Developing Your Vision
Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. - Jonathan Swift
Inspiration lights the spark of creativity. Together, if well integrated, inspiration and creativity result in a personal vision for your work. Your vision, when expressed successfully, results in the achievement of your personal style.
This is a four-part process. In the previous essays we looked at the first two parts. It is now time to look at the third part: vision.
Vision is a subject that is rarely discussed in photography. Yet, as we are going to see, it is a very important subject because without vision an artist will create commonplace photographs. They may be the most technically perfect photographs one can take, but they will still be commonplace photographs. With vision your photographs go beyond being just commonplace images. They become the conveyors of ideas. How this process takes place and what is involved when it happens is the subject of this essay.
What Is Vision?
It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision. - Helen Keller
Vision is the art of seeing the invisible. In this respect, vision is not just seeing and it’s not just "sight." Instead, vision is insight. It is the ability to see something that only you can see or something that others do not see because this something does not have a physical reality. It is something you see in your mind’s eye, something that exists in your imagination, something that is within yourself.
A vision is something abstract: an idea or a concept. Vision is made real through creative work. In photography, it is made real through the creation of photographs that express your vision. The goal of these photographs is to share your ideas, your concepts, and your vision with your audience.
A vision can come about in any field of human endeavor. With regards to photography, vision is made real through the photographs that you create. How clear your vision is and how closely your photographs follow this vision, defines how successful you will be in conveying your vision to others.
Vision is inspiration made reality. Vision is using photography to express something otherwise invisible. It is making poetry with photographs. It is going beyond the technical knowledge of the medium and reaching the artistic level. It is going beyond mastery of the medium and reaching improvisation and self-expression.
Vision demands an unwavering commitment to your art. It also demands that you can back up this commitment with work because only through work will you be able to share your vision with others and thereby prove that you are truly committed to this vision.
Vision is message. It is not just creating an image, but creating a story through this image. This message can be about sharing an emotion, a feeling, a belief, or a particular way of looking at the world. It is not just about sharing an image with your audience., it is also about sharing the meaning of this image with your audience. This image means something to you. This image contains not just objects, people and features. It also contains ideas that represent your vision. Without vision an image is just an image. With vision an image becomes the vehicle that carries your ideas to your audience.
Making Your Vision Reality
New images surround us everywhere. They are invisible only because of sterile routine convention and fear. - Lisette Model
Creating a photograph that’s faithful to your vision is similar to creating a product based on an idea on an image in your mind. This product can be anything: software, mechanical devices, services, etc. This product will represent the outcome of your vision as long as it started as an idea that you turned into a physical reality. Ideas cannot be shared as ideas. They have to be translated into something else first. This “something” is the vehicle used to deliver your idea –your vision-- to your audience.
The simplest way of doing so is to put your idea into words in order to explain to others, either orally or in writing, of what this idea consists. This is what a description, an essay, a short story, a novel, or any other piece of writing is. A photograph can also be used as the vehicle for an idea if the photograph is used to describe this idea. In the same way, anything created on the basis of an idea that was turned into a physical reality qualifies as being a vision made reality. If this process does not take place your vision will remain an abstract concept, a dream that exists only in our head.
So what do you need to do this? For one, you must have a vision, an idea. This is something that only you can do. For some, this comes naturally. For others, it is something that requires work. I cannot give you this idea. No one can. It is something that you have to come up with. What I can do is help you find the way to this vision then help you turn your vision into reality. This is what we are going to explore in the next sections.
I consider the light quality in this photograph to be part of my personal vision. I also consider this light quality to have helped define my personal style. This is a very uncommon type of lighting because it only occurs when a storm is clearing in the late afternoon. There has to be clouds in the sky, both in the Eastern and Western direction, as well as openings in the clouds in the West so that the sun can shine through.
The only thing an artist has to remember is to never lose faith in his vision. - James Lee Burke
Vision is the stage at which thinking about your work is just as important as creating your work. In other words, you need to spend time reflecting about your photographs. Just creating and printing new photographs will not allow you to express your vision. Reflection has to take place. Thinking has to take place. A large part of the process of developing your vision takes place without a camera in hand. It doesn’t even have to happen where you take your photographs. It can happen wherever you have time to think, in a place that is quiet and conducive to reflection and where you are not distracted by anything.
