One of our challenges as photographers is to try and expand our horizons a bit in order to grow our skills and refine our vision. Often that involves getting outside of our “Comfort Zone.” Hopefully is doesn’t take us so far as our “Panic Zone” but that is always a possibility. Coincidentally one of the topics of our workshop this past weekend dealt with just that – getting outside our comfort zone.
This was already on the schedule before the workshop and ensuing discussion, but the manager of our favorite restaurant told me that he needed new photos for his website, Facebook page and Open Table and wondered if I was interested in giving it a go. After a big “gulp!” I told him I’d love to do it, we just needed to set up a date.
As it happened, the weather forecast for this past Sunday was perfect, Tim (the manager) was available and the time change the night before made sunrise a much more hospitable hour than it would have been just the previous day. So off I went at 0-Dark-Thirty to shoot landscape photos in a restaurant. No problem, right? Actually it was no problem at all. Tim had gotten there early and had everything set up, and just like with a landscape shoot we just had to wait for the right light. Once it got good, I rattled off a series of shots and it was “in the can” as they say in show biz.
It was a great creative exercise for me, and stretched my boundaries just a bit. Not all of the shots are as great as I (and the client) think these are, but they will be a huge improvement over what they had been using. I don’t think there’s any danger of me becoming an architectural photographer any time soon, but it has gotten me thinking about looking for a tilt-shift lens!
A number of years ago while living in eastern Ohio, I earned my private pilot’s license and enjoyed spending my weekends in search of the “Hundred Dollar Hamburger,” which was what we called a trip to a somewhat distant airport in a rented airplane for lunch. I now spend most of my weekends on the ground, and my equipment is, at least in theory, a bit less expensive.
One winter Saturday, a good friend and I started off on a longer trip to a much more distant airport in central Pennsylvania, hoping to hone our navigational skills on the 3-hour flight and to visit a little restaurant that we had heard good things about. After an hour or so of flying, we started getting into some winter weather. It was nothing heavy, but neither of us was instrument rated and it was just enough moisture to have us concerned about icing. My friend, who was flying the plane at the time, told me half-jokingly, “I think we ought to make a 360 and get out of here.” He was of course referring to making a 180, but I knew exactly what he meant and quickly agreed. We headed back to our home airport under sunshine and blue skies. We never did get to that airport, because soon after that I moved to North Carolina and I haven’t flown a small plane since.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I have been seriously contemplating a move to a compact camera system to replace my “aging” Canon 5D and associated lenses. The decision process has been far more difficult than the one I faced over western Pennsylvania those many years ago, and the answer is much less obvious. By comparison there are many more possibilities and many more acceptable outcomes than flying a single-engine airplane into a snowstorm. My primary motivation for making the change is that I would like to have a smaller and lighter camera, reasoning that I would be a lot happier taking a nice light backpack when I travel, as opposed to my overweight, carryon-illegal Think Tank bag that I can barely lift into the back of my car and that an airline would never let me carry aboard a plane. The second motivation is that I am running way behind in technology, and I reason that something newer will give me more up-to-date dynamic range and image quality. I really am due for an upgrade of some kind. The challenge is figuring out what to do.
In the last week or so I started making serious inquiries about what kind of jackpot I might expect by selling some or all of my gear or trading it in with a dealer. I have never bought or sold on eBay or Craigslist, and have no interest in making my debut by selling potentially valuable gear in a reputedly shark-infested market. I know a lot of people do it with no problems, but I’ve heard just enough horror stories to convince me that if I decide to “dip my toe” I’ll do it with something far more harmless, like some old NASCAR die-cast that I’ve been holding on to for too long.
The answers I have gotten back have been nothing short of depressing. Knowing how well my gear still performs, and knowing what I have invested in this gear over the last 8 years, the amortization has been pretty high, to the point where I am now convinced – again, for today, at least – to stay with what I’ve got for a while longer, perhaps looking to pick up a newer used body to get me closer to the current technology. And Canon’s got some Big News scheduled for this coming Friday, so who knows? Would I like a 5D Mark III? Perhaps. We’ll have to see.
