Arrowrock Photography | Blog

Welcome to the Arrowrock Photography blog!

What you'll find here ~ bi-weekly assignments to challenge your skills and creativity ~ announcements of upcoming special events ~ session samples ~ and the occasional rant or ramble... thanks for visiting, and please spread the word!

Happy shooting!

Don Johnson



February 27, 2017  •  Leave a Comment



Who is Klee Shay? 

Klee Shay is a fun-loving person whose actions speaks louder than words, doesn't judge books by their covers, is better safe than sorry, doesn't cry over spilled milk, and is dressed to kill. Make no mistake, Klee wouldn't be caught dead using hackneyed phrases, but needless to say, turns a blind eye when there's profit to be made.

Klee likes doing things for their own sake, especially if they've already been done to death.

And so on.

In other words, Klee Shay loves cliche.

You see where this is going... and yes, you'd be right.

We're going to spend two weeks exploring cliche, but not to root it out of our work. Not directly, leastwise. We'll do just the opposite - shoot every cliche in the book and have a smacking good time of it in the process.

Much of our photographic journey entails uprooting poor habits in search of real skill and truthful expression - and it's time well spent. Still, we can fall into traps along the way - traps of style, rules, competition, shortcuts, over-reliance on plugins. We eddie off into whirlpools that move fast but take us round in circles. We may get too comfortable and before long, cliche starts creeping in to our workflow. Our photos may have never looked better, but they don't move, disturb, excite, or penetrate anymore. Maybe they're too technically perfect. 

How do we know what's cliche and what's "art?" Loaded question, that. For me, it would be getting too friendly with a technique and no longer experimenting along the wild edges of the unknown. For you, it will be something else. What pushes your cliche buttons?

It's been said (and it's on the cliche lists) that the best way to fight fire is with fire. So let's apply that logic to our photography by creating a list of common photographic cliches and purposely shooting them. That should punch some good holes in our egos! For a couple weeks we'll stop taking ourselves too seriously, or seriously at all, and get out there to digitize as many cliches as we can. We're leaping off the gerbil wheel of perfection and into the meadow choked with flowers, weeds, gopher holes, red foxes, garden snakes, tree roots, and compost. And cliches. 

Let's start with a short sample list of photography cliches. Cliches come and go, but there's always a list. What was fashionable 30 years ago is cliche now, but may be fashionable again in 10 more. Who knows? So let's have fun with them

To wit:

  • Obnoxious watermarks
  • Over-saturated HDR
  • Batman Tilt (Dutch Angle)
  • Spot color
  • Selfies
  • Significant other in front of a landmark
  • Heavy black or white vignettes
  • Text overlaid on a photo
  • Bokeh
  • Signature watermarks
  • Fake lens flare (extra points if a bride is in the shot)
  • Every sunset ever
  • Homeless or street people
  • Safari animals
  • Flowers
  • Meme templates
  • 500px
  • National park "shoot here" locations
  • Cheesy filters
  • High key
  • Low key
  • Stock photos on white backgrounds
  • Optical illusions
  • Colored borders
  • Blurred waterfalls
  • Upside down reflections 

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Man, is there anything I shoot that isn't a cliche? At least I won't have any trouble finding photos to post.

Here's the ironic side effect of purposefully shooting cliches. By the end of our assignment, I'll predict that we are shooting less cliche and pushing boundaries more.

To make this more fun, let's work under a shared alias. Let's call our alias Klee Shay. Post a photo with the tagline "photo by Klee Shay" and see how many people get it. 

Klee Shay will run for two weeks, from Feb 27 through Mar 12. Happy shooting!