Critical thinking is also about thinking differently. It is about thinking of solutions and possibilities that have not been thought of previously. In many ways, being creative is synonymous with thinking differently.
Creating a vision cannot be done in a vacuum. To develop your vision you must take into consideration both what you want to do and what has already been done by other artists. Something is different only if it has not been done before, or if it has not been done the way you are doing it. A work of art is original because it is different from the works of art that preceded it.
This means that you have to know where you are coming from, what is your point of reference, what are your roots, who are your colleagues, and who is working in the same style as you. If you are not sure about how thinking differently and who you are ties together, I recommend paying close attention to this section. I also recommend completing the skill enhancement exercises (provided at the end of this essay) that targets this crucial aspect of developing a vision for your work.
I don't photograph the world as it is. I photograph the world as I would like it to be. - Monte Zucker
A number of things can help you go through this challenging endeavor. The first one is to remember your original source, or sources, of inspiration. I cover this subject in the first essay of this 4 part series: Finding Inspiration. If you haven’t read it already, I suggest that you take the time to read (or re-read) this essay now, and that you complete the Skill Enhancements Exercises listed at the end of this first essay.
Another way that can help you find your vision is to refer back to the reasons why you started photography in the first place. Most likely, you started photography because you wanted to represent the world around you better than others had done before you, or because you wanted to express a personal way of seeing. Maybe you became interested in photography because you wanted to capture for posterity the fleeting events in your life. Or maybe you became involved in photography because you wanted to document the street life in a big city, or because you wanted to share with others the beauty of a sunset, or the stunning quality of a grand landscape.
Maybe you started photography because you love animals and you wanted to share this passion with others through your images. Maybe you started photography because you love spending hours creating a still life and lighting it and then create the finest photographs of this still life. Maybe you started photography because you wanted to create the finest portraits possible.
Maybe you started photography because you love the purity of color, or the endless tones of black and white prints. Maybe you became involved in photography because you constantly marvel at the endless possibilities offered by toning and other alternate approaches and because you want to share your talent for creating images that use these tones better than you have seen done by others.
If you are like most, your equipment at first was minimal. The purchase and ownership of expensive camera equipment came later (if it ever did). This ownership may have brought with it a passion for fine cameras, lenses, computers, printers and other equipment associated with photography.
Over time, this passion for the equipment may have overshadowed your initial reasons for choosing to do photography in the first place. The passion you had for representing the world around you may have slowly given way to a passion for the tools rather than for the outcome that these tools can produce. In turn, your inspiration may have shifted from being inspired by the subject to being inspired by the camera.
Transferring passion from subject to equipment is not the only reason why we move away from our vision. There are many other events that can cause this to happen. Life has a way of taking us away from what we originally intended to do and to make us do things because we have to rather than because we want to.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. This is a common situation that many photographers face. The way out of it is to first accept it for what it is. Don’t refute the facts, just accept them. Go back in time in your mind and remind yourself of the reason why you started photography in the first place, way back when.
In those photographs, embedded in the paper and the emulsion so to speak, are the sources of your original inspiration and the results of your original creative urge. Inside them is an inspiration coming solely from your subject and from your emotional response to this subject. Back then, you probably did not think you would ever own expensive gear. Back then the equipment was simply a means to an end.
This was as it should be. Cameras are tools and tools are means to an end. They are not jewelry or collectables. They are just tools. Mind you, they can be jewelry and collectable, but not in the context that concerns us here which is to achieve a personal style. In our context they are just tools. They are a means to an end, and this end is to place achieve a personal style.
Back then you did not have the responsibilities that you have today. Your artistic goals were not overshadowed by the concerns that came later on and that may still be there today. If you were like most you had more time than money, a trend that tends to reverse itself as life goes on.
This is the first photograph I created using the light quality I described in my previous example. I created this image shortly after moving to Chinle, Canyon de Chelly, Navajoland, in 1997. Tsegi overlook, where the photograph was taken, was only 10 minutes from my house. I was on my way to pick up my wife, Natalie, after work when I noticed the dramatic clouds. I realized that if the sun came out a truly incredible lighting effect would take place. I immediately decided to drive the short distance to the rim of Canyon de Chelly to wait and see if the sun was going to appear.
