Grandfather Mountain at sunrise from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Laurel Knob Overlook

Kathy & I spent this past weekend on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the first of several weekends planned around fall color. We spent most of our time on the section of the Parkway between Linville Falls and Craggy Gardens, knowing that early in the season the higher elevations would be the place for color. It’s always interesting to see how the color starts and progresses as the season comes and goes. The show generally begins at higher elevations, but climate and orientation to the sun & winds play an important role. As the color change progresses, areas farther South and with lower elevation will soon join in the show. It’s all very “scientrific” as my kids liked (and still like) to say.

Fall is a wonderful time of year for photography, but for me, Fall is also a difficult time to get in the groove and photograph creatively because of the temptation to point the camera at the color just because it is so beautiful. But it is important to remember that color in and of itself is not necessarily going to make a good photograph. Composition, light and weather all need to come together to make a compelling photograph regardless of the time of year. Of course, the lower sun angle, crystal clear air and blue sky can often combine to provide some wonderful ingredients.

As we traveled around I looked out over some of the scenes and decided that, while the color was certainly beautiful, the conditions often were just not conducive to making the kind of photographs I like to make. “Color” as a subject is very difficult to pull off. Many of the scenes, if viewed just a few months ago when everything was green, would have been just as beautiful but for a lot of people – photographers and non-photographers alike – would not have been something to get out of the car for.

Fall is also a difficult time for photography because it is such a popular time for travel and things can get busy. Fortunately, most of the good light happens before the throngs arrive and well after they have retreated to the comfort of their buffet dinner. But every time we pulled into an overlook, or sometimes just pulled off the side of the road for a shot, there would be at least one car – often several cars – that would stop right beside me or pull off in front or behind me to see what I was shooting. And of course they get out of the car, try to make small talk, and usually end up asking me to take their picture. Fortunately Kathy handles that business, since I usually just ignore them. She’s a lot nicer about it than I would be.

Sunday we got an early start and spent most of the morning at a nice quiet little spot along the Linville River near Linville Falls. We weren’t too far from the Parkway and could hear the traffic, but in the 2 hours or so we were there I think we only saw about 6 cars. We needed to get back to civilization early so a little after noon we decided to drive toward Blowing Rock, which took us past Grandfather Mountain. What a mess! People were lined up to get into overlooks, parked on the grass and just stopping in the middle of the road to take a picture. It was absolute mayhem, and certainly not a place I wanted to stop and take pictures! We ducked into the picnic area near Price Lake to use the rest room, but decided we had had enough and headed for the nearest exit.

In his most recent e-book “The Inspired Eye 3,” David duChemin discusses the role of solitude in the creative process. Among other points, he states that “if there is one thing we’re in need of as creatives in an increasingly noisy and chaotic world, it is solitude.” I know some people thrive on camaraderie and social interaction when they photograph. Not me. For the kind of photography I do I prefer to be by myself or with a small group of like-minded photographers. I’m not going to find my creative voice at an overlook with dozens of cell phone camera wielding tourists looking over my shoulder and jockeying for position. If that means I don’t come home with photographs from that overlook, so be it. They wouldn’t have been “my” photographs anyway, and any photographs I did take that reflected my mood at the time would certainly not be anything I’d want to share!

This past weekend was the latest of many where I have tried to find my own images in a world filled with many potential subjects. I learned a lot about how and where to find my place. Learning how to weed through the noise, distractions and mayhem is a difficult part of the process but necessary in order for me to successfully make photographs that reflect my vision. I’m looking forward to the next weekend!

Table Rock and Hawksbill at sunrise from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Laurel Knob Overlook

Personal Style

I’m finishing up a long-overdue read of Alain Briot’s book “Mastering Landscape Photography.” It’s a very good book but one I never got around to buying until recently, when he made his 3 books available as e-books. Click here for information on buying your own. Needless to say, I am really liking e-books.

One of the sections of the book I found most interesting was the section titled “How to Establish a Personal Photographic Style.” I find that subject interesting because it is a subject I have thought about and struggled with for quite some time. I struggle not so much about whether or not I have a personal style, but rather about whether a personal style can be “developed” or whether it just “is.” Briot’s second book in the series, and the one I will read next, is titled “Mastering Composition, Creativity and Personal Style.” I can only assume he goes into more detail in that book and I am looking forward to reading it.

