Accentuate the Positive, by Considering the Negative

Negative space, or the area of a photo which is not the subject, is something to consider when you are composing a photo. A trip to the zoo is a great place to try out some different options. The flamingos are a favorite of mine, for their pink color and curvaceous necks. Add their long legs and black bills and they become the fashion plates of the animal kingdom, if you ask me.

Usually, flamingos can be found standing in a large group around a water source. Sometimes, I prefer to use most of the flock as a subject and include very little negative space.

_MG_4620And other times, I choose to focus on just a few and incorporate more negative space. Here, I included water in the negative space to gain a sense of place in the photo.

_MG_4613Just a couple of them are the focus next.

_MG_4611-2Finally, I choose to highlight a single bird.

IMG_9092I decide to emphasize the curves of the neck by only including part of the body and using more negative space.

When determining how to compose a shot of the zebra, I chose a similar composition.

IMG_9126Using a solid colored or soft focused negative space will emphasize the subject by making it stand out. The gorilla reaching for a leaf is small and a little lost in the space in this composition.

IMG_9104A method of re-composing a shot to bring the subject closer and cut down on too much busy negative space is cropping. The result…

gorilla cropin my opinion, this is more effective at conveying the sweet moment.

You don’t want to always rely on post processing for composing your shots but there are times when it can make an impact.

By being aware of the negative space in your photos, you can avoid having things “growing or sticking out of” your subjects heads and cutting off limbs, feet or hands in the edges.

There is no right or wrong way of utilizing the positive and negative space. This is where you get to be creative!

There are times when the negative space can become the positive space and vice versa; as in Edgar Rubin’s optical illusion painting of the vase and the two faces.

This week, I will be staring at the vase and then the faces, no, wait the faces and then the vase …

~ Susan


The Weekend Dish – Jalapeño Lemonade

_MG_0292Want to add a little spice to your life this weekend? It’s quite simple really. By adding a sliced jalapeño pepper to lemonade, you will end up with a refreshing and slightly spicy, hot, yet cold, beverage. It’s an anomaly.


_MG_0368A backyard daughter had the idea and I am so glad she did.

_MG_0375The amounts of the different ingredients can be adjusted to suit your tastes, so think of this recipe as a suggestion more than a rule.


Jalapeño Lemonade

  • 6 cups of water
  • 2/3 cups of lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup agave
  • 1 jalapeño pepper sliced

Stir together until incorporated. Taste, and adjust lemon juice and/or agave if you like a sweeter or more sour lemonade. Slice the jalapeño and add to the lemonade. You can add more or less according to your heat preference (remember the longer the jalapeño is in the lemonade the more heat and flavor it imparts.)  Add ice and enjoy!

_MG_0402In southern California the fall can turn hot and this is just the drink for such an occasion, or any time you feel like spicing things up a bit!


~ Susan

Be small. Feel big.

Go outside.
Tonight. After dark.
Lay on your back in the grass.
Open your eyes.
Crickets will sing and maybe, if you’re lucky, an owl will slice your heart open with its call.

The moon will rise.DSC_0556

Look the moon straight in the eye and make a promise. Promise to learn one new thing about this wild world you inhabit.

Discover the name of the first star you see next to the moon. Recognize its distance. Marvel. In all the dark there exists multiple tiny points of light.  Every night. Imagine all the light we miss when we’re not paying attention.

Can you discover the species of owl that lives in the pine. What does it eat? Where does it winter? How will it find water if there’s no rain tomorrow? How do you describe its song?


Write this down. Date it. Do this again tomorrow. And again.

We will want a record of this. For our children. Our grandchildren and their children.

We will want them to know what lived with us one night when we paused to notice a miracle of balance and diversity, of red tailed hawks, of free-tailed bats, of carpenter worm moths at twilight.

Summer will fall to autumn.

This season too will rattle its saber with unprecedented flood and fire. It will tell us that our earth is changing.

If your house flooded or burned, what would you grab as you fled?
If your earth slowly crumbled and flooded and burned away, what would you try to save?

Watch how slowly the moon moves.
See how rocks or silver-toned leaves shimmer in its light.
Open your palms and see how you too shimmer in moonlight.

