Today, I’ve been presented with a thought that, while it’s not a new one, has taken on new significance. What is it about photography that draws me in? Is it the click of the shutter, the thrill (or agony) of seeing the results of those clicks, the endless array of challenges presented each time I pick up my camera and try new things? Or, is it something more deeply rooted that that?
Many times in the past few years I’ve experienced the mad array of all the emotions I just mentioned above. I’ve photographed some high school senior’s who are on the brink of moving into the vast future with all it’s hopes, dreams, and possibilities. I’ve photographed families who were gathered together for celebrations (including my own family), capturing memories for them. I’ve photographed two weddings, literally praying my way through each step of the day in the hopes that I wouldn’t mess up too badly. I’ve photographed youth events, cooking classes, musician portraits, and a wide scope of “random” theme’s that stretched me beyond any shred of creativity I thought I had. Every time I pick up my camera, I find that I’m involved in a search for something. I’m searching to find a purpose, to capture a story, to fully document the breadth of whatever I’m witness to at that moment.
For me, photography has given me an outlet to create a story. Some write putting pen to paper. I write with my camera. I find that my deepest desire is to find the story around me, to capture every large and small detail and I really don’t want to miss any part of it. I also have come to realize that, while I may find much fault in the technical side of what I’m doing, my greatest joy is when others are blessed by something I’ve been able to document for them. I’m also frequently surprised that I was actually able to pull it off! Ha ha!
So why am I finding today to be a reflective pause in my life? A couple of years ago, I was asked to photograph a large family while they were all home at Christmas. One of the granddaughters was going to be getting married the following summer and the grandmother, who was a friend of ours, asked me if I’d be willing to do some portraits for them as it would likely be the last Christmas they would all be together for the holidays. I took the pictures and when I began editing them I could just see flaws everywhere in what I’d done. Things “growing” out of people’s heads, arrangements that didn’t look all that great on camera, poses that weren’t as flattering as they could have been. I reluctantly gave her the photo disk, feeling as if I’d not given them something as great as I’d hoped I could do. She, on the other hand, was thrilled with them and said it was the best Christmas gift I could ever give her. She was so happy to have family portraits that documented their family that year before the big changes began. What she didn’t know was that the biggest change they would encounter would be her own passing. 5 months later, she was gone. It was the last family portrait in which she would be present.
More recently, I volunteered to photograph a very special early Christmas for a little boy with cancer. What a joyful day it was and what a moving experience to be able to tell the story of that day in photo’s. Each surprise of the day was captured, many gifts that were opened caught on camera, and a myriad of expressions and family moments documented. Cyle, the little boy whom all the celebration was for, wanted to live until Christmas. It seemed that he had only a short amount of time left so some wonderful people stepped up and threw him the most wonderful Christmas celebration ever, complete with “snow”. People who didn’t have a lot of excess themselves contributed not only with their time but with their money and, more importantly, with their hearts. It was a true celebration which, in Cyle’s own words was “Just exactly like I thought it would be!!”
This morning, while most of us were asleep, Cyle lost his battle with cancer. In the process of contemplating the impact of the loss to his family, I was struck by another thought. Giving that family a disk with photo’s from the last celebration with him, capturing family moments, excitement, tiredness, joy, and love is what makes me feel fulfilled. They didn’t care that some of the pictures weren’t up to “snuff” for my own standards. They were just blessed that they could have photo’s to remember the day by; to remember Cyle by.
What draws me in to photography? The insatiable thirst to document the memorable moments in the lives of those around me. The image of little Cyle, cuddled in his blanket at the end of the celebration exhausted from the activity yet filled with joy over having experienced Christmas. For Cyle’s family, I hope and pray that they will find the photographs from that day a treasure to their family, a chapter in the story of Cyle’s short life.
This past weekend was a busy one, photographically speaking. Well, in truth is was a busy weekend activity wise as well. Walking into the weekend I had no idea how the work I was about to do would turn out. Would it be acceptable to those who were seeking portrait work? Would I be able to pull off those things that I had read much about, practiced little and yet needed to master in order to make it all come together?
I received a phone call last week from my son’s drum teacher requesting portrait work for his new website. In talking with him to determine what he was wanting, I surmised that I needed to be able to master lighting, which is something that I have played with yet not really applied “in the field”, so to speak. I wasn’t completely sure if I could pull off what he would want and wasn’t sure if my style of photography would match his vision for his website. Walking into the weekend I felt a lot of unknowns yet, being the “dive in” personality that I am, I dove in and decided the worst that could happen is that we would not be able to match styles and he’d need to find someone else to re-shoot the photo’s for him. Or, I could completely bomb out and not get the lighting right.
