Laying the Foundation for what Promises to be an Expensive Habit

After a few years of cultivating the habit of taking photos, I began to spend more time watching tutorials, browsing photographer’s websites and generally soaking in as much inspiration and as many tips as possible. It’s surprising how many people out there are fascinated by photography once you start the conversation. At one point a friend invited me to the end of year showcase for a local photography club. Each photographer presented a 2-3 minute slideshow of their photos. Some of the collections were incredible, shot in and around the lower mainland, and were so inspirational. After attending the showcase I had an overwhelming urge to join a club like that, or at least be around other people who also wanted to spend their spare time with a camera. I looked up a couple of local photography clubs and while they all said “beginners welcome”, it seemed the focus (pun discovered on proof reading and made me giggle!) was really on gear, and a LOT of gear.  That can be a little intimidating to someone who only has a point and shoot camera, or an Iphone, an Olloclip and a gorilla pod. There were local classes, lectures and tutorials available, but they all required a much more substantial camera than I had.  I ended up taking a few  online courses that were specifically related to composition and light. I figured that was a good place to start, since if a photo has pleasing lines and composition, I feel the eye is a bit more forgiving of other technical shortcomings. The courses were important as they gave me a bit of confidence, and I gave myself permission to just take photos and not worry about all the rest of the stuff I don’t know yet. Now I know there are bite sized bits of accessible learning available when it becomes relevant to me, I don’t need to figure it all out at once. That keeps the fun in the game!

Through all this, I had an Instagram account that I posted to occasionally, but without much intention. At the same time, a good friend of mine, Chris, was getting really into IG and was embracing all the social aspects of IG as well as the photography. He has since become something of an IG star, if you want to see IG done right, check out his gallery! He encouraged me to join him for an Instameet where a group of people, some friends, some strangers, all gathered at a location, in this case New Westminster Quay, to socialize and take photos. People had everything from cell phones, to polaroids, to high end gear. And the best part, we all got to see other people’s perspectives of the same experience when the photos were posted to #newwestwalk.

One of the other fun happenings that came from that first Instameet was the introduction to #thenewwestproject, a hashtag formed by the visionaries at the Sixth Street Pop Up and Gallery. They encouraged people to post their photos of New Westminster to the hashtag, then they selected 30 or so of them for the opening show in their new little Pop Up gallery. Two of my photos were chosen for the show, and I was so excited! It was such a great community project, and it was fun to share the experience with some of the other Instagrammers I had met at the Instameet!

Chris and I spent a rainy evening on Columbia Street in New Westminster trying to trick our cameras into capturing the
Chris and I spent a rainy evening on Columbia Street in New Westminster trying to trick our cameras into capturing the “perfect” out of focus shot. It was lots of fun, and I’m pretty sure everyone who saw us thought we were nuts!
Nuts or not, it was worth it, as this photo was one chosen from #thenewwestproject and was displayed at the opening show at the Sixth Street Pop Up and Gallery!

For a while I was content with posting photos to Instagram, although it was pointed out to me that my lack of a “theme” is a limitation on IG.  I take pictures of things that move me or I find interesting, and that can really be anything, from nature to “stuff” to whatever the heck the photo above is!  Maybe over time I will find a niche, but that hasn’t happened yet. There is still too much to learn about, well, everything. The second limitation I noticed with IG is that while there is lots of encouragement and validation, there is very little real feedback. It doesn’t matter whether you post a spectacular landscape, or a picture of your breakfast, you get the same “heart” emoticons and accolades. The the virtual love is certainly nice encouragement, and great to receive, and I’m also looking for actual tips, suggestions, pointers for how to improve as a photographer.

In the search for practical feedback I opened a Flickr account and a Fotoblur account, but never really bonded with either site. Finally, through my cousin’s good advice, I joined the photo-sharing site Viewbug. I still use IG as I do like the social aspect, but mostly I post photos to Viewbug these days. On VB I’m not limited to a square crop, and I get genuine feedback on my photos. Even the “award” system narrows the feedback down to categories like composition, creativity, etc. making it focused and constructive. I can also sort my gallery from newest to oldest post, or by most popular, which I really like. There is a particular “type” of photo that has risen to be the most popular in my gallery, mostly close-ups of birds and animals. Sunsets also do well, but landscapes tend to languish at the bottom of the proverbial heap. There are daily competitions and challenges, so I often enter photos in those, and gather even more feedback.

