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Photo a Day Challenge: Day 2

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 2 - Palm Trees on Ilford Delta 100 FilmPalm Trees and Sky - Irvine Ranch Historic Park
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 3:06pm
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With my discovery of the Irvine Historic Park on day 1 of my Photo A Day challenge, I decided to return for day 2 to see what else I could find. Towards the rear of the property there is a stretch of driveway leading to what I'm assuming was the once-impressive entry gate to this homestead. Lining either side of the curved driveway is a colonnade of evenly spaced palm trees. After failing to find a decent shot of the architecture (which was and is my main attraction to this place), I started feeling out some compositions on these trees.

I circled the trees looking up and down for the right angle. The light was harsh on account of the clear midday sun but I knew this would be suitable for the high-contrast monochrome look I was after. I wanted to highlight the repetition in these perfectly spaced palm trees in some way. With my lens pointed straight up using my camera handheld, I snapped the shutter at 1/250 of a second at f/11. No filters were used. The image was made on Wednesday, August 14th at 3:06 pm.

I think this is the kind of photo that would be utterly mediocre in color. The blue sky was nice, but the desaturated nature of black and white takes the viewer a little further out of reality. For me, this photo has a vibe of 1920's Hollywood and Los Angeles that I can't quite articulate better than the photo does.

By day 2 of this little photo a day challenge, I realized that this exercise was already resulting in photos that I never would have taken otherwise. Clearly the challenge was working. Plus, it gave me a great excuse to get out and see the neighborhood, revealing hidden gems like this that I normally wouldn't have stumbled upon.

Read the backstory on this Photo A Day Challenge here. See previous days here.

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
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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.

Orange County Beaches: Cress Beach at Sunset

Orange County Beaches - Cress Street BeachCress Street Beach at Sunset
Fuji Velvia 50 Film - f/32 at 1 minute
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I complain a lot about Orange County for many reasons, but one thing I can't complain about is its beaches. Orange County beaches are gorgeous. Okay, okay...maybe not compared to the central coast of California. But for how accessible they are, they offer up some pretty great scenery. The only problem with them is the same problem with all of Orange County: crowds. You'll never find yourself all alone on a beach in OC (unless you sneak in to the state park at night).

The crowds make shooting panoramas at Orange County beaches a little tricky. With such an incredibly wide view, it's tough to avoid buildings, people, and foot prints. Compound that with trying to keep sea spray off my filters, sand getting in my bag, a rapidly dropping sun, and I've got myself a recipe for frustration. But luckily, experience is on my side with years of beach shooting behind me. I still sometimes botch a beach shoot now and then, but I'd say my batting average is decent enough.

I made this image on Fuji Velvia 50 film. For those unfamiliar, Fuji Velvia 50 is the gold standard for high-saturation landscape work. The colors are so rich that it can often make the scene look better than real life. It's contrasty and colorful - perfect for a sunset. But it's also a royal pain in the ass to work with. The contrast is so high that your exposure has to be spot on. This ain't no RAW file. If you make an error in your exposure by 2/3 of a stop, you're done.

But that's not what bothers me. What's really tough is how this film behaves at long exposures. It has some serious reciprocity failure issues. Reciprocity failure is a phenomenon where certain exposure times don't result in the expected exposure and color.

For instance, let's say you expose Velvia 50 at f/2.8 at 1/2 second and you get a correct exposure with accurate colors. Well, an equivalent exposure would be f/16 at 15 seconds. So you'd think, I'll just plug in f/16 and 15 seconds and I'll get the same exact exposure as before. That is how it works on digital cameras, after all. But because of reciprocity failure, the film doesn't behave the same way at 15" as it does at 1/2 exposures. Basically, the film doesn't soak up light with the same efficiency and the photo comes out darker than expected. To remedy this issue, you have to add exposure to that 15" shutter in order to compensate for the film's failure to soak up light. There are tables and calculations to help figure out the adjusted exposure time for each film (there's a great iPhone app called "Reciprocity Timer" that I use). For Velvia 50, a calculated exposure time of 15" actually needs a shutter speed of 26"! If your calculated shutter speed was 30", you'd actually need to shoot it at 1 minute!

But it doesn't end there. Aside from the adjustments you must make to the calculated exposure, the colors come out funky too! Anything longer than about 1" will result in color shifts. Velvia 50 happens to shift towards a magenta tone when used at ultra-long exposures. That's why the photo at top exhibits a purplish color cast. For some shooters, this color shift alone would be reason enough to not take the shot. But I'm a little more laid back with these things. I say let the color shift happen. Let it ride and see how it turns out. I think it creates a cool mood here. I'd say the composition is decent, but there are certainly flaws with this shot and a few things I would have done differently. Not one for the wall, but that's alright. They can't all be masterpieces.

Velvia 50 is like that super attractive but ultra-high maintenance girlfriend that you just can't break up with. Velvia 50, I love you, but sometimes you're a real pain in the ass.