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Some early thoughts on hobby photography (§)
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who what when where why (§)
Over the past three years I have been taking more and more pictures. Up until now, it has always been with a cell phone.
I was growing increasingly unhappy with the low quality of the pictures. What's the point of all those megapixels when they look like soup? I hemmed and hawed over buying a real camera for a while but wasn't sure if I would really use it enough to justify it.
In May, I borrowed my dad's camera and took pictures of people at a renaissance faire. When I look at those pictures now I am still proud of how they turned out. That day assured me that my eye had outgrown my cell phone, and I made my purchase not long after.
The renaissance faire was a good venue for my first real photographic outing because there's a bunch of interesting looking people all in one place, all enthusiastic about or at least content with having their picture taken. It's like street photography lite because you don't have to worry whether you're going to look weird for taking pictures of strangers.
After I got my camera, though, it was a while before I really went anywhere. I just took walks around town.
I don't have an instagram account. I don't have a twitter account. I haven't put any pictures on reddit. I did make a flickr account, but then I deleted all the pictures out of it anyway. My pictures go here and it's got an atom feed with probably zero followers, but I wouldn't know because I don't keep traffic stats. I post full resolution images with no watermarks, and no that's not a mistake. Methinks I doth protest too much, but suffice to say I'm not trying to do 'social media' or get super popular with my photos.
Despite all of that, I became very aware, very quickly that my choice of subjects to photograph has been heavily skewed by my internet-centric mindset, surely a symptom of having spent too much time indoors. What I mean is, even though very few of my pictures get put online publicly, nearly all of the pictures I took in the first two months of owning the camera were composed to be safe for public consumption, i.e. contain no identifying features that could doxx me. They were closeups of anonymous objects: lamps, traffic cones, benches, trash cans, birds on wires, squirrels in trees, flowers and leaves. Very occasionally a signpost at eye level, my whereabouts concealed by a shallow depth of field. No roads, no landscapes, no skylines, no business names or home addresses or street signs. Pointing the camera at a named building or street felt wrong in the way that pointing it at a person through their bedroom window would be wrong.
This is a bad habit. It suggests that the motivation for taking the pictures is not to remember my own life, or to make something that makes me happy, but rather to get validation from internet strangers with internet-safe images. And that's really not a good thing.
After making myself conscious of this foolishness I have started to break the habit. I really don't want to look back on years' worth of photos and see a thousand plants and building corners and discarded shoes in parking lots, so I'm trying to get more of my actual surroundings. I have gotten a couple pictures of my city that I'm quite happy with, but naturally I won't show them to you. The pictures I put on my website are either abstract closeups of anonymous things, or else were taken far from home.
I also think it's worth being conscious of the difference between taking a beautiful picture and taking a picture of a beautiful thing. The architectural pictures I've taken so far mostly fall into the latter. I've got a few that I think are pretty striking, visually, but they also make me feel like a bit of a dope. Somebody spent months designing this building, somebody else spent millions financing it, somebody else spent months constructing it, and I spent eight seconds looking at it. The photo is not the art, the building is the art and my photo is just showing it to you.
My tone so far seems a little too self-critical, so let me lighten it up a bit. The reason I took all those pictures of random objects is not just because I was afraid of more meaningful scenes. It's because cameras have a way of making things look better than they do in reality, and suddenly everything is beautiful or interesting. With a new camera and an eye fatigued by bad cell phone pictures, it's like "wow! wow! wow!" every few minutes. Part of this is thanks to longer focal lengths, which is why I made sure that the 55-200 was my first lens; only later did I also buy the 18-55. So, it was something I had to get out of my system, and I think most people with their first camera could relate. Once I became accustomed to pointing the camera at something and having a good-looking picture come out, then it was on to the next challenge: making a picture that's good-looking and meaningful.
