Sunday, January 23, 2005

I've enjoyed photography at least since I was in the 6th grade, when I took my first photography class. The curious part of me was enthralled by learning how photographs were actually made, and the part of me that likes creating things enjoyed taking the pictures and then developing and creating the prints. I enjoyed it so much, I just knew that one day I would have a dark room of my very own. (The concept of digital photography would remain unknown to me until a few years later.)

A couple of prints survived that experience (unfortunately, they were quite dirty and already deteriorating when I digitized them last year.):
Pikes Peak
Timberview Middle School Sign

I never developed any real photographic skills beyond snapshots after that. When I first got to college, I was obsessed with documenting everything in photos. I took pictures of orientation, I took pictures of me receiving my fraternity bid (staged a few minutes after the fact, of course), and I even took pictures of the first day of class. My fraternity Brothers were impressed with this enough that they voted me (and my fellow freshman Jason Wong) as the Historians, theoretically in charge of keeping a recorded history of the chapter. (They likely regretted their choice as the term progressed because our Histories just weren't that funny, which is what they traditionally were supposed to be.)

I stopped taking pictures after that term because it was just too expensive to buy the film and get it developed. At the end of college, I still had some rolls from freshman year that had been sitting around waiting for me to have some extra cash on hand to develop them. It wasn't until I got a hand-me-down digital camera during my Senior year that I finally started taking pictures again.

I did take the Strobe Lab at MIT. In this class, we took pictures that seem to stop motion using techniques devised by Doc Edgerton. Edgerton took famous strobe pictures like the one of the milk-drop crown and the bullet cutting through a playing card. We actually took pictures like these and others, and I did learn some useful camera information. However, most of the information applied most readily to strobe photography--a very particular way of taking photographs that typically relies on a very dark room, a camera shutter left open, and some technique for triggering a flash of a given length. Also, one of the guys in my group was a professional photographer, so he tended to take control, especially when it came time to develop the prints.

(Unfortunately, I lost my lab notebook, so I have no copies of the photographs that we took during the class. You can only imagine how frustrating that is. This is perhaps why I have such a love for digital and its easy backups.)

I tried at one point to take photographs for the "auspicious" MIT newspaper, The Tech. I attended a meeting, got a camera and a roll of film, and took some pictures of people in the Student Center food court. I dropped off the film, and never heard anything else from them--and the pictures never showed up. At the time, I was too apathetic about most things to pursue it any farther.

Except for these two cases, I never really focused on developing my pictures into something more than just snapshots. (Pun intended? You be the judge.) Looking back at my pictures from the time, they are interesting for the memories, but that's about it. I'd heard of the Rule of Thirds, but with a point-and-shoot camera that had no manual controls, that was about as far as I could go.

Benson and I finally bought a new camera (the Sony DCS-F828). It's not quite an SLR but it has a lot of manual controls. Unfortunately, I'm completely overwhelmed by the controls, and usually find myself just reverting to the "auto-everything" mode. The pictures come out looking a lot better than any pictures I'd taken before, but that's partly because it is a nice camera. (For indoor shots especially, having the external flash that we can bounce off the ceiling helps tremendously.)

And this is where the frustration comes in. I've spent some time lurking at DPChallenge, a web site that consists of "challenges," wherein people submit photos on a given topic and have others vote on and critique them. The quality of the pictures here run through a large range--some look highly polished and professional, and some look like snapshots. I looked through a recent contest, and it feels like my photos will fit on the lower end of this range.

Since I still do enjoy photography, I decided to go ahead and try submitting a photo for a challenge. I figured I could deal with a bruised ego, and could benefit from any tips the better photographers might offer. The topic of the challenge is "Old and New." In this challenge, we are supposed to simply take a picture that juxtaposes something old with something new.

I spent yesterday on a search for the perfect photo. I was going to drive up to San Francisco, thinking there may be some architecture shot I could get with an old church and modern building (though I'm sure there will be a lot of similar shots submitted for the challenge). On the way up, I kept looking around to see if I could find anything that would fit. I stopped by Stanford and wandered around a bit, and came across two "poles." One is a totem pole, the other is a free-standing metal column. This seemed like a nice fit for the topic, so I took a bunch of pictures from different angles.

The problem was initially that they day was too gray and I couldn't get the contrast correct (so the sky's gray would look too harsh). Later on, the sun came out--but then the totem poll was in shadows so the contrast between the two poles was too great. I also had trouble lining up the shots so that both poles were in the picture without one dominating more than the other.

The result was probably better than a snapshot that someone might have carelessly taken, but not that much better:
'The Stanford Legacy' totem pole and 'Column I' column at Stanford

I keep thinking that if I knew the camera better, I could have taken a much better shot.

The problem isn't that I have no idea what is wrong with my pictures. In this picture, there are some obvious problems. The totem pole doesn't stand out enough from the tree in the background. The asphalt in the foreground is distracting, and is lined up with the totem pole face in a funny way. The colors aren't as vibrant as they could be, and the lighting could be better.

Figuring I would continue my search for a good picture, I went from Stanford out to Half Moon Bay. I only got a single photograph--a "W" in a weathervane for the Flickr One Letter group. On the way home, I stopped by an intersection that I had noticed on the way to Stanford--the intersection of St. Francis and Embarcadero in Palo Alto. This intersection had a very old street sign, but also had a more modern (easier to use but much less elegant) sign. This would fit perfectly with the "Old and New" topic of the contest.

Once again, I took several pictures. In my mind, this was so easy to set up. But I just couldn't get in the right position to make it work:
Traffic light pole with old and new St. Francis sign

There are some things in life that I am content to "half-tushie"--things that I am not the best at but do not have the inclination to put in that much more effort to get better at them. Sure, it would be nice to be a Renaissance Man, but I think for most part it is easier to dabble in a lot of things and specialize in a few. Photography is one area that wished I excelled at--especially since it is the creative art that I have had the most opportunities to develop.

What does it say about me that I still can't take the pictures I want to take despite the two photography classes I have taken, my desire to take good pictures, and now a relatively nice camera. I'll choose to believe it means that photography is harder than it looks, and that it takes time that I just haven't invested up to this point. If that's true, then given a little more time and effort, I will finally be able to do more than just know what is wrong with a given photo, and will instead be able to actually take a picture that I'm not embarrassed to post on a site like DPChallenge.


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