Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Professional Question

Not too long ago I was photographing in a prairie near my house. It was early in the morning around the time the forest preserve employees usually came to check the facilities near the parking lot. I had setup my camera on the tripod close to a large patch of daisies near the gravel trail. The daisies were swaying with the wind and I was trying to capture the movement. In the distance I could see the forest preserve truck on the trail driving my way. I didn’t think much of this until the truck stopped near me, the rangers got out and proceeded to interrogate me. There was no greeting just a series of questions starting with “are you a professional?”

This has happened in several occasions, the most recent was last summer while visiting a lighthouse. The lighthouse tour required checking in and during the process one of the coordinators of the tour saw my camera gear and immediately asked. I explained that I was just a photography enthusiast who loved lighthouses. During the bus ride to the lighthouse, this particular coordinator spent some time discussing the lighthouses I had seen on my trip (I was traveling around Lake Michigan). Once we arrived to the lighthouse and I stepped off the bus another coordinators there pulled me aside and once again questioned me.

In incidents like this are driven by the underlying assumption that certain equipment is only carried by professionals. It follows that professionals make images for commercial purposes, and this is the real issue: money. There are several flaws with these assumptions starting with the initial proposition. Many hobbyist and serious amateurs may spend the money to buy some high end equipment. There may be multiple reasons including better image resolution, low light sensitivity, features supported (e.g., multiple exposures, bracketing) or it just plain connects with some other passion that the owner has (think about someone who likes to photograph birds and needs a long fast lens). Yes, some of this equipment is expensive (many times very expensive) and may be out of reach for many, but as I friend of mine said, some people spend their money on sports cars, I like photographic gear.

Since the bottom line is money, the question that needs to be asked is whether“professional” equipment is required for commercially viable images? The answer is no. Camera phones, point-and-shoot and the now-becoming-popular mirrorless cameras are being embraced by professional photographers for some of their daily work. It is important to remember that it is mostly the artistic vision and execution of the photographer, along with his knowledge on how to work around the limitations and exploit the strengths of the equipment, which makes an image successful. It is true that some equipment may not have the quality or performance of the professional grade one but in some instances this may not be necessary

Bottom line is that a photographer shouldn’t be judge by his equipment and, at least most practical purposes, it shouldn’t matter to anyone what equipment is being used to photograph. If someone has concerns or wants to impose limitations, they should be around the end use of the images. Many places do have a photography policy which may include anything from outright prohibiting all type of photography to just allowing non-commercial. There will still be valid cases where equipment may be restricted (certain equipment may pose safety issues) but these cases should not be the norm. In the end, as long as everyone is aware of these policies, including those that are trying to enforce it, the unpleasant encounters in the field should be minimized.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Necessary Evil

Since art elicits an emotional response, everyone has (and is entitled) to an opinion. As an artist, independent of your level, you will be subjected to these opinions, many of them in the form of critiques. A critique should be more than just indicating that one likes or dislikes the work; there should be some specific and objective points that hopefully, can be acted upon. While a negative critique can destroy the artist spirit, a constructive one will lift it and potentially stenghten and focus his vision. So, although sometimes painful, critiques are a necessary evil in the process of growing as an artist.

I went through numerous critiques while taking photography classes in the Morton Arboretum. The initial one was on the second day of the first class. Needless to say, I was very nervous to show my images and to hear what the instructors had to say about them. In the end, my fear was unfounded as the feedback I (or the other students) received was never negative.

