A Balance between Eros and Logos


The creative process, when it blossoms into its most fruitful expression, will always be a play between the conscious and unconscious mind. We need both when we create. We cannot force creativity into being by pure conscious force—just as we cannot solely depend on the unconscious mind when we want to express whatever we envision.

The conscious mind helps us with the craftsmanship, with planning, with execution of the idea, with knowledge, and, yes, at times also with forcing the creative process into its initial stages. But the conscious mind will never spring into life the new idea, the new expression, the complete new vision; it will not be the creative force as such. That’s where the unconscious mind comes into play. The unconscious mind will suddenly make us see things in a different light, it will act through our instincts and make us do something we otherwise wouldn’t have done, it will make us do errors that might turn into expressive and complete new work of art; the unconscious mind is the creator within us, but it needs the conscious mind to bring the idea into life.

We have all experienced how our unconscious mind can help us solve a problem we have been struggling with. We can bend our mind over without finding the solution, but then when we give up and go to sleep, next morning the solution suddenly appears out of nowhere. That’s when the unconscious mind has done the work for us—while we were sleeping. First time it happens it’s quite a revelation—and a delightful such.

As artists or creative beings we need to find a balance between these two paired processes. And we need to acknowledge both as inseparable elements of the creative process. For me this is another example of the polarity between Eros and Logos from the Greek mythology. I have previous used these terms to describe the creative process; such as in the posts Like Roots to a Plant and A Tool for Our Heart and Soul. Here and now I use Eros and Logos more in a Jungian understanding, although the first Greek origin is still valid. According to Platon Eros motivates all living beings to act upon their desires. The original understanding of Eros is «love» although Eros has also been used in philosophy and psychology in a much wider sense, almost as an equivalent to «life energy». Logos on the other hand was by Greek philosophers, especially Heraclitus and Plato, used to mean something akin to the rational structure and order of the universe. In the psychologist Carl Jung’s approach, Logos vs. Eros was represented as «science vs. mysticism», or «reason vs. imagination» or—as I use it here—«conscious activity vs. the unconscious».

In his book «Widening the Stream» David Ulrich view Eros as passion and Logos as the discipline required to cleanly embody our insights. He writes; «as soon as our attention can expand to embrace these opposing, alternating forces—our passionate longing and our disciplined intent—we come into a greater alignment, activating our creative energies and attracting a new quality of heightening being».

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Creative Collaboration


One of the things being a photograph that I often find limiting, is the fact that I usually work by myself. Limiting is actually not the right word, since being out on my own forces me to focus and use all of myself in the interaction with the world I photograph. It actually gives me strength. So I guess it’s more about the joy of working together with somebody else that I often miss when I work alone for too long. And also the different experience it involves.

It is really a great experience to work creatively together. You push each other further than you would maybe do alone. You inspire each other. You find new solutions together. And more than anything it’s simply fun. Or as Corwin Hiebert writes in his e-book Your Creative Mix – Growing Your Photography Business through Creativity and Collaboration: «The creative process, as chaotic as it can be at times, is a beautiful thing when the hard work involves an experience we can truly share. […] Together we can spur each other on to create more, and do more».

Creating together is a wonderful example of a dialectic method. The idea of the dialectic method is an old theory going all the way back to Ancient Greece, in which you put a thesis and an antithesis up against each other, and the combined solution between the two not only makes for a compromise, but creates something that is better than the thesis or the antithesis alone, what in the theory is called the synthesis.

Theory away, collaboration is truly inspiring and can be done on many levels. My good colleague and friend Sven Creutzmann, who is an eminent as well as awarded photographer, and I have over the past many years and from time to time been photographing together side by side on more personal related projects. In doing so we push each other further, we encourage each other, we enjoy the time together being focused on the shooting, and despite the fact that one would think that we might end up with pictures looking similarly, the collaboration spurs our separate creative visions and results in quite different pictures even at occasions when we stand side by side. Finally when working together like this, the help and encouragement we give each other in the editing process and even how to photoshop the pictures, is almost worth the whole process in itself.

