing the Light

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

The Art of Photography has been described through the years by many as "Painting with Light."  So maybe that's why it's so natural for me to want to chase the light in life.  A great photographer can balance the light and the shadows to create an image the can bring balance and beauty.  The shadows are only present to accentuate the light and the texture and shape of the image.  As a portrait photographer, it allows me to sculpt an image that represents the beauty of my subject.

Could you imagine trying to do the same with only darkness?  Could you even imagine trying to portray a person or a scene with only shadows?  How do you think the image would turn out?  Then why has it become en vogue to apply that logic to every other area of our lives.

No matter where you turn today, somebody is outraged and angry.  I would like to ask those people, "but what are you thankful for?"  It has become fashionable to be angry and have a cause.    All that I ask is that you choose wisely in your cause in hopes of bringing light back to this world.  The world is chaotic enough without people living in constant darkness.

Could you imagine living in a home where the only items you talked about at the dinner table were your shortcomings?  The only discussions you had were centered around failure?  Instead of hugs, you received looks of disgust and anger?  How would that make you feel?  Do you think that would be the type of environment that would raise happy, healthy children who would become well adjusted adults one day?  We know that this type of environment is unhealthy....and it needs to stop.  Now.

The majority of people you meet are good people.  They want to do right.  They will help others.  It doesn't matter their race, profession, religion, sexual orientation or if they chose Coke over Pepsi or vice versa.  Although......Coke is way better, right?  The fact is, we cannot let the narrative you read in the media or watch on the news sway you from what you know deep down in your heart.  Not ALL people are good, but MOST of them truly are.  Live not in fear or in judgmental ignorance based off a false narrative.  We are all better than that.

I do understand that there are times we must jump into the shadows, with purpose, but we must also know when to get out and move back towards the light.  The saddest reality is the fact that there is more energy being spent on the things that make us angry than the things and the people that make us happy.  The programs that make us better.  It's no secret that the communities that work together, grow and prosper together.  When are people going to wake up and realize that doing right is more important than being right.  Put down your egos and do whats right for your community.

Maybe photography has changed me for good.  Maybe it's because I love it so much.  The lessons I have been able to apply in my life from my photographic journey are too long to list.  But I want to share the most important one with you now.  

Always chase the light.  No matter how tempting the shadows can be, the light should always be your guide.  



Courage and Criticism

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by Dogma - which is living with the result of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition
— Steve Jobs

Last night millions of people witnessed Floyd Mayweather defeat Conor McGregor in a boxing bout in Las Vegas.  Over the past few months we have been hearing about each and every angle of this fight.  For many of us, this fight was met with positive energy and excitement.  However, for many others this was an opportunity to toss harsh criticism and negativity towards the event. I have heard, "Conor is going to get destroyed."  "Mayweather is only doing this for the money."  Even Oscar De La Hoya chimed in saying that these two fighters were, "disrespecting boxing."  We will never know either fighters motivation, and quite frankly, we don't deserve to.  

These fighters put in all the work and we are fortunate enough to witness the fruits of their labor. They are the ones waking up early to train, eating for purpose and not for enjoyment alone.  They are the ones spending the time and effort to keep their bodies in elite fighting shape.  These fighters sacrifice so much to follow their dreams, and we are fortunate enough to watch them along their journey.

So why do so many people feel the need to harshly criticize these fighters?  What if I told you it had nothing to do with these fighters at all?  It's true.  People have the option to ignore the fights that don't interest them, but they feel the need to say something negative.  The reason is, it forces them to think about themselves and for many of them, it's a stark reminder that they don't have what it takes to follow their very own dreams.  And it makes them uncomfortable.

Conor knew he was stepping into the ring with a major disadvantage but he didn't let that stop him.  He is one of the most confident athletes I have ever seen, and when he said he expected to win, I believed him.  We should all strive to be a little more like Conor McGregor.  If we truly want something, we should learn to push all the criticism and negativity aside and follow our hearts.  I, for one, truly believe that if I want something, and I put in the work that success is imminent. It will happen.  That doesn't always mean it happens, but I won't shy away from believing it will.  And that should always be case.  

I have been fortunate enough to share this planet with others that are doing what they were born to do.  When I watch my son's Sifu, John Simons teach JiuJitsu to his classes, I cannot imagine him doing anything else.  When I see my friend Chris Jack creating some of the most exotic dishes as a Master Chef, I cannot imagine him as anything else.  Lastly, when I see my friend Robbie Cutrell (see images) training for his next fight, embracing the pain and doing whatever it takes to prepare him for victory, I know this is what he was meant to do.  These are just a few people that inspire me and make me believe that this world was built by people who have had the courage to brush off criticism and follow their dreams at all cost.  

