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Essay

Shooting with Film

A photo of photos, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

I acquired my first DSLR camera for Christmas of 2010. It’s a Sony a230, which is an entry-level DSLR. I bought it* refurbished (though barely used) because it was inexpensive compared to the comparable Nikon and Canon Models. I also bought it because the Sony Alphas are compatible with old Minolta autofocus lenses, meaning I could save some money in building out my lens collection.

(* Yes, it was a “gift,” but my wife was kind enough to select what I wanted, because she doesn’t know much about cameras. Plus it was mostly my own money.)

A few months later my friend Cathy decided that she was done with her 35mm SLR camera, and she was going to sell it at a yard sale. She said that she thought the lenses were compatible with some digital cameras, and I informed her that indeed they were. In fact they were compatible with my Sony. She offered to give me the lenses, under the condition that I take her camera, too. (And a bunch of other stuff, like a flash and some film.)

I naturally agreed to these terms, and became the proud owner of a Minolta Maxxum 5, which is pretty advanced for the pre-digital age. This camera has many of the settings of my Sony (indeed, Sony purchased Minolta a few years back), though I didn’t know how to navigate them through the first roll. The biggest challenge was getting used to the fact that the photo wasn’t going to appear immediately on the back of the camera body. I would have to wait.

It took me several months to expose the first roll, and I just got it back the other day. Opening the package felt like tearing into a pack of baseball cards. I had no idea what I would find inside.

Though there were some exposure problems – which I fully expected, given that I went out shooting instead of reading the owner’s manual – I got a handful of decent photos, too. I’ve taken a lot of close-ups, mostly flowers, but a few seascapes, too. I’ve included a sampling with this post.

I started out the second roll with another of my favorite subjects, the moon. Because this can’t be done well on the “auto” settings, I took the time to learn how to use the camera. I’m excited to work through the second roll, now, and see what I’ve got.

Rosa multiflora

Hull's Cove, Bar Harbor, Maine

Frenchman's Bay, Bar Harbor, Maine

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Being There

Vermont Moonset, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

I have a friend named Charlene who will occasionally comment on a photo that I post on Facebook. “You take such great photos,” she’ll write. “I need lessons.”
It’s a wonderful compliment, but it’s only part of the equation. One can take classes, or read books, or ask questions on Internet forums, and this will help you take great photos. But you also have to be there – you can’t take a photo of something that you don’t see.
Many of my better photos are of sunrises and sunsets. I also favor shooting the full moon. Often these are, from a pure technical standpoint, only fair images. But a fair exposure of spectacular light is usually going to be an impressive photo. I don’t take great photos of sunrises or moon rises because I’m a great photographer. I’m not especially talented. I get some great photos because I prepare for the opportunity and make a point to be there to capture it.
And so it was that I was climbing Montpelier, Vermont’s Hubbard Tower a couple of weeks back an hour before sunrise. The temperatures were hovering just above zero degrees, and I hiked up the steep hill via flashlight.
I made the climb because the full moon would be setting in the west just before the sun rose in the east. I love photos of the moon looking huge over the horizon, and I wanted to get some of my own. And the hour of this event (just before 7 am) was too convenient not to take advantage.
The truth of the matter is that this was the second time in about 14 hours that I had made this climb. The moonrise coincided with the sunset at about 5:30 the previous evening. Unfortunately there were no clouds to juice up the sunset, and the moon rose behind some trees that obscured that view.
Sometimes being there isn’t enough. You can’t will the magic to happen. (I should note that the obverse is also true. Magic light often happens when you’re not looking for it. It helps to have a camera nearby to take advantage.)
But the conditions were ripe for the moonset that Wednesday morning. Clear skies surrounded the bright, perfectly round moon as it gently lowered behind the Green Mountains west of the city. The moon obligingly dropped between Mount Ethan Allen and Camel’s Hump, perhaps the most recognizable peak in Vermont.

