The Blog of Patrick C. Cook

The photography blog of Patrick C. Cook.

My Little Monkey


When it comes to personal photography, I have this little monkey on my back that keeps telling me I shouldn't waste my time returning to the same photography site multiple times. My little monkey is actually quite convincing, using logic such as "you've already been there",  "you need to forge new photography territories" and "it's time to move on". Stuff like that. All this logic becomes entrenched self-think that is hard to shrug off. Well, after hearing enough of my monkey's well-meaning logic, I told it that I have good reasons for returning to a site for personal photography. My little monkey then challenged me to give just three reasons. I said I'd give ten:

1. I can work on improving composition with the benefit of being able to compare from one visit to the next. We often don't realize compositional flaws until post processing, after we have left the site. Over multiple visits to the same site I can see any improvement (or lack of) because I then have shots from multiple visits by which to compare. If we have an objection to returning to a site, we'll have to accept errors in composition and hope we can apply any lessons learned at other sites under different circumstances. This is one reason why I'm happy we no longer have to wait days or weeks to review our photos as was common in the film days. Back then we didn't know the final results of our work until after the film was processed which, by then, the details of the shoot was fading from memory.

2. It gives me the opportunity for different lighting situations because the sun will be in a different position, the cloud pattern different or even a different season that has an impact on the plants and animal life. All of this changes the scene, even if just slightly, which offers me new challenges even though the site may be the same physically from one visit to the next.

3. I can focus on discovering new subject positions and new angles that may work better than my last visit. I don't have to walk down the same path. I can explore north rather than south. I can get up close or further away from selected subjects. Just because I'm at the same site doesn't mean I have to walk the same path or stand in the same location as previously.

4. I may shoot color during one particular visit to a site, HDR another visit and IR another visit. In this way I can explore the different methods of photography at the same site. I can compose on the same elements of the site, yet with different photography methods in mind. Certainly I could hike in with both my color and my IR cameras, but I actually prefer keeping the photographic methods separate so that I can be fully focused on the techniques related to the method I'm working with at the moment.

A small lake on a land preserve in Middlebury, CT. called Lake Elise. This photo was taken in June 2013 using a Canon 6D.

A small lake on a land preserve in Middlebury, CT. called Lake Elise.
This photo was taken in June 2013 using a Canon 6D.

A small lake on a land preserve in Middlebury, CT. called Lake Elise. This photo was taken with a Canon 7D converted for near Infrared about a week after the above photo.

A small lake on a land preserve in Middlebury, CT. called Lake Elise.
This photo was taken with a Canon 7D converted for near Infrared about a week after the above photo.

5. Returning to the same scene helps me be more comfortable at the site. The "been there, done that" is actually a benefit because my learning about the site can advance a bit further. By being a bit more self-informed about the location, I can study different details about the site - photographic gems are often invisible on first glance.

6. A site's most obvious attributes, having been the first to become familiar to me, are not as prominent in mind in subsequent visits. For instance, the lake structure and the tree line around the lake are easily discernible and therefore are the first elements to be noticed. But there are hidden treasures in the lake structure and tree line that may not be so obvious, such as a tree that has fallen into the lake or a cleared area along the lake's edge. When we can visually move past the obvious, we can better examine the detail.

7. On subsequent visits I experience less "get it right" tension because I have less at stake when returning to the scene. I know I'm there to enjoy photography, so the visit becomes more about photography than collecting photos. I know I could return to the site again if I want to, which allows me to relax about getting as many correct shots as possible. I get to relax into my photography.

8. I am less likely to be rushed. Since photography friends will likely bow out when they hear "I'm going back to....", it becomes a delicious lone trek that won't be cut short by an impatient photography companion who's own monkey long ago won the debate against repeat visits. On a lone trek I get to decide when I'm done. I get to decide if I've accomplished that's day's photography objective. When there is plenty of it, time is a photographer's best friend.

9. The drive to the site, the parking, the best time to be there and those types of logistics become better known. It becomes mentally easier to get to the site which allows for less mental effort expended toward the getting there. This preserves brain neurons for actually being there. Feeling less resistance to the logistics of getting to the site, I find I am more likely to go on the photo outing. There is less risk of wasting time with wrong turns. I can plan for the drive time so as to maximize on-site time. These little logistical details stack up.

10. And lastly, developing the discipline to practice photography isn't impeded by an overriding need to seek new sites. Although new sites often present us with new and interesting photography subjects, if the site becomes the primary objective for photography, it becomes more about the site than the photography. I always ask myself if I'm practicing photography or collecting photos. To avoid the later, I feel it's important to have less objection to revisiting a site (for purposes of personal photography) so that the site itself becomes an opportunity for photography, not the primary objective.

That's ten. 