If you want to have success and be happy in this life, you must learn to deal with criticism head on.  How you deal with it is up to you, but never stop believing in yourself and never stop moving towards your goals.  Be confident, motivated and relentless.  Be inspired and unstoppable.  Be more like Conor McGregor.

Perspective and Purpose: Learning to see the world in a whole new light

To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them
— Elliott Erwitt

I don't understand.  This didn't happen anyway like I pictured it going!  Why doesn't my image look the way I remember it?  It's actually quite simple.  Your eyes are the lenses that aren't attached to the camera, but they are the most important in the process.  The key is connecting your eyes, mind and creative thoughts into a single image.  And guess what?  It takes time and purpose.  Photographic perspective is a creative tool that takes years and plenty of shooting to acquire.  You see, each tool in your bag serves a purpose, and it takes time to understand their capabilities and strengths.  That is why, when people first begin photography and ask me what gear to buy, I usually recommend only buying one body, one lens and one flash.  The reason, like anything else, you need to build a sturdy foundation before you move forward.  The less variables you have, the better the likelihood for growth and success.  There are less moving parts and as you start to understand the characteristics of each, you can leverage their abilities to create strong images that capture special moments in time.  You will find greater success learning with acute focus on less tools than general focus on multiple tools.

So, what exactly is Photographic perspective?  Well, before we dive into Photographic perspective, let's think about what perspective alone is.  Webster's Dictionary defines perspective as "a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view."  In every image there is the subject and the photographer.  We photograph the subject for what they are and what they aren't.  So much of our very own thoughts, feelings and to a certain degree, biases bleed into our images.  We photograph our subjects for the way we want to see them.  And believe it or not, once you get full control of your camera you will have remarkable control over how your viewers see your subjects as well.  

So how can you influence how a subject is viewed.  The environment you place them in.  The angle for which you take the image.  A lower angle facing up, shows a subject in a place of power.  The use of negative space around a subject can show them as being small or potentially insignificant or isolated.  The facial expressions you choose to post and print can convey happiness, sadness, angst and many other feelings.  The colors you choose to accentuate the scene or portrait can also convey different feelings.  

The one specific aspect of perspective I would like to discuss today is "subject isolation."  How can we make our subject stand out in an image and what must we know about our cameras that will help us do so?  There are so many different ways to isolate a subject.  Aperture control, lighting control and compositional techniques are the three that we are going to dive into today.

The first, and unfortunately where many photographers begin and end is Aperture control.  Limited depth of field (area that is in focus) is a powerful tool for isolating a subject.  You open your lens up as wide or almost as wide as it can go, set your exposure and fire away.  Most kit lenses open up to an F-Stop around F4 or F5.6.  Many professional zooms open to 2.8.  Most professional primes open up to around 1.4 or 1.8 (If you don't understand this portion, please reach out to me via email and I will explain them to you in more detail).  The easiest way to understand how to use Aperture is to place your camera in Aperture Priority mode which is usually A on your command dial.  Then choose the lowest number possible, and start shooting your subject.  Notice how shallow the area of focus is beyond the focus point you have chosen.  Then raise your aperture one click at a time from the same distance and see how it affects your image.  The longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field becomes.  The further from your background you place them, the shallower your depth of field appears.  As you get more familiar with depth of field, the better you will understand how to manipulate depth of field to get the look you are going for.  Here are a few images taken using a wider open aperture:

Notice how the lack of depth of field immediately draws your eye to the subject.  The sharpness of the area of focus is magnified by the softness of the out of focus areas.  It can be a powerful tool.  It can also be grossly abused and overused.  For most photographers it becomes almost an addiction.  They shoot wide open, all the time.  And while your images have a certain look people like, your images can also become repetitive and boring.  Remember, it's all about choosing the right tool for the job.  

