Sometime in the fabulous eighties, I won a ball pen for two photos that I had submitted to a Yashica photo contest. I remember that I was very proud, even though it was probably just a consolidation prize. The photos were taken with an incredible Kodak Instamatic 100. I can still hear the sounds this little magic box made when you hit the shutter. For many years, I then sat on my ball pen laurels and neglected my creative side.
My dad used to teach photography classes, and, as a result, we had a nice darkroom at home. We kids often spent long evenings there, watching photographs being developed while slowly and persistently moving the baths with the oh-so-special-smelling chemicals. There was an incredible magic to see these chemicals do the job as we moved the prints from the developer to the stop and the fixer baths. We learned to pay attention to the details and to work with precision.
That was the age of the rotary phone, well before the age of the Internet, cellphones, and personal computers. Few were the distractions and patience was a virtue. I guess it still would be. Realizing how much work and dedication went into the process from snapping a photo with a camera (analog at that time, of course, and often by using external light meters) until it hangs framed on the wall was an eye-opener for me. As with most activities where you strive to reach perfection, you have to be able and willing to accept failure as part of the process. In fact, more often than not, getting things terribly wrong is the rule rather than the exception. That certainly applied to developing prints in the darkroom. It was a time-consuming, tricky, and expensive process that required a high level of mastery. Yet, once you understood the nitty-gritty details, the parameters, and the constraints, there were incredible opportunities for artistic expression.
Much later, with the appearance of the first personal computers, when image processing was still not a thing, I began to develop a passion for creating and designing what I considered good-looking electronic documents. I still remember the first steps with the Commodore C64 GEOS (Graphic Environment Operating System), which offered rudimentary tools for typesetting, charting, and drawing. That was the early eighties. Later, it was PageMaker for Apple Macintosh.
I think I always had a good feeling for composition design and knew, without being able to explain it, when something looked “right.” When you get things right, there’s a tension like in a string that is tuned to perfection. Over the years, that feeling has changed and evolved into something more reliable.
Post-film, Pre-Instagram Days
The next stage in my random photography journey was dominated by documenting trips, vacations, and adventures with several cheap digital cameras that I purchased over the years. Cell phones were not quite a thing at that point yet, let alone cell phone cameras. I lacked any artistic understanding or ambition whatsoever. Yet, I have archives of literally thousands of more or less random shots, a few of which are reproduced below. None received any post processing. I had no clue what that even meant at that point.
First DSLR Steps
For a 2011 backpacking trip to Patagonia, I finally got my first digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) kit, a DX-format Nikon D3100 with a 35 and 200mm lens. Not sure why really. Perhaps I just felt like I needed something new. I had great fun with this camera, but rather sooner than later realized its limitations.
As many beginners, I got sucked into the HDR-craze at that time. I took thousands of bracketed exposures and post-processed my shots in a way that leaves me rather speechless today. What was I thinking? I guess not much. Below is my very first HDR shot. I remember that I was incredibly proud that I was able to take three exposures with a tripod and managed to use some random HDR software to process them into a final image.
On the other hand, my HDR days taught me two things: the importance of post-processing and the importance of using tripods. The importance of post-processing became even more clear as I started shooting in RAW format with my next camera. Never before had I post-processed a photo. I simply downloaded them from the camera and that was it. Now I suddenly had to learn how to use Apple’s Aperture software, and later Adobe’s Lightroom, plus plenty of other tools that I had never even heard of before. I bought books and read, and read, and read. And more importantly, I played and failed, and played and failed again, then some more.
Photography Genres: Living in the Street or in the Country?
Although I briefly experimented with other genres over the years, I’ve always been drawn to landscapes and street photography, with a preference for black and white shots. To me, these two genres are somehow opposites. Composing a landscape shot may take a long time, you may take many exposures, deal with the elements, and perhaps wait for hours for the light to change. It’s a slow and peaceful process that unites you with the environment. Street photography, on the other hand, is all about catching a scene that may never happen again in the right split second. You have to anticipate things, observe very carefully, blend in, and always be ready. I guess I’m mostly a street photographer by opportunity. If I travel to interesting cities, I’ll pack my gear, but I won’t specifically go to places just for the sake of street photography. It’s different for landscape photography, for which I often take trips specifically to visit places I think will result in epic shots.
For both landscape and street photography, I developed a love for minimalism over the years. Clear lines that guide the eye, symmetries, and empty space are perhaps some of characteristics that describe my style. Over the last years, the Oregon deserts were a sheer-endless source for precisely that kind of theme.
Going Full Monty
In 2012, a year after purchasing the entry-level Nikon D3100 kit, I decided to purchase a professional full frame (FX) Nikon D800E camera for my 40th birthday. At that time, the D800 was considered an ideal landscape camera and offered one of the highest resolutions (36.3-megapixel) on the market. The E-version came without a optical low-pass filter (OLPF). That leads to higher sharpness, but one has to be more careful about moiré and false colors. I added two of my all-time favorite lenses: an AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II and an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED. The entire purchase turned out to be one of the few (and positive) key decisions I made in my life. Although a materialistic object in itself, the camera quickly became an adventure-enabler that led to a seemingly endless stream of experiences that people always say you can’t buy with money.
A camera, in many ways, learns you to see. While I quickly felt the limitations of the D3100, the D800E made me realize my very own limitations instead. There was a lot I needed to learn. So I did, and I still do.
After going through a few light and rather cheap tripods, I finally got a massive carbon-fiber Really Right Stuff tripod that keeps my gear stable like a rock. It is not exactly a cheap purchase—no doubt—yet, for doing long exposure photography, it is pretty much a must-have.
Looking back at my photo history and at all the shots I published online turns out to be a rather ambivalent experience. On one hand I am shocked by the overall quality of many of the shots, on the other hand, I feel I can see progress. If you want to progress artistically, you have to increase your standards. So it is perfectly natural that what you once considered “good” is suddenly not anymore.
The creative process is—well—a process. I try to learn new things, new techniques, new styles, new ways of expression as often as possible. The cost of that is generally failure. But again, that is part of the process. Perhaps it is easier for me to freely explore and experiment with my visual expression because I have no need to become a professional. I can fail miserably and it has pretty much no consequences, well, except perhaps people unfriending me. Luckily, there is also no need for me to make money with photography. In fact, I deliberately stayed away from selling my photos so that I can keep smelling the freedom and do what I like, without the need to please customers. Instead, I simply share my trails and tribulations online under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) that allows everybody to use my photos. I also find it comforting to know that I could stop any day, without people even noticing.
Nevertheless, producing art and “shipping” it requires courage, whether you are a pro or not, whether you feel pressure or not. As Seth Godin writes on his blog:
Another risk of online sharing is to fall into the please-the-crowd-trap. What people like may be far away from your artistic core values. For example, it is easy to see that my (oversaturated) color shots get a lot more likes than the minimal black and white one. Yet, that is where my passion lies. It requires effort, courage, and frustration-tolerance to produce and ship what you believe in, independent of what the crowds seem to tell you.
So, what’s next? And how does one continue to grow? I feel I have a lot more to learn. For example, I’m currently watching Zack Schnepf’s tonality control videos to learn new post-processing techniques.
As a complete amateur without any formal training in photography, I will continue to strive for perfection, increase my standards, and take great pride and pleasure to create beautiful photos that hopefully inspire others in one way or another.
While the photogs are currently salivating over the new Nikon D850, I doubt a new camera is what I need at this point. I’m interested to improve my techniques and to evolve my artistic explorations, not my gear. It’s good enough for what I’m doing.
Besides the posts on this blog, I generally share all my photos on the following sites: