Photography ... What it is
(Sept. 5, 2020) I don't pretend to be an authority on photography— far from it. The experts have forgotten more than I'll ever learn about it. This blog is about my fifty plus year journey toward becoming a photography enthusiast— what originally motivated me and the things 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 several months. I was given a secondhand Kodak Brownie from one of my aunts after signing up for a summer photography course. Best I recall it was a two week class. I was around fifteen years old at the time with no serious 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 summer course was presented by instructor Dr. Gerald (Jerry) Ruth, now retired professor of Geosciences at Indiana University Southeast. Our group had a good deal of fun and valuable lessons were explained about composition and a few other techniques. The class was small and nearly everyone in the group was previously acquainted with Dr. Ruth. It was a fun learning experience hanging out together and the class even took a couple of field trips. Dr. Ruth was an excellent instructor, his 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. Looking back, 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 smolder for decades. Nearly forty years later that ember produced a flame— enticing me to further investigate photography.
Fast forward to the mid two-thousands when I bought a reconditioned 4 megapixel Kodak DX6490 digital camera. It was a significant step up from my previous 1.3 megapixel Fuji point and shoot. Excited about photography once again, the idea of composing and capturing digital images on a memory card was exhilarating. I bought my first DSLR a few years later— a Canon Rebel XT with two Sigma kit lenses. I'd never owned a 35MM SLR film camera until I found a used nineteen seventies model Minolta with two lenses at a Goodwill Store— approximately two years ago. I've only loaded one roll of black and white film in the Minolta since I've owned it— the film roll hasn't been developed yet. I wanted to get motivated about film again ... it never happened ... I'm hooked on the digital format.
When venturing out on a photography excursion there's no guarantee a photographer will return with a memory card of exciting images. To the contrary, going out on a random nature shoot often depends on luck— placing yourself at the right spot at just the right time. An element of chance is involved even with careful planning. I've spent more than a few mornings, even day long excursions, when the trek became less about photography and more about simply enjoying my surroundings. Some days are satisfying simply being outdoors, away from the daily grind, removed from the hustle and bustle. There have been many days when I rarely depressed my camera's shutter button. It's also fun to be out and about when a friend wanders by or an unfamiliar photographer approaches— friendly conversation occurs and often photography related experiences are shared. Such moments can turn an otherwise mundane photo trek into something special— like a warm cup of coffee on a cool morning— it's satisfying and rewarding.
I started Mogswebsite.com (Mark's Online Graphics Site) back in 1999. The website features a variety of creative explorations— everything from artist interviews, original digital art, safety resources, music industry resources and more. Considering the diversity of Mogswebsite.com, the decision to include photography seemed like a natural extension. I started my "Off The Cuff Photography" project in 2012 after purchasing a Canon 7D- a notable upgrade from the Canon Rebel XT, my first DSLR. The concept for my "Off The Cuff" project was rooted in the desire to acquire a deeper understanding of photography. I wanted to abandon my full auto comfort zone and experiment with manual camera settings. I wanted to wrap my head around manual settings and better understand how ISO, shutter speed and aperture all work together to form the "Exposure Triangle."
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. Another goal of the project was to "Land in a Spot and FIND the Shot". Potential compositions are all around us and one must train their eyes to see the possibilities. Several aspects culminate into what I consider the art of photography. At the mechanical end of the spectrum there's a virtual smorgasbord of camera brands and models to choose from. Everything from simple film or digital point and shoot cameras to more sophisticated point and shoot options, onto the more advanced interchangeable lens bodies known as (D)SLR models. Mirrorless cameras have entered the scene in recent years allowing manufacturers to scale down the physical size of their camera bodies.
There are so many aspects of photography that intrigue me. The variety of genres, the artful eye of the image maker, the engineering that goes into camera bodies and quality lenses, the assortment of available gear, and more. A subtle difference in design can have a big impact on your maneuverability. The simple adjustments on a tripod head have been improved upon through extensive research and redesign. Ball-head mounts seem to be the tripod head of choice these days, and yet ... I still prefer a good 4-way adjustable head. My preference to the 4-way probably goes back to the nineties when I shot a lot of video. The design is familiar to me and I'm more comfortable using it. That said, I have a ball-head mounted on my monopod— go figure.
Photography gear and innovation— backpacks now come in a variety of configurations. Admittedly, I carry one of my cameras in a medium sized soft-sided insulated cooler— great for when you're out and about on a hot day and stopping somewhere for lunch. An added bonus, no one knows there's a camera inside. Software developers have engineered some amazing photo-editing programs— virtual darkrooms are easily accessible on a home computer.
A word about camera straps; most manufacturers include a camera strap with every camera they sell. The straps look nice and most have their branding (logo) neatly embroidered on them— full color, too! It's inexpensive advertisement for the seller— the keyword here, is inexpensive. Showcasing their brand is what they're best used for. Kit straps aren't necessarily comfortable. If you're carrying your camera for an extended period of time, I highly recommend investing in a better strap. The difference between a kit strap and a quality aftermarket strap is night and day. You might be surprised at how well some straps will distribute the weight— your shoulders and arms will thank you sooner than later. Do your own research, the selection of quality straps and varied configurations is enormous.
Photography is more than just taking pictures or capturing THE moment. There's so many genres and photographers continue to stretch the boundaries of creativity. There are some amazing "eyes" documenting our world and I've been fortunate to meet a couple of them. I'm surrounded by so many inspiring photographers in the region. A few of them are acquaintances, some have become friends, and several I haven't met in person— I only know them from online photography groups that I belong to.
A friend and I meet for coffee and talk photography about twice a month. Conversation ranges from personal projects, post-editing, discussing vacations plans and shooting techniques— photography is more than the press of a shutter button.
