Tag Archives: inspiration

butter candle vendor portrait Kathmandu Nepal copyright Aloha Lavina

Bring Back that Lovin’ Feelin’

Sometimes you forget the journey when you think you’ve arrived.

I am thinking this as I climb the dozens of steps up to Swayambunath Pagoda in Kathmandu. With the camera bag slung over a shoulder, it’s a little tough to mount every step and lift up myself/equipment one more step. But being Zen about it, thinking of each step and concentrating on just that one motion, makes the journey up surprisingly easier, and it seems to take no time at all.

When I get to the top of the temple, I realize this Zenlike approach is what I’ve missed about photography. I’ve been so busy with photography jobs that I’ve forgotten what was important about it in the first place. For 2012, my resolutions consist of going to go back to the beginning.


Getting lost in the ‘big picture’ is easy once you start getting commissions for your photography. In the last year, I’ve been lucky to have gotten a number of assignments I’ve enjoyed for both fashion and travel photography. But it seems that I only ever shoot when it’s a ‘job.’ In between these, my camera is silent, blind.

butter candle vendor portrait Kathmandu Nepal copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011

Zooming into little lessons that sustain this passion regularly is my first resolution. At Swayambunath, I had no assignment. It was just for fun. Even with the four a.m. wake up and the trek up the cold temple steps, I felt that rekindled love for this craft.

Something new.

The fear of starting all over with something is a fear we relearn as adults. Our years teach us that we are good at something, and we hone that and nurture it until we can do it with our eyes closed.

monk sitting in cold winter morning Swambunath Temple Kathmandu Nepal copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011

Maintaining this expertise is important, but novelty is what sustains our artistry. Learning another genre is my second resolution. I’ve focused so much on portraits and reportage that those are all I ever do. But there’s something about landscapes that intrigue me.  I want to look at a place and know what I have to do to make an image that makes me suck in my breath and smile.

Fall in love three times a day.

Remember the honeymoon period when you carried your camera around every day and took photos of everything?

What made you stop doing that?

It’s probably not because you ran out of subjects.

morning light monochrome Kathmandu Nepal copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011

Matthew Fox once wrote, “If we fell in love with one of Mozart’s work each week, we would have seven years of joy. How could we ever be bored?” This sort of awe is what we need to be inspired, and stay inspired in our craft.

It’s very easy to be distracted these days. Connectivity makes it difficult to stay still and experience a process; things come to us at speeds measured in seconds, and our reality is becoming episodic, an electric mosaic of bits and bytes.

We need to slow down, like we do when we’re falling in love. Take it all in, pay attention to details, stay in the moment.

Now it’s your turn. What are your photography resolutions for 2012?

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Burmese man and cheroot copyright Aloha Lavina

10 Things to Shoot When You Have Absolutely No Clue

Some days, it just sucks to be out with a camera.

Content is unexciting. It seems like there’s nothing to shoot.

When days like this happen, it causes you despair. Here you are, with a fully charged camera battery. Your memory card is poised and ready for harmonies to happen in front of your lens.

And nothing.

Or is there really nothing?

On days when you’re absolutely clueless what to shoot, go outside and find some of these situations that could very well be what you need to get those creative brainstorms.

1. Look for lines.

Because humans like order, we build things that have linear features. We also attribute linear features to things that aren’t really lines, like the stream of clouds that seem to form when we tilt a wide angle lens. People form lines; there are ropes and wires and structures that form lines. You never know where lines may lead you: they might lead to inspiration.Balinese morning copyright Aloha Lavina.

2. Go to a show.
Some dinner shows, like this dance show in a restaurant in Bangkok, have performances where they allow tourists to use their cameras. Enjoy a nice dinner out, and when the show begins, try to capture beautiful parts of the performances. The artistic expression on the performers may just nudge your creative spirit into making some great imagery.Dancer copyright Aloha Lavina.