Another way to isolate your subject is through the use of selective and creative lighting.  This takes more technique and knowledge, however when done correctly, it can be the most powerful of all.  After all, photography is painting with light.  Take these images for example:

By using varying intensity of light and directional light, you can create a mood with your subject that helps convey emotion.  In the first image a light was placed above my daughter.  The strobe was set to a low setting and placed a few feet away.  The light softly landed across her face as she prayed.  In the second image, my friend Robbie was preparing for his next fight and we were putting together his promotional images.  We wanted to convey an image of strength and toughness.  The light was placed to the side, the intensity was raised a little higher and the light was pulled further away; the further the light and the smaller the light, the harsher the light.  As you can see here, we were able to isolate our subject from the background through lighting, and not aperture.  Mission accomplished.  The third image is a photo of my daughter again.  I wanted a picture of her side profile, but wanted it to really showcase the kindness of her eyes and her cheeks.  By placing the light above and slightly behind her, and reducing the intensity I was able to accomplish my goal.  I have included a few more images using light isolation techniques as well.  Of the three isolation techniques we are discussing today, creative lighting takes the most time and practice.  Do not shy away from it though, no matter how frustrating it can be.  The rewards are far more gratifying than the frustrations you will experience.  And once you have it, you have it forever.  Start as soon as you can.

Lastly, we will address compositional techniques to isolate our subjects.  This one may take some time, but can be the most fun when you are learning how to manipulate the scene to convey the emotion and style you desire.  Personally, shooting close up and filling the frame with the subject is the most natural for me.  I tend to believe a portrait is strongest when the eyes are in the forefront of the image.  That said, over the past couple years, I have had to change it up and teach myself to shoot in ways that aren't as natural to me.  I picked up a tool that has really helped me in this department; Tight, middle, wide.  I shoot up close first, step back and shoot at a mid-range then move to the wide shots.  As I became more comfortable using this tool, I really started to enjoy shooting wide.  The use of negative space, leading lines and textures in an image really started to kickstart my creative mind.  It was like a whole new world of possibilities and I was ready to embark on a new journey.  These images use negative space, leading lines and the environment to convey their moments in time.

When using composition techniques it's always best to slow down before you speed up.  Look around, walk around, change levels (low and high) and ask yourself what are the most interesting pieces of your environment and how can you use them in the image to create the style of image you are going for?  And don't be afraid to get uncomfortable or dirty to get the shot.  Usually the best shot comes from the photographer who wasn't afraid to do what it took to get the shot they wanted.  Notice that in the images where the subject is small, that the environment plays a major role in the overall feel of the image.  I like to call it the "great big world" look.  Walking through the forest, if I took a tight shot would it have had the same feel as the image taken here?  No chance.  My daughter standing in the center of the gymnastics studio is such a small part of the overall image.  This conveys how early in the process she is and how far she has to go.  It also shows her smiling face and how excited she is to get started.  We can learn a lot from children, can't we?  I know I have.  In the images where the photo was taken from up above or down below, ask yourself if they would have had the same feel if they were taken from straight on.  Unlikely.  

You see, when you pick up your camera you really have control of your images and the message you are trying to convey.  Your ability to utilize the tools of the camera and instill your creative touch to each image really does ensure that you the photographer are also in each and every one of your images.  Your interactions with your images are very much like your interactions with other people on this pale blue dot we call earth.  You can have an impact on others, one interaction and one click at a time.

Be well and happy shooting!



Minimalism and its Impact on your Mind and Heart

Through Kurt I saw the beauty of minimalism and the importance of music that’s stripped down.
— Dave Grohl
A simple yet powerful portrait of our son Liam.  Stripped of all possible distractions.  Simple.wins.always.

A simple yet powerful portrait of our son Liam.  Stripped of all possible distractions.  Simple.wins.always.

Being a grunge baby of the 90's, I have a special place in my heart for both Kurt Cobain and David Grohl.  I can still remember the very first time I heard, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on MTV when they actually played music videos.  It was raw and like nothing my ears had ever heard before.  I have to come clean about it too......I wasn't even sure if I liked it at first.  But what I did know, is that it had an impact on me and I wanted to hear it again.  Well, thankfully for me, and a whole generation of kids just like me, MTV played that song every hour on the hour for the next few months.  And before we knew it, a whole new music scene was born and our lives would never be the same.  Nirvana hit the ground running, and we traded in the likes of tall hair for dirty looking flannels and Doc Marten boots.  

You are probably wondering how this factors into photography and life, which I'm still hoping is the theme of this blog.  Well, the list of parallels between music and photography are too long to list.  So I will focus on what I believe are the most important points.  When you think about it, music took a huge swing from the bright lights and pyrotechnics to a group of guys just slamming chords and drum heads in their garage.  No more hair spray and make-up.  No more power ballads and images of these modern rockstars acting lonely through the window of their tour bus.  What we received from the grunge era, was raw and uncut and filled with the emotions that we held closest to us.  

When Dave Grohl spoke of Kurt, and to the beauty of minimalism and the importance of the music being stripped down, that should also be a guiding hand for the way we look at life.  There has to come a time when we slow down, take a long hard look at the craziness that is our lives and make a decision on what is most important and work towards spending more time on those things.  Becoming more active in the things we love and less active in the things that don't bring us real joy and a sense of happiness.

