Monday, October 25, 2010

On learning


I’ve been a photographer for a long time. I picked it up in high school way back in the late 70s, and I’ve stuck with it ever since. I’ve worked as a professional, won photo contests, and shot tens of thousands of photos all over the world. I chose to work in a non-photography profession more suited to by natural skills (and my lack of color vision). I consider myself an advanced amateur when it comes to photography today. I normally teach my friends how to take photos. Last weekend I became a photography student for three days. I attended the Morro Bay Photography Expo to hear from expert nature photographers on how they approach their work. It was meant as an enjoyable weekend getaway for my wife and I. It turned into some serious classroom time for me, and interesting experiences for us. This is a review of sorts. I say “of sorts” because I do not consider myself a nature photographer, so I was not the target audience of the expo. I like birds well enough, but I lack the gear to do it right. A good 500mm lens costs $8k. The most expensive lens in my bag is a $2k 18-35 wide angle zoom that I use for shooting graffiti. I was out gunned. I was also among the youngest attendees. At almost 50, this came a quite a shock, but it was not the only shock.

Actually, among the many things that I do which annoys the hell out of my friends, is count people when I’m in a room. I captured the demographics for each class on paper as part of my notes. What I found was interesting. I attended four different classes with just over 240 people. Some were counted twice because they attended the same course track. I attended with one black man, one Asian woman, one Persian man (he told me), and one Hispanic man. I identified 13 people who were my age or younger. Almost everyone else was 15 years older than me, and some where much older.

MorroBayStacks The racial makeup of the seminar was very close to the visible racial makeup of the people I met in Morro Bay. While out and about, I saw two black men, one surfing and one on a date. One Asian man and two Asian women who were shopping, and a dozen Hispanics (who were all working in restaurants). Everyone else was white and old. It started to bother me after my wife and I were turned away at an empty local restaurant called Shawn's on Main Street. We arrive to find all the tables open with the exception of one group of 4. It was about 5:45. We asked for a table. The woman who greeted us looked us up and down before speaking. She told us we could not be seated because they were booked solid. She suggested we come back for the late seating. It felt like we were profiled. I’m a big white guy (always mistaken for a German when in Europe), while my wife is a Filipina. We experienced some racial discrimination 30 odd years ago when we were first married, but nothing recently. We laughed it off at the time. Perhaps the restaurant was full, who knew? When we drove by after eating at another restaurant, the place was half full with nobody waiting for a table. It was around 7:00 pm.

I checked Wikipedia, Morro Bay is 89% white. My guess, given our treatment at the restaurant and other examples of hostility we experienced, is that Morro Bay is still coming to grips with racial issues and in particular, multi-racial marriages. It was like stepping back in time.

I felt none of this at the photo expo. The lights were dimmed in most sessions while I watched example after example of photography at a level well beyond my skills. The most fundamental thing I learned was to stop shooting like I was still using film. Everything I do is geared around MorroBaycliffgetting “the shot”. Everything these guys did was about mastering a technique and then ripping 7 frames per second. The best example I can point to is the seagull shot shown above. I framed the shot like I wanted it and waited. The bird went through a call sequence every minute or so, when it started it’s call, I pressed the shutter. 20 shots later I had a shot with the bird’s tongue out. OK – it not much a a nature photo, but with a 200mm a seagull was the best thing I could come up with as a full frame subject.

I learned how to stitch photos together to make a panorama. I learned how to bracket for HDR. I learned how to meter, how to manage auto focus, and how to sharpen my picture correctly in post production.  I also I learned how to read the graphic representation of the dynamic range of each photo, which I had ignored before because it did not relate to my experience with film. And most importantly, I learned to end my practice of stopping down a half stop to bump up the color saturation (an old slide film habit). What I did not learn was anything related to Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, or any other photography based web 2.0 application. Nobody in attendance understood that technology at all, It was like listening to my parent’s generation discuss Facebook… totally hilarious.

I started taking more photos immediately. I shot almost 500 photos the next time I went out for a photowalk. My take was 8 usable photos. The rest were trash. I would have normally shot 75 photos with an average take of 4 usable photos. It’s an improvement, but my post shooting workflow became instantly more tedious. I’ve been a fool with regard to workflow, Lightroom is way better than anything else I’ve ever used. So I changed to that too.

The Morro Bay Photography expo is worth the meager cost. Give it a try next year.