3. Look for emotion on faces.

People are constantly interacting, even just outside your street. Go to a crowded place, have your camera ready, and snap away at a respectful distance when people begin to show emotion on their faces. You never know the portraits you might make when people show emotion.Burmese girl with thanaka and smile copyright Aloha Lavina.

 4. Look for shapes.

Geometry is a great subject because it’s everywhere. Especially when the light is coming from one side of a scene, shapes can become beautiful.Rocks on roof in Bhutan copyright Aloha Lavina.

5. Shoot a simple theme.
Sometimes, all it takes to focus your creative energy is a simple theme, like “sticks.” It will amaze you how much you can find on one theme, just by focusing on it. You will also discover that a simple theme can be expressed in so many different ways, and this discovery just might inspire you.Inle Lake in duotone copyright Aloha Lavina.

6. Look for texture.

Texture is everywhere—on a man’s face, on someone’s hands. Texture is found in almost every surface on earth. Finding textures and ways to show them can inspire the most mundane day.Burmese man and cheroot copyright Aloha Lavina

7. Look for action.

Like emotion, people are constantly in action. Practice your camera shutter priority settings, and capture action. You don’t have to go to a sport stadium to find action, either. You can find children playing, people rushing from one place to another, just outside your neighborhood.Burmese boy diving into lake copyright Aloha Lavina.

8. Find reflections.

Reflections are great to photograph. You might find inspiration in beauty reflected on a surface, and make some imagery that has story and impact.Burmese woman on lake and reflection copyright Aloha Lavina.

 9. Shoot numbers.

Like themes, numbers can guide your shoot, and become a focal point toward inspiration. Take the number 3. For some reason, our brains love things that come in threes. You could practice your composition and photographer’s eye by spotting this number in your subjects.Three rice farmers in Burma copyright Aloha Lavina.

10. Play with the camera’s timer.

Setting your camera down at a café or restaurant table, and then using its timer to capture images on slow shutter can yield some interesting results. You might wait for an interesting moment to move into the front of your lens before you press the shutter.Selling silver rings in low light copyright Aloha Lavina.

Once in a while, you might feel some despair that you don’t know what else to shoot. Maybe you can try some of these tips, and start getting back into seeing images. As someone once said, it’s not really what’s in the image that is important. It’s how you make the image out of mundane things.

What do you shoot to get your vision back?

dramatic portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

Are You Paying Attention?

Years ago, I used to think there was an outside force which would help me get better at my craft. Call it what you will—a muse, a mentor—it seemed to me to be all-powerful and decisive. It would sweep my photographic self off her feet and fly her to a level from where I could make grand leaps in skill and artistry. I waited for this entity with a stash of If Only’s stuffed in my camera bag with the rest of the gear.

If Only a photographer more knowledgeable than I would take me under her wing.

If Only I had that dude’s camera and lens I would make a better picture.

If Only I had more time, I could be brilliant.

If Only I bought this or that gadget I would create stunning stuff.

If Only. If Only. If Only.

It wasn’t until I stopped listening to the If Only’s that I finally could leave the plateau I was perched on and start climbing new peaks.

The key was to use both eyes.

I’m not talking about squinting with the one eye that is not looking through the viewfinder and finally opening it while taking photos. I’m talking about opening the physical eye, the one that is looking out at the physical world, and opening the inner eye, the one that examines what it is I mean to say with those photos.

framed dramatic portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

The breakthrough was not another workshop, another piece of gear, another trip to some exotic place.

The breakthrough was the realization that the source of those leaps I could make with artistry and skill were within me.  I really wasn’t paying attention. I was waiting for an external force to change how I see, when all I had to do was lose the anticipation for some artistic liberator, and free myself to an attentiveness to what was around me.

Cartier-Bresson once said, “You just have to live life, and life will give you pictures.” I found out, when I started paying attention, that if you’re interested, life becomes more interesting, and so do the photos.

dramatic portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

There is no easy, comfortable place to sit and wait for good photos to happen. There is only the hard climb, paying attention every step of the way, and learning. Learning is about change, so it’s never really easy. But what this hard work does is that it gives you the focus you need to receive what comes when you pay attention.