Part of the reason for the angst is that Kathy & I have a big trip planned for May. Just like pilots have to be careful of suffering from “Get-There-itis,” I seem to be suffering from a related ailment called “New-Gear-itis.” We’re taking a 10-night cruise to Alaska from San Francisco, finished off with 4 days in California exploring Sonoma and the Russian River wine regions, perhaps with a visit to Napa. We’re more Sonoma people, we’re told, so we’ll probably stay on the western side for the most part. But I’d like to be able to do it with less gear, which is why I was feeling pressured – all internal, of course – to buy something new. But now I’m thinking that maybe I just need to look at my existing equipment and to just be a little more selective about what I take. There’s more than one way to take less stuff, right?
I’ve done a lot of thinking on this, and figure that anything I do is going to be a compromise. I’ve been looking at a Fuji X-Pro 1, and while it certainly has the size benefit over the Canon, the longest lens offered is a 60mm macro. There are more lenses in the pipeline but the 70-200 zoom is more than a year away. The cost of the body and 3 lenses would require that I sell virtually all of my existing gear. That’s more risk than I’m willing to take for a brand-new and unproven camera.
The new Olympus OM-D looks very promising and I think it’s going to be a great little camera. It’s more affordable than the Fuji, certainly has the size benefit I’m looking for and has a number of lenses available, so I could have all of the focal length I’m looking for. But again, it’s a brand-new camera and I’m not inclined to drop that kind of money for something that is unproven.
So where does that leave me? If I decide I just need to have something newer, I could quickly and easily pick up a 60D, a 7D or even a 5D Mark II. There are bound to be a lot of Mark II owners getting itchy over the Mark III. Maybe I’ll find a good deal on a newer used camera, then later on I can jump on the Mark III bandwagon once it’s been out and I’m sure it’s worth the money.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and I’m sure these new cameras are going to be great. But I think that – once again – I’m going to just sit back and see what happens. The last time I went to Alaska I took great photos with my 20D, so I’m sure that whatever camera I go with this time will be just fine. And once I get to California I’m planning to spend most of my time drinking wine, so even if there is a difference I might not care!
Kathy & I are spending the long President’s Day weekend (President’s Day for most banking-related employers except mine. Oh, well….) in Belhaven, NC, one of our favorite getaway spots. We enjoy coming to Belhaven because we can do or not do, as much or as little as we choose. It’s a nice little town on the Intracoastal Waterway, a little sleepy but there’s enough to do if you want something to do. We’ve got some good friends that run a B&B here, and it is nice to visit several times a year to catch up. After the hustle & bustle of The Big City it is a welcome change.
Saturday we visited Washington, NC, just down the road between Belhaven and Greenville. There’s a great wine shop there we like to visit called Wine & Words (‘Words’ because it is also a used book store). We go for the wine but I’ve also bought books there, once picking up a copy of Peter Turnley’s The Parisians for an amazingly good price.
I’ve been begging Kathy to let me try out her little Olympus E-PL2 for quite some time, and she decided that she wasn’t planning to do any shooting this weekend, so as long as I used my own memory card (so I wouldn’t corrupt hers!) I could shoot to my heart’s content. I didn’t shoot a lot with it, but I did get a chance to make some walking-around-town photos in Washington and worked a little bit around the Sunset Hour, although colorwise there wasn’t much to work with.
Today has been wet and cold and rainy, so while I ordinarily wouldn’t spend time processing and posting photographs, it seemed like a perfect day to play around with Lightroom 4. I’m teaching a Lightroom class this coming Saturday and thought I probably should at least be able to discuss the upcoming update. I decided to just jump in without reading any tutorials, so now that I’ve spent some time with it I can look at some tutorials and figure out what I should have known before I started. Sort of like reading the manual after assembling the swing set, but I figure I can’t hurt anything. So far, so good.
A lot of the new version looks pretty much like the old one, although I’m obviously going to need to spend some time learning about the new Map and Book modules. There are some interesting new slider functions in the Develop Module, and that’s where I spent most of my time. It will be interesting to read about the changes and find out what I should have known before I started!
So anyway, these are a few images shot on an unfamiliar camera and processed with a partially unfamiliar program. I think they’re kind of fun, I had fun making them and fun working with Lightroom 4.
