Creativity Step-By-Step

Design has always been one of my biggest challenges in woodworking.  To be frank, I didn’t know how to create my own designs.  I’m always amazed by the innovative designs of other woodworkers, but aside from copying, creating my own designs seemed beyond my capacity.  How do I begin to create a vision?  Where would I get ideas?  And how might I create something that is coherent, makes sense, has “style”?

I faced this very challenge in building a Greene & Greene pantry shelf.  Not knowing how to start, I searched my library of woodworking books for something I could copy, my then-standard design methodology.  I found one example that used retaining rods to hold cans on its shelves.  While I liked that feature, I thought the shelf lacking in style.  Wanting something more, I decided to turn that design into something more to my taste.

I started out with certain functional requirements in mind: it needed shelves—about five seemed right, varied in height to fit differently-sized cans and boxes.  I wanted to use retaining rods to keep the goods from tumbling to the floor.  It needed to be a size and shape that would fit on the back of my pantry door, its intended destination.  With these features in hand, I had my functional objectives.

Now for dimensions.  I decided to use whole number proportions, as advocated so convincingly by Jim Tolpin and George Walker.  I settled on a 2:3 ratio for the main case: 24 X 36 inches.  I added top and bottom decorative rails, each 3 inches high, as punctuation.  This gave me the proportions for the piece.

Then, with the functions and shape established, I considered how to build in some style.  I’ve always liked the harmony and freshness of the Greene & Greene style and decided to apply it.  The Greene & Greene idiom includes many elements that are variably applied across its many exemplars.  I chose to use some of the more familiar ones: reveals, cloud lifts, ebony plugs and inlays and finger joints.

The result, I think, was a success.  Rather than hang the shelf on the back of the pantry door where it would be hidden from view, my wife and I decided it merited a more prominent spot on the kitchen wall.

Building the shelf taught me an important lesson—that the ability to develop my own designs lies within me.  Unwittingly, perhaps, I had established a methodology for creating interesting and possibly unique designs for pieces yet to be built. 

My methodology is a three-step process.  First, establish the functional requirements for the piece, be it a table, chair or casework.  What is it meant to do and what features does it need to have to accomplish its function?  Second, develop harmonious proportions and apply them to the functional design.  Whole number proportions are a good starting point, though alternatives such as the Fibonacci number are worth considering when appropriate.  Then, with the functions and proportions established, apply a design idiom.  There are many choices besides Greene & Greene; Arts & Crafts, Shaker, Chippendale and Queen Anne come to mind, among many others.

This three-step methodology will take me a long way toward creating pieces that satisfy my desire to build interesting furniture.  But even so, because it relies on existing idioms for stylistic treatment, it’s still limiting.  What if I want to take my designs to the next level and create my own idiom?  Where can I look for inspiration, for potential design elements?  One source is natural forms, such as the curvature of petals, leaves or limbs.  Another is the proportions and shapes of the human body.  Architectural and design movements from the past, such as Art Deco and Art Nouveau, are yet another possibility.

The Greene & Greene pantry shelf project taught me a lot.  All along, I’d been thinking of creativity as a light bulb suddenly illuminating the dark.  But it’s not.  It’s clear now that creativity is a process.  My experience in designing the pantry shelf led me to formulate a set of step-by-step rules I can follow to pursue creativity.  Now a whole world of new possibilities lies before me.  What can I design and build next?  I can hardly wait to get started.

The Importance of Having a Project

I love making images, but sometimes I have to ask myself why I’m making them. What’s my purpose in photographing? Will anybody ever see my photos?  And am I simply shooting to be shooting? When I start to question myself like this, it sometimes becomes hard for me to find the motivation to keep shooting.

To solve this problem, I try to create projects that have a purpose to them. Then I have a reason to shoot, a goal to achieve, some guidelines to shape my photo explorations.

William Neill, in his recent Light on the Landscape, speaks about his practice of building collections—groups of photos around particular themes—that he’s added to over a period of years as he seeks out fresh subjects. His themes reflect subjects he finds personally interesting, such as “landscapes of the spirit.”

