Tag Archives: vision

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?

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.

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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?

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.

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Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer

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.

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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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Bodie sitting room sofa and tourists copyright Aloha Lavina

Nine Things Rupert Murdoch can Teach Photographers

Everyone’s a-twitter about Murdoch’s massive mess today.

I’m sure 60-year old Rupert Murdoch has got a lot of lessons he will learn.

Whatever age photographer you are, here are nine things you can learn from Murdoch’s fiasco.

1. Eavesdrop on other photos.

Murdoch’s company hacked into phones and eavesdropped on them, to learn something they could use as ‘news.’ This sort of desperation can teach us a lot about how we can learn from others. Eavesdropping on other people’s photos—studying them, especially if they have EXIF information—can show you a lot of things you might try to improve your photography. Browsing through magazines, photo sharing sites like the super 500px, and the countless other resources for photos online can give you ideas of what to shoot next, just to see what it’s like and figure out the story of how an image is made.

2. Take responsibility for your actions.

There’s a lot of things to remember when you’re out shooting. One common mistake is to change ISO settings when you come across an indoor shot, then meandering outside and forgetting to change settings back for outdoor images. We’ve all been guilty of this at some point or another. A lesson we can learn from Murdoch is to take responsibility for the moments when we mess up our own photos, and then instead of throwing tantrums, just move on.

3. Remember lessons you’ve learned.

If you’ve been guilty of situations like in #2, you can make it a habit to always return to your default settings after you shoot in a different setting. For example, the ISO error mentioned above doesn’t have to happen to you ever again, if you remember to reset your camera default ISO setting as soon as you finish making shots in the unusual conditions.Bodie old truck copyright Aloha Lavina.

4. Learn lessons you have not learned from others who have.

Perhaps Murdoch hasn’t learned from history, like what happens to a President when he secretly wiretaps phones. But you can do Murdoch one better by actually learning from other photographers who have learned lessons before you, and have shared their experiences. One valuable lesson I learned vicariously is how not to be a gearhead, from Zack Arias. If you paid attention to what other photographers have experienced, in the situation you are currently shooting, you could learn invaluable lessons without having to go through the pain of experiencing the problems yourself.

5. Respect other people’s privacy.

There’s a host of reasons why privacy laws exist, not the least of which are freedom from harassment and freedom of expression, for examples. Murdoch’s News International has harassed the actor Hugh Grant in print, so Grant has fought back by being another voice against Murdoch’s brand of media enterprise.

As a photographer, you have the freedom to express your artistry. But at what lengths would you go to create an image? Would you exploit people who are suffering to get an image that could earn you a thousand wows on some forum? And what are the costs of such a breach of someone else’s privacy? Reflecting on these questions and more like them can define your own vision as a photographer.Bodie sitting room sofa and tourists copyright Aloha Lavina

6. Don’t ask permission, just apologize after you get the shot.

On the other hand, if you are looking for authenticity, you can always follow this sneaky way of capturing a portrait. Take the shot, then if the subject objects, just say sorry, then move away. (Warning: in certain cases, you may feel like a Big Jerk.)

7. Face your fears instead of avoiding them.

When you are learning how to photograph, you will meet some subjects or genres that challenge you. For instance, I overheard one photographer say he won’t ‘get into strobe lighting’ because in his words, “You have to be really good to make good photos with strobes.”

The implications are clear. If you’re afraid, and you stay afraid, nothing will change in your photography. If nothing changes in your photography, your image making will stagnate and never get that push to a higher, different level.

Facing that new technical aspect, or a genre you’ve never tried, can help you reach new skill levels and make even more awesome images.

you can go your own way copyright Aloha Lavina8. Eschew instant gratification.

A lazy journalist is too lazy to do the ‘legwork’—the running around, the actual work, of getting a story. So perhaps the lazy journalist resorts to desperate measures to scoop a story: tap a phone here, eavesdrop on people’s lives there, all from the comfort of a room with an illegal audio receiver.

Instant gratification is the enemy of excellence and a goldmine of mediocrity. Entertaining needs of instant gratification in photography is detrimental to growth. Without patience in learning how to use a camera setting, or getting to know what a lens is capable of, or even practicing a technique like panning, over and over, a photographer is in danger of achieving mediocre work.

