Category Archives: Essays

The Bucket List Thing

"These Three Ships" Bridgetown, Barbados. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
“These Three Ships” Bridgetown, Barbados. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas

Kathy & I recently attended a travel show in Charlotte, hoping to get some ideas for places we’d like to go. As is inevitable at these events, someone along the line asked the question, “so what’s on your Bucket List? It’s a common question, and has gotten to be a bit cliché, but for the most part is simply used as a conversation starter. I don’t take offense at the question, but do tend to bristle a bit whenever I hear it. Let me explain.

San Juan, Puerto Rico. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
San Juan, Puerto Rico. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
San Juan, Puerto Rico. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
San Juan, Puerto Rico. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
Street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned from my photography is that we can’t go everywhere or do everything – we can only do so much. We’re never going to see everything there is to see. There is always a “better” sunrise or sunset happening somewhere else. And traveling to exotic destinations does not guaranty good photographs. Not that there aren’t a lot of good reasons to travel to beautiful locations. My approach has become to travel to places I am interested in, take my camera and make photographs wherever I happen to be. Traveling to a place specifically to take photographs, more often than not, results in looking for preconceived or iconic photos, at the expense of seeing things through my unique eyes and vision.

San Juan, Puerto Rico. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
San Juan, Puerto Rico. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
San Juan, Puerto Rico. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
San Juan, Puerto Rico. November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas

One of my favorite ways to travel is to rough out a route, then look to see what else there is to do along the way. When I get to a T in the road, it is not unusual for me to go left when my directions tell me to go right. I’ve found a lot of interesting things – and interesting photographs – by going the “wrong” way. It’s nothing for us to be driving down a country road, see a sign for something or other and say, “let’s check it out.” We do and it is often a worthwhile diversion.

View of Nelsons Dockyard and English Harbor, Antigua
View of Nelsons Dockyard and English Harbor, Antigua
November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas

I try to avoid falling into what I have heard referred to as “get-there-itis.” That’s what happens when we are so focused on the route or the destination that we don’t take time to enjoy the journey. If we never stray from the highway, we never see that fish processing plant at the end of the dead-end road or stop at a waterfall that isn’t on the map. And that’s why I don’t like the idea of a Bucket List in the way I suspect a lot of people look at it. The problem becomes when we look too far ahead or focus too much on the list itself to the exclusion of other choices. We also run the danger of over-planning, and don’t leave time for serendipity.

Weekend in Charleston, October 2004
Weekend in Charleston, October 2004
Weekend in Charleston, October 2004
Weekend in Charleston, October 2004

There are obviously unlimited ways to consider a bucket list, and that obviously makes a difference when it comes to what it means. If we think of it as a list of places we’d like to consider going, but use it more as a guide in case we lose our memory before the money runs out, then yeah, that is probably OK. But taken to the extreme, if it becomes an “ohmygawdIjusthavetodoallthesethingsbeforeIdieormylifewillbeafailure” list, then it becomes – in my opinion – little more than a list of potential disappointments, for those things we don’t get to do, or because of things we pass by because we are too determined to cross off one more thing.

Weekend in Charleston, October 2004
Weekend in Charleston, October 2004
Weekend in Charleston, October 2004
Weekend in Charleston, October 2004

There are obviously a lot of places I would like to go and things that I would like to do. I even have a list! But there really isn’t anyplace I feel like I need to get to in order to be satisfied. I’ve wanted to go to Colorado since I was a kid, and finally got there last year. I’d probably love Hawaii, but as Kathy & I were reminiscing about our recent visit to Nevis – admittedly a “Bucket List-worthy” destination in its own right – we wondered just how much “better” Hawaii might be? Different, certainly. It’s hard to say, and we might get to find out someday. I’d like to go to several places in Europe, but if I don’t get there that will be OK.

November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas

Our son Kevin leaves today for a week in Peru, and I am quite envious. Is Peru on my “Bucket List?” No, but when he talks about the things he is going to do there, it sounds like a place I’d like to go. Somehow I had just never considered it. Will I add it to my list? Quite possibly. But more likely I will channel my thoughts to answer the question of “so, what is MY Peru?” What place would I love to go that I haven’t thought of? I’m not sure, and when I find it I hope there is a flight or a ship to take me there!