We chose a couple of locations, one being the local train station complete with a freight train zipping past while we were setting up, and the other location being our church which offers a stage on which we could work. The stage, however had a lot of musical equipment and sound equipment already set up and ready for Sunday morning worship.
I had invested several hours over the past year and half working on learning lighting and playing with off camera flash. More recently, I watched a CreativeLive webcast from the guys at LightenupandShoot, who do street photography and use only off camera flash for their lighting. Having read their instructional posts on their website, and then seeing the webcast from CreativeLive, I have begun to feel a bit more comfortable with the idea of working with light. I would not say I feel confident about my abilities, but I definitely thought maybe I could have a chance at getting something usable.
My equipment consists of one off camera flash mounted on a tripod flash stand, an umbrella, and a reflector set. The off camera flash is triggered by a Yongnuo trigger/receiver set. My flash gun does not have any manual adjustment abilities, which translates out to one level of light and that being very bright. I have additional flash attachments but only have one receiver at this time. None of my current flash attachments have the ability to be “dialed down” in their brightness.
Eliminating distracting elements and creating a black background were my priorities. I positioned my flash slightly off to one side, raised the light stand to a fair height with the head of the flash gun pointed downwards to light the scene. I tried to get it as close in to the scene as possible without having it be seen in the pictures. My lens of choice was my Nikon 18-55, f/3.5-5.6. Being limited as to how far back I could get from my subject, I thought this might give me the best chance of getting the look I was going for.
A few practice shots to try and adjust the lighting to get the most out of my setup and we were on our way. I moved the light stand around to different locations with the hope that it would help reduce deep shadows on his face yet light up the drums that were positioned around him. We also did some more traditional portrait shots with my flash mounted on the stand and shot through the umbrella in order to diffuse the light. Getting all that we thought we needed, we called it a day.
The following day was a more typical type family photo session, with a few senior portraits thrown in for good measure. We have friends who were needing some quick family pictures so we met at a local florist shop to do some photo’s. Again, it was a location with a lot going on in the background and, for this one, I didn’t want to have the black backdrop but wanted a lot of color in the pictures. It was a challenge to find the right corners of the store, to then pose 6 people in those corners and not have too much going on in the background. They are a very fun family, adorable kids, and lots of laughs. We did a variety of poses with them then decided it was enough torture for one day. We threw in a few “practice” senior portraits of their daughters best friend as well.
In the hours of editing that occurred after both of these photo’s shoots, there were many reflections going through my mind. In every single opportunity I’ve had so far, I have learned lessons; some have afforded small growth opportunities, some afforded huge growth opportunities. This weekend with two very different sessions provided their own twists and turns in my growth as a photographer.
1) I learned that I can do lighting. While I have such a long way to go in learning how to really fine tune it, to eliminate sharp shadows, and position it all for optimum results, I was able to mostly black out the background and rid the distractions from the photo’s. What I wasn’t able to accomplish on location I was able to deal with in photoshop. (not that I want to spend the hours doing that on a regular basis, mind you, but for now it helps me to arrive at a final product that works)
2) I learned I have a LONG way to go in my lighting abilities. My equipment works for now but optimally I need to have flash guns that allow manual adjustments in the level of output. And, I needed 2 flash guns instead of the one I had. 2 would have likely balanced the light and shadows on his face that diminished the quality of the final product.
3) I learned that location scouting is ultra important. The train station was my favorite place; I love the quirkyness of a guy in a suit playing the drums next to the train tracks. It’s unexpected and that’s what I like. The stage at our church provided an indoor location that we could make work yet it did not provide the results that I really wanted. I could not get back far enough to get the more wide angled look I wanted. It was frustrating to not be able to achieve the look I was going for. I could not think of a different location so this was what we had to work with.
4) I learned that I still need to grow in the area of creative posing. Unless I have a distinct idea of what I want, I find myself without any clear direction of what would work. I can work my camera and equipment with a fair amount of competence but I definitely struggle when it comes to knowing how to compose the shot. I’m good with one person, for the most part, but add people and the level of discomfort rises. It’s not the people that are the problem, it’s the not knowing what to do with them for the shot.
5) I learned that I continue to love portraits, I love people, I could work for hours behind the camera trying to capture the personality of the person/people I’m photographing. I’m very hard on myself, which isn’t helpful, and I’m truly awestruck when people are happy with the results.
Every time I head out with my camera it is an opportunity for growth. Regardless of the hurdles that I encounter, and there are still many of them, I am energized by the process of working to give every person who stands in front of my lens the results that they are hoping for.