Even though it is not yet even close to spring here in Alberta, we’ve been lulled into hoping that spring is just around the corner by recent warm, dry temperatures. Here is an image made last year in April west of Cochrane; I suppose we’ll just have to wait a little longer to photograph the fuzzy heads of crocus, but I was a little nostalgic so I decided to post an image ‘out of season’.
Speaking of ‘seasons’, I was reminded not too long ago of that 1960s song made famous by The Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn” which put to music scripture from the Bible: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” What got me humming a tune with roots dating back to King Solomon’s time? Well, a music concert, actually. In January, Darwin and I saw Jim Cuddy and his band play at the Eric Harvie Theatre in Banff. It was a terrific show with Cuddy in fine form rockin’ the packed (and cramped) hall.
The only aggravating part to the event was the number of people who had their smartphones out either taking pictures or recording parts of the concert. I’m probably an old curmudgeon (and one of the last remaining dinosaurs without a cell phone let alone a smartphone–yes, it’s true!), but the practice struck me as distracting and rude. I’m going to outline three reasons why I think we should realize when to put the cameras and phones away, and I want to hear from the oopoomoo community on what you guys think about all this.
It Interferes with the Performers’ Performance
At the beginning of the show, we were asked to turn off our phones and that recording the performance was not allowed. People must not speak English very well as this request was promptly ignored as soon as Cuddy smiled his way onstage. And it’s not just the ‘young people’ who are to blame! Cuddy attracts a primarily middle-aged crowd judging by the greying pates and carefully re-constructed coiffures of those seated around me. So none of this Generation X vs. Generation Y stuff. It was Uncle Bill in urban jacket and cowboy boots who was constantly tapping on his damn digital device this time. It wouldn’t be so bad for the performers if people would turn the flash off on their cameras and phones. Alas, it appears that this is very difficult thing to figure out how to do. Once the first flash blasts the backs of the heads of the row immediately in front, and the owner abashedly and hurriedly squirrels the device back into pocket or purse, it is almost as if a certain mentality grows…if she can do it, why not me! Poor Jim; hopefully he was blinded by the stage lights and not put off too much by the flash of phones and cameras winking in the dark.
In Interferes with Your Neighbours’ Enjoyment
That would be me, the grumpy lady flashing nasty, withering looks to the back of your head. See, before devices had such nice, bright LCDs (the better with which to light up a concert hall, my dear!), the occasional flash probably wasn’t such a big deal for the audience’s enjoyment of a concert. But when you are trying to watch a live performance over a sea of floating glaring, white screens, well, it’s hard to concentrate, is all. All that shuffling and dithering with the devices is quite distracting. If you are guilty of trying to photograph or record anything except your child’s first kindergarten concert, then yes, I am here to tell you that the bright light of your phone lights up not only your face and lap but shoots white rays into my eyeballs as well. Put it away.
It Interferes with Your Enjoyment
Don’t believe me? Some say that the human mind (contrary to what we all secretly believe) is only capable of giving real attention to one thing at a time. Maybe two, if you are a mother. Hence Alberta’s Distracted Driving Law. We just don’t multi-task very well. So, when you are busily trying to stuff a 3-D, live performance into your three-inch monitor “for later”, you are obviously not much in the present moment enjoying the very thing you paid good money to come see — Jim Cuddy, live in Banff. And that’s a shame. I have my theories on why we feel compelled to do this, from a growing inability to take in the world in bytes longer than a tv commercial to our strong desire to ‘contain’ and share an experience even if by attempting to do so we ruin our ability to fully take in the actual experience itself.
One More Thing
Now, I don’t want to come across as a Luddite incapable of understanding and appreciating the wonders of modern technology, and I also am not driving at the tired debate of what is a polite vs. impolite use of digital devices in society (It’d better be an emergency when you answer your cell phone during dinner with me, though!). So I’m going to situate this within a larger context and one that I see as a teacher of the art of photography. A good photographer makes images; a great photographer knows when NOT to make an image. We all need time to replenish our creative batteries. Shooters who are constantly photographing experience burnout just as overworked doctors, teachers or any person stressed with the task of repeatedly trying to do something well. And that time is, essentially, ‘downtime’. It is time spent reading a great book, playing with your kids or engaging in an actual conversation. It is time spent listening to a great Canadian musician play live in concert. So my final reason why there is a season to taking pictures, and a time to put the device away, is that — ironically, it’s going to make you a better person.
