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.

 

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Competitive Art? I’m Not Really a Fan.

I’m not a competitive person at all, never have been really. I played organized sports back when I was in school, but to be completely honest, I liked the training processes more than the competition itself. Of all the sports I participated in back in the day, individual type activities like track and field best suited my personality.

Since then, my pursuits have been oriented to those more individual type endeavours. I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a long career of backcountry skiing, mountain biking, climbing and trail running, and to this day I get far more out of a day when I can just go out and have fun and not feel like I need to measure myself against others.

I also typically take my trusty camera along with me to the backcountry. Beyond the obvious photo opportunity reasons, it tends to slow me down, forces me to look more closely at my surroundings and keeps me completely tied to the present. Most importantly though, it’s my creative outlet of choice.

I’ve always considered photography a form of art, but in the past several years I think I’ve come to appreciate photography as an art form. Instead of simply looking at a photograph for only the visual aspects, I try to imagine why a photographer paused to take a photo in the first place. Why did they feel the need to capture it? Was it something truly personal or just something to make money?  Maybe what’s in the frame is less important than what’s NOT in the frame, and what could that something be?

Because I strongly believe that art is truly a creative reflection of the artists themselves, I’ve never really been fond of art “competitions”, but then again, I’m not competitive. Art is 100% subjective at its core, so how can there really be a universal measure of what is good or bad, right or wrong? Some of the most iconic photographs ever taken have not adhered to the rule of thirds, had balanced light, had perfect bokeh, etc., yet they’ve managed to capture an immeasurable or esoteric quality that rendered them universally appealing. How do you measure that? Of course this very subject is covered extensively in one of my favourite books titled “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig.  

We are all unique individuals with our own unique experiences and perspectives in life. Similarly, we are also unique in our way of interpreting art. There is no right or wrong, good or bad, winner or loser, only individual interpretation.

When I really stop and think about it, art is the most basic form of self-expression and maybe even a creative manifestation of the photographer’s entire life. Art is art. Wouldn’t it be nicer for everyone if there were a little less competition and a lot more simple appreciation of it?

Liberating Crabs

One of my favourite books of all time is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. If you haven’t read it, it’s a fantastic book about the metaphysics of quality. I think what resonates most with me is Mr. Pirsig’s discussion of how people learn and why some people excel and some will struggle with conventional education methods. Reflecting on my own education (formal and “life” education), I clearly see how and why I do better at some things and struggle with others.

I’m definitely an experiential learner. Instead of someone just telling me something is fact and accepting it as such, I prefer chasing things down random paths to see where it’ll take me. Maybe that’s my curious nature, but I personally feel like I need to do that so I’ll have a complete understanding of the situation. I even refuse to use that driving app thing (Siri?) because I need to look at a real map and feel like I have a relational connection to where I am. I may take a wrong street every now and again, but that also helps me learn for future reference.

An artist friend of mine turned me on to another great book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The book is a discussion of how our society doesn’t nurture creative thinking, but instead migrates toward conformity. In one example, he equates the creative process to crabs in a bucket. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, it’s more than likely one or two could easily get out. However, before they can liberate themselves, the others will inevitably pull the non-conformists back in. Same with creatives. If someone thinks outside the norms, maybe doesn’t adhere to the Rule of Thirds in a photograph for instance, it makes the majority all twitchy and they will do their best to drag them back into conformity. This says more about the insecurities of those pulling the creatives back in than it does about the creatives themselves, right?

I follow a couple of photographers on YouTube and noticed they’ll sometimes set up their tripod in a crowded place and start shooting. I have to admit the thought of that makes my skin crawl. All I can see are those armchair experts (crabs) coming over to give their two cents on composition, lighting or whatever.

I’m pretty confident overall with my skill and vision, but there again, I need my clear, unfettered space to think through things in my own way, wander around aimlessly when necessary, make mistakes and grow my understanding of things without the distraction of crabs trying to pull me back in the bucket. I already think my creative time and space is extremely limited so having that time altered tends to make me less than happy.

