Catastrophe or Catharsis?

 

Let me just say straight away that I am 100% at fault. I heard what people said and dismissed it. I heard the horror stories of people who didn’t heed the advice of “professionals” and discounted them. I’d harboured a mistrust of those handling that mysterious “cloud” data so didn’t investigate it. All that complacency and mistrust of “The Man” did was lead me into losing thousands upon thousands of photos I’d taken since around 2005 when I got my first digital camera.

Shit.

To make a long story short, last week I plugged an external terabyte storage device into my laptop, the device with all my photos on it, and it failed to connect. That was the exact moment panic swept across my entire being. To make matters even more unsettling, we were leaving for a weekend trip so I’d have to wait until we got back to figure it out. I tried all weekend not to think about the “worst case scenario”, but it was hard not to.

Once we got home, I took it to some experts to see what the problem was and see if the data could be retrieved. The ugly verdict was the drive was fatally corrupted and there was less than a 5% chance they could extract any of the that data, even a little bit…at a cost between $500 and $1,500…with no guarantee. Ouch.

As I drove home from the data recovery place, it felt as though someone had kicked me right in the crotch with one of those fancy pointy-toed cowboy boots. The thing that made it doubly worse is I knew it was my own fault. I owned this one 100%, period.

But before I was home, I sort of came to terms with the loss. There was no more wondering if I could get those photos back because I couldn’t. I’m not saying it didn’t sting, but there was nothing I could do and the pain from that initial gut punch subsided. The unknown was now known, as ugly as it was.

I knew I had to let it go, and I did.

As I thought about everything on that drive, the photos I was most devastated about were my travel photos, especially from my sabbatical in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. My extended travel there was one of those times in my life where I can point directly at it and say the experiences literally changed my DNA. Honestly, I could’ve easily pulled over and cried for a day or two over losing those photos alone, but at the same time I felt sort of at peace. I knew in my soul I hadn’t lost the experiences, only lost the material representations of those experiences. In fact, the experiences there are what allowed me to accept losing the photos.

Over this past week, losing the photos has obviously still been on my mind, but it’s not consuming me. I can’t say I’m laughing about it just yet, but at least I’m not nauseous anymore.  I’ve purchased a couple more multi-terabyte storage drives and some cloud space to store things going forward with hopes this will never happen again. You could say I’m now working under the title of the “Department of Redundancy Department”.

I lived, I learned.

On a positive note, my buddy Jason who I traveled to Nepal/India/Bangladesh with still had some of the photo CDs I’d burned for him so I’m gratefully getting those back. A few other friends have sent me photos I’d taken of them in the past, so there’s that. I’d made prints of my favourite or more meaningful images from all of my travels so I still have those. I know I’ll never be able to get everything back, but at least there is something.

I’ve also decided to keep the corrupt external drive for a while with hopes that technology may advance to the point where something can be harvested from it. Not overly optimistic, but you never know.

I’m now looking at this miscue as a catharsis of sorts. Yes I lost the photos, but it also makes me appreciate all the associated experiences that much more. I’ve thought about all the travels and life experiences more this week than I have in years, which has been absolutely wonderful. Who knows, maybe this will even put me on a new path to becoming a better photographer, one who appreciates and treasures every single image I produce even more…and one who backs up their work in more than one place.

Climb high. Ski fast. Live simply.

 

Spontaneity Wins Again

A friend from Salt Lake and I recently met out in Fruita, Colorado with hopes of shooting some landscapes around Colorado National Monument. For the couple of weeks leading up to the trip we scoured photography sights and Google Earth searching for potential photo locations. In addition to that, we’d kept a close eye on the weather hoping for interesting storm clouds to make for those gigantic and dramatic skies common to the desert. We even plotted our tentative photo locations on the Photographer’s Ephemeris just so we’d be sure to have unobstructed lines to the sunrises and sunsets. We made note of sunrise and sunset times and quasi laid out each day so we’d have plenty of time to get where we wanted, find a composition and get our cameras set up. This is so unlike both of us since we’re both kind of laissez faire when it comes to trip planning, but again, with limited time, we thought it might be a good idea.

All that planning and naturally it didn’t even come close to what we thought.

In short, it was way hotter than the forecast predicted and was actually quite miserable. There wasn’t a “dramatic” cloud to be had anywhere for three days. The places we thought we could get the best shots were mediocre at best and always left us scrambling for alternate compositions. And those exploding sunset colours common to the desert sky? Yeah, never materialized.

We eventually got a few sunrise exposures in the Monument we thought were acceptable, but certainly nothing “portfolio” worthy. However, by total accident, I got one photo that I’ve become quite fond of. Not an award winner for sure, but it’s grown on me and taught me a bit of a lesson.

On the very first evening we were out near the Kokopelli Trail in Loma (CO) hoping to get the classic desert sunset shot of the surrounding mesas using the Colorado River as the obvious leading line into what we hoped was going to be an amazing, colour vomiting sunset. My buddy eventually found a composition he thought would work and I too flailed around for about an hour until I thought I had something myself. Again, nothing revolutionary or all that unique, but it was something. It was honestly one of those obvious shots probably millions of mountain bikers had made millions of times before…but damn it, we were going to shoot it anyhow.