So, the next time your monkey starts on you with its brilliant logic about where you should, or shouldn't, go to enjoy and practice your photography, just read off the list of reasons above and see whether or not your monkey will let you enjoy your photography rather than keep up a relentless campaign for forging on to new sites. Tell it that the site isn't as important as the photography. Tell it that you can (and should) enjoy personal photography wherever you are. An objection to revisiting a site for photography is, well, just self-think that denies us from developing a deeper appreciation for the site itself, and could even impede skills development in photography. Your monkey may be a pest like mine is, but our monkeys need not rule our photography.


Dade County Metropolitan Zoo, Miami Florida 2004

Dade County Metropolitan Zoo, Miami Florida 2004

Photographing in Obscrurity

I have put many of my photos up on Flickr and 500px and Smugmug and Zenfolio, but my work is lost among the billions of other images online. I photograph in near perfect obscurity. And I'm okay with that.

Dade County Metropolitan Zoo, Miami Florida

Dade County Metropolitan Zoo, Miami Florida

It's so easy to feel a twinge of jealousy when you hear of photographers who are drawing the (favorable) attention of many fans. These skilled photographers seem to be driven by the attention, spurred on to travel wider and further to photograph epic vistas, seeing to it that they coax their images into formats that are spectacular and write useful blogs to help aspiring photographers travel their own paths. They can sell prints of their work for jealously high dollars. They can run sold-out workshops. They make photos that get viewed, write blogs that get read and are listened to when they speak. I, however, remain in obscurity.

My obscurity is rooted in not pursuing recognition for my photography. Rather, I am pursuing photography itself. My photography started when I was much younger because it was interesting to me. I started with no thoughts of recognition external to myself. I pursued photography not knowing that it was anything other than a personal activity that, by necessity, was a private activity. Being paid for my photos back then would be akin to being selected to go to the moon during Kennedy's moon landing challenge years. Indeed, up until just the last ten years or so there was no good method to broadcast our photographs as we now have with the public Internet, which is natively image friendly. Just like cell phones and GPS devices and MP3 players, before the public Internet existed we didn't miss the Internet.

But the Internet is here now which has fostered services to make our photography available for online viewing. Our cameras have gone digital, eliminating the grip film developers once held over us. We are now even in a position where a photo can be snapped and placed in distribution almost instantly. Despite any downsides to this instant-sharing, this is awesome power. But it doesn't fit well in workflows where you want (or feel the need) to fine tune the image before showing it around. And, it doesn't fit well when you want to distribute your photos at the highest possible quality. If you, like me, need to refine and tweak your work, time and work barriers are created that delay sharing...further perpetuating obscurity.

So what's my point? I thought you would never ask...

Simply this; it's quite alright to be an unknown photographer. Why? Because you tend to focus on the activity itself rather than the result of the activity. You photograph for you. You process when you are ready. Your workflow pace can be as slow or as fast as you want it to be. You don't try to live up to anyone's else's standard but your own, often the toughest standard of them all. And you needn't explain your photos, or apologize for them, or wonder why yet another contest submission fell into yet another black hole.

Dade County Metropolitan Zoo, Miami Florida

Dade County Metropolitan Zoo, Miami Florida

Now, if I seem to be making a case for obscurity, let me explain. All I'm saying is that it's okay to photograph in obscurity - there are advantages depending on your photography objective. If your goal is to generate an income from your photography, obscurity will work against you. If it's a personal hobby, then you are wise to ask yourself if being known is, or might become, your primary motivation for photography. I re-consider these questions periodically and have come to accept that my obscurity is in alignment with my current photography activity. This is to say that I don't want to be pushed into increasing my photography activity to keep up with a level of attention that risks derailing my photography interests, or to increase competition entries, or any number of work effort that may come of it. I would much prefer that I increase my photography activity first, as it suits me, and let being noticed increase as it may, or may not.

I think it's important to be self-reliant in terms of motivation to pursue photography, as opposed to deriving motivation from the attention we may receive. The risk is that we may be known one day and forgotten the next. If we judge our photography success by what others think, or the degree to which others pay attention to our work, we could be left without a motivational foundation when the spotlight is turned away from us. I feel it's important to be strongly self-motivated so as to sustain an interest in photography despite who pays attention to our work.

My point in all of this (finally!) is to suggest that we remain motivated in our photography pursuits, whatever they may be, without allowing any external attention become the foundation for that motivation. This empowers us to continue to create photos, increase our skill and develop our style in a self-directed manner. In this regard I am fortunate to have begun photography in the pre-Internet days when I didn't expect my photos to make it beyond $3 cardboard photo storage boxes. I am fortunate to have begun my photography interest in the film era because the development costs and physical nature of paper prints made it impracticable to pound out a thousand photos per outing. I made do with what I had and didn't miss what I didn't know I was missing (does that make sense?). Lacking the means to show and distribute my photos back then, I was self-motivated in photography. I had to be. Even though we are now in the digital age, complete with digital cameras and the Internet with its many photo publishing services, I can still say that I am self-motivated in photography because that's how I started, which is why I am surviving obscurity.