November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas
November 2004 Cruise on Serenade of the Seas

I find that I can be perfectly happy making the best of anywhere I am. Whether that is Waynesville or Belhaven, North Carolina, Key West or Fort Collins, those places are special to me also. Many of my best memories and favorite photographs are from places that wouldn’t be on too many Bucket Lists. But I get the most satisfaction from experiences and not from places. And I think my photographs reflect that, too.

October 2004 Trip to GSMNP
October 2004 Trip to GSMNP

Lists, Goals & Plans

Fall Color in Historic Frog Level, North Carolina
Fall Color in Historic Frog Level, North Carolina

Kathy and I love to travel, of course, and while we aren’t the “world travelers” that some have made us out to be, we’ve seen our share of the world and we spend a lot of time talking about what kind of travel we want to do. We have our lists of places we “should” go, and all of those have varying levels of interest and priority. And of course there are places that we would love to go but probably never will. Some of our favorite memories are from places where most people would never bother to go. Of all the places we’ve been, a trip to Kentucky a few years ago still comes to mind as one of our favorite experiences. Who’da thunk?

Dogwood in fall colors, Waynesville, North Carolina
Dogwood in fall colors, Waynesville, North Carolina

Like a lot of things, what we do and what we enjoy has to come from within. We need to be able to take the time to figure out what means the most to us. What are our priorities, rather than a heavily cliché-ed “bucket list” developed by some magazine publisher to sell more advertising. Who we are and how we feel is a product of our own existence and our own experiences. Comfort level has a lot to do with what we are willing to try. Not everyone has that voice that tells us to step out of our comfort zones. But for those of us who do, we definitely need to listen.

Fall Color in Waynesville, North Carolina
Fall Color in Waynesville, North Carolina
Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North
Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina

Like a lot of people, I’m often tempted by the idea of “if I knew then what I know now.” But I try to keep a lid on those thoughts, because ultimately I didn’t know then what I know now, and my entire life’s experience ultimately contributes to where and who I am today. I can’t change the past, so the best approach for me is to look ahead, because that’s the only thing I have any degree of influence on – to make the best of what I have and who I am.

Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina
Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina

In many ways, this idea of comfort zone has parallels with the way we see the world. For those of us who are observers, we see things that other people don’t see, and sometimes others see things we don’t see. And we travel the same way. When I first started doing photography seriously I would sometimes get up in the middle of dinner, afraid that I was going to “miss” sunset. I’ve since learned that I’m always missing something, and that helps me reconcile the idea that I’m not going to get to “do” everything.

Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina
Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina

Kathy & I are very close to the point where we can decide to walk away from our corporate lives. Quite often we find ourselves feeling that that day can’t come soon enough. There are other days when things seem to go along fairly well and it feels like collecting a few more paychecks won’t be all that difficult. The difficult thing is going to be determining when the right time might be to call it quits. We have established many checkpoints that will tell we’re on the path. Some of those we have met, many we’re close on, but a few major ones have yet to be realized. But we have a plan and hope that when the time comes we’ll have the guts to say, “NOW.”

Pumpkin Patch at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina
Pumpkin Patch at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina

For me, my primary goal for what I want to do in retirement is to stay retired!   If I end up doing some kind of work I’d like it to be for personal satisfaction rather than to pay the bills. The good thing is that there are a lot of rewarding things we can do that don’t cost an enormous amount of money. While they may not check other peoples’ boxes for fulfillment, they might be just fine if that was the alternative.

Fall Color in Historic Frog Level, North Carolina
Fall Color in Historic Frog Level, North Carolina

 We’ve never paid a lot of attention to the “if money were no object” scenarios because it was always our intention for that not to be an issue. Not that we expect to never have to think about money, but the idea all along has been to have provided for a level of financial security that would allow us to continue living the life we have become comfortable with. And if that doesn’t work out, I suspect we’ll figure out how to travel and buy wine with whatever we do have! So for now, we hope to hold on to the jobs we’ve got for as long as we can, and every paycheck is a victory of sorts. Murphy’s Law would suggest that as soon as we decide for one of us to stay home, the remaining job we’d be counting on would go away.

Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina
Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina

For a lot of people, their biggest fear with retirement is that they won’t have anything to do. That is the thing that I worry about the least! Whenever we decide to walk out of that corporate world, I know that there is a whole lot of world out there to explore. And while I don’t have a chance of ever seeing it all, Kathy & I both plan to make a point of enjoying whatever we do see as much as we possibly can. That doesn’t take a list, and it doesn’t take a lot of planning, but I think it is a pretty good goal.

Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina
Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, North Carolina

But, It’s On Sale!

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

This post has been rolling around in my head for some time, but Thanksgiving and all the Black Friday hoopla seems to be an appropriate time to gather these thoughts and put them out on the blog.

On our recent journey to Charleston, I remember at one point commenting about the number of car dealerships clustered around a particular interchange.  I think it was somewhere around Columbia, SC but it could be anywhere in the US big enough to have car dealerships.  As much as I love and appreciate nice cars, the automobile business has always served to me as a prime representation of marketing-driven consumption.  If I wanted to be negative I could say “greed and excess” here, but it wouldn’t serve my point.  So we’ll call it marketing-driven consumption.  Black Friday is another prime example of marketing-driven consumption to the max.

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

I specifically remember, shortly after buying a new car several years ago, someone told me “congratulations!” as if to imply that purchasing a new car was some kind of heroic achievement.  But that’s how cars have always been marketed, as symbols of success and status.  When I was growing up, each September my brother & I would start sneaking into the storage lots behind the local car dealerships to get a peek at the new models to be introduced in the fall.  Back in that day, models tended to really change between model years, rather than just another homogenized ToyHoNisOlet, because the manufacturers relied more on the cars to sell themselves. And they all had somewhat distinctive features, from styling to performance.

Today, many cars, at least those the regular folks can afford, all look pretty much alike.  So it takes marketing to make us want one over another.  And that marketing is usually aimed at making someone feel young, attractive, successful, more interesting or some attribute only accomplished by purchasing a particular product.  Because it’s been hammered into our heads for so long, whenever someone sees a friend driving a new car, there is often a tinge of envy (or worse) and at least a little bit of “must be nice.”  I usually look at it and think of what I could do with the payment.  But that’s just me.

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

Anyway, the comment that I made when I saw all of these car dealerships was that if there was some way we could be identified and ranked (because after all this is all about judging and ranking – a subject for another post) not by how fancy our car is or the neighborhood we live in, but by the size of our 401(k) our IRA or our savings account, would there be investment offices at all of these interchanges instead of car dealerships?  Would we make different decisions if they were based on mindful reasoning instead of marketing?  And how would those decisions be reflected in our personal wellbeing if they didn’t involve spending huge sums of money or committing to an endless stream of payments?

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

In that same vein, why do so many people tend to judge how serious someone is about photography based on the type of equipment they own or the subject matter that they photograph?  Have we been convinced by marketing and promotion by the camera manufacturers and retailers that the only way to take meaningful photographs is to have the latest and greatest camera and lens?  Perhaps.  But I prefer to appreciate a photographer’s work based on the quality of their photographs, and when possible the stories behind the photographs.  THAT is what photography means to me, not what brand of camera someone has, or which lens or how big their sensor is.  Or even whether they are using a digital camera or film.  But that’s hard, just like resisting the temptation brought on by advertising and marketing is hard.

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

As someone who doesn’t own a television or listen to commercial radio (I usually say that “I don’t watch TV” because saying “I don’t own a TV” makes some people uncomfortable) I’m not bombarded by all of the marketing messages that drive consumer spending.  Kathy & I just don’t buy a lot of stuff, and when we do, we buy it because we need or want it.  Being on sale isn’t generally a factor in our buying decision, although once we make a decision to purchase something we will often wait on a sale to buy it if we aren’t in a rush.  But I still find myself attracted by the “Sale” or “Limited Time Only” mentality, and sometimes have to work hard to curb that feeling I get when something looks attractive because I’m afraid that I might not be able to have it.

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

As Kathy & I prepare to move into our “downsized” new home, and after having lived for the last 6 months in a rented apartment with just our most essential belongings, we have come to realize that all of the things we have been storing since May are things that aren’t really necessary for our daily lives.  And while we did a really good job of paring down the things that we deemed “disposable” before we moved, we now think that maybe we didn’t go far enough.  Many of things we have been storing are things that we’re going to have to think really hard about, in order to decide how much of it we even need or want to keep.

