I Am a Photographer

I am a photographer. I used to be a banker, a pretty good one too, until I fell victim to our planet’s financial collapse and was forced into a premature and hopefully temporary retirement. I’m probably a pretty good photographer too, but the measurement of ‘good’ is hard to define in either world. I made good money as a banker. I make no money as a photographer. I loved banking. I love making photographs.

During my recent hiatus from banking, it might have been easy to sit around and complain about all the things I’ve lost, the real retirement that was almost within my grasp, the financial goals that are now a few years farther away. Instead, I’ve turned my energies to filling my time with learning, educating myself about the history of art and photography, developing new skills and methods for making photographs. I’m as happy now as I have ever been, so even though I am not seeing a success than can be measured in dollars, I am the wealthiest now that I could ever have imagined. I’m glad I started into photography when I did, as although I have the time today it would be difficult to justify the cost of the equipment I own, even though by some standards it is obsolete. I am thankful that I have had something so stimulating and rewarding to keep me from going stir-crazy.

The toughest thing about the last few months is not knowing. I’ve sent out dozens of resumes, and have even had quite a few interviews. They’ve all went well, but there are so many people looking for work that the competition is fierce, and there are lots of people looking for work with the exact skillset that hiring managers are looking for. And while having 30+ years makes me valuable, it also makes me – at least in the eyes of hiring managers – expensive. Never mind that my current income is now zero! I’m really a heck of a deal to someone looking for someone who knows banking, but no luck so far.

A couple of weeks ago Kathy & I spent a weekend with Andy & Karen Fisher, who own a B&B in Belhaven, North Carolina. We’ve gotten to be friends with Andy & Karen over the course of several visits, and we have had the opportunity to go with them on their boat and have had dinner with them and some of their friends. This last visit Andy introduced me a couple of times as “Tom is a professional photographer.” The first time I thought, “well, not exactly.” But after the second time I though “dammit, he’s right, I am a professional photographer.” That made a real impact on me, and for the first time made me start thinking of myself as a photographer instead of a banker. Now I just need to figure out how to expand on that and make something of myself.

Image is from Far Creek in Engelhard, North Carolina.

SoFoBoMo eBook!

I’ve been playing around with online print-on-demand services in anticipation of publishing my 2010 calendar. Since I no longer have arm-twisting access to a large portion of my customer base (co-workers from whom I purchased Boy Scout popcorn and Girl Scout cookies) I want to go with a company that has the ability to do online sales. So far the front runner has to be Lulu, partly because I have experience using them from when I published my SoFoBoMo book, and mostly because their price and quality seem to be a good balance.

I was playing around with their site today and was interested in the idea of publishing eBooks. I’m currently working on updating a digital workflow presentation and am im the process of writing a tutorial on registering copyrights, both of which I would like to publish as eBooks. To see how the process works I decided to turn my SoFoBoMo book into an eBook, which I then published and am offering for sale at $10. Not a bad deal if you ask me, except for the fact that it is available for free at the SoFoBoMo website. I’d be interested in feedback from anyone who gives it a try.

Calendars will be ready for purchase (hopefully) around October 1.

Before and After

I spent some time this past Friday morning shooting on the Torrence Creek Greenway with CNPA member and photography buddy Don Brown. The ever-changing palette of wildflowers on the greenway never ceases to amaze me. Every week throughout the year brings something new, while some old friends say good-bye for the season. Just lately we’ve started seeing some of the late summer flowers – goldenrod and milkweed primarily, but if you look closely you can always find little patches of treasure that most people walk by. I think what amuses me the most is that I can be standing knee-deep in a patch of flowers, camera on tripod pointed right at a flower, and someone will walk by and ask what I am shooting! They don’t even notice that there are wildflowers there!

These two images are actually portraits of the same type of flower at different stages of its life cycle. They are both of a plant called Yellow Goatsbeard, aka Jack-Go-To-Bed-At-Noon. The yellow flower is the Goatsbeard as it initially blooms, while the puffball is the flower after it goes to seed. Both were found in the same patch mere feet from each other. They look a little like Dandelion but much prettier.

While I was shooting the puffball version I found myself thinking about what it was that was moving me. The flower was telling me “soft” and a little voice in my ear was telling me to “Shoot ‘Soft.'” I took a number of frames at different apertures to try and get the right mix of “soft” and sharpness. The stopped-down versions are nice but have a bit of harshness to them because all the background starts to become prominent. This frame was taken at f8 and I feel it strikes the right balance between “sharp enough” and “soft.”

Why People Photograph II

I just finished reading issue #83 of Lenswork, which is a tribute to Bill Jay who passed away earlier this year. The issue is a compilation of Jay’s End Notes column which has been one of my favorite reasons to subscribe to the magazine. I admit to being one of those folks who would read End Notes first.