The thing that I find most fascinating about the discussion of personal style is that it almost always seems to take the approach that style is something you can influence consciously, as suggested by the various terms: words like develop, master, enhance, define, improve and discover are often used. But so far I haven’t been convinced that that’s the case. I agree that someone’s personal style can be influenced by things like looking at other people’s work, learning about the expressive and artistic approaches to creativity or by expressing emotional content in our work. For me though, personal style is what results from the way I see, the way I feel and the stories I want to tell.

A lot of photographers create very identifiable photographs. It surprises me how often I look at a photograph on a website or in a magazine and know whose it is. The work that has the most impact (to me) is the work where the composition, lighting, and emotion define the “look” of a photograph. Michael Kenna, John Sexton, Galen Rowell, Annie Leibovitz have very identifiable personal styles. Closer to home, I can often identify a Kevin Adams image in a heartbeat. The same is true with Bill Lea, Don McGowan or Les Saucier. That is partly because I am familiar with their work but also because they each have a style that I recognize. This is not a rare occurrence either. I have a number of other friends – far less famous but still excellent photographers – whose work I can easily identify.

Can personal style be a result of software or processing? I suppose so, but while others will certainly disagree I’m not entirely convinced that software alone can make a style. The underlying photograph must be compelling on its own, and the software is used as a tool to realize the photographer’s overall vision. That opinion stems from my belief that software will never make an otherwise ordinary image compelling. I’d almost be more inclined to say that software can dilute a style if not used well, although I suppose photographs that are “overdone” can still be identifiable, just not necessarily in a good way.

Can you really change or influence your personal style? That is an excellent question and the core of my exploration. If you photograph what you love or something you have an interest in, you are attracted to subjects that somehow appeal to you personally. You respond to the subject in your own way and the photographs you take reflect your reaction to whatever it was that drew you to make the photograph. Since our creativity is influenced by numerous factors, the way we photograph will naturally reflect that influence. Our reaction and how we respond to a subject is based on our true feelings and reflects everything we know and believe. And while I’m not an expert on this and am probably not explaining it adequately, it seems to me that if you try to “force the issue” by trying to take a photograph in a way that is somehow foreign or unfamiliar to you, the chances are very good that the results will reflect this and somehow appear, shall we say, insincere. The image will fail by being not genuine.

I was told a number of years ago that my own photographs were recognizable, that they had a “style” that identified them as mine. I believe that and know that to be true. But I also feel that my photography has changed since then. I don’t think I take the same photographs that I took 8 or 10 years ago. But I didn’t set out to “change” my personal style. My approach to photography has changed, my vision has evolved as a result of many influences and my photographs – I think – are different.

I have a print by Les Saucier titled “Fern Herd.” Les told me that “Fern Herd” represents a turning point in his photography, because when he made that photograph was when he recognized the importance of relationships in his photography. I’m not sure that I could point to a specific photograph of mine that represents such a turning point, but if I look at a typical “Tom Dills” photo from several years ago and compare it to a “Tom Dills” photo of today, I feel like there is a noticeable difference. Whether they are both identifiable as “mine” remains to be seen and is probably not something that I am best qualified to answer. A lot of my earlier photographs were dramatic landscapes with sunbeams and clouds and great color – “Magic Moments” if you will. Today the work that most appeals to me tends to be work that is quiet and contemplative. I still get my share of sunbeams, but I spend a lot more time looking at intimate scenes, working more with composition, relying on more intimate scenes with lines, shapes and patterns to define my work instead of wide-angle grand scenic landscapes with dramatic clouds and god-beams.

I know that my personality has changed over the last 10 or so years. I suppose that just means that I have matured, but in general I find myself more relaxed. I like to take things slow and easy. I seek peace and quiet and time to think. Is that reflected in my photography? I sometimes wonder if non-photographic influences have been more of a factor than the photographic ones. Do the dramatic scenes represent the noise, the confusion, the voices that accompany the beginning photographer, while the intimate quiet scenes reflect the confidence that comes with mastery of the medium? Or do the differences reflect my own mental state of mind over that timeframe? I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that but the question is fascinating.

