Tag Archives: creativity


The Heart of a Hobbyist

My friend Ugyen told me the other day he borrowed someone’s Nikon D80 to try it out, and he can’t wait to take photos. I’m excited for him. In many ways I envy him the beginning of his photography journey.

A certain nostalgia hits me when I hear of someone excited with their start in photography. Thinking about this led to my questions: why is it so attractive to be a hobbist? What makes it so good to go back to basics, even after publication and all the hundreds of thousands of images of people and places? Why is the hobbist approach so important right now?

I’m tempted sometimes to scroll through the scores of gigabytes of unprocessed shots in the hard drive. Sort of like a pat in the back for having seen them, and captured them. But this I know is not photography. Photography isn’t the past; it’s the present.

The reason I want to go back to basics has more to do with my mind than my camera.

The camera should be an extension of the mind. And the mind of a hobbyist is different from the working photographer.

Part of my lifelong inquiry is about creativity—about what inspires people, how they get insired, and the sustainability of passion that stems from a sense of wonder.

I find hobbyists have a great potential for creativity.


Light on fallen leaves at temple, Siem Reap.

Hobbyists are fearless.

Humans learn to fear, and it’s a product of our own creation. We fear not “doing it right” and of others’ reactions to our decisions. As a working photographer I’ve faced clients whose creative ideas differed from mine; I’ve also faced photography contest judges who slammed creative decisions because they did not fulfill technical interpretations.

But the hobbyist isn’t making images to please a client or judge. He is free to use whatever skills he has to make something that only he can see. This leads to a lot of freedom.


Dappled light on ruins, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap.

Expectations can kill creativity.

The nature of a hobby is that the expectations are internal. The urge to make something beautiful or fresh out of the daily ordinary can be a professional urge, yes, but in the hobbyist it is unfettered by expectations from someone else.

Experimentation is part of the hobbyist’s freedom.

The freedom to try something just for the heck of it is in the power of a hobbyist. She can make a thousand images just because of something she wondered, or is trying to figure out. This freedom to follow the lines of a “what if…” gives the hobbyist the perfect platform to innovate and experiment.


Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap.

Passion fuels creativity.

The best part about being a hobbyist is the absence of creativity killers and large doses of passion. Ultimately, this is the ‘high’ a photographer gets from his or her hobby. Passion carries the craft through the difficult learning that we must engage in to become technically and artistically mature in the art.

I wish Ugyen, and others who are starting out on their photography journey, a long and happy love affair with light.

It’s a wish I would gladly receive, too.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the orange RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
6 Ways to Start Your Photography Hobby
Easy Way to Dodge and Burn Photos without Destroying Pixels
5 Myths about Creativity a Photographer Should Bust
Does Gear Really Make You a Better Photographer?
10 Small Things that make a Big Difference in Your Photos

mermaids digital manipulation composite photo copyright Aloha Lavina 2012.

Creativity, Camera, and Photoshop

Which net would you use to catch a butterfly?

Many photographers argue that getting an image right in camera is the real deal—if you’re going to call yourself a photographer, you better learn your exposure and technical stuff, and compose beauty in the frame.

With the rise of digital photography, however, now you can take your images into a whole new realm of manipulation. Highly stylized images have grown in popularity along with the advances in digital cameras and software for processing digital photos. Photoshop is arguably the giant in the post processing world, so much so that people now use the name of the software as a verb. As in, “Was this photo Photoshopped?”

Purists, or people who scoff at Photoshop artists as hacks, don’t like overly manipulated photos. Indeed, a lot of contests out there specify the minimal adjustments that the entrant can make to their entry to the contest. Still, the world is not made of purists. At the other end of the spectrum are the—for lack of an official term—digital artists, who style their photos with scores of layers, stacking special effect upon special effect, and not apologizing for it.

In between are you and me.

Every week, I have a group of hobbyist photographers who make images because we like it. We call ourselves a Tribe. It’s a lot of fun now that we kind of know each other, and we sometimes chat briefly on Facebook about photography. And when I asked the Tribe if they wanted weekly modules with a Photoshop twist, I got an overwhelmingly positive response. So I can anecdotallyconclude that in my Tribe at least, we like improving our skills with the camera and we like to learn new Photoshop tricks, too.

mermaid manipulated photo in Photoshop copyright Aloha Lavina 2012.

Do you think I overdid this one, my first attempt at a total composite? I thought the fire ball tipped the scale.

Photoshop is a complicated software that is the industry standard; it takes a long time to master its tools. But it is somewhat accessible to the emerging hobbyist, as long as he or she is patient and doesn’t get overwhelmed.

But it’s not fair to photography if the shooter shoots thinking that Photoshop will fix everything.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my forays into the world of digital manipulation using Photoshop.

1. You still have to light the image right.

Photography is still capturing light, no matter what you can do to create light in Photoshop. A well lit image can be enhanced beautifully in Photoshop, but you cannot create light where there is none in the software. Yes, people argue that with tools like Shadow/Highlight control, or painting with light technique, you can paint light with a Photoshop brush easily. But you still get unnatural effects when you do this, like nasty noise in the underexposed areas you tried to bump up, or discoloration. Nothing works like a photo where light is where it should be, in the first place, as you capture it in camera. So yes, learn to manipulate light in Photoshop, but first learn to light.

2. You still have to get a good exposure.

We could say this is like Tip Number 1, but it’s a little different. This is about balancing the way your camera becomes sensitive to the light (ISO), choosing the right amount of light to enter the lens (Aperture), and rendering the captured image in the right amount of time (Shutter Speed) to get an image that has a good dynamic range. A good dynamic range in plain English is when the highlights and shadows have good detail just like the midtones. Now you can ‘recover’ shadows and highlights using Photoshop, but the resulting image is not as detailed as you would like it to be in a good exposure. You still have to learn to make a good exposure, no matter how high powered the latest version of PS is.

3. You still have to compose the image.

You can crop in Photoshop, and move the elements around. You can even composite different images, add things, clone things out, flip or transform or warp the image.

Manipulating every single image like this, to create a composition you really like, takes a lot of time.

And you’re not really sure about the compatibility of the elements. For instance, what if the lighting isn’t similar in the items you choose to composite? And what if you plunked a cow that is clearly not proportionally matched with a model in the original photo? Ooops. Visually, some things do not work composed in Photoshop. You still have to learn to compose in your camera.

mermaids digital manipulation composite photo copyright Aloha Lavina 2012.

This was better. The light was right, the framing was deliberate. And then the whole slew of layers.

4. The rules of optics still apply.

We see with a maximum aperture of f/2.1 in the dark, and a minimum aperture of f/8.3 in bright light. But another thing happens with us in our three dimensional world: we see in planes. That means that things that are on the same plane have the same sharpness for our eyes.  Why is this important for Photoshop? It means that we can’t blur the hell out of things we don’t want to see clearly in the image when those things are on the same plane as the things we want sharp. It just doesn’t compute in our brains.

But this is called artistic license. Skillfully done, you could still make a beautiful image with unnatural optical composition.

5. Photoshop is almost like painting.

Painters have the luxury of composing their pictures exactly as they imagined. Photographers have to find that composition and then interpret it with skill and technicality. Photoshop gives the photographer the advantage of adding or subtracting things that are in the frame, just like a painter does. But if the shooter doesn’t have skills in Tips 1 to 4, it may not work as well.

So in conclusion, there has to be balance in the way we use our camera skills and the way we manipulate the resulting photos. Ignoring one for the other seems unwise when the beauty you could make with both is boundless.

