Africa

The Agony of Editing

 

Lion

It can be a trap of the photographer to think that his or her best pictures were the ones that were hardest to get. – Timothy Allen – On editing photos

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop. – Ansel Adams

 

Editing is absolute agony to me.  One should be ruthless when doing it – but how can I be ruthless with my “babies”?

I need to be more ruthless.

Coming back from Africa, I had 3500+ photos.  Now, shooting 3500 photos in a month is nothing to people who shoot tons of digital.  Heck, I know people who shoot that much in one day, let alone a month in a “target rich environment” like Africa.

For a guy who primarily shoots film though, like me, it’s true culture shock.  Surprisingly emotional as well.  I went through literal depression for days, having feelings of “I suck, what am I doing here?” to the euphoria of finding an experiment that worked (I don’t view my digital photos in the field; I prefer to concentrate on the moment at hand).  Going through the 3500 digital, I eventually settled on about 40 that I thought were okay – and I know that I should reduce that number even further.  Some of the shots on my site I put there strictly for memory’s sake.  Ones like the lion above didn’t make it just because I already had multiple lion shots on my site.

The film shots, of which there were far fewer, were a much more pleasant surprise.  While the quantity of keepers was smaller, the relative percentage was much higher, so it was an entirely different emotional experience.  That’s a perspective that I haven’t read about in the largely pointless film vs digital debate.  While both mediums serve their own purpose, I need to prioritize them better when travelling.

How should you approach editing?  Pick the ones that you like the most?  The ones that you think galleries will like most?  The ones that you think will sell?  These questions were constantly in my head.  In the end, I decided to be true to myself and choose the ones that I liked best, but tried to do so with a dispassionate eye (which is impossible, but you try).

As I uploaded them to my site though, I realized a dilemma:  My current site has two personalities – and two purposes.  The first is to show to galleries and art buyers.  The second to share travel photos with friends and colleagues who may not understand or like the B&W film work.

That was fine in the beginning, but won’t work any longer. 

So I’m going to split the site into two, one for each purpose.  It will be the most ruthless type of editing – having to split two of my babies up.

I don’t know where they’ll land or what the design will be, but I think the time has come.  No timeline either, so don’t look for anything soon.  I’m a research-aholic, so I’ll take my time and do it to my satisfaction. My current site is fine for what it is, but I also need something that’s more flexible and works better across all platforms.

And I’ve sworn to be even more ruthless so that I can keep the quality high.

I’m sure it will be pure agony.

TTYL,

Mark

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Africa: What worked, what didn’t.

One of the things that helped me in my preparation for Africa were posts by other people about what worked and what didn’t on previous similar trips (thanks Sabrina Henry!).  Here’s my attempt to pay it forward.

Before I start though, one bit of news:  I was fortunate enough to be invited to post one of my Holga photos from Africa on Canadian landscape photographer Darwin Wiggett’s blog.  I admire his work tremendously, so I was honored to provide him with the photo and write-up he wanted as part of his “Inspiration” series.  You can see that post here.

Okay, here’s what I ended up taking to Africa and my comments on each.  A strong note on this: this is not your conventional kit in the slightest, but it worked for me and let me implement what I had visualized prior to the trip.  Some parts may be applicable to something you’re planning and some won’t.

Film:  I’m took two Holga’s.  One outfitted for Infrared photography and one “straight”.  I thought about taking a higher-end film setup but I couldn’t pull together the configuration that I wanted in time.  The Holga’s worked great and I ended up with a nice set of Art Images as a result.  Looking back on it, I should have done even more and taken even more Efke IR820 infrared film.  FYI:  I went through probably two dozen X-ray machines on this trip.  No problems with film fogging whatsoever.  No special protection or hand inspection.  You can see the Holga images from the trip here.

Digital:  For wildlife, I thought my main digital camera would be a Panasonic G1 with a 45-200 lens (90-400 equiv.).  I’m extremely happy with the output I get from that camera and have done beautiful 50 inch wide enlargements from it.  It ended up, however, that we were able to get much closer to wildlife than I ever imagined, so I ended up using the Canon 5D more than the G1.  The G1 ended up being my least-used camera, not because it’s not a good camera, but because the situation didn’t call for it.  I rarely needed the extra reach of the 400mm equivalent.

