Sheer Joy

I got my first camera over 30 years ago… it was a Minolta X-700 35mm camera, well before the advent of personal computers, camera phones, Photoshop… and even before auto focus. It was state of the art gear at the time though, with auto exposure, aperture priority and shutter priority modes and a sync socket for professional flash units. I didn’t buy the camera to make money, only to finally have a camera that didn’t disappoint me every time I got my film back from the lab. I wanted to have clear pictures of my kids and pets for me to look at and enjoy. I got the camera to experience the sheer joy of photography.

Red Fox Napping

Red Fox Napping

It never occurred to me that I could make money with a camera until I was going through a divorce… a guy at work admonished me to be sure to keep the camera, that I could make money with it! I didn’t really think too much about it at the time but I knew that I wanted the camera anyway, so it was the one thing that didn’t go out the door with the ex along with everything else I owned 😦 But… as it turns out, child support is expensive and so was photography at the time. Buying film was pretty low on the things to do list and the camera remained unused in the bag for years, except on special occasions like trips to visit the kids and my rare trip to Phoenix with my buddies for the first annual Phoenix Marathon.

In he early 90’s, the computer business was changing rapidly and I could see the writing on the wall… there wasn’t going to be much use for mainframe operating systems analysts much longer. I wondered what I was going to do for a living if my computer career went completely south. People kept telling me that the pictures I took were better than the ones they hired someone to shoot and I recalled the words of my friend about making money with my camera. So I thought what the heck… a little research about how to go into business and I put out my shingle. A decade of senior portraits and wedding photography later I purchased my first digital camera, the Canon EOS-1D. It was awesome and without the cost of film and processing to consider I could finally consider my dream of becoming a stock photographer. Those were great times, not many photographers had made the transition to digital, prices for images were good and the internet was exploding along with the need for quality imagery. The future looked bright!

But then the price of the cameras came down, image quality at all levels improved by leaps and bounds and it wasn’t long before everyone was getting in on the action. Not long after I started submitting images I had a large enough portfolio that I could count on receiving a check every week and I was making plans for a new career. But it wasn’t long before the industry was awash in imagery, prices were crashing as big players cashed in trying to corner the market with profits on volume and razor thin margins.

Now I’m lucky to get one minuscule check in an entire month. Photographers are treated like dirt by the agencies who profit from their work, some taking as much as 85% for themselves and their stock holders while often paying the photographer just pennies for an image. Stock photography has become barely worth the effort, in fact it has become little more than an insult to the artists.

So today I almost left my camera behind, what was the point in bringing it along? But as I strode along through the woods I was glad I had it with me. I love the feel of the cold steel in my hands, the sound of the lens jumping to attention in it’s effort to quickly focus and the clack of the mirror scrambling to get out of the way in less than a thousandth of a second to make way for the light to come pouring in through the lens and onto the sensor. Today I didn’t see much, the mountains were the same, the trees the same, the lighting the same… but I was still happy to be carrying the camera. Then I spotted the distant fox sunning himself in the prairie grass. The animal was way too far away to get a salable shot but I stopped to shoot anyway, I couldn’t resist. As I shot the images I thought back to the days of my clunky manual Minolta X-700 and the joy that it brought me to just create for the sake of creation. Not that long ago I would have passed the fox by knowing that he was not going to make me any money… but now I realize, I still love photography and I still love creating for the sake of creating.

Once again, it may be time for a change in philosophy, from a mind focused on business to simply a camera focused on the sheer joy of making pictures. Mr. Fox here could be the turning point, the first sign of a new life focused on joy instead of profit.

High Tech Photography Considerations

My time here in Cripple Creek has led me to reevaluate some fundamental rules I have used to get good images since my early film days with my manual focus Minolta X-700. Over the last decade and four Canon digital camera models, my circumstances and technology have changed considerably. The specific fundamental rule I am thinking of is the shutter speed versus focal length rule of thumb for sharp pictures, “minimum hand held shutter speed equals 1/focal length”. So, if you are shooting all the way zoomed in with a 200mm lens, your minimum shutter speed would be a 200th of a second.

The rule of thumb held true with my first digital camera, the original Canon 1D and my consumer grade 300mm Canon lens. That camera was only a 4.5 mp CCD sensor version, creating a native 300ppi image of around 5″ x 8″, pretty similar to the 35mm film versions of old. That guideline continued to hold through my 10D and then my 10mp 40D, although in the meantime I had purchased my amazing Canon 70-200 F4L lens with four stop F4L image stabilization technology.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Then came the 20mp Canon 70D camera body… However, Woodland Park is in a valley, everything I wanted to photograph was nearby and life was good. Even Pikes Peak was practically in my back yard, usually requiring no more than 100mm of focal length. However, the move to Cripple Creek has changed things considerably, at least for local photography projects. The Sangre de Cristo and Collegiate Peak mountain ranges are 60 to 100 miles away and I almost always shoot them fully zoomed at 200mm in the faint early morning light. As a stock photographer I review all images at 100% in Photoshop and I am starting to notice some disappointing results. So recently I have been conducting some focal length versus shutter speed tests, only to raise more questions than I have been able to answer.

After a good amount of research it has come to my attention that our high tech improvements have brought about the need for some changes in my shot planning. For starters, my 70D has a 1.6 crop factor. In other words, the sensor is only .6 the size of a full frame 35mm camera and that has to be taken into consideration, changing the shutter speed calculation to 1/focal length * crop factor. My 200 mm lens is now the equivalent of a 320mm lens, reducing the minimum shutter speed to 1/320. Of course the four stop IS can be taken into consideration, although I’m not sure I can count on always being able to reduce my shutter speed by four stops.

Also requiring consideration with the latest generation of cameras is the incredibly small pixel size required to fit 20 million of them on a sensor, not to mention what it takes to accommodate 50 million pixels that some of the more expensive models might be sporting! Such tremendous resolution not only shows the finest image details, it also reveals the most minute flaws and camera motion. I was not able to come up with a new and infallible rule of thumb, however I did learn enough to know that my old assumptions are out the window with yesterday’s technology. I also learned that it will be a good idea to lug my Manfrotto along a lot more often, and to make sure to keep my shutter speeds up when I am required to hand hold my camera during important projects. My new unofficial aspiration is going to be to try to shoot with 1/400th or maybe even 1/500th of a second when I am shooting at 200mm focal length. Of course that is not always going to happen, especially when I am shooting wildlife early in the morning. However I will be paying a lot closer to my ISO values during those shoots. Definitely don’t want any more of those 1/30th speeds!