Sunday, January 28, 2018

Why I'm learning how to use a DSLR camera

My partner in a window seat at a restaurant

You ever see a photograph in one of your social media feeds that stops you from scrolling past it? Perhaps it's a picture of an old wooden dock with huge pylons extending into lake, so still it looks like glass with a reflection of a snowy peak in the distance and the sun rising over it. Or maybe the scroll-stopping image is a candid, black and white portrait of an old man holding a half-burned cigarette, staring off-camera back into the years of his life that's left him gnarled and wrinkled.

Isn't it funny that in our world of bite-sized video clips, and the rest of the quick-hit media we consume, we find so much meaning in one still-image? By capturing one moment in time, the photographer tells a story that she sees through her camera. For us, her audience, that story is up for interpretation. While photographing the old man holding the cigarette, the photographer is framing what she sees in the context of that environment. What you and I get out of the photo, however, are our own unique perspectives. It's story that began with the photographer's opening sentence -- "It was a dark and stormy night..." -- and that we fill in with our own imaginations. Those pictures that stop you in your tracks and make you imagine the greater picture at hand are what draw me to photography -- storytelling through a still-image.

Water running from a kitchen faucet
This may be my second time using the camera, experimenting with capturing something in motion.

As a kid I used one of those disposable Kodak cameras that took 25, or so, pictures, then handed off to the developer at the local drug store; the kind of camera that used to be left on each table at a wedding reception for guests to snap off blurry, candid, drunken photos of each other for the newlyweds to enjoy the rest of their lives in marital bliss. I took pictures of classmates in middle school (which is the late '80's), my dog who wanted nothing to do with being photographed, my and dad on a camping trip, and other moments that I wanted to preserve -- stories I wanted to relive again at a later date. I used those little one-time, disposable cameras into my early 20's, artlessly trying to frame a shot to hold onto.

At some point in my late 20's I got a little Sony digital point-and-shoot and continued with my artless photography, staging poorly framed and lit group photos, and clumsy, candid shots that probably annoyed most of my subjects. Although the idea wasn't at the front of my mind, it's around this time that I started developing an interest in capturing images of people doing things. Seriously. I mean it as simply as that: people doing things. Whether it's a chef flipping food in a fiery skillet, or someone crossing a city street in the rain, an umbrella shielding their face from the camera, or two people laughing and chatting at a window-table in a cozy cafe, people doing things speaks to me. The stories you see in a photo I capture are likely different than the stories I see, which are certain to be different from the stories the subjects are living. But they're stories that ignite our imaginations and take us someplace different from where we are, if only for a moment.

Man in Market Square, Portsmouth, NH
People doing things.

Then, of course, along came the ubiquitous mobile device, nearly all of which have a camera. Everyone can now tell a story, and many of us do. From what we're eating, to where we're vacationing, to how good we look with our faces pointed skyward, eyes wide, and joyous mouths agape, we can all tell a story. It took a little time using my own phone as a camera to realize, and embrace, my interest in visual storytelling. Focusing on where the subjects were in the pictures, I became more aware of how shots could be mindfully framed. Light became more of a thing, too. I started to pay attention to where light was coming from and how it affected the picture as a whole. And cameras on phones have become so good at point-and-shoot, creating images that look much better than anything I'd taken before, that the act of photography became satisfying. I haven't been fooled into thinking I'm a good photographer, but taking a decent photo goes a long way to liking the act of capturing it. And that's been made possible by the cameras on these super-computers we carry around in our pockets.

Last year around this time, my partner got herself a dslr camera. You know what I mean. When you see someone carrying one around, you presume he or she's not just taking pictures like you or I do on our phones, but that at some level he or she's a "photographer". That camera's been sitting around, mostly unused, until recently. After a brief inquiry into my partner's good faith and willingness to loan me her dslr, I picked the thing up and started mashing around with it. Turns out, my total ignorance on how to use the camera is reflected in the photographs I took. However, the thought of storytelling with a device used to capture those scroll-stopping images has been enough inspiration to learn how to use my partner's camera. If you've read this far, then it's safe to assume you like the idea of storytelling with pictures, too.

Tiny house in a snowstorm
My partner's tiny house in a snowstorm.

So, what you'll see a lot of in the coming blog posts are my stabs into the darkness of learning how to use a dslr and hopefully shedding a bit of light on storytelling with still-images. I'm no expert in anything, and I'm not purporting to be someone who has any business offering advice in the photography world. However, the little I learn will be shared here, and hopefully you and I can grow with it in our own pursuits of visual storytelling.

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