Photographic rewards come in many flavors. You’ve got contests, that’s pretty cool. Who hasn’t had one or more of their family members tell you that you should go pro. That’s rewarding. There is getting your photographs published in a magazine, getting your own book and of course there is the sale of a print for a handsome price. That’s just downright sweet. Topping this is that moment when you think you’ve made that great click and then when you’re looking at your images later, you know you’ve made that great click. Now we’re talkin rewards. But I think there is one even greater that comes from photography for many of us fortunate shooters.
Do you ever feel that you’ve got everything backwards and perhaps you’re looking at the world upside down? Not so much as the world as a whole, just the photographic world. For example, have you heard this silly competition thing between Nikon and Canon owners? Or how about Mac and Windows? While there are some great jokes for one side or the other, what gets me is when folks actually take it all really seriously, like the future of the planet depends on determining which is best. And it seems like just yesterday there was the pixel race, who’s got the most. Glad that’s cooled down so now we can debate who has the best high ISO. Now there’s a debate that keeps you on the edge of your seat!
One of my all time favorites that come up almost yearly for the last 30 years I’ve been involved in the sport, is the question, “Do I buy the current model or wait for the next, best body that surely is coming?” One of our best selling images still to this day, was taken with a D1 body, an image with a little noise, not super dupper tack sharp but yet, the light, color and gesture just keep it selling and selling. Even with that knowledge, I’m always one of the first to jump on new technology just because…because history has proven for us it’s a wise business move. But this doesn’t bring the greatest reward in photography I think.
Photography is a struggle, at least it has been for me. I’m talking the whole package, from the content creating to the image selling to maintaining business . It’s a struggle. In the beginning I remember bad times when selling a lens was the only way to pay bills. I remember passing on projects because there simply was no capitol to fund it. I painfully remember those projects I didn’t do to my best ability for lack of knowledge. Yet even with those struggles, somehow, we managed to keep moving forward. There isn’t a day that Sharon & I don’t wake up and look at our home and pinch ourselves knowing that photography paid for it. Even this to me isn’t close to the greatest reward photography has to offer.
Since our oldest son Brent was two weeks old and Jake at two days old, they have been out there with me when I was shooting. Brent’s first word, seriously, was Nikon (he had a damaged FM-2 he played with as a kid). When we went camping, speaking engagement, a party, a conference, or nearly any social function, photography was somehow involved. And so it has been for 22 years. Today was an example of exactly what I’m talking about. Working on a new project, Sharon, Jake, Brent & myself spent the day flying in WWII warbird T6 Texans. The air to air photography was amazing and I was incredibly fortunate again to be working with our youngest son Jake. You can see him being ninja shooter, a little bit of forehead peaking over his camera as he photographs the plane I’m in. And as you can see, I’m photographing him photographing me (or he’s photographing me photographing him).
Then after our morning flight, we landed and Brent & Sharon went up and flew and Jake and I photographed their flight. Afterwards we all got back together and went to a hamburger BBQ in the hanger with other pilots on the field and talked planes. Stories from WWII, Korea & Vietnam as well as “ramp rumors” filled the air. It was just a helluva day!
And now we’re getting to what I think if the greatest reward photography has to offer. And that’s permitting us to follow our passion and share it with others. This can be done in many ways and all day long. I’m so fortunate that I have a great family who not only have supported my craziness for all these years, but actually participate in it. And what’s still amazes me that the one type of photography that gets us all out together and incredibly excited is not wildlife, landscape, skiing or fly fishing photography but is aviation photography. Anything that brings and keeps a family together is a good thing. I’ve seen photography work its magic on other families and I’m so glad its part of ours.
In our family, Dad gets away with nothing and this is particularly true with photography. I have a house of very qualified critics who have no hesitation telling me their opinion of my images (I wonder where they got that from, must have been Sharon). It’s a reality check I relish because their comments are not just based on technical or artistic merits, but also how Dad’s photography should be felt. That’s when the world all turns upright again and I experience photography’s greatest reward. Forget everything else and just open your lens, shutter and your heart and let the light in and then share it. You too will experience photograph’s greatest reward!