Is there a conclusion to all this? I don’t think there can be. Everyone’s personal style is just that – personal. And I believe it is constantly evolving. I don’t think – at least not at this point in time – that it’s something you can think about while you are out making photographs. In fact I think if you tried it would be such a distraction that you would only get confused and frustrated. I know there are as many opinions on this as there are photographers, but I think personal style is a characteristic or result of the feelings we have combined with everything that influences us, rather than something that obviously or consciously influences our work while we are doing it. It’s a fascinating topic and one that I think is worth continued and further research.

I’m looking forward to reading that next book.

October Wallpaper

Fall colors from Blue Valley Overlook in Nantahala National Forest near Highlands, North Carolina
Fall colors from Blue Valley Overlook in Nantahala National Forest near Highlands, North Carolina

Fall is easily my favorite time of the year in North Carolina.  Although Spring is also beautiful, it is somewhat more predictable than Fall, at least in terms of what you are going to get.  Fall can be a bit more mercurial in terms of what colors there are and when and where to find them.  Temperature, rain and wind can result in stunning displays of fall glory or can just as easily  wreak havoc with nature’s display.  But we’ll be there and see what gifts we find.  And there will be gifts.  The joy is in the looking.

Remember to Look

Morning light along Little Creek Road near North Savannah Road west of Belhaven, North Carolina

Kathy & I attended a dinner the other evening and I happened to be seated next to Herb Jackson, retired Davidson College art professor and well-known artist. We spent some time chatting about what he had been doing since his retirement from the college, and the conversation at one point gravitated around to travel. He mentioned that they had recently traveled to Europe. I think he said they had gone to Italy, Romania and Switzerland…something like that. I mentioned that Kathy & I were thinking about taking a photo workshop in Italy next year. He asked me what appeal a photography workshop would have as compared to a normal tour, and I explained what appealed to us about the one we were considering, that it has a nice mix of sightseeing, culture, food & wine and photography, and that that was how we like to travel. The typical photography workshop “death march” is not for us, and that is the appeal.

Herb said that what bothered him most about traveling with a camera was that he was always afraid that if he spent a lot of time figuring out what to photograph that he wouldn’t spend any time enjoying the scenery. He said he doesn’t take a camera. As an artist he said he prefers to take in the sights, remember the visual elements that appeal to him then incorporate them into his work later, from memory. He related a story about a time when he had done video for the wedding of a friend and how when it was over and he was editing the footage he couldn’t remember the events. He was obviously there and participated, but because he was so focused on his “job”  he felt that he didn’t actually partake of the event.

Kathy & I have found that a mix of sightseeing and photography is the way we like to travel. It’s very hard to find that balance, but there are times when it is appropriate to put the camera down or leave it in the car and just enjoy the moment. It’s possible – and sometimes even better – to enjoy a sunrise on the beach without a camera, sitting on the sand holding hands, than to be fussing over a camera and tripod.

Kathy likes to say that a sunset is best viewed through a wine glass. There are times that I agree. And of course there are times and places for being out with a camera. Deciding the when and where is part of what we enjoy about travel. I guess you could say that we like to photograph while we travel, rather than travel to photograph. I figure there is a sunrise and a sunset every day, there’s always a better one somewhere else and that if I miss a few in order to do something more fun or rewarding that’s OK.

Find your personal balance. Be sure to get out there and photograph, but don’t forget to enjoy the scenery while you are there!

Cover Your Assets

Hints of early fall color at Wiseman's View, Linville Gorge Wilderness area, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Hints of early fall color at Wiseman's View, Linville Gorge Wilderness area, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

I recently received an e-mail from a photographer who said that he desperately needed my help, that he needed to free up space on his hard drive, and had to do it “that day, right now.” The e-mail came on a Thursday afternoon, I had just gotten home from work and had an already full evening and upcoming weekend, so there was no way I had time to try and help this guy for several days, let alone that very minute. I sent him an e-mail suggesting that he just move some of his photos to one of his external hard drives, then come back later and figure out a permanent solution. I never heard back from him so I assume he figured out his problem. I can’t help but think that there was a lot more to the story than he was letting on, and I had and still have a nagging feeling that his actual needs may have been well beyond my ability to help.