I waited perhaps half an hour until the sun broke through the clouds. What I witnessed then remains one of the most incredible scenes I have ever seen. "Clearing Spring Storm over Canyon De Chelly" is the result and this image explains what I saw better than any text I can write. I took a number of photographs and the best one was the second or third one. Before that there was not out enough sunlight. Afterwards there was too much sunlight. The best photograph was just in between, when light and shadow areas were evenly balanced, creating tension and beauty at the same time and making me deeply aware of the utterly temporary nature of natural light at transitional times when storms are moving away.
What is most interesting when I look at this photograph today and reflect upon it, is that this light quality came to define my vision and played a key role in shaping my personal style. However, I did not see things that way back then. When I created this image the most important aspect of it for me was the panoramic composition. Certainly, the light was important and I was aware that the light made the image. However, it was the panoramic format that I thought was going to define my style. So much so that I purchased a Fuji 617 camera following the creation of this image and proceeded to create a series of panoramic images with it.
As things turned out, I tired of the panoramic format relatively quickly, perhaps within two or three years of using the Fuji 617, and eventually stopped using it. However, to this day I continue to seek the light quality in the image above, regardless of which camera I use.
What was happening then was a misconception on my part regarding what my personal style consists of. I thought my style was coming from the format of my images while it was essentially coming from the light quality in my images. The former – format - is a superficial aspect of my vision while the later – light - is a fundamental aspect, one that will not go away because it is not based on temporary preferences. Rather, it is based in a deep-rooted appreciation of light that goes back to the day I started photography.
A photographer’s work is given shape and style by his personal vision. It is not simply technique, but the way he looks at life and the world around him. - Pete Turner
Developing a Vision for your work is showing to others, through your photographs, what you see in your mind’s eye. It is therefore about you. It is about how you see the world, about what you see that others do not see, and about your emotional response to the scenes that you photograph. In many ways it is about your personality.
In the process of developing this vision, you must therefore be yourself and demonstrate your personality. Art, eventually, when everything else has been said and done, is about you. As an artist, you need to demonstrate your personality to your audience through your work.
The audience that is seeking original art wants something that escapes the commonplace. They want something that they do not find in the pre-packaged, mass-produced and impersonal artwork found in volume retail stores and other mass-appeal locations. This audience is looking for art that is original, hand-made and that demonstrates the personality of the artist who created it.
This audience expects artists to be original and to express themselves through their artwork. In other words, this audience expects the artwork to be the expression of the artist’s personality. If this is not the case, if the artwork is impersonal, the artist is perceived as being a lesser artist. An artist “sans” personality in a way. An artist who is far less interesting than an artist “avec” personality. In other words, something is missing and this missing something is fundamental to art.
Worse, if this is missing, it will not be missing just from the artwork. It will also be missing from the way this artist talks about his art. It will be missing from the way this artist relates to others and to the world at large. In short, it will be missing from everything that this artists does, regardless of how much contact this artist actually has with the public.
Some readers may find the above somewhat of an exaggeration. After all, some readers may believe that doing beautiful or interesting work is enough and that this work does not have to be about them and that it does not have to demonstrate their personality. This is a true statement, provided that your goal is not to express your vision and, eventually, your personal style in your work.
How can you express your vision and demonstrate your personal style unless you bring your personality into your work? As we saw, vision is, by nature, personal and personal style is, not to be redundant, personal. There is no way around it, unless you decide that expressing your vision and achieving a personal style is not something you want to do. If it is something you want to do then expressing your personality in your work is going to be necessary. You don’t have to express all the aspects of your personality, in fact few artists do so, but you are going to have to express some aspects of your personality. The good thing is that you get to pick which aspects you want to show in your work, to some extent.
Making Your Vision Reality
To create one's world in any of the arts takes courage - Georgia O'Keefe
In a way, and to continue the discussion started in section 6, your audience seeks to admire and acquire objects that have a soul. Rationally speaking, objects, including works of art, do not have a soul. They are not alive. They do not breathe and are not made of living cells. They do not think, and thus, from a Cartesian perspective, they are not able to invent themselves. Irrationally speaking, however, works of art can be perceived as having a soul. This soul, if present, is imbued into the work of art by the transfer of the artists’ personality and passion into his artwork. This soul is brought about by the care and the craftsmanship used to create the work. This soul is present in the artwork because a part of the artist’s soul was transferred into the work during its creation.
