Painted Dahlia – Before and After Photo Editing

Let’s get this out of the way… I believe in getting photos “right in-camera” as much as possible. However, you and I know perfect conditions don’t always coordinate with our schedules. So when I saw the flower in the “before” photo my choices were:

  1. Leave the camera in the bag, or
  2. Take the darn photo and see what I could do in Photoshop

There is no harm in trying. Right?

Painted Dahlia Before Editing
Notice the levels histogram. There is detail in all of the highlights because the histogram does not touch the right where highlights are shown.

Instead of getting upset with myself for forgetting my diffuser or pleading with the clouds to return, I decided that at worst this would be a learning opportunity. Of course, if this experiment had failed it would just be between my computer and me anyway… Good thing it can’t talk!



Photo Editing Painted Dahlia Before and AfterThis is going to be the first in a series of “Before” and “After” editing guides. Hopefully you will get ideas by seeing my process. You certainly don’t need to follow what I’ve done exactly. In fact, what works for one image will sometimes look terrible on another. The plan is to share some methods and reasoning to give you ideas of tricks and methods to try in your own editing. This concept has been rolling around in my head for a while. Today I got a push to make it happen thanks to questions from the wonderfully supportive Artistic Floral Photography group on Facebook called Pholorography and lead by the talented and encouraging teacher and photographer, Jackie Kramer.

Make Lemonade Out of Lemons

So you can thank Jackie’s most recent group theme “Make Lemonade Out of Lemons” where we were all sharing our photo editing transformations and all the wonderful people who wanted to know more. You gave me the kick in the pants I needed to get this going.

Make It Better In Camera

Let’s talk about the issues with the original photo and better options. The light on this flower is from harsh, overhead, mid-day sun. This makes for strong contrast and sharp distracting shadows on the flower. It would have been a more appealing photo out-of-the-camera if I had taken it:

  1. When there was soft, overcast light from cloud cover
  2. If it were in the shade (sometimes I use my own body to create the shade for a small subject)
  3. If I made the light softer by using a diffuser (and possibly also a reflector too)

The background elements are also distracting because they are relatively sharp with uneven light. Using the techniques above would have also helped make the background less distracting too.

We Can’t Go Back In Time

So let’s try something. Actually, before I took this photo I knew I was going to try to use the Mixer Brush in Photoshop to even out the hard shadow edges and take advantage of the wide range of color tones from the high contrast light. I took care to make sure the parts of the flower with the brightest light on it was not over-exposed (or blown out) because I didn’t want to lose any detail in the highlights.

My camera settings were 1/200 sec, f/14, ISO 100

Once I brought this into Photoshop for editing I knew I wanted to:

  1. Add painterly brush strokes to the petals
  2. Create a softer, more pastel overall color palette
  3. Make the background more subtle and painterly

To start I like to duplicate my background layer so I can turn off the layers above to evaluate the editing progress. On the duplicate layer I cloned out any blemishes then set to work adding brush strokes to the petals using the Mixer Brush (introduced in PS CS5) with the Spatter 24 Pixel brush tip from the default brush palette and a Clean, Wet brush settings. I took care not to brush on the edges of the petals so the edge lines would remain realistic and varying size and whether I was brushing from light to dark or dark to light.


Scott Deardorff Mixer Brush Controls Video

Here is an easy-to-understand, detailed 10 minute video that will help you understand all the settings and functionality of the Mixer Brush tool by Scott Deardorff on YouTube. 


Then I added a layer with a texture I created from a multiple exposure photo of goldenrod flowers. I lowered the opacity of the texture layer to 91% with a normal blend mode and I masked it mostly off the flower with a soft brush.

Next I added a blank layer, filled it with white and lowered to the opacity to 22% with a Normal blend mode. This made the colors more pastel and lowered the overall contrast, but it looked a little flat to me. I played with different ideas including converting it to black and white.


Finally I experimented with Color Lookup Table Adjustment Layers and found that using the “filmstock50.3dl” setting with the Normal Layer Blend Mode set to 46% gave my finished image the color, brightness, contrast and luminosity I liked.

Are We There Yet?

If you are like me the hardest part can often be figuring out when it is time to stop experimenting with your photos! This is my finished photo… For now.

Maybe I will crop some off the right?