I understand that dealing with computers and digital files and managing our photographs can be very stressful. One of the things I liked about the film days was being able to pull out a binder, toss a couple of pages of slides or negatives onto a lightbox and look at them. The voodoo that has become digital photography is wonderful but sometimes it is scary as heck. And to do it right it is a lot of work!

In hindsight I consider myself very fortunate that I recognized early on, well before I had photos in dozens of folders in different locations on multiple hard drives and several computers, that there was enormous potential for mayhem. I’m not the most organized person in the world, but I have always subscribed to the idea of “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” My workshop is that way, my sock drawer is that way, and my photo files are that way.

Not everyone has the foresight to organize their work from the beginning, and once a workflow is established, no matter how haphazard it might be, it’s tough to change. I understand that. We gain a comfort level in the way we do things, and once we are comfortable it can be very scary to think about making a change. That is especially true when changing software, because not everything “translates,” there is often a steep learning curve and it can be really intimidating to think about changing our habits. I emphasize in my Lightroom teaching that everyone needs to learn enough about the pros and cons of the different choices that they can decide on the method that works best for them.

Things like full hard drives don’t happen overnight. I’ve been shooting with digital cameras for 7 years and have scanned slides from before that. My photo collection is tiny compared to a lot of people I know. I started with 250GB hard drives, stepped up to $500GM drives and now use 1TB drives. I’m just about ready to step up to the next size. You have to manage this stuff, and it’s an ongoing process. If you are the type of person who can live with disorganized files and don’t worry whether you can find stuff, you don’t have much of a problem. If you are the type of person who worries about every minute detail and has to have every contingency covered, you can drive yourself nuts. But if you take the time to think about it a bit, learn what the options are and get some expert advice it doesn’t have to be difficult. But don’t wait until you have 30,000 images and a full hard drive. Make ongoing evaluation part of your process, budget for newer and bigger hard drives and make sure you have a plan in case something goes wrong. You’ll be much happier in the long run and will have more time and attention for making photographs instead of worrying about managing your assets.


Random photos walking around the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Charlotte Convention Center in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina

I uninstalled the Facebook app from my phone yesterday. It feels good. It’s been a year since we ditched the television. I don’t miss it. When people find out I don’t have a television they look at me like I’m nuts (I’m used to it) and usually ask, “so what do you do?” To which I reply, “anything I want!”

It’s liberating. No more “pokes” in the middle of dinner, no more 7 ½ minutes of commercials waiting for a weather forecast, no more political commentary while getting ready for work, no more 40+ comments about the hurricane that didn’t even come close to you interrupting me at work. When I have time to sit down and look it’ll all be there. In the meantime I can relax and enjoy being in the moment with whatever it is I’ve decided to do. What’s not to like?!

Among the tributes to Steve Jobs over the last few days was this quote, from a 2008 interview but about when he returned to Apple in 1997 to discover that the company was in disarray, suffered from way too many products and lacked focus:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the 100 other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.

We spend far too much time today living other peoples’ lives, worrying about what other people think and trying to please other people. Generally we do it in a well-meaning way. We do it because we care, or at least we think we do, or that we should. The reality is, most everyone else is doing the same thing, and they’re too busy to even think about us or notice if we do something nice for them.

My work day is full of distractions, most of them are even work-related. It’s part of the deal and one of the reasons they have to pay us to do the work. If it was fun and easy we would do it for free, right? When I get home, the last thing I want is more distractions. I want quiet time, creative time, time to think, time to breathe.

I recently had a couple of friends over to the house, and one of them had some photographs we made prints of. The photos are really, really nice and they made very nice prints. He appreciated me taking the time to do it. We had a great time, spending a couple of hours talking about and discussing photography. I’d rather do that than just about anything. But if any of us felt like we had to leave to go watch a race, a football game or some talk show, it never would have happened. It’s great to set aside time to do something and actually get to do it without interruption.

