Evolution of a Shutterbug

Posted Apr 20, 2006
Last Updated Nov 9, 2011

My first taste of photography was as a teenager visiting family in North Dakota. My dad let me use his ancient 35mm camera whose make and model are now lost to my memory. I used a handheld light meter to gauge proper settings like the real photographers did in the old days… and I was rather happy with my results. Most of those photos came out pretty nicely. But I failed getting a glorious sunset from a remote mountain.

It wasn’t until I was fresh out of high school that I got the itch to become a shutterbug. For reasons I cannot pinpoint anymore, I decided to spend a thousand dollars on a Canon Rebel X, a 75-300mm zoom lens and some other equipment. Some of my journal entries at the time say I was thinking about becoming a wildlife photographer. Watch out Marty Stouffer!

The Rebel was a nice camera for a beginner. I learned all about aperture and shutter speed with that camera. When I was new to photography, I once used an entire roll of film on a male mosquito trapped in my windowpane—I over- and under-exposed the shots to guarantee that I would get the right shot. They all turned out poorly.

The Rebel X did not come with a built-in flash. With only a zoom lens and a maximum aperture of 4-5.6 I was forced to learn about the value of light in a shot. The aperture is the hole through which all light reaches your camera—and the wider the hole, the lighter your shot. An aperture of 5.6 is not very wide for 300mm shots, especially if you are in a dark environment. So I used my tripod a lot in the early days—because on a tripod I could let the camera set long enough so extra light hit the film; my early photos have a lot of clear backgrounds and smeared faced of family members who did not understand the meaning of "sit still”.

Becoming more serious about photography, I got my hands on the Rebel XS camera which was the same as the older one but had a built-in flash. I assumed that the built-in flash would solve all of my problems… but that was not to be the case. The entity known as Red Eye entered my world, and I soon found evidence that most of my formerly blurry family was actually a demonically possessed family—how else could I explain the red eyes?

Of course, I learned that Red Eye was the result of light bouncing straight back to a camera from the reflective backside of the human eye. Eventually I learned about external flashes and bouncing light around a room to get rid of that phenomenon.

One thing that became obvious in those early years of photography—I spent a lot more money than I made on it. In fact, I cannot be certain if I made any money on it.

Hoping to change things around, I got my hands on a Bessler color enlarger and built a darkroom. I made that decision because all the pros, teachers and art-critics that swayed my decisions at the time insisted that taking a photo was only the first half of photography—that the real art came in the darkroom. Well I usually tend to agree with experts (like myself) but I feel safe in saying that they were not exactly right—the darkroom was expensive and much less exciting than shooting. Moreover, creativity was certainly part of the developing process, but very limited; I would have been far wiser to purchase a personal computer and graphic software than the darkroom (which I did by selling all darkroom equipment and using the money to buy CorelDRAW 8, which came bundled with photo-editing software).

Still, money was going into this venture, but none was coming out. For a young father, this was not exactly a good thing. Wildlife photography became more of a dream than anything concrete—I could find few animals in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. When I did find them, new obstacles appeared: low light in forest created dark or blurry images; branches and intervening forest leaves confused autofocus and turned bright birds into bright blurs; interesting insects were impossible to shoot because the lens I had required me to stand several feet back to focus; even at 300mm animals further than a couple dozen yards would be too small in the frame to be impressive.

I never lost interest, but I did loose enthusiasm. My cameras started sitting on shelves for weeks at a time. The dream of working for National Geographic was dying. I had to get a "real” job and turn photography into a hobby. And that is what happened for a few years.

But I had a lucky break for a high school drop-out. A local chain of newspapers hired me as a freelance journalist. Part of my job description was to photograph various public events.

So the cameras came back into my daily life.

