We’ve all shot photos that failed to meet our expectations. The light is shifting, the subject is moving, there’s a lull in the current of the crowd, you’re bracketing exposures, changing f-stops, angles, lenses, your mind.

For all that, things look good through the glass. But later, when you survey your shots with a critical eye, you find the images lack interest or impact. Before you pitch ’em, do three things.

First, spend some time with the shots. Figure out why the images don’t work. Do they lack contrast? Is your composition off kilter? Are there distracting elements in the background or foreground? Were you too near or far from your subject?

Then ask yourself, “What could I have done differently?” Carry those answers to your next shoot. Running a self-diagnostic once or twice won’t improve your photos. Making Q&A a habit will.

Now you’ve analyzed the faults, consider the potential. I liked the lighting and simple composition of the carillon shot that heads this blog. But it was a night shot, handheld in a crowd, around 1600 ISO, through consumer-grade glass. No awards for clarity, but I felt it had potential. I spent a few minutes teasing it, searching for effects that accentuated the mood.

I love marrying textures to photographs. But my go-to tools–paper, metal, linen, stone–didn’t work here.

Then I reached for raindrops. I blended them with the bruised sky, faded the colors a bit, and found something I liked. While the photo alone didn’t do much for me, I do think the composite begets emotion. That certainly beats banishing the base image to a hard drive where it would never see light of day.

The image makes me think of an Elizabethan princess–a poet, I think–locked in a lonely tower. The woman has no voice. But she has the bells. Each time she sounds them, they are deafening, and yet, though she’s surrounded by people, no one can hear.

We’ve just come to a turning point: Her last bit of hope has fallen with her resolve, the rain, her tears. Dark night of the soul, indeed.

In traditional tales, at this moment, in walks a prince with a key.

I’m not much for writing tradition. I’d have our character on the tower ledge, face to the wind, cursing the fates that left her here. For the hundredth time in as many days, she thinks of stepping off. But every sunrise is worth seeing, every moment worth living, if only to feel the beat of your heart and taste your own tears, she thinks. She steps inside. As the bell tone fades, she notes a change in the resonance. All that ringing cut a fault in the metal. The mount holding the clapper is loose. By morning, she can have it free. It’s stout enough to splinter wood, or break bone. She’ll have it in hand to greet the guard who brings her morning meal…

I’ve just demonstrated point three. Photos tell stories–but not necessarily the stories you expect them to tell.

Most of you have cameras in your phones. Use ’em. Then transform what you see. With a little imagination, bland brick becomes a castle wall, a winter park is a frosted forest, and street lights are a city in the sky.

You’ve heard a photo is worth a thousand words? Perfect. In one afternoon you can shoot a book, replete with epic battles, family secrets, lost tribes, and creatures made of mud and stone. All I ask is this: If you bring a princess into the world and lock her away, give her strength, savvy and will enough to discover a key.

Better yet, let her fashion a key of her own. And teach us that effort unnoticed isn’t necessarily in vain.

She can always flag down a passing prince for a lift to the ball after she’s fought her way free.


If you like reading about sword-wielding, strong-willed heroines, my buddy Cole Gibsen writes that very thing. And all you St. Louis-Metroeast folk are in luck. Cole will be discussing and signing her new YA novel, KATANA, at her launch party Saturday night, March 10, in Collinsville, Ill.

There will be refreshments. And a geisha (Maybe more than one, but let’s not be greedy.). And of course, there will be Cole, who is even cooler than a geisha.

Best part: You’re invited. Cole said so.

Hope to see you there.


On the writing front, I made quota today. That was enough.

Q/A: Do you find stories in the people, places and things around you? If so, what do you do with them? If not, why not, do you think?