Photos captured by D3s, 70-200VR2 on Lexar UDMA digital film
It was bloody early, I mean, it hurt to hear the alarm go off and force the eyelids open. The prior day had been a helluva long one. Like always, up prior to sunrise, checked the emails, took care of business and then met the group in the parking lot in pitch darkness. Shot and talked all day and after dinner looked at images and talked until 11PM. Went back to my room and proceeded to upload images from the day, get them filled, get two blog postings completed and scheduled and then took care of work. Two hours before the alarm went off, I had just fallen to sleep. I just hoped I was getting up and going through this to be rewarded with one helluva sunrise.
I say that because many times in the past, I had paid what in my mind were my dues and was owed a great sunrise only to be served up yuck. I know, one man’s yuck is another man’s treasure but when working on just adrenaline, yuck is yuck and such words of wisdom run right off your back. I looked at the weather radar, did some quick calculations in my head and figured we were screwed. The sun would rise but it would just burst on the scene and then we’d go from darkness to light with nothing in between. We’d get up this bloody early, drive two hours (that’s the crazy part) and park on the ridge only to get skunked. Even with all of that pulsing through my mind, the engines started and off we drove.
It might just be me, but when I get in the truck and start to make such a drive, my mind begins to wander and takes me places where it normally doesn’t go just sitting at my desk. Many of my articles, workshops and project ideas come during these drives. Knowing that about myself, I always (well almost always) have pad of paper and pen with me to jot things down. The creation of DLWS & Base Camp came from the cab of my truck on a drive; the open road just seems to clear out “stuff” making room for creativity to flow. Typically, just like this morning, my mind slammed back to reality in seeing the first glimmer of light on the horizon. On this particular morning, the overcast I’d seen on the radar had broken just enough that there was a small aperture in the clouds to the east. Damn, we could be late for a great sunrise! 90mph seemed too slow but go we must. Please, no ranger in the shack, we gotta make time!
Right now is when the drivers in the cars following me say something like, “Damn, Moose is a speed freak!” (or something worse) as they uncomfortably try to catch up. The drive is new and the location never before explored so they don’t know what they might be missing but with faith in me, they get up to speed and the chase is on. We make the turn off the highway and hit the country road, the rolling road giving you that Smokey & the Bandit thrill ride. Ahead is the ranger shack and entrance to the Nat’l Park. I slow for only a heartbeat when I see no one is there and then I floor it. OK, no bison, prong or sheep on the road, we keep on going. We make the bends in the road and head down the small rise and there is the parking spot. We pull in and get out of the cars. The faces of the folks looked like they just came out of a jet with no canopy. I quickly explain what gear they might want and then point and say, “It’s Comin’, GO!”
As sunrises go, it’s not killer, it’s not bad and in fact, it’s pleasant enough to suck you in for quite a while as the day’s glow climbs into the sky. It’s a good morning!
The calendar is about to flip a page and a New Year rises up before us tomorrow. You might be checking the radar and not seeing bright, clear skies before you. Looking back on past experiences when you’ve been skunked, you might not want to get up and tackle another day. Yet we do and as we start out towards that goal, something tends to take over. The mind clears and on that journey creativity filters in and takes over until reality snaps us back. Only speaking for myself here, but I’m not sure I would know something is great if I didn’t have that other end of the spectrum for comparison. Without that suckie sunrise, how would I know the one before me is glorious? I don’t go out seeking the yucky ones to have a measure, but I don’t let it stop me from going out the next time. No matter how bad the year might have been for you, there was surely at least one great time, experience or photograph that came from it that you will always treasure. Take that inspiration, learn from the rest and make 2010 a great year for yourself. The journey will have its ups and downs but you will be better for it. Always remember that no matter what happens, tomorrow, the sun will rise!
Happy New Year to you all!
It’s that time of year when folks seem to take an extra minute to reminisce and look toward the New Year. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a marvelous family as well as an amazing group of friends. It’s during this time of year when the spirit of the season settles in and conversations turn perhaps more reflective than otherwise would during the rest of the year. Such is the case for a number of conversations I’ve enjoyed this last week. Mostly, we’ve talked about our profession of photography, photography of the masses and our own predictions for the next five years. Most of these discussions arise when I say I’m trying to figure out the direction I want to take my photography and where I think my photography will take me in the next five years.
