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Photography an enthusiast's journey

(Sept. 5, 2020) I’m not an authority on photography— far from it. The experts have forgotten more than I'll ever learn about it. The more I learn about photography, the more it reveals what I don't know. Similar to others things in life, our quest to gain greater wisdom is a life long journey toward an end. This story covers my fifty plus year journey toward becoming a photography enthusiast— what originally motivated me and the lessons I've learned along the way.

My experience and knowledge of film photography is extremely limited. Fifty years ago, in the early seventies, I messed around with a film camera for about a year. I was given a secondhand Kodak Brownie from one of my aunts after signing up for a two week summer photography class. I was around sixteen at the time with no thought of pursuing photography as a serious hobby. I was more focused on girls and hanging out with my friends during that time of my life.

The class was created and presented by instructor Dr. Gerald Ruth, now retired professor of Geosciences at Indiana University Southeast. Our group had a good deal of fun— valuable lessons were explained about composition and other aspects of photography. The class was small and nearly everyone in the group was previously acquainted with Dr. Ruth. It was a fun learning experience simply hanging out together. Our instructor took the class on a couple of field trips so we could put what we had learned into practice through real-time shooting. Dr. Ruth was an excellent instructor— the photography course was engaging and insightful. I learned a great deal about the basics and had fun shooting with that Kodak Brownie. The only film I ever loaded into it was black and white.

Toward the end of the last week of classes, each student had to pick what they considered their best image taken during the week. Our images were then judged by a couple of staff photographers from the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky— friends of Dr. Ruth. I don’t remember which student took first place— my image received an honorable mention. The photo I submitted was taken from the old Fourteenth Street Bridge (Ohio Falls Railroad Bridge), connecting Clarksville, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky. A friend and I climbed atop the steel trestle bridge so I could kneel on the [empty] track. I framed the length of the bridge from a low perspective, sitting my camera on the rail. The submitted image was in portrait orientation.

Upon reflection, it's doubtful that Dr. Ruth could've realized the lasting impression he made on me regarding photography. Those treasured memories have remained in tact over the years— an ember that smoldered for decades. Nearly forty years later that ember produced a flame— enticing me to further investigate photography.

Fast forward to the early two-thousands, that’s when I bought a reconditioned 4 megapixel Kodak DX6490 digital camera, a significant improvement over the 1.3 megapixel Fuji that I’d bought two years earlier. Excited about photography again, the idea of composing and capturing better images on a digital memory card was exhilarating. A few years later I bought my first DSLR— a Canon Rebel XT with two Sigma kit lenses. I'd never owned a 35MM SLR (Single-lens Reflex) film camera until I saw a used Minolta XE-7 at a local Goodwill store. The camera sold complete with two lenses— that was approximately two years ago. Only one roll of black and white film has been put in the Minolta since I've owned it. I’d hoped the camera would get me excited about shooting film. So far that hasn’t happened— the film roll is still in the camera—hasn't been developed ... yet. I'm hooked on the digital format.

Mark's Online Graphics Site (mogswebsite.com) was started in 1999. The website features a variety of creative explorations— artist interviews, original artwork, music industry resources, a few older photo galleries, safety resources, and more. After purchasing a Canon 7D DSLR in 2012 (a notable upgrade from the Rebel XT that I’d purchased in 2005), I started my “Off The Cuff” photography project. The ongoing project has been showcased on the website. The initial concept for the project was to chart a course toward acquiring a deeper understanding of photography by exploring manual camera settings. I wanted to wrap my head around how a camera’s ISO, shutter speed and aperture, form what’s known as the "Exposure Triangle.”

Making the transition from full auto mode to manual settings will allow creative decisions before actuating the shutter, giving the photographer more control over how the final image will look. One thing every photograph has in common is light. Manual settings allow more precise control over how a light source is managed. Light can be manipulated in a number of ways using a modifier. Dozens of different types are readily available— flashes, reflectors, snoots, LEDs, grids, diffusers, strobes, umbrellas, continuous lighting, soft boxes, flags, on and on. Controlling how a light source illuminates a scene can increase the visual appeal of an image— making it standout.

The secondary goal of my “Off The Cuff” project was to refine how one sees as a photographer. Thus, the phrase, “Land in a Spot and FIND the Shot" was coined. Potential compositions are all around us and one must train their eyes to see the possibilities. The phrase "Off The Cuff Photography— Taking It To The Streets" is broad in its definition— in some instances the streets are nothing more than boot worn paths. My friend Nate, also a photography enthusiast, joined me on that project— he’d been living in the Southwest and had recently moved back to Lexington. We hopped in the Jeep once a week and hit the road for nearly a year.