Being patient, and being open to the learning that comes with time and practice brings maturity to an image maker. You don’t have to get everything now; you can instead enjoy every step of the journey to making creative, compelling images.

 9. Nurture a legacy you can be proud of.

If Murdoch died from all the stress tomorrow, what would he leave behind? What would people say about his life’s work?

Every day is an opportunity for you to find light and make images that touch others, that make them think, that bring them some message.

What will your legacy be?

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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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.

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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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How to Make the Most of Your Photographer

Some of photoshoots require more time invested, yet they remain the most memorable and successful.

Investing time, thought and effort into a project pays dividends for the client. You not only get your money’s worth from all the people you’ve hired, but you also build strong relationships that can only enhance your brand. Giving time, thought and energy into a collaborative effort can create win-win situations that serve as fertile ground for growth, be it for the client or the creative team.

Here are some tips from a photographer’s point of view.

1. Communicate ideas as much as possible.


Communication is key to collaborative creativity. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Time spent in planning a photoshoot is time wisely invested. For a photographer, information about the concepts the client has in mind, the colors and shapes and textures of the products she is shooting will help in the creative decisions. For example, light reflecting off a smooth surface behaves differently from light reflecting off a rough surface. If your photographer knows what materials you used to make your product, he or she can decide what sort of lighting suits that product. Similarly, a concept cannot be translated into an image unless the photographer has all the information necessary to ‘form a picture’ of what the client has in mind. Guessing or leaving this thinking process to the last minute can greatly impair the photoshoot’s effectiveness from lack of time to think through the concept and the added pressure of  reconciling a lot of novel elements in the process.

2. Give the photographer a lot of chances to make good decisions.

A lot of considerations go into a photo session. One of the most important ones is lighting, especially when there are models involved in the shoot. Different facial structures require different lighting set ups to either hide or show certain features. Introducing your photographer to your models before the shoot can help the photographer to think of the lighting decisions for each model’s facial structure and build. Allowing for this to happen by investing time in a meeting between the models and photographer can benefit your brand because the photographer is given more chances to succeed in making images that are interesting and propel the ideas behind your brand.

Different face structures require different lighting setups. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

3. Organize the materials for the shoot.

Photographers pack with great care. A lot of photogs clean their equipment, follow long packing lists, and prepare a lot of small items that can make a difference between a good shot and a great shot. A good photog knows that preparation saves a lot of time; knowing where to reach in the bag when needing something is efficient and good practice.

In the same way, organizing the clothing or accessories can help a photoshoot move along smoothly. For example, organizing the clothes into sets and labeling them clearly with models’ names in the order of the shoot can really speed up the work. Because some shoots require a lot of moving and changing of lighting equipment, being ready with the clothing and accessories gives the creative people in your team more time to take so they can create their magic for you.

4. Trust the creativity of your team

You hired the makeup artist whom you thought would interpret the concept well and has great skills to execute it in makeup or hair. You hired the photographer whose vision and images match your brand’s beauty.

You must trust their creativity, skill and vision, right? You hired them, not someone else.

In a moment of creativity, the creative person is drawn into flow, a state of seemingly effortless innovation. Trusting this process, for many, have produced great leaps in executing a vision. Interrupting it will stilt the creativity and ‘burst the bubble’ of concentration, and it is a difficult thing to re-enter at will. If you had planning sessions and every one in the team is conscious of the time you have to make the magic happen, trust that what the creators do, in their own separate domains of skill, are geared toward making beauty for your brand.

5. Respect talent and skill.

If everyone could do what any one else could do, all images would look the same. We would not have any moments when we look at a photo and our breath catches because it is just so what we wanted to say.

Respect a unique vision and the passion that creates it. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

The creative world is wonderful because each photographer, each makeup artist, pushes him or her self to do better, to learn something else. If you took this energy and passion and channeled it into your brand, you would have power indeed—power to distinguish your product from the others of the same kind, and power to make people look at your ad twice, catching their breath.

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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Develop a Creative Vision

This is the second in a series of posts about how changing the ways we see as photographers can change the stories in our photos.