This soul is the personality of the artist. It is the demonstration of personal choices and the decision to implement a personal idea rather than other people’s ideas. In a way, what surprises us and even shocks us when we encounter a work of art for the first time, is the implementation of the artist’s vision through the demonstration of this artist’s style, ideas and personality.
What shocks us is that the choices made by a specific artist are radically different from the choices we saw other people make in regards to the same subject. What shocks us is the unabashed display of this artist’s personality through his or her work. What shocks us is to see something depicted in a way that we have never seen before, a way that we know we will only see in this artist’s work, unless of course someone copies it, but then it would be nothing more than a copy and not an original work of art.
The outcome of vision implemented in a work of art is a new and different way of looking at the world. It is the creation of a new reality, of a new world. It is in this world that the artist invites his audience. It is in the reality created by the artist that the audience is asked to step in. Once inside, the audience is shown the specifics of this world, the details, if you will.
The experience, if successful, is complete and will leave the audience speechless and asking for more while seeking to retract in a more familiar environment only to find that, once there, something is lacking. Only to find that, once the door offered by the artist has been pushed wide open, one wants to experience more and more of the world revealed behind this door. Only to find that this world, while not “reality,” is a world one wants to live in. If this indeed occurs, if this door is pushed then left open by the audience for future or not so future visits, then the artist has succeeded not only in creating a world, but also in creating a world that his audience is enthralled with. Passion has flowed from the artist towards his audience. Excitement has been shared, and now the desire to experience this world is shared by both the artist and his audience.
In a way, one could say that the trademark of cutting-edge art is to defy convention. This is somewhat implied when one’s stated goal is the creation of a new reality, of a new way of representing, creating or thinking about specific things. By definition, such an approach demands that one is familiar with the conventional ways of representing, creating, or thinking about these things and that one decides to depart from these conventions. By doing so, the artist becomes unconventional. The artist breaks conventions to achieve the embodiment of his vision.
In doing so, a number of people are going to be unhappy with the result. Those are the people who like convention, who find it pleasing, satisfying and to their taste. Those are the people that see nothing wrong with convention and who find alternate realities more problematic than advantageous.
On the other hand, a number of people are going to find the unconventional approach a welcome respite from the conventional. Those are the people who find the conventional unsatisfying, boring to some extent, commonplace maybe, and definitely not satisfying to them and not fulfilling of their needs. These people seek something else. They seek a different view of the world, a different approach, a different definition of the products, artwork and ways of thinking that they are interested in. In other words, they are not only ready for an unconventional approach: they are looking for it. These people are your audience.
This is the third of three instances where I captured this light quality in a photograph. I was going to say in a successful photograph when I realized that I had not seen this light quality in any other instance. As it turned out, I created a successful image in all three instances.
Of the three, this may be my least favorite. This image has always been a challenge to process and print, and this because of the enormous range of contrast between shadows and highlights. Just like Clearing Spring Storm it was created with a 35mm camera but this time on transparency material rather than print film, a decision that further increased the contrast present in the scene. As things went, the storm moved in and out quickly and I did not think about bracketing the photograph. In fact, I did not take many photographs of this scene at all –maybe a total of 2 or 3 at most- because this was towards the end of our river trip and I was running out of film. In fact, as things went, I ran out of film the next day and had to borrow someone’s disposable camera because I was feeling overly frustrated not to be able to photograph.
Of the three my personal favorite is still the first one, Clearing Spring Storm, Canyon de Chelly. This shows how difficult it is to express a personal vision of the landscape when the light plays a preponderant role in the expression of your vision. First, the light I seek happens very rarely. Second, when it does happen I may or may not be there and if I am there I may not be at the right place at the right time. Third, I still have to compose an enthralling image that uses this light effectively. Why? Because light alone is not enough – the subject and the composition have to be there as well.
If the composition is not powerful enough or if the subject is not there, one can have the best light in the world and not be able to create a good photograph. I can remember numerous instances where I watch beautiful light play upon the landscape without knowing how to photograph because I could not find a satisfying composition, or because the subject wasn’t there in the first place.