Remember the scene from Apollo 13, the scene where Tom Hanks, playing astronaut Jim Lovell, sits in his backyard. He holds up his right thumb against the night sky. His thumb completely blots out the moon.

We humans get in our own way of wonder.  Yet this very wonder, at the human scale, is that which can touch us most frequently, most deeply.

When you’re ready, return inside. Spread the moon’s gentle touch to those your hand touch. Tonight. Tomorrow. Learn the wild ways of those you love.

With grass in her hair,

p.s.  I came across an interesting call for submissions today.  The Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment is looking for “new or renewed forms our writing can take.”  If your work reads like “the broken-hearted hallelujah, the witness, the narrative of the moral imagination, the radical imaginary, the indictment or the apologia” you might consider joining your voice with others in essay, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or academic article. Deadline is Sept. 30. For more information, read the entire To Write as if the Planet Were Dying: A Call To Writers. 

Composition and Framing the Subject

IMG_2462.JPGWhen composing your photos and thinking about what you are trying to say with your photo or convey to a viewer, you might consider adding a type of framing element. By blocking parts of an image, the viewer’s attention is drawn to whatever subject you choose.

Adding a framing element to your photo can add context and interest.


Also, a sense of depth and dimension can be imparted by adding foreground components.

IMG_2621.JPGThe addition of a person walking among the redwoods enables a viewer to grasp the enormity of their size while the placement within the opening of the tree adds interest.

IMG_9484Trees, leaves and branches make for colorful natural framing tools.

CA  country


Another technique for using leaves to frame a shot is to shoot through leaves using a telephoto lens thus creating a very blurred foreground and isolating your subject.

matilijaWindows are often used as framing devices . . .

IMG_4469even car windows. An architectural element, such as an arch, can be a fun frame as well.


Using people as a frame works also, shooting through heads or over a shoulder adds an embellishment and silhouetting them adds drama.

IMG_9016 The frame doesn’t have to completely surround your subject either; it can be on one, two or more sides.

When adding framing elements to a photo ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish and will the frame add to that goal. If the answer is yes, go for it! Most of all, have fun looking for ways to add framing to your photos and play around with it. It can make you look at your images in a different light.

This week I will be looking at things with a new frame of mind,




Life Version

Composing Self: The title of a class I teach this semester. The work of a life.

I can’t tell you about the struggle between silence and witness that rumbles between my ribs this September.  Do I better serve the world with words or actions?  The gaps in my journal suggest I’m favoring the work of hands not head, behaving more like a silent tree than a writer, a physical manifestation rather than a noetic one.


I sit alone with my mother-in-law in the hospital.  Between the wracking coughs of a deeply settled pneumonia, she tells me about a childhood friend who taught her to make Greek pastry and dance. “I used to love to dance,” she tells me. We stare out the window at impossibly glaring blue.  Will I dance enough?

An e-mail arrives inviting me to participate again in the Big Orange Book Festival. I find my journal entry written after last year’s event where I created and presented a mash-up of lines from dirtcakes, the literary and art journal I publish.

It’s 3:55 p.m. and I stand outside on the top of the cement steps leading to the library. I’m here to read to a crowd and there are two people waiting. One is my student trying to “get in my good graces,” the other is my niece being supportive. Muzak fills the piazza, a barefoot boy in a green shirt splashes in the fountain, a small red train on rubber wheels weaves in and out of the piazza with one mother and one girl sitting in the back car.  The conductor toots the horn and the small boy playing in the fountain giggles and waves and I pause and I wave because there’s nothing else to do.

The breeze, slight in the 94 degree afternoon with no shade, is enough to blow across the microphone meaning I must speak above the wind, above the water falling from the fountain, above the train tooting, the children laughing.

I shout out into the nothingness and even if I wasn’t a writer the metaphor for this moment as a physical manifestation of the void into which a small journal of arts and letters launches is apparent.

No one pays attention, except perhaps the man in the orange shirt with the white name tag. I can’t read his name from his distance at the bottom of the stairs but he nods, smiles encouragingly which of course he must do because he is working this literary festival.

I ditch my opening, the bit about this being the last day of summer, the question about viewing the space shuttle Endeavor on its last journey through the sky, the query about anyone knowing that today, this day, is the UN International Day of Peace.