Poppies for Memorial Day

Red poppies are worn on Memorial Day to honor people who have given their lives to protect the freedom of the citizens of the United States. Not only that, but the VFW sells the paper “Buddy Poppy” to help veterans and their widows, widowers and orphans. This tradition began with the inspiration from this poem written by Colonel John McCrae.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

For more details see this link to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

This link to credits Moina Michael as the first to wear and sell the poppy for remembrance. She also wrote a poem reply the above poem.

“We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.”

Today, on Memorial Day, take a break from the celebrations, cookouts and other festivities that we enjoy on this long weekend for the “National Moment of Remembrance.” At 3 PM, please observe this Moment of Remembrance and respect, by pausing from whatever you are doing for a moment of silence or listening to “Taps.”

Growing Poppies

To me poppies are very beautiful, delicate and intriguing flowers. Flowers are some of my favorite photography subjects too. My gardening skills aren’t great though. Luckily I know people who have an incredible green thumb and are gracious enough to let me wander aimlessly around their yard for a day trying to capture all the beauty that I see.

One of my neighbors enjoys gardening and camping, so she needs someone with special watering skills like me. HA! I can keep plants alive for 2-3 days – no problem.

Being Memorial Day weekend it is their first trip this year, so I got a special treat when I went into their back yard for the first time this season. My two small “hose assistants” wandered back there first and came back quickly to say “Mommy, it is BEAUTIFUL back there!” I was surprised by many more flowers than last year. Of course I wanted to just run back to my house and grab my camera, but I had a job to do first!

While I was watering I was thinking about how to capture all the different flowers and it seemed like I could have a pretty cool collection of images. Of course, I would also want to share those images with you here. Then my mind wandered to the other gardens I have been invited to photograph and it gave me a great idea to feature these gardens here. So look for those features coming up soon.

Back and forth I wandered with camera in-hand several times this weekend. For now, in honor of Memorial Day, I wanted to share one of her poppies. She has amazing poppies that grow in her front yard. I see the brilliant color from across the street. These things are the size of dinner plates! Really they are 7-8 INCHES across. I measured them. They always seem to bloom right around Memorial Day too. They are not red colored though, but I figured that was something I could
alter in Photoshop. Does it look convincing to you?

Poppies for Memorial Day 20160531My watering stipend was permission to cut one of those babies. When I asked, she knew my plan. “You are going to take pictures, aren’t you?” I wanted to get that flower inside out of the breeze and with lighting I could completely control. These are the things that excite me. The best part is she is also going to give me a seed pod so next year I will have some of my own! In fact, many of the flowers and plants in my yard were given to me by her.

Thank you, Marley for the inspiration that blooms every year. Happy Memorial Day to you all!

Glass Photography: Dark Field Lighting

Glass Lighting techniques for Dark Field Photography "Hair Balsam"
In April 2016 I had the privilege of teaching my methods and tips for lighting glass items on a dark background to a full room of talented photographers at the CanAm Photo Expo in Buffalo, NY.

Thank you to everyone who was there to support me! Hopefully everyone learned something valuable as I shared how I create my images of glass on a black or dark background.

Why “Typical Cheryl?”

Later during the Expo when I shared the link to this blog, I was asked “How did you get that name?” It is a great question! I talk about that here.

Before starting this blog, I thought a lot about the topic. The first choice was photography. It is an interest and passion. It is challenging, exciting and I enjoy sharing what I discover with others who are interested. I share my work, ideas and information to hopefully inspire you to try it yourself.

Although I love photography, something was holding me back. The truth is, sometimes I find photography totally and completely FRUSTRATING!


Sometimes you (and I) just need to take a break from our passion, the activity we enjoy most, because we start to HATE it. Are you with me?

Taking breaks from photography was something I was doing. However, without the insight and understanding of why I needed to take a break, there was a lot of doubt. The inevitable slumps or projects that just wouldn’t work out the way I saw them in my head would cause me to question if I should just sell my camera and focus on being a better person… {sigh.} Dramatic enough?

Then I read this article by Elizabeth Gilbert on discussing the importance of Curiosities.

Now I see these “curiosities” as interests. These interests are the things that fill my days when I can’t (or don’t want to) work on my photography.  When these other interests or facets of my life go well, it makes everything easier. It gives me energy and enthusiasm to pick up my camera again. These are the other topics that are important to me.