The collaboration between Sven and me has also lead to various photo workshops we teach together. This is really collaboration as intimate as it can possible be. We develop the programs and classes in tight partnership, we teach the workshops together and of course we get to spend a lot of time socially together. As a matter of fact we have two workshops up in the air this year, both in Cuba. One takes place in the beginning of May and is the workshop Street Photography in Cuba that Sven and I have run for many years. New this year, is the workshop In the Footsteps of Che and Fidel in November. This is still in the planning, but will be a two weeks photo tour where we travel to the important, historical places of the Cuban revolution. This workshop will take the participants to areas not travelled a lot and will be quite an adventure.

Creative collaboration is so stimulating and so inspiring; I can only recommend it to everyone involved in the creative process. Of course it’s not limited to photography, but holds value for any creative outlet or artistic expression. To quote Corwin Hiebert one more time: « A successful collaboration provides credibility, it gives you an opportunity to gain experience, it expands your knowledge base, widens your sphere of influence, deepens your relationships, and gives you a real-world resume. But one of the most important takeaways from a collaboration is that it promotes your work ethic».

Building a Creative Fire


The creative process is like building a wood fire. You have to build it over several stages, start small, and slowly make it grow. And you need to attend it, unattended it will die. On the other hand a good fire – and a good creative process – does not need obsessive attention, just a bit of awareness every so often.

Fire building is a wonderful analogy for the creative process. When you build a fire, you are taking actions toward a result. The circumstances are constantly changing, but these are distinct stages of development, from preparation to maturity. The type of actions you take in the beginning stages would not be suitable in the later stages, and vice versa. Also the initial stages have a big influence on how the later stages develop. If you don’t prepare the fire well from the beginning, it will later be difficult to keep it burning.

There is something primal and vital, while at the same time elegant, timeless, and almost scientific about building fires, just as there is with the creative process. Building and tending a fire requires a blend of human skill and knowledge.

Basically there are four stages in fire building. In the kindling stage, you ignite small amounts of highly flammable material, such as newspaper or twigs. Soon you will need to bring the fire to the next stage; otherwise the flame will quickly burn itself out. In the structuring stage, you begin to establish form to the fire. You build a little tower with larger sticks around the burning kindle. In the building stage you then add small logs and make sure to place them so that air will be sucked into the fire. Finally, during the tending stage, you every so often place new logs on the others. These will burn easily because of the already established fire and the build-up of glowing coal from the previous sticks and logs.

Creating also has a kindling stage. Easily taken steps add energy and lead to more involved steps. Smaller acts lead to larger acts in creating, just as in fire building. If you have not used proper kindling, the fire will be hard to light. If you do not take easy beginning steps, the creation will be harder to make. If, once you have ignited the kindling, you place a big log right in the middle of the small fire; the fire will go out before the log will be able to burn. The same happens in the creative process. Too often people want big results too fast. But if the supportive structure is not in place, the fire of the creative process will go out, too.

One of the wonders in a good fire is the amount of space there is in the structure. Logs do not fill the centre; air does. Although you cannot see the air, this invisible force is a major component in the success of the fire. In the creative processes there are many invisible forces, too. Like the interaction between the conscious and the subconscious mind, the tapping into the creative well or inspiration.

When building a fire, if you use too much wood, the fire will go out. If you use too little wood, the fire will go out. If you use wood that does not burn well, the fire will be harder to get going and might go out. A good fire feeds on itself. A good creative process does this as well. Energy is generated by what has gone before. In the creative process, conscious choice, actions, learning, adjusting, an intuitive sense of timing and «lucky accidents» can combine in just the right proportions. It is true of both fire building and creating that you begin to get a «feel» for it after a while.

Talent Doesn’t Matter

It’s hard to accept that talent hardly matters. I know—particularly if you thought you were benefiting from a special talent yourself. We have become ingrained with the idea, not the least from media, which likes to push the idea of superhuman talents far beyond any reasonable credibility, if for no other reason than because it sells. Be as it may, numerous contemporary studies do indicate that talent has been overly overrated for too long.

