Monday, February 22, 2016

Con Culture

Attended MAGFest this past weekend with Rob, Kevin, and a gaggle of friends and acquaintances, from old to new. It was certainly an experience. While I've attended many Furry themed conventions over the last 7 years, oddly I'd yet to attend... well, one that wasn't strictly for Furries (call it weird, but the art and creativity centric vibe of furry cons is ideal for me).

The Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest) is, as the name indicates, a convention for gamers. Gamer as a label applies to a remarkably wide gamut of people, but this event in particular seemed mostly directed at the Indie scene of videogames, with an entire section of the convention space dedicated to Indie game developers, lots of retro arcade cabinets, and even merchandise clearly targeting the niche retro and indie gaming crowds (think Mario Bros and Pokemon plushies and Starfox t-shirts). It was actually a refreshing culture of gamers, being away from the more aggressive shoot-everyone-and-call-your-mom-a-whore, much more casual enjoyment and an overall desire for group enjoyment instead of individual praise (which was also nice because, although competitions were being run, the typical competitive atmosphere was not there and everyone just enjoyed playing games).

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depends on who you are), the biggest difference between this gaming convention and furry conventions comes down to population. MAGFest was huge, probably in the ballpark of 25,000 people attending, and while I can be a social creature a crowd of that magnitude is difficult to make sense of and approach, so I spent a good bit of my time retreating to the hotel balcony or wandering out to the waterfront to disconnect from social suffocation. Morning and early afternoon hours weren't so bad, but late evenings right up to 2AM, 3AM, even 4AM and beyond, proved a stress factory. As is typical to convention culture, late hours are party hours, but I am a self-labeled Old Man and can deal with maybe one night of partying a month, not 4 days with 25K+ partiers in tow... nope. Nope nope nope nope nope.

But, despite the perpetual party I lacked stamina for, nobody was a jerk or malicious or destructive, so it was still an overall positive experience!

I didn't take too many photos. Alas, the cosplay was neat and many times well done, but despite my enjoyment of furries, cosplay outside that sub genre doesn't much appeal to me. Instead of being a photographically liberating experience, it became the Convention of People Watching.

The hotel itself, the Gaylord National Harbor, was incredibly in its own right. A self-contained atrium with a tiny village-like setup in the center, I'd never seen anything like it before. Definitely glad for the balcony view. Even at my most antisocial, I never felt depressed about wasting my time watching the crowds from this perch over the weekend. Admittedly, I do wish I'd set the tripod up more than once to photograph this interior, the variation in lighting was fantastic.

Made a fun friend with an incidental encounter with Crescent, a Crux character I've seen at furry conventions many times before. Actually talked with him this time, though, which was great engagement. Not to mention he and his friends were extremely fun and outgoing for photos (probably the highlight of my convention photography for the weekend).

I learned quick shooting these guys the appeal of the E-P5 with the 7-14mm f/2.8. It seemed like an unwieldy combination at first that I only dealt with to keep the 42.5mm f/1.2 mounted on the E-M1, but frequently I found myself eschewing the E-M1 entirely to hold the E-P5 up high, fixed around 9mm focal length and focusing right in on the center. Extremely easy fire-and-forget setup, just flip the screen to angle downward and hold the camera up high for some fun drama in a candid snapshot.

I tried to photograph a couple cosplayers in the mix, running off the energy from hanging out with the furries for a bit. Fun stuff, but it was still more interesting to experience first hand than to try and photograph. Probably an issue with my brain, but I have a hard time suspending disbelief with known characters. Still, really fun stuff to see in person, especially when augmented by top notch play acting.

Friday night's DJ Battle set was pretty incredible. Never listened to anything by any of the artists there, despite all of them being huge artists in the gaming culture scene. Most of the music played ended up being remixes of Undertale music, which was surprisingly fantastic mixed into electronica. Far more danceable than I expected it to be. Not to mention the stage lighting was awesome and audio configuration top notch (been to many shows where audio levels were poorly set and trashed what could've been great music).

My mistake with the concert venue was not packing the 40-150mm f/2.8 instead of the 42.5mm f/1.2. Kevin was nailing some great stage shots with his 70-200 f/4 which is basically the same focal range on his Canon Rebel. I'm content with having simply enjoyed the music, though. Were I less agoraphobic at the time I would have immediately run into the mob and done wide shots in the mix, but my headspace wasn't particularly good for large swaths of the convention (social anxiety is a new and very weird thing I've been grappling with).

But it was a good time. Very different from my past experiences of convention culture, and while I have all intentions of doing it again, my approach will be significantly different next time around. Another part of the journey through conventions is learning where you fall, what appeals to you, and where you want to go in the convention experience. This weekend was basically a really difficult tutorial. Many thanks to Kevin specifically for dragging my butt out to it!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sometimes the practitioners of photography are more interesting than photographs

A series of Instagram posts of photos snapped during the weekend's aforementioned Loch Raven Reservoir hike. Still a fan of the modern advent of quick photo sharing with rapid, but generally competent edits. Knock mechanisms of social media as you will, if the immediacy keeps you inspired then it's foolish to denigrate the engine of your inspiration.

It also helps to have generally attractive friends, even when they insist on hiding behind big zoom lenses.

Forgot just how much I love portraiture

Shot on the Olympus E-P5 and 17mm f/1.8, 1/250" at ISO 200.

This weekend some good friends and I got together for a random hike-and-dine around the Loch Raven Reservoir area just north of Baltimore City. I'd been up that way once before for a real estate job, and since then had a curiosity about its potential as a new hiking spot to add to the list. Despite rapidly disappearing since last week's blizzard, snow still blanketed the landscape, but even wet, snow filled shoes aren't that bad when it's 50 degrees outside.

Ultimately the landscape was flat and dead and boring, but it was still nice to get out for a little hike with a sizeable group (and introduce as of yet unintroduced circles of friends to each other). I had tons of fun photographing my friends as they brandished their cameras, though, which reminded me of the muse I sort of left behind back in 2012. People photography is kind of awesome, and portraits taken candidly during a hike have always appealed more to me than any landscape (even if those "dreamscapes" with the 10-stop ND filter are pretty fun to capture).

Back in 2012 and up through some of 2013, while I was still in the thick of urban exploration on the regular, there was a point I stopped caring about the buildings and more aimed to capture the experience of exploring with candid faces. The same muse bled into hiking as it was all effectively the same thing. I think I just liked capturing the subtleties of other people's' curiosity.

It's a fun aesthetic that I miss. And inevitably it is elusive to me now because I'm not adventuring as much nor in the same ways I used to. Most of my work today is safe, crosses no boundaries to speak of, and doesn't imply even an inkling of risk. It's a problem. There's remarkably little value to be squeezed from the stones of the tried, the true, the done-before. My career as a working photographer did not get the kickstart it did because someone noticed all those pictures of pleasant parks and convention snapshots.

That said, there's also remarkably little adventuring left to be had locally. But that's okay. Plans are in motion to venture up to a friend's place in Pennsylvania and ideally we'll seek out the shoddy remnants of a defunct Pennsyltuckey and discover something otherwise missing in our creative lives. Gentrification and newfound money never make their way to the lost mining towns of Old Appalachia.