  • Parenting: Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I like photography more than my kids! I love my boys more than anything in this world. And sometimes the journey through our day is thoroughly exhausting. I think about their safety, future and whether I am doing everything I can to ensure they enjoy a long, healthy, responsible and successful life. I often study parenting techniques and philosophies to be the best Mommy possible.
  • Crochet: is something else I spend a lot of time doing and love the satisfaction of making things with my hands.
  • Recipes: Trying and finding new and delicious recipes is a part of my life everyday too. After all, we all need to eat!
  • Green Solutions: I also get (perhaps strangely) excited when I find new and better ways to clean or replace chemical cleaning concoctions with simpler, more “green” solutions.
  • Reading: Of course, reading is important when you are interested in learning!

I was really having a hard time choosing just one topic.

Then I realized there is one element that holds all these things together: creativity.

Creativity to find solutions. Creativity to try something new. Creativity to do things differently.

And that is why I decided I wanted to “Share Creativity” here.

Now I hope that makes sense to you – my fellow photographers!

Lighting Glass – Presentation Notes:

Glass Lighting techniques for Dark Field Photography "Orchid Light"For a recap of topic of my presentation you can see a couple of my other articles about lighting glass on a dark background for photography. One of the techniques I shared was my photo “stage.” In this technique I light my glass subject using underlighting from below the tabletop surface which takes a little extra care to direct the light into the subject without it spilling onto the background and tabletop.  We will also still define the edges of the glass with light. The times I have found this to be useful are when I am trying to light a fairly large or densely colored glass item. Another good reason to use this method is when there is a secondary subject (orchid) inside the glass subject (light bulb vase) that you will find out more about (including a diagram of the setup) in this article about how I created the image “Orchid Light v2” here.

There is also an article I wrote for Digital Photo Mentor (Darlene Hildebrandt) featuring glass lighting for photography techniques called “How to Photograph Glassware – DIY Studio Setup under $20” where you will see how to shoot glass on a dark field with a reflective tabletop surface including behind-the-scenes photos of the setup and several images created with that method including supplies and techniques. Read it here.

Many of the dark field glass images that I have created were part of a series for a photo essay. Each of the still images from that project are included in this short video from YouTube.

I am also working on screening useful, photography-related videos on YouTube and creating playlists. There is a lot of great (free) video tutorials out there, but it takes time to sort the truly useful from the rest. I have done some of the screening for you, so please visit and subscribe to my YouTube Channel to see the best of what I’ve found.

For further reading on the subject of lighting glass (or just about any subject) for photography, I highly recommend the book (find it on Amazon here) Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting written by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua and published by Focal Press. Find more information about this book (and others) here.

Thank you!

While preparing for this presentation I discovered a few new pieces of gear to experiment with, thanks to Gary Farber with Hunt’s Photo and Video.  I will be sharing more detailed information about the Rogue Flash modifiers and the Savage Macro Art Adjustable Dual Arm LED Light in an upcoming post too.

Presenting in the Macro (and Close up photography) track gave me the great fortune to meet Lisa and Tom Cuchara who are very enthusiastic, energetic and generous with their knowledge and teaching approach. They present photography programs to clubs, organizations and conferences and teach camera and post-processing techniques (find out more here) and own a Portrait Studio in Hamden, CT

Belczak-Cheryl-Dark-Field-GlassA special thank you to Mary Lou Frost who suggested my presentation be included in the 2016 CanAm Photo Expo and Doug Hansgate, the Convention Chairman who gave me the opportunity to be part of this awesome event. Thank you also to Robert Carey and Dave Valvo who kindly captured and shared photos for me during the presentation!

I will be presenting this program again at The Am-Center Camera Club and possibly a few more dates and places too. I will let you know when the details have been finalized. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions about the presentation or would like to schedule a presentation for your organization.

Thank you for stopping by! Sign up for my email list here:

Bedside Books for Reading Therapy

Do you do this? I always have a pile of books next to my bed. This is what is there right now. Since I started writing here my intention has been to share more of the books I love with you. However it usually takes me longer than it seems like it should to get through a book. There are just so many responsibilities, muses and interests that take priority.

Oh, and there is a stack. Usually I don’t read through just one before I move on either. Evening reading is often based on my day. Struggling with the kids’ behavior pushes me to pick up the parenting book.  If I am trying to work out a plan for a photography project then I choose a technical photography book. A total lack of creative motivation or a surge of inspiration drives me to a book that will push me creatively.

