So now what?
I had SLR film cameras that I used sparingly on Auto modes through the years starting after college around 1992. Prior to that, I had cheap film point and shoots and even developed my own film for a spell. I didn’t understand the nuance of photography, but I enjoyed it.
In 2011, I started a photo-a-day project with a Nikon D70, Panasonic TZ5, and an iPhone 4. I barely touched the D70 and relied on the TZ5 that I had bought in 2008 for a semester in Europe. I spent a month in Africa and only took the TZ5. That’s how bad I was. But I was sticking to my photo-a-day project and beginning to think about composition. At my real job, I was many years into chairing the College Personnel Committee and it was taking a toll on me because of the changes I was making in the process and trying to return fairness to the process after some troubling episodes. I even managed to get the college’s first tenure guidelines approved. But I digress.
Finally got serious around August and pulled out the D70 for a trip to the northeastern shores of Lake Superior, Ontario, CA. But it was bulky and I hated that. And I was pretty ignorant about it. For example, I read at dpreview in 2007 or so that the 50/1.8 was an excellent lens. I bought it and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get the lens to zoom when it arrived. Prime lenses were not something I realized existed. I was ignorant. I didn’t realize the D70 was an APS-C sensor . . . to me, it was just a bulky version of the point and shoot camera, which made little sense to me. I figured the D70 just had better lenses and I wasn’t yet displeased with the point and shoot cameras. This is the mindset of a person who lacks knowledge.
Anyway, because of the bulk I bought a used Panasonic LX5. It had more dials and a better lens than the TZ5, but it was still a point and shoot. I didn’t understand that at the time. I was disappointed in this point and shoot and returned to the D70, but I heard rumblings about a new NEX 5N coming out soon. I preordered it and put my D70 on craigslist.
The NEX 5N arrived around Sept. 12th and my joy of photography and wanting to learn skyrocketed. I was hooked. I loved the images compared to the point and shoot cameras I had largely been using. The kit lens was fantastic to me. I was still shooting A mode all the time. I bought a Canon FDn 50/1.4 lens and wow! Shallow depth of field amazed me. I still love it this many years later. I also did the photo-a-day again in 2012 (actually, I didn’t miss a day until 2014, I believe). And I bought the Sony Zeiss 24/1.8 lens. It never came off of my camera. It was also the most expensive lens I had ever even considered, let alone bought. I was sooo nervous to have it. I bought insurance. I was ultra careful. I was certainly not good enough to have this lens and spend this kind of money, but I wanted to get better. I was improving all the time. The 24 lens (35-ish FF equivalent) forced me to start seeing the world from that perspective. Every shot I could see started to fit into that focal length. I didn’t look for the shots I was missing. I went back to Africa for a month with 18 student teachers, and this is the only lens I used, beyond 1 day with a SEL 50/1.8. I loved it. Loved it. I improved so much with this camera and lens.
In January, 2012 I had my first photo hit Explore on Flickr ever so briefly. It got 5 Favs, so it was nothing, but that was huge for me since even one Fav was a big deal and rare for me. By the summer of 2012, I could get 3 – 5 Favs pretty easily. I was learning post processing and I had a very good feel for that Zeiss 24 lens. I was reading photography theory books and technique books and videos. I was obsessed with getting better. I was also only sleeping about 4 hours a night, which started in 2000 and it just worked for me. So, I had much free time and I didn’t want to overdo my work time averaging already over 50 hours a week, easily. Later that year, I was hitting Favs into the teens. And I recognize that Favs don’t necessarily mean anything, particularly since I was joining more groups and getting more eyes on my images. 100 views to start 2012 and thousands by the end at points. At least increased views meant that someone was looking and that was pleasing to me.