And that’s why if you want to catch this butterfly, make sure your net is big enough.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! Even if you don’t like what’s on the blog, leave a comment any way, but please keep it nice. :) To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
Are You Paying Attention?
Finding Good Photos where they Hide
Why You Should Shoot Like Johnny Depp
Sell an Experience, Not Just Photos
Nine Things Rupert Murdoch can Teach Photographers


fire concept portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

5 Myths about Creativity a Photographer Should Bust

If I’m not a prodigy, it’s too late.

Interests form very early in our lives. Sometimes they form from our preferences, like what happened to Gillian Lynne, one of the legendary choreographers in the dance world. Gillian was a kinesthetic learner, meaning she loved to express herself through movement. Her mother recognized this, and enrolled her in a dance school. Gillian said of this moment in Sir Ken Robinson’s book The Element, “I walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.”  We can’t all be lucky like Gillian, whose parents helped her make a commitment to her creativity early in life.

But the wonderful thing is, it isn’t until we commit to this interest that we find our means to be creative.

Commitment is something that we can make toward our interest at any point in our lives. So if you picked up a camera at an age beyond childhood, it doesn’t mean you can’t develop creatively in your photography. It’s never too late to learn!

1. Creativity is something that happens in isolation.

Some people think that creativity is something that happens by itself, like to a writer who lives alone in the woods beside a pond. We think that person is creative because of the isolation, without distraction. Maybe the silence of living in the woods beside a still pond is great for processing thoughts, but silence and isolation in itself is not the basis for a creative response.

Many creative triggers people have responded to are made of social situations and connections. I read in this great book about director Enid Zentelis who made a film about people waiting in line because she was waiting in a food line one time, and it triggered a creative response in her. Watson and Crick collaborated on the model for DNA—their different insights connected into a product that was creative because they thought together. Ansel Adams was good friends with Georgia O’Keefe. Although they worked in different media, they shared a common concept—the idea of starkness and simplicity giving a sensuality to a composition.frost concept portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

Isolating ourselves thinking it will only increase our chances of creativity is a myth. Making connections between ideas we see other people having and our own ideas is a source of creativity. Paying attention to connections we could make between our concepts and what’s around us can trigger a pretty creative response.

2. Pressure kills creativity.

By pressure we mean things that might limit what we can use to create. These could be things like having just one lens or going on a photowalk when the light is “bad.”

But contrary to all the excuses, having a limiting factor in a situation where you have to create actually helps you be more creative. Sometimes having very little choice in your focal length is good for you. It forces you to move more; it distills your choices into how to compose rather than how to use equipment that you might have in abundance. This shift in decision making from what to use to how to use what you have is a situation that can trigger your creativity.

If you can respond with a solution to the situation, you have already begun to be creative.

3. Equipment makes you a better photographer.

This is one of those if onlys that photographers torture themselves. If only you had a better lens, if only you had a better camera like that guy with the 6800-dollar body, your photo would be sexier.

If onlys are a waste of time, and they actually kill creativity.

What promotes creativity is using what tools you have to think and see differently.

Part of creativity is inventiveness, a commitment to make something out of what you imagined. You don’t need an upgrade of gear to do this. All the gear you need is in your head.fire concept portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

4. You need to go somewhere exotic to be creative.

Exotic places are great because they are full of new sights. These new sights might trigger a creative response.

But from a creative standpoint, sometimes you can see new sights with old eyes. That means you might be tempted to take the ‘safe shot,’ the one that has always worked for you in the past. If that happens, the creativity isn’t there because you haven’t invented a new way to express that new thing you saw.

On the other hand, you could be walking at a familiar place, seeing things you’ve seen before, but you put a twist into interpreting those familiar things with an unfamiliar composition.

That’s creativity.

It’s not going someplace you’ve never been. It’s seeing something in a way you’ve never tried. You don’t have to go away to do this. You can start right where you are, right now.ice concept portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

5. You need to have bursts of creativity when everything comes to you effortlessly.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was not a painting he created in a single moment of creativity. The Musée Picasso has the artist’s notes on the creative process for this painting. It shows how he struggled to create the painting plane by plane, sketching and then eliminating one element, re-adding it, then changing again. In the revisions that he made, it is clear that even though Picasso had an idea of what he wanted to say in his painting, he had to go through a revision process to arrive at a final result.

Meaning comes to the artist in layers. Staying committed to an idea while the layers sort themselves out in a problem solving process is part of our growth as creative people.

Be open to the burst of inspiration. But don’t forget that the rest of it is hard work, and patience.

Can you think of other myths about creativity that need busting?

indian couture copyright Aloha Lavina

Steve Jobs Said

Yesterday, one of the most creative people in our lifetime, Steve Jobs, passed away.

On the way home from work, I met a musician and we shared a small conversation that quickly became a ‘where were you’ sort of talk. My friend told me about his first Apple on which he wrote music, and I told him how the original iMac and iBook helped me learn how to make movies and cool slideshows.

I’m writing this on a Macbook Pro. I will later process photos to accompany this article on an iMac while listening to tunes on an iPod, and I’ll check the layout for mobile devices using an iPad and an iPhone. My creative life is surrounded by things that have bits in them that were thought up in Steve Jobs’ mind.

When someone iConic passes on, there’s a melancholic reflection that hits hard.

But it’s also necessary. After all, the great ones are the ones that pass on a legacy we have to pay attention to. Dreams are contagious, and inspiring. So here is my humble tribute to a great visionary. The man who taught us to ‘think different.’

1. “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.”

This is especially meaningful in a period of recession, when the commissions you might get as a photographer are few and far between. Staying true to your vision is even more important in the lean times because that’s when you might doubt yourself and your choices. If you emerge from a dearth of commissions with your vision uncompromised, its integrity will give you work that is meaningful and beautiful, too.

2. “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

Raising the bar every time you do something new is something that Steve Jobs has taught us in a very visible way. When naysayers were telling him he couldn’t make a phone that didn’t have buttons, he just went ahead and did it and now it’s the best selling phone in the world, and it’s changed the way we use phones.

3. “Design is not just how it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Having a design mindset is something that’s evolved recently, as more and more people churn out original content that others can see, hear and use. The technology that Steve Jobs helped to put out there made it easier to make indy stuff—things like calendars on iPhoto, videos on iMovie. This shift in how we thought—from consumers to creators—was something that Jobs’ vision helped to teach people.copyright Aloha Lavina jewelry abstraction faceless portrait

All the neat stuff we share with each other is all about design now. Think about how we learn photo technique on our own: Youtube videos, podcasts, and apps are some of the more common tools. Not only are our tools products of this type of design thinking, but we are also more critical of functionality. I have always liked the ergonomics of the Nikon camera bodies. And it’s a simple reason why—the right side of the camera’s body has undulating curves that help me grip it firmly for a whole day without hurting my hand. This type of design—an intelligent design, is something that Steve Jobs helped the world learn.

4. “Things don’t have to change the world to be important.”

It is often the simplicity of an Apple product that makes it elegant. Maybe you don’t recall the days when drag and drop was not the norm, but I do. And there is a simple satisfaction in being able to drag and drop things on an Apple computer desktop. One simple fluid step, and you’ve begun to organize your desktop. It’s time saving, and time saving means you can move on to the more important things instead of spending time on multiple steps just to organize folders in your hard drive.

5. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

Maybe you won’t earn as much money doing one type of photography as another. But if you love it a lot, chances are you will be more open-minded shooting that type of genre. You’ll probably be more relaxed, and as a result more ready for creative thinking.indian couture copyright Aloha Lavina

6. “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

I think often of how a class in calligraphy that Jobs took when he was auditing college courses apparently impacted his aesthetics. The craziness I see in his life isn’t that he dropped out of college, went to India and that he dropped acid in his younger days.