Ironically, this is my
Ironically, this is my “most popular” photo on Viewbug. It’s a flower from a container on my patio, I was using it to play with the macro settings on my camera. Add in a little Colorsplash app (supposedly a cardinal sin) and the most popular photo is born!

I suppose here is where I should confess that I bought another camera, still not one of the “big guns”, but one that suits what I am doing and gives me more options to try out.  I bought a Nikon P900. It has a built in 83x optical zoom, which is so much fun to play with! It has dozens of preset scene modes, but also has a pretty good range of manual settings, that I’m beginning to get the hang of. Right now it is the perfect camera for me, though I’m sure the day will come when I feel it’s limitations and finally invest in something more substantial. That day has not yet arrived, my camera and I are still on the honeymoon!

With that, I will leave you with one of my favourite shots so far from the Nikon P900!

The zoom on the Nikon P900 make it the perfect camera for photographing birds! I happened to spot this heron mid-meal at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Ladner, B.C. This was the 4th fish the greedy guy gobbled down, while I clicked away. The fish looks a little startled, as he realizes his luck has just taken a downturn!
The zoom on the Nikon P900 makes it the perfect camera for photographing birds! I happened to spot this heron mid-meal at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Ladner, B.C. This was the 4th fish the greedy guy gobbled down, while I clicked away. The fish looks a little startled, as he realizes his luck has just taken a downturn!
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The Great Wall, and Open Doors

Where did we leave off? Oh right, the dismal photographic failure on the Bowron Lake chain. It was not long after that I purchased a “Kathy Proof” camera, a Nikon AW120. I’m so glad I have this little camera. It goes in my backpack for skiing, hiking, can handle watersports (more so than I can, in honesty), and was purchased just in time for a tour around China!

The trip to China was a guided tour, so our in-country transportation and accommodation was looked after, but much of the tour was cycling, hiking, and otherwise active transportation. I was travelling with a backpack, and the little Nikon AW120 was ideal as it was small, rugged, and takes great pictures. And oh boy, there were pictures. If you have never been to China, I highly recommend it! We travelled with G Adventures and I was so impressed with the number of major landmarks they packed into the 15 day tour! It was action packed, with amazing sites every day, no shortage of photo opportunities.

What a rare treat to have the Great Wall almost to ourselves! We spent 2 fabulous days on the wall, the first day on restored sections, as seen here, the second day on an unrestored, beautifully rugged section. I wasn't sure how to edit this, as the smog was quite heavy, though fortunately not right down to the ground that day. I feel the black and white gives the best sense of the texture of the wall in the foreground. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
What a rare treat to have the Great Wall almost to ourselves! We spent 2 fabulous days on the wall, the first day on restored sections, as seen here, the second day on an unrestored, beautifully rugged section. I wasn’t sure how to edit this, as the smog was quite heavy, though fortunately not right down to the ground that day. I feel the black and white gives the best sense of the texture of the wall in the foreground. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The one challenge I faced and didn’t know how to overcome, either in the moment, or later in editing shots, was the heavy smog. At first I thought it might pass in photos as “mystical mist”, but it became apparent it doesn’t behave the same as mist or fog. It has grey/brown color that shows up in photos, and it often comes right down to the ground, making even close up photos a bit hazy. It’s really as gross as it sounds. Apparently it’s not always as bad as it was when I visited, but that’s the luck of the draw, I suppose. I resorted to black and white edits quite a bit to downplay the smog, which was a bit of a shame as there were so many vivid colors, vibrant landscapes, and beautiful buildings that are integral to the culture and the history of China. The Ping’an rice Terraces were one of those  vibrant sites, such an amazing place to hike through, especially right as the rice was ready for harvest. I feel like this photo is a bit over-edited, compensating for the smog that washes out the amazing landscape a bit in the unedited photo.

The beauty of the Ping'an Rice Terraces was a highlight of the trip. The rice was ready for harvest, and had a beautiful golden glow. The terraces were first built by the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), and have been worked by hand ever since.
The beauty of the Ping’an Rice Terraces was a highlight of the trip. The rice was ready for harvest, and had a beautiful golden glow. The terraces were first built by the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), and have been worked by hand ever since.

