365: What I learned

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Alright, girls and boys, buckle up. Today’s post will be a long one. We’re going on a tour of my last year as a photographer. But the good news is that it’s not going to be some 400 page saga. It’s going to be in pictures! So buckle up, but don’t pull it in too tight; this should be a mellow ride.

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Day 1

So. Let’s start. About a year ago (Nov 4, 2013) I began a project that’s considered to be an excellent exercise for photograpers. 365. You take one photo every day for a year that you keep. Those are the rules. You can, of course take more photos, but you cannot take any fewer. As every starry-eyed photographer starting this project, I said to myself, ‘This is going to be fun! I’m going to work crazy hard, experiment, and every photo is going to be awesome!’

experimentation!

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smooooth
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Experimentation galore!

And so it went. I tried things, and it was exciting. In the above photo, i strapped all 3 macro extenders to my 70-200, fired up a flash and went to town photographing the sink dripping into a plate. It was exciting! It was fun. I got things i’ve never had a reason to shoot before. I shot water, i shot smoke. Having just gotten Gregory Heisler‘s 50 Portraits (which I simply cannot recommend enough), I was excited about flashes and backlighting things, especially smoke. The weekends were a blast. Whether it was setting up some incense and stinking up the guest bedroom, or flooding the sink, or dragging my wife and friends in front of some studio lights, I had a blast!

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Learning to strobe

lights

Abby and I got engaged on Elba, in September 2013, a couple months before this began. We were very excited to start planning the wedding and all the fin things our guests would do. I think it was my sister, Darya, who suggested building a photobooth. That’s terrific! A photobooth!? I’m sort of a photographer. Surely I can work some magics and build a booth! So I did, and the results are here. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the things that I had to get in order to make the booth work. I got light modifiers! Specifically, a softbox, and an umbrella. I’ve been reading some strobist and really getting into all sorts of different light setups. This was still early days, so my light setups were 1 flash and the exploration of how far I can take it.

I love strobes. I love manipulating the light to create an image that cannot exist in the light that’s available. It’s a totally new dimension to photography. It’s challenging, but if the picture comes out how I want it, it’s the most satisfying feeling.

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dark days

But it’s not always strobeshine and rainbows. Some days I was just busy. I got up late, I left work late, Abby and I needed to cook dinner, clean the house, visit people, whatever. So, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts it’s hard to find the motivation to find new things. And sometimes It’s hard to find the time. So there are a few days when there is no inspiration, there are no ideas. Hell, a few times I’ve thought about quitting. I’ve thought about quitting the project and I’ve thought about quitting photography outright. It sounds silly, but it makes sense when you have 3-4 days in a row with photos like this

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Just like there are good days, there are bad.

And it’s not easy to get out of that rut. If images aren’t coming, it’s hard to make myself go out and find things. But when I do, this can happen:

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And the skies clear. And I’m back. I’m shooting. I’m ready to face a couple bad days reinvigorated by the knowledge that I can still find a shot worth making.

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learning to use my camera

Here’s the fun thing about making myself shoot every day: i didn’t just find places and things to shoot, I learned to use my camera. I don’t mean ‘operate’, I mean really understand it as a tool and work within its restrictions. An instance I remember clearly is when I realized how to properly expose landscape. I’m sure i mess up from time to time, but I’m on my way. For my first year and a half of shooting, I relied on the camera to expose, but more than that I relied on the preview. And while, that’s not wrong, viewing an image on a large screen is not the same as on my camera. And more importantly, for a long time I was worried about blowing out the sky, when the entire time I should have been worried about the reverse. My boss, Sendi, told me this a while ago on a photo walk, but I refused to accept it until i went to Chicago in the spring for RailsConf. I rented a 24mm PC-E lens (tilt shift) from Glazer’s for the magics of in-camera perspective cintrol. During lunch i went around and took as many photos as i could. But sadly none of them looked right. I had the gear, the histogram looked okay, my camera is a beast, so i knew the dynamic range was not the limit. What gives? Then it dawned on me: no one cares if the white clouds are a little blown out, but when the entire street is black, it shows.