"Leap into the boundless and make it your home!" - Chuang-Tzu


  • If you'd like to share in these workouts with other people (always a great idea), you're invited to join my Facebook Photo Assignment group where you can post images and comments, learn from others, and help other budding photographers learn our amazing craft. 
  • If you're interested in bettering your Photoshop and Lightroom skills, I have an aptly named second Facebook group called Circle of Confusion. You're invited to join it, as well, but you'll need to be a Photo Assignment member first. Join both and you're good to go.
  • Need some hands-on training? I teach several classes during the year through Sawtooth Photo Pros. Current class schedule is available here: SPP-CLASSES



February 12, 2017  •  Leave a Comment


When I grew up, loosely speaking, common wisdom stated that we use only 10% of our brains, as if 90% of our gray matter has nothing more to do than absorb unfortunate amounts of alcohol, zone out on reality tv, or think about the 3 million ways to avoid balancing the checkbook. Nowadays, in more enlightened times (in loose-speak), it's understood that we do indeed use 100% of our brains. Hooray for scientific progress. However, only 2% of the aforementioned brain is "awake" at any given time, and under our control. The 2% bit thrives on logic and behaves like the tiny rudder aft of the USS Enterprise. Or the Titanic. The other 98% of our humming gray cells is not the ship, but the iceberg, barely acknowledged in our culture. There's a lot of spooky action in the distance between 2 and 98, the stuff of dreams, art, music, novels, imagination, quantum entanglement, creation itself. 

It's not such unfamiliar territory for us though. Remember the scene in Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' in which the intrepid explorers descend into an Icelandic volcano and stumble across an inner sea where there be giant mushrooms, refrigerator-sized insects, nonhistoric reptiles, thrills, chills, and complete artistic license? What do you think - metaphor perhaps, applications we can use here? Our own inner seas are too unvisited, unrecognized, increasingly unfamiliar. They desire our exploration; forays into the sanctum keep the waters fresh, vital and alive. So keep your backpacks well stocked as we drop into the volcano.

By the way, that 2% equates to about 2 tablespoons of brain matter, slightly less than one ounce. That's what we navigate our lives with. And we wonder why we crash into so many icebergs.

I watched a remarkable movie last week, from which some of the above statistics are borrowed. It's called InnSaei - the Sea Within, and it's high on my current recommendation list. If you have a Netflix account, give it 90 minutes of your time, and you'll be glad you did. It's a solid dose of the sort of analog reality that is rapidly eroding away to soul dust. We need it, and we need to share it.

InnSaei probes a single subject - intuition, how it was lost, and the critical need for its reintegration into our daily lives. The payoff is getting off the 2% dreadmill and back into the integrated 100% wholeness of artistic expression. Photography fits hand in glove with this approach as our images begin to draw not only from the technical and logical, but from the subjective and intuitive, as well. In this worldview, the power of stories, with all their weird twists, matter more than how sharp the photo is.

This can be murky stuff (until it isn't), so we'll start with an easy assignment. That is, it sounds easy, and may be child's play for some, a challenging effort for others. Unlike some assignments, however, this one needs to be practiced repeatedly rather than merely read and checked off. This is one assignment in which the work is its own reward.

So here it is, the 30/30 routine:

Pick a pleasing outdoor natural location where you can go and sit for 30 minutes, alone. If the weather is torturous, find an indoor location - but consider sitting outside even in inclement weather. You must leave any communication device in the car or at home. That means no cell phones, beepers, signal mirrors, or semaphore flags - nothing. And here's the tough one - you may NOT take a camera. You will be your own camera.

Then go sit. Get comfortable, breathe slowly, then watch, see, with detachment, without labeling. Become aware of everything in your visual and auditory range. Be fully in the moment, now. If... no, not if - when your 2% control center starts chattering at you and demanding immediate attention, treat it like a 2-year old and firmly state that this is your time and please remain silent for 30 minutes. Resume your vigil. Your mind will begin to slow down eventually, the chatter will recede, and you'll enter a contemplative state, perhaps unfamiliar, but peaceful and aware. It may take several attempts, but over time you'll experience short periods, perhaps just flashes, of super-awareness and intense concentration alternating with lengthening periods of no thought whatsoever. Don't push them, let them come and go.

If you start seeing things you'd like to photograph, acknowledge them, then let them go. Let nature surprise you; if she trusts you she will bring you visual gifts. Accept them, then let them go. You may end up with a full roll of not-photographs and each one will be perfect. The point is to be able to see potentially beautiful images and to purposely not desire them.

After 30 minutes, or whenever you feel like moving (whichever comes last), go to the car or your house and retrieve only your camera (remember, you must not have it already with you). Return to your outdoor location and let nature bring you her gifts once again. Photograph one, two, or maybe three of them. Or none. What she gives is enough so don't be greedy. 30 minutes, thank her, and go home in a state of simple grace.