One of my favourite cities was Xian, and I was so happy that we stayed there for a few day. There was so much to see, and the evenings were absolutely alive in the city, particularly in the Muslim Quarter, where there was a huge market and loads of delicious street food. On our way to the Muslim Quarter, we walked past the city’s Drum Tower, all lit up against the backdrop.

The Drum Tower of Xi'an, along with a Bell Tower, are the symbols of the city, and mark the beginning and end of each day. The bell rings at dawn to welcome the new day, and the drums sound at dusk.
The Drum Tower of Xi’an, along with a Bell Tower, are the symbols of the city, and mark the beginning and end of each day. The bell rings at dawn to welcome the new day, and the drums sound at dusk.

Once we arrived in the Muslim Quarter, the streets and adjacent market were alive with people. It was crowded, but there was such a light atmosphere it didn’t feel close, like large crowds sometimes can. We sampled some traditional foods, some delicious, some less so!

Sampling the glutinous rice cake (as delicious as it sounds...) in the Muslim Quarter in Xi'an. A moment captured in the bustling noisy crowd.
Sampling the glutinous rice cake (as delicious as it sounds…) in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an. A moment captured in the bustling noisy crowd.

Considering I was often rushed trying to take photos as I didn’t want to delay the rest of the group too much, and I couldn’t upload photos to see what I had until I got home, overall I was pleased with the moments and places I captured.

Reflecting back on the trip a few things stand out. Of course it reaffirmed that I love to travel, and although that was my first travel with a tour I’d recommend it, particularly in areas with a significant language barrier. There is no way I could have seen as many tremendous sites if I was trying to arrange all my own transport and accommodation.

Secondly, I realized I wanted to be more intentional about photography. I didn’t want to just be taking a quick shot of something as I whizzed by. I wanted to go places with the purpose of taking photos (maybe not work, my employer would frown on that, but other places!). I also realized I wanted to learn more about photography to improve the quality of my photos. Fortunately for me, all of those wants are possible to attain, as long as I make room for them in my life and habits!

Old Cars and New Toys

I got a little ahead of myself in the last post. In thinking it through, I can’t skip the “my cell phone is all the camera I need” era, there were too many important habits picked up during that time, good and bad.

Some of the first camera phones I had were sub-optimal at best. Their limitations didn’t stop me from taking dark grainy pictures at ever increasing intervals, however, I was pretty delighted with the iPhone 5 when it came along. It became my camera, its communication functionality took a back seat. I always had it with me, and as I got more in the habit of using it to take photos, I started to notice a change in the way I was seeing my environment. Looking back at photos from that time, there is a clear shift from “here’s where I am” to “here is what I’m seeing”, it’s a subtle, but important shift. The idea of seeing the world more slowly appeals to me on every level, as the very nature of the world we live in pushes everything to go faster, to think and do in temporary measures as something different or better will come along within a few breaths. Finding something that gave me opportunities to pause just be for a spell was truly welcome and needed.

It wasn’t all reflection and inner peace, though.  Along came  all the editing apps, filters, and my favorite, Colorsplash! So much fun, it’s like finger painting. I love reading all the blogs and “10 things you should never ever ever do to a photo” opinion pieces that deal out the scathing rebuke for using tools like Colorsplash. I get it, if I was trying to position myself as a “fine artist”, apps like Colorsplash would probably be at the bottom of my list of tools. When I’m trying to entertain myself on a long flight, it’s my go-to game, and no one is going to take that fun away from me!

A few years ago I spent two weeks visiting Cuba with family. We travelled around quite a bit, and saw some amazing sights and architecture. I captured the whole trip, and edited the photos on the iPhone 5.  I was pretty pleased with the outcomes. Once I uploaded the photos, however, I began to notice that I had been quite heavy handed on the editing, and in many cases, the photos were not nearly as sharp as they seemed on that little screen. I started to have the nagging thought that I needed a more substantial camera, and a do-over in Cuba, just for the photos, of course.  The glorious beaches, and amazing towns and cities have nothing to do with it!