And usually, that means seeing something remarkable.


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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losing your divinity copyright Aloha Lavina

10 Songs You and Your Camera can Hum Together

It’s been a pretty serious week. We witnessed a media empire break open with more sparks than the explosion that demolished the Death Star. Olso suffered from terrorism attacks, and then Amy Winehouse died.

So to cheer up a bit, I decided to put together a playlist of songs this week. The playlist spans a few decades, so if you can recognize some of it, feel free to sing along. There’s nothing like belting out a song to relax those shoulders and get ready for a week of shooting photographs. There’s nothing like a workflow with a fabulous soundtrack to inspire great shots.

 1. Papparazi by Lady Gaga

You can start with that catchy chorus, “I’m your biggest fan I’ll follow you until you love me.” Chase that shot until you’ve got the right one. Dog that light until it gives you magic.

2. Shiny Happy People by REM

Take the camera and “Put it in your hands/Take it take it/There’s no time to cry/Happy happy…” Go to the park, shoot the lovers smiling. Throw a dog a Frisbee and catch it while it smiles with teeth all bright and shiny.

3. 3×5 by John Mayer

Unlike John, take your camera for a walk and you don’t have to lament, “didn’t have a camera by my side this time,” but don’t forget to “see the world through both my eyes.” Open your other eye that’s not peering through the viewfinder, and don’t just tell the story, but experience it.sepia of hb copyright Aloha Lavina

4. Girls on Film by Duran Duran

Cast some models, set up some lights, and catch some “Girls on film (two minutes later), girls on film/Girls on film (got your picture), girls on film….”

5. Pictures of You by The Cure

Get some inspiration from some of your old shots, and count yourself lucky you have so many more photography opportunities to look forward to. Robert Smith darkly recites, “I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel…,” but you know deep in your heart that if you were singing that song to your craft, you’d know feeling your photos isn’t a bad thing.

6. Photograph by 10,000 Maniacs

You can do some documentary photography on the street. You can even experiment with your Monochrome camera setting. Maybe you’ll find yourself telling stories like Dorothea Lange, or the Italian cinema masters. 10,000 Maniacs captured a great lyrical image in their song, “I found this photograph/underneath the broken picture glass/tender face of black and white/beautiful, a haunting sight.”

7. Vogue by Madonna

Take some inspiration from Madonna and study some photos of those “Ladies with an attitude” and “Fellas that were in the mood.” Harlow, Dietrich, Garbo. Adopt the drama of yesteryears and try a pinup shoot. C’mon honey, “Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it. Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.”losing your divinity copyright Aloha Lavina

8. Photograph of You by Depeche Mode

“What good is a souvenir of something/you once had when all it ever does is/make me feel bad.” This song is great when you’re editing bad pics out of the bunch. Delete. Sing. Delete.

9. Better Together by Jack Johnson

Get sentimental and try some sepia toning. There’s nothing like that sentimental sepia that will save an image that had to be shot with iffy lighting. Take Jack’s advice and feel that photos are like “Our dreams,” and they are made of real things, like a shoebox of photographs and sepia toned loving.”

10. Kodachrome by Simon and Garfunkel

Try some plugins in your processing and evoke the feel of “Kodachrome, they give us those nice bright colors.” Shoot some landscapes and run the action, “They give us the greens of summers, makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah.” You’ll be crooning like Simon and Garfunkel in no time.

If the past week’s got you down and you need to pick up some inspiration for your photography, why not make your own playlist?

What are your favorite songs when shooting?

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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Balinese festival parade copyright Aloha Lavina.

Inspire Your Photos with Poetry

Poetry sometimes takes inspiration from the mundane. Billy Collins’ poem “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” takes its inspiration from the feeling you get when you are being creative. Billy says, “I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna or any river for that matter/to be perfectly honest.” He says he is “more likely to be found in a quiet room like this one…trying to manufacture the sensation of fishing on the Susquehanna.”