3rd Leg

The next time you are getting ready for a photo outing and feel that dreaded twinge of guilt for (again) contemplating leaving your tripod home, consider it's uses beyond just being a stable platform for your camera:

  • It's a walking stick ready and willing to be your third leg. In fact, the tightly grouped impressions from the three tripod legs next to your footprints makes anyone tracking you think an extraterrestrial alien had passed that way.
  • It's a balancing pole to help you over those slippery rocks that must be navigated to reach the only photo opportunity that looks interesting.
  • It's a resting post that is happy to give your tired hiking muscles some much needed support.
  • It's a soft-ground probe that is happy to be used to probe the very ground you are about to walk on.
  • It's a portable weight that helps build your body 12 ways.
  • It's a sign of authority just in case anyone should doubt that you know photography.
  • It's great for warding off dogs - they can't figure out what that thing will do to them. 
  • It's a way of differentiating yourself at tourist attractions where you are likely to be a "lone carrier" amongst the other camera-toting tourists.
  • It demonstrates, beyond any doubt, that you are not afraid to spend money on photography accessories.
  • If your photowalk brings you near a spring factory, you can have it converted into a Pogo Stick.
  • It's a great way to contribute to the profits of tripod manufactures who long ago figured out that a tripod is actually part of the camera body they forget to attach at the factory. 
  • It needs more wear-and-tear anyway to prove that you actually do go out on photoshoots.

So, the next time you go out on a photoshoot be sure to bring that tripod and maybe, just maybe, it will also come in handy as a stable platform for your camera. 


Oh My, That's a Big Camera!

Last December we were visiting family in the Miami area of Florida. We went to one of those wealthy-person's-estate-turned-tourest-attraction and paid the hefty entrance fee. I, of course, had this big DSLR camera strapped to my body (or my body strapped to the camera). After making payment equivalent to a day's wage, the clerk in the money-booth looks straight at me and says, and I quote, "If you are caught taking photos inside the building, you will be escorted off the property immediately". Whoa! What did I do to deserve her wrath? Oh, I have a big camera! Oops. Yet every person in my five-person party, including an 11 year old, had smart phones capable of having pictures in mass distribution on the Internet even before leaving the scene of the photo-crime!

Now, if any big DSLR caddy hasn't been subjected to this level of you-will-probably-misbehave mistrust, whether verbalized, posted, stamped, etched, written or otherwise implied, then I propose that such person hasn't been seen in public with said big camera.

On another occasion, I visited one of those pay-to-visit historic communities in Massachusetts that had a newly installed anti-photography policy. (I'm not referring to photographer-friendly Sturbridge Village here.) Here too was a no-photos-inside-the-buildings policy. This policy was explained to me after paying the admission fee that was higher than the cost of gas to get there. When I inquired why this policy wasn't stated on their website, the money-changer explained that the policy was recently enacted as a result of a "lady with a camera who backed into a display while taking pictures". Ok, so a camera makes users clumsy. This is probably because it's much more interesting to view displays on a tiny 2" LCD. If learning of such policy after traveling and payment wasn't enough, one of the building curators, having found new meaning for her job, watched me, with my dangerous Big Camera dangling from my neck as if a weapon of impending destruction of her displays, like a hawk. She even felt the need to remind me of the rules upon entry to her building.

I'm okay with these anti-photography policies. I get it. The flash destroys paintings (a decades old myth perpetuated by curator fear), tripods are a trip hazard, we'll back into displays and we're going to somehow damage the commercial value of properties with our photos posted on Flickr. But the reason I really get it is because it's their property and they get to make up any rules they want, as long as the rules are within their legal right. Private property owners get to be as friendly, or unfriendly, as they want toward photographers...and we get to decide if we will honor their property in photography, let alone pay their often-whopping admission fees.

I think there are couple lessons to take away from these photography policies. First, we need to respect the wishes of property owners even if their photography restrictions seem capricious. Second, we need to be ready to forgo taking photos of a location comfortable in the knowledge that their are still bountiful opportunities for great photos elsewhere. Third, is that we get a chance to demonstrate respect for the property by following the photography rules. Perhaps in time admission-based property owners will realize that photographers can help them market their attraction through well-made photographs posted online for non-commercial gain. Or property owners will welcome photographers who will tell other photographers about the photographic opportunities to be had at that site, complete with visual proof of the site's value for photography, or themselves return many more times.

In my personal experience, there is one shining example of a photographer-friendly location that I return to time-and-again, and once even brought 6 other photographers with me, who each paid the entrance fee. Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic Connecticut is openly photographer friendly, allow the use of tripods and the staff never cast a suspicious eye toward photographers. (Ask before shooting for commercial purposes.) Not only are there rich photographic opportunities at this gorgeous location, but photographers are not made to feel they are being intrusive. My photos from the Mystic Seaport Museum are my most treasured because they are wonderful shots and I always felt welcomed there.

At Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic Connecticut

At Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic Connecticut

I would like to add one more site as being very photographer friendly; Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts is a photographic rich environment that is very welcoming to photographers.

At Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge Massachusetts

At Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge Massachusetts

So, when you visit private attractions be prepared to be subjected to some level of photography restriction, but respect their rules anyway. And don't be surprised if the degree of suspicion of being a potential photo-wrongdoer is proportional to the size of your camera. But when you discover a location that is photographer friendly, enjoy the opportunity to its fullest. In all cases, do nothing that will give site management any reason other than to love photographer visitors. As always, we must leave all photography sites the same as we found them. Not better - the same. But we must also do our best to help people learn to trust that photographers are particularly respectful of property and appreciative of the opportunity to photograph.


It Doesn't Have to be Epic

"The real voyage of discovery consists
not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust


I am a victim of photographing at the Grand Canyon where the scene was epic. Where you have to work at taking bad photographs. Where photography and nature form a conspiracy to keep you hooked on firing the shutter like a deeply immersive video game. This "epicness" of the Grand Canyon was so intense that when I returned home and looked for photographic opportunities, I saw nothing of interest.

We can't help but compare, in our case, photographic situations. It's a common trap. Of course the Grand Canyon is more photogenic than my Connecticut back yard - it's much bigger, much deeper and more colorful (not that I want a canyon for a back yard...or maybe). But this is comparing physical attributes, which isn't all there is to the story.

A photographer strives to not only see the physical attributes of a scene, but also the possibilities to isolate features within the scene by which to tell a story that is embedded within the scene. A story that is normally masked by the details of the scene. A story that isn't obvious, but still can be told. Or an obvious story that begs to be told differently. At any rate, a story that is interesting enough to be worth both telling and hearing.

I once had a friend who was a decent photographer. We went on photo shoots together periodically. I learned a lot from his understanding of the principles of photography. He would demonstrate for me depth-of-field techniques and exposure principles. Those were valuable learning days. Once he showed me a developed film print a few weeks after one of our outings. It was a good photo. I asked him "what's the story", referring to the photo. Surprisingly, he had no answer other than it's a photo of a tree. My Goodness, even in my apprenticeship period I was able to understand the value of a story. I gave him another crack at the question with a response that was pretty much an echo of the first. His inability to answer my question instilled in me the importance of story telling with photography. I fail at it quite often, but always keep moving toward developing my story telling ability with photography.

Unlike epic scenes like the Grand Canyon, many stories in a scene are not obvious. This, I believe, is due to several reasons. First, we have trained ourselves to not look for stories, and as such, we don't see story opportunities unless we work at it. Another reason is because the scene is familiar to us, so it becomes more like background scenery, never really looked at. Another reason is that we tend to be more interested in the larger picture than the details, perhaps because we typically view scenes from a distance, seldom very close up. The reason for not recognizing stories are well entrenched in us, so as photographers we have to work at identifying a story for our photographs. It's easy, and natural, to take a photograph of a tree, for instance, and call it a day. It's easy to rely on the viewer of our photographs to fabricate a story that works for them. "Story-less" photos are easy to make and sometimes we strike gold. The idea is to train ourselves to recognize stories to tell and then utilize our photography skills to encapsulate the intended story in the image.

Now, before you ask for my qualifications, let me tell you that I haven't mastered story telling with my photography. If that concerns you, you are free to close this article and move on to material from more qualified photographers. Still here? Good, we can learn together.

Take my friend's tree photo as an example. What's could have been the story? Could the story have been about age, strength, survival, beauty, growth, structure? Could the story have been about the tree's isolation or its role in a population of trees. Maybe the tree's role in the ecosystem under, on and in the tree? Do you want to convey a sense of happiness about the tree or loneliness and isolation? Do any of the physical attributes of the tree resonate with you? What aspect of the tree do you most identify with? All of this is story material - you just need to identify the story you want to tell and then work on telling that story with a photograph. We can't tell a story with our photography if we don't first know what story we want to tell.

When at epic scenes like the Grand Canyon, we can often get away without telling a story because the Grand Canyon, in this case, is the story - we can rely on the viewer determining a story from such photos for themselves. This phenomenon is perhaps why epic landscapes, human portraits, journalistic photos and the like often succeed - because the viewer determines the story for themselves based on associations the viewer has already formed in their own mind. But what happens when we're in our own back yard and we take a shot? Now, the image contains everyday stuff that viewers have either seen many times before or that aren't interesting enough to spend time contemplating with the aid of our photographs. It's another ho-hum photo slideshow from our Wally World vacation....even though it may all be fascinating to ourselves.