Fact is, our lives are very much like music.  There are high points and low points, and multiple instruments that we use to try and create harmony.  Think about all the individual pieces there are to your life that make up the overall sum.  If you were to list them all out, and honestly ask yourself, do these things bring value to my life, what would you say?  Yes or No.  Fact is, by nature  we take on more in our lives for reasons that don't necessarily yield the desirable outcome, happiness.  We do them for the right reasons, but that doesn't mean they deserve our time, and certainly not at the expense of our happiness.  

We will all reach that point of diminishing returns for our efforts.  Not because we aren't capable of doing all these things individually, but because time is a friend of no one and we need to make choices on how we want to fill it.  I am in the process of evaluating my life, as we all should do frequently enough, and I have some tough decisions to make.  This is my life and I, like all of you, deserve to be alive.  Its time to offload the things that don't bring a positive value to my life.  I urge you to do the same......for you.  




Perfectionism: The Keen Eye With A Fractured Heart

The perfect is the enemy of the good
— Voltaire (French to English Translation)

As I sit in front of my computer editing photos that I took only hours ago, and couldn't wait to see, I come across one in particular that captures my eye and my heart.  Maybe it's the way the light is hitting my subject, or the composition of the image.  It could certainly be the raw emotion or the way the colors compliment each other like ingredients in your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant.  I am immediately thrilled with the image, and then it happens.  No sooner have I experienced the feeling of happiness, do I put on my critical mask and search for what I would change.  I look for any single detail that I could have done better.  It's awful.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that this specific trait has also served me well in my career and in other aspects of my life.  I was always looking for ways to perform better and this mindset forced me to look outside my comfort zone and grow.  And for a while, it was a positive trait that helped me become better in many ways.  However, somewhere along the line, it started to weigh on me and the happiness I felt doing the things I loved started to take a back seat to the self-criticism I would subject myself to.  Somewhere along the line I traded in happiness in the form of progress for agony in the form of perfectionism.  It was emotionally crippling.

I have never considered myself a victim, and I certainly won't feel sorry for myself.  But what I will do is take a long hard look in the mirror and ask myself if this is the way I want to live?  Do I want to hold myself to unreasonable expectations?  Or worse, do I want to hold others to that same unattainable standard?  That is what perfectionism becomes.  It becomes an unattainable destination that ruins the beautiful journey that we all share together.  

So how might one change the trajectory of their mind and re-navigate towards a healthier, happier life?  I'm not sure this is the answer for everyone, but it certainly is to me.  I keep telling myself that life's greatest treasures, it's most incredible beauty can be found in the imperfections.  When I start to feel the anxiety roll in while thinking about a mistake I made, I tell myself its better to laugh about it.  In the end, when you look back on your life, what makes a better story?  The time you executed your task perfectly, or the time you crashed and burned, yet lived to tell about it?

Fact is, this world is far from perfect, and as humans, we might be the most imperfect of all gods creatures.  And that's OK.  In fact, it's a beautiful thing if you think about it.  All you have to do is take the time to see it.  The moment you start to accept yourself as the flawed individual you are, the more you will enjoy your life and the better you will make life for those around you.  You don't have to be perfect to be perfectly happy.   Its time we start to choose happiness in the form of progress.  Personal, emotional progress.

So before I change my mind and go back and edit this article, I'm going to leave it right where it is.  Most likely filled with spelling and grammatical errors.  And I'm "OK" with that.  It's raw and uncut.....just like life.


It takes a village

Our son participated in his very first JiuJitsu tournament recently.  Leading up to the tournament as a parent you have so many concerns and your mind will race with images of every possible outcome.  How will he handle the pressure of his first tournament?  Is he ready?  Whether he wins or loses, how will he handle himself?  To be honest, my heart was probably pounding harder than his as he walked out onto the mat.  Then I looked out and knew he would be fine.  He was in great hands.  He stood there face to face with his Sifu, focused on those important last minute words before he stepped out in front of his opponent.  Fact is, to him, there wasn't anybody else on that mat other than him, his opponent and his Sifu.  

The truth is, as much as we want to be the ones to shape our children's lives, we cannot do it alone. We aren't with our children 24-7-365.  And let's be honest, that's best for everyone involved.  It really does take a village to raise a child.  It's important that we are mindful of this and act accordingly.  Be selective on who you let coach or mentor your child.  Don't settle for anything less than others who share your core values.  And when you are fortunate enough to find them, make sure you appreciate them.  If a coach is being tough on your kid for the right reasons, support their direction.  Growth cannot happen without discomfort and leadership isn't always easy.  If they are willing to invest in your child, support their efforts.  