Getting smiles and poses from people who want to have their photo taken feels good. In the short few months that I've had my camera I've already had three strangers strike up conversations about photography, and two others who asked me to take their picture just because. But I much prefer candids over posed smiles. Making mundane and unposed actions look interesting and attractive feels like an accomplishment and a compliment to mankind, which probably needs a few more compliments at the moment. I like the idea of making art from non-art.
I am drawn to the genre of street photography. The problem is, I live in a car-dependent suburb which is very, very bad for "street photography" because everybody drives everywhere and the streets are empty of actual people. And because I, too, drive to work and to the store and all that, it's not like I can integrate photography into my commute — it has to be a deliberate outing with the camera. I take walks through miles and miles of samey-looking residential areas: single family houses, wide asphalt streets, sidewalks, yards; and I do get bored of it. The plus side of this is that I've started making more frequent and more deliberate efforts to go places I haven't gone before, which is good for me.
The abstract closeups I take around town are like eye candy: they're fun to look at for a moment, but are mostly hollow after a brief "hey, that looks cool". The street photography and the social interactions that come from carrying a camera in a busy place are better: they make me feel connected with community and leave me with positive memories of places I've been. But I don't look at other people's street photography. It's pretty boring.
What I'm feeling now is that the most important and meaningful kind of photography for me to do is of family and friends and people who will actually care to have the pictures. I am not Cartier-Bresson or Maier or Eggleston. I think I've taken some nice photos but I don't expect any stranger to care about them for more than a few seconds. I can enjoy looking at my own pictures, but once they start to pile up into the thousands even I can't give due appreciation to each one. I want my work to be appreciated by others, as we all do. If I take pictures of family and friends, then I've got at least one person who can say "that looks good", and mean it, and matter, and maybe even hang on to it.
I overheard one of my coworkers talking about an upcoming jiu jitsu open mat and (multiple days later, after working up the courage...) asked if I could come and bring my camera.
I also brought it to a concert.
And in both cases made a lot of people happy with results I'm very proud of. Being able to give people this kind of gift seems a lot more valuable than posting arty pictures of strangers for strangers to see.
Last year, I scanned my family photos from the 80s and 90s. It changed my approach to photography. Now, I photograph things I want to see in a few decades' time. People and places. The interesting and mundane moments in life. Bits that say 2022 to me. Things that I think will be gone in 10 or 20 years.
I do not take pictures of flowers etc now. I really, really didn't care about seeing pictures of flowers from the 80s. I'm far less focused on making photos perfectly framed and technically perfect - I'd rather just make sure I get the moments. A blurry, overexposed photo from my childhood brings back almost as many memories and feelings as a technically perfect one.
There is a John Waters movie called Pecker about young John Connor, having defeated the T-1000, living in Baltimore and taking pictures of his modest, low class friends and family. I am jealous of his confidence. I would like to be the kind of person that carries the camera everywhere, but I am still too shy and embarrassed.
The embarrassment issue continues to be difficult for me to reason about. When I look at an album of family pictures or videos spanning decades back — pictures of people in their living rooms, kitchens, backyards, schools, clubs, and events — I don't ask myself what makes it valuable. But if I try to place myself in that photographer's shoes and imagine that moment as if it were the present... it makes me shiver with embarrassment. "Hey everyone, look over here, this is a valuable moment that needs to be captured and memorialized forever", the snap of the shutter says, loudly. "You're going to die some day so I need to get pictures of you standing around while I still have a chance". I'm not sure I could bring myself to do it.
This whole photography thing of mine is pretty recent, so I don't have a reputation for carrying a camera. To suddenly start bringing it everywhere I go and taking pictures of people doing ordinary things and saying "you'll thank me in ten years when this ordinary thing becomes nostalgic" is nearly as cringe as dressing up like Eminem and telling them that I've found my life's calling in rap. There's vomit on my sweater already. A lot of this comes from my own dislike of being in front of the camera. Growing up, I always avoided my parents any time it was out. I have not fully calibrated how other people feel about it yet. And don't tell me I'm artistic.