The crazy I saw in him, the quality that isn’t a default setting in a lot of people, is that he learned something that wasn’t obviously going to fit a yellow brick road to good design, and he incorporated a sense of it in his own aesthetic.

Calligraphy is graceful, fluid, and has an economy that is functional yet elegant.

That could be the description of a lot of the Apple products Steve helped birth.jewelry faceless portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

7. “I want to put a ding in the universe.”

Steve Jobs enchanted us with his ideas because he never allowed himself to lose track of his vision. He once said, “I was worth over $1,000,000 when I was 23, and over $10,000,000 when I was 24, and over $100,000,000 when I was 25, and it wasn’t that important because I never did it for the money.” The important thing here is not the part about the money. (Apple has more cash than the US. I mean, insanely so.)

The lesson here is something that creative people have known although rarely ever really talk about (because talking about it is time taken away from just being creative).

It’s about internal motivation. A vision that’s internalized serves a stronger motivator than something external, like money. That ding Steve put in the universe is not a goal he probably set—he was probably more worried about design, how to make something simple like an iPod so powerful. He was probably solving problems that were concrete.

But deep inside him, that vision was what sustained his drive. That’s what makes the ding.

And the universe heard it.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
10 Small Things that Make a Big Difference in Your Photos
Hey Photographer! Who are You and What do You Believe?
How Different Lenses Help You See Creatively
Are You Paying Attention?



Edge of shadows copyright Aloha Lavina.

Does Gear Really Make You a Better Photographer?

I was truly disappointed when Nikon posted this on their Facebook page “A photographer is only as good as the equipment he uses, and a good lens is essential to taking good pictures! Do any of our facebook fans use any of the NIKKOR lenses? Which is your favorite and what types of situations do you use it for?”

Nikon later posted a sort of apology, “We know some of you took offense to the last post, and we apologize, as it was not our aim to insult any of our friends.”

But the question is out there now. It annoys photographers immensely when someone says, “That’s a great picture. What camera do you use?”

As if the years of practice didn’t count, only the camera. Sometimes, the size of the camera around the photographer’s neck is the thing that impresses people the most. Thus is propelled the commercial perpetuity of the camera companies.

And so the hobbyist who’s just starting out with that camera that isn’t so big and doesn’t have that fancy lens begins to doubt they have what it takes to improve their photography, and questions why they should continue with their hobby.

Although it is true that professional photographers need the flexibility and control a complicated dSLR affords, it is untrue that the most expensive gear makes you a better photographer.

When I first started with digital cameras, I came across a young man named Joey Lawrence in a forum called DP Challenge.

This young man was using a one-megapixel point and shoot.

And he was winning challenges left and right with his dramatically lit images. Joey L was using that little camera to capture some amazing images. Here’s a screen capture of one of his shots.

Man in Black by Joey L from DP Challenge

One of Joey L's winning shots taken with a point and shoot. Copyright Joey L.

Joey L now uses professional camera bodies for his commercial work, but when he used a little point and shoot, you could already see his “signature” on his images. It’s this signature that makes him the photographer he is. It’s called vision.

It’s the skill of knowing how to light. The camera has a great computer which meters on the light in a scene and calculates what to do to render a good exposure. But it is easily fooled, flooding the sensor with light when the scene is too dark, or making a subject too dark when against a brightly lit background. It’s the photographer who controls the camera to see what he or she sees, making the image.

Edge of shadows copyright Aloha Lavina.

The shadows fool the camera's meter. The photographer makes it right. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

It’s the skill of knowing what makes a good composition. Cameras do not think about balance, about tension, about color palettes in an image. The photographer does, and the photographer decides how to create these elements.

It’s the skills of artistry. What to include in the frame, what to exclude, to make a message. It’s how shallow to make the depth of field, or how sharp everything needs to be. It’s how the values need to be, to create contrast.

flanked by shadow Bhutan copyright Aloha Lavina

The camera is merely a tool to render what you see in the mind's eye. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Rob and Lauren Lim over at Photography Concentrate wrote about how studies point to the value of the photographer behind the lens. The studies found that “One of the biggest differences was in how [artistic people] think. Experts tend to notice more details, and have more understanding of their thought processes.”

So it’s not your camera.

It’s you.

It’s the hours you spend getting to know the gear you have, practicing the skills you learn, learning some more, and being persistent. It’s being reflective and imaginative, and always reaching for that next level in your creative approach.

geometric shadows copyright Aloha Lavina

It's not the gear, but the gears working in your head that makes a shot. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

No camera or gear upgrade will give you good images automatically. Conversely, no matter what gear you have, if your vision is strong and your skills are strong, your pictures will come out strong.

Hold that camera in your hands–the one you have now–as what it is, the tool that you can use to capture your vision.

Unleash yourself on a learning spree, take lots and lots of pictures, and again, learn from what you do. Ultimately, you are the author of that signature.


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
10 Small Things that Make a Big Difference in Your Photos
Hey Photographer! Who are You and What do You Believe?
How Different Lenses Help You See Creatively
Are You Paying Attention?
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer

House of Jarvis jewelry Copyright Aloha Lavina. All rights reserved.

When You Have to Wing It

What do you do when you have to wing it during a shoot and you have little or no prior information?

Making it up as you go along is one of the most pressure-filled experiences you will have as a photographer. But remember, travel photogs and photojournos do it, so if they can, so can you.

The key is to be open and prepared for all the possibilities. One key to being able to wing it on location is to have all your gear ready. If it’s a portrait photoshoot, you need to pack all the light equipment you think you might need, something which you learn from experience, and once you’re on location, you need to summon every ounce of your creative problem solving to make your images work.

Here are some tips for when you have to make it up as you go along.

Don’t pack light.

I mean, weight-wise. For a shoot I did for a magazine cover, I brought six lights, so I would have twice as many as I needed in case something happened and some units failed. In the middle of the shoot at the location, a half-finished boutique hotel, there was a tour of the premises for a group of about ten employees. As they walked through the room where we were shooting, one of them knocked down one of my lightstands and the strobe and receiver attached to it broke into pieces as they hit the floor. I didn’t have time to stop except to glare at the offending person; I quickly removed the broken equipment to look at later, and replaced them with backup items.

Bring all kinds of light shapers, just in case.

I also brought a lot of light shapers. Good thing, because I had to do a reasonably wide portrait including the environment. The walls were dark, especially the black granite with the hotel logo which absolutely had to be in the shot. I couldn’t use a softbox because it would create a large reflection on the black granite. Also, I wanted to use the mirror in the shot, and had to have lighting that included the clothing, face, and everything else in its range. To light the subject’s face and clothes and have some nice fall-off around her, I attached a honeycomb grid to one strobe and used the mirror to reflect some of that light to light the environment.

Vachini Kraikrish for Muse Hotel Copyright Aloha Lavina.

A honeycomb grid made this shot possible. Copyright Aloha Lavina. All rights reserved.

Create the look using the environment.

For another shoot, I had never been to the location. All I knew was, the client wanted the photos to look ‘mysterious.’ So while the model was going through makeup and hair styling, I walked around with a flash unit and lit it at various rooms in the location. Even the bathroom. The bathroom had a ledge with some candles on it, so I decided to light the candles to create separation between the subject and the wall. Then I used one light to light the model and the jewelry for which this image was a branding shot.

House of Jarvis jewelry Copyright Aloha Lavina. All rights reserved.

Scouting the location on the spot with a flash unit helped with this one. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Bring a range of focal lengths.

I’ve preached about the advantages of using just one lens, but at times when you have to wing a shoot, you don’t want to be caught without a focal length that will give you the images you need. Bringing a range of different focal lengths makes sure you have the right lens for the shot you want.

