Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Dark Path, A Broken Flashlight

Once upon a time I posted to this little corner of the Great Big WWW with great frequency at a time when I felt mentally disorganized and woefully incapable of straightening out my core motivators, the direction of my muse. It was a good practice, and right now, time permitting, a practice whose reinstatement would behoove me.

Let's start with what stands out to me as the event of greatest impact on my process of photography and a very likely culprit in my dilemmas of late. My copy of Photoshop "expired" and, due to monetary concerns left me tied to acquiring and learning Lightroom in its stead. Doesn't necessarily sound like an enormous switch, both programs are stellar pieces of Adobe imaging software, but let me tell you... from a guy who has spent over a decade comfortable with and familiar with layers and the nuances of digital art, not just photographic development... MOVING TO LIGHTROOM EXCLUSIVELY AFTER YEARS OF A PHOTOSHOP PROCESS HAS BEEN IMPOSSIBLY DIFFICULT. Developing RAW files as one does in Lightroom has always been simply the first step of my Photoshop process, thus leaving every image I process feeling incomplete. I am so familiar with an array of layer-based adjustments after the initial development of a RAW file that I'm not sure my images will ever again manage to bear the same tonal qualities and infallable crispness. Having a perfected decade-long process interrupted and ultimately abandoned due to software constraints is akin to a chef losing his hand. Sure, he'll be able to prepare delicious courses much as he did before, but even the subtle differences from his forceably altered process will stand out at least to him. It comes down to a time concern, time and a willingness to learn. I certainly bear both, however it has been something of a struggle much as all learning inevitably is in the beginning.

Okay, that's the biggest issue out of the way. And honestly, my First World Whining may as well stop there as I didn't zero in on any of my other "problems" until the Photoshop Fiasco, but like all changes or life events that get us even the slightest bit down, the mind tends to autopilot itself into other subtle woes just to indulge itself in some artificial misery.

I've (temporarily) lost focus on what exactly it is that motivates me to photograph. Personally, I find this quandary absolutely dumbfounding because not 2 months ago I felt I had finally narrowed in on what it was that made be genuinely thrilled to participate in the practice of photography to begin with. It's as if the personal revelation of that core muse's discovery forced it to crawl away in clandestine fashion to some new, unexplored corner of my mental triggers. Or, perhaps (and even worse), the unveiling of the muse's most basic operating structure has left me without anything left to learn, and the slow, inebriated trudging pace of my photography today is the result of the thrill, the adventure of self-discovery being no more. Or, if I were to actually stop reading so heavily into the abstract and just pay attention to the supremely logical hemisphere of the brain, maybe I've just slowed down because of weeks spent ill, recovery from surgery and family-centric holiday events bunching together and attacking my time and stress centers all at once. See, I can state that and totally believe it, that my stark decline in creative, artistic photographic efforts has simply been a result of life-outside-of-photography weighing in, but it is also a function of the brain to look at other people, their exploits and efforts, and thus when my brain sees so many good friends enjoying the season in photographic fashion it immediately assumes some greater, deeper issue is at fault and denying me the satisfaction of creative expression.

I'm not sure if I've ever said this before, but our brains really do rather suck at permitting us complacent satisfaction. That or I'm simply crazy... suppose both statements aren't exactly mutually exclusive either... hmm.

I have hit a woefully jaded peak of disinterest in urban exploration. At least UE insomuch as the infiltration of active, semi-active and guarded locations is concerned. In 2008, when a brand new and exciting genre to photograph, my enthusiasm in urbex outings couldn't have been higher. In 2010, having spent 2 years honing the craft, I felt myself moving at a brisk pace through location after location and pulling winners from the asbestos every time. In 2012 I found a troupe of like-minded photographers and dove into the practice of UE on a nigh weekly basis, culminating beautifully into such memorable nights as a derelict wine & cheese party, amazing road trip through the Borscht Belt, kayaking to abandonment, train hopping and a million witty quips and inside jokes that will honestly make this year one for the memory books. An amazing year with amazing people... and now suddenly it's back to (at least feeling like) to just me. The last location I explored with my fellow UE partners-in-crime, a location that had been off-limits for some time but once again opened up, was so brutally disappointing to see nearly a year after my last expedition to the locale I've been left with a general disdain for abandonment in general. That location had been the defining moment in my early exploring pursuits, the kind of place that propelled my motivation and served as the best subject by which to perfect artistic technique. Whatever took place in its year spent out-of-bounds left the place a hollow shell of its former self, grandeur gone runny and now a muddy stain on the carpet. It was a story many abandoned locations in the home State had undergone, and that not even my original muse could escape the doom of rampant vandalism and "urban renewal" broke the spirit of exploration down for me.