I try to do this as well, and I’m building collections of my best photos in a series of categories.  Among my thematic categories are fences, abstracts, macrophotography, intimate landscapes, and nostalgia.  Adobe Lightroom makes it easy to group and select collections for later use.  But having a set of themes and collections still begs the question of what to do with the photos once I’ve got them. It may answer the “what” question, but not the “why.”

The answers to the question of why photograph will be individual. In my case, I’ve done several things. I’ve created calendars for friends and family that reflect some of the themes I’m working on, be it a particular vacation trip or, as I did last year, a photo essay on local fences set in scenic situations. I’ve written books on photography that use my photos, such as my Creative Composition for Landscape Photography or Shooting Iron Horses: Photographing Your Model Railroad. And currently I’m working on building sets of note cards that incorporate some of the themes in my collection. My plan is to give them to friends and family and then, if it seems feasible, offer them for sale on Etsy and other sites.

But the ultimate importance of these activities lies not in the products, though they can be significant in their own right. Instead, it is the purpose and direction a project gives that provides a definitive answer to the question of why I’m making the photos at all.  Then, once I’m satisfied that my images will have a landing place, I’m freed up to feed my soul with image making.  And that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

One of the images in my macrophotography collection. Nikon D850, Sigma 150mm macro lens, 1 sec., f/11, a stacked sequence.

My Writing Practice

I write a lot. My output appears in several forms. I’ve published four books in recent years, supplementing several earlier books on technical subjects written during my professional life. I’ve written numerous articles. I write a monthly book review. And I am now engaged in a regular practice of posting to this and other blogs.

What I Write

The subjects of my writing reflect my varied interests. Currently, I’m working on a sequel to my murder mystery, The Hero of Gucci Gulch. I’ve written two books on photography and I’ve got several more in various stages of completion. I’ve written a book, articles, and book reviews on woodworking topics. I’ve written about model railroading. And I’ve written a series of articles about fountain pens.

Further back in my career as a civil servant, I wrote on such technical subjects as rural community and economic development, public policy, planning, computer science, and psychology.  I’ve lost count of the number of publications I’ve authored, but I know it totals well over 150 items spanning more than four decades.

Why I Write

During my professional career, my writing was prompted by functional motivations. I had information to impart on the subjects of my work and I wrote to make it available to the public.

My motivation now derives from a different place. I have developed over my life a strong need to express myself by the written word. Writing comes naturally to me.  I find it easy to face a blank page and let the words pour out. But more than the ease with which it comes, my writing responds to a deep inner need to create. I can’t not right. This is not something I can easily explain. I simply have an inner urge to let the words flow.

How I Write

Like many writers, I sometimes compose directly on my laptop. This is true especially for short documents of a technical nature. But for the most part, and particularly when seeking to be creative, I follow a different procedure. I first outline the principal points I wish to explore in the approximate sequence in which I will address them. This helps greatly to let me express myself clearly and logically. Then, using one of my fountain pens, I write out a draft in full. I find that by writing in this way, I think more clearly; my thoughts are better expressed for taking the more deliberate approach handwriting brings to the process. Then I dictate the text into a Word document, after which I edit, edit, and edit again.  That’s how I’m writing this blog entry and how I approach all of my creative expression.

In future postings I plan to discuss my writing methods more deeply. I’ll go into how I approach writing fiction, how that differs from my nonfiction writing, and how I organize book reviews. And, I’ll talk about some of the projects I’ve got underway and both the potential and problems I’m encountering with each of them.

Why I Switched to Mirrorless

I’ve shot with Nikon cameras for something like 35 years, during which time I’ve gone through a progression of camera bodies and lenses that ranged from film into the digital domain of the current era. Until last year, I was shooting with a D850, with the D810 as a backup. Both are outstanding cameras. In fact, the D850—which is a full frame body that delivers 45.7 megapixels of resolution—has been described as the best DSLR on the market. So, if I had such beautiful DSLR bodies, why did I decide to give them up and go with mirrorless? And after all is said and done, was the changeover worth it?

The D850 had all the advanced features I wanted: high resolution, focus stacking (Nikon calls this focus shifting), and good battery life. Though it’s not Nikon’s top professional DSLR, for many pros and advanced amateurs it’s a dream camera.