Burmese boy with buffaloes copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Although poetry is sometimes something you might dislike or are indifferent to, you can take some inspiration from poetry just like the poet can take inspiration from a photograph. “Manufacturing the sensation” is something a photographer does: you create an imagined harmony from something as mundane as a boy with grazing buffalos beside a clear stream; you tell a story with an image. But this descriptiveness of photographs and poetry is just the surface of artistry. There are other poetic devices you can borrow from poetry to inspire your photography.

Poetry has an economy.

Because poems are shorter than say novels or short stories, poets have to pay attention to every word in a poem. Similarly, the economy of a photograph is to include what is essential in the frame, to tell the story. Extraneous stuff that is not essential is discarded, left out.

Poetry is not just sound, it’s also silence.

When poets craft a poem, they pay attention to the space around the words—the silence. The silence, where the lines break and the poem pauses, have just as much meaning as the sounds of the words. A photograph has the same quality—there is the subject, and then there is the space you choose to put around your subject. Like a poet, make that space just as meaningful as the focal point.

portrait with negative space copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Poetry uses symbols.

The imagery in poetry is crafted to be symbolic. Sometimes you find an image out of sheer luck, like a vulture hovering over prayer flags for the dead in a Bhutanese hillside. Other times, you have to manufacture the symbol, set up a shot. Crafting your shots so there is a deeper level of meaning in the imagery takes your photography from simple narrative to inspirational insight.

vulture flies beside prayer flags for the dead in Bhutan copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

A poem uses repetition to create impact.

Repetition in poetry is never accidental. Poets use repetition to bring emphasis to a point they are trying to make. Photographs can use this same technique to create impact, too. Finding a subject that repeats itself has its own message, especially if the repetition is the message itself. A row of Burmese nuns speaks of the selflessness of their lives—all going in one direction, all looking the same, an absence of individuality.

Burmese nuns in a row copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Poetry has theme and variation.

Poems begin with imagery, but the imagery soon turns into a theme, a message or story. Around you are these same themes—beauty, joy, hope. Whether it is in the combination of elements you are fortunate to be able to capture with your camera or the ways you fill your frame, the themes you photograph have the unique stamp of your vision. They say that there is no new story under the sun, that we have the same stories told in different words. It may be the same with our photographs. It’s the same theme, but you put a variation in it that’s borne from your own personal vision.

Balinese festival parade copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Translating an image in your mind’s eye into an image for the eye is what you do as a photographer. Like the poet, you “balanced a little egg of time” in front of people and places and other sources of beauty, and you capture it within a frame, timeless and ready to hatch into someone else’s inspiration.

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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portrait black and white Indian girl copyright Aloha Lavina

10 Clichés a Photographer Can Believe

Obsession is a wonderful thing. Being obsessed with something, you will notice how it becomes the context with which you view your world. Things that people say in conversations jump out at you, as if everyone is talking about your obsession. That’s why I think these clichés could possibly be talking about you and your obsession with photography.

1. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

When you get a shot that is perfect in every way, it sticks to your mind even after you’ve taken many others after it. How many times has this happened, and you can’t take that image off your mind? It’s the one you can’t stop talking about, the one you immediately upload to the website where you share shots with others.

2. Try and try again until you succeed.

Popular with newbies, this is a saying that reverberates when you’re frustrated with a photo shoot. Persistence is a great tool to have in your camera bag, and it’s something you can’t buy or upgrade. As you progress in photography, there are challenges that you have to take simply because they push you toward growth.

3. The sun also rises.

For those of us who have other jobs, photography is something we do on weekends and after work. Because we don’t have a lot of time to make images, we’re often anticipating that special day when we can just take a walk or go to a photoshoot without worrying about anything else on a to-do list. Then when we get there, it could be too terribly overcast to make a good landscape shot, or it could be raining too hard for an outdoor portraiture shoot. This is the saying that will bring hope that another day will hold special light and images.

