Amateur Optics and Learning to Photograph
I think everybody, in some way or another, has an innate desire to be creative. Even the introverts among us have this basic need to share ourselves through material expression. Recently photography has been the outlet that satisfies this oft-neglected existential need in my life.
With light and shape to guide my shutter, my aim is true: take interesting photos of the natural world to share with friends and family alike. It sounds corny but it’s also a lot of fun. The hobby has helped me get out of the house during my time off and I get to create some really cool images (not to mention memories).
Last summer I took a road trip from way-up in Central Jersey all the way down to the Southwestern corner of North Carolina. It was down there, at a street fair, that I started talking shop with a one of the locals about his landscape photography.
Being that we were on vacation and traveling to a strange new corner of the world, I had my camera on me at that time. He asked me if I did photography for a living, and I confessed that I was just a hobbyist—that most my income from the past year had come from working in warehouses.
I did mention that I knew folks who worked in portrait and event photography. He let out a sort of relaxed chuckle and let me know that this was his full-time job.
Apart from from planning for and attending the two-dozen or so Arts Festivals he attended ( with a healthy dose of attendance at street fairs and open-air markets in the warmer months), he spent all of his time honing his craft.
It’s weird to say, but I think of him now as some sort of art world carny—coming down from his mountain home twice-a-month with his roadshow of canvas and ink, driving across the country, selling his best works, and stopping to capture the local environs for future prints, only to return and plan his next campaign into the open market.
The whole exchange has stuck with me for some time, so there must be at least some merit to it.
As pictured above I shoot on a Sony NEX-6. The two lenses in my kit are a MD Rokkor-X 45mm 1:2 and a Sigma 19mm 1:2.8 DN. When you account for the the crop sensor the focal lengths in 35mm terms work out to be 72mm and 29mm respectively.
The Rokkor was a freebie from an old friends kit and the Sigma was $120.00 used—all of my equipment combined would be easily be valued at less than $500.00. For those on a budget you can really get a lot of mileage from a these smaller mirrorless devices. Companies make mount adapters between the e-mount (Sony’s proprietary lens mount) and almost any other lens imaginable, which opens the door for the use of a lot of quality glass from the bygone film era.
The 19mm works really well when trying to capture “the full picture” of a setting. The lens gets a lot sharper if you stop it up to f/4.5 and that works well with the golden hour light you would use it with anyways. Perspective warping makes it challenging to use it for any close-up portraits, but from about four-meters away you can get good results.
This has been my first “real” dive into digital photography, and in the time since I’ve first started toying around with the camera back in 2015, I’ve put a lot of effort into mastering the art of well-wrought, interesting photography.
In the past year or so, I’ve also been trying to spend more of my free-time either on walks or longer hikes. To be honest I’ve gotten a bit out of shape (which was the original catalyst for this new habit) but getting out to the trail more often also affords me the chance to crack out my NEX-6 to try and capture some of what makes the natural world so incredible.
My gear might not be the best in the world, but it’s been perfect for learning the basics of the craft and cutting my teeth on some interesting projects.
Shinrin Yoku or Why We Love Landscapes
Nowadays, anytime I’m travelling or heading out to the woods for some meditation, I always make sure to bring my camera along. At this point it’s force of habit that keeps me doing it, but from this practice I’ve come to realize the important connection I feel with planet’s arboreal landscapes—the great forests of the world.
When I was grasping at straws for a way of describing that spiritual connection, my girlfriend suggested that I might be describing the Japanese concept of Shinrin Yoku or as it’s translated forest therapy.
I’m always skeptical of the intersection between scientific research and and popular health. One week chocolate is an anti-oxidant panacea; the next week it’s a gluttonous scourge of sugar and cocoa on the human body.
I try to not to take too much stock in these factoid-sized kernels of supposed wisdom, but when it comes to the health benefits of shinrin yoku the research really checks out. Lowered blood-pressure, stronger cognition, and better mood are all par for the course after a weekend of woodland exploration. Maybe that’s why all those backwoods hippies and redwood rednecks seem so relaxed all the time.
And the forests truly hold such a special place in our collective consciousness. We evolved on the borderlands between forest and plains; rivers were our first highways. The mountains with their caverns were our first homes. We can never truly get back to nature because we never truly left it; we carry it with us.
This spirit of wonder in the face of a natural beauty guides me most as a photographer. Having a camera to capture family moments and social events is always nice, but as an artistic endeavor it’s the call of the wilds which piques my creativity. There’s a certain flow to landscapes and nature photography in general. In studio photography you’re in control of the space, the light, the background and foreground. But, when you’re out on the trail, the sun and weather dictate the sort of light you have to work with. Wispy wind-swept clouds are a welcome addition to any shot but there’s no way of guaranteeing them on a given day.
There are tricks to improving your odds at a good shot—one technique is to shot in the times right around dawn and dusk to take advantage of the sun’s “golden light” at those intervals— but on the whole it’s about getting out there, exploring new places, and seeing what I come home with. There exists a certain randomness to it that makes it a lot of fun and challenging.
2.35:1, 4:3, and the World of Aspect Ratios
As I inch past the basic lessons of technically proficient photography, I’m beginning to experiment with techniques that add a little artistic interest to my work. Sharp details and perfectly metered exposure get you half way there, but, just as importantly, I’ve begun really focusing on thoughtful composition. It’s something we learn to work towards very early on in our practices but takes the most time of all to perfect.
A great tool for pulling interesting compositions out of a picture in post-processing is cropping down to different aspect ratios. The wideness or tallness of any particular image determines so much about a picture.
As of late I’ve been particularly keen on aspects that go a little wider than the ubiquitous 16:9 of HDTV. I think for me it’s a combination of the association these aspects have with traditional cinema and the way that the viewer feels closer to the photograph as both eyes move from left to right across a scene as they do when looking on a real-world scene.
The captivating quality of these wider aspects also lends itself to a dynamic feeling. Horizontal movement gets framed and highlighted in such a wonderful way that it keeps me coming back for more. The
When cropping down to a 2.35:1 aspect (as opposed to 4:3 or square), a subject placed at the vertices of a golden triangles feels more “in” the scene rather than “on” the scene, if that makes sense. Look at the two pictures below and consider the difference of effect created by the different aspects.
I say all this, but I don’t necessarily foresee the 2.35:1 aspect (the modern cinematic widescreen) becoming the dominant shape of my images to come. It has really opened my mind’s eye to new composition possibilities. Each aspect ratio has its own set of golden triangles and rule of thirds. These classic guides of composition hold such different potential “feels” for every aspect ratio.
For now photography is my way of preserving the body and mind against the tide of everyday life. It motivates me to get the most out of everyday and offers me a really interesting area of study. Like any medium different artist use it to different ends. For me it’s about a proximity to the natural world and an appreciation of flora and fauna, earth and water.
As a kid, more than sports or other leisure time activities, hiking and camping brought me outside. I was fortunate to come up in a part of Pennsylvania that still had a great deal of natural features and greenspace. That area has seen a lot of development in recent years but it still holds a special place in my heart.
And on occasion I still think about that photographer that I met on my trip last summer. He’s made this hobby into a livelihood and for me that’s something I can only dream of for now. There’s so many great creators out there that I can hardly expect my meager output to be met with any sort of traditional success.
But that’s OK because it’s a passion that’d I’d be sad to lose should it become a necessary labor instead of a labor of love.