Now, I don't intend to teach story telling here in this article. Indeed, I'm in school myself. What I would like to accomplish is to encourage you to seek out stories in your photography. Practice taking a common element of an non-epic scene, deriving a story worth telling from that element and capture that story in a single still image. That's often hard to do. Try this. With camera in tow, hike to and park yourself in a lake or wooded area, any season. Leaving the camera powered off, study the scene around you and test how many stories you can conjure up. For this exercise, the stories don't have to be interesting, just identifiable. What is it about the light and shadows that make or influence a story? What is interesting about the fog? What does the dancing of sunlight on the water suggest? How about the active ecosystems? What evidence is there of people having passed by? Are the trees old-growth or new-growth? What evidence of damage is there to the area, either caused by humans or nature? If you look, you'll find stories.


Your next challenge is to capture that story in a photograph. Where you position yourself in relation to the subject element will help tell your story. Your chosen angle of view will aid story telling. Your choices of camera settings will impact your exposure which in turn impacts story telling. Your aperture can be controlled to capture of sense of depth. Your shutter can be controlled to suggest motion, or no motion. Your zoom lens can draw the viewer into the scene, or give the viewer a sense of separation from the scene. It's entirely up to you how you tell the story. The really cool thing about photography is that you have many choices for how you tell stories with your photographs, and they are all your choices.


If I leave you with nothing other than an appreciation that what you photograph need not be epic as long as you can tell stories with your photography, then we have both used our time well. With story telling we can bring interest to the most common scene. We can give the most common subject new found meaning. We can help our image viewers see something in a new way or feel a way not before felt about the subject. But, if we ourselves don't see the story, we won't be able to use our photography skills to tell a story. In that case, any success we have in storytelling with photography will come mostly by accident. Photography accidents are fine. I like photography accidents. It's just that they are not very repeatable on demand.

The Grand Canyon caused me to ask why such story richness is not in everything I photograph. The answer, it turns out, is that is was never that scenes lack story opportunities, it was me not seeing the stories. I'm working to change that.


Attitude Doesn't Sell

There's not many brick-and-motor camera stores left these days. The vast majority have been pushed out of business by online merchants that can sell at much lower prices. Physical merchants no longer hold a lock on product knowledge because even that is abundant on the Internet with deep reviews by qualified writers, and even average camera gear buyers who review based on first-hand personal experience. However, there is a lot to be said for taking a day trip to a camera store and being among all that neat gear, touching and feeling the stuff Santa couldn't afford to bring you, not to mention getting a good product lust-buzz going.

So, off to the store I go with a friend. We went to the last all-camera retail merchant remaining in Connecticut that carries photography merchandise manufactured within the last twelve months. This camera store down along the Connecticut shore does indeed have really neat stuff, and I and my friend had our American Express cards tuned, oiled and polished just for the occasion.

Upon arrival we asked for a specific store representative who came recommended because of his longevity with the store. My friend and I had a very specific photography project and we needed the correct gear to get the job done, so we wanted the best consultation available and we wanted to walk away with the gear we needed, which could reach up around $2000 that day.


Our discussion began well enough as we described our project. But it didn't take long for the Rep to inform us that what we wanted to do couldn't be done. Now, this wasn't what we wanted to hear because we had already experimented and determined that we could accomplish our project goal, we just needed the correct equipment. The Rep insisted that there was no way, which is when hints started to be dropped that perhaps we didn't know enough about photography to be the best judge of our success with the project, let alone using up his time. From there the discussion went downhill faster than a lead snowball.

Now, I'm not going to entertain you with the details, although I'm sure you would enjoy hearing the details about all of the technical incorrectness we were entertained with, not to mention the merry-go-round word play. Rather, I want to tell you about the lesson that came out of this for me; it's risky to assume that a person doesn't have knowledge in a particular discipline. That's a dangerous game because you can't know the level of experience of another, or their particular skill level, and certainly not in ten minutes. The person may have unique insights that you are not aware the person has. Aside from all that, the party receiving such indictment may not be too fond of such treatment.

I think the dynamics at play in this soap-opera episode stemmed from two factors. First, the Rep had the power position because he was assumed the expert (at least he assumed he was the expert) and he held coveted real-estate behind the counter. Second, the Rep most surely interacts with low photography knowledge customers on a regular basis, so we must also have been afflicted with low photography knowledge because we were on the side of the display case that doesn't have sliding doors by which to extract the product you really want. These dynamics set up a situation that was doomed to fail, and it did. Needless to say, our shiny American Express cards never saw the light of day on that particular voyage to camera heaven.

