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Photo a Day Challenge: Day 1

Photo a Day Challenge - Day 1 on Ilford Delta 100 FilmDoor, Window & Shadows - Irvine Ranch Historic Park
Tuesday, August 13, 2013 at 3:43pm
Click to Enlarge

I'm not the kind of photographer that takes pictures every day. I've gone whole months not taking a single photo. I tend to be more of the "I'm in picture-taking mode right now or I'm not" kind of photographer. I plan trips to be my designated picture-taking time, but you're unlikely to find me just casually taking pictures near home. I'm sure this is largely due to the fact that I prefer photographing natural landscapes but I live in Orange County, which is the poster child for destruction of open spaces and wildlands.

But recently, in the interest of expanding my creativity and challenging my skills as a photographer, I decided to give myself a "Photo a Day Challenge" wherein I had to take at least one picture every day for a month. But it wasn't as easy as take a picture a day and that's that. It was a challenge because I gave myself 3 strict rules to follow during this challenge. Those 3 rules were:

1. Take at least 1 photo a day, but no more than 4

Taking a photo a day is easy, but limiting yourself to just a few is tough. I wanted to limit the number of photos I took each day because I feel that the limitless nature of digital photography can make some photographers sloppy and uncreative. Some may disagree with that last statement and point out that digital has opened new worlds of creativity for shooters. Yes, but at the same time, how many hours have been wasted (by me alone) taking mediocre pictures because "hey it's free to take a digital photo, so why not?" I don't know about everyone else, but for me, if I know I can only take 3 or 4 photos, I'm going to really try and make each photo count. I won't waste time trying to make a lame subject work. If I limited myself to no more than 4 photos a day, I'd be forced to get creative rather than "spray and pray" that one turns out.

Now to be honest, I broke this rule a couple times but I generally held pretty strong to it. When I went to Joshua Tree National Park for one of the days, I allowed myself to take more pictures because the creative juices were really flowing that day and it was a unique circumstance. But outside of a couple of exceptions, I made sure I didn't take more than 4 photos in a day (usually no more than 2 actually).

And why 4 photos? Well, because on a single roll of medium format film, I can get 4 photos of 6x17 format. So in the event I wanted to do a panoramic, I wanted to give myself the option to finish off the entire roll on account of the fact that my panoramic camera is kind of a pain in the ass to leave unused film in.

2. Limit my tools to only medium format black and white film

As with the previous rule, this was in the interest of limiting my tools and options so as to encourage creativity. I'm a firm believer that being forced to work within limited confines often times brings out the best in artists. This idea was borne from years of teaching and studying other photographers' work. I've seen so many students come through my doors that have every possible tool available. They have money to burn and every lens you could want, but their photos are nothing unique. The photos might be well-executed and technically perfect, but nothing creative. While at the same time, I look at some shooters on the internet with no more experience or training who are getting absolutely phenomenal shots with just an old 35mm film camera and a 50mm lens.

Of course, some people are simply more talented artists than others and the tools used are not the issue. But I do believe that if you limit the tools available to an artist, he/she will be forced to turn on that right side of the brain. I definitely found this to be true in myself.

The reason I chose medium format film is two-fold. First, I just enjoy medium format film. I like the high-resolution, the detail, the camera, and its versatility. But I also liked that this would keep my shooting easier than 4x5 large format but more limited than 35mm film. And I went with black and white film because I felt this would further push my creative abilities. I'm not a veteran of B&W. Color is where I'm comfortable, so I thought it would be good to break out of my comfort zone.

And why film over digital? Come on...do you really have to ask?

3. Practice photographic celibacy

Photographic celibacy is an idea I stumbled upon from Cole Thompson (link). Cole Thompson is a very talented fine art B&W digital photographer who has the controversial idea that studying other photographers' work is not always healthy for artists. He talks about how he decided years ago to stop viewing other photographers' work in the interest of keeping his creative juices clean and untainted by subconscious copy-catting. This idea flies in the face of traditional thinking that one gets inspiration from viewing the work of your peers.

