Friday, May 2, 2014

My Photography Style and Other Miscellaneous Ramblings

I read an article on photographic style recently, and it got me thinking about my own personal style and shooting preferences.

Since I was a child, I have been interested in photography to some degree, using primarily Instamatic and similar point and shoot film cameras. A college roommate introduced me to the SLR, his Minolta X-700, and I eventually purchased my own SLR in 1992. My wife purchased a digital SLR, a Nikon D80, for me in 2008 and I used it sparingly, primarily for backpacking trips and special occasions. In 2010, I started a 365 “photo a day, for a year” project and my knowledge, experience, and skills increased exponentially (for the non-engineers, that means “a lot”). In my opinion, shooting daily is the best way to become a better photographer. It makes the camera settings and handling second nature, and more importantly, it trains your eye to “see” better photographs.

While I no longer shoot every day, I shoot regularly and include the camera in my daily life. I don’t consider myself a specialist in any one genre of photography. I just photograph life around me. I’m a landscape photographer when I’m hiking, snowshoeing, backpacking, trail running, and camping; a sports photographer when I’m watching my son’s basketball games and track meets, and my daughter’s softball games; a street photographer when I’m wandering around San Francisco; and a portrait photographer when my wife needs a family portrait for the Christmas cards.

In general, I prefer natural light over artificial light, prime lenses (fixed focal length) over zoom lenses, shooting outdoors instead of indoors, and lately, more film than digital. My photographic style is bounded by these preferences.

My landscape work is usually shot wide, with a 24mm (or wider) lens, although I have been shooting more and more at 35mm. My tendency (or “style”) is to fill the foreground with an interesting subject and shoot from a low to the ground perspective. This places the horizon at the upper third of the frame and accentuates the foreground subject. I don’t use the longer focal lengths often, but when I do, it’s to isolate an interesting feature or for foreground/background compression (i.e., make the foreground and background appear closer together in the frame).

My portraits are usually environmental/candid portraits -- un-posed shots of family and friends, using natural light. I tend to frame tightly, typically capturing the subject from the waist, on up, and filling the frame. This is probably my least favorite genre of photography, but I think it’s important to capture your loved ones in photos for future enjoyment. I love looking at old photos of the family, especially the kids. As the kids get older and as the older generation passes, the old photos become priceless.

For sports, I try to fill the frame with the action. Framing is always a challenge with fast-moving sports and I don’t hesitate to crop a photo in post-processing. I often complement the “action” shots with wider views to provide context and with candid portraits of the coaches and players. I almost always use my digital SLR. The action is fast and shooting digital (with autofocus) is more efficient and productive. I most often shoot with my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. The f/2.8 maximum aperture allows me to use faster shutter speeds to freeze the action, while minimizing ISO.

I’m new to street photography, but this is one area I’m interested in experiencing more. I tend to shoot my FM2, with a 35mm f/2 lens, and Kodak BW400CN B&W film, pushed two-stops. Pushing the film (shooting at ISO 1600) allows me to use a smaller aperture for more depth of field and faster shutter speeds to freeze the motion. Additionally, the small FM2 is less obtrusive and allows me to shoot without drawing a lot of attention to myself. I will also switch to a 50mm lens, when I want to fill the frame with the subject, with less background.

From an equipment perspective, I won’t say that “cameras don’t matter,” but I personally don’t worry too much about the gear. For most of my work, my current camera of choice is the Nikon FM2 film SLR, with either a 35mm or 50mm lens, shooting color or B&W negative film. Shooting a modern digital SLR would clearly give me “better” technical image quality and using a zoom lens would give me more flexibility and convenience, but, I prefer the more compact size and lighter weight of the FM2. Furthermore, the manual controls help slow me down, enabling me to better focus on exposure and composition before pressing the shutter release button. Too many photographers evaluate “image quality” by looking at razor sharp focus and the absence of digital noise. My recommendation is to focus on composition and quality of light instead, and not worry about the camera. Some of my favorite photos have been taken with a point and shoot, film camera, or even my iPhone. While the technical image quality would surely be better with the latest, greatest digital SLR, the simplicity of the other cameras often helps me see the compositions better.

Here are a few photos, illustrating my "style" of photography. These pictures were captured with a variety of cameras, including a Nikon D80 digital SLR, Minolta film SLR, Nikon FM2 film SLR, Panasonic LX5 digital point and shoot, Olympus film point and shoot, and iPhone5.