One of the questions I always ask before a shoot is, what type of shots does the client need? Usually you will be asked to do a variety of shots, for example, some wide full body shots with environment included, half-body shots, and closeup shots. This range means you might be using from 24mm to 85mm. When I am shooting for a jewelry company, I always ask if they want product closeups as well. If they do, I remember to pack my 105mm macro and 60mm macro lenses along with the 24mm-85mm range.

Aysha with necklace copyright Aloha Lavina.

Bring a range of focal lengths when you don't know the types of shots you'll be making. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Bring useful accessories that have nothing to do with lighting or lenses.

I always bring safety pins, hairpins, double clips of varying sizes, and clamps, and bungee balls with me. Safety pins are useful for clamping down dresses that are too big. Hairpins take care of hair that’s stubbornly distracting in a shot. Double clips are good for holding up reflectors if you don’t have an assistant. And the most useful accessory for me is the bungee ball. It’s elastic and attaches around objects, so I can place flash units onto poles, branches and other objects when it’s awkward or impossible to use a lightstand.

Winging it might not be advisable for a portrait photographer, but if you absolutely have to make it up as you go along, it is not impossible. With thorough preparation, you too can create on the spot.


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
From Idea to Image Part I: Planning
From Idea to Image Part 2: Lighting Clothing

How Different Lenses Help You See Creatively
Finding Good Photos Where They Hide

15mm lens portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

How Different Lenses can Help You See Creatively

Watching Zack Arias’ video blog for the Kelby site inspired me yesterday. One of the questions Zack asked in the introduction of the video is, “What do I bring to the table that countless others have not already served up on this massive platter of visual pollution that we create each and every day?”

Zack’s question is probably something we ask ourselves as we try, each and every day, to get better at our craft. How do we interpret a vision with the tools we have? There is no button that says, “Joe McNally” on our dSLR that we can push if we want a photo worthy of a National Geographic feature.

A teacher once told me, When you’re in doubt about something abstract, go back to the concrete. I’m still trying to follow that advice; it’s helped me learn daily.

When we think about seeing creatively, and creating from that vision, it’s such an overwhelmingly large topic that we need to break it down into concrete modules, things we can do today that adds to and strengthens that vision.

We can begin with our tools.

The lens you have attached to your dSLR is an extension of your vision. Through that lens, you can create an interpretation of what you see before you. This interpretation is your vision, the way you say things that you see. How does the lens you use affect that vision?

1. Your lens determines how you frame an image.

Your lens can help you include things in the frame, or exclude things from it. Try going out with a couple of lenses to photograph a single scene. How does a wide angle’s inclusiveness change the story? How does the story change when you photograph the scene with a telephoto? The differences between what we can include or exclude using different focal lengths of lenses determines a lot of the story we present in a resulting frame.

2. Lenses change your point of view.

Because the focal length of lenses can include or exclude, using a different lens to take a photo changes your point of view. A lens that sees the same way the eye can see, namely the 50mm ‘normal’ lens, allows you to take photographs that echo what you see without the camera pressed to your face. A wide angle, say a 24mm lens, gives you a wider view; you can see more background, more foreground. The environmental details around your subject that you capture with a wide angle lens changes your point of view because you now have the ability to use these environmental details to add to the story.

Manila Bay at 50mm Copyright Aloha Lavina.

At 50mm, the lens 'sees' the way our eyes do. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

3. Different lenses affect an image in different ways.

At the different edges of the spectrum of focal length effects, different things happen in your frame.

A wide angle lens like the 24-70mm can distort the subject. For instance, if you use a wide angle lens for a portrait where the subject leans toward you, their face shows up much bigger than their hands. Wide lenses can ‘see’ what’s closer as bigger, and what is farther as smaller.

15mm lens portrait copyright Aloha Lavina.

15mm lens renders visible distortion in a portrait. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Telephoto lenses, such as a 70-200mm, tend to ‘flatten’ elements in the frame against each other. When you’re stacking elements in a frame deliberately, this helps you to create planes that the viewer can easily identify, and with good light, you can create a photo that has depth.

Inle Lake at sunset copyright Aloha Lavina

Long telephoto 'flattens' elements. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

4. Some lenses can render tilt better than others.

Tilting lenses while taking photos is a great way to discover what happens to the image when you change the way you point your camera.

Some tilt can be done on the same plane. What this means is, tilting the camera left or right, but keeping the lens pointed on a plane parallel to your subject. In the photo below, I tilted the camera to change the background, but the camera lens is parallel to the model.

Natalie Glebova for June Fifth copyright Aloha Lavina.

Tilting the lens without changing planes. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Other tilting can use distortion to effect. Here, with a wide angle lens, the camera was tilted to change its plane relative to the subject. I tilted the camera lens down and produced the effect of the clouds ‘marching’ across the sky. This sort of tilt helps you create perspective and depth in a shot.

Balinese sunset copyright Aloha Lavina.

Tilting the lens so it is pointed at a different plane than the one parallel to the eye. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Note on tilt: if you are using a normal lens, or a long telephoto like a 70-200mm, tilt doesn’t work for effect that well, since the focal length gives you a very narrow field of vision.

5. Lenses can help you use depth of field creatively.

portrait in f/2.8 copyright Aloha Lavina.

Shooting at a wide aperture renders the background blurry. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

We’ve all seen stunning images that use depth of field creatively. Lenses with large apertures (f/1.2 all the way to f/2.8 for example) produce very shallow depth of field in the images. Portrait photographers love to use very wide apertures because of the ‘creamy’ effect it produces in the background. If you use a very wide depth of field on a portrait with a forest as background, the background is rendered a blurred blob of soft green without much detail. This de-clutters the background and gives a pleasant dreamy quality to a portrait.

You can also use this effect for the foreground.

using blurry foreground for creative effect. copyright Aloha Lavina.

Shallow depth of field can be used to blur foreground for effect. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Seeing creatively—an abstract concept—can be made concrete if you begin practicing it through a concrete tool, like the lens you have on your camera right now. With these simple tips, you can build a visual collection that hopefully, doesn’t “pollute” but beautifies your portfolio.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! Even if you don’t like what’s on the blog, leave a comment any way, but please keep it nice. :) To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
Confessions of a Photoshop User
Are You Paying Attention?
Finding Good Photos where they Hide
Why You Should Shoot Like Johnny Depp
Sell an Experience, Not Just Photos






storm approaching batanes copyright Aloha Lavina

10 Practical Ways to Improve Visual Problem Solving

When you are on assignment, often even with extensive research, there are variables you cannot prepare for. Challenges you find on assignment include:

  • Light conditions
  • Having to search for vantage points that work
  • People are always moving around
  • Weather

Also even if you studiously pore over maps of the place you will be photographing, you still have the challenge of composing based on what the layout of the area really looks like when you encounter it with the light, weather, people, etc when you get there. You still have to search for vantage points that work for the story you are shooting.

To be a successful travel photographer, you have to become a successful visual problem solver. A visual problem solver takes the existing conditions of where she is shooting, and finds ways to arrange those conditions into a harmonious image.

Like many artistic skills, visual problem solving is actually made up of a complex subset of skills. Here are 10 practical ways to practice your visual problem solving.

 Ways to practice visual problem solving

1. One lens or focal length.

Making images with one focal length is a limitation, but it is a limitation that allows you to free up your creative problem solving skill of composing with a constraint. Constraints like simply using a 50mm for an entire story is something that can help ‘force’ you to compose in creative ways. You have to zoom with your feet with one focal length. You have to move around. What this does is simply get you into the habits that allow for creative visual interpretations of what’s in front of you. If you have a zoom lens on, like your kit lens, don’t worry. Simply tape the lens to the desired focal length you want to work with for the week, and don’t change it!