Venturing out on a photography excursion doesn’t guarantee a photographer will return with a memory card loaded with exciting images. To the contrary, going on a random nature shoot often depends on luck. Placing yourself in the right spot at just the right time involves an element of chance even with careful planning. I've spent more than a few mornings, even all day excursions, when my planned trip became less about photography and more about enjoying my surroundings. Some days satisfaction comes from being outdoors away from the daily grind, distanced from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There have been days when I rarely pressed the shutter button. Those are the days that have broadened my definition of photography. I’ve been out scouting an area for an interesting shot when a friend wanders by, or an unfamiliar photographer approached me— it sparks conversation and usually one or two photography experiences are shared. On occasion, such moments can turn a mundane photo trek into something special— like a warm cup of coffee on a cool morning— it's satisfying and rewarding.

A friend and I meet for coffee and talk photography about twice a month. Our conversations have ranged from personal projects, post-editing preferences, discussing vacations plans and shooting techniques. Photography is more than the press of a shutter button and more than just taking pictures or capturing THE moment. Photography is an experience, and with so many genres to explore, enthusiasts and pros continue to push the boundaries of creativity. There are some amazing ‘eyes’ documenting the world around us and I've been fortunate to meet a couple of them. I'm surrounded by so many inspired photographers in the region … a few of them are acquaintances, some have become friends, several more I haven't met in person— knowing them only from various online photography groups I belong to.

Several aspects culminate into what I consider the art of photography. It’s easier to reference the term “art of photography” than it is to explain what that means to me. The term will undoubtedly mean something different to someone else— the artistic eye of the person holding the camera is unique to that individual. I place artistic vision, the ability to truly see the shot along with composing the shot, at the forefront. Equal importance is the proficiency to capture the shot in an esthetically pleasing manner— it’s a good idea to have exposure correctly set in-camera.

A puddle of water can be captivating when the right elements come together— subtle ripples across the water, what lies beneath the ripples, or the way the sky and clouds reflect on the water’s surface. If you’re shooting outdoors on a bright day, dependent on the circumstances of the shot, a circular polarized or gradient filter might be required. Using a filter can enable you to capture those brilliant blue skies and prevent white clouds from being blown out (over exposed).

Compositions are waiting patiently for a trained eye to see the possibilities. I reference being outdoors a great deal— the genre isn’t important, what you find inspiring is. This mindset can be applied across the full spectrum of genres ... examples are endless. Within the context of any genre of photography, it’s often the artistic eye that separates one image from another— technical proficiency being equal. One doesn’t have to be an expert in a field to know what one likes— what’s pleasing to you on a visual basis. Proper framing and perspective can be the difference between an ordinary image and one that captures the viewers attention in a unique way.

At the mechanical end of the spectrum there's a smorgasbord of brands and camera models to choose from— simple film and digital point and shoots to more sophisticated point and shoot options, onto the more advanced interchangeable lens bodies known as (D)SLRs and mirrorless models.

Mirrorless interchangeable lens bodies entered the market in recent years. The newer technology has enabled manufacturers to reduced the physical size of their camera bodies. I’m not well versed on the mirrorless market and will likely stay with DSLR cameras. Having said that, mirrorless camera systems appear to be the future of digital photography. Some major brands’ research and development departments have now shifted their efforts toward the mirrorless market. The days of new model DSLRs reaching the store shelves are over. I can only assume brands will continue to manufacture their best selling DSLRs until the purchasing market completely dries up.

Photography intrigues me— the variety of genres, the artful eye behind the camera, even the engineering that goes into a camera body. (D)SLR camera lenses are fascinating— consider the number of individual lens elements (and groups) that go into a single focal length.

The simple adjustments of a tripod head have been improved upon through extensive research. Ball-heads seem to be the tripod head of choice— I prefer a good 4-way adjustable head. My preference for the 4-way probably goes back to the nineties when I was shooting a lot of video. The design is familiar to me— I'm more confident using it. I do, however, have a ball-head mounted on my monopod— go figure. Different situations can require a different touch. A ball-head maneuvers more easily for me when using a monopod. Steadying a camera on a single support column requires one hand to be on the camera or monopod at all times.

Subtle differences in the way a piece of photography gear functions can impact your maneuverability— camera bags, holsters, straps, cases and backpacks.
Consider the number of innovative camera bags that are currently available … much of the time I carry one of my cameras in a small soft-sided insulated cooler— nice for when I’m out and about on a hot day and might stop for lunch somewhere and my camera’s left in the vehicle. There’s an added security bonus when using a small cooler— no one knows there’s a camera neatly tucked inside. I own a few storage cases, a medium sling backpack, two hardshell cases, individual DSLR cases, lens cases— I utilized the different cases for different shooting environments.
Photographyan enthusiast's journey  (cont.)