I tend to agree with Cole.

As I read Cole's thoughts on photographic celibacy, I realized that he was articulating exactly what I should have started doing years ago. I can't tell you how many times I've come across another photographer's work and spent hours examining their photos only to find myself bummed out and copying their style. I'm sure this isn't the case for everybody, but when I see another photographer's work that I feel is better than mine, I get a deep sense of discouragement and an irrational urge to start doing what they're doing. The ironic thing is that Cole Thompson's work was the most recent example of this. Thank God I stumbled upon his article on photographic celibacy while I was bumming out over his photos.

So for this photo a day challenge, I decided to practice photographic celibacy. No viewing other photographers' websites, no browsing Instagram or Flickr, no reading photography magazines or books. Of course, I made an exception for reviewing my students' assignments, but outside of that, it was total detachment from the photography community.

This rule of the challenge was without question the most refreshing and beneficial aspect of it all. I have now decided to adopt this idea permanently and I think it's the healthiest change I've ever made in my photography.

But I would like to put one modification on Cole's advice, if I may be so presumptuous. I would advise that this practice of photographic celibacy only be undertaken in the advanced stages of one's photography. When starting out, I agree with the status quo that studying other artists' work is important for inspiration and growth. Whether it's other photographers, painters, or sculptors, I think the stimulation in the beginning of your photographic career is vital. But once you get past that initial stage of copy-catting (it's taken me 13 years to get out of that stage), photographic celibacy may bring a new level of purity to your creativity.

Over the next 30 days, I will be posting my photos from my 30-day Photo a Day Challenge. I'll try to post a photo a day so that you can follow along chronologically just as I took them.

About This Photo

At top is the first photo from the series. I made this photo on Tuesday, August 13, 2013 at 3:43pm. My exposure settings were 1/125 at f/16 using my Mamiya RZ67 camera on Ilford Delta 100 film, no filters. This door is part of an old building at a park near my home in Irvine called the Irvine Ranch Historic Park. I've driven by this park nearly every week for the past 20 years, but have never ventured in. It took this photo a day challenge to get me inside and check out the scenery.

Boy am I glad I visited, because this has become my favorite place in Irvine. Why? Because it's one of the only places left in Irvine where historic buildings still stand. This park has several old buildings, a barn, and tons of appeal for me as a photographer. I love old doors and old architecture. Old buildings like this may be commonplace in other parts of the country, but in Orange County, they simply don't exist.

I returned to this park several times throughout the course of this challenge due to its proximity and photo ops. I enjoyed escaping the suburban culture for just a bit to photograph these magnificent buildings.

First Impressions of Kodak Ektar

Kodak Ektar 100All images made on medium format Kodak Ektar film
Click any image for a larger view

I've historically been a color reversal film guy. I just haven't shot much with color negative film. I suppose that's a product of being a Galen Rowell fanboy. He was a Kodachrome and Velvia guy, so that's what I became (unfortunately Kodachrome was before my time, though).

But I decided to break out of my shell a little bit and give Kodak Ektar 100 a try because I've read great things about it and I've seen some beautiful colors from it. As far as I'm concerned, the biggest advantage to shooting Kodak Ektar over something like Fuji Velvia is the increased dynamic range and the ability to change the color balance after taking the shot. 

In the digital world, RAW and JPEG files have sometimes been compared to color negatives and color slides. That's because RAW files, like color negative film, have more flexibility in post-production than JPEG files. Much like a RAW file, I can change the "white balance" of my Kodak Ektar shots in the process of scanning. Also, I get a little bit wider range of tonality than on my trusty old Velvia. Velvia (and all color transparency films) are more like JPEGs - what you see is what you get, there's no doing drastic color changes after snapping the shutter, and the dynamic range is more compressed.

Having worked extensively with the "JPEG of film," I thought it was time to try the film equivalent to a RAW file.