Needless to say, a magazine devoted solely to writings of Bill Jay has a number of gems, but this one made me stop and re-read a number of times, as it echoes my own thoughts on why I love to do what I do:

There are some things you know but you don’t know that you know them – and then you do.

An earnest psychologist friend, for years puzzled by my devotion to photography, recently asked, “Why do you photograph?” The question held no trace of disapproval; it was a sincere desire to understand my motive for what to him seemed like an inconsequential act. I prattled on for some time, increasingly self-aware that my words were empty, not untruthful, merely similarly inconsequential. I felt uneasy.

Then I went out photographing. At the first sight of a potential picture my spirits lifted and I knew what I should/could have said if he had been with me:

“Look,” I would say, “This is life. It is everywhere, and it is here for the taking. I am alive and I know this, now, in a more profound way than when I am doing anything else. These sights are ephemeral, fleeting treasures that have been offered to me and to me alone. No other person in the history of the world, anywhere in all of time and space, has been granted this gift to be here and in my place. And I am privileged, through the camera, to take this moment away with me. That is why I photograph.”

Bill Jay

The photo is a recent gift I found on the Torrence Creek Greenway, about 1/4 mile from my house.

Bubba Jumps the Falls

Kathy & I spent this past weekend in the Brevard area, scouting locations for an upcoming outing I am leading in October for our CNPA chapter. While at Hooker Falls in Dupont State Forest I was hoping to shoot some stock photos of people cooling off in the falls on a hot summer day. One of the shots a got was this action sequence of some very ill-advised behavior. I thought about asking for a model release but decided he probably would not have taken kindly to my asking, although he (or his next of kin) might someday want a copy of the photo.

I’m guessing there won’t be much swimming going on in October!

Photos combined using Lightroom’s Print Module and outputting them as a single file.


I’ve about convinced myself that the time I spend cloning dust spots would just about pay for a camera with automatic dust removal.

Now I just have to convince The Boss….

She’ll probably tell me to clean my sensor more often.

Image is a combination of 5 photographs of a tree that I shot during our visit to Hilton Head this past February. It was shot in different kinds of light with different sky backgrounds. I’m trying to figure out what to do with it.

Staying Close to Home

I’ve written a number of times about the merits of photographing in one’s “back yard.” For me this often involves photographing in my “front yard” which is the Torrence Creek Greenway. I have an entrance across the street from my house, which is not exactly my “front yard” but is not much farther away than my mail box.

To many Greenway users, the plants and wildflowers are just something to walk past or for their dogs to pee on. They don’t really pay them much attention. The few people who even notice me and my camera generally assume I’m photographing the deer, and wonder where they are.

In reality, the changing seasons and the constantly evolving variety of grasses, plants and wildflowers are fascinating. I love finding these gifts and going home and figuring out what they are. Most recently I have been taken by these Crimsoneyed Rosemallow. They’re a type of Hibiscus typically found near the coast. What they are doing in little ole Huntersville, NC is beyond me, but they are quite beautious.

Why People Photograph

I’m a lover of quotes, although I don’t spend nearly enough time digging them up, and I certainly don’t do a good job of remembering them. But I find knowledge and comfort in them.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I am reading books in an attempt to learn about photography history. The book I just finished, although I’m not sure my reading did the content justice as it is written in a style that requires a lot more concentration than I was able to give it, is “Why People Photograph, Selected Essays and Reviews” by Robert Adams. Published in 1994, some of the technology references are out of date, but the book is not about technology. The book covers topics from random thoughts on photographic subjects, to examples of success using real-life stories of successful photographers to the author’s personal experience and philosophies about photography and life in general.

In the chapter titled “In The Nineteenth Century West” Adams is discussing the photographic exploration of the western United States in the 1800’s and contrasting it with the present day noise, pollution and overdevelopment that is rampant everywhere, but is especially notable when looking at early views of the country such as those of Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson and comparing them with the views we see today. He talks about how the change in our mode of transportation from wagon to automobile, and the speed at which we experience the passing countryside, impacts our perception of the size of the space through which we pass.

Adams says:

“To put it another way, if we consider the difference between William Henry Jackson packing in his cameras by mule, and the person stepping from his car to take a picture with an Instamatic, it becomes clear how some of our space has vanished. If the time it takes to cross space is a way by which we define it, then to arrive at a view of space “in no time” is to have denied its reality.”

And the line that grabbed my attention and made me stop and think:

“Little wonder that we, car-addicted, find the old pictures of openness – pictures usually without any blur, and made by what seems a ritual of patience – wonderful. They restore to us knowledge of a place we seek but lose in the rush of our search. Though to enjoy even the pictures, much less the space itself, requires that we be still longer than is our custom.