While we waited for the light, with cameras mounted on our tripods ready to go, we’d chat with passing mountain bikers and try desperately not to lose the incessant battle against some ferocious mosquitoes. As I alluded to before, the light stunk, no clouds for background interest, no brilliant colours and my composition was average at best, but I took the shot anyhow. I then looked at the back of my camera, said “meh” to myself, then began packing my stuff away. I wasn’t really all that disappointed because the elements just weren’t there.

As I was leaning over my backpack to put my camera away, a mountain biker was approaching rather quickly. For some reason I quickly lifted my camera (it was literally just inches from being completely in my bag), pointed it at her and activated the shutter. I hadn’t made any adjustments to the “landscape” settings from my sunset attempt so I figured they’d be all wrong. Also, I had the camera in the single frame mode instead of rapid fire mode so I figured my chances were probably nil for even getting her in the frame in a single shot. It was a total reactionary move to point the camera her direction so I had ZERO expectations at all. I honestly didn’t even look at the screen to see if it worked and just crammed it into my bag and kept packing away for the dark hike out.

When I got home and downloaded everything into Lightroom, I immediately deleted about 75% of everything “landscape-esque” I’d done. The majority  of them simply weren’t all that interesting. I might even say “boring”. The one that surprised me though…you guessed it…the random reactionary shot of the mountain biker. Award winner? Not even close. Portfolio worthy? Probably not. Fine art? A laughable thought. But I liked it, a lot.

For days I’d glance at it and the more I did, the more I liked it. Not sure why, but it became one of my favourite photos of the weekend.

I think the unintended consequence of the photo was that it reminded me to never try and control the situation but adjust my creativity to the moment at hand. Yes, I can plan a trip, look at weather forecasts and even line up my compositions with the Ephemeris, but that in no way will ever guarantee it will work the way I think it will. I don’t live my life that way so I shouldn’t expect my photos to work that way.

My favourite photos always come from spontaneous situations where the moment came to me, not me going to the moment.

Climb high. Ski fast. Live simply.

Does A New Camera Equal Better Experiences and Photographs?

Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Sandpoint, Idaho, Nikon D7200, 50mm f1.8, ISO 100, 1/1000

I’m currently considering buying a new full frame mirrorless camera. Because of the expense involved, there is naturally a lot of thought going into my decision including a nauseating amount of research and the associated technical comparisons. I’ve finally got it narrowed down to two or three options but the lingering question for me is this, “Will having a “better” camera with more technology actually change my experiences, make me a better photographer and consequently result in better photographs?”.

I’m not typically the kind of guy who buys the latest and greatest of anything simply because I feel the need to stay current. I held onto my flip phone until it died and my wife forced me to get an iPhone 4 so she could actually text me. I typically drive my vehicles for more than ten years and have no problem looking at 150,000 miles as the benchmark for when I start to think about getting something else. I’ve been wearing the same Suunto Vector watch for more than fifteen years and as beaten up and worn looking as it is, it still reliably let’s me know what time it is, the barometric pressure and what altitude I’m playing at! Newness doesn’t matter much to me, but dependable functionality reigns supreme in my world. I know that’s not sexy, but it’s the way I roll.

When I went to Nepal, Bangladesh and India a few years ago I took my old and trusty Nikon D90, a couple of good prime lenses and a handful of memory cards. In today’s measure, that “archaic” 12 MP crop sensor dinosaur would have a hard time competing with the technology of a middle of the road cell phone’s photographic capabilities. Regardless of the fact that that little camera had already traveled with me to lots and lots of countries, been beaten up in the backcountry for years here in Colorado, dropped a few times and been dried out after snowstorms on our kitchen counter many, many times, it was a reliable piece of kit and I never hesitated once to take it with me. I was never easy on it, but it never let me down and helped me capture some of the best experiences of my life.

A couple of years ago I sold the D90 and bought a new camera with twice the megapixels, faster processor, better sensor, faster continuous shooting capabilities and all the things Nikon promised would make me a better photographer. I mostly justified the purchase at the time because I’d literally put those benchmark 150,000 miles on it and it was maybe finally time to move on. The new camera has been fantastic and held up under some rowdy treatment including some rough crashes on backcountry ski days and some rather nasty weather duty, so so far so good. To my delight, I know for sure the D90 is still being used and still delivering a reliable experience to the new owner.

Have my photos gotten better with this new camera?  I personally think so, but I also believe a lot of that is my continuing development as a photographer. Getting the new camera re-stoked that creative fire in me and I’ve spent more and more time learning the craft. Yes, in the photos I’ve subsequently blown up I can see a difference those extra megapixels make, but are my compositions better? Yeah, probably, but again, that’s simply a function of ME getting better, not the camera.

This morning on the commute down to my office, I wondered to myself if having my current camera, or the even more expensive camera I’m considering would’ve made my past travels and experiences different or “better”. The short answer is I really don’t think so.