Urban exploration has effectively ceased to be exlusively defined by places alone and now depends overwhelmingly on the company kept during an explore and the ridiculous fun had on location. Much of this overbearing mental trend stems from my great appreciation of the work of Eric Tankel, a Philly explorer who, as he expressed to me, "...suck[s] at taking pictures of abandoned places so [he] just photographs people in them". His work unloads mountainous memories to me and I have no idea who the people in his photographs are. They put me in an experience, in an attitude that elicits maximum appreciation of life, and I want to brandish such a talent myself, I want to be able to share the experiences I have with dear friends on explores in such a subdued yet amazingly impactful way. It's a kind of Holy Grail... and unfortunately for me one that requires a less reclusive, people-evasive nature (something else I'd be doing myself a favor to work on).

In the near term, since the "personal life" of photography is such a mess for me at the moment, I've been steadfast and focused on more formal business elements of photography, which is a good way to at least keep my mentally centered on the skill and keep my warmed up at all times. You can't make art all the time, I suppose, but at least with the business end of things running my mind and hands through the technical motions I'll be practiced and prepared when the muse-bug bites hard. After so much time spent out of the game I'm eager to get back into the enjoyment of photography. It's all a matter of needing mental clarity to know the what, how and why. With the holiday season coming to a close, I suspect that clarity is fast approaching. It better be...

... I think booking a vacation in Philly might do the trick.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New Toys, New Business, and The Gear Quandary

What a truly exhausting, yet enthusiastic year this has been.

Yesterday, like many of us, I was busy in the thick of celebrating the holidays was various circles of friends and family. A few days earlier I attended (and somehow wound up photographing) a dear friend's wedding and immediately afterward spending time with one side of my family for their early Christmas festivities. Cruising down from 4 hours north, a friend of my better half and mine came down to spend the week with us over Christmas time in what has been a non-stop binge of movies, video games and delicious food. And yesterday, as expected, more time was spent with the remaining side of my family in an enjoyable parade of giddy kids who were surprisingly open to the idea of smiling for the camera. What a holiday!

Naturally gifts were exchanged, and en lieu of my desperate push towards legitimizing all the time I devote to photography and its practice, the assortment of gifts I received this year were very specific assets that have been like missing links, holes that needed to be filled but I've always been too stubborn to buckle down and purchase them. And, oh, are they welcome additions to my toolbox!

Long as I've been doing real estate work, I've always just managed to make certain scenes work, often situations with a large, bright window with sunlight pouring directly in it. A situation where some measure of bounce flash for help tame the exposure. And much as I love the CFL studio lights I own, there's always been the want to take the stands and lights on-location, somewhere they would ultimately end up uselessly deprived of a power outlet. I'm extremely pleased to announce that these scenarios are no longer of issue or concern, and part of what I'm going to coyly dub my "Business Gift Pack" were a pair of high-powered manual speedlights, paired with radio triggers, and a new set of sturdy, rugged light stands with speedlight mounts (with umbrella slots) and sandbags for when shooting in the field. At least, a field-able portrait kit is at my disposal, and never again will I fret at sunlight invading a room through the window.

