My Life Lessons With Photography
My Beginnings With Photography – the self image
If the saying “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” is true, then the first image you take is with your eyes in the mirror. The world appears through the lens of how we see ourselves, either in service to our self image or against it. A mirror’s reflection can be many things; a caricature, a respite from reality, a therapy session/TED Talk – but it also informs a person of who they think they are, and what the world can be.
Early in my life, I can’t say a positive view stared back in my reflection; my eyes captured the image of a buck-toothed, awkwardly tall boy whose strong features, not quite grown into, clashed with his pubescent mind and body. In pictures taken by others throughout my adolescent and teen years, the defense mechanism of the ubiquitous peace sign (or middle finger) in place of a smile could be found in nearly every picture I was in. On the surface, a brave face; inside, a captive to an eye or eyes that didn’t match up to the earlier stills of my self-image. I didn’t feel strong as a subject at all and loathed being in front of the lens at any time.
Predating the wide availability of high resolution, disposable cameras were my weapon of choice that I used to fight back against being “the captive”. The power dynamic switch from captive to capturer helped, enough so that in the early years of the new millennium, in my junior year of college, I bought my first digital camera: a Kodak DX630 Zoom. Between studies and campus social life it stayed in its box for months at a time, coming out on rare occasions.
With the advent of social media hubs toward the end of the decade – the MySpace-killing monoliths Facebook and LinkedIn – like millions of people, my image capturing sensibilities/habits were largely influenced by the new Gold Rush: likes. I joined the rank and file, uploading (you mean to tell me you weren’t?) selfies and locations for the sake of those thumbs-ups.
That Kodak saw more use; despite the social media compulsion, most of my subject choices were informed by my self-image. I tended to go for subjects in private, peaceful surroundings – things that didn’t require permission (or had the ability to get embarrassed, knowing how that felt). I used nature – animals, plants – the opposite end of the spectrum labeled civilization.
The title or self-perception of “photographer” never entered my mind; my origin story summed up is a person who liked to capture subjectively captivating details and privately immortalize them. A comparatively small handful made it to social media, but most of the photos from this time period stayed in-camera and were for my private viewing.
The Rules of Photography: Learning by Playing
Jumping on the social media elliptical machine somewhat reflexively paved the way for a large swath of real, focused activity in the 2010’s. I became a published author, recording artist, spoken word performer and copy writer. The revelation that my primary mode of creation, writing, was just one of the many ways to be self-expressed snowballed and kept rolling. In 2017, I started my website, Dichotomie, to showcase my growing skill set apart from social media.
This was the natural evolution of a growing drive to expand my thinking of photos from simple moments/objects in time (how they are inevitably viewed when on social media platforms, where ALL posts have a shelf-life of a few hours) to actual, stand-alone (or parts of) stories, images which captured a narrative the viewer could experience like a writing piece. It also helped to become fluent in taking images for promotional purposes. Social media had quickly evolved from selfie repositories to lucrative marketing/branding platforms, and I wanted to build mine.
With the ambition to shoot high-quality images, what made common sense as the first step was to get the proper equipment. For me that was a problem, as there were an overwhelming number of choices for cameras and most of them came with heavy price tags. I asked my BFAM (for the uninitiated – brother from another mother) David, who studied photography, for guidance. Without hesitation he loaned me his DSLR, a Canon EOS 6D MK I, sparing me the time-consuming hurdle of choosing, buying my own.
Via internet research and the manual that came with David’s camera, I delved into self-studying the technicals of shooting. Most of my knowledge, though, was gained from experimenting like crazy. I took the camera with me nearly everywhere I went to get acclimated to the fundamentals. I learned the relationship between lighting and focus, depth and scale, balance; I advanced purely from trial and error despite the semantic knowledge I soaked up.