We are no doubt saturated in photo and video today, with everyone carrying at least a dozen megapixels and two focal lengths in their pocket at all times and posting selfies on the internet for the world to see. So by that metric I think the average person doesn't mind having their picture taken, but a real camera and lens shows a premeditated intent that I think is intimidating, still. You can't pass it off as a spur of the moment.
On the plus side, the embarrassment thing is only a big problem when trying to do the candid slice-of-life stuff, and only with people who already know me and wonder where the sudden interest has come from. It's a lot easier when there's a clear event going on, and with people who don't know me yet. The jiu jitsu practice is a good example of that.
I have started paying more attention to photographs that I see in public. At a restaurant, I'll see pictures they have hanging on the walls showing the founders cooking in the kitchen or laughing with guests. At a library I'll see pictures of now-historic but then-mundane structures being built. At a grocery store, pictures of the grocer standing in front of the cramped corner space where his business got started back in New York City all those years ago. You know what I mean. If you look around you'll start seeing these, too. And I ask myself, who took these, and why? Were these as candid as they are meant to appear? How much of our photographic history as families and as communities relies on a couple of odd individuals who carry a camera everywhere and are willing to stop people to pose and say "you'll thank me in ten years"?
The ones that really get to me are the pictures from 50-100 years ago of ordinary city streets and scenes of nothing in particular. The kind of picture that I take while I'm out, then delete as soon as I get home because there's nothing interesting about it and nobody would ever care to see it and it's not worth the hard drive space or mental effort to sift through. And yet here I am, looking at just such a picture that someone else took a hundred years ago! If they had thrown it away — if every photographer were in the habit of throwing away all the boring negatives — we'd have no photos depicting the average way of life of entire generations of people. Once a boring picture passes the age of ten, twenty, fifty years, suddenly it stops being boring simply by virtue of age, but somebody had to be the diligent steward that preserved it for all that time — held on to a boring photo in faith that it would someday be not-boring. And lo, that day is here. Who preserved it? Who published it? Who noticed it and found it worthy of distribution? Why was it chosen, among all others, to reach me across such space and time?
When a big historical event like a riot or an attack or a coronation is going on, you've got a limited time to capture it. But to take a picture of an ordinary street on an ordinary day? I could take a thousand of those in twenty four hours if I wanted. I don't, because they would be lame. But someone else did fifty years ago and it's not lame. How easy it is to let an ordinary moment pass you by every day because it was always too ordinary to capture.
There is yet another source of dissonance within me. My favorite medium is video, not photo. I spend my time watching films and youtube. Sure I can name a few names like Adams and Leibovitz, but I don't actually care to look at their work. I have much more to say about Cronenberg and 张艺谋 and 김기덕. And Folding Ideas and Not Just Bikes and 3kliksphilip.
In this discussion of memories and the capturing of the mundane, I must share with you videos like 2:30 AM at 7-11 near Disney World and Final day at Glendora High School 1999 and kliksphilip's VHS digitisation. These are fascinating to me and make me feel guilty for not having anything like this from my own life. But if these people had shared albums of still photos instead of videos, I probably wouldn't have even come across them in the first place, and if I had I would have barely skimmed through. I mean, I can go on the internet and find photos from the 90s right now if I wanted to. But I won't. Because I don't care. But video makes me care.
This may seem to be in conflict with the previous point about old photos. However, I think I can resolve this by saying that old photos interest me because they spur me into thinking about how information and once-present history manages to make it through the great sieve of time. Old photos are a catalyst for a session of broad curiosity and reflection, and it is not really the particular photo or scene that matters to me. On the other hand, old videos interest me because they actually make me feel connected with the subjects and present in that moment, and I watch them intently. Stills don't do that, even the really old ones. The 7-11 video sticks in my memory in a way no still from that day would.
I write this blog, but I don't read anyone else's. I take my photos, but I don't look at anyone else's. I watch other people's videos and I don't make my own. What's going on here?