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

So what does this all have to do with anything?  In the last few days, like many of us I’ve been bombarded by e-mails from every merchant I’ve ever done business with promoting their Black Friday “Doorbusters.”  I don’t know about everyone else, but I haven’t yet seen a “deal” on anything I’d actually buy.  I don’t think of camera equipment as something that is an impulse purchase.  Most people only buy a camera when they need one, after weeks or sometimes months of analysis or research.  I’ve enjoyed several recent exchanges on the blogs of some of my photo friends, discussing things like the aesthetics of a particular camera.  Talking about how a camera feels to hold versus another, the ease of use or feel of the controls.  Discussions around the mindfulness of talking photographs and cutting out the noise and chatter that distracts us from the pursuit of activities that make us happy.  Things that matter to those of us who actually use a camera to take photographs, not just collect equipment or are constantly chasing after the next great thing.  But that isn’t stuff you can buy at the mall or Best Buy.

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

Monte has demonstrated that you don’t need to necessarily buy the latest version of a camera, that the introduction of a new model can mean a good deal on the previous one.  That makes the older model a good value, because it will do exactly what he needs it to do for a fraction of the cost of when it was new, or of the cost of the new model.

Chris has spent some time comparing the relative qualities of several mirrorless compact camera models, and has formed an opinion that seems to be contrary to the popular opinion.  But if a particular camera meets your needs, then it is the right tool for you.  Whether or not something is on sale doesn’t make it a good deal if it isn’t what you want.  And I guess that is my point.

And Cedric wrote a similar post about how the ergonomics and feel of a camera means more to him than megapixels and dynamic range.  His story about an exchange with a photography professor about the “feel” of a camera was a good one.

Mindfulness is a theme I have been pursuing lately.  Decisions made in a calculated fashion, not driven by a marketing frenzy.  Just being on sale isn’t a reason to buy anything we don’t want or need.  Not buying something means you have saved the entire price, not just a percentage.  And not needing a place to store all of our accumulated junk means we have room and resources for things that do matter to us.  A purchasing decision made mindfully is a good one regardless of the price of the item being purchased.

I’m looking forward to living even more mindfully in 2014.  We’ll see how that actually plays out.  But first I’m going to have to sort through all the stuff that the movers are going to deliver in a couple of weeks!  I’ll probably decide to start planning a vacation…that’s a lot more fun than a car payment.

Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina
Graveyard behind the Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina

“The Vicissitudes of Life”

A Different Perspective, Aboard Sea Princess
A Different Perspective, Aboard Sea Princess

My grandfather was a wise man, and growing up I learned a lot of my lessons about life from hours of conversations at my grandparents’ kitchen table.  We talked about everything from music, work and investing, to relationships and life in general.  In many ways I was closer to my grandparents than my parents, because they loved and appreciated me for who I was, and they didn’t carry the burden of trying to raise me and to make sure I “came out right.”

Grandpa had lots of sayings, phrases and colloquialisms that he liked to use.  One of his favorite “good-bye’s” was the admonishment to “keep your head clear and your bowels open.”  I always thought that was rather silly, but I knew what he meant.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized even more what he meant.

Skagway Brewing Company, Skagway, Alaska
Skagway Brewing Company, Skagway, Alaska

Our numerous conversations often revolved around things that troubled me as well as things that made me happy.  When I started to second guess my choice of major in my first year of college, we talked about the pros and cons.  He supported my decision to change to a business major and helped me get my first job in banking.  I didn’t talk a lot about relationships with him, but we shared the occasional tear over a lost love or a missed opportunity.    We talked about the good things and the bad.  When my grandparents experienced health issues we talked about aging.  When my parents were experiencing what were ultimately terminal health issues we spent a lot of time talking about life.

I always joked that it was because he was an avid golfer that he was able to withstand “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”  Nothing was more exhilarating and at the same time frustrating as the game of golf (exhilarating for him and frustrating for me).  He was always good at golf, and despite my best efforts I always sucked at it.  But he applied his philosophy of golf to the way he looked at life.  Whenever we talked about things that were especially wonderful or especially troubling, he would look off into the distance and exclaim, “Ah, the Vicissitudes of Life.”

Sonoma City Hall, Sonoma, California
Sonoma City Hall, Sonoma, California

Nothing has epitomized the Vicissitudes of Life as much as the last several years.  In 2009 I spent 9 months out of work, but late in the year found a job doing what I’ve done for 30+ years.  In 2010 Scott – our oldest son – was engaged, we took a cruise with Scott & Kristin and our best friends Bill & Cathy.  In 2011 Kevin – our youngest son – graduated from college after a longer than anticipated effort, Scott & Kristin got married and we gained a daughter.