This all assumes we have control over our future, in part or total. When I started out in business, as in I was first self employed, three months into self employment the Gulf War began. We couldn’t give away a critter shot. Had lots of requests for Arabian species or oiled birds, but nothing from North America. Not the best first step in business, definitely not what we planned, but there was no way to foresee the war. So learning from the past and looking forward, we’ve learned that we put our best foot forward always keeping an ear out for the unplanned. That brings up that wisdom from age question in my mind.
Setting goals for the next five years requires looking into the crystal ball to include where is the profession going and how will technology affect it. The most obvious is the inclusion of video capture in our DSLR bodies. Video isn’t new, not by any means, but it still feels new to me and to my workflow. It’s totally new when having to shoot both stills and video with the same body attached to the same lens. That’s a mind bent that’s still screwing with my small brain. And with the first video sales this month out of our office and more in the works for 2010, it makes me scratch my head and wonder. But this is just the mechanics and while important, it isn’t really the main goals Sharon & I set for ourselves or the business. I’m talking about the ones that really count!
Getting to the heart of the matter for me is the message itself. Just to who and how, and with what and then when does the message get out that I want and need to share? And in the coming years, in what format does the message go out as, still, video, web, print or combination of one or all? That brings us back to the heart of my conversations with a couple treasured friends this past week. “Does one cast their net for all the small fishes or throw the harpoon for the sharks?” That quote was just thrown at me this morning and still has my head spinning with the implications of its meaning. It’s a more philosophical asking of the quantity or quality question. And I don’t have the answer, yet, but somehow feel that in finding that answer a whole lot more answers might come flooding in that have eluded me. It requires looking at what we’ve done so far, our successes and failures and the rewards and thinking through if they are repeatable. Thinking through if they even apply to the future!
What makes this more complicated is trying to see how others might be dealing with the same influences in the artistic and commercial market place that might affect our business. Even more important is, do we care or just do our own thing? I would really love just going out shooting and shooting and shooting and not thinking about this at all, but such is not the case. Life just doesn’t permit it. But that’s the desire and passion, which if not fulfilled the rest of the house of cards comes crashing down. You might be thinking this is really too heavy a conversation to be having this time of year, but it’s the time of year that brought it all up. Where does the photograph come into play and how does it drive the train?!
You could easily take this same thought, the casting of the net, and put a totally different twist on it, the reason for the season. And perhaps that isn’t too bad an idea. Photography is a visual communication. In many cases it’s a response to the moment and in other cases, it’s a thought out process being summed up in a click. Either case, the person behind the camera, YOU, brings to those moments all the thoughts and feelings that make you, you. You have the ability and means to take just one photo or thousands and cast them out and change lives, save places and bring delight. With that kind of power, how will you then take advantage of it, what avenue will you take in presenting the world through your eyes and heart and photography? It’s one thing to take a Saturday off just to go make a couple of clicks to clear the mind. It’s a whole other one when you turn those couple of clicks into ones that can fill hearts. Take the spirit of the season, use it to give a purpose and goal for the years to come and let it run away with you and fill your photography for the coming year. Cast your nets wide and fill them with hearts!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Moose, Sharon, Brent, Katt, Jake & Stephanie!
There’s this myth that with age comes wisdom. It’s a myth I put to the test everyday. Of course at what age comes what wisdom is not told in this parable, it’s just assumed that it will come. Now that I’m “older,” am I or do I feel wiser? Sometimes yes, most times no. I wish there was a written test to measure what we had, what we’ve acquired and now what we posses but no such test exists. Here’s my concern, how much of what I have learned can I still access and how much is now lost and with that loss, is wisdom gone with it? Or, does that leave a void to fill with new acquired knowledge? Does merely asking that question demonstrate wisdom? I doubt it.