When I go out to do my photography, I like to go off by myself or just a small group of friends. Ideally they are friends that think and shoot like I do and will go off on their own and leave me alone to do my thing. I’m happy to do the same for them. I turn the phone off and leave it in the car. Yeah, I know there are tools for my phone that will help me figure out where the sun is or when it’s coming up (although it’s usually pretty easy to tell), depth of field charts that will tell me where to focus, and if I don’t know where I am I can always get directions. But if I have the phone along I get distracted, and then I can’t do what I set out to do.

We’re going to the beach this weekend, and I’m looking forward to sitting in a chair and watching the waves. I’m going to read a couple of books. I’ll probably take some pictures. We’ll go for a walk, probably several a day. Hopefully the distractions will be limited to the occasional swim or lunch break. No phones on the beach. It’s a rule. Could we be doing something else this weekend? Sure, but this is what we’ve decided to do. We could have booked a trip to Vegas, jumped out to wine country for the weekend or maybe even taken a cruise, but we know we’re never going to get to do everything, so we try to pick and choose those things that will best allow us to accomplish whatever we want to accomplish. And sometimes that means sitting my butt in a beach chair for a few days!

Canon’s coming out with a new camera soon and I’m not buying it. Well, I might. But I’m not scouring the rumor sites, breathlessly awaiting any and all speculated details about megapixels or sensor sizes or whether it has a mirror lockup button. I’ve got a camera that works. I actually have several cameras that work, and even the oldest ones are still better at taking photos than I am. I laugh when I see people speculating on the latest lens, or whether a camera that isn’t even out yet will take good pictures. Did the camera you have suddenly stop working? Get out and shoot! Relax and enjoy!

Everyone has to make their own choices, and whenever possible I like to be able to make mine. Being bombarded with distractions makes it difficult to decide what my priorities truly are. We can’t make that decision while we’re being pulled in all directions by what are essentially other peoples’ priorities. The main thing is that, whenever possible, I want to choose. I want to answer e-mail or comment on a photo or “Like” someone’s post. But I don’t have to do it while I’m driving home from work, or eating my lunch or sitting at the beach. When I’m out photographing I want it to be about photography, not distractions. When I’m on vacation I want it to be about the vacation and not about what’s happening on television. Do whatever works for you, and hopefully you can have the freedom and flexibility to do what really matters, once you are able to figure out what that is.

September Wallpaper

Cape Lookout Lighthouse - Cape Lookout National Seashore, NC

How did that happen?  It was just July, wasn’t it?  Time marches on….

Here’s another coastal scene from the archives, taken all the way back in 2007.  This is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, located on the coast of North Carolina at Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Holga Fun!

Random photos walking around the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Charlotte Convention Center in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina

I recently picked up a Holga lens with a Canon mount and have been using it on my 20D. It’s a fun little lens and a great way to use an old but still very functional camera that has otherwise been relegated to backup-backup status. I could have converted it to IR but that costs a lot more money and IR is just not something that interests me.

This past weekend I met up with Paul Lester, a long-time online acquaintance and now real-life friend, and we spent a couple of hours walking around downtown Charlotte making pictures. I had been past the NASCAR Hall of Fame numerous times, thought the building would make for some interesting photography and suggested that as our destination. It’s not the Sydney Opera House but for Charlotte it’s pretty nice. We were fortunate to have a nice breezy day with great clouds in an otherwise blue sky, perfect conditions for chasing shapes, lines and patterns, with great conditions to counterpoint the stark buildings against a backdrop of great sky.

Paul shoots with an M9 and I had my “digital Holga,” and on several occasions I joked that my camera was the “anti-Leica” because of the older technology and plastic lens. The Leica has astonishing image quality, and several shots I saw on Paul’s LCD confirmed why they are coveted by those seeking the highest image quality. But the great thing was that for both of us it wasn’t about the gear. Someone might think, “well, that’s easy for him to say, he has an M9!” but Paul has an M9 because it does what he needs it to do. I’d love to have one too, but for now I’ll happily make photos with any camera I have with me, whether it is my 5D and fancy ‘L’ lenses, my G12 or my Canon Holga.