As I wrote in last week’s post, Matthew Syed in his book Bounce refutes the, in my view, outdated idea of special talent being necessary to excel it in sports, business, school, arts or any other endeavour that requires more skill-sets than we all are in possession of. The illusion of talent arises because we only see a tiny proportion of the work that goes into the construction of virtuosity. If we were to examine the incalculable hours of practice, the thousands of baby steps taken by world-class performers to get to the top, the skills would no longer seem quite so mystical, or so inborn. That’s exactly what Syed does in his book; he deconstruct all the work some of the world’s biggest “talents” have had to put into becoming the success they have become, whether it’s Tiger Woods or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The belief in talent is not the least a natural derivation from a Darwinian believe-system. I certainly don’t oppose Darwinism and won’t discredit the fact that, at least part of the variation in ability in young people in everything from math to football is determined by generic inheritance. Some start out better than others do, there is no denying that. But, the key point revealed by the science of expertise is that the relevance of these initial differences melts away as the number of hours devoted to practice escalates. And why is that? Because over time, and with the right kind of practice, we change so much in ourselves. It’s not just the body that changes but also the anatomy of the brain. The region of the brain responsible for controlling fingers in young piano players, for example, is far larger than the rest of us. But pianists were not born with this, it grew in proportion to the years of training. Similarly, the area of the brain governing spatial navigation in taxi drivers is way above average—but it developed with time on the job.

And then think about this: It takes generation after generations for humans to adapt the genetic composition to new environmental conditions. How would it be possible for natural selection to change genes for kids growing up today and make some of them excel in computer gaming? A generation ago, nobody even knew about computer gaming. Two generations ago, computers hardly existed.

Yes, it would be anti-Darwinian to deny the existence of talent, defined in terms of the initial skills we inherit from our parents. However, it is in no way anti-Darwinian to deny the importance of talent. Given the adaptability of the human body and brain, it turns out that pretty much all healthy individuals can accumulate the knowledge that creates excellence, regardless of where they started out from. The evidence also tells us that we learn at pretty similar rates, at least on the long term. Certainly, there is no shortcut to excellence.

It takes a lot of work to excel in any field. Studies of grand masters of chess, top golfers of the world and top scientists—just to mention a few areas that have been studied—show that ten years is the magic number for the attainment of excellence. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of five books, he points out that most top performers practice around one thousand hours per year, so he re-describes the ten-years rule as the ten-thousand-hour rule (as some comments in my previous post about talent already pointed out). This is the minimum time necessary for the acquisition of expertise in any complex task. Ten thousand hours is a lot of devoted time. It means practicing around three hours every day—for ten years. Most people are not willing to pay this price, but it’s what it takes.

However, it’s not only the quantity of training that matters, but also the quality. A study conducted at a music academy in Berlin shows that top performing violinists had not practiced more hours than the lesser violinists had. The top performers had pushed themselves harder for longer. The others had not. That was the crucial difference. Anders Ericsson, a leading psychologist at Florida State University, calls it deliberate practice, to distinguish it from what most of us get up to. In Bounce Syed calls it purposeful practice because this training of aspiring champions have a specific and never-changing purpose: Progress. Every second of every minute of every hour, the goal is to extend one’s mind and body, to push oneself beyond the outer limits of one’s capacity, to engage so deeply in the task that one leaves the training session, literally, a changed person.

Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside of comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure.

This can be translated directly to us who perform in the arts. If we do the same kind of work time and again, we will be good at this, but we will not otherwise improve. If we want to become better photographers or better painters or better writes, yes, we must do the work, but we must also step out of the comfort zone—all the time. Same with exercising. I run and exercise quite a bit. Sometimes I get frustrated because my shape doesn’t seem to improve. Every so often, I run a marathon. When I do, I always want to improve my personal best. It rarely happens, though, and if so only marginally. For me to improve, I need to train harder than I already do, and if I want to keep improving, this is a never-ending upward spiral. I am just not willing to do so and have finally accepted this conclusion.