The 35 focal length was made for me, I thought. It’s what I had largely shot for a year+ and it felt right. So I bought an RX1 to go full frame at the end of 2012. Wow! But the shutter leaf mechanism on my RX1 had 1 weak leaf that didn’t fully work. I couldn’t see that my images were impacted, but it was still broken. I kept the camera through Dec. and January because of the healthy return date by Amazon (I was returning a defective camera so I kept it the length I was allowed and they made it later January for purchases from late Nov. which is when I got the RX1). Back to my NEX 5N and Zeiss 24/1.8 for a few months. No biggie.
In March of 2013, I bought the Nikon D600. I had the Sigma 50/1.4 because the 35/1.4 wasn’t out yet. Great combo, but my D600 had a greasy/spotty sensor and I tested it the first day. I knew it was going back, but I fiddled for a week. In late March I decided on the Canon 6D. I bought the 50/1.2L. This was an amazing lens. I rented the combo first and went to New Orleans for a week. By day 1, I knew I’d be buying the combo. Wow! You can see my 42 images from that trip here and you’ll see a pretty nice improvement over my photo-a-day links above, with a lot of room for improvement still as well. Then I bought the Sigma 35/1.4 and it gave me the love I had with the NEX 5N and Zeiss 24. The 50/1.2L stayed on the shelf as the Sigma 35 rarely came off of my camera. I continued to grow and continued trying to learn. With the RX1 and Canon 6D, I had finally shifted to shooting in manual mode (M) and still do today. I had learned enough through my reading that it finally made sense. Compositionally I was starting to get it as well. I could finally see light and 2013 was a great year for growth and development.
2014 is when I shifted to the Sony A7 and Sony Zeiss 55/1.8 in February. Best combo I had ever used. I couldn’t take the lens off of my A7 and I was now seeing the world through the 55 focal length. Finally I was seeing more than 35. I was getting much love on Flickr at this point. Here’s a self portrait I shot in March, 2014:
After getting 70 Favs on that shot, the next day I got over 9000 views and 72 Favs on this shot:
Photography was clicking. I felt like I was good at it. But I didn’t let up on my learning. I was reading more and more and studying the art side of photography. I knew I didn’t want to be a photographer who shot senior portraits and weddings or anything like that; rather, I wanted to produce art. That’s all I wanted from my photography. I didn’t have time to be in business, and I certainly had no desire for the business side of photography. It was just a creative outlet for me.
I serve on a local art committee that visited the Muskegon Art Museum in June of 2014. This was the 86th annual show and had 200 works that were selected from artists all across Michigan. As I looked at the photography in the show, I remember thinking, “I can do this.” I even joked at the next art committee meeting that I was going to win the show next year and everyone chuckled, including me. Stay tuned.
In August, I pulled $300 in $5 bills out of the bank and reserved space at Heartside Ministries in downtown Grand Rapids (they serve homeless individuals and folks in poverty). I shot portraits of people in poverty much of the day until my money ran out. I paid each person $5 to sit and chat a bit and then get a few portraits taken and sign a release. I had rented lighting and set up a mini studio. I didn’t know how to use lighting, but I figured it out the day before so I’d be ready. I also returned a week later and gave each person a 4×6 print of their portrait. This was a huge experience for me, but I used the images for my first Art Prize entry, which was at Fountain Street Church. It was titled, Antepenultimate and it was very well received. That was all printed on metal and looked very sharp. If you aren’t sure what Art Prize is, read this. It’s awesome for Grand Rapids and transforms our city for 20 days or so each year.
I was invited to put my entry into an after Art Prize event in Lowell at LowellArts! They told me they had an art festival coming up in early 2015, and invited me to enter that as well. I did enter with a single photograph that I printed on paper with a nice frame and matting (about 24″ image). It was really my first juried show since Art Prize is more of an event to experience. This LowellArts! show was a single showroom full of jury selected pieces. Just getting in was quite an accomplishment.
My entry finished in 5th place. Wow! I hadn’t even considered entering art shows yet beyond Art Prize and I was winning 5th place against oil paintings, sculptures, and other beautiful pieces of art. I started chatting with the other artists and making friends. It felt very good to be a part of that group with so many talented people. And I belonged. This was really the culmination of a lot of hard work paying off up to that point. It really helped validate the time I spent. And again, I wasn’t cutting into my actual work time . . . I just put in a lot of time from 10 PM until 2 AM, really. The day to day shooting was mostly in the flow as I carried my camera everywhere.