There’s been a good-natured discussion going on over at Paul Lester’s blog. Paul rented a Canon G12 to try and compare with the S90 he currently owns, and several of us who have and shoot with the G12 chimed in with our words of wisdom. More recently Paul has been trying out a Nikon V1. I don’t think he’s planning to buy one but is interested in knowing what all the hoopla is about. In this day of disappearing camera shops and the inability to “try before you buy” I think renting a camera is a very smart way to go. And Paul’s a smart guy.
Of course I recently started shooting with the Fuji X10 and like it a lot. I still use the G12 and occasionally shoot with my “old” G9. I’m teaching an Intro to Digital Point & Shoot class this coming weekend and the next few weekends and will probably bring my mothballed G5 our of storage just to reminisce a bit. The G5 was my first digital camera, way back in 2004, and although I haven’t used it in a long time the files still look pretty good, albeit a bit small.
On a recent weekend trip to Hilton Head Island, SC I shot with – at different times – my Canon 5D, my Canon G12 and my Fuji X10. I got good results from all three of them, but the best experience was using the smaller and simpler cameras. I especially enjoyed walking around shooting architectural details handheld. I even put the G12 on a tripod for a sunset trip to the beach. But when I went out with a backpack with the 5D, two lenses, polarizers and all the stuff to go with it, I just…didn’t like it.
There’s been a lot of anticipation lately about the latest and greatest offerings from Nikon and Canon, but every time I think about carrying around another one of those beasts my shoulders start to hurt. I could sell my car and buy the forthcoming 1DX and a 200-400, but I’d have to hire someone to carry it. I resisted the urge to upgrade to the 5D Mark II and have a passing interest in the expected replacement, but when I look at my barely-carryon-legal rolling suitcase that holds all my gear and compare it with my G12 or my X10 (Kathy won’t let me touch her Olympus!) I can’t help but long for the simplicity of my Mamiya 7 and 3 prime lenses. That, a box of 220 film and a fanny pack and I was good for the weekend! Not any more.
I’ve sort of had in the back of my mind – more recently bubbling toward the front of my mind – that one of these new compact systems is going to be the be-all and end-all for me. The image quality keeps getting better to the point that I think it will no longer be a compromise or a step down to use a compact camera as a primary camera. I’m trying to be patient, and buying the little cameras like the X10 – while certainly not cheap – give me the thrill of something new while waiting for the right system to come along.
All of this discussion is fine. Even-tempered, well reasoned and logical. What gets me shaking my head though is the people who get so fired up about the new cameras that they practically stop taking pictures while they wait for the new ones. It’s as though their existing equipment stopped working as soon as the new stuff was announced.
But hey, it’s a hobby and we can all spend our money however we want, right? As long as the mortgage gets paid and the kids have shoes, we can spend the rest on golf clubs, wine, cars or anything we want, including cameras. Does it make us happy to be the first person in the club with the new XYZ Pro 1000? Buy it! Have an itch for that new RRS tripod? Sign up!
The inner geek in me gets excited about all this stuff too, and even if I wasn’t seriously thinking about making a change I’d still be interested. It’s a little scary to me when I even think about being at the front of the line for a brand-new camera. I worry that I’m interested for the wrong reasons. When I go to Lowe’s to buy a new hammer I don’t get all warm and fuzzy comparing them. It’s a tool, and as long as it does the job it should be an impersonal and unemotional transaction. But a camera seems like another story. I guess it’s because our photography is our way to express creativity we tend to get a little (lot?) more excited about buying cameras than we do when buying a hammer.
Hopefully I can manage to watch and listed for a few more weeks at least, until we see what gets announced in early February. Then, perhaps armed with a few more facts instead of a lot of speculation, I can actually make a decision. Those of you who might be looking to pick up some good Canon lenses for a song, keep your money in your pockets. I don’t move that fast, and may just decide to keep shooting with what I have for a while. I might just decide to carry around a little less of it!
After writing the last post I remembered that I left out a whole batch of photos that I classify in Lightroom as “Personal” and I forgot to include them when I made the selection of my favorite 11. That’s probably just as well, so this way I get to show a few more favorites, and I don’t have to explain to people why I picked a tree or something over a photo of them!
Alan Ross recently posted an article entitled “Too Close To Home – Even for Ansel Adams” in which he discusses how he (Alan) rarely makes interesting images close to his home and how Ansel Adams had the same “problem.” Check it out.