The moon sets behind Mount Ethan Allen

I was pleased with the photos I took, though the exposures could be more crisp. There’s more for me to learn, and more practice to be had. But it’s fun to keep trying, to challenge myself, and to live the stories behind the photos.


In Tight

808846, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

On Saturday, I joined other members of the First Light Camera Club on a photo field trip to Fort Andross, home of Cabot Mill Antiques and the Brunswick winter farmer’s market.

Most of my photos from the event are super isolated macros. I think the nature of these venues necessitated this approach. The antique mall is so filled with stuff, and the farmer’s market so filled with people, that wider views are too cluttered. So they are all up close – a mannequins hand, a bit of a trumpet, a close up of some beans.

This approach dovetails with my current approach to writing – my long-term approach as well. In my class, we talked about letting the work stand on its own rather than think about outside forces, i.e. the audience. In a different vein, Anne Lamott in her book “Bird by Bird” talks about looking through a one-inch window and describing what you see.

This isn’t meant to be “Joe’s Writing Blog,” though writing is a part of my original vision for this space. I’ll be moving back to more photo-centric posts in the near future. At the moment I am happy with my ability to focus closely on the tasks at hand.


Writers

Writers, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

The first week of the New Year I spent at a writer’s retreat at Kripalu in the heart of the Berkshires. The program was titled “The Writing Warrior: Deepening Your Writing by Bravely Facing Yourself.”

It was a powerful experience. 18 students, all but a couple of us complete strangers, came from across the Northeast (and one from Montreal) looking for a way to re-energize or re-envision their writing.

Laraine Herring, the class leader and the author of The Writing Warrior, set an open and welcoming tone for the class. Students were encouraged to tune into their bodies and breath, to release expectations and open up space for the writing to happen. Such a simple and profound approach.

On the third day the magic really happened. Strangers began to trust one another, to really engage in each other’s writing, and to share some powerful, profound, and deeply personal stories. It was remarkable, a day I will never forget, and a day that I will write about more in the future – I have 15 journal pages dedicated to that one day!

Of course I brought my camera with me, as I wanted to capture the beauty of the Kripalu grounds and the essence of the building. Unbeknownst to my classmates, I snuck back to the room a couple of times during non-class hours and took some photos to try to capture the experience. Photos of a circle of empty chairs fell a bit flat, but I was able to play around with a cup full of pens.

This idea seemed to have the most heat for me. The pens represent writing, of course, and the Kripalu label sets the scene. The fact that the pens don’t all face the same direction reflects the diversity of the group. And, though you’ll have to take my word for it, all of the pens are open, to show that we were all open to the experience and our writing lives.

I’m sure I’ll have more to show and say in this space in the future. A couple of my classmates have blogged about the week, and I invite you to read their take on the events, too.  Here’s Barb, and here’s Lindsey.  Two women who are at different stages of their writing lives, who shared incredible writing with the class, and whose unique perspectives can help color your understanding of this experience.  I’ve spoken in platitudes about my week at Kripalu to anyone who would listen (heck, I was even moved to poetry!), but it really was fun, energizing and invigorating.


10×10 Brunswick

Maquoit Bay Low Tide copy, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

I’ve submitted two photos to the annual 10×10 Brunswick art show. This is a one-night fundraiser to benefit art programs in Brunswick’s elementary schools through the Arts Are Elementary program.

The show’s visual appeal requires all of the art to be displayed in 10 inch-by-10 inch frames. (The art is not limited to photography – in fact, photos are historically in the minority.) I have chosen two 5-inch square photos, which will be matted to fit the 10×10 frames.

Both images are sparse seascapes with prominent lines and curves, but the similarities end there.

The top image was taken at Maquoit Bay at sunrise. The tide is low and the water is glass calm. A few plovers can be seen wading and seeking breakfast. There is a gentle haze on the horizon. I’ve chosen to show this in black and white, to capitalize on the moonscape feel of the rocky mud flats.

The second image was taken at Land’s End, Bailey Island, just as the sun was setting and the moon rising. The waves are rough, crashing over the rocks. The sunset casts a reddish glow on the moon, and the graininess of the image lends an apocalyptic feel. This image also has fog on the horizon, but in this case it obscures the lower third of the moon.

