A Photographer's Coda


My Moment & Basic Photography

Photographed for “CaryCitizen” 16 Oct 2010 Cary Ballet Conservatory

Nothing about this image is accidental. This was my moment. When everything I knew about Art, Craft and Discovery merged.

Having never seen or been inside a dance studio before, I explored. My task was to photograph “Children’s Celebration of the Arts”. Besides the event performances, there were also Ballet Classes being held. I saw this one through a large window in the hallway. And I watched as they interacted with the instructor.

Everyone who’s taken my Basic Photography Class has heard me say, over and over “every photograph is an idea, a capture, an edit and a presentation. And they all matter”.

The Idea is the most difficult to explain: Vision works differently than language. I think it’s instinct, wrapped around our experience and emotion. But just like dance and music, visual art requires understanding and mastery of principles. My copy of “Art and Visual Perception” by Rudolf Arnheim is well worn. The sub title is “A Psychology of the Creative Eye”. The main ideas are Gestalt Principles that originated in the Bauhaus, in Post WWI Germany. Learn the principles and with lots of practice, you’ll start to make images that work, that say what you want them to say, that language cannot. Choreographers know this.

Watching the class, I waited until the instructor stepped out of frame. It was the young dancers, their story I wanted to tell.

Capture is the easiest to explain: This is the craft part, the gear stuff. Not long after my post Paris Pickpocket replacement and upgrade to a DSLR in 2007, I very quickly, like literally every student that enrolled in my Basic Photography Classes, became dissatisfied with my photographs. My main solution was buying a copy of Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure”. And I read it, along with my camera manual until I understood it. Here is what I found worked for me:

  1. I want a camera with two wheels and an ISO button so I can easily and quickly change Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO.
  2. I need the above because the camera will stay in Manual for full control of exposure. A digital Histogram makes this easy.
  3. My zoom lenses will be constant Aperture ( no variable aperture Kit Lenses). Exposure is constant regardless of zoom. You don’t have to buy the boxed kit. You can buy the body and lens separately.
  4. I will set the camera for RAW file output to get everything the sensor records. No being locked into camera White Balance decisions. If you need immediate gratification, you choose Raw + JPEG but a Custom White balance is advised.
  5. I will disable the half press Shutter Button for auto focus and assign that function to a rear button so my thumb can stay on that to track. It’s known as Back Button Focus.
  6. I will set and leave my Auto Focus to a Single Center point. It’s my decision what to establish focus on, not the camera automation.
  7. Lastly, I set the adjustable viewfinder Diopter to my dominant right eye prescription (-2) so I don’t have to wear my glasses.

While I was watching the class, I figured out my exposure. I selected a Shutter speed that would work while they were standing mostly still, an Aperture for shallow Depth of Field to isolate them from the background and adjusted ISO to suit. I wanted to expose for the dancers, knowing the windows would be overexposed. In any sort of Auto or Semi Auto Mode, a camera will typically meter and expose for the highlights so the dancers will be dark and underexposed. I set my exposure for what was important. It takes no time at all to take a test shot and look at the instant review and Histogram to see if it’s what you want. And it eliminates any variation of camera metering if you aim at something in frame that reflects lights differently. If the meters in my cameras didn’t work, I’d never know. Everything on this blog and my event site, every thing I’ve photographed since has been made this way.

Edit is medium easy to explain: My goal is always a file I can Print from, whether I do or not. Digital really changed photography from the limited editing of film negatives in a wet darkroom. And I do not understand trying to edit in a camera or a phone. So I use a robust desktop PC with a 27″ color calibrated monitor plus Digitizer Tablet & Stylus. There are plenty of editing software applications available, even some freebies. I throw fiscal caution to the wind and pay Adobe $10 a month for the Creative Cloud Suite that I can load on as many computers as I wish and use on two simultaneously.