Ten minutes I’ve promised. Ten minutes I’ll give.  The wind distorts my voice and I begin.

“This is the poem I fought.”

I’ve been fighting for this poem, this journal, this desire to rattle the status quo and inspire someone to join me, many someones  to join me, in meeting humanity in letters and poems and stories and action.

My student never looks at me. He types on his computer. My niece looks around the piazza, up in the sky as a low plane buzzes overhead, at the train, now on its third loop (toot-toot) through the piazza.

I stand a little taller.
I raise my voice.
I don’t give a damn.

“Now that she can read nothing can undo her.”

“green stagnant mother becomes a library. just bear down and bear down again.”

What the hell does it take for one woman with a global vision to make an impact? What do the laws of physics say about matter never being created nor destroyed. Surely these words land somewhere. I believe in these words, this dirtcakes project. I power through sections 1, 2 and 3 and 4,

“What the Night Maid draws when she can’t dream at night.”

I am the night maid. I created that line from my own dream of reaching readers. It hovers in the gloaming, just out of reach, a refrigerator light in a dark kitchen.

“shut the goddamn icebox.”

Today feels like an empty plate, an empty vision, a wasting of the kind that creates bloated bellies and I wonder why this ever felt so important to me.

I skip section 10 and most of 11 except this line which is exactly what I would make up on the spot if it wasn’t already in black and white in my hand:

“Imagine…me, an ordinary woman full of air, rocking and blowing into twilight.”

Rocking and blowing air and dreams and questions and frustration building into a sort of dignity coupled with the indignity of speaking to no one, but two.  I hope my words travel as (toot-toot) the train loops, the wind blows across the microphone, the little boy in the fountain stops splashing and waves at me his smile full of teeth white teeth. Will he remember any of this?

I read from section 12.

“I’m willing to hope now. Convince me.”
“turn around, say crazy trains, man, [say] crazy

I read and wonder how the poem knew it would end like this.

I decline the invitation to participate this year and wonder if I’m losing my ambition or composing a new self.  I wonder how you ever know if you danced enough. Will we spend  enough time marveling at the impossibly beautiful ordinary days?


With face turned toward the blue,
~ Catherine

Composition and The Rule of Thirds


Sometimes, I like to venture over to our local marina and imagine I am one of them – a boat owner – the “people of the boats” I like to call them. I envision climbing on board one of the welcoming vessels and heading out to sea navigating to an island paradise. Or, perhaps, cruising down the coast to another town, anchoring in its harbor and spending the day exploring. Each one of those boats possesses  the potential for adventure. What a way to travel! But alas, eventually reality sets in. I am not a person of the boats. I get seasick for one thing and the sight of the boats being scraped of barnacles or painted, varnished and having general upkeep performed on them reminds me of this. It’s still fun to daydream though and recently I slipped in to the harbor with the idea of composition, specifically the rule of thirds, in mind.


The purpose of the rule is to help with composing  interesting and compelling photos. It involves mentally dividing your viewfinder or photo into a grid with two vertical  and two horizontal lines which are crisscrossed to make a 3X3 grid, like a tic-tac-toe game. The idea is to place the parts of the photo you want to be the points of interest near the intersecting points of the grid.

_MG_0055When photographing a landscape, it is much more compelling, generally, if the horizon is not in the middle of the picture but aligned with one of the lines of thirds.

_MG_0098By placing the horizon line in either the top or bottom third, the emphasis will be on either the sky or the water or land.

Some movement in the water caught my eye and I discovered there were a number of round rays swimming amongst the rocks.

_MG_0065Then, as I was getting ready to leave the harbor, a heron flew across the horizon. It can be difficult to capture moving subjects in one of those grid intersections. Re-composing via cropping can be done in photoshop later. You don’t want to rely on that all the time but it can help occasionally. Also, there is a grid you can use in photoshop in case you are having trouble visualizing the grid in your mind.

Heron in FlightI believe we shouldn’t be too restricted by rules in our creative endeavors, so keep it in mind and experiment with the rule thirds when composing if you haven’t yet, but if you like your horizon lines in the middle of your photos, go for it.


~ Susan