Disappointed but Learning

Two weeks ago I went to a conference in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. Chris, my wife, is on the local School Board and the conference was about schools, so Koty (our dog) and I were just along for the ride. I’ve heard about the beauty of Coeur D’Alene for years, so I was excited to have the opportunity to spend 3 or 4 days hiking around the majestic lake taking photos. A few days before the conference the weather report was sketchy, but I was confident that a little “weather” would be just fine as long as there were a few sunrises and/or sunsets with good light.

The drive from Victor, Idaho to Coeur D’Alene was gorgeous. When we arrived late in the afternoon on Wednesday there was good light and some sun. It was Chris’ conference so when I took Koty for a walk I left my camera in the room.   We walked around to see the sights and my goal was to get an idea of where I might take some photos the next day. In retrospect, as always, leaving my camera behind was not a good idea!

Thursday morning I took Koty on a walk and checked out a beautiful peninsula called Tubbs Hill, a few hundred yards from our hotel. It is a two-mile hike around the hill on a trail that follows the lake with a beautiful rugged shoreline: a perfect location for great sunrises and sunsets IF I got good light. “No problem. I’ll take Koty back to the room, have breakfast, and go out for a shoot. Great location for photography. Lots of time to get some good shots.” Not a great decision.

Before the trip I bought a used 70-200mm f2.8 Nikon lens (yea, I decided to get some “good glass”) and Thursday morning I decided to just take my camera and new lens with me. I knew the hike was quite hilly and I didn’t want to lug my backpack and all the gear with me. Another not-so-great-decision, but I’m learning.

Tubbs Hill Day #1 (1 of 4)

It was partly sunny and a little chilly but relatively good weather for shooting. It was Veteran’s Day and I met a group of college students who were hiking. Some of them taking photos and some were having trouble with their cameras.

When they saw that I had a Nikon and a big lens they asked me if I could help them take a photo of them. If you want other folks to think you are a big-time photographer, put your camera with a big lens on a tripod and bingo, you are a pro. 🙂  I agreed but then noticed the Nikon 7200 she gave me was shooting at something like 2000 at f16 on a partly cloudy day. I was really surprised and probably looked shocked. The owner came up to me and said, “I don’t know how to fix that. It is shooting at ISO 2500.” Ah-ha, I quickly changed the ISO and the exposure and took the shot. It turns out the camera owner had taken night-shots recently and couldn’t remember how to reset the ISO. I helped her out and gave her some advice.  She thanked me many times. This may sound weird, but as I continued my hike I felt confident; their need for some help made me feel like I knew what I was doing, when usually I don’t see myself that way at all.

I’ve been with a lot of really advanced amateur and pro photographers the last few months through my involvement in the Teton Photography Group. I have to admit I’ve felt like I knew very little about photography most of the time, maybe because I was comparing myself to folks who were really good photographers. But on the Tubbs Hill hike that day I felt like I knew something important – and I did, even if more advanced photographers would think ISO was just super-basic.

Tubbs Hill Day #1 (3 of 4)

I continued on with the hike and met my “new friends” again and again; oh how fun it was back-in-the-day when I had energy.  You can see them in this photo (above) out on the point.  Unfortunately, I soon realized that the 70-200 lens I was carrying wasn’t what I needed. I needed a wide-angle lens, but since I didn’t bring my gear backpack I didn’t have one. Man, these bad decisions are pilling up.

Tubbs Hill Day #1 (4 of 4)

Later that afternoon I went out for sunset.  It was getting really windy but I got an OK shot of the sunset. I didn’t worry about the weather since the report for the next day was partly sunny.  But the next day I never saw the sun.

Tubbs Hill Day #2 (2 of 3)

The next day wasn’t partly cloudy – it was very cloudy and looked stormy. I was tempted to just take my wide angle lens but I had learned the prior day that I might need others lenses so I took my backpack and all my gear. Finally a good decision.

Tubbs Hill Day #2 (3 of 3)

But it was chilly and very windy so, guess what – I made another bad decision. The sky was dark but had detail and the shoreline had very little light. Ah-ha, I need my graduated neutral density filter to decrease the expose on the sky. But it was cold and windy and (I have to admit it) I was lazy. I didn’t put the holder for the filter on my lens and simply held the filter in front of the lens. I took a number of shots along the beautiful stormy shoreline. When I got back to the hotel room and looked at the shots in Lightroom I had mixed feelings.

What did I learn and re-learn?

Since this blog as a story about my journey, to help you with your journey, let me share what I learned:

  1. Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow – It is easy to assume that you can get “this great shot” tomorrow, but that probably never happens. I have read a hundred times that I should carry my camera with me all the time, and I usually do keep it with me in the car. But you can never be sure tomorrow will have good weather for a good photo shoot. Take the shot now and bring your camera along for all your rides.
  2. You Might Know More than You Think – My experience with the college students gave me a new confidence: it showed me that I know some valuable information and can solve more photography problems than I thought. The people I am around typically know way more than me, but many of them are professional photographers. Don’t compare yourself to others. Take time to reflect on how much you have learned and how much better your photos are today than last year or last month.
  3. Don’t Rush, Take your Time, Think about each Shot – It was cold and windy but that is no excuse for not taking a couple minutes to attach the filter holder to the lens. Sure, my hands were freezing and I needed to go back into my backpack to get the filter holder.  But the time would have improved my photos. If you want quality photos, you can’t rush the product.