This past year showed us the other side of the pendulum.  Kathy lost both of her parents in a three month period, after a rather abrupt turn for the worse early in the year.  I lost four friends and co-workers – three of whom had retired over the last several years – in the last year.  All four well before their time.  Few things are harder than that, but through it all we’ve managed a few bright spots.  Both of our kids spent another year paying their own bills, we had a few great vacations, made some new friends and re-connected with some old ones.  We’ve inched a few steps closer to our eventual retirement and are making some great plans for 2013.

Kathy told me the other night that, despite how tough this year has been, that she is thankful that relatively speaking, her burden has been light.  She knows that despite all that happened, things could have gone differently.  It’s unlikely that they would have gone better for her parents, since the forces that took them were irreversible.  But it’s not hard to think about what things could have been like.  And she’s right.  There are many people carrying much heavier burdens than those we have been carrying.  To the extent we can help we certainly will, and to the extent we can be thankful for our own, we’ll do our best.

One of numerous fire escapes and colorful facades in San Francisco, California
One of numerous fire escapes and colorful facades in San Francisco, California

For me, the Vicissitudes of Life means being open to the things that life brings us, and understanding that with the good sometimes must come the bad.  It means not living in fear of the future or of the unknown, but it also means not ignoring the realities.  It means finding a balance between enjoying today while planning for tomorrow.  It means being there when a friend needs us, and not being afraid to ask for help when we need it.  It means supporting others when things are tough, and celebrating with them when things go well.  It means recognizing what’s important and focusing our energies on those things, and being mindful of all the things that are not as deserving of our time and attention.

For our Christmas gifts this year, Kathy & I bought new luggage.  But we’re convinced that the true gift is not the luggage itself but is the privilege, and perhaps the responsibility, to put as many miles on it as possible.  So off we go!

Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, California
Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, California

Anatomy of a Photograph – “Early Snow and Fall Color, Smokies”

Final Processed File using Lightroom 3 and Process Version 2010. Canon 5D with Canon 100-400 at 200mm 1/13 sec @ f22 ISO 200

A number of my non-photographer friends have asked me on numerous occasions why their photographs don’t look like my photographs.  And of course the sentiment I hear most often is that “I must have a really great camera.”  And I tell them, “of course I do, but I could make the photographs I make with just about any camera.  It all has to do with how I take the photograph, and knowing what to do with it after I take it.”

Many people incorrectly attribute this answer to mean that I am “Photoshopping” my photos, but when they do, their impression is that that means something sinister or unethical.  I try to explain that a lot of what I do is no different than what might have been done with film in a darkroom.  I just don’t have to do it with chemicals, I do it with a computer.

This article is written primarily for me to be able to point my friends to something that explains, better than I could possibly do in the lunchroom at work or at dinner in a nice restaurant, what I mean when I say that I “develop” or “process” my photos in Lightroom.  And hopefully some of my photographer friends will find this interesting and perhaps even informative.

This photograph was taken in October 2011 on one of those rare times when the fall color was just about at peak, and an early morning snowstorm came through with just about perfect timing.  An hour before this photo was taken I was sitting in my car in the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome, being buffeted by gale force winds when a snow plow driver stopped to tell me that I had better get started down because he was planning to lock the gate.  I wisely retreated to a lower elevation and found this scene.

The scene in front of me was overall pretty dark and lacking in contrast, because even though the sun was lighting up the clouds the light was pretty diffused and the sun was not shining through all that brightly.  I knew from experience that my camera would try to overexpose to bring the values closer to an average exposure.  But I also knew that the snow and clouds were on the brighter end of the scale and would cause my camera to want to under underexpose the snow and clouds.  I figured (correctly) that the two would just about balance each other out and made no adjustments to what the meter was reading.  I confirmed the exposure with the histogram after the shot.

At the time I was pretty certain that I had captured some good photographs of a pretty amazing scene, but I also knew that a great deal of post-processing would be required to obtain a final image that looked like what I “saw” while I was standing at that overlook.  When I got home and imported the files into the computer, the first thing I saw was this flat looking gray mess that some people might be tempted to toss.  But I had a plan and went to work.