There is more to excel in any task than training enough and training right. It’s also about mindset, of course. Otherwise, you won’t be able to put in the 10.000 hours and keep pushing yourself out of comfort zone. Yes, clocking up thousands of hours of purposeful practice ultimately determines how far we make it along the path of excellence. However, it’s only those who care about the destination, those who are motivated enough, who are ever going to get there. There a ways to sustain the motivation, for instance through encouragement and through internalized belief. This will have to wait to another post, though, as it could be a book on its own. I just wanted to mention that there are more to the equation than enough and right exercise. Talent hardly matters, though.

I have written these posts about how we tend to overrate talent, not because I think we should all strive for excellence. For me it’s just important to know that I can get as far as I want to by my own will and willingness to go the necessary distance. My talent or lack of it is not going to be hindering me. As Syed writes: “The talent myth is not just widespread but it is also powerfully destructive, robbing individuals of the motivation of change.” I encourage you to take this to heart, and just do whatever you feel like doing—and enjoy the journey.

Let me end this rather too long post with my own experience starting out on a photographic career. Well, it’s actually before I even got started, professionally that is. In my teens, I really thought I had a talent for photography. I had won some prizes and I won a few photo competitions. However, just as with my exercising these days, at some point it stopped. My photography wasn’t going anywhere anymore, and I didn’t get the recognition I had started to get used to. What happened was, I had too much trust in talent, and didn’t put in the work. Thus, I stagnated. It was only after some years working professionally that my photography began develop again, simply because you cannot work professionally without doing a lot of work and you get pushed into situations that you have no control over. I didn’t know then what I know today. The moral: Don’t trust talent.

On a different note: When you read this, I have located myself to Park City, Utah, for the annual Sundance Film Festival. This week I will probably be seeing 20-something movies and be covering the festival. Unnecessary to say, it’s going to be work around the clock. But all fun and pure joy.

The first post about talented being overrated was published last week. Go to Don’t Trust Talent to read it.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-104 mm lens and the zoom set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/640 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Don’t Trust Your Talent

I have always been a strong believer in talent being overrated. Over the recent holidays, I read a book that largely confirms my assumption. Yes, talent may set some limits to our abilities, for instance creatively—or for that matter and more specifically photographically, since that is the field I am working in and writing about in this blog—but I really think it’s only of marginal impediment. In particular when talking about creativity, I think it’s something everyone of us inherently possess, we just don’t use it to our full capacities. In growing out of childhood, the society, our peers and ourselves most often discourage our creative development, so much that we end up losing trust in our abilities. What may seem like a lack of creativity is never due to shortage of talent, as far as I see it.

The book I have read is Bounce, written by Matthew Syed, the British number-one table tennis player in the late 90’s, a two-time Olympian, today a columnist for The Times and a commentator for BBC. His book is challenging the prevailing idea that success—whether in sports, business, school, arts or whatever—is determined, in large part, by the skills we are born with. In doing so, Syed pulls on recent scientific studies from around the world on the subject and makes for a convincing argument (well, I guess he never had to convince me in the first place).

When we see—of if you could see—“natural talents” like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, or for that matter Picasso or Mozart, in action, they seem to be in a different league than the rest of their equals—certainly compared to any of us regular mortal beings. What we forget and what we don’t see, is all the work they have put in to become extraordinarily good at what they do. Tiger Woods, for example, was considered a miracle golfer when he became the youngest ever winner of US Masters in 1997. Now, consider that Woods was given a golf club five days before his birthday, that by age two he had played his first round and that by five he had accumulated more hours of practise than most of us achieve in a lifetime. As Syed writes: “Far from being a golfer zapper with special powers that enabled him to circumvent practice, Woods is someone who embodies the rigour of practice.”

