Monday, August 27, 2012

I Used To Do Photography (Now I just take pictures)

Lately I've been trying to decide how much my desire to rekindle an old hobby would be worth the money and time investment.

I was interested in photography at a very young age.  I remember the summer I got my first camera. That summer I was attending a day camp where photography was one of the many available activities. When we had elective time, I often chose to spend it in the photography lab.  I was the youngest kid in the elective. Most of the time I didn't do much other than snap whatever pictures I felt like taking and only just watched the counselor in the darkroom.  I remember the cameras we worked with in that camp.  They were the old-fashioned kind you had to look down into instead of holding them up to your face, and I advanced the film with a crank.  My own camera was a basic Kodak point-and-shoot, so I was exposed to the best of both worlds.

One of the most vivid memories of that photography class had nothing to do with actual photography.  I mostly remember that the photography counselor was kind of creepy.  He used to act like he was in love with me or something, always fake flirting with me.  He never did anything pervy or inappropriate, but he did creep me out sometimes.  He was a good looking guy and I wonder if he thinks the reason I took his class as an elective was because I had a crush on him and he thought he should play along . He annoyed me too much to develop a crush even though I probably would have admitted he was good looking.  I really just wanted to be taking and developing pictures. 

I started working SLR cameras in high school.  I graduated with the ability to adjust my own focus, shutter speeds, and apertures thanks to a high school photography class.  I could manipulate depth of field.  I could make my way in a darkroom.  By the time I graduated college I had two more photography classes under my belt and an SLR camera of my own.  I had the technical skills.  What I didn't have was a good eye.

I was never a great photographer.  I had, and still have, trouble translating to a photo the scenes my eyes want to capture.  I may conceptualize what would make a good picture, but my real life vision is not often translated on paper (or on screen)  Even with my SLR camera, my pictures weren't always great because I only ever had one lens.  There were plenty of times when a mediocre photo might have been great had I used a zoom lens.  Also, I never invested in a good flash.  I bought cheap flashes that I couldn't figure out how to sync properly, so I had pictures that were half black. 

I grew frustrated.  I often found that when I went to indoor occasions that I would just buy a disposable camera with an automatic flash.  When I went to Ireland, knowing I couldn't carry my bulky SLR while sitting on the back of a horse, I ended up buying a (film) point-and-shoot.  I hate to say it, but I used that one more than I used the SLR after a while before finally going digital.

When I went digital I bought a low-end P&S.  I was finished with trying to think I could manipulate a camera into giving me the exact picture I wanted.   For the first few years I never learned how to use any of the whizbangs and gizmos that my cameras came with.

I broke my first one after I had it only a year.  I dropped it on the floor while the lens was extended at my high school reunion (high school was not an easy time for me and I think I was drinking pretty heavily for me to try to cope with seeing all of my tormentors again). 

My next camera was a slightly better model.  It took some nice shots.  I broke that one too.  When I was in Paris, feeling the need to take photos almost every five seconds, I was constantly dangling the camera from the wrist strap instead of safely stashing it in my bag.  That was stressing the camera out pretty badly.  I can remember how I was coming down the stairs after visiting the tower in Sacre Couer and the three pieces that made up the outside shell of the camera came crashing down on the stone steps.  The mechanisms survived though.  I put it back together with tape and that camera went to both Italy and the Canyonlands in that condition.

I like to think my eye is a little better these days.  I have stopped trying to look for big pictures and instead concentrate on pulling small things out of a larger scene.  I still take tons of crappy photos when I go away, but there are some interesting ones among the trash.

I have an obsession with windows and doors and often concentrate on them, even if the "windows" are naturally formed by rocks or trees.

I also loves photos of roads and pathways.

Sometimes my best pictures are lucky shots.  I just happen to be in the right place at the right time.  One of my best photos from my trip to Jackson Hole in 2010 was the results of a marmot deciding to stand his ground when I approached him on the Jenny Lake trail.

