A while ago, I got to talking to a friend on Writing.com, and his comments spurred Identity Crisis. However, these’s one aspect of his comments I didn’t cover there, and I actually forgot about it until a month or so ago when I attended a premiere at a local photo gallery. That aspect is audience expectations.
Steve (said friend) said that artistic photography should make some sort of statement about reality. I’ve already stated the reasons I disagree with that idea. In recent weeks, though, I’ve found I might not be the only one. Let me clarify that. I’m not the only one among photography consumers that merits technique and aesthetics over commentary. This is a mindset that can be found even among some (semi) professional photographers. This exhibit was held at Minneapolis Photo Center, a place I didn’t even know existed until last summer. It’s a place that you really only know about if photography is a big deal to you.
The premiere was really crowded, and I had to wait a bit to move from photo to photo. As a result, I had a chance to do some eavesdropping. It was incredibly fascinating. Many people who attended the show focused on the form and technique photographers employed. The nature (heh) of the exhibit certainly encouraged technical remarks. Even so, there were a lot of comments that could apply to most photo exhibits. In particular, I heard one gentleman remark on people downright abusing Photoshop to turn photos into paintings. I totally understand that complaint. Even so, at least these individuals used Photoshop in a plausibly convincing manner.
It was a pleasant surprise ti hear so many people focus strictly on what was in front of them. (Pardon the pun. Again.) There wasn’t any speculation about the photographer’s intent or any larger message. It was people simply enjoying the photos at face value. More to the point, it was people who regularly peruse photography taking everything at face value. Seeing and hearing people admire (or criticize) the images themselves proved enlightening. It also made me wonder about other photography audiences.
I admit I haven’t been around non-photography audiences as much as I’ve been around those who are more immersed in the photography world. When I’ve been around the former, the comments are less technical. At the same time, there aren’t many people seeing the exhibited photos as grandiose statements. Some people remarked on how the photos reflected the times. Others noted very general observations about the composition of the photos. You could hear a pin drop when nudity was involved. Hey, I live in the US and am speaking from experience in US museums. What do you expect? In any case, the comments were broad and superficial even in museum settings. I found that to be intriguing. I think I’ll need to make some more observations, though, to see if this holds up.
As you might have guessed from the lack of updates here, my job almost succeeded in eating me alive. Almost.
Oddly enough, it was my job that indirectly tipped off an identity crisis when it comes to photography. When I started training, I learned that two of my cohorts dabble in the craft. One of them happens to be really good at it.I’d rather not share his work here right now (as it will probably lead him here to this blog, which I’m not ready for him to find). Feel free to leave me a comment if you wish to see it. The thing about his portfolio is it made me feel like an inferior photographer. I saw through the fisheye lens and liberal post-production work to suss out solid composition and excellent timing. I am especially impressed with his shots of birds. Given how much I like birdies, I suddenly felt a bit unworthy. The praise posted did not help things. I had a bit of a meltdown over it, and only chats with a few different friends helped me determine what to do in regards to my future in taking pictures.
Long story short, I’ve started to really accept that I’m a technician and not an artist. When I raised the question of quitting photography on Facebook on Writing.com, the point was raised about artistic photography making a statement. Here’s the thing. I don’t always see photography that way, especially artistic works. When I view photos in a physical gallery or exhibit space, I look at how the photo utilizes foreground/midground/background facets of composition. I also consider how much I can immerse myself in the scene on a base level. Ultimately, that’s what I try to do with my photography. I aim to engage sense beyond sight. I want people to imagine the texture of flower petals, the scent of a goat’s enclosure, or hear the breeze jostling objects in a scene. I do this through various in-camera/in the field techniques. I feel that the vast majority of post-processing takes away from achieving this goal. Yes, this does apply to the work of the photographer I mentioned earlier.
When I’ve dabbled in competitions, I have had some success. Aside from my YBS Top 100 milestone, I have people favoriting/voting for my photos on I Shot It. I can’t say for sure if these people are experiencing what I share on a sensory level. It’s all anonymous, kind of like an actual gallery where I’m not around to directly observe their reactions. My photos seem to do things for some people, though. I guess I have that going for me.
Ultimately, camera technique interests me way more than post-processing (even if I can stomach Lightroom). I care more about finding lenses that will best fit my budget and subjects than I do about actions. Staying quiet to not disturb the wildlife I photograph is more important to me than staying on top of photo software updates. If these priorities mean I’m a technical photographer and not an artistic one, then that’s what I am. Why I keep trying my hand at artistic pursuits I’ll never know.