I then got bold and entered 2 photographs into the Muskegon Art Museum’s festival (87th annual). This is the show I had visited the previous year and joked about winning. They had 725 entries. 725 high quality pieces of art. Both of my submissions made the show, which is a huge accomplishment. HUGE! But even bigger than that, I got a phone call telling that I was awarded 2nd place by the jury. Holy Geez! Here’s an article about it, and they’re using my photo over 1st place (probably because B&W photo looked better in a B&W newspaper than the colorful winning sculpture). I also sold this 2nd place photo to a foundation before the show even started. My award money for the year was around $2,000. Unbelievable to me. Here I am during a reception speaking to the crowd about my photograph.
My other photograph that was accepted into the show also received more than 700 Favs on Flickr and was one of my most popular photographs off all time. Again, Favs don’t really mean much, but it’s nice when a photograph is recognized by a jury and also by my peers as being worthwhile.
So here I was 3.5 years after starting to take photography seriously. I was winning awards in every show I was entering. I was at the height of my photography life. Shooting photos daily for years and studying and working and studying some more was paying off and I was reaping the benefits of my hard work.
As I sit and wait for the 88th Annual Muskegon Art Festival, I can’t help but feel like I’ve peaked. I don’t shoot a photograph every day any more because I have set the bar too high to achieve what I desire by simply snapping a photograph and studying it. I understand the technical stuff quite well now, so testing settings is something I can do in my head before I even take the shot to see the result. I still want to grow and I now understand that shooting a photograph that can be considered great takes much work. I was an available light and handheld shooter much of photography life, but I also recognize that using extra light can also help and that using a tripod can often ensure better sharpness. I get that. That takes much more work. I am busier at work since becoming a department chair, so “much work” is not as easily accomplished. I also worry that I cannot possibly match the success I’ve already had, so I think about letting myself down. And I really want to be a good department chair, so I am reading books and studying that with the same vigor I once put into photography.
In November of 2015, I read about a huge storm hitting the lakeshore with giant waves. I forced myself to get up and rolling at 5:45 AM and head to Grand Haven to see the lighthouse. I grabbed some terrific shots as daylight was just breaking on the stormy scene. The rain and wind were blowing off of Lake Michigan right onto my Rokinon 135/2 lens (I have a hard time taking this lens off of my camera lately). I couldn’t shoot more than a single shot before I had to wipe my lens clean of rain. I had to stand with my back to the lake because of the rain and wind and then quickly turn around and fire a shot or 2 and then turn back around. The light wasn’t great early in the morning so f/8 meant a higher ISO (ISO 1250 – 2000 is nothing for Sony full frame sensor, though). But even my shots that weren’t in focus still managed to satisfy me greatly. For example:
I still shoot occasional shots that just catch my eye, but I have hit a plateau to the point that I am not feeling like I am getting better any more (again, putting more time into being an administrator cuts into photography). That’s sort of a gnawing feeling of being in the photography doldrums, so to speak. I can produce nice images that people like, but I also know that they are just more of the same thing I was producing. I do not feel the same level of growth I had for so many years. I guess that’s natural in any field . . . and I have much room to improve in education administration and the growth is more achievable and visible, so there’s that, too.
It’s now 2016 and I do not know what is next. Part of me wants to buy the Sony a7R II Full-Frame Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera, Body Only (Black) (ILCE7RM2/B) and see if that helps me jumpstart my creativity and inspiration. Perhaps if a good deal comes along. Another part of me is content to just do what I do and realize that I had a good run and I would have killed to shoot this kind of photography a few years ago. I should be happy and realize I reached a very high level. But I know I can get better. Time. I need time. Come on lottery! Heh. Thanks for reading and happy shooting to you.