Reading this article on the journey from snapshot to expressive imagery got me thinking about how to make creative vision concrete for people learning photography. I want to share some insights here and hopefully make this abstract and wonderful idea into something you can practice after reading this post.

One of the most challenging parts of being creative is to look at things from a different perspective. We may find that subjects we shoot don’t vary in a topical way. We can shoot faces for the rest of our lives, or land and water. Others of us just hunt for light, and make images from that. But a viewfinder is a viewfinder is a viewfinder. To really make a new image, we have to practice seeing in ways that make our efforts more expressive, and less of snapshots.

The best way to learn something complex such as creative vision is to break it up into discrete, bite-size skills. That way, someone can practice a skill and hone it until it becomes a part of the natural repertoire before moving on to the next.

The reflections of colors on the water, rather than the content, make this photo more interesting. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

See the colors

Spotting pleasing or unique colors to create an image is a great skill to have. Although it seems that luck has a big part to play in finding pleasing color palettes in our found images, it is also a matter of being a skillful observer. Ask questions like, is an explosion of color a great background for someone in silhouette? Will walking to another vantage point give the shot a better background? We don’t have control of what colors present themselves to us from day to day, but we do have control of where we stand and what we include in the frame. Training ourselves to think about color will produce images that use the color in expressive ways.

The values in this image made it a good choice for monochrome. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

See the values

The world is in Technicolor and we can’t see in monochrome. But imagining the values—the intensity of black, white and shades of gray in between— rendered by the light reflected by the color spectrum, gives us a creative way of seeing. Seeing a scene from darkest values to brightest is like putting a gray filter over your eyes. Seeing in values helps us to compose using them, instead of using shapes or positions of things. Seeing this way can help us break out of basic composition into the next level.

A few lines and a simple color palette are sometimes enough. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Seeing simplicity

Every beginning photog has heard the phrase “fill the frame.” This is great advice; when we compose, we don’t want nor need clutter. What we want is to use the shapes, color and content in a photo to speak to the person looking at it. Learning how to notice and photograph detail can help us zoom in on a story, and make our images more expressive.

Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything

for Jodi

I reread this post, about long term travel not being able to fix everything, over at Legalnomads, and thought, that sounds familiar. Last summer I took two months to travel to Burma and then Bali, thinking I needed to get away for some quiet time. Travel for me is a way to get inside my head and de-clutter; I wrote to Jodi the other day, I travel “to get away from my nine to five when it becomes too loud with worry that I can’t hear myself.”

I go away to listen, to remove the white noise that is other people’s needs, and find the voice that’s mine. I need very little really, to be happy, just a lot of silence and space, time to make photographs and write. But sometimes, I get caught up in work that is separate from my passion; more and more of this dislodges me from myself, and I float, an untethered balloon full of nothingness.

That’s when I want to get away. Being away brings a new reality. It reminds me of very early memories when every thing I learned seemed momentous, bright and shiny things I could gather and hold close to examine.

I’m not a sophisticated traveler. I don’t have the brave body of someone who climbs volcanoes or rides on rooftops of buses. Yes, I’ve been stuck in Europe because of an ashcloud, but hey, I was in Paris. Being stuck in Paris did not make me suffer. True, I was caught in a flashflood in the Philippines, but I was ten or eleven years old; it was an adventure full of floating refrigerators, bamboo rafts afloat above city streets, and ignorance about water born diseases. And yes, I live in Bangkok, the center of several coups d’etat and colorful politics. But last May, the closest I got to the burning of Bangkok was through Twitter apart from the days when the redshirts were still partying at Rachadamnoen. No, I’m not the Indiana Jones type of traveler.

What I do have, though, is a camera. I lug sixteen kilograms of equipment across all sorts of terrain, and I build my travel day around making photos. When I’m with my camera, composing images that tell stories of places, nothing can touch me. Words cease. You could speak a whole dissertation to me and think I am the rudest companion; the act of making an image fills me, engages me beyond any other experience.

This is flow, a state when a person is so engaged in something that time and space seem to disappear.

The problem is, you can’t stay in flow indefinitely. When I return to reality, I realize a few things.

Cold and dusty in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan.