Being in the technical camp means I don’t have a whole lot of support out there, but I do have some. Ken Rockwell’s op-ed on RAW files echoes some of the sentiments I have when it comes to the craft of photography. I suppose it’s nice to see someone echo my thoughts when that person’s photography background is way different than mine. As I dove back into photography courtesy of working in a photo lab, I saw some lovely things come out of developing film by placing it through automatically timed chemical baths and nearly no interference in printing. Some customers I developed film for were taking photography classes and brought their film to my store. It was fun to see their work because it was really gorgeous. Because of that, I got to see stunning work created without post-processing meddling. If there was ever a moment that my anti-manipulation dogma took root, this would be it.
It all boils down to this. I’m a technique freak that’s been trying to bite off more than I can chew. I’ve gotten lucky in that regard in the past, but this time around it finally became too much. It’s in my best interest to stay focused on improving technique since my desire to make a grand statement on a topic with my photos doesn’t appeal to me. Here’s to actually staying true to my technique-oriented self. I hope I can do this.
I have started a new job, one that I’m genuinely happy to be endeavoring on. Of course, this means changes to my routine, and every routine change prompts me to think about what is important in my life. Because I have so many interests, I have to figure out how much time I’m going to devote to them, although these choices aren’t usually consciously made. That’s…a problem, actually.
Photography is one of my interests, but it’s not the only one. I tend to take on very demanding goals when I pursue a hobby, and taking pictures is full of those types of goals. So is writing. So is running. Lately, photography is where I’ve made the most headway. On the one hand, this is a good thing in light of next year’s plans. On the other hand, this headway is coming at the cost of slacking in my other interests.
I entered Adoramapix’s Your Best Shot 2015 contest and (surprisingly) got into the Top 100 with a shot that I didn’t hold in super high regard. In previous years, I’ve made my initial selections and then asked for feedback from people on my Facebook friends list. This time around, I hard some major difficult in whittling it down to less than 10 photos. I called upon a couple of photo-happy friends to narrow down a 30 photo list before I presented the selections to people on Facebook. They listed their top ten picks, and I grabbed the photo names that appeared on both lists. The results surprised me.
In previous years, I’ve gone with close-ups of flowers or machines in bright sunlight. These subjects have become my wheelhouses, if you will. What I found safe and appealing, though, was not unanimously liked by my photographer friends. Though close ups were still dominant in the selections, the lighting and subjects all vastly differed from each other. In that mix was an ultralow light shot I snagged in the Twin Cities Model Railroad Museum in January 2014. I still need to blog about that visit, but the point is one of those shots appeared on both lists. It was also near the top, to boot. I ended up selecting six photos to share on Facebook for more general feedback. While three of them were well liked, that railroad museum shot quickly became a favorite. Even though the ISO was jacked so high that noise was a bit of a problem, I decided to go with the feedback and enter that photo.
What you see there is my entry, and that photo has gotten further than anything I’ve entered in a photo competition (and a national one, to boot). For me, it was a huge risk. I had no choice but to edit it to reduce the noise, but I made sure I spent no more than ten minutes making noise reduction/color corrections. While I didn’t get any further, it showed me I have reached a major point in my photography evolution. I have shown I can hold my own in photography competitions (even with a lower end DSLR and a kit lens). There is still plenty to learn, but I now see that I just might have a chance to make something of all the photography work I’ve done throughout the years.
At this point, the question becomes what do I do in terms of going further with photography and entering competitions? Do I want to try to diversify my subjects to get further in competition? Diversification in subjects is going to mean practicing people photography more frequently. I’m kind of doing this with sports photography so my Olympics photos look at least halfway decent. At its core, though, art (and photography) centers on triggering emotional responses, which is easier to do on a large scale with photos of people. As someone who is autistic, that is incredibly challenging. Hiking through ice caves with 50 pounds of gear sounds blissful compared to photographing other people. Portraits are not necessarily a strong point for me, and I’m not sure how much I can bring myself to practice that, anyhow. Street photography is more suited to my spontaneous approach to photography, but not having a solid grasp on the legal implications makes that a bit tough to swallow at the moment.