I travel around and play hard in the mountains solely for the experience of living the fullest life I possibly can. The photos I take are a byproduct of those experiences and sometimes I’m fortunate enough to sell some of them. Having a different camera with more technology may give me sharper images and the ability to print larger formats, but I highly doubt having another camera would’ve changed a single thing about the experiences themselves. Chasing the experience puts me there, not having a better camera.

I’m a firm believer that a better photograph is simply a function of the quality of glass you put in front of the camera and the creativity of the person standing behind it, not necessarily the technology inside that little box. Ansel Adams did pretty well for himself with a fraction of the technology we have today, right?

Yeah, I’ll probably add the new camera to my fleet, but I know in my heart it won’t change the way I see life.

Climb high, ski fast, live simply.

Challenging Myself to Get Better

Transitioning back to ski mode after a long climb.

Later this year I’ll be returning to the Himalaya, this time to join a handful of professional photographers where we’ll spend three weeks photographing the cultural treasures and mind blowing landscapes of northwestern Nepal.  Having been to this region before, it’s hard to overstate my excitement to be returning to such a physically demanding and sensorially overwhelming part of the world.

I consider myself a semiprofessional/avid hobbyist photographer where I sometimes sell my work to individuals or publications, but my primary income isn’t from photography. More than that though, I truly love the art of photography and I’m constantly striving to learn and expand my skills. I know traveling with a group of professional photographers from all over the world will be a treasure trove of information, and I honestly can’t wait to immerse myself in it, but it also brings a certain level of pressure, real or perceived.

Much of our trip will be trekking at altitudes well above 4,400 metres (about 14,000 feet) with a couple of days over 5,500 metres (18,000 feet) and I think it’s safe to say the physical demands of this trip will be a given. Partner that with frenetic markets, language challenges and every other challenge that comes with international travel and the idea of trying to be “creative” all of a sudden becomes a little more daunting.

There is no way to eliminate all the physical and cultural challenges, but what I can control is my proficiency with the tools of the trade. I’m pretty comfortable with my camera and it’s controls, but in the time I have leading up to my trip, I’ve dedicated myself to reviewing the basics, gaining efficiency with functions I don’t use as often and digging into some of the things I’ve never used but always thought would be helpful. When I step off the plane in Kathmandu I want my camera to be something I know so well that whenever creative photo opportunities arise, I’ll need to spend a minimal amount of time faffing around trying to figure out how to make it do what my creative mind wants.

To help start getting myself used to more stressful shooting situations, I decided to give myself a little “pop quiz” in adversity during a photo assignment. I wanted to stress myself physically while simultaneously putting pressure on myself to cover all the photo basics necessary to make a competent photograph.  In other words, I wanted to see if my procedures for composing and capturing a photo were second nature enough to where I could do it instinctually and not have to think too much.

This was my challenge:

  • I would go to my local ski area well before sunrise and climb up to an observation point high on the continental divide. I wouldn’t be allowed to stop other than to adjust the risers on my bindings for the steeper parts of the climb. The point was to make sure I was physically “stressed” when I arrived.
  • I would “reset” my entire camera to the default settings in order to force myself to think about every single step in making a photograph.
  • I could meter in aperture mode but had to shoot in manual mode.
  • I had to hand hold the shot.
  • I had to shoot using f1.4 and compose to maximize the bokeh effect
  • I could use no flash even though it would be extremely low light (partly why I chose f1.4)
  • I would have a five-minute time limit to compose a photo, get my camera settings done and make the photograph…and only take one shot (complete pass or fail).
  • Finally, I had exactly one hour to complete the whole challenge…car door to car door.

I’m a pretty strong climber on skis, but I’m certainly no hyper speed randonee racer, therefore I knew I had to push the pace a little going up, but I also knew going too fast would redline my heart rate given I was already starting at about 3,350 metres (11,100 feet) to begin with!

In short, I was able to climb to Ptarmigan Roost in about forty minutes. It took me a few more minutes to get situated, get a sip of water, strip the skins off my skis and make sure nothing would blow away since it was super windy. After that, I started the clock on my five minute “photo” allowance.

I found a composition I liked fairly quickly, but because I was physically stressed and cold, I really had to stop and think through each part of my camera settings a little more carefully, which took time. Once I had the settings where I wanted, I quickly retraced each step since I only had one chance to get a “good” photograph, then I hit the button.

I barely looked at the screen on my camera to see if I got anything worthwhile because remember, I still had to ski back down to meet the one-hour time limit. I quickly (but carefully!) crammed my camera back in my pack, glanced at my watch and saw that I had about 6-7 minutes remaining. I hurriedly clicked into my skis and let it rip. When I hit unlock on my car’s key fob, I still had three minutes remaining.

The photo I took? Well, I was pretty happy given the circumstances.

 

 

Maybe these challenges are silly, but it truly helps put me in situations where I’m not 100% comfortable and forces to me to fall back and reaffirm my knowledge of the basic skills.

Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.