1.     Not everything is beautiful.

With the camera in front of my face, everything is a matter of design. The chaos of lines can be organized into a composition using other things, like point of view, values of light and dark, framing. As a photographer, I can move and things get a little bit more harmonious in the frame. Not so in life. Moving around a problem, I can’t recompose a better image, I only postpone dealing with a mess. I can’t freeze moments that are beautiful and take them out when things get ugly.

2.     Light doesn’t change the way things are, just the way they look.

If the light is bad one day, I can always pack up and go somewhere else, then go back to the landscape when the light is ‘right.’ But in life, things don’t always look better in the morning light, or at sundown. Sometimes things look the same for days, weeks.

A few hours before the first snowfall, Paro, Bhutan.

3.     You can’t Photoshop it out.

In Photoshop there’s a Clone Tool, and it helps the photographer get rid of distracting spots and other things in the image. You just sample one area of the photo, then click over the area you want gone.  If only it were that easy for the little things that distract us in our lives. Countless times I’ve wished for a clone tool to stamp out the little demands that keep me away from my photography.

The closest I’ve come to complete irresponsibility is traveling, especially alone. I love to wake up earlier than the sun, feel the nip of dawn air as I hurry out to Kusumba to catch the sun rising over the fishing village. There is no schedule, there are only images to make, people to study, expressions to savor through a viewfinder.

4.     You can’t just crop.

Similarly, I can’t just crop. Things in my life crowd into my focal point and want to be in the line of sight. No matter how messy, how utterly unphotogenic something is, life doesn’t have selective framing. Unwanted elements seem to find their way into the experience, and I just have to deal with them.

Holding down the roof with stones, Punakha, Bhutan.

5.     Your batteries run out at some point.

Nothing frustrates a photographer more than being unprepared with extra batteries, and there’re lots of pictures left to make. On very good days, I shoot thousands of photos and have to change the camera battery once or twice (especially with the early digital Nikons, whose batteries lasted less than a thousand shutter clicks when I used a Vibration Reduction lens on them).

I work a lot, seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. I have to; if I don’t I can’t do this photography thing and the other things I have to do. So I plod along, and most of the time, I get enough sleep and have time to watch a movie or read a book from cover to cover, for pleasure.

Other times, I feel like I’m standing on a barbed wire fence, looking out over a vague landscape, and although my hands hurt from clinging to the barbed wire, I can’t let go or I’ll fall off.

Hanging on a barbed wire fence, near Thimphu, Bhutan.

It’s not that I’m into self-inflicted pain though others would argue; I just have obligations to fulfill, and I also have a passion that feeds my soul. I cannot run out of batteries, because I must always find strength for one or the other.

When I wrote to Jodi the other day, I said, “the Balinese are so talented at balance, and that was something you needed, and something I craved. So here you are again, ready for more surprises. I hope the basket stays on the head, even when you’re dancing.”

Maybe I was also talking to myself.




Taking Home the Intangibles

My friends from faraway have exactly 36 hours before they have to go back home, and they know it. In the department store tonight, they race through their shopping —buying a camera, two mobile phones, a wristwatch and a year’s supply of eyeliner and mascara in the space of an hour, and they still need to get the LCD TV and the extra suitcase. The shops are about to close; it’s almost 10 pm. We get back to my place where they’re staying, we cook a meal, and by midnight, the day has finally ended. At home, they sit on the floor discussing how to pack, surrounded by stuff.

I used to buy souvenirs from places I’d been. I have photo frames from Sydney, a “Yak Yak Yak” t-shirt from Nepal, a capiz shell fruit plate from Cebu. Scarves from Bali, a couple of Burmese lungi, a kameez salwar from Rajasthan, the kind with mirrors on the hem. In my closet there are three umbrellas from Chiang Mai, a tie-dye shirt that says “Koh Samui” in fading letters, and fisherman pants from Had Yai. The list goes on of items that I grow tired of keeping. They sit in my closets, unused.

I don’t buy souvenirs any more. But I still have the memories.

There is nothing else like the tinkle of those old tokens we used in New Zealand to buy fresh milk. It was my job every evening to drop a token into each empty glass bottle and place the bottles beside our mailbox in Island Bay, so in the morning the milkman could come by and replace them with bottles full of fresh milk, the kind that leaves froth on your upper lip after a long cold sip.

