learning curve

These are people I love. My two sons are included in this family picture.

One of the best things about being a photographer is being asked to make a few pictures of people I love. And yet it fills me with anxiety.

And this is not one of those times when my anxiety is unfounded. I don’t simply lack confidence. I’m not being too hard on myself. I am not overwhelmed by the need to be perfect.

No, I straight-up don’t have the skills to take group photographs successfully.

I have not mastered my craft, and I know it.

Here’s the scenario.

The family was gathered at my mother-in-law’s home for a dual celebration – congratulations to Jacob for his college graduation and bon voyage to our niece and her family as they head to Germany for her husband’s next military assignment.  My sister-in-law asked if I might take a few family photos of the group of cousins and family since it might the last time we’ll all be together for a good while.

The upside. I love this family. They love me. They are all happy and smiley. They want their picture taken.


The downside(s).

Low Light. It’s raining cats and dogs so we can’t easily set up for a photo outdoors. The day is gray and overcast, and the light is low. We opt to arrange our family on the screened-in patio. Even with my ISO turned up to 2000 or even 3200, I can’t get enough light. I set the aperture to f 5. 6, trying to make the depth of field great enough for the whole crew, but then the shutter speed is too slow, and I know the focus will not be sharp. I don’t know how to use my off camera flash (I don’t even typically carry it), but this seems like one of those situations that called for flash.

Posing. I generally take photographs in a natural, photojournalistic kind of style. I am not adept at directing more than a couple of people in how to arrange themselves.

Processing. Because I lack skill in taking group portrait shots, these pictures are not fun to process. I need to straighten and crop. I have to sharpen a bit and dodge and burn. I have to fuss over the images, because even though the subjects are beautiful, I haven’t done my part well. I see an odd color cast and the skin tones seem all over the place – too gray, too yellow, oops, that one looks a little green! Finally, I settle on a simple fix, a conversion to black and white. And just like that, the photos take on a timeless look and I am satisfied.

The pictures are not perfect. But they are good. And I am enough – for now. But I am not content to stay in this place,

Between now and July when we have our annual family reunion, I’m going to figure this out. I’ll ask for help and suggestions at my local photography club. I’ll do some research online and I’ll practice.

I can do this.

Even as I type this, I am figuring things out. I’ll learn to take these group pictures because my family likes them. And I’ll take the pictures I love, too. The moments, the laughter, the simple exchanges and conversations. The wisps of hair in the breeze, the hands that prepare the food, the bare toes in the grass, and the kisses. These are my pictures.


God is still speaking

I hear his voice in the wise words of John Pavlovitz, sharing his Four Promises – If I Have Gay Children

And I raise my own to thank God for my children.

I hear his voice in the snap of fresh strawberries picked from the stem in the farmer’s field in the middle of spring.


I hear his voice in the declarations that adorn the walls of the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond.

I hear his voice in the color of this world, in the differences and the diversity, in the depths of my heart.

on photo books

I love quilts – the way tiny running stitches create texture and pattern where form is both functional and beautiful. I love quilts so much I was willing to spend years piecing and hand-stitching them for friends and family.  Every quilt I made was a work of art that contained something of me.

I don’t make quilts these days. Too much strain on older eyes. Too much sitting for an older body.

But I feel the same love for photography, where the end product of pictures is worth the work. I’d like to say that I’ve worked hard to master the craft, but the truth is, just as in quilting, I’ve learned the parts that interest me. And this is the joy of a hobby. We can pick-and-choose.

I don’t have a desire to photograph wildlife or learn to use my flash or create stunning effects with Photoshop. My heart belongs to the stories photographs tell – and photography books are my love language.

I spend hours turning the pages of my favorite photo books, studying the pictures, reading them, immersing myself both in what I like and what I do not. The more I learn, the more I love them.

I’ve designed several photography books of my own work –mostly compilations of my favorite pictures.  This year I’m making a book for each quarter of the year.  I’m trying out a new company that makes handcrafted photo books, MILK.  And while I’m waiting for my book to be printed, MILK sent a link for an online version of my book, When Work is Play, to share.

In the meantime, I am continuing to learn about Photo Books. Thanks to CJ Chilvers for recommending the article, The Art and Process of Sequencing Photo Books, from Photo District News.

"What makes a successful photo book different from a slide show of images? Experienced book editors say they strive to create a narrative arc that carries the reader from the first page to the last."

. . .

“If you simply select the best 50 images in a series, it’s not an interesting book, because the tension in the photos is always the same,” says Teun van der Heijden, who has designed many acclaimed photo books including Black Passport by Stanley Greene, Interrogations by Donald Weber and The Autobiography of Miss Wish by Nina Berman. “Like in a film or a novel, you have to build up to the tension and then you need to release the tension.” He typically begins by asking to see the photographer’s outtakes, he says. “Sometimes lesser quality images that capture a certain mood, or are empty, or even vague can function ideally as a release.”

I have a lot to learn. But I’m certain of this. I want to be a book artist.

Every once in a while, I take a picture that seems as though it is all me – not a copy or something I think I should take - but something that called out to me and only me.

These pictures are a gift and they are trying to tell me something. I am listening.


worth sharing

Pictures along the way.

From graduation weekend, a pair of photographs – a garden of Foxglove and fresh radishes from the Farmers Market in Williamsburg


From historic Yorktown, a few shots of interesting people – a man playing soulful tunes on his harmonica, a loving couple walking hand-in-hand, keeping step with each other.


From the country roads along Route 17 in the area of Saluda, spring wheat in shades of green and yellow.