It’s April. That means the first quarter of 2018 is finished. Does that thought freak you out? Time is flying by, it seems to me. At the end of December I started my new job, I took on responsibility for the Birdathon committee for SCVAS, and things rapidly became a bit of a blur. Somewhere along the way I decided it was time to push the work on the house forward again, in part because I realized I needed an office where I could do video and voice work without as many interruptions (taken and caused) and could leave things set up for periods of time as I worked on a video.

So it’s been a really busy time, but that is starting to change. The office is almost ready to go, just needing to be painted, and I expect to hear in the next ten days when the painters schedule will be free. The birdathon is ongoing, and I’m doing my second big sit next weekend, after which it settles out and my time commits go down. The office will be ready for me to start moving in sometime in April, although I expect it’ll take me a month to fully settle in and stop re-arranging; but figure two weeks after the painters leave and it’ll be at least functional.

So overall it’s been a very productive first quarter for me, unless you ask me how my image making is going, at which point I’ll sigh. In reality, I’ve only gone out shooting three times in the first three months, once in January and out to Merced NWR twice in February, and all three of those shoots are sitting on my disk unprocessed. So my current count for images added to my permanent library is, um, zero. It’s been that busy.

The interesting thing is that I did the same thing in 2017: I added a total of 17 shots to the collection prior to May last year. The reason for this drought are a lot different, though: last year I was really feeling burnt out and unhappy with my photography, and I stepped away and took a break until I could get my head together; this year, I’m feeling good about it, but I’ve been busy laying foundations for things that will benefit me and let me do better work once they’re done.

This isn’t a bad thing, by the way: 2017 turned out to be one of my most productive years ever, once I shook the funk. I’m hoping to build on that this year, and at the same time, also break out and move my photography in new directions, especially in the areas away from bird photography.

I’m feeling good, feeling comfortable and I have some interesting new ideas I want to experiment with once I pick up a camera again, which should happen this weekend once I finish my duties leading the birdathon outing Sunday.

It’s time to go out and make some images again. I can’t wait.

Making images

I may not have been making new images, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about and practiced my photography skills. I’ve spent time studying other photographers I respect who’s style I want to integrate into my own.

I’ve also been doing a self-review of my images, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that I wanted to get a sense of what my strengths and weaknesses are in my landscape work, and come up with a plan to attack the problems. I also wanted a better sense of what’s simply not there at all, so I can start practicing the techniques needed to add new forms to the mix.

The challenge isn’t taking the photograph. Its finding it. Thomas Heaton

The second reason is tied to the Youtube channel I’m developing: A big part of the content will be showing and teaching digital darkroom techniques, and so I’ve been studying how I process my images. What I found annoyed me not a little, because I found various bits and pieces of the process that at some point had slipped into auto-pilot. The worst offender? My sharpening, where I played “this is good enough until I decide to print it” far too often.

Immature Golden Eagle in Flight, Coyote Valley, San Jose, California

So off I went to study how people were sharpening images and take a fresh look at the process. As I did that, I started to feel like most of my images were processed with too little contrast, so I started exploring that as well. When I surfaced, I had significantly changed both my processing setup, and the standards I try to reach while processing an image. So even before it launched, the Youtube channel has shown me some benefits by pushing me into some critical self-evaluation.

Of course, now I have an entire collection of images I want to reprocess, but I’m holding off, because if I want to do 50 images a year for the Youtube channel, I’ll need source material for those videos. I guess I have the first couple of years waiting.

Your style and definition of “good” changes over time

There was a time when doing this would have been frustrating to me, but I’ve come to realize that it’s part of the process of ongoing self-improvement — your skills improve over time, and your definition of what “good” means does as well. Richard Wong recently wrote about this, and it really resonated with me: as a person we all change over time, and so should our photography. We should always be striving to get better and find new ways to express ourselves.

The Problems with Likes

I don’t want to “like” your art. I want to be moved by it. — David duChemin

I believe that the like — and the chase for likes — may be one of the more destructive aspects of photography having moved online. Likes, in general, are pretty worthless, yes some of us live or die on how many people click that button on something we post online.

You shouldn’t imply from this that I believe engagement with each other online is worthless, but likes aren’t engagement. The easier it is to do something, the less value it has to the people involved and the less it really means in the bigger scheme of life.

And yet we still too often go looking for them and treating them as meaningful feedback, and get upset and frustrated if we don’t see enough of them. And if something does “go viral” we often put too much emphasis on that that means; in practice, the answer is usually “very little”.

Yet likes are given an influence well beyond what they usually imply: we live or die on whether or not people like our stuff. People online wander around liking stuff and think it matters, rather than doing something more substantial like leaving a comment or sharing something with their friends. Social media sites encourage this by giving likes an influence beyond their real meaning in the algorithms, in large part because, well, they’re easy. Not useful, easy.

The easier a thing is, the less you should pay attention to it. That’s true in social media, and in photography as well.

The Vision Thing

One thing I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about is what the difference is between a snaphot and a photograph is. the answer to that is likely a very personal thing and we’ll all have somewhat different definitions.

Here is what my view is today.

A snapshot is an image taken casually with a camera.

The power and worth of a snapshot is it’s ability to trigger a memory in someone that was there when the snapshot was taken. You go to a place, you take pictures. You come home, and you look at those pictures. They trigger the memories that were created at the time the image was taken, and you enjoy the image through that triggered memory.

This is why you enjoy looking at your own snapshots, and why sitting down and looking at your friends vacation snapshots generally triggers something between utter boredom (with polite smiles) and an urgent wish to chew off a limb to escape the coyote trap.

A photograph is an image taken thoughtfully with a camera.

The purpose of a photograph is to trigger that emotional response we get to one of our snapshots; except that we have to create that triggered memory from within the image because the people we want to have that emotional response weren’t actually there.

I recently pulled a box out of storage that contained my photography from my pre-digital life. In going through the images, I could feel them triggering memories of those trips, even though they were 15+ years ago. Yet, the serious photographer in me was looking at those images and thinking “nope. Nope. nope. Maybe. decent. Nope”.

I have Velvia slides from a trip to Valley of Fire in Nevada from 1992 that are really good displays of the kind of intense saturation that defines a Velvia image, and they’re all pictures of highly saturated, well-exposed landscapes with no real focal point or interest. I expect other than as teaching tools, I won’t bother to digitize any of them, because they’re all images I’d never shoot today.

They are snapshots.

I’ve come to believe that one key aspect of the maturation of a photographer is to not only learn how to create images that generate that emotional response, but to be able to learn how to move beyond the emotional response you get from your own images and understand which ones will generate that emotional response in others. Until you learn to do that, your ability to create photographs will be erratic.

I’ve long felt that what mattered was my opinion of an image, not what random outsiders thought about it. But over the last year, as I’ve come to understand this difference between a snapshot and a photograph it’s made me realize the value of getting and listening to outside opinions more. It’s a key piece in calibrating the skill you need to learn on how to define whether an image is a snapshot or a photograph. I realize I need to do more of that, and I’m thinking about how I to make this happen.

And again, I look at the Youtube channel and realize that was part of the purpose when I started building it, and I’m just now realizing that. It’s both a way to share what I’ve learned over the years, and learn from all of you in your feedback on the images I share and talk about.

Building the Youtube channel forced me into a time of introspection that caused me to find an inflection point in my thinking that made me a better photographer. Launching the channel, putting my images on it and talking about them in a way where there’s no place to hide is, well, it’s scary, but it’s also an opportunity to create a dialog with all of you, and hopefully learn as much as I teach.

Just don’t expect me to pay attention to the likes.

Well, much.

Time to get back to work…