It would be easy to read such an article and think, “Gee, I have something in common with Ansel Adams!” Not so fast. I agree that most of us do our best work in places other than where we live. But why is that?
Perhaps the biggest reason we don’t shoot close to home is that we have too many distractions at home. Whenever we’re home we have our “to-do lists” and other chores that make it hard to change gears and just go out and shoot for an hour or so. Maybe we’re too busy planning our next adventure away from home that we forget about what there is to shoot nearby.
I think shooting close to home can potentially result in excellent images, images that only those who take the time to know a place can make, because if we really get to know a location we can go there when the conditions are perfect for whatever we choose to photograph. But we have to work at it and be open to the possibilities because our subject matter is not as clear-cut as it would be if we were shooting somewhere “iconic.” And the great thing is that we have an opportunity to shoot someplace where no one else has photographed. True, it might not be Yosemite, but we can do some truly personal work in a place where you aren’t influenced by others’ photographs.
Why do we seem to make better photographs when we travel to new places? Think about it, and I think you’ll agree that it has to do with several main things: (1) when we travel to photograph we “give ourselves permission” to put our other obligations aside and just go shoot, (2) when we visit a new location we are usually excited, and shooting things that excite us generally results in more personal photographs, and (3) when we’re unfamiliar with a place, we work harder at finding things that interest us, because we have put our distractions (and our preconceptions) aside. There are many more, but I think those are the top three.
For many of us, we live where our jobs are. If we lived in the Caribbean or Alaska or the Rocky Mountains one would think it would be easier to shoot close to home. But that’s not necessarily the case. We get so used to things we see every day that we lose sight of how wonderful our home is. I used to work with a woman who grew up in Hawaii but always talked about how beautiful North Carolina is. She told me that since she had lived in Hawaii so long she didn’t think it was anything special. Wow, I can’t imagine that!
I’ve spent the last several years shooting on the greenway that runs through my neighborhood. It’s been a fun project, documenting the change in seasons in different weather conditions and different times of the day. But even when all I have to do is walk out my front door, it can still be a hard thing to do. For a while I tried doing a regular shoot there for some of my local photographer friends, but turnout was generally pretty low. Those who came out enjoyed it, and I had some regulars, but it’s just hard for people to get excited about shooting somewhere so close to home.
To be sure, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with traveling to other places to photograph, and I certainly do my share! We love to travel, and there is nothing better than going to a new place, returning to a place we haven’t been in a long time, or even going to a familiar place in different conditions or at a different time of the year. I’m planning to do my share of traveling in the coming year, too. But I think if we work at it we can see our home the way we see new places. Try it and see, and let me know how it goes!
Imaginon Children’s library in uptown Charlotte on a chilly Saturday in December
Kathy & I were talking the other evening about her experiences photographing this year, and she mentioned how much she enjoys just walking around with a camera, taking photographs of things she sees and things that interest her. She seems to have the most fun – and does her best photography – when we are just wandering around with our cameras, no tripods, no bags full of gear, just a camera and a lens.
There are obviously times were a tripod is simply necessary to get a photograph. And when I need one I’ve got a couple to pick from. But the biggest problem with a tripod (besides having to carry it) is that it’s another piece of gear to think about. Just like carrying extra lenses, a tripod gives you more choices to make, another bunch of problems to solve. Adjusting, leveling, making sure the feet don’t crush some unsuspecting lichen, etc. takes time and attention away from the task at hand. It’s like carrying a bunch of lenses. The more lenses I carry the better the chance that I’ve got the “wrong one” on the camera. Of course I can solve that by walking around with multiple cameras slung Pancho Vila-style over my shoulders. Yikes! No thanks.
Some people handle all that just fine, but for many of us and certainly for me, having to fuss with the equipment distracts me from the flow of creativity. That’s what I love about the simplicity of using a compact camera or an SLR with one lens. I start out seeing based on what I have with me, I stop worrying about whether I’ve got the right lens on the camera or whether the tripod is the right height or not and I just go out and shoot. If I need to get lower I get down. Sometimes I lay on my back on the ground. I’d never bother with that if I had to adjust a tripod to get that low.
