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Some notes on photography

February 7, 2009

About 3 years ago, I decided that it was time for a new creative outlet. I tend to think of these things like an advanced hobby: it’s a place to try new ideas, vent frustrations, and keep myself busy with something that’s active, not passive (movies, tv, potato chips). I also wanted something that had a low barrier to entry, I could do by myself or with others, and had more of an immediate visual impact. I tend to think visually, but express myself in writing, not visuals. I decided I wanted to see where I could go visually.

I’m not a painter or designer. I can’t really draw. I didn’t want to learn a programming language, or deal with moving images.

Photography seemed right. Up until that time, I had always looked down on photography. This is probably due to 5 years of taking art and art history in high school. We had a very good teacher, who was an accomplished visual artist herself, mainly working in prints of her own artwork. I began a life-long fascination with Georgia O’Keefe and the desert during this time. I own 2 of the 3 excellent full-size Calico Press retrospectives of her work (The New York Years and In the West)…I had to save every penny to get these, and they will probably be with me till I die.

I’ve also never really trusted photography, from a (mis-placed, I’ve learned to my chagrin) belief that it was too easy to do. Everyone has a camera. The barrier to entry is really, really, low. And everyone has a slide presentation (old-school projector or digital) of their wedding, vacation, or their kid’s first year. It all just seemed a little too trite.

Yeah, I was wrong. Admitted in full.

Over the last 3 years, I’ve amassed a very large collection of cameras, equipment, and thousands of photos. I think I’ve taken over 100,000 pictures. I joined Flickr very early in this process, and learned a lot from that experience. I’ve also collected a lot of books on photography, and read countless articles online.

I’ve learned a lot, but not as much as I’d like. I can prattle off f-stops and shutter speeds from memory, but the experience to use the right combination to produce a good image is still eluding me.

One very important lesson I’ve begun to process over the last few months is how staying in something for the long haul not only produces its own rewards, but creates a large body of work and experience to look back on. This is probably the most important life lesson of all: if you stay focussed and contribute as often as you can, you eventually get to the sweet spot.

I’ll probably have more postings in the future. Right now, I’d like to share a few things that you might not have seen in your camera manual or how-to book.

Write down the serial numbers for your cameras and lenses and keep them with you.

Without this, the police can’t return your camera to you if they find it later in a collection of stolen property. Granted, the likelihood of having your stuff returned is low, but every bit counts. Also, once you have multiple camera bodies, it will help you file your photographs properly.

Keep your camera manual or an equivalent with you at all times.

I rarely do this, and I’ve been burned by the technical limitations of the camera I was using more often than I can count. In an age of cheap inkjets, print-on-demand, and online services like and, there is no excuse to have the basics of your camera specs with you at all times. Like blogging, you can write your own book, even if it’s just a cheat sheet only for yourself.

Caveat: printing your own book doesn’t alleviate the burden of obeying copyright law. Personal use allows you to reprint for yourself, not re-publish for others. Be careful if you choose to make your creation available to a wider audience.

Never store your cameras loaded with batteries or film.

They go bad. The film will not turn out and the batteries will rust out your contacts, making the camera useless. This has happened to me.

Unless you are beyond ‘Type-A’, you will not have a very good filing/back-up system when you start. This is ok.

The point is to shoot. If you end up being the next Ansel Adams, museum people will look after this for you when you’re dead.

That being said, you will eventually produce a system that works for you. That system shouldn’t have you spending hours with file-folders and negative sleeves. Keep it simple, and remember that if you shoot digital, EXIF data is embedded in every shot. There is more software to handle EXIF data than there are cameras that produce it, so you have options.

There is a fine line between composition mastery and technical mastery.

You obviously need to have both, but they are equally important, and have nothing to do with the camera you own. There is an elderly lady in the UK who specializes in astrophotography, which is very technically challenging…her camera? A Kodak box Brownie, bought almost 60 years ago. Resolving both composition and technical issues are something that happens in your head, before you click the shutter.

Beware the everything-you-ever-needed-to-know-and-beyond photography books.

They are for pros and camera junkies. If you can stun burglars with the book due to its size, it’s probably not the best beginner book. When you start out, find the slimmest, entry-level book you can find, and read it at least 3 times, if not more. Make sure it covers ISO speeds, shutter speed, depth of field, f-stops, exposure, colour balancing, basic flash usage, and shooting etiquette. You will never need to know anything beyond this to take pictures with any camera. Choose how much more you really want to know.

Law and morality do not always work side-by-side.

I’ve been threatened with legal action twice on the TTC for taking pictures (once for shooting the tunnel ahead of the train, once for shooting buskers). In both cases, I was fully visible, taking pictures of subjects that knew they were being photographed and didn’t visibly object (more on this later). You will find this type of anti-photography behaviour no matter where you go. This is equal parts the reality of a post-911 North America, camera fatigue in public places (everyone seems to be shooting all the time), and the stupidity of shows like Jackass.

In general, be aware of the laws in your region of the world. Beyond that, be aware of your subjects and your relationship to them. If you would not want your photo taken within a particular context, don’t take pictures of others within that context. This is a very fuzzy line that experience will help to un-fuzz, but it will never go away.

Art is about interpreting the world. The complication of photography is you interpret the world by capturing it on film as it happens. You do not have the luxury of a writer who can take an event and use it as grist for a story. What you see is what they get. So, tread cautiously.

History is important.

There are many books on the history of the medium, collections of a photographer’s work, and what are now alternatives to the mainstream methods of producing pictures and prints. You should at least be aware of the history of the medium, even if you only buy a single camera and use it forever. If your aim is creativity, the history of what has been done before will lead you in directions you would not have thought of.

Become a tourist where you live.

Buy a tourist guide to your city. You will be surprised at all the stuff you’ve missed. Go and take pictures of it. Show us the pictures.

Nothing above is particularly original, but that wasn’t the point. And this isn’t everything that 3 years have taught me. You can check me out on Flickr to see what else I know and what I’m blissfully ignorant on.

Remember, have fun with your creative outlets, play safe, stay safe, and don’t take anything seriously.


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