2. Tell a story using a theme.

Themes can do wonders for your creativity because it is another constraint that you can impose on your image making that will challenge you to discover ways of solving a visual problem. Interpreting the theme you choose can hone your observation skills, composition skills, and all the other discrete skills demanded of a creative shooter. For example, you could shoot the theme ‘blue’ today! There are many ways to interpret this theme. It could be the color blue, the many hues of blue, or it could be the metaphorical blue, interpreted by images that show abandonment, sorrow, etc.

3. Crop in camera.

If you tell yourself that every frame must contain only what’s necessary to tell the story, you are giving yourself an opportunity to become a great visual problem solver.

fallen birch in pond copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

These days with humungous digital RAW files, it’s easy to just snap away and crop your compositions later. But what this does is make for a lazy visual problem solver. If you ever want to be a photographer on assignment, you want to get the compositions right in camera; often your editor will expect the files as they are when it’s time to submit a story. Practicing this composition in-camera skill will enhance your visual problem solving skill and improve your photos dramatically. You might even find that you don’t need to spend hours in post-processing because your straight-from-camera pictures are already breathtaking as they are. Imagine that: less time on the computer, more time to shoot!

4. Look at things in fresh ways.

Take a page from poetry. Wallace Stevens has a great poem called “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” where he explores how to see in 13 very short stanzas. Looking at things in fresh ways means to move not just your feet, but your mind’s eye—what can you see if you look at a subject in a different way? Given a theme, what would be a list of ways you could look at it? Changing up your point of view not just physically but also mentally can change the way you interpret the subject.

5. Using design principles.

Line, form, color, balance—these are always great themes to shoot. Spending some time composing using graphic design themes can inject freshness into your imagery. These are also elements you can find in every setting, so you will never run out of things to photograph.

6. Photograph the light.

There is no more beautiful way to interpret a place than by recording the way the light falls on it. A tree is a tree is a tree, but a tree in great light is a beautiful photo.

morning mist at Tioga Pass copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

 7. Vary your exposure.

Changing your exposure subjectively is a great way to interpret scenes and give them mood and atmosphere. You can try high-key images, or images that are overexposed to give them a bright, cheerful mood. Or you can underexpose to change the mood and give it a bit of mystery. You can spend a lot of time photographing one scene, and vary the exposures with which you capture it. Then you would have a lot of images to choose from, to tell the story. Making subjective exposures gives you a way to bring emotion into your images.

8. Vary technique.

There are some themes commonly used in travel photography that would work to help you vary the techniques you use to capture a place. Panning, light painting, and slow shutter work are some of the techniques you can use to creatively interpret your vision while on assignment. Practicing these techniques wherever you go can give you a variety of images that might give you more insight into a place.

9. Use color in various ways.

Color is everywhere, so this is a great way to explore a new place. But making color work for your image is a skill that can help you move beyond just making eye candy, into making expressive images.

Seeing how colors complement each other, or how it affects the mood of an image, is a great skill and can help you in visual problem solving. For instance, a spot of blue in an otherwise all-yellow-and-green landscape might make a better photo.

storm approaching batanes copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You can also influence color in your images by changing up your white balance settings. (You can change white balance in RAW, so if you shoot in RAW the white balance setting is quite irrelevant. But if you need a visual feedback system for the ‘feeling’ color produces in an image, try shooting in a different white balance just to be able to see the effect on your image on the LCD screen.)

10. Use contrast to add interest to an image.

I’ve discussed some techniques for using contrast in images over at LightStalking. Spotting contrast is another way to add interest to your images. Practicing seeing contrast—in content, color, values, size, lines, texture—hones your observation skills and gives you a whole new way of seeing.

With some patience and perseverance, you can train yourself to be an effective visual problem solver. Practice will make these skills part of your natural workflow, so start on them today!

Which of these 10 have you tried? What have you done to produce an image you loved?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! Even if you don’t like what’s on the blog, leave a comment any way, but please keep it nice. :) To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
Confessions of a Photoshop User
Are You Paying Attention?
Finding Good Photos where they Hide
Why You Should Shoot Like Johnny Depp
Sell an Experience, Not Just Photos

polka dots copyright Aloha Lavina

Why You Should Shoot like Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp doesn’t like to watch his own movies. He makes them, and from what we see, he seems to work hard at them, evidenced by the nuanced performances in his films.

In an interview with BBC Radio, he talks about his hesitance to watch his own films. The bottom line is, he enjoys the creative process more than the finished product.

Process-driven people have an advantage over product-driven people, and that single advantage is that process-driven people tend to be more engaged in what they do. Yes, you can argue that working toward a goal in mind is a prerequisite for engagement in what you do, but the difference is that if you are completely engaged in the process, you do not become distracted by thoughts of the brilliant results you can achieve. Thinking about the end may be a distraction to total focus while you are creating.vachini k for big chili magazine copyright Aloha Lavina all rights reserved

Many studies of creative people have revealed some simple ways that they engage in their work. Like any skills, these can be practiced as techniques until they become part of a creative workflow.

Prepare in great detail.

Before engaging in a highly creative process, prepare. Much like the actor must block scenes and memorize lines and think of gesture and posture, the photographer can think of all the technical details that will go into successful shots. These can include:

  • Equipment needed.
  • Lighting conditions.
  • Vantage points or where to shoot in relation to the subject.
  • Type of shot and camera settings.
  • Props you may need, for instance filters for landscapes or objects/furniture for a portrait shoot.
  • Schedule or timeline needed for success.

Once you get these dry details out of the way, you can free yourself up for creative expression once your shoot is underway. Not having to be distracted by details is a good way to evoke total engagement in the process of creating beautiful shots.

Have a pre-shot routine.

I learned this technique from golfing. It’s related to the preparation above, but it is more tied into the actual moment just before pressing the shutter.

In golf, the pre-shot routine consists of a series of repeatable actions that a golfer performs just before the swing. This routine is designed to get the thinking out of the way before the body performs the swing, so that the mind doesn’t get in the way of the body’s expression. Ask any golfer who is an avid student of golf, and they will tell you that thinking often interrupts a smooth swing and is detrimental to a good shot. The thoughts you have prior to your swing dictates how your body will respond to the task.polka dots copyright Aloha Lavina

If we transpose this pre-shot routine to taking a photograph, the thoughts you have just prior to pressing the shutter are equally important. Having a pre-shot checklist before you press the shutter is essential to maximizing your chances of getting the perfect shot, and it also gives you confidence that you have done all you can to ensure the conditions are optimal to capture a great photograph. These can include:

  • A routine for checking and changing settings.
  • A routine for a rhythm of breathing that will eliminate shaking and give you a sharp image.
  • A routine for checking that everything in the frame is as you intend it to be.

Suspend all judgment while you create.

This is really important and really hard to do. It’s easy for us to always be critical of ourselves and what we do, especially if we have high expectations of ourselves.vachini k for big chili magazine cover july 2011 copyright Aloha Lavina all rights reserved.

But judgment is distracting. If you are always critiquing your actions based on your results, that’s a sign that you are still in result-driven mode, and that means you are not fully concentrating on the task at hand.

Zooming your attention into what you are doing to get a shot is the singularity of your task as a creative photographer. It’s the only moment that will give you a good shot. You can’t keep kicking yourself for what you did wrong a moment ago; it’s beyond correction now. Similarly, you can’t get a great shot by living in the future; you can only do what you can, right at this moment. Give the moment all that
you are, and the beauty and goodness in that image will take care of itself.