Admittedly there are some concerns with shooting hand-held. Concerned about precise composition? It’s perfectly OK to crop a little if you need to tidy up an edge or straighten a horizon. I can’t get straight horizons on a tripod with a built-in level in my viewfinder! I might get a little softness from camera movement so I have to be careful with shutter speed, although with today’s cameras cranking the ISO up a stop or two (or more) isn’t a big deal. And most of the handheld shooting I do is in daylight so that’s not too big of an issue. And you know what? If you use good technique and don’t try to make huge prints they’re probably sharp enough! I find that the best cure for soft photos is often to just stop looking at them at 100%
The tripod is definitely a great compositional tool. If you ever want to see how unsteady you are at hand-holding, switch your camera to video mode and try to hold a composition. That may convince you to use a tripod! But there are times when leaving it at home allows you to fully engage your creativity, to just go out and shoot. You may be a little limited in what you can do, but I firmly believe that if your shooting style allows you to respond to the things that “call your name,” you can react to them in a way that shows through in your photographs that a razor-sharp, technically-perfect but clinically emotionless photograph just can’t match.
– Do people really buy the stuff that is advertised on those hand-written signs at intersections? “Microfiber Sofa & Loveseat $499” “We Buy Houses” “Carpet Cleaning – 3 Rooms $79” “Computer Repair $20” I guess they must, otherwise we wouldn’t see them.
– I find it interesting – and this is from recent first-hand experience – that when you go to a car dealer’s website, are interested in a specific car that their website shows they have and is in stock, you click the button that says “Click Here for Your EPrice!” and you never actually get a price. Never! You get automated e-mails telling you to call them for a price, sometimes the message says “please call to let me know the specific car you are interested in.” Then they send you e-mails you can’t reply to, and when you e-mail to tell them you are no longer interested they don’t stop calling!
– Is it just me, or does all the peripheral gear required to turn an SLR into a movie camera make people look like a dork? Seems to me if you need an auxiliary viewfinder, a contraption to hold the camera still, a special tripod head and all that other stuff that the camera isn’t really designed to shoot video, even though it can.
– How come so many nature photographs look so unnatural?
– How come whenever someone posts a really nice photo online somewhere, someone always has to ask either “where is that?” or “what were your exposure settings?”
– Why do some drivers feel it is necessary to drive on the grass or the berm, just to get into a left-turn lane where the light is red? A few seconds of patience and you could be there anyway!
– I recently read a Q&A in a photography magazine where someone wrote in to ask, “what settings should I use to photograph in Antarctica?” The answer person was much kinder with his answer than I would have been. Not to sound arrogant, but if you are planning to spend the money that a trip to Antarctica costs, shouldn’t you know what settings to use?
– I was talking to a real estate agent about the various methods used to market real estate these days. She told me that one of the things they do for the “less tech savvy” is mail out postcards. She then told me that the postcards contain a QR code so that the person could scan it with their smart phone and it would take them directly to a website with information about the property. Scuse me, but if someone knows enough to scan a QR code with their smart phone, they probably don’t need a postcard in the mail. Just a thought.
I’m finishing up a long-overdue read of Alain Briot’s book “Mastering Landscape Photography.” It’s a very good book but one I never got around to buying until recently, when he made his 3 books available as e-books. Click here for information on buying your own. Needless to say, I am really liking e-books.
One of the sections of the book I found most interesting was the section titled “How to Establish a Personal Photographic Style.” I find that subject interesting because it is a subject I have thought about and struggled with for quite some time. I struggle not so much about whether or not I have a personal style, but rather about whether a personal style can be “developed” or whether it just “is.” Briot’s second book in the series, and the one I will read next, is titled “Mastering Composition, Creativity and Personal Style.” I can only assume he goes into more detail in that book and I am looking forward to reading it.
The thing that I find most fascinating about the discussion of personal style is that it almost always seems to take the approach that style is something you can influence consciously, as suggested by the various terms: words like develop, master, enhance, define, improve and discover are often used. But so far I haven’t been convinced that that’s the case. I agree that someone’s personal style can be influenced by things like looking at other people’s work, learning about the expressive and artistic approaches to creativity or by expressing emotional content in our work. For me though, personal style is what results from the way I see, the way I feel and the stories I want to tell.