A word about camera straps— most manufacturers will include a camera strap with each camera they sell. The straps look nice and most have their branding (logo) neatly embroidered on them— in full color, too! It's an inexpensive way for the brand to advertise, thus promote their product— the keyword here, is inexpensive. Showing off their brand is what they're best used for. The straps included with a new camera body aren't necessarily comfortable. If you’re going to pack your camera around for an extended period of time, I highly recommend investing in a better strap. The difference between a camera manufacturer’s strap and a quality aftermarket strap can be like night and day. You’d be surprised how well good third party straps will distribute camera weight— your shoulders and arms will thank you sooner than later. Sometimes a sling strap that screws into the base of a camera is more suitable. Quick change body harnesses can be useful if you’re using multiple cameras and lenses. I’d suggest doing your own research for the product that best suits your individual needs— the variety of useful configurations is enormous.

The number of photography enthusiasts has certainly increased with the introduction of the digital format— digital camera options and lens choices are nearly unlimited. Many of today's entry level DSLR cameras have far surpassed what was considered intermediate level specifications only a decade ago. The photography field has become crowded and the competition is stiff. Many camera features now overlap from one model to the next and camera manufacturers have accomplished amazing feats through research and development, bringing sophisticated technologies to the consumer. Software developers have designed some incredible photo-editing programs— virtual darkrooms neatly tucked away on our home computers that open for us with the click of a button.

I've acquired a few cameras through the years along with several lenses. My gear isn’t top of the line, yet more than capable of meeting the demands I place on them. I also own a couple of tripods and remote shutter releases— tools of necessity.

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Canon trivia referenced from www.digital-slr-guide.com— on May 17, 2000, Canon announced their first EOS (Electro-Optical System) D30 body. The camera housed a 3.1 megapixel APS-sized sensor. The D30 was the first Canon DSLR fully produced by Canon. The company had previously partnered with Kodak for their internal components.
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The 2005 debut of the full frame 12.8 megapixel 5D was a modern marvel in the world of digital photography— the camera was a game changer. That was the first DSLR with an equivalent 35MM full frame sensor. The now older model 5D holds a fond place in my collection. Using the Canon 5D [classic] evokes a unique shooting experience for me— wrapped in a sense of nostalgia, the camera transports me to a simpler time. I’m more cautious and patient about pressing the shutter button and never use burst mode— a whopping 3 frames per second. Capturing a shot with an older camera is more about shutter actuation conservation.

Canon’s 2009 7D APS-C body impressed me from day one of ownership and 2014 introduced notable improvements with the release of the 7D Mark II— a personal favorite. DSLR technology has witnessed many advancements across all brands and models. Canon’s full frame 6D Mark II is a highly underrated model in my opinion— I’m well pleased with overall image quality and the articulating screen has made shooting from difficult perspectives easier.

Some additional thoughts about cameras, lenses (commonly referred to as glass), and file formats— I started doing quite a bit of low light performance photography in 2006. Sometimes the use of flash photography is acceptable and other times it isn’t. Being dependent on using a flash became increasingly annoying in instances where flash photography was discouraged or forbidden. After struggling with inadequate available light for a couple of years, it was time for me to upgrade from kit lenses. I needed faster lenses that would allow more light to reach the camera's sensor. I also needed a camera that would handle low light scenarios more efficiently.

Lenses with Image Stabilization (IS) have gained in popularity— enabling photographers to take sharper shots handheld. I did a good deal of research on lenses, balancing what I learned against my bank account. Ultimately, I opted for the best glass I could afford and didn’t go the Image Stabilization route. My reasoning for doing so— I could afford better quality non IS lenses and I’d work harder on focusing issues. Several years later I’ve acquired a couple of nice variable zoom telephoto lenses with Vibration Compensation (VC), Tamron's own version of image stabilization. It's easier to take sharp images using a wider angle lens. In contrast, shooting with a telephoto lens handheld, camera shake and movement become a much bigger factor. If you only shoot from a tripod, vibration control isn't as big of a concern— be certain your tripod is firmly set in place, free from any movement or vibration— hang a weight from the center column in windy conditions or when used on softer terrains.

I'd suggest for anyone to ponder their personal shooting style if they're in the market to buy a better camera. Different models will serve different purposes. Certainly, there are models that’ll handle anything you throw at them— they'll cost you more money, too. Don't let mega-pixel numbers dazzle you. The higher numbers don't necessarily mean you'll take better images. A super high pixel count sensor won't make your images out shine the competition. Keep in mind it’s the photographer that makes the picture— a camera is merely the tool that captures the picture. An additional consideration— larger size image files will consume your hard drive space much quicker. Buy the best of everything if it's within your budget, but understand that exceptional images aren't unique to top of the line gear— the photographer makes exceptional images, not the camera. I’ve stood in awe countless times of images taken by photographers with more modest gear than I have. The sooner you can wrap your head around the notion that visually pleasing images are made by the person holding the camera and not the gear, the faster you'll understand the basic fundamentals of photography.