Why ask this question of one ’s self? It started with me when I did something really stupid that I figured a wise person would know better never to do. But then again would they or, does merely asking the question mean you’ve learned from past experiences and so you have learned more? I find myself asking more questions then coming up with answers in this quest. And this whole question came up again today when working with my assistant Stephanie. I gave her what I thought was a helluva challenge in Photoshop to find an answer, I couldn’t. Not only did she find an answer in a heartbeat (dang her) but in the process taught this old dog new tricks. Seriously.
So where does the openness of youth and the ability to take on any task fearlessly, get replaced with the caution and “set in one’s ways” in the wisdom of age? The “I can do anything” attitude replaced with the comfort of “doing it the same old way.” And more to the point as a photographer, either one on their own could be the kiss of death especially in a business atmosphere. The Darwin Theory of Photography, evolve or parish is always at the forefront of my thought. But the successful photographer and business person would have a careful balance of both (with some other things added in for good measure). Did I find my answer? Is it that balance of the two that makes up wisdom?
What Stephanie did was simply brilliant! It was literally simple and its effect is brilliant. I can’t wait to share it with folks at Photoshop World this year. It goes right to the core of my style of photography and image finishing yet subtle, while following the KISS theory. And it’s so simple it went flying past me for years, I did see it or what’s probably worse, didn’t seek it out. Did the wisdom or old age let me down all these years or did it serve me well by giving Stephanie the challenge in the first place, tapping into that pool of youth?
Pushing my craft, engaging my visual communication skills and refining the message is something I’ve prided myself in regarding my photography. When I start to feel too comfortable, I feel uncomfortable and I throw caution into the wind to see what comes out of the big blow. There is no doubt I try everything until in my mind tells me it is a failure or a success (the measure of which is probably influenced by wisdom?). But you’ve gotta have your eyes wide open to see all you should try. Close your eyes or close your mind and then those new opportunities never appear. So perhaps that’s where the wisdom thing kicks in, having the smarts to try things in the first place and then the wisdom to pursue those things that work for your own photography. I truly enjoy having Stephanie in the office, she makes me laugh. That has now grown with respect for her youth and the “take on all challenges” attitude. Openness of youth or wisdom of age, I wish I was old enough to have the wisdom to figure out the answer! More importantly, will the answer find its way into my photography? Only time will tell which brings me back to what I wrote a few weeks back.
Base Camp’s Top Ten Questions:
Base Camp is a one of a kind experience, balancing the art of wildlife photography with the craft of the business of wildlife photography. One of the main requirements of the students is to ask questions. I decided to post the top ten questions asked of me (rated by me), thinking you might ask them too if you could. Here are my answers. Please keep in mind that these are just my answers and may or may not apply to you or your photography.
#10 Is it still possible to make a decent living as a wildlife photographer?
I firmly believe that it is! The variable to this is you and not the market place. Having weathered a number of “rocky economics times” in our thirty years, we know that the individual and their images are the biggest factors to success. Don’t take this as if it’s easy, or even 40 hours a week or that there aren’t mountains and valleys along the way. But if you are in it for the long run, YOU can do it!
#9 What’s this business about “good” bokeh versus “bad” bokeh? What’s bokeh anyway?
I had no bloody clue what bokeh was until this moment! Wikipedia says: “In photography, bokeh is the blur, or the aesthetic quality of the blur, in out-of-focus areas of an image, or “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points” which a participant had to explain to me so I could answer the question. Being a photographer who shoots the 200f2, 50f1.4 and 28f1.4 (just to name a few) wide open and with the subject some distance from the background I can say that I love bokeh. So, I learned something new this day, and I love it!
#8 Is there room for more photographers?
Oh man, are there! There’s even more room for photographers with the highest craftsmenship and professional standards. You’ve probably heard or read that it’s too competitive or there’s no money or many other reasons why there is no room for more photographers. I have such faith in my feeling and that these myths are just that, myths, that Sharon and I are not discouraging our son Jake to follow his heart but rather to encourage him. He knows of the pitfalls and heart aches, but also knows the rewards that hard work brings. The answer is totally up to the photographer to make this happen. Besides, this is what I was told 30 years ago. Some myths die a long and lingering death!
#7 How do you balance art vs. photography vs. money vs. passion & biology?