In this image, the workflow was something like this:

  1. Open up the Raw file in Adobe Camera Raw and make the big decisions about Exposure and Crop. Edits are non destructive so there’s no penalty for trying variations. Easy to make duplicates and compare too.
  2. Save and open file in Photoshop. Photography is a reductionist medium . There’s always stuff recorded that doesn’t contribute to the composition. Painters have it easy, they just don’t put it in! Except for journalism where you show it as recorded ( which I did for “Cary Citizen”), I get rid of it in Edit. There was another young dancer in this frame behind the one facing us. She was mostly hidden but a few parts peeked out and it made no visual sense so I removed them. The tablet & stylus works just like a painter uses a brush on canvas. There was also a Fire Extinguisher on the back wall which was distracting so it got erased.
  3. In this case, I decide Black & White worked better. Color is powerful element. We see in color. By eliminating it, we abstract the image, strip it further down to essentials. Some photographs are all about color. But not this one. I wanted the high key, ethereal quality to reinforce the nature of these young dancers. We aren’t distracted by the color variations of their leotards. There is more unity to the composition.
  4. Finally, I’ll save the edited image as a Photoshop file. And I can always go back to the Raw file if needed for another try. Sometimes, years later, I will. We change, we learn.

Presentation: You’re looking at one presentation. I made a JPEG version of the much larger Photoshop file. JPEGs are pretty universal. The default output of cameras, whether dedicated or smartphones are JPEGs. Virtually any Web browser or Operating system can display them. And most photo prints services expect them. The key is making them the right size for the application.

  1. Web Display – You don’t need a lot. The image above is 720 Pixels (Picture Elements) by 900. The color space is sRGB. I have zero control of the color on your Phone/Tablet/Chromebook/Laptop/Desktop/TV Monitor/Projector. sRGB is sort of the JPEG of color spaces. This file would work as a Print if the Print was 3″x 2.4″. As an example, IG profile photos are maximum 320 x 320.
  2. Print File – You need a lot more. Optimum print file resolution is typically 300 PPI (Pixels Per Inch). So an 8″x10″Print works out to 2400 x 3000 Pixels. The files are needlessly large for displays so right sized is the key. The last Print I made of this image was 16″ x 20″. Depending on the resolution of the camera and the crop decisions, you may need to upscale or downscale the edited file for the Print size. You can use Photoshop or some dedicated third party applications. The finishing steps I take are three.
  3. Print File Final Steps: I will soft proof the Print file with my vendors published ICC ( International Color Consortium) and adjust if necessary. Then I will use another 3rd party application to sharpen it for a Continuous Tone Print at 300 PPI. Lastly I’ll duplicate the file to another layer in Photoshop and add a Levels adjustment with the Screen option to lighten the entire file about 10%, flatten and save. If your prints look too dark, add this step. A paper print is reflective and your monitor is luminous. Run a few test Print with a new print vendor is highly recommended.

Later that evening, looking at this, I knew where I wanted my work to go. As a Dance photographer, I’m a bit of a fraud. It was always about Portraits.

Tell Me A Story

Photographed for “CaryCitizen” 16 Oct 2010 – Kids Together Playground, Cary, North Carolina

My corporate career ended abruptly in March, 2010. It was a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” for the next dozen years. Burned out on corporate IT, I wouldn’t have hired me. Nor did I try. My sweet heart was practically concerned about our financial future and burning through retirement savings, way too soon. I spent the summer managing our HoA Swimming Pool, after I earned my Wake County “Certified Pool Operator” certificate.

I met Hal Goodtree in late summer at La Farm bakery, to pitch me being a contributing photographer for “CaryCitizen”. I’d taught myself enough about the craft of photography to be reasonably competent. What I needed was a “raison d’ĂȘtre”. I told him I wanted to cover small stories with heart. Which is why I went to photograph “Kids Together Playground” at mid-day on a Saturday for a “Fall Foliage Walk”.

Self taught, I was a reasonably competent photographer. But telling a story, that I needed to learn and practice. The afternoon assignment was “Children’s Celebration of The Arts” at Cary Ballet Conservatory. And I found my “raison d’ĂȘtre”.

