As children we have all done the paint by numbers sets, at least those of us who are older. I’m not sure that they still sell them any longer.
Paint the coloured areas with the appropriate paint. Stay within the lines. Voila. Instant painting.
That would seem to be a test of following rules rather than using any kind of creativity and the last time I looked, photography was a creative art.
I am old enough to remember the paint by numbers books. I disliked them. I struggled to keep the colours within the lines or use the right colours to match the numbers and was often admonished for not "following the rules". Inadvertently I was being taught that art was about following rules and that I was not good at it.
It wasn't until my early college years while attending Drew University1, that I dared to try my hand at creating art. I took a summer photography course. The instructor was "artsy" and pushed us to explore light and composition with my Pentax P3. I still have the camera.
I learned how to develop film and make prints, mostly black and white. By the time I had finished my engineering degree and graduate school I had forgotten the craft.
Drew University is a liberals arts school in Madison, New Jersey where I majored in Physics and minored in Mathematics (of course!). ↩
I am still learning and this is after over forty years of taking pictures. The learning process hopefully never ends.
How do you learn? Before you plan a photo trip to Iceland or Patagonia or any other exotic place you need to become familiar with how light falls upon your subject, how to recognize interesting weather, to compose and to process your images.
I think one of the smartest things that I did shortly after buying my first DSLR kit1 was to take classes with local photographer Frank Veronsky. Frank patiently taught me the basics of composition. He did not instruct me on the settings of the camera suggesting that I learn to compose first then "fiddle" later. Over the last twenty years, I have attended various workshops and field trips with Princeton Photo Workshop all with the intent to improve my ability to "see" the light and create emotion in my photography.
But workshops and field trips are useless unless one practices every day. Several times over the last twenty years I have done photo-a-day projects, photo-a-week projects and last year, photo-a-month. Practices make perfect and although I still have a lot to learn, I know my photography has improved with time. It was only after I felt that my basic skills had improved that I started attending day-long workshops.
I think it is money well spent and I am still learning to compose and play with light. This year I intend to attend fields trips in and around Philadelphia and New York City.
A Nikon D40 with the AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. ↩
When taking photos, my eyes are always scanning the horizon, framing and composing in my mind. If something clicks, I stop on the side of the road and often have a half dozen DIFFERENT photos within the space of a few minutes. Would my photos be any better if I took longer and deliberately thought out and planned purposefully what I was doing? I will probably never know because while planning for one shot another three pop into my head and just as quickly they disappear.
I get the attention deficit thing. I discovered that listening to music on my phone and wireless headphones can help focus my mind. But wearing headphones means being unaware of my surroundings in situations where sight and sound are essential.
One thing that frustrates me about where I love is that I see these beautiful scenes on my way to and from the office or while driving around town, but the narrow-one-lane-no-shoulder country roads don't allow for stopping, and we don't have any sidewalks here either. It can be a strange site for other motorist watching a car slow-down and stop briefly while the driver rolls down the window and stick out a DSLR camera and lens. It works when traffic is light only.
Sometimes I get lucky, and the scene unfolds before me, traffic is light, and the road has a shoulder. But still, there is no time to pull out a DSLR, set up a tripod, compose the shot, set camera settings etc. Sometimes, there is just enough time for a grab shot shot on the iPhone. It's the best I can do at that moment.
Being without my Nikon1 has forced me to use my iPhone 7. The camera on the iPhone 7 is much better than the camera on my previous iPhones. But I am less happy with recent images taken with the iPhone 7 and less willing to use it in general. But by using a DSLR for most of the pictures I captured over the last few years, I seem to have forgotten how to compose and think through capturing images with the iPhone. Looking back through my catalogue over the last few years, I have many old iPhone images of which I am proud.
Why am I so stuck now? Why am I not even trying? Why am I struggling to put my "best foot forward"? Have I become one of those people who think that a good photo can only be captured on expensive high-end equipment. I hope not!!
For the last few weeks, while driving along Mapleton Road on the border between Plainsboro and Princeton Township, I have observed the beautiful morning sun that illuminates the expensive homes on the western side of Carnegie Lake. There is no place to stop and take a photo. But I am determined, and perhaps tomorrow I will arise before dawn, drive to the southern end of Mapleton Road, park my car at the entrance to the Delaware and Raritan Canal Park Trail, and walk the trail, with the tripod and iPhone 7, north toward that area. I expect the walk will be quite cold.