Truthfully, I thought more about motion pictures growing up.
I grew up in the sweet spot of Star Wars and Spielberg, and into the first generation with ready access to portable camcorders. I even appeared in front of a Super 8 camera a few times before the first whispers of the impending digital revolution revealed themselves. While my classmates grew up listening to the latest music on the radio, I’d put on a John Williams or Danny Elfman score and write or just close my eyes and imagine the worlds I’d one day capture on celluloid.
My brother, cousins and I stood behind and in front of the bulky VHS camcorders at every opportunity, and my cousin Mike knew how to edit the VHS tapes and add a soundtrack under the action, long before computers simplified the process. During my senior year I shot a parody of Power Rangers for one of my classes, and the other students were amazed by the music and stop motion animation that brought the cheesy action to life.
Still photography? Like a lot of kids, I had a few cameras growing up. I remember getting a Fisher Price camera that took 110 film at an early age, and later graduated to an inexpensive 35mm. I took disposable cameras on trips to visit my mother in Atlanta but found the blurry, out of focus images discouraging. My dad owned a far nicer camera that produced better results, but I never felt any drive to learn it. I wanted to be a filmmaker.
I eventually moved west to California, and believe it or not, I found a job in the entertainment industry! Sure, that job might’ve been at a small movie theater in Orange County, but I’m still going to count it.
Even then, I had aspirations for a career in film. My boss at the theater encouraged me to return to school, and to my surprise I excelled. I started to take film and television production courses. This happened right around the time the Mini DV format had been introduced, and after playing with one of those cameras for a class project, I decided to invest in one of my own. I took my tax return and bought a Pansonic DV351, a camera that boasted many of the features I’d need to pursue my own film projects.
It also had the ability to take digital still and store them on a memory card. At the time, I thought little of it.
I shot footage at a few events, and even put together a silly parody film for a movie theater promotion. But after being dissatisfied with the results of the ubiquitous disposable cameras, I realized the superior focusing system on my camcorder might make for better photos. I took shots for promotions and eventually started hauling the camera almost everywhere, taking both video and stills on our adventures. I even tried a few more artistic shots, the best an image 640 pixels by 480 pixels could produce.
My future wife and I eventually made our way back to Oklahoma, and everything changed. My wife’s grandfather offered to send us a digital camera he was no longer using, right about the time we decided to visit the Oklahoma City Zoo for the first time since I’d been there as a child. The camera in question was a Sony Cybershot, a slightly more advanced point and shoot but still light years ahead of the camcorder’s still capabilities. The images we got back looked better than the camcorder’s, and my wife pointed to one particular shot of zebras I took.
“This looks like it could be out of a nature magazine or something.”
I’ve not been able to find the shot in question since, it was several cameras and several computers ago. I can’t imagine either of us would feel as strongly about the picture now. But it created a spark. On a subsequent trip to the zoo with our niece, we stopped by a late, not quite so lamented Circuit City. I picked up a Fuji megazoom camera, the first in a long line of upgrades.
I’d become a photographer.
I’ve had five other cameras since that fateful day with the Fuji, not counting cell phones and tablets. I fell into the Nikon system by pure chance, when the local Target put a D5000 on clearance and I leapt at the chance to upgrade to a DSLR. Right now, my main rig is a Nikon D7100, with a Panasonic GF3 mirrorless as a backup/travel camera. I’d tell you more about the lenses, accessories and assorted gizmos and do-dads, but the second part isn’t about gear. It’s about the realization that hit me as I reviewed my old photo galleries and debated what to post with this blog. I noticed something striking as I reviewed the older work.
Technologically, my Nikon and Panasonic cameras are light years ahead of my beloved DV351, and you can see the upgrade in the quality of glass and sensors with each new camera. But I also noticed that, over time, I started to take less chances in my work. I’m not embarrassed by the work I’ve done lately, far from it! But I can’t help but notice that I played a lot more with the Fuji camera in particular that I’ve tried to with the newer gear.
There’s an undeniable sameness to some of the images. Some of that can’t be avoided. As you can tell with one quick glance at my galleries, I love red pandas. The enclosure’s design doesn’t offer a lot of sight lines, and I can’t resist the temptation to snap off a few pictures(or a hundred) when I visit the zoo. But I tend to rely on the full zoom on my telephoto lens, and I’ve not tried to do much variation with composition. I don’t play with the aperture much.
Meanwhile, I’d throw filters onto that old Fuji camera, switch to black and white, try different shooting angles… you name it, I subjected that poor thing to it. A lot of the pictures turned out pretty bad, but a few produced some interesting images. I played with the Fuji with all the self restraint of a five year old in a sandbox.
I’m not sure I’m an artist yet. Not really. There’s a little bit of luck involved with some of my best shots. I’ve been told by a lot of other photographers that I’ve got a good eye, but there are days the photos turns out so rotten I think I’m using the wrong one. Maybe there’s an instinctual knack, but one drawback to to being almost completely self taught behind the lens is that there are elements of photography that I don’t quite understand. There’s only so much you can learn from books and online tutorials. At some point, it helps to have a real person telling you the strengths and weaknesses and how to improve.
On a whim, I searched for photography podcasts just a few weeks ago, and I came across the absolute fantastic Wildlife Photography Podcast by Gerry van der Walt of Wildeye. I honestly think I’ve learned more listening to those podcasts than I did in any book I’ve ever purchased(it doesn’t hurt that Gerry’s photographs are incredible, either). They both encouraged me to keep evolving and find my artistic voice, while also being honest and critical about my own work. It also gave me something to add to my bucket list of photographic goals… I will go on a safari with them one day.
But at the moment, I want to learn and grow as a photographer. And I think the first step is giving yourself permission to fail. On my last zoo trip, I changed a few settings on my camera and in many of the shots the ISO was too high and the noise ruined some potentially nice shots. Before I would’ve been angry over losing the shots and left the camera locked away for a while. But I took some chances and learned a lot in the process. And I’ve kept taking pictures ever since, of everything from pets and wildlife around our house to drink bottles in the break room at work.
Going forward, I’m going to try and write weekly about my photography. I don’t know that I’m at a point where I can be a good teacher, but I hope I can learn from my mistakes. Maybe others can too. But by setting a commitment to both my writing and photography, I hope to keep moving them forward.
I’m also going to, starting on Saturday, start a Photo a Day project. While I’ve done these in the past, I don’t think I fully understood the purpose. If I can find art and beauty in my every day mundane life, then that will only serve to help me even more when I start taking photos of more interesting subjects. I’ll be posting those on my Facebook site daily, and sharing a gallery of the previous week’s work here, along with whatever subject or subjects come to mind. I’ve also set up an actual photographic portfolio, which I admit is also a work in progress.
I don’t know how many people will ultimately be reading this, but I hope you’ll join me for the journey in whatever way you see fit, and hopefully keep me honest with maintaining the commitment. I also don’t know where this photographic journey will take me, but I think it’ll be interesting to find out together.
I’ve got a zoo trip planned for this Sunday, hip and back willing, so next Friday I’ll probably share a trip report and maybe a few thoughts and lessons I’ve learned from shooting at the zoo. Hope to see you then!
And as a parting “gift” for anyone who made it this far, here’s a gallery of old photos from the various cameras I’ve worked with.