Point Defiance Metro Park, Tacoma, WA
December 25, 2007

I had nothing else to do on Christmas Day, no place to go, no one to see. Nothing. The snow that had been falling earlier was gone, replaced by a constant drizzle, and the storm that I had come looking wasn't happening.

I felt like making some art, whatever that might mean, and Point Defiance is as good a place to do it as any. Walking along the shoreline of Puget Sound, especially in unpleasant weather, seems to be conducive to creative activities. I had walked this stretch of ground many times and knew what was here. But the fun thing about art is that it is mostly about perception. The key to seeing something new is not going some place you haven't been before, but in having new eyes. Someone said that.

There were few people out in the rain. A couple here. A family there. A runner in short shorts. A man stopped to watch me for a minute as I took a photograph, standing in the middle of a drainage ditch. Making photographs is easy work. Modern SLR cameras have advanced so much that there is little technical skill need: Lock in your aperture at f/8 and point your camera. Later on, clean up any mess you made using a computer. If you don't want to deal with setting the aperture, just put the camera in auto mode and let it make all the decisions for you. If you're unsure that the camera is going to do things perfectly, shoot RAW files: You can edit them to your heart's content on a computer later on and fix things that you think the camera got wrong. Now, this doesn't always work, but there are a few simple rules to follow for when it won't. The words are big and impressive sounding, but they're just words.

You don't need fancy equipment either: The cheapest SLR and the cheapest lens will give fantastic results. Again, there are times when you might want fancier equipment, like a big telephoto lens for taking a picture of a bird or a tiger, or a really wide angle lens for distorting reality. But almost all of the photos I take are with a basic camera and a basic lens. If you think this is a lie, take a look at anything that Ansel Adams shot. His gear was about as primitive as you can get, yet his images are stunning. So, if photography doesn't require any technical skill, and doesn't require fancy equipment, then why do people spend thousands of dollars on expensive gear and shell out even more for photography courses given by professionals? Why do high end photographers get paid so well? Why are there so many terrible photos floating around the internet?

Well, the answer is pretty obvious: You have to decide what to take a picture of. The camera will do all the technical work for you 95% of the time, and a few simple rules help in the remaining situations, when lighting isn't optimal, or when the subject is moving. The art is up to you. You have to decide where to point the camera, what to take a picture of. A $1,800 Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR lens doesn't help with this in the least, but people, for some reason, think that it does.

This is why the photography of Ansel Adams is so stunning even today: He was an artist. Why can some photographers sell their prints for thousands of dollars? Because they are artists. They saw something that people hadn't seen before. That's the hard part. Then they do the easy part: Take the picture. Of course, sometimes they have to wait for a long time to get the exact photo they want. They may return to the same place over and over again, waiting for the clouds to be just right, or the light soft enough, or the sun in exactly the right position, or the snow just fluffy enough.

Galen Rowell, who may have surpassed even Ansel Adams as the most powerful photographer of the Sierra Nevada, once gave the following advice to an aspiring photographer: "Try f/8 and be there." Again, the easy part: Set your camera to f/8. Again, the hard part: Be there. Be where? Take a photo of what?

Of course, sometimes you just want to take a picture of your kids, or a statue, or a party. You want to record some place you went to, or the people you were with. That is mostly what I do when I'm out taking photographs. Here is Mount Deception. There is Kevin climbing Ingalls Peak. This is what I looked like when I was 19.

But that wasn't why I was walking through the rain at Point Defiance, hoping see something new. I was trying to be creative, trying to make art. It is a good thing to do from time to time: Put aside some time to be creative, to make art. It isn't an exact process. It may or may not happen. But by trying, something inside the soul seems to get some badly needed exercise, at least for a little while. Gets a little fresh air. Sees the sun for a bit. I like to try to take photographs. Others paint, sew, write, cook, sketch, sculpt, hunt, play music, garden. Life without creativity isn't worth living.

Best of all, if you're not being paid for it, if you're just doing it to use your own creativity, there is no absolute standard except yourself. Do you like what you produced? Did the process satisfy you? Do you want to do it again? It was almost dark when I packed up my camera and made a dash through the rain to my car. I felt much better than when I watched the snow fall outside of my apartment, all alone on Christmas Day.


From Lakewood, drive I-5 north to SR-16. Take SR-16 west for a few miles, exiting at the 6th Avenue Exit. From the exit, continue straight ahead (marked for SR-163), branching off to the right. The road you are turning onto is Pearl. Continue straight down Pearl, which dead ends at the park. Entry and parking are free. There is a lot to see and do, especially in the spring and summer when the gardens are blooming.