Late World Tutu Day

Dancer Mary Wyatt Johnson

On The Nature Of A Photograph

The cross eyed kid, second from left in front, is my Dad. Best guess is, he and his identically dressed twin were 7. Their birthday was in December of 1914. This photograph was planned. Everybody is dressed in their best. My Grandmother, holding the baby, made their clothes. It was certainly made by a working photographer who understood exposure and posing. He placed them in open shade with soft, even light. No hard edged shadows or “raccoon eyes”.

The print is a postcard size, silver gelatin contact print, mounted to rigid fiberboard. Likely made with Kodak 122 film and a then pricey ($50) Kodak No. 3A camera plus a tripod. I scanned the print today, 100+ years later. It’s held up pretty well. I doubt my redundant backup disk drives will age as well. My prints however, also on rigid mounts, will. This one connects me to them and all eight stories. Which for other folks, was my purpose the last dozen years.

Anyone who attended my Basic Photography Classes in Cary & Clayton heard me talk about the difference between a photograph and video. They are completely different experiences. Hang a flat screen monitor in your main room with you’re very favorite movie/video on loop and see how long you can stand it before it goes “power off”. Hang a well made photograph there, say a portrait and it’s going to stay there. For years

Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory” by Janet Malcolm was published posthumously last month. She died in 2021. My library has 10 copies in order and my reservation is 12th in line.

Art, Craft and Discovery

Easter Sunday 1957 – Brooklyn, Ohio

My Mom made this photograph with the family Kodak Hawkeye Brownie camera. They had the Flash Kit version. Indoors a couple of Easter’s later shows the sharp shadows from the flash bulb, behind me and my brothers.

Handheld because the camera had no tripod socket. It had a single shutter speed of about 1/30th of a second or Bulb aka Long, as long you held it open. The lens was a fixed focus meniscus. The manual said everything from 5ft to Infinity would be in focus, so selfies were mercifully, not possible. The Hawkeye aperture was also fixed at about f16. What she knew to do was get us outside in bright sun aka the “Sunny 16 Rule”. The film box explained it. Same with the flash attachment indoors.

Film size was 616 so most of the prints were simply contact prints. Fill out the envelope at the local drug store, keep the receipt part and drop it in the bin. They sent it out and a few day later, you picked up the prints and negatives. Sixty six years later, I scanned it, edited the now digital version in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop and made the version you’re seeing.

The six year old you see has been discovering the world ever since. The last dozen years, with photography. I’d write “with a camera” but that’s almost the least of it. And it became time to stop and reflect and write. It takes time to really see a thing

This Menu Category is going to be sort a working draft of what may become a book. It begins with Art, the Why. Craft is the How and enables Art. Discovery, that’s the journey. The teacher in me would like to share what I’ve found, before mine ends.

Sunday Story

I’m pretty sure I made photographs of the first event at the newly renovated Cary Arts Center. It was Sunday. A “Wet Paint” sign was taped to the stage riser and the Brussels Chamber Music Orchestra, jet lagged, were trying to figure out the space

The last time, I’m pretty sure I made photographs there was the Cary Ballet “Nutcracker”, 2021. In my usual place, next to the video guy, behind my tripod and just left of a pillar in the last row of the theater, I’d done my check and re-check of gear. A guy came up and plopped down in a seat near me and somehow, we started talking. As usual, I bragged on the Cary Ballet Company dancers. And told him how I “lost” some every year to ballet company contracts. He grinned and said , I know, I’m taking one with me.

We exchanged cards. His said “Nick Mullikin, Associate Artistic Director, Nashville Ballet”. And then I was telling him about “La Vie En Rose” and Marie Konrad and Paris and this heart breaking performance I’d found by Rhiannon Giddens. And he grinned again and explained about spending months on the road with Rhiannon, working on choreography for Spoleto. Where I lived in Charleston for the very first. It is, a very small world. And she is wonderful.