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The clouds look nice, but what's the use. You can't see the street!
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Much better. Everything is properly lit.

feeling

But, of course, as Abby and my coworker Puja always tell me, there’s more to photos than just the technical. And there is. And it’s hard for me. Coming from drawing and painting, capturing the emotional in the moment it happens is not my forte. I’m stubborn though, so i started trying to get more into that sort of ‘on the fly’ kind of photography. There are 2 ways of making an image: full light setup and studio, or street photography. Since I can’t very well get Abby to sit for me every day, i got into street photography. It’s a lot of fun, but it also has its challenges. I started out just looking for things happening, lines, movement, tension, feeling

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shooting film

With all new technology comes some maintenence, some more than others. My shiny new D600 decides to spew garbage on the sensor. I don’t know what it was and frankly i don’t care. I want my images to be clean at f/4 and i feel like that’s not an unreasonable thing to want. The camera did not agree, resulting in about 2 weeks of digital downtime. Luckily, I got Abby an F100 when she wanted to experiment with film, which i was able top annex and shoot film in the meantime. It’s not convenient by any stretch of the imagination and a huge pain to keep track of what photos i took when, but i love film and I was dedicated to shooting every day, no matter what camera. I made it work

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3 times i sent my camera in. On the third time they gave up and gave me anew one, free of sensor grime. Just in time too. The new camera came 2 days before my wedding, making 2 things possible: my photobooth and honeymoon photos. Maui is a lovely place and there’s plenty to photograph. Some of the days i had my camera with me ready to take pictures of whatever marvels came at us, but most of the days, i left the camera at home and we explored the island without excessive documentation. However, the beast needed to be fed daily and i found times to shoot. The picture below is an alley i captured on my way from dropping Abby off at a massage appointment. It’s part landscape, part street, and all about exposure.

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learning history

Coming back from vacation is never easy, especially if it’s from Hawaii to rainy Seattle. On our return I was eager to get back into the grind, but with a new outlook. More than ever before istarted really thinking about my composition and thinking about how every picture really works. I watched everything i could find on the greats, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Capa, McMurry, McNally, Gregory Heisler. I’m still reading all about it, actually. I got myself ‘PHOTOGRAPHY: The Definitive Visual History’ which i’m slowly working through. For the longest time all i read was gear specs. I wanted to know what glass did what, how many stops of dynamic range what camera has, etc., but 1: watching the greats talk it’s hard to find them talking about gear, beyond focal length for a particular photo and 2: the more i shoot, the less it matters. Sure, i love all my gear and i’m glad that it’s fast and sharp and all that, but now that I’m here it’s time to focus on making photos.

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telling stories

An argument Abby and i have all the time is ‘story vs lines’. Not that anyone is saying that either can be ignored, but more of what should i focus on. I keep saying that before i can tell stories, i need to get better at framing. Abby keeps saying that my framing is fine and i need to think about the content more. And she’s right. But stories are hard and lines are becoming relatively easy. So i shoot lines in hopes of finding a story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

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But like it’s not all stobeshine and rainbows, it’s also not all doom and gloom. I get to go climbing and see all kinds of neat things and i get to make photos from time to time too. Like, full on studio, proper artist make photos. I have a couple posts about this photo and the practice run for it, but the DEDPXL07 photo too significant time and effort and it was what i would consider art. It was sort of the culmination of my composition practice, my technical practice, and really, as pretentious as it sounds, my artistic vision.

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An alternate frame from the DEDPXL07 shoot.

And that’s the end of our journey. It’s been fun. As you saw, there were plenty of ups, some downs, but it was an excellent learning experience. Now that it’s done, i move forward confidently as a photographer and ride, as they say, into the sunset.

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Day 365