How do you give your photography focus?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
Sell an Experience, Not Just Photos
Nine Things Rupert Murdoch can Teach Photographers
10 Things a Photog can Learn from Golfers
Cut the CRAP–Just Take Pictures
10 Things Tyra Banks can Teach You about Portrait Photography

dramatic portrait of leah copyright Aloha Lavina

Five Signs of Creative Burnout and Seven Ways to Combat it

Creativity is like a tap. You can turn it on if you know how, but sometimes, it can run out and trickle down to a drip.

Recently I had conversations with a couple of my students who have very successful photography businesses. They have built a living around photography, and they work some 12-16 hours a day, often more, shooting and preparing images and selling these to clients. Lately though, our conversations have centered on feeling overwhelmed by all the photography they do.  The problem is probably not that they are shooting too much, but that they are shooting too much of the same thing. They’re burned out, and what worries me is that they are talking about quitting and ‘finding something else to do.’

Whenever a photographer I know tells me they’re quitting, I get upset for several reasons. One, every single photographer I know did not start their journey in photography with the goal of making money. They started out with the wonder of arranging the chaos of their surroundings into beautiful harmonies. Two, photography, like everything creative, isn’t a destination to reach but a journey to traverse and savor. Three, I believe that creativity isn’t beyond anyone’s reach, and it is one of the most enjoyable states of being. If you combine the joys of wonder, engagement and learning, you’ve got a heck of a potential for being happy doing what you do.Burmese man at wooden temple Burma copyright Aloha Lavina

So how do you know that you’re experiencing creative burnout? Here are some ways to tell.

1. You start thinking about your couch in the middle of a shoot.

If you are in the middle of something you supposedly love, and you begin to think of less interesting things like sitting on your couch doing nothing, it’s time to step back a bit.

2. Your feet hurt, and a little voice tells you, you shouldn’t have booked this one.

Working too much on the same repetitive tasks brings boredom. Your capacity for creativity ranges from the end where you are not challenged and you get bored, to the end where your skills are challenged beyond what you can handle, and you get frustrated.

3. Dramatic lighting leaves you going, Yeah Yeah.

Light is a turn-on for a photog. If great light leaves you indifferent, it’s definitely a sign that you’re burned out.

4. You don’t feel excited about carrying your camera around.

If you have the chance to carry your camera around and the thought itself makes you tired, you have creative burnout.

5. You scoff when people like me talk about passion.

We tend to push away the things that bore or frustrate us. If you are pushing away things that used to sound good to you, it is a sign that the photographer in you is in danger.dramatic portrait of leah copyright Aloha Lavina

If you experience similar signs as the ones above, all of which involve boredom, frustration, or indifference, there are a few simple things you can do to rekindle your love for photography and combat creative burnout.

1. Leave your camera at home, and go to a place you like.

Seeing the world through a viewfinder sometimes gets in the way of experiencing it. This sounds trite, but sometimes a photographer can get so used to viewing everything through the lens that he or she forgets that the world is so much more than that rectangular space. Freeing yourself from the frame can sometimes reframe your perspective and give you the nudge to try to capture what you find beautiful, again.

2. Watch a movie without analyzing lighting and camera angles.

Someone who picks up a camera, sometime in the beginning of their journey, has seen something beautiful and wanted to take that beauty with them. Movies are made the same way. Watching a movie just because it’s a great story can help you find a similar simple feeling, and this might be the spark that lights your fire for photography all over again.sunrise over forest floor in Cambodia copyright Aloha Lavina

3. Engage your imagination instead of your eyes.

The imagination is a powerful source of creative drive. Activating it by asking it to turn on by reading is a great way to open the mind. Opening your mind will help you to free associate, or float from one idea to another in a relaxed way. This free association is often the source of those insights that move you to produce something creative.

 4. Socialize with non-photographers who are creative.

Not just photographers, but musicians, painters, and others have to find their wellspring of inspiration in order to stay creative. Hanging out with creative people gives you a support system for your own creativity, and it also helps you tap into the enthusiasm and love that creative people have for their art. This support system is not essential, but it helps you keep fresh. Hanging out with artists not only is fun, but being in a creative atmosphere can spark imagination.

5. Watch a TED video.

I’ve been a great fan of TED for a long time, and what attracts me to the videos is the unconventional ways that the speakers think. TED videos open up connections between things that we may never have thought about, and are enjoyable to watch simply because the ideas that are discussed in them are interesting.

6. Get pampered.

Taking time to step back and slow down is something difficult to do these days. You’re always connected to a huge community who want to talk to you and have you talk back. There’s wi-fi everywhere now pretty much, so it seems you have the obligation to always stay on the grid. But the thing is, attention takes energy, and if you are constantly paying attention, all that concentration is going to wear you down. There is no reason why you can’t rest. A little rest goes a long way to rejuvenate your spirit. Going for a foot massage or a facial is something I sometimes do, just to stay still and have someone take care of me. Similarly, if you’re not in Asia where those things are very affordable, you can go out for a good meal or sit on a bench in the park and just breathe. There are endless possibilities for simple things you can do to feel pampered, and you can give your concentration abilities a rest for a while.

7. Experience life through your other senses.

With the rise of visual media it’s hard not to use our sense of vision all the time, to engage with our world. But as visual authors, we tend to overuse and overwhelm our sense of vision, creating an imbalance. Balancing out our senses, and experiencing life through taste, touch, smells, and sounds might just be the trick to triggering a creative period. Go out for a great meal (or make one), go paragliding or swimming, play with your dog or take your kids out to the zoo, and find your balance through the sensory adventures that you experience.

Creative burnout is something that you might not be able to avoid when you are passionate and driven about photography. But there are signs to let you know when your drive has driven you to burnout. Knowing when to step back, give yourself a chance to rest and refresh your perspective can go a long way to combating creative burnout. Taking care of your creative self helps you to keep the sense of wonder and engagement you found through your photography, where you may find a lifetime of joy and beauty.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. You might also like:
Nine Things Rupert Murdoch can Teach Photographers
10 Things a Photog can Learn from Golfers
Cut the CRAP–Just Take Pictures
10 Things Tyra Banks can Teach You about Portrait Photography
Shoot for Yourself



don't forget to zip my face and neck copyright Aloha Lavina

Summon Your Inner Gaga

Play is one of the best gifts we receive as children. Being able to play activates a lot of good things. The freedom of composing narrative at the point of utterance, making stories without rehearsal. Spontaneity. Making connections. Flow, and creativity.

Watch young children at play and you’ll notice they concentrate so fully that they’re oblivious to the confines of time and space.

samurai in a bikini copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This is what we can learn from Lady Gaga. She takes her work seriously, but she does it in the manner of play. Gaga’s songs are like nursery rhymes, they have simple phrasing so are easy to remember, like those chants we used as kids when we jumped rope.

And seriously, appearing in a dress made of meat?

Critics might say Gaga’s simplification of the issues and ideas she wears (the meat, the egg palanquin) might be, well, childish.

Childish is a term Adora Svitak reflected on in her TED talk, where she mentions what happens when children are asked to create. Kids were asked to draw designs in a program called Kids Design Glass at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. One of the designs was Bacon Boy, who has meat vision.

Kids have the audacity, when they play, to make ideas that are uninhibitedly creative.

Imagine what you could do if you approached your photography like a kid would, like Gaga would, in the manner of play.

don't forget to zip my face and neck copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You’d be free.

You’d be focused.

You’d be fearless.

And you’d have loads of fun.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
10 Things Tyra Banks can Teach You About Portrait Photography
10 Cliches a Photographer Can Believe
Making Expressive Portraits
Concept is Everything
10 Things a Photog Can Learn from Golfers
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer

Talking to my friend Leah gave me this, one of my faves from 2007. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

It’s Fun to be an Amateur

The other day I heard someone say about a friend, “Oh, he’s an amateur,” with a little pout accompanying the statement. The term sounded belittling.