Bramble Rose

Abandoned Garden – East Garner Road, Wake County, North Carolina 1 June 2014

Driving home, I kept seeing splashes of color in an empty lot. Surrendering to curiosity, I made this one late afternoon. My guess is, it was someones garden. Abandoned, the rose spread yards in all directions. Since, sedge and scrub pine have taken over and the color is no more. Maybe it was something similar that Tift Merrit saw from her apartment window in Raleigh


Midway Amusement Ride – North Carolina State Fair 23 Oct 2009

In late 2007 a Parisian pickpocket “liberated” my Point & Shoot camera from a jacket hung on the back of a Bistro chair. Back home, I decided to treat myself to a new DSLR, the Digital version of the 1970’s Film SLR I’d had long ago. It took no time at all to realize how little I never knew about the craft of photography. Especially all the new whiz bang, digital stuff.

So I read. And it was sort of “Back To The Future”. Soon, the camera mode was on “M”, the meter ignored and I could ballpark “Sunny 16”. It was my first step from “camera owner” to “photographer”. I could tell the story I wanted vs camera automation.

Moment With No Name #1

Cary Ballet Company “Cinderella” Dress Rehearsal

31 March 2011 Green Hope High School Auditorium

La Vie en Rose

Place Ste. Catherine – Paris 24 Sept 2016

It’s not the Camera. But it is. Sort of

Paris – 8 Oct. 2007

Sunday Morning 3 AM – A Brief Essay of Bewilderment

At anchor aboard MV Aurora Explorer – Bute Inlet, British Columbia – 2 Sept 2009

From curiosity driven by the latest news, I made a first time visit to “Twitter”. And I don’t get it. So here is more than 280 characters of explanation.

I grew up with emergent technology. Navy Electronic schools were brutally difficult and equipped beyond what any civilian college could afford. As an Enlisted Submariner, I taught young contract engineers at Electric Boat, with BSEE Degrees, how to use an Oscilloscope and read complex schematics. Before they hurt themselves or the Boat.

My resume is littered with the Darwinian graveyard of once envied IT companies: Control Data Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation and the IBM Personal System Group. My job title for the last 11 year of my corporate career was I/T Architect.

Having just wrapped up an encore career enabled by the wonderful capabilities of digital cameras, I’ve been pondering current popular culture. And what worries me is the preoccupation with meaningless and artificial urgency to the detriment of human relationships. And sense of self, of self awareness. And the disconnect from the world we inhabit, vs hokum.

I freely confess to being a bit of news junkie. So my day starts with a good 90 minutes of coffee and reading news. It is a luxury of being in the last part of my life. Mostly it’s WRAL, Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times. I learned to read long ago and have no need for anyone to explain or interpret it so the TV is mostly off. Cut cable long ago.

Establishing my tech cred’s, I’ve too many Desktops (photography needs real horsepower), a Laptop and a Chromebook and a home network that’s secure. I do have a mobile phone. Being cheap, its Android. I can make and receive phone calls, browse, texts, etc – all that stuff. It’s mostly turned off. I keep it in the truck in case I need to call AAA. But I’m not going to answer it while driving. Or having dinner with someone. Or making a portrait. Or teaching. It’ll wait. And I find it’s a bit of pain to keep up with. I’m not anti tech. It can be a wonderful servant. But as much as I loved my Labrador Retriever, I never gave the gun to the dog.

So what bothers me so is the sense of losing humanity. Of the disconnect between human beings driven by a collective, cultural inertia of some marketing nonsense.

And of course, I’m sharing this to Facebook where my main goal was to show my photographs to my extended Cary Ballet family. There was a profit motive but it was never really about money. I/T bucks are way easier.

My FB friends grew to include family family and others I hold dear. Sort of a community campfire. A comfortable place for confident introverts like me. And a way to let some some thoughtful caring folks know I’m okay, after loss.

Which brings me back to Twitter. I think it is a silly thing. Like Pet Rocks. Just noise. And I think, like the folks I see texting while driving, a poor excuse for being in touch with ourselves and the people around them.

It’s been bothering me and writing it out helps. Like looking in the mirror and seeing what’s there. So be kind to yourself and the folks around you. Listen to yourself and them. That, I believe, matters.

The current version of the carney hucksters, not so much. They’re mostly air, like the “Palmetto Bug” you mash on the sidewalk at night, South of Broad, in Charleston. So that’s 688 words and 3882 characters or 13.6 Tweets. I’ve no desire to be a Twit.

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