Backgrounder 1

My initiation into photography


I am not a photographer by vocation. I have made a few bucks on occasion selling prints, and even won some awards in competition, but I’m no pro and don’t claim to be any kind of an expert. Photography is not a means to external rewards but a challenge to satisfy something within me.

I’ve shared very little of my portfolio beyond my computer screen, in part because for a long time I never thought anything I shot was good enough. So I found myself nodding along with Neal Gruer as I read his post Embracing Failure in Photography as I assessed the success/failure ratio of my portfolio.

So what can a photographic introvert say that might be worthwhile?

To figure that out, I pushed the keyboard aside and spent some time looking through photography posts on various platforms to get a feel for what others write about and how it was received.

What I saw was an abundance of “how-to” or “every photographer should…” and “the (#) best…” list-based articles, all projecting an “authority” vibe. List-based articles are a typical magazine approach to content creation that people like to read to see if they agree. I’m a sucker for that schtick, too. Maybe I agree; maybe I don’t. Regardless, I won’t presume to be someone who could or should write such things.

What I did find most engaging were posts written from a distinctly individual perspective, not as much technically oriented as they were toward the aesthetics of the author’s own work or that of someone who has touched and influenced them, imparting personal insight and inspiration worth passing on to others. Do I have anything like that to offer? I think so.

So I will dive into the deep end with my “initiation” story that would lead to my photographic adventures and misadventures: Lessons learned about photography, and from photography; my subjects and their world, me and mine, and the relationship between the two.

Please grab a favorite beverage, relax, and join me in this series of backstories. Maybe we share some common experiences.

My photographic pursuits didn’t develop from any conscious thought or desire to pursue photography, rather from problems I was having with a neighbor and a need to document what was going on.

I purchased a digital pocket camera that could be used to surreptitiously take simple pictures and video. I didn’t put much effort into learning about the dials, buttons, and menu items. I was able to get what I wanted from it without expending much effort learning the hows and whys. That was as deep as I wanted to go into “photography,” which seemed like a complex (and expensive) hobby that would take time away from my other distractions.

Nope, not interested.

The pocket camera began to fail after only a couple of months. So I bought another….and another…each developing one problem or another rendering them useless in short order. Fed up, in the winter of 2007–08, after happening upon an ad from one of the major NYC camera mega-stores, I decided to spring for the moderately priced DSLR kit they were promoting featuring the Nikon D80 with the 18–135 and 70–300mm kit lenses, for about $1200 — a substantial investment, especially after wasting several hundred on pocket cameras.

I spent only enough time with the manual to learn how to get up and running as quickly as possible in auto mode with the 70–300mm lens in order to document the neighbor’s continuing aberrant activities. It was pictures-only as no DSLR camera (digital single lens reflex) did video at that time.

Eventually, I came to realize I now had a real camera that cost real money, so I should spend real time learning how to use it. And so began my education in real photography.

Are you with me so far?

Once spring had sprung, when the mood struck (very occasional), I would putter around taking shots of all the landscaping, gardening, and repair work I was doing outside — when I wasn’t documenting the neighbor’s shenanigans (and lamenting the inability to take video when doing so).

My shooting was random and directionless snap-shots. My knowledge of the exposure triangle was quite rudimentary, but I did manage to at least graduate from auto to program mode on the camera.

I put the camera away for the winter but picked it up again one day in January of 2009 to get a few shots of a hawk, and again later while visiting Longwood Gardens in March (some of those images will appear in other backgrounders).

When I began spending considerable time outside in the early spring, I might break out the camera on infrequent occasions when there was something to shoot that interested me. My shooting continued to be random and unfocused until two events I captured in May that would prove to be the impetus of my future inclination toward nature subjects, and close-up in particular.

The first came about when I had fairly easy access to a robin’s nest and documented the action within from beginning to end, and even after fledging. I was rather proud of myself for staying with such a long project. Those images will find a home here in time.

The second event occurred on a gray Saturday morning when I was shooting small insects and some bees that were working the tiny flowers of a tall holly that had been planted the previous fall.

I was shooting this bee as it was working a flower cluster at about eye level on this cloudy day.

A very important bee to me

The bee began to slowly fly to the left and up from my position. I attempted to follow the bee with my eye in the viewfinder. Somehow, I managed to get it in-frame against the cloudy gray sky and just stabbed the shutter release button.

I would stop shooting at regular intervals and take a little time to review shots on the camera screen to see how I was doing. I’m certain my first impression was to delete this shot in-camera based on what I saw there. But I didn’t (and would recommend not ever doing so). Later, when I was reviewing all the day’s images in my editing app, and the same shot came up full-screen, that first impression seemed confirmed: It was a crappy picture. The cloudy background, the bee flying away, its head not in view, was not an image that anyone would call a good “portrait” of the spectacularly indistinct subject. Dark and devoid of detail, it was a dreary shot.

But I didn’t mark it for deletion because of what I also saw in the capture of the bee’s wings.

I had not been very interested in the technical aspects of photography until this shot. It was a pure-luck capture that contained chapters of technical lessons in one frame. I had to know the hows and whys of the wings. I began to spend considerable time reading and visiting resources online to really dig into the technical aspects of digital imagery in general, stop-action in particular.

It would be quite some time until I figured out the technical details. All I knew at the time of the capture, was that it had tickled my brain, changed my outlook about photography in general, certain aspects of shooting close-up nature in particular, and set me on the path of my future photographic destiny.

That’s my “initiation” tale. The story continues in Backgrounder 2.