If you do this several times during our two week assignment, you may very likely end up with a collection of photographs that differ significantly from your normal accumulation. Instead of looking for things 'out there' to shoot, you'll find that your quiet state of mind finds things 'in here' reflected in your outer world, not unlike a mirror. You recognize them because you've 'sean' them before. When you point a lens at something, it's reflecting in equal measure right back into your inner sea.


  • Watch InnSaei. 90 minutes. Just do it.
  • Do the 30/30 routine every day if you can - 30 minutes watching and being, without a camera / 30 minutes with a camera, quietly shooting. That's only 1 hour per day. 
  • As you sit, your attention will drift, especially at first, perhaps violently. Catch yourself, snap back to attention. Repeat as necessary. This exercise will slowly build the skill of intense concentration, like a muscle. The more you inhabit it, the easier it becomes to access at will.
  • Less is more, both in mental chatter and the number of photographs you bring home. Purposely do not shoot something now and then. Absorb it now, on the spot, then let it be.
  • Turn off your labelmaker. Study an object until it tells you something you can't translate or identify. Follow that rabbit trail.
  • You won't know if the 30/30 technique works unless you try it. If it doesn't, what have you lost except a few hours alone with nature? Could be worse. If it does work, your vision and connection with the world will begin to perceptibly change, and your photographs will too. 
  • Don't like sitting? Try walking instead. Same rules.
  • As you become accustomed to inhabiting the receptive mind, you won't need to power through a 30/30 routine every day. It might take 15/15 or 5/5, and eventually you can just call up this state of mind at will. But it takes practice - it's a muscle.

THE INNER SEA will run two weeks, from Feb 13 through Feb 26. Happy shooting!


  • If you'd like to share in these workouts with other people (always a great idea), you're invited to join my Facebook Photo Assignment group where you can post images and comments, learn from others, and help other budding photographers learn our amazing craft. 
  • If you're interested in bettering your Photoshop and Lightroom skills, I have an aptly named second Facebook group called Circle of Confusion. You're invited to join it, as well, but you'll need to be a Photo Assignment member first. Join both and you're good to go.
  • Need some hands-on training? I teach several classes during the year through Sawtooth Photo Pros. Current class schedule is available here: SPP-CLASSES


January 29, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

KO Backgrounds- pattern28KO Backgrounds- pattern28Inside view of an antique combination lock of bank Mandiri in Jakarta, Indonesia With any endeavor, what steps do you take to get started? Figuring out what comes first - chicken, egg, or wok isn't always easy. 

Pants first, then shoes.

We've been revisiting back-to-basics themes for the past couple assignments. This one follows the same stream back up the canyon to the headwaters of creativity. Priorities matter, or so they say. Let's just see about that by twirling a certain dial on our cameras.

The one on top with the green thingy and a bunch of letters. More on that in a minute. But first a few words about priorities.

We prioritize with photography every day. There's the obvious first things first stuff like charged batteries, extra memory cards, and oh $%*&$% I forgot the tripod again. Priorities in the wrong order usually result in less than desirable consequences. We may want to make good photographs but if we set ISO too high, we get noise. Shutter speed too low, we get blur. Aperture too wide, Aunt Sally's elevated nose is out of focus.

Dear Aunt Sally is hard enough to please as it is, so nose focus is critical.

Although our cameras don't have an Aunt Sally mode, if we prioritize we may get lucky enough for her to not write us out of her will.

Ok, grab your camera and look at the mode dial on top (its usual location). You'll see AUTO in green, some letters, and maybe some hieroglyphics that make about as much sense as the etchings on the inside of the great pyramid. What mode is your dial set to now?

For this assignment, you can ignore everything on the dial except the following letters:

S (or Tv), A (or Av), and M.

Ignore the P - it's just AUTO on an ego trip. Let's say it stands for Politician (to make it easier to avoid).

That leaves us with SAM. SAM's first priority is to get us off AUTO almost permanently. If you've never shot with SAM before, she's about to become your best friend. And if you haven't shot in AUTO for years, jump in and help the new Sammies. SAM I am!

S (or Tv) is shutter priority mode. You set the shutter speed and the camera will figure out aperture for you, as well as ISO when needed. If you set a slower shutter speed in S mode, aperture will automatically stop down by an equal and opposite amount so that you get the same exposure.