Doing The Work
If the vision is strong enough, and your goals are steady, and you believe, pretty soon you bring other people with you. - Mike Rounds
The work begins after you have decided to develop your personal vision. Part of this work consists of reflecting critically upon what your vision is. Part of this work consists of physically creating photographs that express the vision you defined as the result of your critical thinking.
The goal eventually is to create what I would call a mature vision, meaning a vision that is not superficial but deep rooted, a vision that is meaningful to both the artist and his audience, a vision that, in a word, is complete.
To do so the two parts of this process – reflecting upon your vision then creating new images based on the outcome of your reflection—must be brought together. In practice, the two parts of this process are not really separate. Instead, they are intertwined. Why? Because these two parts co-exist and inform each other: critical thinking leads to the creation of new work and this new work in turns leads to further critical thinking. It is an interactive process that on the one hand consists of reflection and on the other hand consists of creating new photographs. At times the two take place simultaneously. This occurs for example in the field when the sight of a new subject leads to new ideas that are immediately concretized in the creation of new images.
The reflection part does not have to be purely mental. In other words, the critical thinking aspect of your work does not need to take place only in your mind. Instead, I recommend you write down the thoughts, the ideas and the insights that your reflection brings upon your past and current work. You can also use a voice recorder to preserve your thoughts, a process that some prefer because they want it to be faster than writing.
Whatever approach you prefer, I do recommend that you engage in a recorded description of your vision. Remember that, as we saw previously, vision is something that at first exists in your mind’s eye. Remember that vision is abstract and known only to you until it is translated into a medium that you can share with others. Writing or audio recordings represent such a medium. Once you have written or recorded an audio description of your vision, you can share this description with others, either in print or in oral form. You can either print it or read it or play the audio. At any rate this vision is no longer something that exists only in your mind. It is something that has been formulated as a text. In effect, although this may not be your goal, it is now literature.
Certainly your goal may not be to create literature, although there is nothing wrong with doing so. Your goal may be solely to create photographs. However, having a written description of what your vision is, of what you want to express, and of what you want your new photographs to be like, can only be helpful. Think of this writing, if not as literature, then as a road map to new images or as a blueprint for your upcoming work.
Do Not Lose Your Vision
The true tragedy in life is not death but that which dies inside of us while we are still living. - Norman Cousins
The conclusion to the previous section is that you will not find your vision by attempting to photograph or work with a subject that is not yours. And, as an extension of this fact, you will not express the fullness of your vision working with a subject that you do not love or that you are not excited about. You must be photographing what you love and what you are passionate about for your vision to fully express itself and become a reality.
There is a difference between liking something and loving something. For example, I like to photograph sports cars. However, I do not have a burning passion for sports car photography. The interest is there because I like sports cars, not because I want to express a personal photographic vision regarding the cars. For me, the problem is that a car is not something that I can modify at will. A car is more the mark of its manufacturer than the mark of the photographer who takes a picture of it. Eventually, for me the subject becomes repetitive. There are only so many headlights, fenders, emblems, engines, body shapes, side panels and the like that I can photograph until they become a blur of similar subjects and I become bored working with them. In the end, I prefer driving them more than photographing them.
I am sure a car photographer who truly loves this subject will disagree with me and find just as many positive reasons to photograph cars as I have listed reasons not to photograph cars. If such is your situation just know that I applaud you. I applaud you because you truly love what you do and you will not let someone else’s opinion of your favorite subject change your mind.
Such is the case for me with landscape photography. I have not tired of doing landscape photography since I started in 1980. In fact, I have not tired of admiring the landscape since the day I was born, or rather since the day I was able to understand what nature is, whenever that happened. To me the landscape is never the same. The seasons, the time of day, the variations of light, weather and other natural conditions mean that the same exact situation cannot happen again.
Furthermore, I find that the possibilities for personal expression in landscape photography are equally endless. Each new idea, each new camera, each new improvement in equipment, each new piece of software, each new location, and each new visit to a previously visited location means that a new level of artistic achievement can be reached if one puts-in the required amount of time and effort. These new tools, these new visits to places that I love, when combined with my passion for the landscape generate new ideas that in turn bring renewed inspiration. I have not tired of this subject since I started working with it, and I doubt I will tire of it in the future. For me, this is what I love to do, and because of this passion my vision for the landscape is the clearest of any of the subjects I have worked with so far.