Practice is really what makes the difference. If you put in the work, you can excel in anything you want. Do you want to become a master photographer? It “only” takes some work, albeit a lot of hard, consistent and always pushing yourself kind of work. This much say, skills that are more based on pure physical strength may nevertheless have a component that is dependent on our heredity, such as for instance runners. However, not even the best runners in the world can compete at a top level without a lot of training. The genetic composition may have some saying, but medical science still haven’t found any “running gene”, which of course doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

For undertakings that are more complex, involving using more parts of our brain and body, Matthew Syed is adamant about how little talent matters. In achievements depending on fast reflexes, creativity, judging of multiple inputs and even intuition—without going into any definition of the word—we can only excel after hours and hours of hard work. Take a tennis player or a soccer player, he or she will not only have to be good a sending the ball over net or kicking a football and dribble, but he or she will have to be able to judge the movement of the opposition, weather conditions, the conditions of the field or the court and other variables. In many situations during a game he or she will have to make instant decisions. For instance a tennis player at the highest international level must be able to understand where the ball goes even before the opponent has hit the ball, judged upon how the opponent attacks the ball, being able to read even the smallest of muscle changes. This is not something that is God-given.

Syed calls it “combinatorial explosion”; tasks that requires a combinations of abilities and skill sets. As he writes in Bounce: “It is the rapid escalation in a number of variables in many real-life situations—included sports—that makes it impossible to sift the evidence before making a decision: it would take too long. Good decision making is about compressing the information load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience. […] it must be lived and learned. It emerges through practice.”

What Syed is saying, is that in practices that require “combinatorial explosion”, our skills need to have been ingrained in our backbones. We need to be able to apply them reflexively without having to think consciously. To get to such a point takes thousands and thousands of hours of training. Take photography once again. If you are doing street photography, you need to react fast and get your settings right at first try. If you need to think about how to set the camera, how to compose, when to push the shutter button and so on, the subject will have long been gone. You really need to be able to handle your camera without having to think about it at all. Again, this is something that takes long practice. It’s nevertheless achievable—even at the highest level—for anyone who is willing to put in the work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” is not depending on some inherited talent. However, in Bounce Syed is referring to plenty of research that clearly shows that more than anything such proficiency is not a result of heredity but rather environment. I am not going to recount some of the studies; if you are interested I suggest you read Bounce. Of course there is more to excel in whatever endeavour you are engaging in than being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” and put in a lot of work, but let me stop for now. In next week’s post, I will take up the thread and reflect on other aspects of the dichotomy of talent vs. practice.

I will just like to add one thing: Think about how our understanding affects our mind sets. If we believe being able to become good at something depends on talent, what will happen when we fail a couple of times with our endeavour? Of course, we will give up, thinking there is no point in continuing since we don’t have the necessary talent. Rather, failing shows the opposite, that we are on the right track. As Matthew Syed says; to be able to get better at something we need to push ourselves close to what we can possibly handle. That means failing—a lot—before we get the hang of it.

Stop Judging Yourself

Who is usually your worst critic? Am I terribly wrong to think it may be yourself? At least talking for myself; I sure don’t get as harsh critique from anybody but myself. Maybe not right away, but at some point I do get at myself for not having done my best. More often that I like to think.

When I am out there shooting, I usually get that great feeling of being completely present in the moment, and get sucked into whatever I am photographing. It’s what I call entering the tunnel—which I wrote about in the post Tunnel Vision some time ago. If things work out alright while shooting—when I actually enter that tunnel of creativity and concentration—I know after the session is over, that I haven gotten some pictures that will work out fine and might even be quite good.

But no matter how inspired I feel out in the field, whenever I come back and look at the pictures for the first time, I always get disappointed. Fortunately enough I know that with time, usually if I put the pictures aside for a couple of days or even weeks so that I get disconnect from the moment of shooting (and if I have the luxury of time), I will start looking at them differently—and I might start to see the potential in some of them. Still, sometimes, even after having been in the creative tunnel while shooting, I end up with a result that I am really unhappy about. None of the pictures captured the moment or the mood or the emotional context of whatever I was shooting. It’s always very disappointing to have to say to yourself; you did a lousy job.