But the origins of the word amateur suggest that the term means someone else entirely. From the French for “lover of,” and the Italian “lover,” the original denotation of amateur gives us the picture of someone who so loves the idea of something that he or she pursues it, enamored, obsessed, breathlessly in love.

Sometimes, it’s more fun to be an amateur. In photography, it’s the distinction between making money for taking photographs or doing it for free. For some reason, this is the most commonly understood distinction. But whether or not you are paid to take photographs, there are some qualities of an amateur that it would be to our advantage never to abandon.

Amateurs are in love with their craft.

You know that old saying that when something finally becomes a “job,” it becomes  tedious? An amateur never feels bored. He will shoot every day if he could. I remember back in the day when I assisted for a well-known photographer, when he and I were both working at the same place. We would clock in every day at work and whenever we got the chance to get out of the workplace, we would just shoot. Weekends were special because they were times when there was nothing else except photoshoots to do. Long holidays were even better; they meant days and days of getting up early, shooting all day until the sun went down, and then lingering over dinner talking about images, about camera settings, workflow, anything and everything to do with photography.

Amateurs hold their photography like something precious and turn it this way and that way, admiring the wonderful qualities of it, and making themselves happy as a result.

Yearning for a shoot session sometimes gets to be too much. Like missing a lover, the amateur misses their craft.

Just playing with model Shu for her portfolio. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Obsession develops a love affair in the initial stages. There is always a honeymoon stage, when the lover cannot get enough of their beloved. Because there is so much to learn in photography, it’s like what someone said about falling in love with the world: “If we listened to a work of Mozart every day, we would be happy for a hundred years!” An amateur pays attention to details. No detail is small enough to notice. This sort of attentiveness fuels more energy: when you pay attention, you learn more and get better. So the improved results will inspire the amateur to get better and better.

Amateurs are not motivated financially. Being a freelancer and having income coming in from writing, teaching in addition to photography makes it easy for me to have the attitude of an amateur. The best part is not having to take jobs that I don’t like, for instance, weddings, unless it’s in Goa, India or Kathmandu, Nepal, or Langkawi, Malaysia and I can combine it with some travel. I can still do personal projects, ones that do not have any remuneration but are interesting and that stretch me creatively or technically. I think it’s really important to have time for these projects because these are where you truly experiment and learn new things.

I learned a lot about shutter speed doing this shoot with Jack for his portfolio. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Learning new things is exciting to an amateur. With all the workshops that so many people are offering now, it’s hard not to come across one that might teach you something new, that could take your photography into a whole other level. It’s very important not to think that you know it all and that no one else can teach you something new. I constantly learn from everyone I meet–whether on Twitter or someone’s blog, or reading a book, magazine, or watching a Youtube video. One of the best qualities of the amateur in my opinion is the lack of formal training. Sure, it might take you longer to reach technical proficiency on your own. But you also have an enjoyable lifelong challenge of learning so much, and if you paced yourself right, it could become one of the more pleasurable things about your status as an amateur.

Talking to my friend Leah gave me this, one of my faves from 2007. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

One of the best things about amateurs is that you are not in a box, the box of your formal training. Instead of this being a disadvantage (you don’t have a paper that says you are a “certified photographer”), it could be a great advantage. You’re open-minded to what is out there, and you will experiment. Experimentation fuels creativity and inspiration, and in the best-case scenario, you might discover something that makes your work even more dynamic.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
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Not pure enough? Not Photoshopped enough? Not your problem. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Cut the CRAP – just take pictures

A friend of mine was down the other day—he’s a great photographer who takes photos that tell stories, but he’s facing a lot of negativity lately, and his online presence seems to have reached a plateau, according to what he told me.

We all have days when it seems we should just chuck the camera out the window, flush down dreams of publishing or selling prints, and just move to Tahiti and lose ourselves in the depths of mango daquiris.

Like all arts, photography has loads of aspirants, and like all arts, it breaks the heart when no one seems to appreciate what we produce.

We all want appreciation, if not accolades.

But there’s some things we can keep in mind to help us keep going and not give up. First, we have to remember that what gets us down is CRAP. CRAP stands for the four things that slam us down and try to keep us there.


Many people are afraid to put their photos online for fear of criticism. I remember one of my favorite images being dismissed in an online forum as a “Mills and Boon” cover—a reference to a series of short romance novels that entertained millions of mostly female readers in the 1970s but which had shallow, predictable plots. When this happened, instead of reacting negatively and dumping my romance with the camera, I began to think of it as an inspiration. What if I could tell stories with my photos? What if the stories were not cliché and predictable, but surprised or elicited discussion? Rather than let the criticism get me down, I struggled and broke through with personal projects that explored the idea of narrative photography.

The image that began my passion for storytelling was criticized. Copyright Aloha Lavina.


One of the best ways to get better is to enter competitions or to submit photos for critique. It’s not easy to do this, because there is always the fear that the work is not good enough, and there could be unflattering things said about the photos submitted. But let’s face it—we are all learning, at this craft. What matters is the feedback.

Recently, I submitted a photo for a critique, on the theme “Solitude.” Not a landscape photographer, but one who is trying to learn this genre, I submitted a photo that I admit only approximates the landscape genre. It was a photo I took because of the values (black and white and shades of gray in between) and not for the composition or content. So of course when I submitted it, one of the editors told me that it was a good attempt, but it was not a very good match for the theme.


Rejection can bind us, but it can also strengthen us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This is by no means the hardest rejection I’ve had to face. I’ve submitted a series of photos to an editor I’ve worked with before, and she’s told me in very polite sentences to “submit excellent photos next time.” Rather than cry over it, I went back and tried to see my submissions with an editor’s eye. What I learned in that reflection is probably something that will help me do better at future assignments.


Yes, there are assholes in our world. For some reason that is esoteric or egoistic, there will always be someone for whom your work is not ‘pure’ enough, or not Photoshopped enough.

That’s not your problem.

Not pure enough? Not Photoshopped enough? Not your problem. Copyright Aloha Lavina.


Finally, the P in CRAP is for pressure. Pressure can come to us through an assignment, a deadline, a contest, a critique, a creative problem. It could even be the limits of our equipment.

One thing that’s comforting to know about pressure is that with certain amounts of it, creativity can flourish.


The secret is to just take pictures. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

We’re all equipped with skills, more or less, and when the bar is raised to produce from these skills, we can use that added pressure to add to those skills. A bit of pressure gives us new challenges that will bring new learning, so it’s good to embrace this pressure and allow ourselves to relax. Relaxing can lead to openness, and openness increases the chances of getting into flow.

If we just cut the CRAP, we’d be able to do what we really want to do, any way: just take pictures.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

Beginner’s Guide to Light

At some point in their journey, people with cameras begin to photograph light instead of “look what I saw.” Light is the main ingredient in the mix of elements that make an image. Content, composition, technique will all pale if the light isn’t “right.” But is there a “right” light? Here are some common lighting situations that could help you create compelling shots. Practice looking for them, and you will see your images increase their wow factor.

Back light

Dancer with rim light, Bali.

Back light is when the light source is behind the subject. This means that it is directly in front of the camera, with the subject in between. The photo of the dancer sitting was lit with two windows behind him, lighting him like a halo around his head and body. This line of light around a subject is called “rim light,” as it creates a rim of light outlining the subject. To shoot this kind of shot, I had to use exposure compensation, overexposing to making sure I had a balance between the bright light I wanted to capture, and the man’s features.

Backlit spools of thread at a weaver's shop in Burma.

In cases of really bright light behind the subject, like in this shot of colorful spools of thread in by a window, the patterns created by the light and shadow make for an interesting picture.