The lesson to take away from all this is that it is important to make no assumptions about what skill level a fellow photographer possess. The reason is actually quit simple; everyone can learn from each other if there are no Power Players. A PP tends to take the stage and people don't want to compete. One of the reasons I respect photographers is because the vast majority know they still have much to learn and would rather have a give-n-take relationship with other photographers than a one-way exchange. Photography is also a personal pursuit that has many variations and many areas of study. A landscape photographer, for instance, develops a different skill set over time than a portraiture photographer. Some photographers engage in the entire processing workflow, some don't. Some photographers focus on the technical, others the artistic, others the enjoyment. The point is that there is an infinite variety of skill possibilities, making it impossible (and risky) to assume any skill level. Still, this kind of PP nonsense goes on all over the place perhaps due to the inability to recognize that others have skills as well, or as a way of bolstering one's own sense of self-worth.

A week after the shopping disaster at this camera store, my friend and I took a trip down to B&H Photo in New York City. Over a period of 4 hours, we enjoyed conversations with no less than six B&H Reps, all of whom we're respectful, informative and never once showed a single hint of contempt toward us. In fact, they were all are very interested in our project and became thinking partners while we were in the store. We left there having spent just under $2,000 with another $6,000 within two months following.  The photo project that couldn't be done went on to become a phenomenal success.

When you have the privilege of meeting a fellow photographer, it would be best to make no assumptions about his or her skill level because you may find that you have the potential to learn from that person. If, however, it turns out that you have a higher skill level, then by refraining from assumptions you preserve the opportunity to enjoy a relationship in photography with that person where they can give what they have. I myself have not once been in a situation where I did not learn from another photographer, and that includes people who were not advanced in photography. In fact, someday I'll tell you what I learned about photography from an 11 year old.


P.S. You didn't really think I was going to reveal that camera store's name, did you?

Update: As of April 2016, the project mention in the above blog post has required the purchase of just over $65,000 in camera gear (with more to come). Yes, that's sixty-five thousand! On that cold February day in 2014, that last-standing Connecticut camera store was essentially being given the opportunity to be the primary gear supplier. But, as it turns out, B&H Photo earned the position of supplier, and got all the orders, with no reason to look elsewhere. This story illustrates how businesses commit suicide when they allow employees with an attitude to represent them.

Good Photos, Good Memories

A couple years ago I was forwarded an email to query if I wanted to participate in a photo archive sort. A long-time photographer had become ill and his wife was looking to dispose of nearly 100,000 slides he had created over many years of personal photography. Now, when I say "dispose" I mean discard into the trash, at least according to the wife's email. However, she was open to somebody "who knows photography" going through the slides to pick out the best ones which she would then turn over to one of those stock photo agencies to sell for her.

There were a couple of bad signs to all of this. First, no one can appreciate the value of photos like the original author, so the only possible benefit others could bring to the sorting table would be evaluation based on the technical merit of the photos. But when we try to reduce a photo down to its technical merits, a great deal of meaning is lost. Photographs made for personal reasons, as was the case with this photographer, tend to be very personal works of creativity that have meaning that can't be quantified by others.

As for selecting photos from this gentleman's archive for the stock photography market, it would be a guess at best of what might sell as stock, and I highly doubt any microstock experts were called in, so I sincerely doubt any money was eventually generated from his archive in that manner. If many of his photos went off to the microstock gristmill, they contributed to the shear volume of microstock that has enabled licensing agencies to sell at ultra low prices in pursuit of the volume sales which benefits the agencies. But that's a discussion for another time.

Another bad sign was the recruiting of people to sort the archive who "know photography". To this day I can't imagine how knowing photography qualifies anyone to curate a photo archive. At best, such persons might appreciate good composition, but does that make them the best people to select keepers and decide which will be exiled to the oblivion of the trash?

I tell you this story because this incident made me reflect on what might happen to my creative work, my photographs, if I should become ill one day. Now, if I kick off, I suspect I won't be all that concerned with such trivia as my earthly photos. But if I fall ill, who will safeguard my treasures?

And treasures they are, as I am sure you can agree when considering your own photos. Our photos are treasures for many reasons. The first reason that comes to mind is that they can't be replicated. Not by the original photographer, nor by anyone else. Each photo is a "one-off", never to be replicated. By this I don't mean mechanically copied. I mean taken again with a camera. There are a multitude of details that all contribute to each photo - the light intensity and color and angle. Also the composition, the exposure settings and other camera-related settings. No photo will ever be taken precisely the same twice.

The second reason I would like to offer is because our photos are works of creativity. They require a certain level of skill to make, and that skill is developed over a period of time, often years or decades. Such skill seldom comes easy. You can't inherit it, or buy it or borrow it. This skill exists in several areas such as composition, exposure, camera operation and other photo "making" skills that take time and practice to improve. Being able to "see" a photo before you take the shot is also a skill that, while hard to quantity, is there more or less with every person who uses a camera.

Then there is the work that goes into post-processing at the personal computer, file management (which is a skill in its own right), portfolio presentation and management, licensing, print sales and other "distribution" disciplines. These days I fully understand that each click of the shutter adds to my photo work - but I click anyway. I enjoy the entire process - from click to print. And as such, each step in the workflow is part of my story of each photo.