4. Love will find a way.

Challenges keep us coming back to our craft. Learning to light, for example, was a test for me. I was so used to making natural light portraits for years, and then suddenly when I was asked to produce light in a dark room, I had to climb a steep learning curve without falling off. If you love your craft, you will spend time and effort to nurture it.

strobist Nikon editorial fashion photography copyright Aloha Lavina

Ride a steep learning curve in your craft. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

5. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place.

You can’t go back to a place and have the same lighting conditions, the same moment replayed. There is no guarantee that you will have the chance to take the same image you see now in front of you. Seize the opportunity and take the picture, because it will only come in front of your lens once.

6. All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy.

You have to make time for personal projects. Work is great because it puts money in your pocket, but personal projects put the zing in your soul. Making time for personal photo projects gives you a creative outlet, and you learn new things that you could integrate into your workflow.

7. Always look on the bright side.

I like this cliché because it reminds me to expose for the highlights when I’m making portraits. But it also reminds me that images that fail also hold lessons. Especially the failure itself. Being afraid to fail is detrimental to growth as a photographer. It means putting aside chances to learn something new because you never try anything new. The bright side of failure is that you tried, and that because you just got rid of a fear, you now have endless other chances to try again and succeed.

water high speed photography portrait one light strobist copyright Aloha Lavina

Try new things to stay fresh. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

8. A picture’s worth a thousand words.

No caption, no artist’s statement, or long winded speech can replace a good image. One of my mentors once told me that I had to be able to narrate as well with one photo as I could with a series, and that the one photo had to do better than a series with an explanation. Iconic images, if you want to make them, do not need to be explained. The story is all there, in that one frame.

portrait black and white Indian girl copyright Aloha Lavina

Give each frame everything you know. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

9. See the glass as half full.

It’s easy to be negative—to see faults and flaws. It is much harder, but more useful, to see the positive. Remembering the positive drives motivation and increases confidence. The more positive things you hold in your head, the better you feel about yourself as a photographer, and the more artistic risks you might potentially take. This translates into even more chances of producing creative, fresh work that is compelling to your audience.

10. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

If you keep yourself open to possibilities, take artistic risks and banish fear of failure, you may one day develop a style. In the beginning of a photography obsession, the focus is on knowledge or craftsmanship (craftspersonship?)—how to control how the camera takes pictures. You’re drawn to tutorials, how to make this or that exposure, and appreciate those funny little numbers that are supposed to tell you how to go about making a good photo: f/ this and ISO that and 1/something seconds.

Later on, as those technical decisions become part of your automatic skill set, you may begin to explore vision. Vision is the root cause of your obsession, not technique. Anyone can learn technical knowledge, and there are superbly exposed photos floating around that really are technically perfect but visually do not compel.

But the photos that inspire us and push us in our own craft are the photos with a vision that stun and reverberate with us long after we see them.

With an obsession like photography, you can find inspiration in almost anything. And when you believe that ‘the universe is speaking to you,’ might you not find time to listen?

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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Golfers and caddies in late afternoon light.

10 Things a Photog Can Learn from Golfers

I’m back in the swing of things.

The other day, with all the Royal Wedding stuff going on online, I decided to take the day off from all things electronic. I went to the golf driving range instead, to hit balls for the first time since being caught up in a whirlwind 18 months of photography taking up all my time.

Getting back into golf, at least into hitting golf balls, was exhilarating. After about 20 balls, muscle memory took over, and I started hitting with some 80 percent accuracy. It was a great feeling, but also got me thinking about how similar my two passions are: photography is not that different from golf. Here’s why.

1. You have to banish fear.

Taking risks and not being afraid to experiment is something golf has in common with photography. If you approach a shot with fear, the fear paralyzes your creativity. You become plagued with the “what ifs”—what if I have the wrong lens? What if I should be at a different vantage point, what if the way I go about this shot is all wrong?