Yesterday saw some impressive storm clouds building to the west so I decided to go out to shoot a couple of compositions I’d spotted over the past couple of weeks. This was unfortunately near a well-used hiking and biking trail. Before I could talk myself out of it though, I loaded up my camera backpack, jumped on my mountain bike and headed over to the mountain parks adjacent to my house.

Naturally, at the very place I wanted to set up, I noticed a few trail runners, mountain bikers and hikers in the area. I hesitated for a second, thinking I’d come back another time, but got to setting up my tripod and went about my business of composing the shot I wanted. Fortunately, nobody stopped for anything longer than to reiterate what a beautiful day it was. I have to admit, once I got going in my thought processes, I didn’t even notice any additional people who may have come by.

I admittedly made a couple of silly mistakes using some new gear I’d just acquired, but I stayed the course while sorting out the whys and why nots of what was happening and eventually got what I wanted. With that said, the next time out I’m confident I’ll be better for learning the way I do best, even in a crab bucket.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.

A Few Days Under Big Skies

With spring fully at hand, we loaded up last week and headed to the desert for a few days of camping, big vistas, sleeping under the stars and mountain biking.

We knew the wind was supposed to be “gusty”, but what we didn’t expect was near hurricane force speeds. I was literally fighting to maintain 55 mph on the interstate because of the screaming headwinds! Near Crescent Junction we even came upon a semi laying on its side as a victim of what we suspect was a huge crosswind blast. Fortunately no one appeared to be seriously injured.

Despite the annoying wind for the first couple of days, we accomplished our goal of escaping the hustle and bustle of daily life and found those absurdly wide open spaces and explored some parts of Utah that had long been on our wish list.

The rugged backcountry area north and west of Goblin Valley exposed us to some incredibly high (scary) winds, but when that much dust starts flying around, it makes for some exceptionally stunning skies. Our primary focus was finding something leeward of the blasting wind where we could safely pitch our little tent, however, experimenting with some HDR photography was certainly worth a few minutes pause.

After bouncing around the San Rafael Swell and Capitol Reef area for a couple of days, we worked our way back east near Moab where we wanted to re-explore some of the lesser traveled tracks south of Canyonlands National Park. It’s hard to believe any area around Moab isn’t overrun with people, but you can find near complete isolation if you’re willing to go just a tad further afield.

The immense skies of the Desert Southwest get a lot of play, and rightfully so, but the spring foliage definitely rewarded us as slow travelers with an incredible pageant of colour.

 

We eventually continued our way back east on Road 128 which is arguably one of our favourite drives anywhere in the US. However, the popularity of Moab in recent years has made this road anything but an isolated cruise. Additionally, riverside camping in any of the campgrounds along the Colorado River is almost impossible for a person who can’t get there before a Thursday, and sometimes even that isn’t adequate. Every time we come this way we feel lucky for having explored this area 25 years ago when BLM campsites were rarely more than half full even on the weekends. Nevertheless, the stunning beauty of this valley speaks for itself.

We spent our last couple of days camping near Fruita (Colorado) where we got in some fun, albeit crowded mountain biking. Just like Moab, the popularity of Fruita has exploded in recent years and finding reasonably uncrowded trails is likely reserved for the Tuesday through Thursday time slot. However, we undeniably savour the big, open spaces of the North Fruita Desert and of course no trip to Fruita would be complete without eating what could possibly be the best pizza in the Rocky Mountain Region at The Hot Tomato.

These quick hit jaunts are never, and will never be, long enough for my liking, but it’s still good for the soul to get away for a few days to clear the mind and hit the proverbial reset button.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.

Patience.

Our patience this winter for waiting on any significant storm cycle hasn’t come easy, but the effort finally paid off over the last few days with the appearance of heavy spring snow across our part of the state. With almost three feet of snow in the last 72 hours, a few of us got together and hit the backcountry to lay down some fresh, deep tracks.

Other than “climb, ski, repeat”, our only proviso for the day was to constantly evaluate the increased avalanche danger, choose our routes wisely and keep the egos in check to make sure the day stayed on the positive side. Seriously, if you can’t tailgate with a beer at the end of the day it’s not really worth it, right?