The reason this is so important, is because one day, no matter how hard we work as parents, our children will tune us out.  And when they do, we should all hope that they have someone else in their lives willing to give them direction.  

I have been fortunate enough to have been surrounded by incredible people my whole life.  People that have given me advice that I recite to my very own children today.  People that have invested their time, efforts and patience to help me along the way.  When you see these relationships growing, make sure you capture them.  They will become great reminders of their path and those who helped them along the way.

Special Note:  I would like to dedicate this post to my very first coach, John Shuttleworth who passed away way too soon.  John, above all else, was an incredible human being who cared about all those around him.  You couldn't help but smile when he walked into the room (or onto the field).  He was the perfect example of the type of person we should all seek to become.  We will miss you John.  Thank you for everything.  


The most important image of all

The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.
— Theodore Hesburgh

It's been the perfect day.  It's late spring and we have been outside all day working on building a deck on the back of our house.  The weather has cooperated nicely and we are making progress.  My little man has been outside helping out as I patiently and purposely follow the steps on completing our project.  Then it happens.  I make a single mistake and the words slip right out of my mouth.  You know the words.  The forbidden ones that every parent lets slip out at one time or another.  And then my 3 foot something human parrot chimes in and just like that a teaching moment occurs.  I am now in the process of explaining to my child that those words aren't "ok" to say and that I was wrong.  He looks at me with those big kind eyes and in one single look teaches me a valuable lesson in life.  Children learn more from what they see then from what they are told.  Setting an example is the most important piece of building healthy, happy children and hopefully good hearted citizens one day.  

From the moment your children are born you have become a roadmap for who they will most likely become one day. The values that you display will become part of their DNA just as much as any physical feature that you have passed on to them.  The stakes are raised and its time to become a better husband, father, employee and citizen.  

From the moment our oldest child was born, we were all in.  We felt so clueless about what it meant to be a good parent, but the more we moved forward, the more we realized we actually had a pretty idea of how to get there.  All the lessons we were about to teach have been learned from the other end of the equation.  Do you ever catch yourself mid-sentence and think to yourself, "OMG, I sound just like my dad/mom!"  That's great!  That just means you were paying attention.  Now its time to think about the message you want to live for your children.

That brings me to the point of this whole article.  Through all the craziness that is your life, becoming a parent and figuring things out as you go, its so incredibly important that you don't stop dating your wife/husband.  It's so easy to fall into the trap that is being that 24/7 parent that does everything for your kids.  While your children are your priority, so is your wife/husband.  An extremely valuable piece of their development is learning what it looks like to be a great husband or wife.  And that means putting your partner first.  Show them what a healthy loving relationship looks like.  Because if you don't, it will be really hard for them to have one. 

You are probably asking yourself, how does this fit into photography?  Well, photography is the only form of art that represents life exactly as it is.  This past week, I made it a point to persuade my wife into letting me take photos of her as I see her.  I asked her to get "done up" and give me a small window of time to take a few photos.  We were able to slow life down, if only temporarily, to just enjoy each other.  It was awesome creating this opportunity for her to be the center of our world.  This tiny moment meant so much more than you could ever imagine.  

And at the end, I was able to share these photos with our children and explain to them that this is how I see their mother, my wife.  She is the most beautiful women in the world to me and I appreciate her for all her beauty.  For all the crazy moments in life, I couldn't imagine sharing them with anyone else.  

So the next time you pick up your camera, take a few portraits of your signifiant other and let them see how you see them.  Photography can be a powerful tool.  Love them through your lens.

The Art of Falling Down

Wow!  I really messed that shot up…….and that’s awesome!  What could possibly be so grand about screwing up a shot?  Well, that depends on WHY you messed up the shot to begin with.  If you messed up a shot that in all accounts you have taken a thousand times, then maybe it isn’t so wonderful.  However, if you took a chance on trying something new or creative, congratulations!  That is the mindset needed for growth.

There is an art to falling down.  If you made the conscious decision to try a new technique, or use a new tool then you are moving in the right direction.   And if you want to make significant improvements in your abilities you have to learn to fall down.  Let go of the fear of failure and expect to fail.  It’s actually quite liberating.  This small shift in mindset relieves all the stress and anxiety.  Once you allow yourself to stop caring about the immediate results and you start to focus on the task at hand, the learning begins.  Expect to fail, and then learn from your mistakes.  This isn’t anything you haven’t heard before, however it’s easier to accept in theory than in practice.  Let today be the day that changes.