I learned a lot during my years at the Columbus Messenger Newspapers. But it was not in the form of helpful lessons from anyone. In fact, in all my years of photography, I never had a moment of formal training. The first step into photographic accomplishment was simply opportunity. Before I worked as a photojournalist, I did not have the funds to shoot and experiment. But working at a newspaper gave me essentially unlimited resources—I could shoot several rolls of film a week and, instead of paying for it, I got paid to do it.

Framing shots and capturing a moment started creeping into my mind. (The more dramatic the moment, and the better framed, the more likely I would appear on the front page.) And for the first time I started tilting the camera on occasion to try and create a perspective that affected the shot. Low wide shots crept into my repertoire.

Where a newspaper gave me an opportunity to shoot virtually unlimited amounts of film in a wide array of settings, there was another stage in my development as a photographer that helped me finally mature in the field: digital photography.

My first digital camera was a 2 megapixel Kodak DC3400 point-and-shoot camera. I acquired that camera while still working for a newspaper. And while I used it on assignments almost immediately, I still used my film SLR for the most part. Using a point-and-shoot camera in a public setting is a little embarrassing—you automatically look at a point-and-shoot and think "amateur”. Despite the stigma, I used the camera enough to start using it almost exclusively for portraits and other situations that did not have a crowd to see me shoot; the camera opened up new vistas in my work—as I began to shoot for personal ends more than simply work.

That Kodak served me for almost a year before I replaced it with a SLR-like digital Minolta Dimage 7 that boasted many advanced photographic tools, including "fairly” easy manual controls and over 5 megapixels of resolution.

The day I bought the Dimage 7 was the last day I ever used my film cameras.

Digital photography was still a "dirty trade” in the photography field when I was getting into it. While most large newspapers had already moved to digital cameras for expediency and long-term budgets, individual portrait studios and small newspapers still had a disdain for them.

One of my former editors once told me, "It’s not the equipment that makes a photographer, it’s the photographer’s own skill.” His advice was only partly true; only an eccentric is going to use 100-year old cameras today, and I don’t see many photojournalists running around with Polaroid cameras. Owning a nice camera will not make you a photographer—but all good photographers are going to migrate to better equipment as soon as they can afford it.

For a long time, older photographers resisted digital cameras because they felt that the quality was not the same. Once the quality started catching up, other rationalizations arose to withstand the movement to digital cameras; one I heard often, even from college photography teachers (and their students), was that most of the art in photography happens in the darkroom. I pointed to digital software such as Photoshop and PHOTO-PAINT, but they only scoffed and said that photo software was for amateurs.

From the very beginning of the debate, I have never understood the resistance—especially from teachers and students. I don’t see any fundamental difference between burning an image under an enlarger lamp or on a monitor. The only significant difference is the amount of time that has to be used for the effect.

It has been only a few years, and that sentiment has already shifted. Photo studios are all moving to digital cameras simply to stay alive; while expensive up front, digital cameras cut the cost of photography to a fraction of the film cost. With the Internet and personal computer turning into an extension of everyday life, the digital camera will only continue to supplant film photography, whether the traditional photography camp likes it or not.

In terms of my development as a photographer, the digital camera finalized my technical education about cameras. By showing me results immediately, my digital cameras showed me how every adjustment affected a shot a moment after I took it. This meant that I could see what aperture did to lighting and depth in an intimate matter; shutter speed was no longer a guess—if it was too slow I could see the blur right away. And thus I started to feel the interaction of aperture and shutter speed. With film, all settings are long forgotten by the time the pictures are developed.

With the freedom of digital photography, I did succumb to one drawback: the volume of photos builds up fast. It is easy, when you are unleashed from the financial restraints on how much film you can develop, to shoot rapidly and indiscriminately. A hundred photos of film a week turned into a thousand shots a week; the thousand sometimes turned into five thousand. Going through so many to find your best shot can turn into a massively time-consuming chore, especially when you do a lazy job at sorting and filing your shots. I was especially poor at this early on.