My hope is that my images sell and help continue a flourishing art program in the local schools. (And I would get a cut too, which would also be nice.) I also hope that these images inspire other photographers and artists to find what touches them inside, and to seek a way to capture and keep it or share with others.

10×10 Brunswick is on September 30 from 5 – 8 p.m. The art will be diplayed at the Curtis Memorial Library on Pleasant Street, or St. Paul’s Church next door. If you’re nearby, do stop in and see me and all the other great images on display.


Dewey Morning

Bokehdew #12, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

In lieu of going to the gym this morning, I spent some time in the yard photographing daffodils. Then I noticed the early sun sparkling on the dewey grass.

Dew-covered daffodil

I’m not sure what the neighbors thought of me lying on the ground in my pajamas taking photos, but they are probably getting used to it. Fortunately I was able to lie on the driveway to get these shots, so I avoided getting myself wet.


“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”

Thoughts for photographers on Earth Day.

Wild Chickory at the Galick Farm, West Haven VT

Mt. Katahdin from the Table Lands


Against the Grain

Against the Grain, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

In taking photos, I like to occasionally incorporate an element of the unexpected into the composition. Perhaps taking a slightly different interpretation of a subject, or including something that doesn’t quite fit in with the main focus of the shot.

It’s a perspective that I’m comfortable with, as I’ve always thought of myself as being a bit off from from from the norm. It amuses me to turn around a phrase – “the lights aren’t on, but someone’s home” – to confuse the obvious. I enjoy very private jokes.

One domino faces west

As such, the theme of deviation from the norm usually isn’t as overt as it is in these photographs. One domino is facing in the opposite direction from the rest. There is purpose behind this as well. As much as this domino is trying to show it’s individualism, it’s quite obvious that it is only subtly different from the rest. You have to study it’s dots to see that it is not like all the others.

Dominoes play with light and shadow

I took these shots in answer to a challenge to take abstract photos. The dominoes are terrific photography subjects. Their smooth lines are very pleasing to the eye and accept light well, and their uniformity lends itself to abstract interpretation. I enjoyed allowing one to show its colors in most of the shots. Even though the individuals were randomly selected.


HypoChristmas

Maps and Legends, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

I am a devout Atheist, yet I love Christmas.

I scoff at the notion that Jesus is the son of God – I scoff at the notion that there IS a God – yet I love many of the most reverent Christmas Carols.

How can this be?

I celebrate what I call HypoChristmas – Christmas celebration by one who is not Christian. I am happy to label myself a hypocrite, as I am sure most Christians consider me to be. But I don’t in my heart think myself to be a hypocrite when it comes to Christmas.

You see, in my family Christmas was always a big deal. But despite the fact that my mother was a Catholic, and I was raised Catholic (to a point), Christmas in my house was never a hugely religious event. My mother usually went to Midnight Mass, but I never had to attend. Christmas simply was never a religious event for me.

And yet, Christmas was never a highly commercial holiday for us, either. Oh, there was definitely and abundance of gifts. Probably an overabundance of gifts. But I don’t recall Christmas as being about buying. I don’t recall an over emphasis on shopping, or getting the latest toy, or getting a great deal. It was a time to share the prosperity of the year just past, not a time for material gain. Though there were some years with substantial material gain.

My fondest memories of the holiday are not of receiving gifts, though I did love to receive gifts. No, my fondest memories are the sometimes kitschy decorations we had, some of 1960’s vintage, and some true antiques. They are memories of quiet times, with the TV off, with all the lights dimmed other than those on the tree. The warm glow of colorfully painted bulbs filling the living room. I remember going to my father’s Uncle Ralph’s house on Christmas Eve, to drink punch and have candy, fruitcake and other sweet treats.