Most digital cameras manufactured in the last ten years have an adequate mega-pixel count and sensor. In most instances, for my shooting style, I'm more concerned with how a camera handles ISO sensitivity. If most of your photography is taken in good light, or outdoors on a bright day, then high ISO capabilities are less important— same could apply to still life and product photography when it's done in a controlled lighting environment.

If indoor event photography and/or a variety of low light situations are what you photograph most, you'll need a camera and lenses capable of handling low light situations. If that's your ambition, research gear that will handle higher ISO settings with the least compromise to overall image quality. You should also consider faster lenses— wider apertures allow more light onto a camera's sensor.

Event and sports photography require a higher burst rate. The burst rate is the number of consecutive shots a camera can take while the shutter button is depressed— it’s rated as frames per second. I encourage you to further research these considerations to better understand each aspect of photography. Doing the research will steer you toward making a responsible upgrade decision.

Should I set my camera for jpeg or raw file? I can’t explain the mental block I had toward understanding what the raw file format was all about. It’s embarrassing how long it took me to make the transition from shooting in jpeg to raw. Don’t make the same mistake I did— go for it!  When you start shooting in raw file format instead of jpeg, you quickly realize the limitations of shooting jpeg [only] images. The amount of image information stored in a raw file is enormous by comparison. Raw file formats allow much more control in post editing and the original file doesn’t degrade like a jpeg file does.

If you were to ask a photographer how many cameras are too many [to own], the answers would vary depending on the individual you asked. Some people will likely wonder what the attraction is to having more than one camera body. Some cameras are better equipped for fast action and/or sports and performance photography, some models are more suitable for low light photography, still life, and so on. There’s a certain amount of overlap in features between different models and price points. Your best bet is to find a camera that’s best suited to your own style of shooting— different cameras can offer the photographer a different shooting experience.

I’ve accumulated a few extra clean used cameras over the years— most notable is an original 5D in good working and cosmetic condition. You can get a lot of bang for your dollar by buying gently used cameras and lenses. Nikon and other brands manufacture excellent cameras and lenses— I’m loyal to Canon since my lenses are all Canon mounts.

Buying better lenses (glass)— the single best investment when you've acquired a camera body you're familiar with and feel confident using. I'd first suggest that you discover what genre of photography lights your fire before investing in quality glass— upgrade to lenses that’ll best suit your own style of shooting. If most of your photography is done from a tripod such as landscape, still life, or product photography, lenses with image stabilization are less important. If you frequently shoot handheld, an image stabilized lens would be beneficial. If you often shoot in low light situations, then a fast prime lens would be a good option to consider. You don't need to buy the best lenses available in order to capture quality images. Brand name camera manufacturers certainly make excellent lenses and Canon has the most lenses available on the market. Third party lens manufacturers such as Tamron and Sigma have stepped up their game in recent years— they’ve reversed engineered some excellent lenses for top brand name cameras. If you enjoy manual focus, Tokinon makes some excellent lenses that sell for a reasonable price— do your own research and purchase the best glass that you can afford— stay within your budget. A photography enthusiast doesn't need to break the bank in order to produce quality results.

Reviews on cameras and gear are as plentiful as the leaves on a tree. I'm fairly selective when it comes to reviewers I lend credence to. After a little research you’ll begin to scrutinize reviewers— only put stock in resources that provide reliable information. I avoid most of the self-indulged wannabe YouTube stars and focus on reviewers that provide actual substance and thoughtful insight. There are several reviewers that do an outstanding job when examining the pros and cons of cameras, lenses, and other photography related gear— this would apply to both video and written reviews. There's a wealth of information available— respected friends can be a valued asset toward further learning, technique, equipment, and more.

Time to bring this story full circle— a photography class for beginners instructed by Dr. Gerald Ruth introduced me to the world of photography— it inspired me. Forty years later that inspiration started me on a journey. Perhaps documenting my journey will inspire someone else. Whether you're a beginner, enthusiast, or a professional, grab your Nikon, Fuji, Kodak, Sony, Canon, Pentax, iPhone, disposable 35MM, Panasonic, Leica, Olympus, Minolta, Mamiya, or your Swedish manufactured medium format Hasselblad— the pictures are waiting to be captured.

       — (C) 2020 Mark D. McKinley
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