So with my first roll of Kodak Ektar color negative film loaded up in my medium format Mamiya RZ67, I headed out to a local park at high noon. My goal was to create ultra-simplistic compositions of the overly-ordered suburban setting that is Irvine, CA. You see, Irvine is a master-plan community in Orange County, CA that might remind some of the Stepford Wives - the neighborhoods and parks are ultra-ordered, ultra-groomed, ultra-matchy, and ultra-artificial. Nice place to raise a kid, but it ain't exactly dripping with culture and variety.

These compositions aren't my usual high-contrast, high-detail landscapes that you might be used to, but that's the point. I wanted simple and ordered compositions to help highlight the artificiality of the community.

All in all, I felt that Kodak Ektar was a perfect match for this shoot. The wider-than-Velvia dynamic range allowed me to keep detail in the harsh shadows of midday and resulted in an overall softer contrast that suited this subject matter well. The vibrant yet soft color palette combined with the wide dynamic range helped me create the painterly look I was after.

I'm still working on testing this film on some of my more typical shoots - vibrant landscape photography - but I think it's safe to say that Kodak Ektar is a superb film that will forever remain in my arsenal of film stocks...well, at least until they stop making it.

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Ektar 100

New Work: The Side of the House

Side of the House in IrvineAll Images Made on Ilford Delta 100 Film
With a Mamiya RZ67 Medium Format Camera
Click Any Image to Expand

These pictures may not be what you typically expect from me. I'm most known for my large sweeping landscapes of coastal, desert, and mountain scenics. Most of my photos require long treks or at least moderate hiking to get in to position. But these photos here...they were taken in the side yard of my parents' house in Irvine.

I expect that these photos will not have a big impact on you. They'll probably elicit a "meh" response from a lot of my readers. And I'm fine with that (I can't always create masterpieces!). But these photos mean something to me, so that's why I'm sharing them with you today.

I've often said that it never ceases to amaze me what pictures people like and which ones they won't care about. You've probably experienced this. You have a great, amazing, beautiful photo you took that you just love. You're proud of it. You want to share it. You put it out to the world and the response is, well, deflating. Then some other photo you took that you don't much care for - in fact you almost didn't even post it on your blog - everyone swoons over it. I've sold photos where I'm thinking in my head "Wow, you want that one? That's some of my worst work." But then I try to sell a photo I'm really proud of and it feels like I'm trying to sell snow cones in Minnesota in January. Well I'm guessing these photos will fall in to that category.

I have really fond memories of my parents' home. It's where I grew up. So that alone makes these pictures special to me. But it's more than that. It's not just that it's my parents' home and that I have a lot of memories tied up there, it's more specific than that. I don't know how well I can explain this, but I'll try.

You know how certain times of day at certain locations will create a very specific feeling inside you? It's a feeling you really only get from being in that exact location at that time and it can't be articulated in words. For me, my elementary school at night has a particular feeling to it. It's probably rooted in the evening open house where we all got to run around the school in a very unusual setting - it was at an unusual hour, you could go anywhere, the normal rules and bell schedule weren't in force, and everyone's parents were there. It was so...weird...but somehow exciting.

Los Angeles at sunset, McDonalds just before dawn, my childhood friend Michael's house at high noon on a summer day, my mom's old minivan in a heavy downpour on the way home from school. Each of these time-place settings create a very specific sensation in me that I enjoy.

Well, the backyard and side yard of my parents' house in summer is the end-all be-all for what I'm talking about here. Especially on a warm evening just before sunset on a Sunday...oh man, I'm getting all tingly just thinking about it. I love that feeling. It's indescribable yet incredibly specific. That's why I like these photos. For me, they are snippets of that sensation that I can't put into words. Many people will simply see a boring photo of a fence, but I see one of my most valued emotional responses for which words don't suffice.

It's easy to get caught up trying to make photos that everyone else will love or photos that will get more sales or clients. I'm terrible about that. But it was nice to take some photos for a change that I knew would only matter to me. After all, that's possibly the finest reason you should ever take a photo.

Side of the House in Irvine

Side of the House in Irvine

Side of the House in Irvine

Side of the House in Irvine