They couldn't have come at a better time in my ongoing endeavor to establish a strong photography business. Earlier this year, in February I believe, I wrote a long, elaborate business plan as a sort of guide to determine what and how I wanted to grow as a business entity. A very sizable portion of that plan focused on portrait work, both candid and studio, as being a sort of bread-and-butter element of my efforts. As the year went on, my focus shifted much as it should be expected to over time. I had one major commercial job and for a good couple months following I was enamored with the idea of pursuing commercial work, and only in the past month or so have I really settled on the fact that pursuit of commercial work may very well be the great lost cause that ruins many a rising photographer. With that hopeless ambition out of my system, however, I'm once again back to basics, refocused on my original plan and aiming to open up my business to a new market.

Over the next month or so I plan to keep busy perfecting a process by which to handle formal, paid portrait photography work. Now, granted, my "test subjects" are all currently friends or people I otherwise know already, thus negating the spell of woe that is breaking the ice on initial meeting, however I am confident that easing into a shoot, bringing the subject to a comfortable point whereby the images just flow, is something I wouldn't find my difficulty achieving what with my experience in conversing and easing the minds of real estate clients I've met (and in some cases befriended) over the last year. Producing that kind of ease, that peace of mind, I suspect would be the most difficult aspect of any portrait shoot, so at least if I can perfect the shooting process itself to the point where it's no conscious worry on my part all real effort and focus can be directed to the subtle mind games involved in ensuring the subject is most comfortable with where they are, who they're with, what they're doing.

With the heavy hitters in lighting equipment graciously gifted to me, last night I took it upon myself to complete my kits completely with the frivolous little things missing from my camera bags. Red filters, step-up rings for lenses thus far lacking in proper filter usage (M. Zuiko 45mm f/1.8, I'm looking at you), and lens hoods and accessory port attachments for my Nikon V1. Another lovely gift I received this holiday was the Nikkor 1 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens, something that seems outside of my usual circle of appreciation for fact of it being a zoom and long telephoto, but given the nature of the V1 and the simple fact that, sometimes, you really do need a long lens, it adds an entirely new realm of capability for me, something I've not had since dropping DSLRs 3 years ago. With the crop factor in mind, this 30-110mm lens functions much more like a 70-300mm telephoto, and paired with the V1's breakneck speed (I mean, come on, 60FPS in electronic shutter mode...) photographing wildlife and sports has once again become a realistic possibility for me. And, even though it may be a zoom, the uniquely close focus distances of all Nikon 1 system lenses makes it a fantastic portrait zoom capable of producing appropriately shallow depth of field based not on aperture, but the element of DOF rendition that far too many seem to neglect, proximity. I would be lying were I to say I was not absolutely excited to try it out. Inclement weather forecasts be damned.

Admittedly, the surge to completion of my V1 kit has befuddled my mind a bit. Originally, when the V1's price finally dropped down to something I considered worth investing, my idea was that the V1 would effectively replace my point-and-shoot Olympus XZ-1 as the carry around camera of choice. Oddly, that doesn't seem to be the direction I ultimately took with the 1 system at all. Once all of the items I ordered arrive, I will have essentially a miniaturized clone of my old D40 kit that I will forever regret selling in 2009. A pair of kit zooms, 27-80mm and 80-300mm equivalents, a nifty fifty, flash gun for on-the-spot TTL metered shots indoors and a remote for if and when the camera ever finds itself on a tripod. This flies in the face of what the system was meant to be to me. I find myself experiencing the same perplexed stupor as the well known Steve Huff - "I did not expect to love this camera". Something about its brutally simple, utilitarian appearance, it's down to basics, down to business function... it is simply a fun camera to shoot. Megapixels shmegapixels, I was printing 16x20" prints just fine with my D40 just a few years ago. And with that gargantuan battery I feel completely comfortable leaving the house with one for the day and having plenty of charge on it for even a late night's worth of long exposures.