Then there is the fact that if I don’t write about a book as soon as I finish it I feel like I need to re-read it to write about it. Right now, my reaction to finishing a book that I learned a lot from or have been moved by is to just sit, think and soak it in. Then life rushes in, time passes by and after that I feel like I have to immerse myself in that book again to tell you precisely why I felt it was so powerful…

This sounds like a never-ending cycle, doesn’t it? So sharing this with you is helping to reprogram my reaction and enlist you to keep me engaged and motivated to finish these great books. Thank you!

So for now I will share my reactions to these books as I read them and what has earned them a spot (and kept them there) on my nightstand.

Starting at the bottom is Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting written by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua and published by Focal Press. I have the Fourth Edition, but there is a newer edition now available.

If you are interested in photography and want to get serious about creating better images this book is an awesome investment of your time and energy.  The principles of understanding and crafting light in your photos are fully explained with diagrams and photographs of both successful and unsuccessful examples. Working through this book will dramatically improve your photography. Yes, it is about light, but it is not “light reading” and as I mentioned that best way to fully understand the concepts in the book is to shoot intentionally in attempt to recreate the presented material. It is a highly regarded book that is often used as a text book and is great as a self-study guide. I used this book as I learned how to light glass for photography and developed my DIY home studio method that I talked about in this article for Digital Photo Mentor.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, the author who wrote Eat, Pray, Love)

This book is about the creative process, embracing it, enjoying it and surviving it! When it was released our local library system got about 40 copies! They were anticipating best seller status with their initial order and all copies were all checked out immediately! There was excitement about this book from the start. I got my hands on one of the copies from the library, read a little – and stalled out. I don’t know why, but I think it was my own frame of mind at the time. Even thought I knew there was a waiting list and I would not be able to renew it, I couldn’t push myself to get very far. Luckily for me, I was given a copy as a Christmas gift. When I finally did pick it up again, I couldn’t get enough. There were a few late nights soaking up every word because I just didn’t want to put it down. Now this is one of those books (like this one) that I am so excited and inspired by that as soon as I finish that last page, I flip to the first page and start reading it again!

If I Have to Tell You One More Time…: The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids To Listen Without Nagging, Reminding, or Yelling by Amy McCready

Just the title says a lot, doesn’t it? It sounds divine. Ahh, yes I was daydreaming of it just now. Again.  So, the principles in this book are based on the ideas of Alfred Adler (Alderian Psychology) that simply states “Children deserve dignity and respect.” “Three of Adler’s principles developed from this belief will influence all the strategies in this book.” (Read the book to find out the three principles.)

I appreciate this approach because I want my boys to grow up knowing they deserve dignity and respect. If they don’t get it as children, when will be the magic time that they feel they deserve it? I certainly don’t want them demanding it with rebellion. However, even with the best intentions, there are days when we are tired or stressed or overwhelmed and not sure what to do next. This book offers real life examples of how to examine our children’s behavior (as well as our own) and how those behaviors play together. We learn how we can be a positive influence on our children and develop a deep, meaningful, trusting, caring and close relationship with them leading to all the wonderful day-to-day benefits in the title. My bookmark was about ¾ of the way through from the last time it was on the nightstand when I felt that situations and scenarios were warranting that I brush it off and start again. While I’m reading now I found this quote on page 56 that explains my feelings as I instinctively reach for this (and other parenting books) in the first place. It is something I’ve felt, but hadn’t tried to communicate. “…as responsible parents we need to continually strive to improve on our own parenting style.” Yes! Thank you, Amy McCready. By the way, that sentence starts with “Of course, we all make mistakes, but…

Daily Peace: 365 Days of Renewal by National Geographic

This little hardcover book is a great gift for a friend or yourself. It features beautiful photography and thoughtful quotes each day to inspire your own “Daily Peace.” The book is published by National Geographic so you know it is top quality. It is difficult to choose just one quote from this book so I looked at meaningful dates for me and I found this one to be the most powerful. I will leave you with this quote since it is a perfect thought for when you are snuggled in bed, with your books back on the nightstand and the light off. “How noble and good everyone could be if, every evening before falling asleep, they were to recall to their minds the events of the whole day and consider exactly what has been good and bad. Then without realizing it, you try to improve yourself at the start of each new day.” –Anne Frank

How Did I Get Here?

This is the first photo in a self portrait personal photography project I just started.

Before it was completed I shared it with my (almost 7 year old) son and began discussing it. Yes, we discuss photography often. In fact we love having ChromeCast scroll through images and we talk about them. He has been able to identify images created with a slow shutter speed and say how he can tell for a couple of years!