Occasionally I presented a few images that should have never seen the light of day and as such, challenged the instructors. I like to think that this only happened a few times but I'm sure they will disagree (with a smile, of course). After a few critique sessions, I noticed a pattern emerging when such an image was brought up for critique:
  1. Upon seeing the image the instructor covered his mouth and goes into a trance for a few second. After snapping out of it, the instructor takes a deep breath, looks at you and asks: “what were you going for when you capture this image?”
  2. Upon seeing the image the instructor's eyes opened wide and he quickly tried to pass the initial critique to someone else. If there is an assistant, the instructor may say something like “why don’t you comment on this one first?”
In the end, the instructor always provided some feedback; and the images on which I learned the most were the poor and mediocre ones. So if you are ever on a photography class that includes a critique, make sure to take advantage of it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

My friend, the camera

I was about about 8 years old when my mom gave me my first camera. It was a 110 film camera, essentially a cheap point and shoot. And point and shoot I did. I remember traveling with it to the Grand Canyon, San Francisco and Disney World and snapping away all the scenery. The pictures were nothing to brag about but it was the first time that I could show my friends what I saw from my point of view.

For many years this was my only camera but I had my eye on something better. I vacationed many times with my uncle and while I shot with my primitive 110 film camera, he stood by me with his 35mm Leica. This was a fully manual camera and all the adjustments he made before pressing the shutter were magic to me. And I really liked the magic and the pictures it produced!

But a good magic box is expensive. I worked during the summers and the weekends and eventually had enough money to buy my first SLR: a Canon AE-1 Program. This camera was a big jump from my earlier 110 film camera. I could no longer point and shoot as the camera required manual intervention. First thing I had to learn: focus. I also had to remember to set the correct ISO for the film.

This AE-1 became my companion for many years and once I had learned the basics of it I acquired a second lens: a telephoto. Of course with this extra piece of equipment I required a camera bag. And once I had the camera bag, I had extra space to carry more things. Queue the flash and filters.

I was more than happy with my equipment and had no plans to replace or upgrade anything. But one day, while on a trip to New York, the AE-1 stopped working. It was, needless to say, very disappointing. This was the year that the Statue of Liberty was getting unvealed after the restoration and I had front seats in the fire escape of a building overlooking the Hudson River. I was not going to sit through the celebration without taking any pictures! So I traveled to Manhattan and after visitting several camera shops bought a different brand camera: a Pentax P3.

Throughout college I kept close at hand both the P3 and the noew repaired AE-1. I took them to the beach, the lighthouse, the caves and camping. I got 8x10 prints of the images I like, laminated them and hung them on a wall in my college apartment (some of these laminated images are still hanging in my house!). This wall became my private gallery.

I got married almost 10 years after I bought the Canon AE-1. Just before this life changing event, I bought a new camera. Control of this camera was relinquished to my wife, so much so that I only remember two things about it: it was a Canon brand and it was stolen while we were on vacation. My wife was also in charge of the new replacement camera and she spent the next few years documenting the kids as they grew.

As they kids got older, the number of extracurricular activities increased. There was soccer, swimming, piano, drum lessons, dancing, girl scouts, boy scouts, etc, etc, etc. Although kids don't tend to drop and pick up activities on a whim, my son stuck around scouting and eventually crossed over from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. In his quest to earn merit badges, I suggested he enrolled in a photography merit badge class. This class was taught in the Morton Arboretum and required a parent to be present (to help control the boys, not to photograph). Although this class was geared toward the scouts, for the first time in almost 10 years my interest in photography was rekindled.

After the scout photography class I debated whether to take an adult one. After looking around at the offerings of the park district and community colleges, I decided to go with the Introduction to Nature Photography class at the Morton Arboretum. My next debate: what medium should I use to photograph? I still had my old Canon and Pentax friends with me and I had no doubt that at least one of them was operational. But the world was moving very quickly to digital so I bought myself a Canon Digital Rebel (300D). So with my new friend in hand I walked into the photography class and very quickly learned that I knew nothing about art, photography or nature for that matter (after all, I’m an engineer). But after two years of instruction in everything from light to composition and a number of field sessions and critiques, I got the basics down, learned (still am learning) to see and earned a certificate Nature Photography.

My friend the 300D eventually died of shutter exhaustion and along came a couple of other Canon cameras leading to the 5DmkIII. But this latest camera probably wouldn't be in my hand if it wasn't for the 110 film camera my mom gave me so many years ago.