My instinct is to improve from a technical standpoint. This means seeking out more challenging lighting situations, such as nights, sunrises/sunsets, action in low light, and lots of other scenarios. It also means more gear grappling. I’ll probably need to bring my tripod around more as well as invest in a a remote shutter release device. I’ve already started pricing out the latter, but getting in the habit of juggling the former is going to take time. I’m not used to it. On top of that, figuring out how well that all works with an older Tamron lens is going to be an annoyance for the ages. I will most likely have to break down and buy at least one new Nikon lens to resolve the autofocus compatibility issues I’m having. Right now, my reflexes are not quick enough to execute manual focus on action shots (although I have been trying my hand at that lately with somewhat mixed results).
I have goals, and I know what needs work. That’s about the easiest part of determining what to do abot photography in the short and semi-long term. The question is what I ought to be doing with a schedule that is getting increasingly intense. I am motivated to bring my mile time down, and the training needed will be longer and more intense in the next few months. Work is also going to be a very long learning process (although it feels strangely okay right now). With writing, I have a novel project planned since I don’t have a full novel to my name. That’s about the only thing I haven’t done writing-wise. It looks like photography may have to kick back a little bit in 2015. That almost makes sense considering how much time I devoted to it last year and will be devoting to it next year. I just hope I can maintain the skills I have.
A very strange thing has been happening. I’ve been talking to people offline about photography. Trust me what I say this is not something that happens very often.
So what have I been discussing with people? Well, just about anything and everything. I did attend a special exhibit for National Camera’s 100th Anniversary. I didn’t talk to people there, but it was an enlightening visit that preceded some interesting conversations I’d have in the following days. I listened to people talk about their past experiences using the equipment on display. The cameras on exhibit covered the gamut from a 1914 model (that still works!) and 617 format cameras to 80s Polaroids and the first iPhone. I was especially amused by the early digital cameras (point and shoot as well as SLR), as I had some memories of them. My mom had a super bulky Kodak model back in 2001, and I found it better suited for makeshift binoculars. I primarily used it to locate my dad in a crowded convention center after he was sworn in as an American citizen. Good times.
The next morning was when the conversations began. My husband and I had brunch at Signature Cafe before going to the Minnesota Zoo for a visit. Our server (Dave) was a cordial guy who it turns out was into photography and even served as an assistant for a friend who did extensive professional work. We discussed Canon and Nikon cameras. Dave had worked primarily with Canon models up until this last year when he was gifted a Nikon and some lenses. I will cop to Canon probably having better continuous shooting. I have used continuous shooting on Nikon, and it does take a little bit to process. Your finger needs to be on that shutter button a while if you want to get the maximum benefit of this shooting method. Needless to say, I’ve lost some precious opportunities. Thus, I would be more likely to defer to Canon in these cases. That said, we both agreed that the picture quality from Nikon models was overall superior. It’s always good to have a Team Nikon ally. 🙂 After brunch, my husband and I went to the Minnesota Zoo, where photography was the order of the afternoon. Hooray, flutterbies!
A few days later, I ended up conversing with a guy watching the Torchlight 5K on Hennepin Avenue. I went for the parade that followed the race but went early to get a good spot. I found a railing for newspaper racks, and there wasn’t much room in front of said railing, which gave me pretty decent visibility. Anyway, I realized that like a complete dumbass I left my battery at home and didn’t have another on me. While my husband wonderfully went back home to get one, I chatted with the guy to my left. It turns out he’d been in Minneapolis much of the day to take pictures. He had a Canon compact point-and-shoot model and displayed a decent aptitude for the cameras he was using. His composition struck a cord with me, as it was reminiscent of some of my work throughout the years. He asked a lot of questions, and I shared with him the things I’ve managed to learn over time. As I’ve gotten older, I understand that photography is truly an ongoing learning process. Unlike writing, I feel like I have a lot more I can learn in terms of the craft of photography. In some people’s eyes, I wouldn’t be called a photographer. That doesn’t mean I haven’t made efforts to learn what I can in terms of technique and research equipment. During this conversation, I discussed the rule of thirds and elaborated on a panning technique that focuses on a moving subject in the foreground but blurs the background. I even pulled up Facebook photos to show as examples. The gentleman expressed great interest in learning more about the nuts and bolts of photography, and he even laughed at my (completely unplanned) pun in which I used the phrase “the big picture” when discussing the components of exposure. Talking to him also made me realize just how much I have learned so far in taking photos. Between reading, chatting with picture-taking friends, and just going out there, I’ve done quite a bit of work in the roughly 15 years I’ve been taking pictures. I didn’t even realize that much time had passed. 😛 In all seriousness, being able to teach someone a bit about photography made me realize how much I enjoy this craft and how much I want people to understand what it is that practitioners of this craft go through. It’s not whipping out a cell phone and grabbing something to plug into Instagram. It’s a method to look at what’s around you, one that requires great concentration and alertness to any given environment. Thus, people who state that photography is easy miss an important point. Operating a camera is easy. Capturing a photography is another story.
