Friday, 16 April 2010

Snap snap, grin grin, say no more

I'm a bit reticent these days about announcing new projects because I seem to be getting increasingly fickle with age. What feels like The Best Idea In The World on Monday often flies into a thick volcanic cloud of What The Hell Was I Thinking by late Thursday afternoon resulting in engine failure, lots of screaming and a few days looking for the black box recorder to find out what went wrong. It never used to be this way. I used to be able to focus on things for at least a fortnight. Life was better back then; you could go out and leave your door unlocked and kids didn't give you lip.

So I don't know if I should tell you that I'm getting back into photography. There have been false dawns before in this area and I've soon found myself distracted by something else, but this time might be different. I'm sure you don't really care what I'm up to in any case, it's just a bit embarrassing to announce something with a fanfare and then change your mind before the final parp has finished echoing in the belfries. But I don't want this to become a ghost blog, so what the hell.

Photography is something I've flirted with for a number of years. Back in 2003 because I wanted to progress beyond the limitations of a point and shoot camera so I bought myself a Canon 300D, which at the time was hailed as the first affordable (sub £1000) digital SLR. I had immediately fallen into the trap of thinking that a better camera would produce great photographs with minimal input from myself. What the hell was aperture priority? How would I know what shutter speed to choose? It was all so confusing and I was far too busy being a failed artist to figure it out. I ended up doing what no SLR user should ever do - I slapped it into 'auto' mode and hmmmed my way to a raft of unimpressive shots. It didn't inspire me, unsurprisingly, and after my initial flurry of excitement I placed it somewhere inconspicuous and allowed it to gather dust.

Then, as I'm wont to do, I dug it out again a few months later and gave it another chance. I'm a reasonable man, see. I took a bit of time to learn the basics of exposure, depth of field and composition. It all started to make sense and I decided that I needed to make up for my neglect by pampering my camera with some new lenses. The kit lens looked like it had fallen out of a Christmas cracker from Wilkinson so I called in at an independent (and now sadly defunct) camera shop in town to see what a replacement would cost. It was at this point that my naive self discovered that photography can be a very expensive hobby. A half decent lens was going to cost half as much as the camera itself.  I was so shocked that I bought three of them.

Being an early adopter of technology isn't a great idea. The 300D may have been a breakthrough product, but it was also pretty flawed. The worst thing was that when it went to 'sleep' (after a mere 20 seconds of inactivity) it took two whole seconds to wake up and be ready for use. That might not sound a lot, but when you need to rattle off a quick shot it's an eternity. So I flogged the camera (but not the new lenses) to a work colleague after convincing him it was the best camera ever made. You could probably get one on eBay now for sixpence and free shipping.

In the meantime I had upgraded to a Canon 30D. In Canon's world, the smaller the number the better the camera. I could still use all my old lenses, of course, and I was quite happy with it. It was all the camera I needed - I was just a casual user, after all.

But then, two years later, I was seduced by the dark side. I was browsing through the excellent Flickr and came across some amazing images taken in very low light. Normally when ambient light is scarce you would need to either use a tripod or increase your camera's sensitivity (ISO) to give you a high enough shutter speed to shoot without motion blur (camera shake). The problem with high ISO values is that it creates 'noise' - little speckles in the image that degrade quality and sharpness. The images I had found were hand held at ISO 3200, which is pretty damn high, and yet they were clean as a whistle and pin sharp. How was this possible? I checked the details and found that they were taken with a Nikon D700. Nikon! Nooooo!

If you're a serious photographer, you're likely to fall into one of two camps. There are several DSLR manufacturers, but I would guess that 95% of professionals use either Canon or Nikon equipment. Each have their own fanatic devotees - it's a bit like the PC and Mac divide, only far more evenly split. You're either one or the other. In photography though, you tend to make your choice and stick to it because once you've invested in lenses you're pretty much tied to one system as they're not compatible with each other. I had spent £800 on Canon lenses and yet I knew, deep down, that I had to have the camera responsible for the images I was seeing. And that meant defecting to Nikon.

It wasn't cheap, and of course I had to invest in a whole new set of lenses, but I love my Nikon. It has encouraged me to learn more and more about the technical side of photography and it's starting to pay off. I've found that the more you learn, the wider the possibilities and the greater your enthusiasm. Last Sunday I was on Aldeburgh beach at 5.45am to shoot the sunrise. It takes a lot to drag me out of bed before dawn on a Sunday morning, so something must be working. I ended up selling the 30D to the same colleague who bought the 300D. You know that ace camera I sold you that's the best camera in the known universe? Well how would you like to own an even better one? He loves it. Sticks it on auto mode.

I have also recently discovered the joys of flash photography. In my naive youth I always thought that separate flash guns, or Speedlights, were an unnecessary extravagance. My camera had a pop up flash so I was okay. But comparing a pop up flash with a Speedlight is a bit like comparing a candle with a lighthouse. The biggest joy is being able to place it anywhere and trigger it remotely. This just gives you a whole host of creative options. You can zoom the beam to make it focused or wide, change its brightness (from full power to 1/128th power) and use coloured gels. This allows you to do things that just aren't possible otherwise. I'm such a convert that I'm now thinking of getting additional Speedlights as well as light stands, umbrellas, the works. Like I said, it can be an expensive hobby. Luckily for me, I don't have a social life! Fewer friends, more disposable income. It's the strategy of winners.

Photography is very rewarding but probably best treated as a self-indulgence. Making an impression is very difficult because there are so many others doing the same thing. I'm doing it for my own sake and if no one gives a shit then so be it. I just like the fact that it requires technical knowledge as well as creative input.

I hope I stick with it this time. I've spent countless hours reading articles and watching tutorial videos so I feel equipped for the long haul. Since it's mostly been intensive theory stuff I don't have a great deal of actual photos to exhibit but there's a link on the right to my Flickr page if anyone's interested. It will hopefully swell in the weeks to come.


Next time on New Trash Radio: The Nikon's in the bin and Graham is making skyscrapers from cereal boxes.