The above are just three reasons why our photos are personal treasures, at least as I see it. They are creative works, it requires skill and knowledge to consistently create good photos and they require work to process, present, manage and protect from loss. This then raises the question as to why we put ourselves through all this just for a bunch of photos. Well, I've wondered that on numerous occasions, as I'm sure you have. I think of it as creating good memories.

A photo I took in 2001 at Pemaquid Lighthouse Point in Maine using my old faithful friend, a Canon EOS Elan 35mm film camera. While this scene has been photographed countless times by others, many of which are of far better quality than mine, this is  my  photo and  my  memory.

A photo I took in 2001 at Pemaquid Lighthouse Point in Maine using my old faithful friend, a Canon EOS Elan 35mm film camera. While this scene has been photographed countless times by others, many of which are of far better quality than mine, this is my photo and my memory.

I remember my good photos. I can "see" my successful photos in my mind. I remember where I was when the photo came into existence. I remember the intention I had for the photo. I recall the delicious challenges I had taking the shot. I remember the scene because I examined the scene for purposes of the photo. I have come to accept that I will remember my best photos for as long as I have a functioning memory. This makes photography a very personal activity that leads to photos being long remembered. This is why I pursue photography - to bring wonderful memories into my life experience in the form of images that have a back-story that is meaningful to me. Memories that are all mine, created by me for me.

The lady with the photo archive overload got me to reflect on the personal value of my photos. For as long as I am able, I will treat my photo archive with respect for the value it brings to me, because I know that my photos can't possibly mean as much to anyone else as to myself.

When I'm not as mobile and a bit over the hill
and you think I've forgotten all those exposures,
please just bring me some water and another pill
and let me enjoy the memories of my treasures.


P.S. I declined any participation in the sorting of this photographer's archive because, frankly, I didn't agree with how his archive was being handled.

The Great Canyon Photo-Caper

My wife and I were at the Grand Canyon in September of 2011. We were taking photos just before sunset at Grandview complete with my big DSLR, tripod and all the necessary lens and accessories. The sky was glowing orange, the tops of the Canyon features were illuminated with wonderful "golden-hour" light and the air was warm and comfortable. There were quite a lot of spectators due to the magnificent beauty of the Canyon at sunset. I was taking my time, setting up for great shots.


I swear I was one of only two people with a tripod (to this day I'm not sure if the other person had a tripod or an umbrella). Perhaps you have experienced an interesting phenomenon when you shoot on a tripod - people think you know what you're doing. There were a couple examples of this while at Grandview. First, I noticed that most, but not everyone, would duck as they passed in front of me so as to not ruin my photo. Some would stop just short of passing in front of my tripod, and detour behind me. I was sure to thank all who showed such respect for my work, and kept quite with those who preferred the route in front of me.

Another example of the tripod-makes-you-look-like-you-know-what-you're-doing phenomenon was when a woman with a sub $200 point-and-shoot was suddenly standing right next to me as if she had the power to materialize out of thin air. However she got there, she exclaimed "If I stand right here beside you, will I get a great shot." I said, "Mame, I think you can stand anywhere and get a great shot." She laughed...and held her ground causing me loss of precious elbow room. I think what she really wanted was to teach me some photography tips. But it gets better. I witnessed the most remarkable event I have ever seen in terms of photography at the Canyon (or anywhere for that matter).

I had relocated pretty far out on a ledge looking out over Grandview and was setting up for a shot (shown below) when an older gentleman and his wife worked their way down to the same ledge, finishing their trek perhaps 10 feet to my right. Without looking at his camera settings (maybe he came prepared) he raised his camera, which looked like a point-and-shoot molded into the SLR body style. He aims his weapon to his left about 30 degrees and presses and holds the shutter button. The camera rang out with a series of those fake shutter sound effects as he panned his camera right for about 60 degrees total. The entire machine gunned series couldn't have taken more than 10 seconds. He then lowered his camera and exclaimed "okay, let's go" and the two aspiring photographers spun around to return to their place of origin. The spunk they had in their step as they scurried up toward the parking lot made them look like they had just pulled off the greatest photo-caper in the history of the Canyon complete with Park Rangers in hot pursuit.

Needless to say, my focus and concentration of the gorgeous Canyon before me was disrupted to the point of momentarily forgetting what that big black box was that was mounted on a 3-legged stilt. I was in shock and awe at the prospect of anyone treating the Canyon with such disdain, photographically speaking. As I regained awareness of my own photography objective, I found myself trying to figure out what his intention really was. Was he souvenir collecting, thinking that storing the scene before him in digital bytes would allow him to enjoy the Canyon back home with a cold beer? Perhaps he had more faith in his camera than he should, given that hand-held shooting in low light is difficult even for the best digital cameras in skilled hands...and on a tripod. Maybe he thought that out of 20 shots, at least one will be good enough to keep. Then again, maybe he was in a total rush and was happy to get what he gets. We'll never know because they must have been back in their car before I could regain my wits. I resolved that this could never be figured out as I took my own shot, determined to not fall victim to rushing my enjoyment of that epic place.