Entertaining all these disturbing thoughts do just that—disturb your concentration, make you stumble over the technicalities, and render a poor shot. Banishing fear, and trusting your skills, gives you more chances of success, because you’re focusing on the positive things that will happen as you take the shot.

reflection of golf driving range on steel golf clubs

Use your other hobbies to reflect on your craft, and learn something new. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

2. You have to trust the hours of practice.

At the moment of truth, taking the shot, you have to trust that the hours you’ve spent practicing have schooled your muscles and your mind to all that you needed to do before you take that shot. Again, doubt will only get in the way. So, trust that your hands know what to do. Trust the hours spent practicing. This helps you relax, and your body can better obey the thought you have as you take the shot.

3. Unclutter your thoughts.

In golf, thinking about too many things when you take the shot interferes with your body’s ability to perform at an optimum, relaxed level. I believe it’s the same with all activity, including photography. Removing the obstacles mentally by focusing only on the task at hand, helps your body to perform the necessary skills to get a shot. Clearing your mind and focusing only on allowing your hands to perform the necessary actions to get the shot you want.

4. Visualize success, then work toward it.

I spend a few seconds before starting my golf swing, to visualize how the ball will travel and where it will land. I pretend my eyes are looking through 400mm lens, and aim my swing toward a single blade of grass in the distance. This sort of visualization is not a new thing; athletes practice it, and I think photographers should, too. Visualization is a proven way of mandating success in the way your body responds to a challenge. Visualizing a shot before you start the process in taking that shot will only add to the possibility of brilliance once it is executed.

5. Be patient.

Golf takes a few hours. You’re always playing with other people, and every one takes their turn to make shots. Photography demands this kind of patience. Waiting for light or an expressive moment is one of the skills photographers have to practice. Honing this patience helps you to appreciate the moment when it arrives. This patience also often gets rewarded; whether you are patient with yourself as a person learning photography, or patient with waiting for the right moment, your shots will show the value of patience in the results.

6. Accept the mistakes, and learn from them.

Who hasn’t made a bad exposure, especially in the early days of learning this craft? Accepting that learning is a process is the best gift you can give yourself as you learn how to take good shots. Mistakes are more memorable than never making one, so you need to accept them as learning opportunities, and a way for the technique to reveal itself to you.

Often in golf, people come back because of that one good shot that felt like a hot knife cutting through butter—what we call a ‘pure shot.’

This purity can be part of your photography, too. From your mistakes, you will learn how to make that super shot. And when it happens, you will feel so good you’ll always want to take that walk, simply for the chance to make a good shot.

7. Invest time in practice.

Yes, reading about photography and watching videos are great ways to learn about it. But nothing beats doing it. Investing time to practice your skills allows you to discover, to feed your passion, and to find joy in making good shots.

8. Use all your senses.

Photography is a visual activity—but it isn’t only that. One of the best ways to learn and love something is to saturate yourself in it.

In golf, it means being able to use more than just the visual to help you make a good shot. Feeling the wind direction and strength. Feeling the weight of the clubhead in your hands. Listening to the sound of a good shot versus a bad shot.

You know how you can tell if your shutter is dragging? You don’t have to look at the shutter speed to tell you that. And paying attention to the entire sensory environment can help you make an image with ethos—the feeling of how it was being there, in the midst of that scene. If you can translate all the sensory information into a visual image, you can make images that transcend time and reach into the human experience.

9. Celebrate the good shots.

Celebrating the good shots in golf gives the golfer a memory of something good—and what it holds is a possibility for next time. This positive memory holds in it the power to make you perform at an optimal level, again.

It is so easy to remember the bad ones—those shots that made you cringe. But it is a great motivator to remember the good ones. These are the ones that will keep you coming back, keep you learning, and ultimately, help you become better.

Golfers and caddies in late afternoon light.

Can you see the caddies in bright pink? Copyright Aloha Lavina.