Front light

When the light is right in front of the subject, it is easier photograph, but if the light is directly in front of the subject, it may result in a ‘flat’ photo. ‘Flat’ lighting is light that evenly spreads on the subject. I try to avoid this because it makes a photo look two-dimensional; it is the shadows in a photo that create a three-dimensional effect.

Dancers putting on makeup, Bali.

In the photo of the dancers putting on makeup, their light source is directly in front of their faces. I could have taken the shot with the light behind me, but I broke away from that and instead focused on the mirror one of the dancers was holding. My thinking was, the composition was more interesting with the dancers echoing each other’s postures. But most importantly, the light from the window was reflected on their faces into the mirror, and the mirror’s image was thus well lit for my camera to capture.

Top light

Light from above of course is quite common. When you travel, mostly the sun is your light source, and most of the day the sun is right above your subjects. So it’s important to know how the light from above will affect your images, and what you can do to minimize the shadows that the sun from above will invariably create in your subjects.

Early mornings and late afternoons are great because the sunlight is more orange; the angle of the light is also more from the side, especially at sunrise and sunset. But also in the hours right after sunrise and the hours just before sunset, the light is not as harsh as in midday.

Man asleep in his ox cart at midday, Burma.

Having said that, though, one of my favorite shots from Burma was taken at around 11 am. This man was sleeping in his cart while his oxen were grazing. The shadows were harsh, but it worked because the content of the photo made for a good contrast. To get this shot, I had to close my aperture to f8 and used exposure compensation to get details in the sky and the immediate subjects in front of me.

When there is harsh light, like in midday, I look for subjects who are under a sort of shelter. When there is a covering above the subject, the harsh light does not create equally harsh shadows on their faces.

Girl in pink hat, Burma.

Shan woman at a temple, Burma.

Both the photos of the woman in the turban and the little girl in the pink hat were made around midday, but both were under a kind of shelter–the temple roof for the turbaned woman and her pink hat for the little girl.

Side light

This is my all-time favorite kind of light. Side light is light coming from the left or right of the subject. It was used by the masters of painting–Rembrandt used side light in his paintings to give the picture a three dimensional effect. When the light falls on one side of the subject, the other side is in shadow. The shadows are what give the picture a 3D look.

Monk at old wooden temple, Burma.

The monk walking past old wooden doors shows how shadow and light can create the contours that make the subject seem three-dimensional.

Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

In the early morning shot of a misty scene in Bhutan, the side lighting created by the sunrise gives us a sense of the overlapping hills and the thickness of the mist.

Like every skill, seeing the light–its direction and quality–takes practice. But with some basic knowledge of lighting situations, any person with a camera can practice the right skill and do what photographers do: capture the light, and make it look fantastic.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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How to Stay Creative

"Somewhere You've Never Been" by Aloha Lavina.

How to Stay Creative

“How do you stay creative?” my friend Lance says to me in the middle of a shoot. We are setting up the lights for a set called “Frost,” a makeup and light intensive set portraying the concept of ice and cold.

When makeup artist, designer and stylist Hilde Marie Johansen and I meet to discuss the concepts for this shoot, she and I brainstorm everything, from the clothes to accessories to the lighting and the materials to use for each set. We sketch and write notes. As our ideas takes shape in that meeting, our enthusiasm and excitement for another creative day grows.

Hilde has created an illusion of frozen lips on the model using sugar granules. Her dress is white and light blue fabric. My goal for the shot is to set the

"Frost" by Aloha Lavina.

camera so that the photo comes out cold, with some blue tinge, and have the light just pop out of the softbox white and even, making shadows light and not overpowering. The photo comes out the way I had dreamed it would, and showing it to Lance, who is assisting me, he asks me the question.

Staying creative is a challenge every photographer sets him or herself. Whether photographing families or fashion, it helps to exercise creativity to stay fresh, design dramatic work, and maintain enthusiasm and excitement for each and every job.

How do you stay fresh as a photographer? Here are some tips on how to stay creative.

1. Find your passion.

Discovering what makes you excited as you create an image is key to staying creative. Many people with cameras learn technique by trying a lot of things. It’s great to take risks and give yourself plenty of opportunities to discover your favorites. Whether you are creating still life shots or macro, portraits or panorama landscapes, notice the elements of the shots you consider your favorites. Is it content—what you take photos of? Is it the quality of light? Is it genre? Finding out what you enjoy photographing is key to enjoying a long and happy relationship with your craft.

2. Shoot a lot.

When you’re first starting out, you want to find your niche, that particular brand of photography that helps define you. To help yourself find this corner of your creative happiness, take a lot of photos. Anything that interests you: capture it. When I first started carrying my DSLR every day, I took walks in the evenings. What I found was that I loved capturing vignettes, little stories told by things and light around me. Digital images are cheap – you don’t need to spend money developing them in a shop, and you can set up a “negative” contact sheet electronically in your computer, easily weeding out what doesn’t work and what you liked. The growing portfolio you develop as you shoot will help you to define your creative drive.

3. Surround yourself with people who are passionate and learn from them.

Not just photographers, but musicians, painters, and others have to find their wellspring of inspiration in order to stay creative. Hanging out with creative people gives you a support system for your creativity, and it also helps you tap into the enthusiasm and love that creative people have for their art. This support system is not essential but it helps you keep fresh. I once wrote a poem after hearing a musician play an Indonesian drumming song, giving the

Pamela. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

poem the cadence and tone of the drum (“Bangkok Street Stall”, published in The Chariton Review). Another time, I shot a sequence of images based on someone’s interpretation of anomie. Both times I was inspired by something that was different from the medium I used to express ideas, and the source of inspiration added resonance to what I created. Hanging out with artists not only is fun, but being in a creative atmosphere can spark imagination.

4. Pay attention to moments, and stay in the present.

When I first started with portraiture, I would be so future oriented that I messed up my shots. What happened was, I would be thinking of the next shot I wanted to do while shooting the current shot. The photos often came out blurry from my impatience expressing itself in quick movements. Reflecting on my impatience later, I found out that I have to stay in the present to make each image count.

Besides being patient, paying attention to moments ensures that you are ready to press the shutter release when an expressive moment happens. Taking a series of shots, hoping to get a good one, is wasteful and unnecessary. Waiting patiently for all the elements to fall into place is a creative trait. Yes, art can happen by accident, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if art happens as you act deliberately, making you an active and engaged creator?

5. Don’t be afraid to fail, and stay persistent.

Like in other things we do in life, fear of failure paralyzes us. The part of the brain that deals with stress takes over, and the part of the brain that controls our creative, associative skills freezes. We over-analyze. What results is stilted performance because we have frozen our minds and shut it from flow.

Flow is “optimum performance” given a challenge and some skills (Cszikszentmihalyi). We express flow as effortlessness, when we allow it to happen. Because we already have a

"Somewhere You've Never Been" by Aloha Lavina.

set of skills, given a challenge, we are able to engage in meeting the challenge using all our skills and perhaps be pushed into learning new ones in the process. The key word here is engage. Fear disallows engagement because it creates inside us a stress response (run away or fight). Openness, on the other hand, allows engagement—it is an attitude that helps us to use our perceptions, concentration and skills to perform the necessary actions to meet a challenge.

There is nothing more joyful in photography (and other learning) than the aha moment. Yesterday I assisted my student Soofia in her first conceptual shoot. At one of the sets, lighting was very difficult, but I pushed her to persist in trying different settings or lighting positions.  It took almost half an hour before the lighting worked, but that moment we found the perfect setting and lighting was a moment delicious, full of accomplishment.

This moment should be our goal as creative people. When you stay fearless and persistent, the aha moments you meet along the way will fuel your creativity and enthusiasm, and inspire you to shoot again.


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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