The Photographer’s Blues

You have been taking photos enthusiastically for months, with subjects ranging from landscape to macro to long exposures and you have participated, or at least been lurking, in many online forums but all of a sudden you just don’t feel it anymore, you want to go out and take photos but can’t bring yourself to do it. You’ve just been diagnosed with a common case of the Photographer’s Blues. It happened to me last year; after years of being driven to search a variety of light conditions, new locations, new angles on old locations, being an active member of the photographic community and devouring books and magazines, I bumped into a wall. The motivation to grab my camera was completely gone and I worried if it would ever come back. As months passed and a large pile of unread photography magazines piled up on my coffee table I occasionally would look at my non-growing collection of photos in my hard drive. Something had to be done, I wasn’t going to let this “photographic depression” take over and put an end to what had been a passion since the age of six. My first step was creating a blog, if grabbing my Canons wasn’t the highest of my priorities, writing was still something I considered enjoyable and personalizing a pre-existing interface for my new WordPress blog was actually a fun task. Some of you might not be too big on writing, but a blog doesn’t need to be a collection of long essays, you can post quick thoughts or just images with a caption. At first it might be just for you and your family or close friends but as you grow a following, you will find more inspiration, motivation as well as materials since many will offer their ideas. After all, this article would have probably never been written had it not been for a fellow blogger’s complaint that she did not enjoy taking photos anymore. Besides a blog, and as a good complement to it, if you haven’t done so already, starting a website gives you exposure (no pun intended) as well as providing another outlet to your creativity. Even if you’re not computer savvy at all, starting a website today is easier than ever. Internet Providers like 1and1 or Zenfolio (check my website under Discount Offers for details) allow you to register your own domain name for a small fee and give you a selection of tools, as well as templates, to start a website in minutes. You can create pages of any kind as well as professionally looking galleries. If you have a larger budget and some HTML and CSS programming knowledge or are willing to learn them, a software like Adobe Dreamweaver will really allow you to have total control and flexibility over your creation.

Photographers are everywhere, and most of them are social people looking to learn new things or willing to share what they know. So, why not get in touch with other photographers in your community and start a club or a weekly meeting/photoshoot. Not only that’s a great way to make new friends, but everyone wins in terms of knowledge and portfolio images as well as finding a great enthusiasm booster. Starting something like that can be easily achieved with just a post on Craigslist. I was a very active member of the online community of a well known photo magazine, but ended up abandoning it because of the excessive spam (eventually everyone left). It was great times, we had weekly assignments, photo critiques and everyone had something to share. It always saddened me how the magazine management let something that great just die. Recently I created discussion forums on my own blog and I’m hoping to capture the same environment of cooperation that we had then, minus the spam. Search “create online forums” on Google and you will find enough tools to make your own. Don’t feel up to the task? Make yourself a promise to become involved in a discussion forum with at least two or three posts a week. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, those who have the answers are usually more than happy to share; we all like the feeling that comes from having helped someone.

If you can afford it, take a photography seminar or in-the-field workshop. You’ll learn from a pro and be taken to places you probably didn’t even know; and chances are you will learn functions of your camera that you didn’t even know existed or that seemed too esoteric.

I left the most exciting one for last: travel!

Get in your car, get on a plane, get on a cruise ship… just go somewhere new. I’m what you could call a professional traveler. To me traveling is a way of life. I like to see new places, explore new foods, meet new people. I can guarantee you that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive. I’ve flown to Europe for as little as $400 round trip from Los Angeles. My two weeks in Peru (and who doesn’t want to photograph Machu Picchu?) came to a total of less than $1,000 (flight included from Salt Lake City). A 4 nights cruise to Bahamas was $262 (gratuities included as well). All it takes is a bit of planning and some good price shopping skills. Go to new places and you will come home with a new collection of photos that you will be excited to share with friends and other photographers.

And if you really don’t or can’t get away from home, find the nearest forest near you and photograph trees. Get into the woods with a wide angle lens and explore its possibilities. Try to make those trees look as imposing as you can. You will like the results.

I’m writing this while sitting on the steps of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Arts. I hope my ideas make you want to grab your camera. I’ll end this article here as my right index is itching once again to press the shutter.

To Edit or Not to Edit…

Every so often in conversation with friends, in online forums or letters to magazines the topic of photo editing or retouching (those opposed will use the word “manipulation”) comes up. I want to give here my opinion on the subject. I’ll start by saying that the issue is twofold: on one side it’s merely artistic, an interpretation of what is seen and therefore completely subjective; on the other side it’s a mechanical problem.

When is much too much? There is a correlation between the two sides. I need to make one point clear: there is no such a thing as a non-retouched photograph. I know, you’re thinking… What?! This is true for both film and digital media. A digital camera is built around a sensor that interprets light. Each active pixel sensor measures the light and converts it into an electric signal, needless to say each brand works it a little differently. The electric signal has to be interpreted (by software in a computer or firmware inside the camera) and therefore the amount of data that corresponds to the image has already been “transformed” (retouched) by the camera maker or other software company.

Let’s make a true life example: you shoot an image in JPEG, you click the shutter and you get the file in the memory card. By now the firmware in the camera has already modified colors, light and discarded all unnecessary (according to programming) data as Canon, Nikon, Fuji or whoever else built the camera. So, you say: ok, I will shoot RAW then, and I’ll use the data as seen by the sensor without any action on the firmware part. Well, it’s not actually that simple. First of all, the sensor is like a human eye, but much less perfect therefore what you capture is already an interpretation of what you see (don’t believe me? Go shoot high contrast scenes and compare what you see with what you get). Second, RAW data is not an image, it needs to be converted into an image by specialized software. Now you have to load your RAW file into your favorite software (mine is Adobe Lightroom) which means the software company has decided how to interpret the data. Load a RAW file into Lightroom, Aperture, DxO Labs, etc. and you will see differences.

That’s why when someone tells me proudly: “I don’t retouch my images” my answer is usually: “In that case you’re letting someone else do it for you” – It is that simple, you can load an image into your favorite software, modify it a bit and make it look like what your eyes saw, or you can let the camera maker or software house decide how you saw it.

What about film? Well, pretty much the same story. Different emulsions produce different results and when it comes to exposing, toning, etc. every touch is personal.

I hear now and then people say “Ansel Adams would never retouch” – As a matter of fact Ansel Adams could be considered the father of modern retouching and some of my friends who had the chance to work with him assure me that he would love using Photoshop.

Here is an interesting article about the art of editing in the old days: Trick or Truth?

Discussions welcome. Remember that this is my personal view.