10. It’s the journey, not the destination.

Remembering that photography, like golf, is a process or a journey will help you to continue taking the challenge of making good shots. Focusing on the shot at hand, you give yourself more opportunity to swing into the flow, and you might find that the result you’ve always wanted will take care of itself.

Photography is my passion and golf is my metaphor, what’s yours?

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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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.

You might also like:
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Let the Shadows Speak
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo

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.

You might also like:
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Let the Shadows Speak
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo

Let Shadows Speak

Dynamic lighting in a photo begins with direction and quality of light, but it doesn’t stop there. Part of the effect in dynamic lighting is where the shadows fall. You know that rule in physics that says ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’? This tension also works in photographic lighting, except that we could rewrite the rule as ‘for every light there is an equal and opposite shadow.’

So controlling the light means controlling the shadows. This effect can create lighting that is dynamic, three dimensional, and eye catching.

We can learn basic lighting conditions, whether in a natural setting like in travel photography, or in a more controlled setting like when using strobes or window light. To add to this wonderful skill is the ability to read the stories that shadows tell.

Telling stories with shadows is a great way to learn dynamic lighting. When we can learn to see where the light falls, how much it falls off and in which direction, we can start designing images that tell stories.

Where you stand to take a photo affects where light and shadow fall in the final image.

The photo of the two people was lit using ambient light, light from broken walls and holes in the ceiling of an abandoned mansion. There was light coming from above both the woman and the man, and the shadows falling around them framed the shot. If I had moved a little to the left, two things would have happened: the man would have been out of the line of sight of the 50mm lens I was using, and the woman would have had less shadow on camera left. Positioning the camera where it was, I was seeing the way the shadows would frame the scene. Moving around is one way of controlling the direction and amount of shadow in a photo.

Pools of light and pools of shadow create drama in this image.

Another vantage point that was deliberate was in the next photo where the model is below the camera; I was standing on a ledge in another broken building. The light was coming from camera left, through a broken wall. The harsh midday light created deep, dark shadows around and beside the model, making shadows on the wall, and forming pools of shadow around the path she walked. The mystery created by the shadows gives the photo a story telling quality I would not have achieved if I had the whole scene lit up.

Paying attention to shapes created by shadow can make a shot dramatic.

Lighting a scene, we know, doesn’t need to be complicated. In this shot of some Indian fashion, I only had a high window to work with, and a distant doorway some 300 meters behind the model. I found a place where the window light would directly shine on her face and side. Having done this, I also saw that the curvy geometric shapes and their shadows in the image complemented the pose and dress of the model, so I played up the shadows by underexposing the background and using a small aperture. The slower shutter speed gave me a sharper take on the dress plus created a three dimensional image. Controlling the settings to augment shadows in a shot is another way of allowing shadows to tell part of the story.

Telling a story with a photo doesn’t just depend on where light illuminates and what it illuminates. Where the shadows fall also speak stories.

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:
All You Need is a Window
Let the Light Inspire You
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative


All You Need is a Window

As well as an inspiration on photo walks, light is easy to find at home. All you really need is a window. At any time of day when there is light coming through a window, you can use it to create a beautiful side-lit portrait. To make a portrait with side light, position the subject parallel to the window, like in the diagram below.

A lot of painters use window light.

Beautiful side light creates classic lighting for a portrait. The shadows created on the side away from the window make for dynamic lighting because the shadows actually show the contours of the subject—essential for a three-dimensional effect.

A floor to ceiling window camera left created this creamy lighting on model Chloe.

My friend DJ posed beside a window and his long hair made a 'rim light' effect with shadow, too.

If you’re looking for inspiration this week, try some photography at home! All you really need is a window.

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:
Let the Light Inspire You
Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
The Man at the Window
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative

Let the light inspire you

Everyone who’s been through grammar school knows that photography comes from the Greek words for “light” and “write.” In a word, photography is writing with light. But for those of us who write with light, sometimes two things can happen. One, we focus more on the content of the photo—the elements in it, what the image “means.” Two, we have days when every thing we point our camera at says, “Blah.” These two things may not seem related, but maybe they are.