And there are memories of decorating the tree. I loved to hang the unbreakable plastic ornaments that my parents bought in England. I loved to hang the fancy Shiny Brites that were hung from the hightest boughs, where the cat couldn’t get them. I loved to drape fistfuls of tinsel from every limb. And every time I remember decorating the tree as a child, I remember a football game that was on one year when we were decorating the tree – the Dolphins vs. the Colts. It must have been from 1972, the year the Dolphins went undefeated.

My memories of Christmas have more Hail Mary’s than Holy Mothers.

And so I think it’s OK for a committed Atheist to celebrate Christmas without a twinge of guilt, or a feeling of hypocrisy. Yes, it’s a Christian holiday. Then again, many of the rituals were co-opted from Pagan traditions. Cultures have been holding winter celebrations for eons. These celebrations will outlast Christianity, of this I am certain. It doesn’t have to be about Christ. It can be about the lights, and the shiny ornaments, and the quiet times, and connecting with family. I believe this without a hint of hypocrisy.

Southwestern Style Christmas Ornament

Southwestern Style Christmas Ornament

Baseball-related Christmas Ornaments

Baseball-related Christmas Ornaments


Photo Meetup

Sunrise Shooting, originally uploaded by Roadduck99.

On Saturday morning, I joined over 20 other photographers for a photo meetup at Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I belong to two photo meetup groups on Flickr – Capturing Maine and the Maine Photography Meetup group – and these two groups arranged a meetup in conjunction with East Coast Photography, which has members from throughout New England and beyond. Normally the gates to Fort Williams Park, home of the lighthouse, aren’t opened before dawn, but the police chief arrived at 6 am, which allowed plenty of time for folks to park and set up before the 6:30 sunrise.

November mornings can be pretty chilly, but there was no wind, so the mid-30’s temperatures were easier to bear. The clear skies revealed the planet Venus bright in the eastern sky, upon which I kept my eye as I made the 40-minute drive from Brunswick. I didn’t manage to get any shots of the bright star, but my friend Beth arrived early and captured a nice photo of the star shining alongside the lighthouse.

Sunrises and sunsets are usually most spectacular when the colorful light has clouds to bounce off. We weren’t so lucky as to have any cloud cover whatsoever, but we did benefit from a nice glow along the horizon, as seen above, not to mention some delicious light on the lighthouse from the Sun’s first rays of the day.

Portland Head Light

I post what I consider to be my better photos to Flickr, but I also post some to Facebook (sometimes the same ones, sometimes different ones). I’ve received some compliments from my Facebook friends, who think I have some talent as a photographer. I find this interesting, because I have no formal training in photography, nor do I have anything resembling top-flight camera equipment.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, whether or not one has any particular talent for photography, at least half of the battle for getting a good photo is won by being at the right place at the right time, and having your camera ready.

This summer I made an effort to get my daily exercise by taking a bike ride in the early morning. I always took my camera with me, because the hours surrounding sunrise and sunset provide very photo-friendly light. As a bonus, the summer mornings also often provide a lovely mist over the rivers, lakes and fields. One need only snap a few shots to be rewarded with a couple of winners.

Under a Blood Red Sky

Androscoggin River at Sunrise

That’s not entirely true. The other half (or so) of taking a great photo is to be able to control the light. Light is really the most important facet to a photograph, and getting the tones right can be a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, this is accomplished mostly through mechanical means, so anybody can learn how to improve their exposures. And even if you don’t get it quite right with the camera, most digital cameras capture enough of a dynamic range (light to dark tones) that you can spiff up your photo after downloading it to the computer.

The third aspect to a really good photo is proper composition. Or, as I like to call it, “taking enough photos that you get a couple that look good.” Composition is the artistic part of photography, in my opinion, and what sets the great photographers apart from everybody else. But like everything else, composition can be learned. This is why I love the meetups, and the Flickr community. Nothing will help you improve your photography more than seeing the beautiful pictures that others have taken, and learning how they got those results. And photographers are always happy to discuss the craft.

So if you really want to be a good photographer, all you have to do is work at it a little bit. Getting together with other photographers is fun, fulfilling, and educational.