When I am on assignment I cannot be in this place, and I know enough about photography to make things work so that a client will be satisfied. But it’s usually not during assignments I push myself beyond the limits of myself—at least not without playing it safe for the majority of the shots. It’s with my own projects things can really go completely wrong. And that’s when I become most disappointed with myself. It’s so easy then to backtrack and do the safe thing, save yourself from your own harsh critique. Why go there, when it doesn’t work anyway? I know now that I need to overcome that feeling. It’s almost exactly when things go wrong that I might be on the break of something completely new in my way of shooting. We are all so eager to dismiss ourselves. If the result isn’t perfect we love to give ourselves a slap in the face. You say to yourself: Stay away! Do what you know will work! Or even; stop doing this, because you aren’t good enough! Remember last week’s post about how destructive perfection can be?

Rather, we should say to ourselves: Stop judging yourself. Things go wrong from time to time—in all aspects of life. No big deal. Instead of coming down hard on yourself, try to learn from the experience, and if there is nothing to learn because it was all just a very wrong turn, then step back and give yourself some space. You don’t need to judge yourself so hard. You can’t always expect to please yourself as a creator. The fact is that some of your creations you will like—others not. But don’t stop doing what you are doing for that reason. It’s just like people; you don’t stop meeting people because there are those you don’t like.

Death by Perfection

Perfection. It’s a word often associated with high marks, implying you won’t let go before it’s just right. You always deliver top notch. People know they can trust you to make the best. It’s an attitude that shows you are a person having standards. Can’t go wrong if you strive for perfection…

Wait a minute.

Perfection or perfectionism could also mean that you take forever to get anything done, since nothing is good enough. If you are a perfectionist, maybe you aren’t getting much done at all, since there is always room for improvements. Maybe you don’t even try, because you know it’s not going to be perfect anyway.

I remember when I was younger I was living by the idea that it was better to do only three things and get them right from the start than trying a hundred things an maybe getting ten of them halfway right. In retrospect, I see that I was scared of not getting it right, rather than just trying out and see where it would lead. First time I jumped from a 10-meter diving board, I used the whole summer to build up courage to climb the tower. I wouldn’t let myself get up there and have to turn around not daring to do the jump. That would be too embarrassing. So, I used the summer to infuse mental strength in myself—and then did it. It did take the whole summer, though. And it seized my summer to such an extent that I couldn’t enjoy much else.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It’s a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or photographing or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get caught up in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none,” Miles David so correctly stated.

I know the feeling too well. I am out shooting an assignment for some magazine. I won’t let the editor down. I want to deliver perfect images. Instead, I stall my creativity because I am anxious about not being able to make those photos as good as I believe they should be—whatever that really means. I get more and more frustrated when I can’t get anything right or capture any photos that stands out. I keep digging myself deeper and deeper in expectations that just get higher and higher. There is no way out, at least not until I get so angry with myself and in pure frustration am able to let go of any pretentions.

The perfectionist processes and re-processes a photo. Keeps adding layers, keeps juggling settings, tries new filters, adds a detail here and another there. Darkens, brightens. Increase saturation. Decrease contrast. He or she never gets to finish processing the photo. In fact, if he or she would take a birds perspective he or she would see that the photo might just have been better from the start before all the excessive processing.

The perfectionist is never satisfied. The perfectionist never says, “This is pretty good. I think I’ll just move on.” To the perfectionist there is always room for improvements. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it’s ego-centricity. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, take and process a perfect photo.

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again. Don’t get me wrong. This is not an appeal to be sloppy with our creative outlet. We should do our best, but we shouldn’t keep striving for perfection. That may only lead us into a creative block or performance anxiety. Yes, we all want to become better at what we do, but getting better is a process not a finalized result. If you seek perfection, you seek an unattainable goal. As you get better so does your idea of perfection. The stake will always move outside of your reach since everything can always get better.

Instead of seeking perfection, accept that things are as they are. And rather do and risk failure, than wait until you know you can do it to perfection. You may never get started otherwise. And remember, failure is never failure if you look upon it as an opportunity to improve as I wrote in my post Weakness as Potential Strength more than a month ago.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a EOS 5D with a 24-105 mm lens set at 24 mm. It’s a double-exposure merged in Photoshop and then processed in both Lightroom and Photoshop.