A (or Av) is aperture priority mode. Same deal as before, except this time you set your desired aperture and the camera does the rest of the heavy lifting. Opening up aperture will automatically select a faster shutter speed to match exposure.

Both S and A are highly useful priority modes in changing light. If shutter speed is critical to your situation (a track meet, for example), dial up S and set a fast shutter speed to stop all motion. If aperture is more important (you want shallow depth of field), A mode is a great go-to.

[TIP: If your camera's ISO is set to auto, turn if OFF. Yes, there are good reasons for ISO AUTO, but treat them as exceptions and only turn it on when absolutely necessary.]

But wait... there's one more priority mode - M for Manual.

"Now wait a minute" I can hear some of you yelling in the back row - "M is not a priority mode!" And I'll shout back "It most certainly is" while dodging the tomatoes and bottles. I don't wear this poncho and catcher's mask for nothing.

M is a priority mode and here's why - M mode makes YOU the priority. M stands for MASTER, you see. It puts all exposure choices right back where they belong - under your own creative control instead of letting the machine guess at what it thinks is right. Which it often isn't, by the way. If it was right all the time, there would be no need for an Exposure Compensation button. One major downside of depending on S and A modes too much is that you'll be twiddling that EC button/dial all the time. Extra credit if you can figure out why.

M is the best priority mode of all. In M mode, you have to figure out shutter speed, aperture, and ISO independently with no help from the camera's AI. Changing one will have no effect on another. You look at the light meter, figure out whether you want to zero it out, shoot brighter at +1 (hey, snow is white again!) or go -1 to match the dark and moody nightly news. And you have to know, on the fly, which makes more sense to adjust - shutter speed, aperture, or ISO.

M mode has a downside too - it's harder. At first. You often have to tease the magic out of a meter reading to nail that perfect exposure. The meter is lazy, and will try to tell you everything is 18% gray and boring. You'll have to fight for the extremes where the exciting stuff lives. Don't like the meter's zero-centered exposure? Push or pull your settings until shadows lift or midtones fade to black. You rule your photographic world. Prioritease.

So... the assignment in a nutshell is this:

Shoot in each of the 3 priority modes, on purpose, for a specific reason. With each photo you post, state which priority mode you used and why. Stories are always welcome; share what you learn.


  • In A mode, shoot the same subject using every available aperture. What changes?
  • In S mode, shoot the same subject using every available shutter speed. What changes?
  • Each mode employs the double/half rule. What happens when you change a setting by 3 stops?
  • Bracket 3 exposures, with each one stop apart. How do they differ?
  • Change focusing modes (evaluative/matrix - center weight - spot) - do they affect your exposure meter readings?
  • What is high key? Low key? Try each on the same subject (it helps if the subject is very well lit).
  • Come up with a visual story, plan it out step by step, then shoot it.

PRIORITEASE will run for two weeks, from Jan 30 through Feb 12. Happy shooting!


  • If you'd like to share in these workouts with other people (always a great idea), you're invited to join my Facebook Photo Assignment group where you can post images and comments, learn from others, and help other budding photographers learn our amazing craft. 
  • If you're interested in bettering your Photoshop and Lightroom skills, I have an aptly named second Facebook group called Circle of Confusion. You're invited to join it, as well, but you'll need to be a Photo Assignment member first. Join both and you're good to go.
  • Need some hands-on training? I teach several classes during the year through Sawtooth Photo Pros. Current class schedule is available here: SPP-CLASSES


January 15, 2017  •  Leave a Comment


Last assignment, it was dark in the beginning. Then a light was switched on. Photographers sat up and took notice, raced out their cave doors to buy film, along with iguana eggs and yak milk, then scattered across the globe to record everything everywhere.

Right off the bat, one of them said, "It's all about the light" and the race was on. The faithful said "Ooooooh" and almost immediately started hairsplitting arguments about the nature and behavior of light - natural versus artificial light, incident versus reflected light, hard versus soft light and so on and so on. We've seen all the YouTube videos and read all the books, some of which were great, others meh, and a few with way too many footnotes. Our time on earth is short enough, so let's boil light down to some basic characteristics that matter to us today when we're pointing a lens at something. In fact, let's cover only one this time.

