I bought an iPad

Yeah, whatever.  More on that later.  This isn’t an article about the iPad.  It’s about gear, and my fascination with people’s fixation on it. As often happens, this post was inspired by three recent conversations.  One I just observed and two I was actually involved in.

There was recently an exchange on the CNPA forums with several posters discussing the relative merits of the Whiz-Bang 400 and whether it was worth the upgrade from the Whiz-Bang 300 that one of the posters is currently using.  As to be expected the owners of the Whiz-Bang 400 and the even “better” Whiz-Bang 860 chimed in with their support for the “better” camera.  The discussion ended with speculation about whether the Whiz-Bang 400 was due to be replaced in 2011, even mentioning that it was “interesting to speculate on the replacement of this fine camera” and that “I’ve already convinced myself that I need to be ready to jump when the replacement is announced.”  Score one for the marketing people!

The second conversation was with a fellow photographer while standing on an observation platform at Chincoteague Island NWR while waiting for the snow geese to do something interesting (they didn’t).  This guy, not a CNPA member and not anyone I know, was standing there with a huge something or other camera and lens combination.  I was standing above him on this two-level platform where he couldn’t see my cameras so he had to ask what cameras I had.  I told him that I had a 5D and a 40D, to which he replied “Mark II?”  When I said “no, the original 5D” he immediately became disinterested in any further conversation with me, as though anyone using gear as antiquated as mine couldn’t possibly have anything meaningful to contribute to a conversation.  As expected he packed up and left as soon as the sun went down, while the sensible among us knowingly waited while the sky lit up in one of the nicest sunsets I’ve seen in a while.  No camera is going to take a good photograph when it’s in the trunk.

Lastly, I had a nice little conversation going on Facebook with a couple of friends – both of whom happen to own Nikon cameras and one of whom I knew had asked Santa for a Canon G12 – that turned into a Canon vs. Nikon (friendly) exchange when I commented on my friend’s reference to his camera as “the best camera made” by asking “so you got the G12.”  It was just a good-natured friendly exchange but shows that even among friends gear choice sometimes matters.  I think we’re still friends!

Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to have a little bit of a rebellious streak.  Really.  And when it comes to photo gear I’m convinced that even the relics I shoot with are still better at taking pictures than I am.  When it comes to brands I say that the only meaningful difference between them is the file name, and everything else is marketing.  I’m also convinced that buying 1-generation-removed used cameras is a great way to get a great deal on a great camera.  It’s guys like Mr. Can’t-Wait-For-The-Whiz-Bang-500 that I like to buy my cameras from!

The time I seriously consider buying a new camera is when it doesn’t do what I need it to do or when something else does what I need it to do a lot better than what I have.  That’s why I bought the G12.  It’s a significant improvement over my G9 in just about every instance.  I still use the G9 but know its strengths and keep it out of situations where it isn’t at its best.  I’ve still got a 20D in my bag, and if I needed to use a third camera body I wouldn’t hesitate to pull it out.  It’s even got a 6GB Micro-drive in the card slot!  The camera works as good as it did the day I brought it home.  As does the Micro-drive.  If the camera you are currently using is a “fine camera” I don’t understand why you would be salivating over the rumored replacement that might or might not come next year.  Put down the Internet and go take some pictures!

I think it’s wonderful that newer cameras can take pictures practically in the dark.  It literally opens up more possibilities that we never could have imagined just a few years ago.  But just because a photograph was taken with a certain camera or at a certain ISO or in the dark doesn’t make a difference if it isn’t an interesting photograph.  So that part of the rules hasn’t changed.  Newer cameras take bigger files than the older ones.  But if all you’re going to do is post photos on Flickr or Facebook why do you need a 20 megapixel camera?  If you have clients demanding and willing to pay for huge prints then that makes good sense.  There are very few things I’m likely to do with my photographs that a 10 or 12 megapixel file won’t work for.

I always reaffirm that I am OK with whatever way a person chooses to enjoy photography.  If a person loves to collect gear and have the most recent version of everything I think that’s great.  If a person feels that a certain camera brand is important then that’s a good reason to own it.  Some people love to use software, and I support that.  I am a firm believer in everyone getting to do things their own way.  I like to talk about my preferences not to convince others to think like I do, but to share my thoughts for those who are interested.  Hopefully my photographs are more interesting than my thoughts!