As photographers, we take multiple shots in hopes of getting that one shot where all the stars align.  The lighting, composition, exposure and emotions are all in line with our vision.  We walk away with the results we were looking for.  But what if we could have tried something else?  What if, after achieving the results we originally desired we decided to push the envelope?  It is only through uncomfortable expansion that we become a better photographer than we were yesterday.  Isn’t that what we all want? 

I can remember being a “natural light photographer” for years.  In many ways that title was created out of my fear of strobist work.  Flash work terrified me.  Adding that extra element into the equation just felt like too much.  I didn’t feel like I had mastered the core basics of natural light photography, so why would I ever think about grabbing a flash and getting to work?  Well, after a few years of lying to myself thinking that I could get by on my limited skillset, I found myself in a situation where I needed those skills……and I didn’t have them.  It was an awful feeling. 

So the next day, I purchased a flash and got to work.  I wanted to learn it all……yesterday.  As we all know it doesn’t work that way.  It takes time, effort, failure and self-reflection to grow.  I took some of the least flattering images of my life (I’m being kind) that first day with my flash.  I didn’t understand directional light at all.  What is bounce?  Lighting ratios?  I was floored by the amount of new knowledge that I needed to acquire to become proficient, let alone mastering it.  I was overwhelmed and completely motivated to make it happen.  I was really excited about the opportunity to learn and grow.

This opened up a whole new world of possibilities.  I started looking at strobist websites and clicking on every studio image on Flickr.  All of a sudden, I was completely fascinated by the one thing that terrified me just a few days earlier. 

As we all know, it’s not what you read that helps you improve your work.  Now it was time to practice what I learned.  Luckily I have a house full of children and pets; two kids, three dogs, a wife and even a few Buddhist statues.   I think at one point I even pulled in a Jehovah Witness that showed up at my door one afternoon.  Nobody and nothing that resembled a body was off limits.  I spent the next few days bouncing light all over my house.  Again, I walked away with some of the worst images I’ve ever taken.  I also walked away with some really nice images and a greater understanding of flash photography that I didn’t have just a few days earlier. 

As it stands today, I have a much greater understanding of flash photography and it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.  My creative juices are flowing again and it feels amazing.  This never would have been possible if I didn’t learn the art of falling.  It’s “ok” if you fail as long as you learn and keep moving.  Let today be the day. 

Pro Tip: If you have made the decision to try something new (technique/tool), start out taking a collection of “safe shots” first.  Utilize the experience you already have to get the types of shots you are already capable of capturing.  Once you have yielded a healthy amount of these images, move on to the creative process of learning.  And most importantly, have fun.

Unfiltered Emotion

All emotion is involuntary when genuine
— Mark Twain

Imagine a world where you were free to express your unfiltered emotions.  Oh, to be that young again.  This is the beautiful world that your children are currently living in.  They haven't been subjected to the adult world of suppressing their emotions for the greater good of society.  Do you sense the sarcasm?  If not, I's not like you can read the emotion on my face.    

Last week, I discussed the importance of finding quality light.  Specifically, using a window to create soft beautiful light. What we are going to discuss this week isn't soft and at times it isn't beautiful.....or is it? When I first started taking pictures, I wanted the images to be happy and fun and aesthetically pleasing.  Nice light, smiling faces and good composition.  But then I started to notice something was missing.  My images were becoming boring one similar image at a time.  Not because the backdrops weren't changing.  They certainly were.  Not because my composition wasn't changing, because it was.  The one single element that was holding me back from taking images that told the whole story, was emotional diversity.  I was capturing the same emotion, over and over again: Happiness.  But what could possibly be wrong with capturing happiness, and happiness alone?  It's actually quite simple; it's not authentic.  

If only one emotion is being captured, you are missing out on a whole world of beautiful images.  These moments are equally as amazing as capturing a smiling face.  In some cases, these images will become some of your favorites.  When I think about my children, I want images that match their personalities.  I want to remember all of it.  The moments they were happy, sad, puzzled, frustrated and even angry.  Emotions are natural and beautiful.  Don't be afraid to capture these moments in time, just as you would a moment of laughter or happiness.  You won't regret it......even if you think you will in the moment.  

Let the light be your guide

There are two ways of spreading light: To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
— Edith Wharton

As people, we have an opportunity to be the light for others while also being able to show others just how beautiful and amazing they are.  This is also true in photography, both metaphorically and literally speaking.  The camera is the medium used to capture the light and the subject serves as the light.  But how do you take photos that showcase the beauty of a person?  