It is partially economical. Video files are stinking huge and I feel burdened with knowledge about bitrates and such. My camera can give me sixty four stills for a gigabyte, or about a minute of video. Which would I rather have? You know I'm trying to self-host this blog and all. I could compress it later with handbrake, but that adds time and a lot of steps to the process that would otherwise be "take pictures, copy pictures". That's the other inhibitor: effort. Producing a video, and certainly producing a cinematic work, is a lot more effort than sitting in a chair writing a blog article or walking around taking pictures. A single uninterrupted take usually does not make for an interesting video, one needs to edit. The audio from the camera body's built-in microphone is usually not very useable due to hand movement and button clicks, one needs offboard sound. One needs performative skills and contiguous blocks of free time. And it's even more nervewracking / embarrassing to film friends and family.
That's a lot of excuses. I am left with the fact that I produce work in mediums I don't consume from anybody else, and I consume work from everybody else in mediums I don't produce. I am not sure how to feel about that yet.
Here are a couple of technical details, and the techniques I'm currently using. This is being kept separate from the rest of the article because talking at great length about gear and settings is very easy for the author (me) and not very interesting for the reader (you, and future me).
For still lifes, I am using manual focus mode with a button bound to autofocus. I rarely need to adjust focus manually, but I find that "manual plus AF button" is more convenient than "AF-S plus AF-lock" when it comes to lock and recompose shooting. The main point being that I can let go of the shutter button without having to engage AF-lock, as you do in AF-S.
For moving subjects, I am using continuous 3x3 zone focus with face detect. However I've had quite a few focus misses with faces in the scene, so I'm still working on this.
For the time being, I'm living the SOOC lifestyle. I have made very minor levels adjustments on a few pictures and cloned out a few distracting branches, but otherwise I have not become interested in spending time in editing.
Everything looks good in telephoto. Even the best cell phones are still not up to par here, so people aren't used to seeing themselves in long focal lengths and it impresses them. In still lifes, it draws attention to geometry.
Everything looks good in black and white. It draws attention to shapes and textures and hides distractions. ISO noise can be passed off as film grain.
I like the Fuji X-T dials and would be happy to never touch a PASM dial again. I will be curious to see if my opinion on this changes.
I do not use the terms "full frame" or "crop sensor". I think it's silly that the 135 size has been crowned "full frame" when there are way, way larger formats out there. An APS-C or M4/3 sensor is not a cropped piece out of a larger sensor, it's just a smaller sensor.
Here's a 100% crop of a photo I took at 55mm focal length. The 1/f rule of thumb for shutter speed would suggest using 1/80 seconds as this is an APS-C sized sensor.
Actually, it was done at 1/18, since the sun was setting and ISO and aperture were already maxed out. That's one eighteenth of a second, handheld, and it's pretty darn clear as far as I'm concerned!
Maybe this isn't a surprise to you, but as soon as I took that shot I actually said out loud "somebody just did a great job and it wasn't me". I couldn't see those leaves' veins with my own eyes in that light. Modern cameras are amazingly good. Between OIS and automatic (P)rofessional exposure control, it's sometimes harder to take a bad picture than a nice one.
If there's a lesson to pull from here, it's that you should embrace the camera's fully automatic features and assists so you can spend your effort on composition and timing. Don't listen to anyone who looks down on you for using any kind of auto mode. There is no auto composition and that's worth more.
This is a lot of philosophizing from someone who's only had the camera for five months. My thoughts have been moving so rapidly I felt I needed to write some of them down. I probably will look back on this in three more months and find it unrecognizable.
If you're on the fence about buying a camera, I would recommend it. Some people will say that unless you're willing to spend more than a thousand dollars, you should just get a cell phone instead. But the 2008 Nikon D90 I brought to the renaissance faire can now be found for less than $200 with lens. I'm glad to have a better camera now, but it was enough to give me the kick I needed and might be enough for you.
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