A lot of photographers create very identifiable photographs. It surprises me how often I look at a photograph on a website or in a magazine and know whose it is. The work that has the most impact (to me) is the work where the composition, lighting, and emotion define the “look” of a photograph. Michael Kenna, John Sexton, Galen Rowell, Annie Leibovitz have very identifiable personal styles. Closer to home, I can often identify a Kevin Adams image in a heartbeat. The same is true with Bill Lea, Don McGowan or Les Saucier. That is partly because I am familiar with their work but also because they each have a style that I recognize. This is not a rare occurrence either. I have a number of other friends – far less famous but still excellent photographers – whose work I can easily identify.
Can personal style be a result of software or processing? I suppose so, but while others will certainly disagree I’m not entirely convinced that software alone can make a style. The underlying photograph must be compelling on its own, and the software is used as a tool to realize the photographer’s overall vision. That opinion stems from my belief that software will never make an otherwise ordinary image compelling. I’d almost be more inclined to say that software can dilute a style if not used well, although I suppose photographs that are “overdone” can still be identifiable, just not necessarily in a good way.
Can you really change or influence your personal style? That is an excellent question and the core of my exploration. If you photograph what you love or something you have an interest in, you are attracted to subjects that somehow appeal to you personally. You respond to the subject in your own way and the photographs you take reflect your reaction to whatever it was that drew you to make the photograph. Since our creativity is influenced by numerous factors, the way we photograph will naturally reflect that influence. Our reaction and how we respond to a subject is based on our true feelings and reflects everything we know and believe. And while I’m not an expert on this and am probably not explaining it adequately, it seems to me that if you try to “force the issue” by trying to take a photograph in a way that is somehow foreign or unfamiliar to you, the chances are very good that the results will reflect this and somehow appear, shall we say, insincere. The image will fail by being not genuine.
I was told a number of years ago that my own photographs were recognizable, that they had a “style” that identified them as mine. I believe that and know that to be true. But I also feel that my photography has changed since then. I don’t think I take the same photographs that I took 8 or 10 years ago. But I didn’t set out to “change” my personal style. My approach to photography has changed, my vision has evolved as a result of many influences and my photographs – I think – are different.
I have a print by Les Saucier titled “Fern Herd.” Les told me that “Fern Herd” represents a turning point in his photography, because when he made that photograph was when he recognized the importance of relationships in his photography. I’m not sure that I could point to a specific photograph of mine that represents such a turning point, but if I look at a typical “Tom Dills” photo from several years ago and compare it to a “Tom Dills” photo of today, I feel like there is a noticeable difference. Whether they are both identifiable as “mine” remains to be seen and is probably not something that I am best qualified to answer. A lot of my earlier photographs were dramatic landscapes with sunbeams and clouds and great color – “Magic Moments” if you will. Today the work that most appeals to me tends to be work that is quiet and contemplative. I still get my share of sunbeams, but I spend a lot more time looking at intimate scenes, working more with composition, relying on more intimate scenes with lines, shapes and patterns to define my work instead of wide-angle grand scenic landscapes with dramatic clouds and god-beams.
I know that my personality has changed over the last 10 or so years. I suppose that just means that I have matured, but in general I find myself more relaxed. I like to take things slow and easy. I seek peace and quiet and time to think. Is that reflected in my photography? I sometimes wonder if non-photographic influences have been more of a factor than the photographic ones. Do the dramatic scenes represent the noise, the confusion, the voices that accompany the beginning photographer, while the intimate quiet scenes reflect the confidence that comes with mastery of the medium? Or do the differences reflect my own mental state of mind over that timeframe? I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that but the question is fascinating.
Is there a conclusion to all this? I don’t think there can be. Everyone’s personal style is just that – personal. And I believe it is constantly evolving. I don’t think – at least not at this point in time – that it’s something you can think about while you are out making photographs. In fact I think if you tried it would be such a distraction that you would only get confused and frustrated. I know there are as many opinions on this as there are photographers, but I think personal style is a characteristic or result of the feelings we have combined with everything that influences us, rather than something that obviously or consciously influences our work while we are doing it. It’s a fascinating topic and one that I think is worth continued and further research.