Wow, this is a great question and a damn hard one to answer. The answer I think changes with time and age and priorities in life. At this stage in my life and career, I can focus on just the passion, knowing the rest falls into place without too much work. In the beginning, the photo & biology had to be stressed to make the money. But there is no doubt that it is a balancing act, a bloody big one. I was very fortunate that I had a partner in this balancing act. I have no doubt that Sharon made it all possible and kept it in balance with the one other variable not put into this equation, family.
#6 What’s your favorite animal to photograph?
Isn’t that obvious? Moose of course. It actually shares the #1 spot with the San Joaquin Kit Fox. This is a really common question which I think is very interesting. Nobody asks what’s my number 2 favorite is though. Curious? Number 2 is all the rest of the critters I’ve been fortunate to photograph in my 30 years.
#5 What is the biggest growth today in commercial wildlife photography?
If I knew the answer for certain, I wouldn’t have to write this blog J
In all seriousness I think it’s in the field of showing humans interfacing with nature. And in this venue it is possible we’ll start seeing video clips replacing stills with the web being the biggest vehicle replacing the printed page. I don’t think we’ll see this change really, really soon but the winds are blowing.
#4 Is it better to have high ISO noise or live with a slower shutter speed and maybe compromise sharpness?
I would submit that there’s a third option and one I select most of the time, not shooting at all! A noisy sharp image is of no interest to me, or my clients. And a blurry image that can be done in an “artistic” style always sells but it’s not an easy sale.
#3 What makes a good wildlife Photograph?
Now wouldn’t we all like the recipe to answer this question! I don’t think there is any one thing or attribute or subject or lens or f/stop that constitutes the answer but rather, a huge combination of these and many others. What do I look for in the pursuit of this answer in my own photography? Light, subject, color and a story would be the four at the top of the list. How often do I find these? Definitely not often enough, which is partly why I go out with the camera every moment I can. In trying to answer this question, another question instantly popped into my mind. Will I ever have the answer to this question for my own photography?
#2 How much depth of field do you prefer for a given situation?
What a surprise that the #2 email question I receive should appear here as #2. The answer to this question is lengthy requiring stories and visuals, a couple funny comments and jokes. But to answer it as succinctly as I can in this limited forum, it all depends.
#1 How can “I” use my camera to help endangered species?
This question is music to my ears and a step in my heartbeat! Each and every photographer can get involved with their wild heritage and make a difference with their camera. The easiest and fastest way is to make the image of an endangered that grabs the public’s heartstrings and then get that image and the story behind it out to the public. We wildlife, nature and landscape photographers are a very fortunate group. We not only are so fortunate to witness our wildlife heritage firsthand, but we’ve earned the ability to bring that experience back to others in our photographs. It’s just one more step to finish this blessing by passing it on to others. I know of no greater reward for a photographer then to share their art and passion and affect the life of another human. And in the process, preserve the natural world we were so fortunate to inherent from before us who preserved it for us to enjoy!
When I was in school, I had one instructor that I really respected named Mike, who didn’t mess around. He inspired and spoke plainly and bluntly. Mike was a craftsman. He would tell stories that were nothing short of Superman leaping over tall buildings all in the pursuit of a photograph. Despite having the best gear money could buy, he would constantly impress us with how it was the person behind the camera making things happen. It was near the end of the second session though Mike said something that has always stuck with me. “If we can’t see you idea, you’re not communicating. No matter how good your idea, if it’s not executed, we’ll never know it.” Pretty powerful stuff for a photograph.
Which came first, the camera or the photographer? Without the photographer, the camera has no life. Without the camera, the photographer can’t visually communicate. I’m a firm believer that it’s the person behind the camera that counts. At the same time, who’s usually the first kid on the block with the new Nikon gear? Me. The camera gear permits me to stretch my imagination and my imagination pushes the camera to perform. We could go around and around and around on this same thread and probably never come to any conclusions. With the introduction of the D3s and with DSLRs coming out more and more with video, perhaps it’s time to sort this out.