I’m always careful to not get hung up on “gimmicks” but the thing I like about the old camera + plastic lens combination is that because it is manual focus and requires manual exposure I really have to pay attention to what I do with it, how I use it and where I point it. The Holga literature says that the aperture is effectively f8 but I think that refers more to depth of field than to light transmission. To get any kind of hand-holdable shutter speed – even outdoors – I have to crank the ISO up to 3200 (which is about 3 stops over what the 20D was designed for). The quality of the lens is generally terrible, and at ISO 3200 the photos look like they were made in a dust storm, so it really becomes about the subject. The images still need to be in focus and properly exposed, but in many ways taking image quality out of the equation means that the photo can just be about the photo.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to imply that just because I’m making these photos with an old camera and a plastic lens makes them Art. Although I really like some of the photos! I’m mostly just saying that it’s a great creative exercise. Every time I put the camera to my eye and push the shutter button without adjusting exposure or focus I’m quickly reminded to get my head back into what I’m doing. I may need to make a few prints and show them to my Artist buddies to see what they think.

I don’t think I’ll be giving up the “serious” gear any time soon, but it sure is nice to just go out and shoot, exercise the brain and have fun once in a while!

Be sure to check out Paul’s blog.  He writes often about photography and other fun subjects.  I’m glad to now be able to call him a “real-life friend!”

Random photos walking around the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Charlotte Convention Center in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina


Morning light from the US 99 bridge over Pungo Creek near CeeBee Marina west of Belhaven, North Carolina

A long, long time ago as a pre-teen I use to be – like most other guys my age and older – really interested in cars and racing, and I spent a lot of time looking at Hot Rod, Car Craft and other magazines. I have always remembered a photograph in which a particularly shapely young lady was wearing an appropriately fitted T-shirt that was printed with the saying “Some is Good, More is Better and Too Much is Just Enough!” I’d like to think I would have remembered the saying on its own merits or even on a less-attractive T-shirt, but regardless of how I have managed to remember that saying, it has stuck with me for a long time.

For better or for worse, that seems to be the theme by which our society operates these days. We have noise and visual clutter everywhere. You can’t walk through Lowe’s now without being inundated by televisions blasting information about the latest in toilet technology or peel & stick wallpaper. You can’t go to a restaurant without being surrounded by 800 big screen televisions broadcasting everything from sports talk shows to 8 different versions of “Breaking News.” If people don’t have enough drama in their own lives they can participate in others’ drama through social networking, (un)reality television and TV talk shows. There is literally something to entertain and possibly to offend everyone.

So what does this have to do with photography?

In my own jaded, old-school pre-geezer opinion, it has everything to do with photography. I see it in how photographers promote themselves, how they process their photos and how they present and share their work:

• HDR, Infrared, specialty lenses or other techniques without regard to the quality of the underlying or resulting photograph. Some is good….

• Hyper-realistic processing to the point that “looks like a painting” is no longer a compliment. More is better….

• Constantly posting comments and articles on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and (now) Google+. And it’s not enough to just publish a post, we have to feed our comments from one site onto all of the others so we see the same comments 4 or 5 times. Too much is just enough!

It seems that we no longer have any idea what a good photograph is supposed to look like. We see the “stars” using software and assume that all we have to do is use the same equipment and software they use and our photos are good too. Not so fast. Learn how to make your photos good first, then use the tools to express your vision. Too many times I see these tools misused as substitutes for good light, good timing or just good photography.

Good photography should pretty much promote itself, assuming you can get the right people to look at it. Unfortunately, a lot of people are using social media to beat us over the head with it. Take good photographs, put them out where people can see them, then stand back. You don’t need to shout at me. In fact, if you do I’ll probably move on to someone else. Sorry, but I’m not interested in that!

I realize that this post has fallen dramatically outside of my usually happy and positive self, but it was on my mind and I just had to get it out. I feel better now, thanks!

August Wallpaper

Sunset, Hilton Head Island, SC

I had a special request this month for a beach-oriented calendar, and decided to dust off this classic TD photo from 2007.  It’s a sunset on the beach on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

I hope you enjoy this wallpaper calendar for August and hope everyone has a great month!

Photographs and stuff!