It does concern me that it’s easy for people to get hung up on The Next Great Thing.  I’m afraid that too often worrying about the right tool keeps people from just using the one they’ve got.  A carpenter doesn’t sit around worrying whether to buy a new hammer or not.  A new one won’t make the nail go in any straighter than an old one.  But if he needs to drive a screw he buys a screwdriver.  Some things matter, like making sure your saw blade is sharp.  But that’s about maintenance, not whether something is new or not.  Take care of the tools you have, use them for their intended purpose and replace them when they stop doing what they were meant to do.  Or when something comes along that is so much better that you just can’t help it.  In the mean time get out there and use what you have!

Oh, yeah.  About that other thing.  I bought an iPad.  I hope to be able to read books and magazines on it.  I’ve wanted one since they came out, but it took me a long time to convince myself that it was time to buy one.  I bought a used (refurbished) one, probably just a few months before the next generation comes out.  But I got a good deal on it and I think it will be just the right tool for the job.  Sound familiar?

Plans, Goals and Intentions

Every year at this time I find myself thinking about my goals for the coming year, and reflecting on my accomplishments of the past year.  The last several years have taken some pretty interesting turns, but with a few more than usual mid-course corrections we got through them pretty much unscathed.  Last year I was able to write this post about one of the bigger turns I’d had to face during 2009.  I have to say that 2010 was just about what I expected it to be, I’ve managed to do most of what I set out to do and have a good start on what I haven’t finished.

A few weeks ago my best shooting buddy John Schornak and I were talking about our plans for 2011.  It was interesting to note – and at some point we both realized it – that neither of us were talking about doing a lot of group stuff.  We’ve both been active in the CNPA, attending meetings, leading outings and making presentations.  We’ve regularly attended the various events at Grandfather Mountain, CNPA annual meetings, WNC FotoFest and countless other opportunities.  There’s something going on somewhere just about every week.  There’s nothing wrong with attending these events and hanging out with all these people.  The events are wonderful and well-presented, provide inspiration to a lot of folks and the people are great friends.  I’ll probably attend a few, but there’s only so much a person can do and when I really think about it, photography for me is not about going to meetings or attending big events.

What I like about photography is getting out into the world, looking for interesting things and figuring out how to express my thoughts and feelings about what I see with my camera.  I already have limited time and creative energy, so when I have a chance to get away I feel like I need to get the most bang for my buck, and given a choice I’m going to give higher consideration to those things that are most important to me and get me where I want to be.  I feel like I do my best work while shooting on my own, working at my own pace and seeing with my own eyes.  Meetings, workshops and presentations have their place, but when I start thinking about what I most want to do – taking photographs – and when I think about the fact that the time I have to do that is very limited, I just don’t think that’s the way I want to spend my time.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

So what does 2011 hold for Tom Dills Photography?  First of all I’m planning to get out and shoot more.  I purposely held back in 2010 because I had other things that were priorities.  I’m not an expert printer yet but I’ve made progress and am pretty happy with my work.  I’ve got a marketing plan that I’m in the process of implementing that is already beginning to pay off in some unexpected ways.  I’m really itching to get back out there and shoot!

I am looking forward to re-inventing the day trip.  Kathy & I like to just hop in the car on a weekend morning and head off somewhere for the day.  Sometimes the goal is photography, sometimes the goal is finding peace and quiet, and sometimes the goal is good food and wine.  Ideally there’s time for all three!  It’s very easy to get caught up in destination shooting, what I call Trophy Hunting.  But I’m not trying to fill up a checklist with places I’ve gone and subjects I’ve shot.  A lot of people miss out on opportunities because the “experts” say that the only times to shoot are in the morning and afternoon.  Yeah, it’s easier then, but it’s not the only time to make good photographs.  So I want to explore that.