Think back to the guiding principles I shared in my last post.  The individual principles are Light, Exposure, Composition and Emotion.  The Art of Photography has been described as "Painting with Light."  This couldn't be more true.  Nothing can make or break an image more than the quality of light that is present (or created) when an image is taken.  Today we are going to unlock one way of identifying and creating quality light.  Specifically ambient light, as we will save flash for further down the road.  When you think about ambient light, you can break it down into two specific areas:  Indoor and outdoor.  Many people believe that indoor lighting can be the most challenging, however it doesn't need to be.  Some of my absolute favorite photos of my children were taken indoors.  The key to creating a beautiful image is using the right tool at the right time.  Whether you know it or not, you already have one of the greatest lighting tools of all:  A Window. The larger and closer the light source, the softer it becomes.  Professional photographers spend plenty of money trying to replicate the quality of light that you can get from a simple window in your home.  Windows are big, bright and able to be diffused with the swipe of a hand (white sheer curtains).  All of the images below were taken in close proximity to a window.  Take special note of the location of the light source in the eyes.  These are called "catch lights."  

These catch lights are a great indicator of where the light was located in relation to the subject.  By identifying the catch lights and taking note of the shadows you can get a clear idea of where the light source (window) was located.  In order to create the look you will want, you will want to play with the placement and angle of your subject to the window.  If the window is directly beside them, the shadows will be more present.  As they turn towards the light, the shadows are filled in with soft, beautiful light.  You will want to play with this in order to get the look you are going for.  You will also want to find a wall that has a flattering color for your image.

Once you have locked in the lighting that you desire, now the real fun begins.  This is the moment where you get to make your kids laugh and get them to relax and have fun.  Tell them to make silly faces in between the smiles.  Tell them to frown, click*, then smile again!  You will find that the more you ask them to "switch it up" the more they will laugh and smile and create the images that you desire.  

So the next time you are thinking or taking a photo of your child in the daylight hours, take them in front of a window and give it a try.  I have a feeling you are going to love it!

Pro Tip: Always set your file format to RAW (or RAW + JPG) if possible.  This will allow you greater flexibility in the editing process and the ability to bring back shadow detail and highlights that JPG alone cannot.  


The Importance of Guiding Principles

Guiding Principles: Light, Exposure, Composition and Emotion.  All check.

Guiding Principles: Light, Exposure, Composition and Emotion.  All check.

I remember when I first picked up my DSLR, the first stop I made was to the book store.  As usual, I walked out the door with a giant stack of books and significantly less money in my bank account.  I would sit on my couch and look through endless photography books of some of the most iconic images ever taken, and think to myself, "Wow, I wonder what was going through the photographers mind before they took that image."  I watched numerous documentaries and interviews with these same photographers and images. What I found was that each and every one of these photographers had a simple yet effective mental checklist that they would go through before raising their camera to their eye.  What makes a great image can be subjective.  There are so many individual elements in creating an inspiring image.  While each photographer has their own style, I believe that to some degree they all share the same basic guiding principles when creating their imagery.  These aren't necessarily ground-breaking or even new for that matter.  What they are is time tested and incredibly reliable.  These guiding principles are:  Light, Exposure, Composition and Emotion.

1. Light - Find quality light that matches the mood for your desired image.

2. Exposure - Get your settings locked in so you can move on to the compositional aspect of your shot.

3. Composition - Framing, leading lines, color theory, rule of thirds etc.  

4. Emotion - The transferring of emotion from the subject to the viewer.

In photography and in life, it is important to have guiding principles that help lead you along your way.  A simple and thoughtful plan is usually the most effective and it is important to think about what you are trying to accomplish before you begin.  You have to slow down to go fast.  That said, thinking about these specific elements alone won't make you an excellent photographer.  In fact, each and every one of these elements will take a tremendous amount of practice to master.  But having a simple and effective plan is essential to achieving your goals in photography and in life.  My hope is that these four guiding principles can become your guiding light in your photographic journey.  As we move forward together, I will dive deeper into each one of these individual elements.  Let the journey begin!

Guiding Principles: Light, Exposure, Composition and Emotion.  All check.

Guiding Principles: Light, Exposure, Composition and Emotion.  All check.