In high school I had a great teacher who, with a Hawkeye Brownie, captured images we couldn’t compete with shooting his Nikon F. This started the thought that it was the person behind the camera that counts until the assignment to photograph a match lighting was handed to us. When it came time to photograph that match, a macro lens was needed to get the image size required. That Hawkeye that just the day before did such a great job, now came up short. It couldn’t keep up with the imagination. So with the seed planted that it’s the person behind the camera that counts, I went out buying more gear.
I would submit that for me, vision and gear go hand in hand. I can’t be the photographer I am without either one, with neither being more important than the other. I would also submit at the same time with that being true to myself, both would be meaningless without passion fueling them both. Passion is what powers the vision and it’s passion that drives me to earn the bread to buy the gear. It’s also passion that pushes the use of each piece of gear beyond its design limits.
Having seen a photographer successfully shoot with a 400mm lens, the front element of which he kept in place with a wad of chewing gum, I know for a fact that anything is possible in photography. He made images because, bless his soul, it was his only outlet in life to express who he was. But because it’s possible does it make it practical? I know another photographer who is just starting out who has a passion for birds so he uses the only lens he owns, a 50mm lens. It ain’t easy and the majority of the time completely unproductive, but it can be done. You can have a 600mm lens and chase birds all day long and not come back with a decent image as well, I’ve seen that happen too. Both shooters have a vision, both have gear but perhaps the one has a bigger advantage, passion, pushing that 50mm and his skill set.
I have a dear friend who, while he doesn’t own much gear, is always pining away for the latest and greatest. He’s constantly texting and emailing me asking about this piece of gear or that, telling me the specs for this new piece of gear and what he could do if he had it. But he doesn’t have it so he goes out with the one body and lens and flash he does have, and makes really amazing images that come from his imagination, heart, soul and passion. He admits his skill set is still growing which is how it should be, he has great vision and like any healthy photographer wants new gear, but that giant heart makes images to be proud of because they pull heartstrings!
This in no way takes away from the vision over gear sentiment floating around. I just think it’s not that cut and dry simply because being humans, nothing is that cut and dry when we’re talking about communicating. But I do think that simply saying vision over gear or it’s the photographer behind the camera that counts glosses over what’s really important. Photography and striving for what we perceive as the perfect picture doesn’t stop there. We’ve gotta have vision, we’ve gotta have gear just to get started because without either, it’s back to pencils and crayons. But to be successful, we can’t always be at the starting gate but racing down the track to an unknown finish line, one that I hope I never reach. What is it they say about race horses when they just keep going and going, they have heart?! Photographers who survive those first decades and are still vertical and moving forward with their craft have heart too, a passion for communicating visually the wonders of the world in which we live. I’m going to leave it up to you to make the final call, but I know the answer for myself in this question, vision, gear, or is it passion?
“What is your thought process before you take an image?” This is one of the most commonly asked questions I receive. It’s a very valid question. It presumes that people think I’m capable of thought (I like that assumption). Is there thought that goes into each photograph or perhaps more importantly, is photography purely an intellectual endeavor? The question hurts just thinking about it. Is there thought involved in the creative process of making a photograph? Before getting to that thought, I want to step back a moment to see if thinking can’t begin sooner and have more of an impact on our photography long before the moment of click. I would suggest that the thinking process might be more pure subconscious rather than conscious in a successful photograph. It’s the result of a natural reaction to the visual stimulation rather than one that’s thought through. Man, that’s a lot to think about for just a silly click!
“Engage your brain before your mouth.” My dad tried to the very end to get that through my thick skull and while I’m doing better at that in verbal conversations, I know I’ve always done that in my visual communicating. I do think prior to pushing the shutter release, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thought most presume must occur. I’m not thinking f/stop and shutter speed. When it’s a landscape photo, I don’t think through the post processing anymore. I don’t even think about who that photograph should be sold to anymore. Nope, the most common thought this year when I’m behind the camera is simply, “How lucky I am to be here and behind the camera.” Luckily the photo making process is so conditioned the body and camera take over for the lack of thought.