I’ve been thinking of myself less and less as a “nature photographer” lately.  There’s a lot more that interests me than just nature, and there are opportunities to be found everywhere.  I really want to explore the creative side of photography, go beyond shooting subjects and clichés and get into expression and intention.  This is foreign territory for a lot of folks but that’s what is making me tick these days.  I will probably take a workshop or two, but they will be small groups intensely focused on what I am looking to learn, not just trudging around in the woods shooting birds, bugs and blossoms (as I’m overly fond of saying).

I’m hoping to strike a balance between information overload and personal development.  There is so much information available these days that it is exceedingly difficult to work through it all, and I firmly believe that many times we take in so much data that we can’t hear our own voice for all the noise.  I recently read an article that referred to “visual junk food” and I think that describes the problem well.  Tasty and delicious with little nutritional value.  It’s OK to eat the Twinkie once in a while but not every day.  The key word is balance.

What I won’t be doing is attending meetings, leading outings or filling my calendar with other people’s priorities.  You won’t see me posting stuff on Facebook as much.  After a year or so of playing around with that I’ve found that it can be such a time-suck that its best if I just avoid it altogether.  When my cell phone pictures get more comments than my “serious” ones it says a lot about why everyone is there and who actually takes the time look and to comment.  Go figure.  But I digress….
My comments will surprise and may even disappoint some people but that’s really OK, because everyone has to decide what they want to do.  I’m not criticizing anyone’s choices or suggesting that what I’m saying should work for everyone, because we all have different reasons for doing what we do.


I have a lot to do, and time flies while I’m having fun.  Joe McNally recently posted on his blog:

“Can’t believe it’s December. As my mom used to say, “Oh, you know, 4th of July and the year’s over.” I didn’t really believe her, but you know, she mighta been onto something.”  And he’s right.  But I’ve got plans, and I’m looking forward to working out the details and enjoying the journey.

From Heron Dance, one of my favorite blogs:

I remembered a story of how Bach was approached by a young admirer one day and asked, “But Papa Bach, how do you manage to think of all these new tunes?”
“My dear fellow,” Bach is said to have answered, “I have no need to think of them. I have the greatest difficulty not to step on them when I get out of bed in the morning and start moving around my room.”
– Laurens Van der Post

I have a lot to say, and it’s my intention to learn how to express my thoughts and ideas in the best way possible.  I’m really enjoying the expression I find from writing, and I’m planning to continue that because I think it is a great way to clarify my thoughts.  And it helps me with my photography because the act of writing a good paragraph is a lot like constructing a good photograph.  Use only the words you need to use to make the point you want to make.

“I apologize for the length of this letter but I didn’t have time to make it shorter”

– (Attributed to everybody from Twain to Pascal)

I want to learn, and I want to teach.  I want to lead and I want to follow.  I want to sell some stuff and share even more.  But mostly I want to learn to express myself with my photographs, and to some extent with my writing.  I like to do this, I want to do this.

I could sit around watching TV or Photoshop tutorials or gear review articles.  I could play around with software to the point where I wouldn’t know my Vision if it bopped me over the head.  I intend for 2011 to be a year of simplification, in my life and in my photography.  Minimize distractions and noise, but not to the point of becoming a hermit.  Just the opposite, I want to be out enjoying the world, being distracted by attraction, living mindfully and purposefully.  Attending to my priorities instead of those of some “expert” who wants to tell me how to think and what to do.  And don’t tell me when and where and what to photograph!

Does that all sound extreme?  It is!  It takes a lot to pull the plug on the things that get in the way, but we’ve done it and are doing it.  Some people think we’re nuts and maybe to an extent we are, but we’re just doing our thing the way we want to do it.  And that’s OK with me.  I’m looking forward to 2011 in a big way.  It might just be the best year yet!

A New Year

I saw a Facebook post yesterday that asked “As 2010 comes to an end, will you reflect or will you reset?”  My thought is that the clock and the calendar continue to move forward, and so should we.
What better way to start the year than with a beautiful sunrise?  Chincoteague, VA in November 2010.