So there you have it. A real-life photography story from the Canyon. But this story, unlike most of my other stories, has a moral: Never allow your camera to become a substitute for the experience of being there - you will be disappointed.



Seeing More Through the Viewfinder

While visiting the Grand Canyon in 2011 my camera became my friend.

The Grand Canyon at Lipan Point, South Rim.

The Grand Canyon at Lipan Point, South Rim.

The Grand Canyon is absolutely visually stunning, so much so that it can't be fully appreciated simply by looking at it. You are indeed observing the aftermath of a massive uplift, millions of years of erosion and damage from violent flash floods as well as deterioration and exposure of sedimentary deposits from an ancient sea bed where plankton and sea life laid down concentrated deposits of calcium. The reddish hue that is so pervasive throughout the Canyon is the result of iron that permeated the mineral deposits, now rusting from being exposed the the oxygen of the atmosphere. The Grand Canyon is an amazing place!

Yet I found that when gazing out over the Canyon with the naked eye its features became lost in the overall view.

The Canyon is so large and so visually busy that the mind simply can't take it all in. Even when you focus on specific features and attempt to visually isolate those features, their distance from you causes a frustrating loss of detail. Large features 5 miles away and 2,000 feet below are still distinguishable and have their own unique personality. Yet, with the naked eye you can't quite see the details of the untold number of boulders that have broken away from vertical rock walls and tumbled down slopes of various angles, or the plants that manage to thrive that endure the harsh landscape. The size and depth of the Canyon adds to the difficulty of focusing on features, even large features. Gazing out over its expanse, the Grand Canyon is beyond comprehension, visually speaking, and its details tend to meld together.

But when I raised my camera to this wonderful scene and peered through its optical viewfinder, I was able to isolate selected features by "framing out" the overall vista. That, at least, calms down the situation, visually speaking. The restrictive nature of the optical view finder actually becomes a benefit in this situation, allowing me to see less. So now, with the targeted feature isolated, the feature can be examined absent of peripheral visual clutter. The image below is a shot of a feature within the canyon that illustrates feature isolation. You'll note that the shot below is of a feature that is in the lower middle area of the image shown above.

The Grand Canyon, Lipan Point, South Rim

The Grand Canyon, Lipan Point, South Rim

With a lens of decent telephoto capability, the targeted Canyon feature can be drawn in, visually speaking. Now the boulders resting on slopes have a better presence. The strata of the targeted feature is more pronounced. The pattern of the pervasive reddish hue can be distinguished. If for just a few moments, the targeted feature is the Canyon - that's all there is because that's all you see.

Now it gets interesting. The camera not only momentarily restricts our view of this wonderful scene by the mechanical and optical limits of its viewfinder, but it alters it's visual personality due to the nature of lens optics. That telephoto lens mounted between me and the Canyon's feature visually draws in the feature, but it also compresses it visually as illustrated below from the Rim Trail. Now the perception of depth is lost if I don't compose to avoid the compression, but I do get better feature detail.

Grand Canyon from the Rim Trail, South Rim

Grand Canyon from the Rim Trail, South Rim

I've read articles that advise you to bring a wide angle lens to the Grand Canyon because you want to capture as much of the Canyon as possible in your photographs. Seems like sound advice and I most certainly took plenty of wide angle shots (I can crop on features later if I choose). But, it seems to me that capturing a wide angle view in a photograph is replicating the problem of the mind being overwhelmed with the epic vista. This was suggested by the following story; I returned from the Grand Canyon with a great many photos, of which I selected 212 as the best images. I then went to great effort to present 60 of the best in a professionally printed book with each photo in an 11x14 inch size, never split by the book spine. Every person who viewed the book would flip through the 60 pages in a time span that was shorter than the time it took me to process one of the images of the book. What's going on with that? Perhaps it was too much work to stop and really look at the photos. But I think their minds were overwhelmed with the visual intensity of the images. I could perhaps make a career studying just that one phenomenon.

But aside from the actual photos I came home with, I had a unique advantage as a photographer at the Canyon - I was able, with the aid of my camera, to visually isolate certain features of the Canyon. Not just to obtain impressive photos, but to enjoy the experience to a greater degree. I would stand and gaze out on that epic landscape, enjoying the scene thoroughly, and then raise my camera to try to compose an image that would capture the beauty of that place. In this regard, my camera became my friend at the Grand Canyon because, by selectively narrowing the scope of my visual experience with a mechanically restrictive viewfinder, my camera ironically allowed me to see features of the Canyon I might have otherwise overlooked.