I love taking pictures of Kevin when he is in his "element".  He is the true consummate photographer of the two of us.  Here is a great combination of him in a lucky shot among the bison in Grand Teton.

The bane of my existence though is food photography.  I love to cook and love to eat and I love my food blog.  My food blog is utterly pathetic because it is so woefully lacking in good photos.  I've tried to remedy this.  Kevin bought me a light box a couple of years ago, which helped with the lighting, but I still can't get that "food porn" look in my photos.  I blamed my less-than-fancy camera.  My old camera did have aperture settings, but I couldn't really manipulate depth of field.  It was almost impossible to shoot on the macro setting with that camera.  Macro photos utterly refused to stay focused.

I agonized for a while about what kind of camera I wanted. Did I really want to return to more serious photography, or should I just take pictures and hope that every tenth photo was good?   Should I splurge on a DSLR?  I wondered if it made sense if I really wanted to be more serious with my picture taking.  I began to wonder where I would be using the camera.  One one hand, I would have full manual control over food photos.  On the other hand, DSLR cameras don't always travel well.  See that backpack Kevin is wearing in the photo above?  That pack is strictly for his camera and related equipment (lenses, tripod, etc.).  When we went to Italy, Kevin had to buy another camera, a small point-and-shoot, because he couldn't take the Nikon with him on horseback.  When we were on our Canyonlands trip last spring, I had to carry the necessities like water and sunscreen on the trail in my backpack because Kevin needed all of his pack space for camera equipment.  It would be very difficult for us both to travel carrying giant cameras.

I went into a Best Buy two weeks ago determined to buy a new camera.  It was only after looking at scores of models that I realized I had no idea what I wanted or needed.  I came to the very obvious conclusion that I needed to do some actual research.

The more I looked online I realized that a DSLR was out of the question due to price, or at least a decent one would be.  I started Googling what cameras were best for food photography.  Even then I went up against the wall of high prices.  I decided to simply get my priorities straight.  I needed something under $500 that had nice, easy, automatic settings for casual shots, but that I could also manipulate myself fully for food photography and the artsier kind of vacation photos.

I finally chose the Canon SX250.  It was just under $300 on sale.  It had full manual aperture and shutter speed settings.  It also had fully automatic settings, even an "easy shoot" setting for dummies.  There were options for both aperture and shutter speed priority.  The macro lens actually cooperated with the focus.

I have been playing a bit with light manipulation now.  I'm very out of practice.  The handy feature of a digital camera is that when you're playing with the settings, you see exactly how much light is coming into your picture.   With my old SLR film camera, I had to rely on the light meter, which was not reliable in low-light settings.  My major concern was manipulation of depth of field.  How could I change the settings to make sure the close-up photos were sharp and the background disappeared.

I did my first test shots with household objects.  I wanted to photograph something small against a light-filled background to see if I could sharpen one and blur the other.  My choice of subject was the pouch that contains my iPad screen cleaning rag and I took its picture in front of my balcony sliders.

I started by closing my aperture and slowing down the shutter speed.  The pouch was well-lit as it should be while the balcony was somewhat blurred by light.

Next I tried opening up the aperture and increasing the shutter speed.  The pouch remained sharp, but it was dark. I wanted to soften it more. The balcony was more distinct though.  You can actually see the features of the trees on the right side of the photo and it's a little more obvious that it's a potted plant on the left.

Next I took it to the barn to try it on bigger landscapes and bigger models.  I started with my most favorite subject, Riddle.  I tightened up the aperture and slowed the shutter speed, keeping a tighter zoon on Riddle herself.

I think I achieved what I wanted to here.  The background is fairly soft and Riddle looks reasonably sharp.

Next I opened up the aperture and increased the shutter speed.  I also zoomed out a bit to make Riddle part of a bigger scene.

I'm not sure I see much difference in the two photos.  This is going to take some serious work!

How long will I stick with this?  Will I start doing photography and stop just taking pictures?  Will my food blog finally look good?  Will the investment I made in a new camera be worth it?  Will I end up with a DSLR some day?  Stay tuned.

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