But along came mirrorless bodies, first by Sony and Panasonic, as well as other brands. However, given my investment in Nikon glass, I was not tempted to switch. One of the last to enter the mirrorless market, Nikon finally introduced their own line of full frame mirrorless cameras that could use legacy F-mount lenses. Still, I resisted. But eventually, I sold the D810 and bought a Z7 that offered the same 45.7 megapixels as the D850.

Nikon’s mirrorless line has several advantages that attracted me. First, the mirrorless cameras weigh a lot less than the D850, 20.7 oz. vs. 32.3 oz. The Z7 body is slightly smaller. The arrangement of dials and buttons, while somewhat different, is nonetheless familiar. The menu system also builds on the one Nikon has been using on its DSLRs.

One of the real advantages of Nikon’s mirrorless cameras is the fact that the viewpoint is switchable, through the viewfinder when your eyes are positioned there, automatically switching to the LCD screen when your eye is removed. Exposure and other data are viewable both on the LCD screen and, conveniently, through the viewfinder. The view of the scene in both the viewfinder and on the LCD screen shows a jpeg rendering of the exposure and white balance you set, which helps you understand when an exposure adjustment might help.  You can even set the camera to display the histogram in the viewfinder so you can assess the exposure before making the photo.

Because there’s no mirror, there is no mirror slap during exposures, removing a source of vibration and thus improving photo quality and sharpness. Both the Z7 and its smaller sister the Z6 have automated focus stacking and exposure bracketing that supports HDR. Both cameras accept all Nikon F-mount lenses using an adapter for the new Z mount in the camera’s body. Nikon has released several Z-mount lenses that offer lighter weight and improved sharpness, with more on the way. A variety of third party adapters are available to let you mount lenses from other brands.

Eventually, liking the Z7, I also sold my D850 and purchased the 24.5 megapixel Z6, a full frame body offering the same functions as the Z7.

I don’t use the video functions of these cameras, but it’s my understanding that video has been greatly improved in these mirrorless bodies.

So much for the good points. On the other side of the ledger, there are some things to note in the negative column. First, both the Z7 and Z6 lack some features that earlier DSLRs had. There is no on-body flash.  Battery life is shorter, in part because of the constant drain of the electronic viewfinder and rear LCD. The cameras require the new XQD cards that the D850 also used. While these are better and faster, they are also more expensive and require a new card reader. The cameras have only one card slot so there’s no card for overflow or backup, a situation Nikon has fixed with its recent releases of the Z7II and Z6II. There’s no depth of field button, though one of the function buttons can be programmed to perform this function. Some legacy lenses won’t work in autofocus mode; this is particularly true of the 200mm micro lens, which means this lens can’t be used for automated focus stacking, which requires lenses capable of operating with autofocus. While third-party adapters are available for many non-Nikon lenses, there are gaps in what can be used. In short, there are some inconveniences and consequences to put up with.

So given these pros and cons, where do I come out? Overall, I’m glad I made the switch. In my mind, the benefits greatly outweigh the disadvantages. While I loved the D850, I frankly find I had to give up little—other than focus stacking with the 200mm micro lens—to go with the Z7 and Z6.

Intimate Landscapes: What They Are

My photographic interests are many and varied, in terms of both subject and style. Like many photographers, it’s easy for me to fall into the trap of making photographs of every interesting thing I see without much idea of why I’m doing so. At the same time, I’m an easy prey to self-doubt about whether I’m developing a personal style.

A way to combat these tendencies, I’ve found, is to set certain goals for my photography, to have one or more “projects” I’m working on. One that seems to fit both my need for focus and also my stylistic preference is to create intimate landscapes.

Intimate landscapes are a genre used by many photographers; some specialize in them, while others shoot them on an occasional basis. Despite that, I’m finding that this style of photography is little understood by many, and perhaps most, of us.

So, what is it? At its simplest, an intimate landscape is the opposite of what might be called a grand landscape, the sort of image that takes in the whole of a scene. If you think lake, mountain, sky, and foreground rocks, that would be an example of a grand landscape.

This infrared photo made in Virginia’s horse country exemplifies a grand landscape

An intimate landscape is simply a smaller selection of a scene. It might be a composition of the foreground rocks in an otherwise grand landscape setting or an interesting stand of trees or patterned image of just the trees’ branches abstracted from the entire forest. It might also be a close-up of colorful lichen on the rocks or the leaves on the forest floor.