When we travel we are perpetual strangers, and maybe experiences in a place compel us to buy those souvenirs, little bits of an experience, tangible things we can take back with us and maybe use to recreate what we felt.

Maybe I just like taking home the intangibles.

Scale. 1/800s @f/8, 17mm, ISO 125.

Like values humans share. The photo of a Muslim girl learning about the intricate relationship between monarchy, religion, and nation at the Thai Grand Palace is precious to me. It speaks about scale—the comparison between two things of different sizes. The size of the idea of culture, and the size of the idea of one person’s joy.

Scale and Isolation. 1/800s @ f/5.6, 28mm, ISO 200.

From Burma I take back contrasts. A worker hard at his carpentry repairs the wooden beams at a temple: a man laboring in the heat for a few kyats amidst a glittery splendor.

In another town, I sip the bland loneliness of a tree, flanked by chedi containing stones proclaiming the secret to life.

Perspective. 1/2500s @ f/5.6, 17mm, ISO 200.

On a boat in the Shan State, with no stores for hundreds of miles, I float past the isolation of a humble house in the middle of water and storm clouds, summoning a forgotten but beautiful sentimentality.

Isolation. 1/2500s @ f/5.6, 19mm, ISO 200.

Some moments are like gems in a secret pocket, worn close to the heart.

I sit with my friend Ye Myint. We’ve been telling each other stories all day, for several days. On this day before I fly to another city, we sit on the roof of an abandoned temple in Bagan. Silently we watch the sky release its chorus of light above the pagodas lining the landscape. All I have from that moment is the song the sky sang, for a few minutes uninterrupted, shared, frozen in a photograph.

1/160s @f/6.3, 70mm, ISO 200.

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


Being published may not be everybody’s dream, but I’ve read somewhere in David DuChemin’s excellent book “Visionmongers: Making a Life and Living in Photography” that almost everyone who picks up a camera for the first time and enjoys using it invariably, perhaps fleetingly, see their name as a byline for a published photograph. Whether you are a beginner who is venturing into the steep learning curve for a photography newbie or someone who’s been shooting for a while, there is a way for you to explore your love for photography in greater depth, and to share your images  with an audience other than your family and friends.

At some point in your journey into image making, you might arrive at the proverbial “crossroad” where you have to pause and think of where you want to head next. Should you attend that next workshop? Is going pro right for you? Should you quit your high-power job and become a pet photographer like Grace Chon? Or do you prefer to perfect your technique and creative skills so you can take gorgeous images of your travels for friends and family to ooh and ahh over?

Many DSLR owners do not think beyond using their cameras to record their special days, but if you have that buzz of excitement every time you go out with your camera, you probably will experience your re-vision: a moment of rediscovery that will bring insight into the kind of photographer you want to be.

In my own journey I’ve been through a few revisions of my goals. In the 1980s my only goal was mastering exposure with a manual film camera. Then in the 1990s it was getting used to digital format, with the freedom of changing ISO in the middle of the same shooting session. In the mid-2000s, I found myself doing a 180-degree turn from people-less architecture and lonely landscapes into full-blown portraiture mania. And now, just six years after my first digital camera, I am working some 35-40 hours a week as a freelance commercial and fashion photographer.

As the decade comes to a close, here I am again, reinventing myself by registering at the amazing MatadorU travel photographer’s course, and my first assignment is: what type of travel photographer do you want to be? It’s certainly a loaded question, and less than a 100 words makes this new vision a challenge.

Hmong girls look longingly at balloons for sale in Sapa, Vietnam. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Then this morning, I woke up at 1.55 am on the western coast of Koh Chang in the South of Thailand. No one was awake at that hour; the beach was asleep. A stubborn wind rustled the palm leaves, and an almost full moon glowed, its faint light tracing a beautiful line across the water.

The answer to the question came to me. I am excited by light, and the way it behaves and makes every thing beautiful. Light is what excites me and pushes me to become a better photographer, whether in my commercial or editorial fashion work, my personal projects, or travel. So the kind of travel photographer I want to be is “someone who tells stories using light to take the audience to the three-dimensional moment captured in an image.”

What about you? What kind of photographer do you want to be? Tell us in your comments!

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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