Back to the point though, as I talked about how I created the sky and water scene then I continued saying “I placed the rock there…” and he said “So you wonder – How did they get there?” (Gasp!) This amazing little guy understands me and my thought processes completely!

The inspiration to try something like this came from the wildly enchanting, surreal and magical images of Josh Adamski.  You can see his work on Facebook , Instagram or on his website here. Also, I am beginning to work on an “Inspiring People” series where I am sure he will be featured. Although (I think) I figured out the premise behind his methods, my attempt at the technique fell far short of the beauty he creates. This experience has once again “shown me how I can soak up their [other artists’] work, digest it and let it flow back out of my mind and hands in altered way that makes it mine.” Find out more about the book that brought me to that realization here.

I attempted this image to complete a photography challenge using a “Creative” technique. Before I added the white drawings it seemed to lack something. The path to adding the drawings started because my entry was to be shown projected on a black background and I thought it would be interesting if the edges weren’t just straight. So I began creating some elements in Adobe Illustrator. As I worked, the vector graphics grew and dominated the image. For me it changed the message of this image. My original title (without the white graphics) was “Future” where it seemed that we were looking at that person in an open vastness looking forward to a future of opportunity. Now the title is “Dream Your World” and I feel it makes that little person much less passive and gives her the power and control to create the world where she wants to live.

So, how did I get here? I have always enjoyed making, creating and sharing ideas. In college I studied Marketing and Advertising and began my career copywriting. Working with Graphic Designers lured me to try my hand at that side of the creative marketing process. Later, as a stay at home mom I began to explore my interest in photography. Now that my youngest child is almost old enough to be in school for a full day I am searching for a way to be able to financially contribute to supporting my family while still being home on sick days, snow days, school vacations and during the summer. I am working to create my own work-from-home, “sharing creativity” dream world. I truly appreciate your interest and support here at

Please take a moment to leave a comment below and sign up for my email list here. I look forward to sharing creativity with you!

Set up a DIY Glassware Studio for under $20!

See my article and photos (including set-up shots) featured on

"Genie Bottle" Glassware photography using the methods and DIY studio set up detailed in this article. Composite created with  incense smoke photo shot separately.

This photo “Genie Bottle” was shot using the glassware photography  methods and DIY studio set up detailed in this article. Composite created with incense smoke photo shot separately.

Your questions and thoughts are welcomed! Please leave a comment below. To receive email updates with tips and tutorials, please sign up here:

Make Your Photos Look Great – ON PAPER!

It is the worst when you are excited about a photo, you pay to have it printed and it just doesn’t look right. When your photos just lose what you loved about them it is so disappointing…

Sometimes they look dull, dark or the colors are weird, they are over-sharpened or a variety of other issues.

When I started getting serious about photography, I started struggling with how and where to have my images printed. Not only did I see problems, but the problems were inconsistent. There didn’t seem to be any way to correct for the problems with processing my images because there was not any predictability in the outcome. It was frustrating.

It was even worse when my concerns were met with a shrug of the shoulder and maybe a free reprint, but what happens the next time I need to print the same file?

For anyone who has ever printed photos at drug stores, grocery stores, big box stores and many of the web only consumer websites this probably all sounds painfully familiar.

Thankfully I have a solution for you! This is professional quality photo printing and you can get $10 in prints for FREE to see the quality for yourself. You will be impressed with the printing, customer service, quick turn-around-time and even the packaging for shipment. (I also happen to think it is nice to support a family-owned business.) You have nothing to lose by checking them out. Go to and create a new account. In the “Referred by” box enter Tweet-Cheryl Belczak and they will send you an email when your credit is ready.

So simple! And if you are ordering photos larger than a 4×6 their prices are actually LOWER than the drugstores!

There are even many different surfaces you can choose including a metallic finish. They also create Giclee Fine Art prints on Somerset Velvet Paper or Canvas. If you would like to see, feel and touch their printing, papers and print surfaces you can request a Paper Sample Kit. The kits feature the artwork of customers.

This year I submitted a few of my images for consideration and the one at this one made it to the finalist pool with 32 others. It is now up to the popular vote on their Facebook page. I would appreciate your vote by adding your “Like” to this image before July 13, 2015 so I could be one of the 8 artists featured in the 2016 Calibration and Sample Kit. Thank you for your vote!

Please leave me a comment below to tell me about your experience with

ON ASSIGNMENT: a challenge that brings growth

We all have those days or weeks (maybe – months?) when we don’t know what, how or why to create.