Unprocessed RAW file as imported to Lightroom

The first thing I did was to adjust the white balance to warm the scene up a little.  My camera does a very good job with finding the “right” white balance, but I knew I was going to need to add some warmth to get the look I was after.  About 500 points was plenty to get what I wanted.  Next, I knew I needed to add a lot of contrast, since the snow and clouds made for a very low-contrast scene.  I ended up adding a lot of black – about 70 points (this is Process Version 2010 in Lightroom – the new adjustment tools had not been invented yet!).  Some adjustments to the mid-tones and highlights and I was starting to get somewhere!

After some basic adjustments to white balance, tone and contrast.

My next step was to add some additional color contrast by using Split-toning to cool the shadows while keeping warmth in the highlights.  This is pretty subtle but gives the scene a bit more vibrance.

After extensive use of the Adjustment Brush for localized dodging & burning, contrast and saturation

After a bunch of time spent cloning dust spots – the photo was shot at f22 – I was ready to move on to some fine tuning.  I made extensive use of the Adjustment Brush to selectively darken and lighten specific areas of the photo, added some contrast and saturation to areas that needed it, and generally “shaped” the image to direct the viewer’s eye through the scene.  A little vignetting to keep the viewer inside the frame, some tweaks to the capture sharpening and noise reduction and it’s done.  Or done for now, as I haven’t yet tried to make a print of this photo.  Doing that will undoubtedly require another round or two of adjustments once I see what it looks like on paper.  I’d also like to experiment with this image using Process Version 2012 in Lightroom 4, but when I click the button to convert it the photo turns to crap again.  So we’ll have to save that and printing for a future episode!

After some additional fine tuning and sharpening, and adding a subtle vignette.
After some additional fine tuning and sharpening, and adding a subtle vignette.

The Myth of Manual?

Frog’s Leap Public House Restaurant in Downtown Waynesville, North Carolina

Several weekends ago, Kathy & I were having an interesting discussion about why someone should or should not shoot in Program or Auto mode on their camera instead of using one of the “serious” modes such as Manual, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, and what might be right or wrong with that.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, actually.

Kathy knows more about the workings of a camera than a lot of people I know who have spent much more time in photography.  But she also knows that trying to remember all those things can sometimes take the fun out of just going out and making photographs.  So she asked me, and we talked about, “what’s wrong with just shooting JPEGs in Program Mode?”  What’s wrong, indeed?  Kathy & I were talking more in terms of the camera, in many cases, being smarter than we are.  And to a certain extent, she makes a very, very good point.

Frog’s Leap Public House Restaurant in Downtown Waynesville, North Carolina

My very first SLR was a Konica TC that I bought back in the late 70s, and while it had a meter, it was Manual everything, so when I set the aperture, a little needle would tell me whether my shutter speed was high or low, so I adjusted until I had it where I wanted it.  And I learned about things like exposure compensation the hard way, after I got the film back and tried to remember what I did!  But because I first learned photography with a camera that only had manual controls, it’s pretty easy for me to think in terms of aperture or shutter speed on the fly – I have “Program Mode” in my head!

I put the Konica away sometime in the 80s then shot for years with a number of different point & shoot cameras while the kids were growing up.  This worked fine until I decided to get back into photography more seriously and bought a Nikon N70 around 2000.  It had auto-focus and auto-metering!  But I mostly shot it in Manual and Aperture Priority because that’s what I was used to.  I would venture to guess that most people buying that camera, however, probably shot it in Auto mode.

Light fixture in Downtown Waynesville, North Carolina

Shortly after buying the Nikon, someone suggested that I needed to buy a medium format camera, so I went out and bought a Mamiya 7 rangefinder and a 65mm lens.  Soon after I added a 50mm lens and a 150mm lens.  That camera was manual everything with a funky little meter that, once you learned how to use it, worked pretty well.  Again, I was perfectly comfortable with the manual exposure controls and manual focus, because that is how I learned.  I eventually ended up trading all that Mamiya film stuff in toward a Canon 5D.  And I’ve wished for that Mamiya 7 back until recently, when I got my 5D Mark III.  That is the first camera I can say is better than the Mamiya 7, but that’s a story for another post.