The in between moments

You are capable of taking photographs today that a professional photographer cannot?  Yes, you heard me correctly.  No, not because you were born with this god given ability to take pictures filled with technical brilliance.  This is less a matter or ability and more a matter of timing.  The fact is, now that you have your own camera, you have the power to freeze some of the most incredible moments of your life.  Many homes have albums outlining the landmark moments in their children's lives.  These photographs may consist of school portraits from each grade along the way or each sports team they have played on.  But what about the in between moments that happen along the way?  When I look back at the past few years, these types of photos are some of my absolute favorites.  I think the mere fact that they were taken as these funny little moments in life presented themselves, made them even more special.  And the truth of the matter is, you won't even see them coming.  That's how life works.  We cannot predict these moments, but how amazing would it be if we were prepared to capture them?  But if you cannot see them coming, how can you possibly prepare for them?  It's actually easier than you might imagine.  Keep your camera near, and ready to go.  That means you need to take your camera out of its bag and place it in a safe but accessible area.  It must be available and ready to shoot at a moments notice.  If you are leaving the house, take it with you.  It needs to become an extension of your body and your life.  While classic portraits are beautiful (and they certainly are), there is something incredibly magical about these small candid moments that take place in our everyday lives.  Children have a knack for making ordinary days extraordinary by just being alive. These small moments are much bigger than you can ever imagine.  Be ready to capture them before they pass you by.  

I have a kid on the way. I better grab a camera?

I know, I know.  You just found out you have a kid on the way and about a million things are racing through your mind.  "You don't know what you are doing.  How much does it cost to raise a child?  Are the schools in our area going to provide the knowledge necessary for our child to get the education he/she deserves?"  It's "ok."  Everything is going to be fine.  All you have to do is go out and buy a camera.  "Wait, what?  How is that even important right now?  With everything that I have to do, that doesn't even make the list."  Well, it should.  

The fact is, from this point forward, time is going to speed up faster than you can ever remember it moving.  In fact, weeks are going to feel like days and years are going to pass by you like a flash of light.  It could be for many reasons.  Maybe because you are going to learn all about sleep deprivation.  But not still have time before that sets in.  The reason I am asking you to go out and grab a camera is actually quite simple and logical.  With time moving faster than ever, you are going to want to stop time whenever you can during these precious moments so you can look back and remember how special they really were.  I suppose in some ways I am asking you to go out and buy a time machine that prints images in two dimensions.   Whatever it takes to get you there, just get there.  Go out and buy a camera capable of capturing the images you will admire when you look back at your life.  

The journey is ahead, and you need to be prepared.  While you are buying a camera, you are investing in memories.  Life is beautiful, and if you choose to take advantage of its beauty, photography might just be your hobby.  Let me help guide you on your way.  

Welcome to my Blog

Hello Everyone!  Welcome to my journey.....or should I say, our journey?  I suppose you could say this is just another photo blog.....or is it?  Well, we shall see.  I'll leave that judgement up to you. As I sit here today, I have tossed around so many ideas about starting a blog and what it should be about.  Like most, I wanted it to be creative and unique, however the more I thought about it the more I realized it only needed to be authentic and genuine.  So in the end, that is all this blog is going to be.  Real and completely uncut.  It will be about photography and life.  My two favorite subjects.  

I remember the day I picked up my first DSLR.  I was so excited and so lost.  I picked it up and looked down at all the controls and thought to myself, "What am I doing.  I don't know what any of this stuff is."  What I did know is I was fascinated by photography and I wanted to learn how to shoot.  So that's what I was going to do.  I was going to learn.  I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a life long journey.  At times I would be thrilled with my progress.  Other times I would be so frustrated that I would want to put the camera down.  But I wouldn't.  I would keep moving and push through the frustration.  Because in the end, the only thing that mattered was I loved photography and I expected to grow.  And growth is uncomfortable at times.  

Shortly after buying my first DSLR, my wife and I got word that we were about to become parents.  Again, I was so excited.  I was also completely scared.  Once again, I was in that position where I wanted to be great at something while also being clueless on how to get there.  I wanted to be a great father but as much as I thought I could become one, I really had no idea where to start.  You see, there are so many parallels in my life between being a father and being a photographer.  In many ways, life has married the two of my greatest passions together.  To be a great family man and photographer.  For the past 7 years I have learned the art of photography by documenting the life of my children.  I studied the techniques required to capture the essence of a child growing up.  I carried my camera everywhere (not kidding), and when a moment presented itself, "click!"  

My hope for this blog is to help those who want to capture their children's lives as they grow.  Whether you have a smart phone, a point and shoot camera or a DSLR, you have an opportunity to learn a few techniques that can vastly improve your images, and most importantly help you capture these special moments in your life.  So come on board, grab a seat and join me as a I share what I have learned along my journey as a photographer and a father.  Let's grow together, one click at a time.

Michael A. Young