But before we get started with this assignment, let's do a couple "look versus see" experiments. Step right outside your door; we don't have to go far. Regardless of whether it's sunny or cloudy, take note of where the sun is (it will be the brightest part of the sky). We'll call this "incident light." Then look around and note everything you see - sky, hills, houses, trees, roads, snow, walls, grass, sagebrush, more snow, your dog pulling your niece across the beach, and so on, and snow. All these things are visible because of only one attribute of light - reflection. Wavelength is absorbed or rejected by the atomic structure of these objects and determines the color of "reflected light."

After your neighborhood object scan, do it one more time, paying attention to the angle of reflected light.

Light has a number of interesting characteristics - it travels at a fixed rate in a single direction and rapidly falls off in intensity. It bounces off surfaces at exactly the same angle of the strike. It refracts into colors through a prism and is absorbed and/or reflected depending on the elemental makeup of the reflective surface. A large light source casts a softer shadow than a small light source. Stuff like that.

So why start with angle? Understanding incident and reflected light angle helps us locate the sweet spot where light behaves most elegantly.

When we're asked to shoot a portrait of someone, for example, what do we consider first? Location, right? We find a beautiful or striking setting and plop our subject into it. We adjust some camera settings and fire away, maybe with natural light, or by adding some additional help. And results vary, don't they?

But what if we don't care about location? Instead, what if we place more value on what the light is actually doing, and find the one spot where it behaves elegantly, then set up the shot there instead? These spots are easily overlooked, but become apparent as we begin to understand how light behaves.

Let's say we've taken Matilda to the park for her senior photos. We find a lush grassy area with some tall dark trees in the background. Maybe even a natural shade line to have her step into. Matilda sits, poses, elbows in the grass - beautiful shot! We might open up our aperture wide and get some pretty bokeh to set her off. We're happy. We even used a reflector, just like the other 88 photographers in the same park that day. So we must be doing it right.

But since we've shot for location instead of light we failed to notice a drastic (and common) problem. Because of light's perfectly predictable angle of reflection, the incident light struck the grass, absorbed some of the green cast, and bounced it right back up into Matilda's neck and chin. Oops. Green skin. 

Matilda does not like her green skin.

So we take Matilda back to the park for a reshoot. But this time we don't care so much about location. Instead, we're looking for reflected light that complements her skin tones. We spy a light colored building nearby. It's in the park but lacks the lush grass we found earlier. We don't care. Filtered sunlight is bouncing off the wall at a 30 degree angle. We set Matilda up next to the wall in just the right spot (paying attention to the reflected angle) to catch the wall light, which is acting like an expensive and huge softbox. She turns slightly into the camera where the shadows are buttery soft and the incident sunlight makes the perfect backlight through her hair. Oh. What a difference.

This way of seeing doesn't just work for Matilda and her friends; it works for anything we shoot. By taking the time to do a 360 examination of the light, where it's coming from and its reflection angles, as well as the resulting colors, can make a huge difference in what we consider to be photo-worthy. Location is nice, but should take a backseat to angles of light reflection.

In a nutshell, the assignment is this - study the source of light, see everything it reflects from or passes through, ask how it mutates with each direction change, then use your knowledge of angle to create photographs based on light behavior rather than location. Sounds easy, right? If you're lucky, yes. But chances are it will take some retraining in how to see a scene. Remember, it's all about the light, not about the stuff that gets in its way.


  • Use a flashlight for a simple way to study the angle of reflection.
  • Bounce a light off a white piece of paper, a tan paper, a green paper, and a black paper. What happens to the reflected light with each?
  • Shoot a subject against a light wall, placing him closer and further from the wall. What happens to your exposure with each move? Is it predictable? (extra credit - look up the inverse square law)
  • Find the sweet spot of reflected light (usually the brightest, most reflective range).
  • Trace the path of light from the original light source to your eye. It may take several direction changes before it reaches you. How does the first reflected surface affect a secondary surface? A third?
  • Use a strobe or flash with your knowledge of angle - where would you predict the best placement of your flash should be? If you find it difficult to imagine, use a ball of string to line out the angles (like they do with bullet paths on CSI).
  • Measure the reflective luminance off a smooth surface. Do the same from a highly textured surface. What's the difference?