I left my position as a newspaper photographer and turned to web development a few years back. But I did not stop shooting. Some of my work has appeared in magazines, but the bulk of my photos are now for private clients or my public website. While my main interest has been insects and other natural subjects, I have focused a lot of effort on concert photography for Ohio bands. Shooting bands in darkly-lit concert halls was a challenge that further sharpened my photography skills. Among others, I shot for Cringe, Liquid 6teen and Noise Auction over the last few years.

On one occasion after a Liquid 6teen show a fan asked me to use her disposable camera to snap a picture of her and the band. I swung my camera (by then a Canon 10D) over my shoulder and lifted her camera to my eyes. The girl and Aaron Benner (former Liquid 6teen vocalist) smiled. I pressed the shutter button. Nothing happened. I pressed it again; again nothing happened. Wincing, I turned it over and tried to fathom my dilemma when the girl said very shyly, "You have to wind it first.” Oh! It had been so long since I had used film, and those I had used largely had auto-wind, that I forgot all about that feature. I could tell that this girl wondered why all the bands used me for photography so much.

Through a lens I have shot my newborn son still moist from birth; yellow crab spiders eating bumblebee moths; governors giving public addresses; football players charging into end-zones to make a bid for the NCAA top tournaments; elementary school kids showing off science experiments; protestors marching on New Rome; protestors marching on the state capitol; businessmen trying to sell trains, dental services and novel inventions; rock stars putting on shows; rock stars putting on a face; rock stars being normal people; arid mountains, beautiful sunsets and gravestones.

I have taken a lot of photos. And I expect to keep taking them as long as I get to live. It’s just a part of who I am, and I doubt I can ever tire of it. Why do I like it so much? I think that it is because a part of me is artistic; another part of me is contemplative; and a piece of me is, luckily, still filled with wonder. Photography is a form of commentary that both records something true while allowing a creative focus that can give meaning to otherwise trivial events and moments.

Like I noted earlier, I had no formal education in photography. But I don’t think anyone really needs formal training. What it takes to be a good photographer is a decent camera and a curiosity that makes you want to find something amazing in the world around you. That is the true essence of a photographer, and it is an essence no classroom can give.

Here are a few tips for new photographers. (I originally meant to say "young photographers” but changed to "new photographers” because I do not think that photography is an art form only the young can learn. In fact, I think it takes a mature person to be a true photographer.)

  1. Look for unique things in your backyard. If you can find something amazing close to home (a normally mundane place), you will know where to look for amazing things even in strange (or exotic) places.
  2. After you have learned to understand your camera (aperture and shutter speed), learn to wait for a good shot. Anticipating a moment will increase the value of your shots; anticipation is a feeling that must be exercised to be successful.
  3. Remember the purpose of your shot. If your intent is to focus on an isolated subject, frame out the background. If your intent is to create a mood, take the time to get the right angle, lighting, depth and motion. If your intent is to capture a leisurely moment (family playing), do not worry about perfect settings—just make sure you get a shot.
  4. Charge your batteries the day before your shoot. All of them.
  5. Don’t be pretentious. A camera does not make you any more insightful or artistic than the next person. There are probably millions of photographers who know more than you. Just be happy and humble about your occupation or hobby.
  6. Learn from other photographers. Don’t feel that because someone has already photographed a subject you are being a copycat. Very few subjects are brand new. Your challenge is to photograph old subjects in new light.
  7. Try to be creative and precise with all shots; but don’t expect all shots to be picture perfect.
  8. Teach others how to use a camera, and you will start learning even more.

That is about all the relevant things I can teach anyone. The specifics about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length and lighting have been dealt with in many books for photographers. Those books should be used as resources. But all the mechanics of photography flow naturally from experimenting with cameras. The philosophical outlook of photography, though, is what seems to be lacking, which is part of what led me to share these thoughts.

So concludes the evolution of this shutterbug. I hope to have inspired a few people to pick up a camera and start looking for new vistas on their world.


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