Here’s a little peak into one of our best days of the season (so far).

This actually required a little digging to get Kelly safely extracted. Fifteen minutes later it was all smiles again!

Climb, ski, repeat…then have good beers with good friends. A benchmark ski day doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.

It Wasn’t As Hard As I Imagined

 

It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be.

It took me about a week to contact the people I actually know on Facebook in order to make sure I had their current email addresses and also jot down the website data of a couple of businesses or blogs I enjoy keeping up with. More importantly, I was candidly evaluating WHY I should or shouldn’t keep my account before finally clicking the “deactivate” button.

In this process, I paused to ask myself if I was doing this as a knee jerk reaction to the recent privacy issues surrounding Facebook, or, was I somehow being too anti-social in even considering closing my portal into what has become one of the most ubiquitous social media platforms on this planet?

Was I being heartless for not caring what people’s daily eating and binge drinking rituals were? Could I possibly know how to vote or know what religious deity was right for me? How would I know what state my personality would best fit in? Would this be the cataclysmic end to the fantastic world of cat videos? Geez, could I possibly think for myself?

For a while now I’ve been thinking about the people who are registered as my “friends” on Facebook. When I thought about who I really know, like who I’ve actually interacted with in the last year, my list of 230-ish friends diminished into just a few, maybe two dozen. To take that one step further, I thought about out of those couple of dozen, how many have I had a meaningful conversation with in person, on the phone or even emailed when the physical distance dictated. That list was immediately cut in half, if not more.

One thing I was always extremely careful about when using Facebook was never to divulge much personal information about myself or my family. Sure, lots and lots of biking and skiing photos because that’s what I enjoy, but NEVER anything about my political views (apolitical in my case), my spiritual self, any medical ailings as is so popular, or my work. The people who needed to know, or I wanted to know, already knew. The information listed under my “About” tab was actually blank.

I have a few friends scattered around the world who I consider close friends. There are some who live close by here in Colorado, Montana and one just a little way over in Utah. I also have a couple of good friends who actually live on a sailboat in the South Pacific and even a friend living in China. These are the people who I know I could sit down with to share ideas, dreams, theories on art or just talk about anything really. Though we may not agree 100% of the time, I am secure in knowing we’d walk away still having a respect and appreciation for each other and look forward to the next chat. Trust is probably what I’m getting at.

I read an article recently, one obviously not written with me in mind as an audience, which went into great detail about how people weren’t optimizing their personal “brand” on Facebook. I managed to gag my way through the article, just barely, and it made me realize that more than likely I don’t know anyone anymore (other than those people I mentioned above). You can stage any photo you want to make yourself into something you’re not. It’s simple, just imagine the persona you want to portray (real or not), post it on Facebook or wherever, generate likes and eventually you can probably make yourself believe you are way cooler than you really are. Rarely do I see the not-so-sexy photos of people puking or slobbering all over themselves while they’re suffering up the skin track in the backcountry. I’ve seen very few (i.e. none) posts from the #vanlife hashtag explaining how much it sucks sometimes to be living in a van without a shower or other conveniences after only two months…and I know firsthand how livin’ in a van down by the river can sometimes suck. Nope, it’s probably more often than not just smoke-and-mirrors photos with beautiful backdrops, perfectly tanned girls in skimpy bikinis and of course those thoughtful quotes or words of inspiration to let their followers know their lives are awesome and everyone else’s sucks. #authenticlife #icallbullshit

I guess my question is what happens when you get asked to back up these staged images with action? Oh, you can’t really ski, ride or climb that hard? What happens when you run out of excuses NOT to go because you really aren’t all that. Maybe you just keep people at arm’s length forever, become a social recluse and keep posting those photos for the benefit of the people who really don’t know you at all? I’m sure this new way of living (and I use that term loosely) is a psychologists dream come true when pitching ideas for research grants.

My friend Ellen recently said something that struck a deep chord with me, and maybe that’s what got me thinking about once and for all putting an end to my Facebook relationship. She simply stated, “Less virtual, more reality”. I have to agree.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.