Once upon a time, photography was a waiting game. After you clicked the shutter and removed the exposed film from your camera, each step to get to seeing the end result required patience. You’d have to wait for the developer and fixer to prepare the negatives for printing. The prints themselves took time as well. If you weren’t able to do this yourself for whatever reason, you’d need to send the film off to a lab. That could take up to a week or more, depending on the lab you selected. While I’m young enough to adapt to various new electronics with ease, I’m also old enough to remember sending my film off to a lab. Gotta love being born in the mid-80s!
I started thinking about this after reading a post about one woman’s memories of the photographers in her life and her dabbling in the craft. While I didn’t grow with darkroom enthusiasts nearby, I do have some darkroom experience. When I was in fifth grade, I did an experiment comparing the effectiveness of suntan lotions and sunblocks. Given that I grew up in Florida, this seems like a perfectly reasonable science fair project. 😛 Anyway, to control for differences in melanin, I used black and white photo paper. I slid a sheet of paper in a clear plastic report folder that had four taped sections. I applied the sun lotions to separate quadrants and set the folder in the front yard for an hour or so to get some sunlight. Once that was done, I brought the paper in the house for development. I was in fifth grade at the time, so I was allowed to do some of development work. The thing is, we never obtained the light bulb needed for darkroom work, which meant I was truly in the dark. The reason we didn’t get the bulb was because we converted the guest bathroom (my bathroom) into a darkroom for this project. I set everything up and stuffed a couple towels in the bottom of the door to ensure no light came in to muck up my prints. It had been a real chore getting all the chemicals and photo paper, but we did get all the materials. Keep in mind this was back in the mid 90s, and I lived in a small town. I’m surprised there was even a photography store that had everything in stock. Armed with fixer, developer, rinses and bins, I set to work developing my sun exposed science project prints. They turned out pretty well, and it certainly got the attention of my classmates come time for the science fair. I don’t know what happened to those prints. I kind of wish I still had them.
The point of that story is I know how to wait. Having put my hands in the developing chemicals at a fairly young age (before I even started taking my own pictures) gave me a chance to understand the processes photographers have gone through many, many times. It’s not a quick process, especially when you’re doing all the processing yourself. When I started taking my own photos in my teens, it was back to the waiting game. I’d take my disposable cameras and APS canisters to Publix and later Walgreens so they could send it to their offsite labs (as many outlets with in-house processing lacked APS capabilities for the first couple years). That involved waiting a week or so for my photos. This was especially annoying when I was 15 and took nearly 100 photos for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Since my family bought the film, I did not get the negatives back and barely had a chance to look at the prints before handing them over. I had only been taking pictures even halfway seriously for a year at the most, so that waiting game was kind of annoying. It got a little better once I got out of high school and got a job in a photo lab. I’d still opt for next day service since it was cheaper, but I got to look at my photos right away. It was a good time. 🙂
Along the way, film gave way to digital, both for my personal endeavors and throughout the photography world. This wasn’t an instant catalyst to instant photos, but the wait time shrunk significantly. For those who embraced digital right away, there was still a need to visit a photo lab and stick your memory card in the appropriate slot. Then you’d go through and select the prints you wanted (not to mention making edits). While you could get your prints within an hour at most, those kiosk areas got crowded and a little unsafe for others in the store. Half the time, if I was helping someone at a kiosk I had to also play traffic cop to ensure nobody got hurt. I left the photo lab in 2005, but since I still took pictures, I kept tabs on what changes developed (heh). I was making photo CDs of my digital pictures pretty regularly, so I could see when the commonly used equipment started to shift from cameras to phones. It’s fairly recent, all things considered. Even when the first iPhone rolled out in 2007, people were really relying on their separate camera photos up until 2009-2010. That’s when the shift to cell phone cameras began. It didn’t really pick up for another year after that, but now everything is available instantaneously.