How many times, in this age of Twitter and cell phone cameras and 7-step bracketed HDR exposures do we go blasting through the countryside in search of some iconic trophy shot, completely ignoring the beauty of the scene through which we pass, only to arrive at our supposed destination to grab what’s there and move on to the next stop on our checklist? How many of us ignore the beauty in our own back yard while we go rushing off to some iconized destination to set up our tripod right next to 49 of our closest friends?

A few days ago I made an offer to our local CNPA chapter to come out and spend time on the Torrence Creek Greenway that runs through my neighborhood and has an access trail literally across the street from my house. A few of the folks who would otherwise have attended were out of town, and it was a Friday so a lot of people were working, but only one other person showed up. My good friend and shooting buddy John Schornak and I spent a couple of hours in one spot, shooting the beauty in my back yard, in an area about ¼ mile from my house. Did we come back with iconic shots? Probably not, but we had a good time and it gave us a chance to spend some time in nature. Undiscouraged, I plan to make the offer again soon.

This past weekend a few of us spent a day on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Linville Falls. We were there the entire day, some of us from sunrise until after sunset. Some of us didn’t even go to the falls, but we got some wonderful shots from right beside the road or, in the case of the image accompanying this post, right next to the parking lot in the picnic area! I have a whole database of sunrise and sunset locations in that area. Linville Falls is one of the most beautiful natural landmarks in North Carolina, but for me the beauty of the day was to enjoy where I was, what I was doing and let nature speak to me, not running around, dodging tourists and other photographers to try and capture the same images as everyone else.

So the next time you get ready to head out the door for that trophy destination, think about the “place we seek but lose in the rush of our search” and instead seek out that place where we can “be still longer than is our custom.”

Depth of Focus

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately educating myself about the history of photography. It’s an interesting exercise, and anyone the least bit interested in the field would do well to take some time to learn more. In addition to Jeff Curto’s History of Photography podcast, The Online Photographer and other websites, there are a number of books available on the subject from your local library.

One of the things I have found fascinating, particularly in the history of landscape photography, is that it hasn’t always been a requirement to shoot at the smallest possible aperture and have everything in focus. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and the rest of the f/64 gang changed the trend dramatically with their ‘everything razor-sharp and in focus’ images. I love that work and it has influenced me greatly, but prior to that, and to a lesser extent after, photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand often used selective focus and shallow depth of field to achieve remarkable results. I don’t pretend to be any of those people, but studying the various methods used throughout photographic history can give us a broader base upon which to build our own vision.

Today we can put a Lensbaby or zone plate on our digital camera and make things out of focus on purpose. And if we’d rather spend time on the computer and don’t want to mess with gear, we can even buy software that will mimic the out-of-focus qualities of lenses we don’t have! But just like it seems counterintuitive to buy software to make our digital images look like film (really!) I generally don’t like messing around with more gear. It just leaves me confused and then I stop seeing things the way I’ve learned to see them. Recently I started thinking “gee, what about if I just use a larger aperture and deliberately make things out of focus? I wonder how that would turn out?”

It is easy to overuse any creative tool, so you don’t want to make every image you take blurry or out of focus any more than you want to make absolutely everything sharp and in focus, but these are tools in our tool box that we can use when the scene or the subject warrants it. We all strive to achieve a personal style or “look” to our photographs, but that doesn’t mean they all look the same. It means that regardless of the style or technique used someone can tell it is your photograph. I believe strongly that you create a “look” by what you feel in your heart and see in the viewfinder, not by processing all your photos with the same software package or using some special lens. I want my images to look the way they do because that’s the way I wanted them to look when I tripped the shutter, not because I know how to run actions in Photoshop and do the same thing to every photo I take.

Anyway, I’ve found myself exploring this shallow depth of focus thing and finding that I like it a lot. It doesn’t always work, but there are times when it is better to suggest what is in a background (or foreground) than actually showing it. I can only imagine the comments at a photo critique session – “gee, it looks kind of soft” or “ those out-of-focus highlights are really distracting.” Well, maybe that’s the point! Don’t just assume that whatever is in focus is the subject! The subject might be the highlights!

Another recent trend, one I’ve tried and like a lot, is using camera movement to blur a scene and distill the elements into patterns of form, textures and color. I don’t do it all the time, but there are some scenes that really lend themselves to it. I have had a great deal of success with this at the beach, but finding suitable subjects on land can be a bit more tricky, at least for me. It’s really fun to take a “traditional” shot with the camera on the tripod, then pull it off the tripod and take a shot of the same scene using a different technique. Explore! You just might find something you like!

One of my grandmother’s sayings was something like “so what does that have to do with the price of prunes?” That was her way of saying “Tom, get to the point!” The point is, we would all do well to study our history, be inspired by the work of the masters – all of them – find things we like, be open to things we haven’t tried or maybe even make us a little uncomfortable, and have fun with this life we call being a photographer.

Photographs and stuff!