The streets of Havana had such an amazing atmosphere, and the classic old cars were a big part of that. This old beauty belonged to our landlords, from whom we rented an apartment for our stay in Havana. They took us to some of their favourite spots around the city in this beautifully maintained classic. Note the application of Colorsplash, it kept me entertained and not pestering my seat mate for most of the flight home!
The streets of Havana had such an amazing atmosphere, and the classic old cars were a big part of that. This old beauty belonged to our landlords, from whom we rented an apartment for our stay in Havana. They took us to some of their favourite spots around the city in this beautifully maintained classic. Note the application of Colorsplash, it kept me entertained and not pestering my seat mate for most of the flight home!

Shortly after that trip, I had another amazing photographic opportunity, a kayak trip through the beautiful Bowron Lake chain in Wells Grey Park in British Columbia.

This is the point where I would share a photo of the beautiful Bowron Lakes with you, but wait, I don’t have any!

On the first day of paddling, we were caught in a fairly substantial rainstorm while out on the water.  Storms move quickly up there, appearing from seemingly nowhere as they blow in over one of the mountains that line the lakes.  Although my phone was in a waterproof case, either through user error or a failed seal, the case filled up with water on the crossing, and I was without a camera for the entire ten day trip. On one hand, being camera free forced me to really experience and remember the trip, but there were more than a few moments when having a camera would have been pure gold. That first night, for example, as I sat on the shore staring at my soggy phone, a moose calf swam by in the lake about 15 feet away from me.  The next day a black bear sow and her two cubs were waiting on the shore near our camp, posing beautifully for a photo, not to mention all the exceptional scenery in that part of the province. I believe that is what the kids these days are referring to as an “epic fail”, on my part!  That experience was what it took to move me to the next step of a journey, the step of the journey where I owned both a phone AND a camera.  Of course, it was a baby step, and the camera was purchased for it’s ability to survive in water, and for being small enough to mimic the cell phone from a portability perspective, but it was a step, nonetheless! More on that later!

Beginnings and Endings

It’s been a long, interesting journey to get these first words typed. I hope as the story unfolds, there are inspirations, lessons, or at least some knowing smiles to be shared! On reflection, I initially thought the journey only started a few years ago, but in fact I’ve been unwittingly traveling the back roads in search of a creative outlet for many years. As a youngster I enjoyed sketching, creative writing, and shrieking out ear splitting renditions of Scott Joplin Ragtime on my alto sax.  I wasn’t particularly talented at any of my artistic endeavours.  Truthfully, I was comically bad at most of it, especially music, but I enjoyed it.  Somehow in the business of “growing up”, all those enjoyable pastimes fell by the wayside. Don’t get me wrong, my life has by no means been all work. I have been a compulsive traveller, and quite active in sports, I have few regrets. However, those pursuits required little creativity on my part, and like any other skill or talent that is not cherished and practiced, my creative streak became a bit tired and faded over time. There was a brief resurgence of artistic endeavour as a young adult, when my dad gave me the camera he used as a young man, a Pentax Spotmatic.  For a few years, I spent time teaching myself how to use the camera, learning all the manual settings, and seeking out additional lenses for it.  I have some very sentimental photos to remember those times. One particularly special memory was a day shortly after my brother had suffered a workplace injury and was off work healing after surgery. We decided he should get out and about for the day, so he, the Pentax, and I went for a drive around the Kootenays to take photos. We stopped here and there, checked out little side roads, streams, waterfalls, and other off the beaten track sites. It stands out in my memory, as my brother and I didn’t get to spend much time together in those years. The Pentax facilitated a nice excuse to get out and spend some time together.

I recently dusted off the Pentax, to learn there is still  a roll of film in it! I will finish the roll, get it developed, and see what treasures it holds!
I recently dusted off the Pentax, to learn there is still a roll of film in it! I will finish the roll, get it developed, and see what treasures it holds!

Despite the enjoyment I had with that awesome old camera, life again intervened and the camera was stowed and all but forgotten for almost two decades. Toward the end of those two decades, the era of cell phone cameras dawned. I don’t think I even realized the bond that formed between me and the sub-optimal cameras in various cell phones. The time came, after losing my “camera” when the waterproof case on my cell phone failed on a 10 day kayak trip in the beautiful Bowron Lake park, I invested in a more rugged camera to ensure I wasn’t caught out on my next adventure.  And the next adventure wasn’t long in coming, but more on that next time!