This, of course, makes my brain itch slightly when I consider how much I do still love my Olympus kit. It's difficult for me to maintain multiple camera systems as I imprint a sort of emotional value to each. When I use one overly much, part of me feels that I'm leaving the other feeling neglected, and that would absolutely describe how I feel about my poor E-P3, stuffed in a bag and only ever seeing the light of day for real estate jobs and the occasional night shoot. With the remote coming in, I fully intend to try night shooting with the V1. Miserable as I felt it was the last time I used it on a tripod, I suspect that after spending so much time with the camera and learning its nuances I'd be capable of working with it more comfortably now than before. This all, of course, solidifies my real quandary - why am I maintaining two similarly capable systems?

In the end it really does come down to the abstract of what feels right at the time. That kind of nebulous logic flies in the face of my devotedly logical, rationalizing brain, however, and so I remain in a state of constant question as to which camera really does best suit my needs at a given point. Looking at things from that logical standpoint, I can say that the V1's high ISO performance and formula car shutter speeds make it ideal for anything moving, and its image quality is not terribly apart from the E-P3's when practicing good technique. In the Olympus, court, however, the optics are far superior, and while it may not be a champion of high ISOs, it is an incredibly pleasant camera to work with when the subject matter is still, static, and the resultant image a thing of intention, not simply reaction. This of course begs the question "Then why not just get an OM-D and close the gap", to which... I am stumped. Speechless. You got me. Much as I would like to own an OM-D... I don't. And when I eventually do upgrade my MFT body... will the V1 feel kicked to the wayside next? I find myself dwelling on quotes about being spread too thin... who knew just 2 systems would polarize this much?

In the end, of course, I can at least state with confidence that, although I enjoy shooting with the V1 and do tend to carry it around and shoot with it more, the photos I'm taking are rarely of a superb artistic quality. It tends to be the camera I shoot family gatherings and social events with, not art so much as function. The E-P3, on the other hand, remains my go-to for intentioned artistic shooting and working jobs, and it will likely remain that way even once my MFT body is upgraded to the next PEN or the OM-D or whatever fits the bill. The V1 remains my little experiment, and while it may take some attention and budget away from solidifying my MFT assets, it still seems a worthwhile venture. After all, the best camera is the one you have on you all the time, and I certainly carry the V1 around far more willingly than lug around the MFT bag.

How typical... I steer away from DSLRs because they're too big and heavy, and sure enough I'm starting to treat MFT the same way because there's a new champion of tiny sensor goodness in the ring. My logic centers are an absolute mess!

Monday, December 17, 2012

On Losing Steam (and getting it back again)

After months and months of putting prose into practice, of applying myself and dwelling less on the informal application of theory and thought in my craft, I return to this blog with one assured sentiment - I finally know where I'm going.

Now, with that statement made, let's work on making it less nebulous.

Some time in August I hit a curiously low point brought on by self-imposed, manufactured stress in regard to the effort required to promote my brand. So overwhelming was this stress that it brought on a recession from the marketing binge I'd engaged in prior. Seeing little result from what felt to be gargantuan efforts, I became disheartened, retreated from the legions of desperate upstarts trying to establish a strong name for themselves and acquire new business. Those efforts had only ever resulted in but a single commercial shooting arrangement in my court, and the headache of Web 2.0 quickly lost its allure. Coinciding with my deflated enthusiasm, the company for whom I often photographed property listings had hired another photographer who seemingly devoured the majority of my shooting gigs.

My optimism tested, all that was left was to submerge myself into a forray of personal adventures. Artistic shoots. And I absolutely appreciate their effect, as I've never felt more aware of my baser motivations.

In September I spent much of time photographing a local steel mill that had gone the route of much of America's once proud steel industry. I was inspired by the work of Edward Burtynsky, whose work I'd seen documented in the film Manufactured Landscapes. His years-long series of photos covering the scars in the Earth left by modern industry and strip mining efforts struck me as notably poignant, even definitive of what I found myself trying to express in much of my urbex photography. Until seeing another's work, the creative fruits of a well established photographer, I never quite understood what it was that I was attempting to express myself, but understanding Burtynsky's theme, his direction, and how he defined it before ever engaging in the photographic process... it made me rethink my own approach to photography. My work had always been documentarian at best, with little point outside of what was in the frame to be seen. Suddenly I found myself wanting something more from my own photos. Documenting a rarely seen place was no longer enough, it needed something personal.