Out of all the lenses available to me, the wide angle is my favorite. In many ways I consider it part of my personal style, largely because it allows me to express my vision in ways that other lens families do not give me access to.
For me, the grand landscape is the primary subject. For me photographing the whole of the landscape, the entire scope of land formations in front of me is fulfilling my vision.
The wide angle also imparts dynamism to the scene by emphasizing the sense of depth and exaggerating the relative size of the objects in the scene. By doing so it pushes further away the everyday view we have of the world, and creates images that are more surreal than real.
Skill Enhancement Exercises
A - Describe your vision in writing or in an audio recording. Think of this exercise as exploratory writing. Approach it as a brainstorming session. Write down as many ideas and as many things about your vision as they come to you. Don’t edit, don’t erase, and don’t correct typos. This is not a PhD dissertation. This is just to help you find out where you want to go with your work.
B – Describe the kind of photographs you’ve always wanted to create then describe the photographs you are currently creating. Is there a difference between the two? If yes describe what this difference is. Try emulating some well-known photographers' styles. Take their style apart and describe each of them. List their main characteristics, what strikes you as important and so on. The subject is not as important a style characteristic as you might think. A Van Gogh self-portrait and a Van Gogh landscape are immediately recognizable as two pictures done in the same style and by the same artist. Look at your favorite photographs, posters and paintings by others. Try to determine what characteristics make them unique.
C - Visualize the entire field of photography. Imagine you are looking at it from 10,000 feet above the earth. Visualize the different areas of photography: wedding, news, reportage, fine art, product, studio, sports, etc. See where you are and where you want to be. Now narrow your vision to this one area.
To me, this image captures a lot of what I love about Navajoland: the sense of space, the immensity of the landscape, the wide open range of Navajoland, the sandstone formations that dot the land and the cloud formations that are typical of Navajoland skies.
Yet to some viewers less experienced in seeing this landscape, this image may lack interest because it does not show the sights that have made Navajoland famous such as Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly or other.
The fact is that it does, but in an unconventional way. Comb Ridge is the Eastern boundary of Monument Valley and is visible from the main overlook of Monument Valley. However, this image does not show the part of Monument Valley that has become the most famous, the Mitten Buttes, and in this respect it may fall short of being interesting to those who seek a more conventional representation of this location.
To me this image is a vivid representation of my Vision for Navajoland because it shows an aspect of Navajoland that I had not seen before I created this image. It shows a landscape that is not what I would call the touristic landscape. It shows a view of Navajoland that many drive by without stopping and that, no doubt, most do not see in the sense of seeing an image or a photograph. It is therefore uniquely my vision.
Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than in the one where they originated. - Emerson
As an artist, your heart must be into your work. When it comes to developing your vision, this vision must reflect what is in your heart. One thing that I learned many years ago is that it is not possible to make good art if your heart is not in it. Even if you try to do so your audience eventually will see that you are not totally involved and people will eventually distance themselves from your work as a result.
I remember a story told to me by a friend who was a musician and who, a number of years ago, was involved in a dance music project. Two groups of people were involved: musicians who did not know the dance scene very well and DJs who knew the dance scene but were not musicians. Eventually, when the piece was completed, they met with the recording company, which as it turned out was a major record label, and played the demo tape. The record label representative said he liked the demo but that it wasn’t for them. Then he asked, “Your heart is not in this is it?” My friend said it wasn’t, that they were doing this mainly for the money. The producer then said: “come back when you have something you really care about.” The project did not go any further. This was not their vision, their heart wasn’t in it, and they did not have the necessary motivation to go any further.
Art only works if your heart is in it and if you really care about what you do. Art is successful when it demonstrates your passion, your personality and your vision. If you are not passionate about your work, if your heart is not in it, your audience will be able to tell.
For your vision to be unique it has to be implemented through a style unique to you, a personal style. How this plays out and how you can achieve your personal style is what we will explore in the next and final section of this 4-part series. Until then this series continues to be a suivre for one more installment.
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Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, printing and on marketing photographs. Alain is also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography. This book is available from Amazon and other bookstores as well as directly from Alain. You can find more information about Alain's work, writings and tutorials on his website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com.