Maybe we try and get frustrated or just don’t feel motivated to try at all. I’ve been there and I know many creative people who experience the same thing. So if you’re wondering why this happens to you… I hope it helps you to know that you are not alone with this. It was comforting to me when I realized it, so I hope to share that with you. I’ve even read the theory that being creative is a cycle and a period of creative drought is part of the process.

Broken-Hearted Still Life
Open your heart of glass and ice spills out: the world of the broken-hearted. Black and white still life image created by Cheryl Belczak with a window light challenge.

Part of the process or not, it brings me peace to notice, understand and choose my own ways of coping with it. I try to find things to occupy my time and thoughts in an effort to work toward busting through the grip of unseen creative barriers.

Sometimes it is not glamorous. A massive cleaning/organizing/decluttering initiative puts my hands to work, making progress I can be proud of, while leaving my mind free to wander, imagine and scheme. Never underestimate the power of a freshly organized desk to put your mind in the right creative mindset! Yes, some may call this procrastinating…

Flower Dream. Photo taken while "ON ASSIGNMENT" with an in-camera double exposure challenge.
Flower Dream. Photo by Cheryl Belczak taken while “ON ASSIGNMENT” with an in-camera double exposure challenge.

Other times I turn to alternative projects. I read an article titled “What to Do if You Can’t Find Your Passion” by best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert, where she shared “I temporarily ease off the pressure by exploring something new, some completely unrelated creative endeavor—something that I could find interesting, but with much lower emotional stakes.” She speaks of passions and curiosities. This was familiar to me because I had been doing this. Yet I was doing it without the realization and intuition that this is helpful and perhaps part of the process. For me my passion is photography. Aside from that I explore other things that somehow benefit my photography. Activities like reading, gardening, writing, crocheting and other things. [Check here for more information about a quick, inspiring and motivating book that will get back to your work.] I usually try to incorporate some level of creativity into everything I do. Even getting dressed!

cosmos_sparkle_Angelou_quote copy

Another method that seems to be more proactive, related and relevant is to go “ON ASSIGNMENT.” For me, it helps to limit my technique or subject in photography in order to explore one concept more completely. It also motivates me to *just shoot* without so much pressure.

Usually the images I am most proud of are the ones that I carefully set up, compose and light. This leads me to resist using my camera if I don’t have the time, energy or patience to be that involved and engaged. These are the times when an assignment or challenge gives me the freedom to not be so serious and just shoot to see what happens.

I participated in an online monochrome challenge with the Digital Photo Mentor, Darlene Hildebrandt where she suggested setting the camera to record in monochrome. I did not like that idea for many reasons, but I took the leap anyway and learned a lot. I learned enough to fill another post and to recognize all my “reasons” as excuses. Check back for the link to my thoughts about it.

Currently I’m involved in a “Black and White Working Group” where we meet once a month for four months to explore the concept of black and white photography including what makes a compelling black and white image and how to create one ourselves by making and talking about our own images. At each session we are also challenged with a subject and/or technique. My current assignment is to use window light only. Often I shoot at night with artificial light at night. This challenge forced me to find time during the day to work and it seemed like it would be less complicated to set it up, but the ultimate benefit is that this assignment pushed me to experiment, take photos and learn from the experience.

Now I know that the next time I’m feeling unmotivated or intimidated by using my camera. I will look for an assignment. If you would like to try the same thing you can find ideas or challenges online. I find it’s best to find a buddy or community AND a due date to make it happen. Many people find daily projects (the 30 day or 365 day shoot-every-day type) to be a great learning experience. I’ve tried a few times and haven’t been successful yet. I’ll try again, but I feel that if you choose a large project like that it could be awesome… And it could completely backfire! I felt lousy that I couldn’t keep up. Also if you are trying to ride out a productivity slump, this may not be the best time to dive into that kind of project. You know yourself best if you can handle it, but I would suggest something a little different. Try just limiting one aspect of your photography. Some ideas include:

  • Shoot Double Exposures in-camera
  • Commit to a tripod
  • Set your camera to record in monochrome
  • Take photos inside using only window light (modify however you like by diffusing or reflecting it – just don’t use any additional light sources)
  • Use only one lens
    • A prime (fixed focal length, non-zoom) lens makes it most challenging by forcing you to “zoom” by moving your feet
    • Try a specialty lens for an artistic look. You could choose
      • Lensbaby lenses to create selective focus images
      • Fisheye lenses with unique distortions
      • Holga lenses offer a low fidelity, imperfect look of a plastic lens with softness, edge vignette and even some light leaks for a vintage-style look

These are just a few of many possible ideas. What other “ON ASSIGNMENT” ideas would you like to try? What other resources and communities inspire and motivate you? We’d love for you to share in the comments below. Thank you for reading and your feedback!  Wishing you much creativity and motivation!