The term “intimate landscape” was coined by early color photographer Eliot Porter, whose exhibit of the same title became the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (MoMA) first exhibit of photographs. A book of these photographs was produced, which sells for high prices on eBay and elsewhere. A digital copy can be downloaded for free from the MOMA website. Porter specialized in intimate landscapes and published several books of his wonderful photos, available secondhand at reasonable prices. They are well worth studying to understand his fascinating genius. Other photographers who often chose this format include William Neill, whose most recent volume, Light on the Landscape, explores intimate landscapes and his techniques for creating them. Freeman Patterson also published many books on the subject. Other photographers whose work appeals to me are Craig and Nadine Blacklock, who often chose this format to express their connection with the natural world of their Minnesota surroundings.

I’m gravitating toward intimate landscapes in part because my opportunities to make grand landscapes are quite limited, especially in this era of restricted travel. The chances for composing smaller scenes—intimate scenes—is higher and sometimes I can even work in my own back yard.

The examples I show here illustrate some of the range of what I consider intimate landscapes. I’ll have much more to say about them in future postings.

This photo in the woods of Maine is an extraction of a larger scene and focuses on selected details of interest in the scene
The ferns make up a much smaller portion of a larger scene and are an even more intimate view
This shot of a toadstool is about as intimate you can get and was made by moving in close with a macro lens

About This Blog

Welcome to my new blog which I’m calling “Finding Focus.” My purpose in creating this blog is to explore with you issues and practices in the worlds, principally, of photography and writing.

I am both a photographer and writer of longstanding. Camera-wise, I began with a Kodak Brownie back in the 1950s. I developed a strong passion for photography during my high school years with both a personal Argus A-1 and the school’s Graflex, which I used for both newspaper and yearbook photos. Later, I also shot for my college newspaper and yearbook with a similar Graflex. Since then, I’ve owned and used Pentax, Rollieflex, Hasselblad, and a variety of 4X5 studio and field cameras. But since 1986 I’ve relied on Nikon equipment and that is my system of choice today. The license plate on my trusty Toyota Tacoma, which carries me around rural roads in search of photos, reads “NIKONS.”

Over the years, I’ve had many published photos. Dozens, if not hundreds, were used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where I was employed for nearly three decades, in its many publications. Probably they are still being used today, long after I retired from that department. Other photos have appeared in magazines, books, and in unknown places worldwide through the sale of stock photos.

While I continue to market my photos, and look for new ways to make them available, my principal outlet for my photography is myself and the books I write and illustrate with my photos.

About those books. I’ve published four since retiring. The Hero of Gucci Gulch, a murder mystery, draws on my knowledge of Capitol Hill for a hair-raising tale of intrigue and mayhem. Choosing and Using Handplanes used my photos to illustrate the varieties of handplanes available for woodworkers and how to use and care for them.

My more recent books have dealt directly with photography. Creative Composition for Landscape Photography is a basic guide to enhancing the composition of landscape photos. Though intended for a basic audience, it offers valuable reminders for advanced photographers as well. My most recent book, co-authored with my friend Jeffrey Fleisher, is called Shooting Iron Horses: Photographing Your Model Railroad and is a comprehensive guide to photographing model railroads. All four are available from Amazon.com, as is my author bio under the name of J. Norman Reid.

Other books are planned. I’ve got a couple more novels in my murder mystery series underway, a book with Jeffrey Fleisher on macrophotography, a book on black and white photography, and some other projects I’ll speak about when they are more fully ripened.

In this blog, I’ll talk mostly about photography, the things I’m exploring, ways I’m challenging myself, lessons I’m learning, and interesting things that seem worthy of sharing. But I’ll also speak of writing and creative thought, about books that have impressed me and ideas I find challenging or intriguing.

I hope these interests, and my mode of expression, will find an interested audience and that the blog will spur some dialogue around the subjects I address. By the end of another year, I hope to have developed a sufficient body of information to clarify who I am as a seeking photography and writer and to excite you to join with me in this ever-evolving journey. Welcome!