I was incredibly fortunate when I started out in this photographic pursuit to have thoughts and ideas placed in my mind that guide me to this day. I had an instructor way back when who had a weekly assignment. We had to go into the library and just look at photography, photographs that were in print in books or magazines only. First, we had to find those that appealed to us. They didn’t have to be killer images, just ones we thought were cool. Then, and this was the heart of the assignment, we had to back engineer the photos and think through how they were created. For example, if you liked a product shot of a gulf club, you had to determine from the reflections what was lit with lights and what was lit with subtractive light (don’t know that term, looks like you’ve got some homework to do). We had to engage the brain and our knowledge of light in order to get an “A” on the assignment.
This exercise started to create a roadmap in my mind of the thought process that goes into the back end of a photograph, a studio shot where we are in control of the lighting. But my arena of photography is not in the studio and I’m anything but in control of the light. But light is light, that’s a novel thought. You place a light, be it a flash in a studio or the sun outdoors in front of a subject, the subject will be lit (I think). Get that light close to a subject and it wraps around it, move it far away and it becomes a spot. Thinking this through and applying what we learn when lighting a human face to the facial disk of a grizzly bear, how can we take the sun and have it mimic a SB-900 going through a 3×3 Lastolite? Think about it, how do we take the biggest spot light on the planet, the sun, and turn it into a giant softbox? That’s right, overcast or clouds or snow or sand or a combination of all of the above. What’s the common denominator? Light and thinking.
You watch someone like McNally light a subject, scene or story and you might assume he’s thinking it all through. He’s not thinking; he’s reacting. He’s not planning, but rather responding to the light. The thought came long ago, the thinking through of the problems occurred a lifetime ago. The magic of his craft (and it is a craft and he is the highest form of a craftsman) is the subconscious thought to the light and what he wants to communicate to you. He paid his dues and thought it through so long ago that now when his wild imagination goes to work, the light just naturally follows. Yeah, when he’s teaching you hear his thoughts, but I’ve been there when he’s making magic and it’s a magical experience as the light just simply comes on and the subject is born.
And that’s how the thought process should be. I do all my thinking before the camera ever goes to my eye. The stalk of the critter is based on the background, the f/stop selection based on that background and the story I want to tell. And exposure compensation is dialed into the camera in route to the subject. When the camera meets the eye, there is no thinking just reacting, watching the subject and making subtle changes to the position of the camera, doing the dance. Personally, if I had to be thinking and not reacting to the subject, I wouldn’t get the shot. I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
So what am I thinking about when I put the camera to my eye? I’m not, that part of the photographic process is already done long before the camera comes up. It occurs when I have a new piece of gear and I figure out if it solves a problem and is worth buying in the first place. The thinking occurs still when admiring those photographs that catch my attention and imagination and I figure out what elements excite my vision. The thoughts fly through my mind when I look at my images each day that I captured that day. I think through what I did wrong and what I did right and, most importantly, think through what images I need to still capture to tell the story. There is no one thought going through my mind when I’m shooting. There’s a lifetime of thinking squeezed into every camera click.
Faster than a heartbeat, a photograph is born. And if done correctly and if the stars are all aligned, that moment in time frozen by the shutter affects lives for time unending. If that is the possibility, and it has been proven over and over again, then why isn’t time reported as one of the most important aspects of photography?
I’m all too aware of the importance of 1/60, 1/500, 8sec and all the rest of the “times” that most associate with photographic time. And while they are important for communicating the emotion that exposure brings to life, I’m referring to an even more important measure of time. I’m talking about the time behind the camera. You could look at the time behind the camera for one image, one shoot, one day, one week, one month or more what I’m thinking about, one lifetime being the measure of time!
I was recently asked what went through my mind as we approached the subject. I was rather surprised when my answer, which contained mostly past life experiences that led up to my decision to my approach, was cast aside for the answer the questioner really wanted, lens, f/stop and shutter speed. Seriously! That’s probably why I couldn’t connect, the time before the click is just as influential in the approach as the time of the click for me. And if all goes well, that click will survive the test of time.
I know I’m not alone in treasuring time. The time spent with a spouse, the time spent with kids and family. We all know how precious these and others are. What about the simple pleasures, time with a good book, a glass of wine, watching a fire or birds in the feeder? Just as precious. How many curse the waste of time being stuck in a line, at an airport or in traffic? Why then is the time behind the camera for so many rushed? As a working pro, one of my biggest challenges is getting enough time in behind the camera to follow my own particular passion of wildlife photography. What pushes that desire?