With time and comfort I developed the perspective of a creative-in-training, not just a writer with a camera. Within that new context, I developed a mode for assessing what “value” was for me from shot to shot. I started off by relying on the stats in the image file to tell me if the photo had any merit. The ISO, F-stop and focus depth used to play a huge part, but ultimately what counted was how moved I was when looking at the results. My eye developed/revolved around these considerations:
- What did the image say to me?
- What message or story did the subject tell in relation to its surroundings?
- Is this what I really wanted to capture?
- How would I use this image?
- Have I done this before? Is this redundant?
When I gratefully returned David’s camera five months later, I had slightly under 1,500 photos, a diverse collection of portrait (human subjects!), landscape, wildlife, cityscape, self-portraits and still life – more than enough content to develop and practice with.
Letting Go of how Photography was “supposed” to go
The following Spring, David and I went to Atlanta. He brought his camera along and we shared it between the two of us. Though it had been six months since I worked with his camera – any DSLR (I didn’t consider myself “grown” enough to justify buying my own at this point) – it was like stepping off a curb, and side by side we captured some of the city’s photogenic sides; Krog Street tunnel, Centennial Olympic Park, MLK Jr.’s National Historic Park, the High Museum, and Stone Mountain Park to name a few. In between turns I used my iPhone 5 for small capture volume.
We traveled from landmark to landmark, spending hours taking in the sights with our lens, each from our own perspectives. We had stopped under the Homage to King sculpture, the last destination of the day. As before, I took a predominantly organic approach, which helped me get more out of the experience.
David begged to differ.
As someone who received formal training from an established mentor, he had a solid foundation in photography that was rooted in technique, proven theory and rules around how tech should be used. His point of view was informed by the way he was taught, and watching me do it – “it” being, in retrospect, something that I can only describe as “freestyle experimenting” (essentially to him I looked like a newb who was actually happy to be doing it wrong) – provoked him to step in.
Taking the camera out of my hands, he shot the sculpture – smooth, efficient, and technically sound on the first few tries – to show me the differences between our approaches. He went on to point out the flaws which left me open to mistakes that kept me from capturing the best possible shots. While he had some great points, internally I rejected his comparatively formulaic approach and gave him pushback. After a few rounds of back and forth, the debate broke off as the Southern sun towered over us. We moved on to the next points of interest in silence, mired in the heaviness of that unresolved conversation and the heat.
This clash of ideals and modes of work was the first adult disagreement we’d ever had in our now thirty-one years of friendship. In retrospect, it was a delayed watershed moment for me (really for the both of us; some time later he apologized for his reaction and admitted his attachment to the rules is what kept him from progressing creatively as a photographer, a path that he eventually put to the side before he loaned me his camera to begin with), because in the world of creativity I had another means of comparison from which to learn.
One of his criticisms had been on my point of view about choice of cameras. He challenged that one didn’t need an expensive, dedicated DSLR given that smart phone technology was nipping at the heels of the current tech and would be equal before long. I’d staunchly defended the opposite.
It was around this time that I began to digest his opinion; did I really need a DSLR to be considered a real photographer, or more to my point, to pursue photography seriously/legitimately as a way to express? I was attached to the idea that real photography meant using a DSLR and anything else…wasn’t. I couldn’t reconcile feeling like a rank poser/amateur whenever I took my iPhone out of my pocket to capture something. This feeling contributed to my output dropping to a fraction of what it had been while using David’s camera. To me, a camera phone was just a selfie generator, for gathering evidence against bad landlords or for recording frisky moments with one’s partner (guilty of all three). I didn’t deem it a tool for “real” photography. Not back then.
I put my hang-ups to the side and resumed practicing, adding to my body of work with my smartphone camera. I stuck with Apple, and upgrading through the years, I could see the definite progress David foretold. As the technology became more refined and the pictures became sharper with some editing support from Photoshop, many times I (and others) couldn’t tell the difference between a DSLR shot and a camera phone image. The end result – did it have an impact? – mattered more in the end. And I had the proof: it did.