Take landscape photography, for instance. I’m not a landscape expert or one who shoots a lot of landscapes; most of my shots are portraits. But I like looking at landscapes, and I just came across this article at Digital Photography School saying “Shoot the light, not the land,” and how the light is really what makes or breaks a photograph. I tend to agree—the landscapes that have dramatic light are the ones I fave on Flickr or comment on in other forums. Light turns me on.

Which brings me to my second point. I think on days when we feel like the camera is bringing us blah, we should look for the light.

Light on a bunch of dead leaves can make the scene look alive.

That means the content doesn’t matter. We look for pockets of light that drape over a forest. We search for streams of light across mundane objects, like a chair at a driving range.

Light streaming from the side can make an uncomfortable iron chair look quite inviting.

We wait for the sunset to reflect its light on clouds above a pond with a rock sitting in it.


Dramatic light reflected on cloud reflected on a pond can make even a rock look magical.

Light is what inspired the first photographers, and light should inspire us now.

How about you? What’s your love affair with light?

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:
Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
The Man at the Window
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
10 Online Resources for Photography Enthusiasts
How to Stay Creative

Lessons from Dance

They shuffle through, blind.
Bending slowly from the waist, their arms held in front like floppy fish dripping water, they stoop low to the floor, then slowly raise their torsos again.
When they straighten up, their eyes are white, rolled back into their heads, their mouths contorted in a silent scream. We can hear their ragged breaths, like the mute tolling of ruined bells.
There are only two of us in the audience, but both of us are crying.
“Butoh challenges the idea of beauty,” their teacher whispers. In the two hours as he works with the students through butoh masks—the facial grimaces that signify emotion in the dance theatre—and butoh walks—the ways the dancers move forward, we are transported into Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. We are at ground zero, watching the survivors, their flesh burnt and peeling off, shuffling through the destruction, gasping for life and meaning.

Theatre students at a butoh workshop, Bangkok.

The art form makes me uncomfortable, raises questions.
Last summer, another dancer poses a question to me at his studio near the Chao Phraya River in old Bangkok. He gives me two sets of cymbals, the small ones we call “Ching” in Thai, its onomatopoeic name. He tells me to clang each together and tell him which one I liked.
I try one, then the other. The second one, more battered-looking, a little heavier in the hands, resonates more. The sound it makes lasts some moment longer, and I tell the dancer, “This is the one I like.”

Manop makes the fabric dance, Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

He smiles, takes out a couple of candles from his pocket. He lights them and drips the wax of each on the table where we sit.
Blowing the candles, he takes one puddle of wax off the table. “Look at this one,” he says, holding the sliver of wax between finger and thumb, then breaking it with a fingernail. “It’s brittle. Poor quality paraffin.” The bits of hardened paraffin sprinkle the table like cheap yellow confetti.
Slapping his hands to get rid of the crumbled wax, he takes the beeswax puddle into his hand and begins to roll it between his thumb and forefinger. He kneads it, tells me, “This one I can mold into whatever shape I want.” He smiles, looks away, then seriously pronounces, “Dance is like this candle, and like the cymbals that resonate. The one made of quality matter is the one we like, the one we can mold into something.”
He dances now, at the table, and his eyes hold no emotion. “If I go through the motions of a

A suggestion of spring at the Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

dance, but I bring no quality into the motion, the dance fails. But—“ and here I see his face change, he is flirting with his audience and I cough and laugh at the same time, “—if you intend to bring inner quality into the dance, something happens.
“I can tell you something, and you don’t have to know any thing about dance, but you’ll understand.”
See Khun Manop and Patravadi dancers at the Fringe Festival 2011, held both in Hua Hin and Bangkok from January 29th to March 17th, 2011. Tickets range from 300 Baht for students to 800 Baht for adults.


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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