But I didn't know what. And for a good while I had no idea what it was that I craved out of my own images. I continued working like some automoton photographing places in a formulaic corner-to-corner approach much as I'd photographed everything up to that point. A good friend and I went on a week long road trip through the greater Northeast region of the States and despite firing off many hundreds of frames not a single one spoke to me. They were all the most boring photographs I had ever taken. But the experience of being in the places in which they were taken was so rich. A bridge needed to be built, some pathway by which to correct the awful disconnect.

I suppose it had clicked before, but it took time for me to dedicate myself to putting it to practice (and admittedly I'm still working to apply it to my shooting more earnestly). It was people. The people I was with, the ones I was sharing experiences with. It was never the places themselves that bore the bulk of the memories, it had always been the conversations and the antics and time shared with unique and wonderful people. When shooting on my own, for fun in this sort of manner, the photos that mattered had always been the ones that featured those with whom I was shooting. So foolish that it took so long for me to recognize.

Despite seeming so obvious and simple now, that was a huge epiphany to me in September. It took a good amount of time shooting with my "Bro from Philly" for me to recognize it. It was a concept that had occured to him long ago already, so I more or less felt like I was playing conceptual catch-up with him. As a result, I found myself shooting less, but the crop from personal photo outings being that much richer in end product. Finally it all clicked (pardon the pun), and I spent far more time enjoying my friends' company on urbex adventures than wasting my time hunting behind a lens.

Oddly (or perhaps not), the establishment of my realigned focus on the people, not the places, coincided with a lessened interest in urban exploration per se, but certainly not a diminished interest in being in rarely seen or unique places in the company of those with whom I most connected. While still embarking on the occassional urbex run, the state of decay and abandon of the locale became less interesting to me than the simple uniqueness of the place and the quality of the people. Instead of sneaking into mills and hospitals, I relaxed on 500 foot high cliffs until the stars populated the night sky away from civilization. I made bonfires on beaches sandwiched between Baltimore's finest in industrial assemblage. I spent nights under bridges and recounted life's trials and tribulations on long walks down train tracks. I watched people wander like ants from rooftops for hours. All moments I did my best to capture with the perpetrators in context. People. Not just places.

That missing satisfaction from my personal photographic pursuits realized and addressed, I once again felt in a proper place of mind to return to the business-centric approach to photography that defined the first half of my year. Not because my personal shooting was in any way affecting my business approach to photography, but after having exhausted myself with marketing and promotion, the peace and order I'd come to with my personal endeavors came with a fresh surge of motivation, ambition. Like having one's finances in order, a sense of clarity and control returned. And almost too coincidentally, the company I was contracted to for real estate photography conducted an audit of its photography division, culling its photographer roster by a significant amount... but deeming my work and my methods of conducting business worth keeping. A more reassuring indicator that my business sense is sound... nope, can't think of one.

Once again recomposed, I know what directions I wish to head in. They are somewhat divisive in that they both require different approaches, but neither approach wholly excludes the other. But honestly, my problems being squarely centered in the "what gear should I invest in next" department is reassuring in its own right - my methods are competent and in many ways superior as evidenced by my retention at the hands of bloodthirsty auditors. What I have established now is just fine, and while equipment acquisition can make my job easier they won't bring anything particularly new to the table that my method doesn't already provide. My new business focus is more appropriately focused on expanding to new markets.

In the beginning of the year I wrote a business plan that largely focused on portrait photography as a platform on which to expand. To date I have done absolutely nothing to establish myself in the portrait photography market. It exists, I've seen it put to practice by many local photographers, but they apply their craft in different ways than I intend to implement mine. It's like a trump card, or maybe an Ace up the sleeve. I only need to apply myself to it. Unlike my real estate work, there is no larger company feeding me clientelle. But I suspect that I'm already well known enough to where finding eager clients for portrait work wouldn't be difficult. Establishing that new market for business is my goal for 2013. And I've never been more ready to take it.