And what makes the time behind the camera now so special? It’s all that has been learned from the time already put in behind the camera. It’s all the challenges, successes, failures and rewards already experienced from the time behind the camera that lead to promise at the next time behind the camera. Adding to these experiences are all the life experiences that make you, you!
Last week I was reminded about this again by Jeremy. While he doesn’t have the accumulative time behind the camera that I do, he does take his time when behind the camera. A luxury I didn’t have at that moment. He’s the complete opposite of what I call a “panicked photographer.” Jeremy took his time, made his shot and smoked everyone, especially me. His photos of Owl’s Head Light and at Firefly were images I wanted in my files. Then, the dirty, rotten kid made the image of Portland Lighthouse that I wanted. Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds! Seeing his B&W image from there on his monitor and thinking I had it drove me nuts until this week when I had time to go through all my images and finding I did have one frame. What’s Jeremy’s key to success? He’s 18 and doesn’t know time is so precious and hard to come by when you get older so spends it lavishly behind the camera now. And my little moment of triumph came not from confidence at the camera, but starring at a monitor after the fact. That’s the worst use of my time, the digital darkroom.
Now that I’m officially an “old fart,” (I like that title), I find shooting with “kids” very rewarding and a real photographic push. My “new” assistant (that term is almost old now), Stephanie, really has me jumping by not only asking photographic questions (which is her job) but also asking “what about this technique or that idea or this new approach?” Questioning the logic of time! Just look at the “jumping” series SHE came up with & I had to solve photographically. Talk about pushing me, pushing my photography! And in a matter of time, we will together perfect the jump shot.
Talk about being pushed, look what our son Jake is doing to me! Holy crap, he just turned 21 (congrats kid!) and he’s running me ragged. Where does he find the time to shoot AND blog and go to college all at the same time? What the hell is my excuse for not shooting more? What Jake has going for him, which he just consciously realized this summer is that while his “time” behind the camera has only been a couple of years, he’s been preparing for the time his entire life. We’re talking about the youngest American ever to be on a permit to handle endangered species. He’s been in the field with his parents since he was two weeks old (says he doesn’t remember that). What does that all add up to? That culmination of time that is frozen in time when he presses the shutter release can’t be measured by that shutter speed, time in the field that day, week or year, but by a lifetime even though to an old fart, that time is short.
So why have I taken the time to write this? Perhaps because of my own frustration in not spending enough time with wildlife of late or perhaps counting the minutes until I am photographing wildlife in a couple of days. Perhaps it’s the sting still hanging around from getting skunked by a kid who took his time at a lighthouse and I didn’t. Perhaps it’s the frustration of dealing with a handful of folks who felt time in the digital darkroom was more important than being behind the camera. Perhaps I just felt it was time to talk ever more outwardly about what I’ve always felt is the most important ingredient in photography. Time!!
Do you know the work of Jay Maisel? He’s a real hero of mine for so many reasons. He can say your photograph sucks and that’s OK. I say it and oh man, the sky is falling (gotta work on that delivery). But more to the point, it’s his photography that I so love. I love seeing my world through his lens. Why is that, why are his images so powerful, so vibrant, so heart touching? He spends every breathing moment behind the camera! Jay always, always has a camera with him, in his hands, exploring his craft, expressing his life, his world, our world with every waking moment. Can you grasp what Jay’s saying, what I’m saying? Photography = time!
When shooting with folks, I often get frustrated and they contribute that as I have issues with them. What they don’t realize is having done this for 30yrs, I know the value of time behind the camera and when that time is wasted, I get frustrated. Now, I’m not saying every minute behind the camera that one is making a great click, not at all. It just takes one great click to make my day, week, or….nah, not going there. Sitting at my desk, working on a computer, doing chores, doing anything but spending time, time behind the camera is hard for me. Spending 9 months writing a book just about killed me. I have to hope that the time I put into it and not being behind the camera is worth your time to read it. Just like this piece. It’s all about time, the magical, magnificent and most important ingredient in a photograph!