But most of all, enjoy what you are doing. For some of us it is easy to be self-critical to the extent that we rarely take time to enjoy the progress we are making, to enjoy the actual products/photographs we are creating, to enjoy the environments in which we are taking the photographs, and just to enjoy life. Don’t beat yourself up. You are making progress.

Have a Wonderful Thanksgiving.

Can Gear Improve our Photos?

Time to move on to discuss what helps us improve our photography. Your last homework assignment (most of you were bad boys and girls and didn’t complete your homework) was to send me your answer to the following question: I would like for you to think about the top two pieces of equipment (cameras, lenses, tripods) that had the most impact on your photography and send me your top-2 and why they have been important to your improvement. I asked a very similar question to “the dozen” with quite similar answers.

But before I share the answers let me ask a slightly different question that was intended to be the heart of the homework assignment. If I were to promise to pay for any gear that you requested BUT you had to demonstrate to me after a month how it improved your photography, what would you choose to have me buy? AND if you couldn’t prove in one month that the gear I bought you had actually made a difference, you would have to pay me back. I might be dead- wrong but I suspect that you would be careful about how you spent my money – and theoretically your money. It seems to me that improving your photography should be why you buy new gear. Hmmmm …

I have been seriously into photography for about a year. This past year is the first time in many years that I have spent any money on photographic gear. Some of the gear has had a huge impact.   But I must admit I didn’t always think about what the impact would be before I bought the equipment. I suspect some of you didn’t think about the impact either, so let’s look at what “the dozen” said about photographic gear.

Two people said “good glass” is the most important gear to improve their photography. I know both of these photographers and I would definitely put them in the advanced category, a long way from point-and-shoot. They are highly skilled and have been involved in photography for many years. One said, “I would say good glass. I have shot many cameras and they all do well. Having good glass makes all the difference.” If you have owned many digital cameras and lenses and have taken thousands of images, you can probably see the difference. But if you are just starting to make the move from amateur to artist (remember, Emerson said “Every Artist was First an Amateur”) you probably don’t need expensive glass. So what else might help you become more artistic?

A number of people talked about how zoom lenses helped them improve their photographic skills and “eye.” Tom said, “Without a doubt, the ability to change focal lengths has made the biggest difference in transitioning from the hobbyist to the serious hobbyist.” I know Tom well and I think he certainly is moving toward being a real artist and I agree a zoom lens can have a big impact. Why would a zoom lens help improve the photo skills of an amateur more than expensive lenses?

From what I have read about composition, and what I have learned from my own photographic experience, amateur photographers often make the mistake of trying to include everything in their photos. Bryan Peterson is one of my favorite photo author/teachers. He often talks about “filling the frame” (i.e., getting closer to your subject) and removing “crying babies” (i.e., object that are distracting) to improve your composition by making the focus of your photo clear. If you want to improve the focus on your composition, a zoom lens can help you to “see” differently. I have found my zoom lenses to have a dramatic impact on the composition in my photographs.

Swabacher Uncropped (1 of 1)

Swabacher Cropped (1 of 1)

These two photos aren’t great examples of the use of a zoom lens but you’ll get the “picture” (sorry about the pun). A zoom lens helped me get closer to the subject (without getting my feet wet when it was 6 degrees).

A zoom lens also helps me get rid of the “screaming baby” on the right (the trees and brush) that are distracting to the focus on my photograph (the mountains and their reflection.) So what gear is the #1 way to spend you money to improve your photography ?

The photo gear that was listed most often by “the dozen” and those who did their homework was … the tripod. But you might be thinking, why would the tripod be important? Let me share Arnie’s comment because it truly states the true value of the tripod; “A good tripod is absolutely necessary. Not only do they reduce camera shake but more important, it slows down work flow allowing photographers to focus on details of composition.” I promise, I didn’t pay Arnie to say this but I agree 100%. Let me explain why, from my own experience, I believe a good tripod is so important to improving as a photographer.

I hate to admit this but a year ago when I went out on a photo shoot I would just fire away. I had read lots of books and gone on-line to watch many videos. But when I got out in the beauty of the mountains I just started firing away. What was I thinking? The answer is that I wasn’t thinking much at all except to assume (I guess) that the more pictures I took the more likely it was that one of them would be great. Sorry Randy, it doesn’t work that way! To improve your photography you have to think about it at the time you are taking the photographs. After a couple months of listening to great photographers from the Teton Photography Group I recognized that I need to have a good tripod AND I needed to think about what I was doing as I was doing it. I needed to think about exposure and composition and … take … my … time.

I found taking my time is more difficult that I thought it would be. But now I am absolutely addicted to my tripod. In fact, I have already upgraded my tripod to get a sturdier one. And I take my time to think about composition and exposure. I take a shot and then look at the monitor, including the histogram, to think – “Is this the shot I want?” I must admit I have not arrived … not even close. And when I get home after a shoot and look at my computer I realize I need to think more and slow down my workflow even more. I guess sometimes I think it would be nice if this photography art thing was easy … but if it was easy, every photographer would be an artist. Keep on shooting, but take your time and think about what you are doing. A tripod may be a big help.