How do I feel about it? I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I can appreciate having something more readily available and not requiring extensive processing. This can be especially useful in the wake of disasters, crimes, or other events that would benefit from real time photography. On the other hand, I’m dismayed at how having photo editing software in smart phones is making everyone think they can take pictures. Even though I’m a photographer, you couldn’t pay me $80 billion to set up an account on Instagram. It’s all not my aesthetic, but that’s mostly because I’m not up for filtering my photos to an oblivion. Some people may complain about snotty attitudes from some photographers regarding what constitutes “real photography”, but I can understand why some people who have extensively practiced the craft get upset. When I worked in the photo lab, I saw a lot of things that could go wrong with taking pictures. While it’s not as likely to see the finger in the lens mistake these days, camera shake is still a problem with any form of camera, and completely out-of-focus have diddly to do with art. It looks like a drunk person’s point of view, at least from where I’m sitting. I could go on about all the various basic things I’ve seen people do that they think is cool but is not going to be taken seriously by anyone with even a passing interest in the craft. I acknowledge that even with taking pictures for just about half my life now there are still things I can do to improve. The thing that bothers me the most about the instantaneous nature of photography these days is that the speed of the process tends to obscure the weak points in a photographer’s craft, thus hindering improvement and progress.
On that note, enjoy some photos I took at Blank Park Zoo way back in April! Since the weather was rainy when I went, I’d like to go back in more pleasant conditions (and with a longer lens). It was a good time.
A while ago I downloaded an Adobe Lightroom trial. Yeah, I know how strange this sounds coming from someone who has previously railed against the post-production obsession that has pervaded photography culture over the last decade or so. The only reason I even considered it was because I have had some issues with chromatic aberration that Paint Shop Pro doesn’t address all that well with its corrector. Ironically, I didn’t deal with that during my trial period.
Now that the trial is over, I figured I’d share my thoughts on Lightroom. Given that I didn’t use all 30 days of the trial, I acknowledge that my overall impression is tempered by my lack of experience with the program. It was okay. I had a bit of a learning curve to deal with just in terms of navigation. I was a bit let down by the brightness/contrast controls, as it wasn’t always enough (especially on very underexposed photos I wanted to lighten up to show more redeeming factors). The histogram control didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but I still managed to get decent results. My efforts with individual color control also fell flat for me, but I was probably expecting far more drastic changes than what I got. I also wasn’t especially thrilled about the various view and zoom options. Zoom is very limited, and I like to go individual pixel level. That’s what I’m most comfortable with, considering that most of my early graphics work involved fixing corrupted JPEG files. With all that said, I did figure out some of the brush tools, though, and that was a pleasant surprise. If I can’t find something like that on Paint Shop Pro, I’m willing to plunk down the money for Lightroom (once I have the money, that is). It’s the most powerful control I could find in the program, and it worked well when I used it.
With all that said, I’m not sure if I’d spend any more time in the editing room if I went balls to the wall with Lightroom. Even with new programs at my disposal I’m not huge on editing. I very rarely enjoy it and still feel like a fraud when I do it. I feel like even slight saturation changes affect this form of art and time travel. So you may see more edited photos in the future, but they will never surpass the number of photos that are camera-only.
Confession time. I occasionally forget to adjust my shutter speed when I move from a bright environment to one with less light. As a result, I get some underexposed shots. The thing is, I sometimes get frames that I really like. When I Google deliberate underexposure, there’s very little that discusses the shutter speed tweaks that I use without any post processing work. So for all I know I’m using horrible technique! Let’s take a look at what I’ve done. It’s not a whole lot, and it’s spread out over four years/two cameras. My oblivious nature is the uniting thread in all these.
As you can see in this example from 2010, I accidentally use an ultrafast shutter speed when photographing a brightly colored object in the shade or other muted lighting. I usually do this when I’m constantly switching environments and am not paying attention to the lighting changes. When you think about it, we photographers spend a good amount of time switching environments even if we’re in the same locale. Light can change in the space of two minutes and/or two feet. I’ve worked to pay closer attention, so I generally don’t create these accidental but interesting looking shots all that much. When I got Rigoberto, however, I had a whole bunch of these moments. What was weird about that was I’d already had Rigoberto for a couple months and had done extended shoots before. We could probably write it off as me being a space cadet or being overwhelmed by the kids around. In all fairness, I was there around 2:30 or so on a Friday afternoon, so toddlers and any kids who could get out of school early were bound to be there. Maybe I should try for 10 AM on a Tuesday or something next time. We’ll see about that.
Okay, that last one wasn’t a good example, but I felt like including it since it had a related effect. In any case, I might try deliberately underexposing shots and see what happens. I’ll just need to make sure I can find enough brightly colored objects, and I’ll try to photograph things besides flowers. I have so many flower photographs it’s not even funny.