In a recent post on his blog, Paul Lester talks more about how people are perfectly satisfied with photos they are taking with their phones.  No controls, no exposure compensation, no thought, just point and shoot.  Paul recently met and talked with photographer and teacher Ibarionex Perello who told him that he no longer teaches aperture in his classes, because no one wants to know about it.  Students can’t be bothered learning about depth of field or the effect of aperture on shutter speed.  They just want to take pictures.  I’m sure some of them will eventually drift into the World of Manual as they explore various creative options, but most of these students will be perfectly happy using their cameras in Program mode, and if they want to get creative with their photos, they can always do that later with software.

Shadows and Gate, Downtown Waynesville, North Carolina

Along this line, some of the commentary surrounding the recent Canon EOS-M camera has fascinated me.  Like the Nikon mirrorless cameras, they are designed to shoot primarily in Program or one of the various “custom” or “scene” modes.  While they do have the ability to shoot in a manual or semi-auto mode, those controls are menu-based instead of accessed simply by turning a dial or two.  This has fostered some real debate.  Hardly anyone has actually touched one of these cameras yet, let alone shot a few photos with one, but immediately the analysis and commentary began.  People started using words like (and you can find them easily) “crippled,” “mundane, run-of-the-mill, off-the-shelf-with-spare-parts,” “uninspired,” No EFing Viewfinder!!! Well that is a deal-breaker for me.”  Every camera that is introduced inspires its share of forum jockeys who are too busy making excuses about every camera that comes out that they never get around to actually taking photographs.  Give me a break!

Yellow Coneflower at Beartrail Ridge Overlook at MP 430 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

Do you honestly think that a company with the research and marketing budget that Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Sony and others have is going to bring out a brand-new camera that is such an immediate failure that no one will want it?  Probably not.  It’s just that so many of these photographer wannabes think that no one else in the world could possibly want to shoot in Program Mode.  In truth, I think these cameras are aimed squarely at a very clearly-defined market.  It just ain’t us, sorry.  Canon will probably sell millions of those cameras.  And that will fund the next 5D megacamera that I’ll want!

There is absolutely no reason that a person with a basic level of interest in photography has to shoot in anything but Program to be serious about their photography.  Granted, for a lot of us more serious folks, the ability to control exposure and depth of field is critical.  But we often forget how long it took us to get to the point where we were comfortable with manual controls.  I shot in Manual for years before I really learned how to control background blur or balance exposure between a bright sky and a dark foreground.  But today, some cameras can figure that out for you, and for all the money we pay for our equipment, we might do well to just let it!

Yellow Coneflower at Beartrail Ridge Overlook at MP 430 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

So anyway, someone who is starting out and just wants to let their camera take pictures will do perfectly well over 98% of the time.  And if they shoot JPEGs and learn how to properly expose their shots they won’t need to work on their photos in software.  What a deal!  I know a number of successful commercial photographers who shoot everything in JPEG and beat the snot out of a lot of people who shoot RAW.  Granted they are probably using manual controls and are sometimes using studio lighting, but if you know what you are doing, it’s no different than shooting slide film.  Remember that?

In many ways, photography is like riding a bike.  We don’t start off riding the fanciest machine that a Tour de France participant would ride.  As kids we start off with a single-speed bike with training wheels.  As adults getting back into cycling we might dust off the old “10-speed” and ride it around for a while.  Eventually we will decide that we could be more comfortable, ride faster or generally be happier with something newer, lighter or more advanced.  If we get really serious we buy the shoes, the jersey and the spandex shorts so we really look the part.

The same holds true for photography.  Those starting out will use their phones, their point & shoot cameras or their SLRs – all in “P” mode.  And for most people that’s as far as they’re going to get.  A few of them will start experimenting with things like depth of field and shutter speed and realize that the camera they are using might not suit their needs.  At that point they might move up to something with more manual controls, or they might just make do with the camera they have.

Bluegrass player sculpture in Downtown Waynesville, North Carolina

Kathy understands a lot of the mechanics of photography, but wants to spend more of her time looking at the scene in front of her and pondering composition and expression and less of it on figuring out the right f-stop.  And I support that.  If she gets turned off now by all of the technical stuff and gives up the camera entirely, than how is that success?  If she can enjoy what she is doing now, and later gets to the point where she wants to do more with the controls, I think that is perfectly fine.  And if she never moves beyond the “P” setting but enjoys her photos, that is perfectly fine and I support it!  There are many ways to do this photography thing, and very few of them are wrong!