Multiple Catalogs in Lightroom

I advocate, as most Lightroom users do, the use of a single catalog for my images.  Recently I had an occasion where a separate catalog turned out to be the perfect solution for me.  I needed to prepare a group of files for a commercial printing company, and there were a number of things they needed me to do that were specific to these files:
– The file names had to be customized according to subject;
– I needed to customize my black point and shadow tones to output correctly on their printers;
– They needed an 11×14 version and a 4×6 version of each file
Several problems I needed to solve for my own benefit were:
– I didn’t want to intermingle those versions with my regular images;
– You can’t have virtual copies with different file names, and changing the file name in my main catalog would mess up my normal naming convention;
– Any processing I did to the images would be specific to the files for this project, and I didn’t want any processing of the new versions to interfere with my original files.
– I could have solved some of these problems by creating multiple virtual copies and putting them in collections, but that didn’t solve the naming issue.
I used a Collection to keep track of the initial images I sent for review, and created a separate Collection of the images they chose so I could keep track of them.  I wanted to review each of the images before sending them, and I realized that I was going to need to keep track of the files I had sent and the ones I still needed to review, so I created a Smart Collection using a client keyword for the images that have already been sent.
Once I completed my review I used the “Export As Catalog” function to create a new Catalog of those images.  I then added the client name keyword to the images in the Quick Collection to remove them from the “Need Processed” Smart Collection.  I now have the images in a new Catalog ready to prep for the client.
In the new catalog I need to do three things with my images to prepare them for output to the client: (1) I need to rename the files to a custom name reflecting the subject of the photo, (2) I need to adjust the black point and shadow tones, and (3) I need to create versions in 4×6 and 11×14 format.  It’s a manual process but easy to do.  When I am done I create a new Collection called “4×6” and add all the images to that Collection.  As it turns out most of the images happen to be already in a 4×6 format so I don’t have to do much cropping.
Next, I select all the images in the 4×6 Collection and create a new Collection titled “11×14,” being sure to select “Create New Virtual Copies.”  This creates Virtual Copies of all the images that I now go through and crop to 11×14.  This requires some interesting aesthetic compromise as I’m not completely happy doing this, but I do it and they’re fine.
At this point I have two Collections.  One has the images in a 4×6 format, the other with the same images in an 11×14 format.  Remember that the images have not actually been resized, they are just virtual copies, or versions of the original RAW or TIF files.  Using two separate Export Templates I export output them into separate folders, and once they are done I upload them to the client’s FTP server and that’s it!
The “Old Fashioned Way” would have had me doing two different versions in Photoshop, and even though I could have automated the process to some extent it would have been very manual.  In this case I was able to keep the manual work to a minimum, and I now have a catalog that contains only the files for this client in the formats they have requested, and the catalog is completely separate from my main image catalog.  If the client decides at some point to do a different size image, it will be a simple matter to go to the correct image, create a new virtual copy and export it exactly they way they want it.  Hopefully the client will want more of my images in the future, in which case we’ll repeat the process and add the new images to the existing catalog.  Easy!
PS: Another interesting thing is that as I went back and reviewed the older images, I found that with only two exceptions I reprocessed them exclusively in Lightroom and ended up with a better result than I had achieved with the older images processed in Photoshop.  This is admittedly due in part to an improvement in my own processing skills but I think also due to a dramatic improvement in software over the last 3-5 years.
PPS: This is the short version of this article!  I wrote another one that is much more detailed and another page or so longer.  E-mail me if you want a copy and I’ll send it to you!

Watch What You Say

I really don’t like ticking people off and risking friendships so I’m not going to identify the source, but I just read a blog post that stated – quite authoritatively and unequivocally – that “you are wasting your time photographing landscapes in the middle of the day under direct sunlight.”  Wow, those are strong words.  The writer goes on to say that “no matter how dramatic the subject matter is, the pictures will never be successful.”  Really?  Never?  As in not ever?  To the writer’s credit he goes on to name several exceptions, but I’m inclined to take exception myself. I agree that it’s easier to take good photographs in the morning and afternoon, but it is certainly not impossible to make good photographs in the middle of the day.  It just depends on how creative you are and how hard you want to work.  I think the writer does photography and photographers a huge injustice to make such a claim.

My 2011 Photography Calendar is Here!

I am now taking orders for my 2011 Photography Calendar – titled “A Year by the Sea.”  This calendar contains 12 beautiful photographs from beaches I have visited over the last several years, from Hilton Head, SC to Barbados.  You can see a preview of the calendar on my website.