Behind the Shot: The “Orchid Light” Image Evolution

A friend and I were wandering around Hobby Lobby one evening… We actually make “dates” to do this. Our husbands and kids stay home. Sometimes we have a list of things to collect for projects we are working on and we always browse for materials and inspiration. Usually I try to hold myself to only buying something only if I can dream up a specific purpose or a project for the item while I’m still in the store.

Orchid light_evolutionWhen I discovered this little flat bottomed light bulb vase I made an exception. I knew I wanted to stick something inside it and take a photo. Usually that isn’t enough. I could make a case for almost anything if I just told myself I wanted to take a photo of it, but it seemed unique and it was $1.99.

After it came home with me it just collected dust for months. My “lightbulb moment” (sorry for the bad pun) came when I had the incredible opportunity to attend a Mike Moats Macro Boot Camp. One of the participants brought an orchid to share and get some guidance about shooting them. I was one of the last few people to leave and saw a single flower that had been pinched from the plant. Again I brought it home with nothing more than the intention to photograph it. Then it hit me! And I devised a plan to shoot these two items together.

Thankfully I was able to come up with an effective shooting methodology pretty quickly because I had devised a method for lighting the inside of a vase before. Strange – I know, but true.

diagram_vase lit belowMy plan put the orchid and water inside the lightbulb vase. On my tabletop, I placed a cardboard box that held my accessory flash lying on its back connected to a sync cord so the light would be directed into the bottom of the vase to light the flower. (If I tried to light the flower from any other angle you would see small white – specular – highlights reflecting the light source in the glass).

Next I placed a piece of black posterboard with a hole slightly smaller than the bottom of the vase cut into it and a piece of glass from a picture frame on top of that. That is the stage (or floor) set up for the original shot. The vase was placed over the hole (to let the light from the flash through) and the flash. There was a piece of black foam core propped up behind the stage acting as the background. I used two pieces of white foam core board (one on each side) to reflect and indirectly bring the light from the primary light source around to light the glass and metal.

Both the glass and metal are highly reflective materials that produce a bright white hotspot (specular highlight) on the surface if there is a light source hitting them directly at an angle the camera can see. For this reason I work in a dark room and my primary light source (a utility clamp lamp with an incandescent light bulb) is placed behind the black foam core background. The two white pieces of foam core act as reflectors and become larger sources of indirect light. They are responsible for the bright rim light around the edge of the glass. The rim light allows the form of the vase to be seen within the dark field or black background.

The exposure time needs to be fairly long to record the rim light, so a tripod is also necessary. The tripod is also helpful for holding the exact camera position too if you need to tweak the lighting and reshoot.

Orchid Light: Version 1 was created by rotating the original photo 180 degrees then building the top of the lightbulb in Photoshop (copying, pasting and cloning). I also cloned out many tiny bubbles that resulted from the water in the vase… Maybe I should have tried this without the water first! A valuable tip if you want to try something similar.

Although I was mostly happy with Version 1, something still didn’t seem right. Maybe it was the fact that the lightbulb was just floating in air? Probably. Anyway I belong to a camera club and participate in monthly competitions. After a busy month I found myself at the deadline without a submission plan, so Version 1 made the cut. The feedback I received in competition was that the subject did not seem to be perfectly vertical. That was quite noticeable when it was projected at a few feet wide. Although I was disappointed that the score didn’t reflect my effort that went into this image (all those BUBBLES!), showing the image to others and getting another perspective gave me an idea to rework the image.

This time I placed a horizontal guide line in the Photoshop file as a reference to create at virtual table top. I rotated the image until the light bulb lined up as though it was sitting on the guide. Then I copied the lightbulb, flipped it horizontally, lowered the opacity, added a gradient mask to fade the copy at the bottom of the image and skewed it slightly to make the copy look like a reflection on a shiny surface. This made Orchid Light: v.2.Orchid Light v.2

Maybe at some point there will be v.3 if the mood or idea strikes. If you have any questions about this project please leave a comment below.