Okay, oopoomoo community, what do you think!
Most Canadians long to escape the icy claws of winter and head south for sand, sea and umbrella drinks. In fact, book publishers used to tell me that they never allowed more than 10% of a picture book of Canada to be images of winter because, if they did, book sales would plummet. It seems like Canadians simply do not want to be reminded of winter. I used to be the same; I would retire to the fireplace and put my camera into a deep winter sleep. But no more! Over the last seven years, I have actively plunged into the icy cool hues of winter and have created some of my most memorable and rewarding imagery.
The infamous ice bubbles of Abraham Lake in blue monochrome.
‘Tis the season of self-improvement, and what better way to improve oneself than setting a creative goal like becoming a better photographer! But ‘better photographer’ is pretty vague, isn’t it? Sometimes it helps to come at these kinds of things sideways. We often advise our students to try a project for a set period of time if they feel like their photography is in a rut. The project should be as detailed as possible, with a finite time and a measurable goal. You also want your project to be realistic so that it is achievable. Many shooters were inspired by the ‘Daily Snap’ project Darwin took on at his old blog in 2010 but photographing every day may not be realistic for all of us. A good project that is very effective but a bit less time-intensive might be to choose a nearby location and visit this spot once a week for several months, making images at different times of day, in various weather and when you are in different moods. This kind of a project helps you learn to see by challenging you to find something worth photographing even after you become familiar with (and often desensitized to) a location. It also improves your self-awareness of what motivates you to click the shutter and how your state of mind influences your photography. By keeping your images, you’ll have a ‘photographic record’ of your evolution through the project…and maybe even an image or two that you are proud of taking and that is worth sharing.
How do you continue to develop your artistic skill as a photographer?
Photography asks us to make too many decisions. What aperture should we use, what lens, what camera, what ISO, what filter, what angle of view etc. etc. All of these choices can become confining! We often need constraints to keep us creative. That is why we love to reduce our choices. When we do, we seem to make better art.
A common way that we make it easier to be creative is to leave most of our camera gear behind. Often we’ll just take one camera with one lens. Even more restricting but liberating is restricting yourself by only using a prime focal length lens like a 50mm or a 24mm. Reducing choices forces you to use your tools more creatively. The more creative you are, the better your art.
One of the cameras we love the most is the Holga. A Holga is a plastic camera that uses medium format film (remember film?). It has only two exposure settings (sunny or shade), two shutters speeds (1/60th of a second or bulb), and four focus settings (infinity, group, couple or portrait). The camera forces you to really see by limiting your technical choices. Once past the hurdles of technique we are free to really ‘see’!
If you don’t like film, then a point-n-shoot digital camera or even a smart phone camera can also very liberating. It seems that when we put away the ‘serious’ cameras and bring out the ‘play’ cameras that we immediately get creative simply because we put less pressure on ourselves to perform. Point-n-shoots free you to try things, experiment and just be silly. Surprisingly the results are often more refreshing than anything our big expensive, menu-driven top-end cameras give us. So… be brave, reduce your choices and free your creativity.
The two most common excuses I hear for a weak portfolio of nature photos is that the photographer doesn’t own the ‘best gear’ and that the photographer lives far away from any area of scenic beauty. Neither of these excuses is valid. I know of many photographers using old or inexpensive cameras, and living in less than inspiring locales that consistently create wonderful nature photos close to home. In the end, photography is about seeing the potential of your surroundings. You don’t need to go to exotic destinations or visit a national park to get great nature photos. The next great image is as close as your backyard.
Give Yourself an Assignment
At least once a month I give myself a photographic assignment to stretch my ability to see. For example, most people have houseplants or flower bouquets in their home. I will book off a morning and just roam around my house with my camera and tripod and try to create interesting photos of the flowers and plants. This exercise forces me to see the light in my house and to recognize the beauty of my familiar surroundings. Often I find things beyond the plants that turn into photographic gems such as raindrops or frost on a window, a ladybug in the leaves, or a cobweb in a corner (what a great excuse to avoid house cleaning, eh?). The point is simple, give yourself time to really look at your surroundings and you will find images that are powerful and evocative.
A lot of nature photographers shut off their shooting eyes when they are on home turf and often turn to mindless entertainment (e.g. TV, the internet, or video games) to unwind after a day at work.