Place your order now for delivery by mid-December – just in time for the holidays!  I’ll be taking orders through November 30 at the Paypal link on my blog (top of the right-hand column).

If you would like more than one calendar, please e-mail me for an invoice which I can send you via e-mail.  This automates the payment process for me, allows me to collect the sales tax I need to collect, and lets me keep good track of orders.


November Wallpaper Calendar

I’m sure it’s just me (it usually is) but there is something weird about kids going around and trick-or-treating while they text on their cell phones.  Seems like if you are old enough to have a cell phone you shouldn’t be out begging for candy.  Like I said, probably just me….

Let’s kick November off with another waterfall image.  On our recent club outing to Brevard someone mentioned that they thought it was interesting that there could be 20 photographers standing in front of a waterfall and I would be the only one with my lens pointing away from the waterfall. Well, not always.  In this case I was pointed at the waterfall, but at a really small part of it.

This is a detail from Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, NC.  Not too many people get this shot, most of them don’t even see it.  But sometimes I do actually shoot waterfalls!

Fancy Colours

(Reference to an old Chicago tune)

I spent last week in the NC mountains photographing in fall color.  On several occasions people mentioned that they thought that “the colors are lousy this year” or “this fall is one of the worst I’ve seen.”  I even heard someone say something like “this fall sucks.”  While I admit that there were places where you might have to isolate the colors a bit, I didn’t think it was all that bad.  As I review my images on the computer this week I’m not all that disappointed with the color.  Could it be that we have gotten so used to looking at our images through Viveza-colored glasses that we can’t appreciate reality when we see it?  Just a thought.

Drum Machines Have No Soul

Creativity comes from many places and takes many forms.  There is no formula for creativity and there is no single definition or example.  Photography is no exception, but where my opinion differs from that of many photographers I know is I feel that 95% (or more) of creativity takes place at the instant a photograph is taken, using the camera and related tools to express the vision in our hearts.  Whether we use an expensive high-res camera or our phone, the expression of our creativity comes not from the equipment but from how we use our equipment to communicate our thoughts, ideas and emotions through our photographs.  We use more tools to realize our creativity after the photograph is taken, and those tools range from the type of equipment used, to the software used to process the photograph to the method for displaying the finished result.
Recently someone suggested that I needed to use a certain piece of software because (a whole list of people) were using it and because it did a great job of making their images look really good.  I have seen the results of this software in the work of these referenced photographers and agree that the software does have some interesting characteristics.  But it’s not the software that makes good images good.  Good images look good no matter what software is used, because a good image reflects good vision, and all the software in the world won’t make a lousy image great (I’ve tried it!).  My personal preference is to use software as a tool and learn how to achieve my vision regardless of the name of the software.  I work really hard to learn how to use my software to make my images look like I want them to, based on my creativity and vision.  The danger comes in relying on software or presets or plug-ins as a “recipe” that doesn’t make images good, it just makes them look like the images of everyone else using that software.  To quote art expert Barney Davey, “The talent to emulate and replicate is not the same as to create.”
A car in my neighborhood has a bumper sticker on the back that says “Drum Machines Have No Soul.”  When I first read that message I knew exactly what it meant.  Drum machines are great for laying down a rhythm track.  They sound pretty good and are used a lot in certain types of music.  While you can be somewhat creative in programming them, they do some interesting things and can reflect some variety based on the programmer’s input, they have little ability to reflect artistry, and can’t adapt to changes in mood or energy.  Once upon a time I was a musician and was very fortunate to have played in a band with an individual who is now one of the top drummers in the world.  There’s a big difference between a rhythm track and a virtuoso drum solo.
When I heard the comment about using a certain piece of software to process all my images, I couldn’t help but think of the bumper sticker warning me about drum machines.  The computer has no soul either, and while using software can be creative in terms of deciding which button to push, I would much rather achieve my vision by working with software I control, rather than using some faceless software developer’s recipe to give my images some soulless look with a canned effect.  Learning how to use the software I use to achieve the end result I want, rather than pushing buttons until I find something that looks “cool,” puts my heart and my soul into my photographs.

Photographs and stuff!