The world of photography enthusiasts exploded with the introduction of the digital format. The availability of options and choices for modern digital cameras are nearly unlimited.
Photography ... What it is (continued)
Many of today's entry level cameras have surpassed what was considered intermediate level specs only a decade ago. The photography field has become crowded and the competition is stiff. Many features now overlap from one model to the next. Camera manufacturers are accomplishing amazing things in their engineering departments and research and development labs have brought some sophisticated technologies to the consumer.
The more I learn about photography, the more it reveals what I don't know. Similar to others things in life, our zest to gain greater wisdom is a life long journey toward an end. I'm a bit of a gear head trying to refine what it is that I really need. Every hobby I've ever dabbled in has cost money. Woodworking was probably the cheapest hobby I'd ever had. There are times when I miss woodworking.
Through the years I've acquired a few cameras and several lenses. None of them are top of the line, but more than capable of performing the demands I place on them. Yep, I also own a couple of tripods and a remote shutter release— tools of the craft.
Indulge me as I share a few thoughts about cameras and lenses (commonly referred to as glass). Around 2006 I found myself doing a fair amount of low light performance photography. There are times when the use of a flash is acceptable ... other times, not so much. Being dependent on using a flash was increasingly annoying for me in instances where flash photography was discouraged or forbidden. After a few of years struggling with less than adequate available light, it was time to upgrade from kit lenses. I needed faster lenses that allow more light to reach the camera's sensor and a camera body that could handle low light scenarios more efficiently.
Lenses with Image Stabilization (IS) have gained in popularity, enabling sharper handheld shots. I did a lot of research on lenses, balancing everything I learned against my bank account. Ultimately, I decided to opt for the best glass I could afford and forgo Image Stabilization. I reasoned that I could afford better quality non IS lenses and work harder on focusing. Several years later I acquired a couple of nice variable zoom telephoto lenses with Vibration Compensation (VC), Tamron's own version of image stabilization. It's much easier to take crisp images with wider angle lenses. When shooting handheld, pulling your subject closer by using a telephoto lens, camera shake and movement is a much bigger issue compared to shooting with wider angle lenses. If you only shoot from a tripod, vibration control isn't as big of a factor. Always make sure your tripod is firmly set without any movement. It's a good idea to hang a weight from the center column in windy conditions or when set on softer terrains.
I'd suggest for anyone to ponder their personal shooting style when they're in the market to buy a better camera body. Different cameras can serve different purposes. Certainly, there are cameras that can handle anything you throw at them— they'll cost more money, too. Don't let mega-pixel numbers dazzle you. The higher numbers doesn't mean you'll be taking better images. A super high pixel count sensor won't make your images out shine the competition. The photographer makes the picture ... the camera is the tool that takes the picture. Another consideration— the larger the image file size, the quicker your hard drive space will be absorbed. Buy the best of everything if it's well within your budget, as long as you understand that excellent images aren't unique to top of the line gear— it's the photographer that makes the picture.
I've been in awe countless times by photographers' images, taken with more modest gear than I use. The sooner you 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 some of the basic fundamentals of photography.
There are more important considerations to think about other than how many pixels your camera's spec sheet boasts. Most digital cameras manufactured in the last ten years have an adequate pixel count. In many instances I'm more concerned with how a camera handles ISO sensitivity. If most of your photography will be done in good light, or outdoors on a bright day, then high ISO capabilities are less important. The 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 more your genre, you should research gear that will handle higher ISO settings with the least compromise to overall image quality. You should also consider faster lenses— the wider aperture will allow more light onto the camera's sensor.
A higher burst rate is important for event and sports photography. The burst rate is the number of consecutive shots a camera can take while the shutter button is depressed— 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 responsible upgrade decisions.
Buying better glass is the single best investment in gear after you've acquired a camera body you're familiar with and feel confident with. I'd first suggest that you discover what genre of photography lights your fire before investing in quality glass, then upgrade to lenses that will best suit your style of shooting. If most of your photography is done from a tripod such as still life or product photography, lenses with image stabilization are less important. If you frequently shoot handheld, an image stabilized lens could be beneficial. If you're often shooting in low light situations, a fast prime lens would be an option to consider. You don't have to go out and buy the best glass available to capture a quality image. Brand name camera manufacturers make excellent glass. Canon has the most lenses available on the market. Having said that, third party lens manufacturers have stepped up their game in recent years— brands like Tamron and Sigma have reversed engineered some excellent glass for top brand name cameras. If you don't mind manual focusing, Tokinon makes some excellent glass that sells for a reasonable price— do your own research. Purchase the best glass that you can and try to stay within your budget. A person doesn't have to break the bank to produce quality images.
Reviews on cameras and gear are as plentiful as the leaves on a tree. I'm quite selective as to reviewers I lend credence to. With a little effort and research you can begin to scrutinize available resources that provide reliable information. I tend to avoid most of the self-indulged wannabe YouTube stars and focus on reviewers that offer thoughtful insight and actual substance. There are several reviewers around that do an outstanding job when examining the pros and cons of a newer camera, lens, or other photography related gear. This applies to both video and written reviews. There's a wealth of information available and respected friends are a valued asset toward further learning, when it concerns technique, equipment, or otherwise.
Digital photography puts you in total control of your images. Similar to developing film in a darkroom, if you're knowledgeable about the process and have access to the equipment. I have zero experience working with film, negatives, or darkroom processing. Digital software is where I process images.
Time to bring this blog full circle— taking an abbreviated summer photography course 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 toward photography can inspire someone else. Whether you're a beginner, enthusiast, or 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