Bluegrass player sculpture in Downtown Waynesville, North Carolina

Different Strokes

No Trespassing

Three conversations over the last several days have gotten me thinking about the things that influence our preferences and perceptions. Bear with me while I elaborate.

Scenario One:

Kathy & I enjoy dining out, and this past Friday and Saturday nights were no exception. Friday night we went to a restaurant we have only been to a couple of times but have really enjoyed, and on Saturday night we went to a restaurant we had never been to before but had wanted to try.

The Friday night restaurant experience was exactly what we expected based on previous visits. The place has more of a sports bar/pub atmosphere and is generally a lot noisier than we prefer, with lots of televisions, this night showing NCAA basketball. Definitely not my idea of the ideal restaurant experience, but it is close to home, the food and service are good and the prices are reasonable, so we are willing to overlook a few less-than-ideal factors.

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Fast forward to Saturday night. The place was a restaurant we had never visited before, but they had good reviews on Yelp and UrbanSpoon, so we figured it was worth a try. The restaurant’s website confirmed that the chef had lots of experience in other restaurants we have previously enjoyed and suggested that his approach mirrored our preferences and we went with an expectation of an excellent and enjoyable meal.

It wasn’t terrible, but a number of missteps left us with a very mixed first impression, to the point where I’m not certain we’ll return. They didn’t have a table ready for us despite having a reservation, the first two bottles of wine I requested were not in stock, despite being on the list, and my steak – one of the “features” for the evening – was tough and undercooked and my vegetables were practically raw. I know from well-proven experience that there are not many places that can do steak to my satisfaction, but I ordered it anyway, and the result proved my rule. On the other hand, Kathy’s dinner was good and she ate every bite.

Wrought Iron Diagonal

Afterward, our discussion centered on how our prior experiences and our own biases influence our first impressions. We have been to some very good restaurants over the years, and while we are certainly not snobbish or opinionated, we generally know what to expect. And I’m not talking just fine dining – we have had excellent meals from casual diners to fancy, high-priced restaurants. Are we spoiled? Perhaps we are, but there are noticeable differences between a good restaurant and an average restaurant regardless of price, and there are enough good restaurants that there is little reason to bother with the average ones.

To be fair to this place, however, I recognize that had I ordered something different I might have had an experience that was 180-degrees opposite from what I had, and I may have been able to overlook the miscues. And had there not been the miscues I might have been more able to overlook a disappointing meal. As it turned out, a lot of little things contributed to a disappointing experience. We concluded that, considering the price and knowing the many other options available, this place would not be high on the list of restaurants to return to.

Exit/Enter Pull

Scenario Two:

During our lunch in Salisbury last weekend, Paul, Earl & I talked about why we write and what we hope to get out of our blogs. We talked about the mutual followers we have and talked a lot about the number of photography blogs we enjoy and how those writers have a similar philosophy and approach to their photography that we have with ours, and how they often commented on our blogs, just as we comment on theirs. I was not too surprised to find that there are a few blogs we don’t especially care for. There is one blog in particular that we mutually dislike (“despise” might not be too strong a word) for a number of reasons, and that discovery led to a rather amusing conversation, as we all felt that this blog was the antithesis of our own blogs and those of our friends. Also interesting was the common observation that most of the people who follow that blog – or at least those who comment on it – had similar philosophies to the writer and were not the type of people we would find commenting on our blogs. It was an interesting discussion.

My take from all that is that people of like minds tend to gravitate toward each other, and the people who take an alternate or opposing viewpoint tend to stick with each other too.

Magnolia House Shadows

Scenario Three:

I spent some time on Sunday afternoon working with a good friend on getting some prints made of his photographs. This person is a long time friend and I admire his photography. His photos have traditionally been very quiet and introspective. But lately his images have taken on more on an “urban decay and chaos” theme, and the difference is fascinating. The particular photographs we were printing were from an old store that he has been photographing. The store is long closed, but the photographs show an interior with lots of clutter and chaos. This friend has had some chaos in his life recently, and it seems that he is expressing this through his photography. I wonder if he realizes it?

Coincidentally that same day a number of other friends had been posting photos on Facebook from several other another outings, and Kathy & I had an interesting discussion about how those photographs often reflected my view of the personality of each photographer. We speculated about how or whether a person’s subject matter reflected their profession, their current emotional state or some wished-for or desired outcome!