ATTENTION ANGLERS! will run from Jan 14 through Jan 29.

Happy shooting!



January 01, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

_DJ61603-fb copy_DJ61603-fb copy In the beginning was nothing, not even a spark of light for photographers to point lenses at. What on earth did they do? Spend more time in the darkroom, fumbling around with primordial chemicals and coming up with arcane theories about what light would be like if they could only see it? Things like zone theory and the inverse law, for example. In their spare time they codified everything and often made a grand mess of it. Some of them got so good at it they left to create the IRS, insurance companies, and Applesoft. But that's another story.

So let's start over.

In the beginning was nothing. The Lightmaker said "let there be light... and it was good."

Close enough. We can work with this abridged version.

Note that our Lightmaker made no mention of bad or mediocre light - it was all good. Previously, Darkness had the run of the place since before time was invented, so imagine the shock and awe that light must have caused with her sweet entrance onto the Great Dance Floor.

One swoosh and a swirl and paparazzi were instantly legion.

But let's back up yet again. In our photographic mythology, light requires a source, so the Lightmaker created an orb, a sphere which emits electromagnetic radiation, some of which we call light. Let's call it Orb A. Or as we know it, the sun.

But light is useless without a receptor - someone or some thing to receive and appreciate its existence. Darkness wasn't about to stand up and applaud, being so rudely upstaged, so some other mechanism was required. The Lightmaker solved this dilemma by creating Orb B, the eyeball.

Now isn't that interesting - two orbs, the simplest shapes to exist. One orb to transmit, the other orb to receive, each requiring the other, and the result is constant astonishment.


At any rate, we now have a handy, simple equation.

oA + oB = astonishment

The astonishing part for me is basic - neither light nor eyeballs have any function on their own; each requires the other. But put them together and... wow. Fireworks.

Oh yeah, we were going to make this practical, weren't we? Here's how.

Let's start with the Orb we all know so well - the sun. And let's use our B orbs to register Orb A's emitted light, whether it's incident or reflected. Then, knowing that we are part of the primal creative equation, start making decisions about how to make light behave. This orb-to-orb transfer business gives us enormous creative power, once we get cameras in our hands. 

For this assignment, stay as simple as possible and dispel any notion of good or bad light. If light has no such inherent qualities, it's our own psychology that's providing them. Photograph light and its effects, but do so with a bright mind and a brilliant heart, as naturally as possible. If the light's "bad" figure out how to make it "good." The creative response and process is 100% internal. It's sort of like putting on glasses backwards, or standing on one's head, but understanding that light is as much internal as it is external can be the juice that turns a snapshot into a photograph.

If this allegory doesn't work for you, go back to your own roots. In the beginning was nothing. What happened next? 

2017 is a good year to explore light and its myriad secrets. It will be a fun ride. Today we start at the beginning. Again.

Ideas for BEGIN AGAIN:

  • Go out on a sunny day and find a subject to photograph, preferably a vegetable or mineral - something that won't move suddenly or talk back when you poke it with a stick. Photograph it without thinking. Then study it, look at the angle at which light strikes it. Locate and trace the shadow. Carefully photograph it again from many angles. The light hasn't changed, but each movement you make changes history (photographically speaking).
  • Go out on a cloudy day and repeat the exercise. What's changed? There's little or no shadow, for one. Photograph from many angles again. Compare these photos to your first set. Do they "feel" different? Where does that feeling come from?
  • Shoot the same subject at dawn, noon, and dusk. We already know the shadow will move, but something else is happening too. Do you know what it is, Mr. Jones?
  • Shoot before sunup and after sundown. There is still sufficient light but not from the sun. Where is it coming from? What is its quality? Why are we so mysteriously drawn to it? What does it say about us?
  • Isolate your subject by using only a spot of light. Shade everything else. Does it like being in the spotlight? Do you?
  • Shoot the sun directly (but be careful). Why is it so hard to get a good exposure? 
  • Instead of selecting a subject to photograph, select a variety of emotions to direct your inquiry. How does it affect what you visually frame in your viewfinder?

BEGIN AGAIN will run for two weeks, from Jan 2 through Jan 15.

Happy shooting!