This new flexibility opened up a lot of areas of discovery about who I was as an artist and how I approached spaces that I chose to express in (and how). Instead of choosing to be stopped by “not having the right equipment” and following my creative impulses with the tools I had on hand helped me through some tough times, most notably/recently the pandemic, where most things that appeared solid in my life fell apart. Photography allowed me to heal parts of my self-image that needed repair. How did I do that?
- I started showcasing my portfolio for public viewing work on my website
- I focused even less on technicality and more on visceral aesthetic reaction. Emotionally and psychologically I was perhaps the most vulnerable I’d ever been in and so my tastes were less at the mercy of convention and more open to sitting with the evidence of what was captured. In short, honesty.
- I went through my Instagram profile page and deleted nearly all of the selfies I posted over the years; only 11 remain which show me sans any artistic context but have emotional value, as they show my personal growth. This by far was the most freeing action I could have taken. Now when I post, I am super-intentional with how I wanted to connect with other people and for what purposes.
In this period of transition, I became a dual muse; for myself and for my outside world.
Growth aside, there was one thing that still bugged me: the smart phone camera did all the work for you. With the press of a button, the program that ran the hardware calibrated all the variables to give you the best image possible. Even with David’s Canon, after a brief “training wheels” period using aperture and shutter priority mode, I shot on manual religiously. I wanted to earn my shots; a huge part of the experience and the sense of accomplishment that went with progressing was getting it “just right” after taking (in many, many cases) scores of off-target ones.
Though I felt free in one area but not and less so in another, I had largely gained more comfort exclusively using my camera phone. While the technology certainly in some cases kept up with the times, using the camera phone demanded very little technical work, and of course that was the point.
Making photography accessible to everyone WAS the point. In the same way Yellow Tail simplified wine drinking, making it an equal, enjoyable space for everyone – including people who didn’t even drink wine – so did phone manufacturers make it easier to enter the photography world. Much like no longer having to possess an encyclopedic knowledge (and a closet full of cravats) to sip a red or white, you didn’t need to bother with calculations or dials just to take a picture.
But with the freedom to just point and shoot, I lost the freedom to direct where I wanted my view/vision to be focused. A smartphone camera did not give me the flexibility to set up the shot past a few basic settings, such as brightness and some pre-fixe filter options. The most up-to-date features of a camera phone allow post-editing similar (in small part) to Photoshop or Lightroom, but the initial capture rode on rails.
The New Lens
In 2021 I went on the hunt to address this trade-off. After some research I discovered the workaround was to use a camera app which allowed more control. I played with a few options before settling onto the one I use faithfully; the Moment Pro camera app. The interface and the features allow me to simulate the experience of holding a dedicated camera in my hand, and it unlocks an ability that not even the iPhone 12 Pro’s program allows you to do – zoom on the front camera!
There are some things which are nonstarters; the comparatively tiny light sensor on my camera phone could never hope to reach the distance clarity (unaided) on par with a DSLR (with regard to modern times, a mirrorless camera) and the millimeter specs of course couldn’t hold a candle. But with the right light set up and attachments (namely a macro and telephoto lens) even that became a feasible workaround. The Moment Pro camera app definitely gave me the ability to earn my shots again!
Adding another layer to my experience, I purchased the slow shutter effect add-ons to the app; the light trail and motion blur features have opened up another dimension to capturing images to push my creative experimentation into different dialects within the language of image capture.
For me, story telling is what it’s all about, and while the technical aspects definitely support the creative, I place the creative at the top and bring the technical along as a tool when I need it.
As I continue to evolve as an artist, I’ll be on the search for products to support my direction. No one’s journey is the same, and frankly the spice of Life – variety – would never get cultivated if it was. Because Moment opened up my perceptions with their app and brought a level of freedom and flexibility to my developing art, I think I’ll be sticking with them for a while. Along with their app, they have an online store that houses everything a person could ever want for their camera photography needs from lenses to tripods to carrying gear – for dedicated camera users as well!