For landscapes and around camp, I planned on using a Canon 5D (original) with a 70-200 2.8 L IS II lens and a 50/1.8.  This was a last-minute addition as I was able to buy a 5D in great condition for only $750 just before I left.  The 70-200 was rented using lensrentals.com “lens lotto” promotion.  I got it for substantially cheaper than renting it “straight”.  I highly recommend Lensrentals – a great group to work with.  They set the standard for great customer service.  Why this camera?  Full frame goodness…cheap.  And 12MP is plenty for me.  The 70-200 stayed on my camera the entire time and became my primary setup for wildlife and landscapes.  That lens is stunningly sharp (but heavy) and the original 5D’s files have a quality that is tough to duplicate using other digital cameras. (And I can hear you guys now – Mark’s switching to digital.  I’ve never had anything against digital, it’s just a different tool for a different job than film).  The big surprise was that we were able to get incredibly close to most wildlife, so that became my main wildlife camera too.  You can see the results of all my digital work here.  I never took the 50/1.8 out of my bag.

For general around camp and snapshots, I took a Canon S95.  I’d been very impressed with the reviews and can easily fit it into my pants pocket.  I hate lugging around my gear when I go out to dinner at night and with the f 2.0 lens and high quality, it did great (same sensor as the G12, by the way, just in a smaller form factor).  I was very impressed by the S95 in actual use as well.  Super quick to use, much more pocketable than a G12 or Micro-four thirds setup and really nice quality files.  I ended up using this much more than I thought I would.  Highly recommended. 

I took an Induro CT014 tripod which fit into my carry-on bag easily. I was very impressed with the quality of this tripod.  I compared it side-by-side with the Gitzo and actually preferred the Induro.  And it’s less than half the price.  You see the question asked a thousand times all over the Internet – I want something sturdy, lightweight and small enough to fit in a carry on.  The snarky answer is usually “pick two of those qualities because nothing has all three”.  Well, I can tell you that the Induro CT014 is just that – light, small and sturdy.  It handled all of my cameras easily and is now my primary tripod for everything.

My entire kit (aside from the tripod) easily fit into a Think Tank Retrospective 20 bag.  I really like that bag as it doesn’t look like a normal camera bag (I have the Pinestone color shown above).   I whizzed through every airport and got on every plane with both it and my carry-on because it looked like my “personal item” that is allowed along with the carry on bag.   It is the perfect “shooting bag” for me because I was able to easily shoot out of it (compared to a “getting to location bag” which is mainly for storage and flights).  I had the inside split into thirds:  One third with the G1/45-200, one third with the Canon 5D/70-200 and one third with the Holgas.  The “silencers” on the Velcro bag flap were great when working around wildlife.  It holds a ton, but doesn’t look like it.  The one thing I wish the Retrospective line had was some security to it.  The main flap closes using just the Velcro, not a latch or a lock.  Ideally, there would be a security cable built in so I could lock the bag to some furniture in the room as I went out at night.  Some of their bags already have this, but not the Retrospective line.

If you recall, that blue bag above is my carry-on and I did the whole month living out of it.  This was only possible because most of the lodges we stayed at had free laundry service (what I didn’t know was that due to cultural restrictions, they wouldn’t wash underwear or socks, so I had to do those in the sink).  I wanted a light setup that was able to handle a variety of shooting conditions.  This kit worked for me. 

What would I do differently next time?  I’d leave the G1 at home and use that space for more film.  That’s it.

Questions?  I’d be happy to answer them.

Ttyl,

Mark

Out of Africa

Copyright Mark Olwick

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.”

— Karen Blixen (Out of Africa)

I’ve just returned from my month-long trip to Africa, where I had the privilege of living among lions (and photographing them).  They say Africa can steal your heart, and it has mine.

The trip took me to Namibia, Zambia and Botswana (with very brief stops in Zimbabwe and South Africa).  Each had its own personality, culture, smells and sights.  Each was wonderful in its own way.  Here are the highlights of each country.

Namibia

My travel partner and I spent the majority of our time here, doing a self-drive around the country.  For landscapes, it’s by far the most photogenic.  The dunes of Sossusvlei, the eerie trees of Dead Vlei, the cool fog and shipwrecks of the Skeleton Coast, the high desert of the Damaraland region, the flat pan of Etosha and more.  It’s less about the wildlife (although there is a ton at Etosha) and more about the scenery and geology.  Photography here was fun, but it was also a challenge to shoot the same dunes and dead trees in ways that hadn’t been done a million times before.  Dust was less of a problem than I anticipated, but you still needed to keep things clean and protected.

Highlight:  Tracking Desert Elephants in Damaraland.  Gorgeous scenery, not many people, and very cool encounters with the ellies.

Lowlight:  I’d have to say Etosha.  I’d equate Etosha with the Grand Canyon.  It’s very beautiful (and has lots of wildlife), but it’s also the most touristy and developed by far.  Lots of day trippers from Windhoek, large tour busses, crowds of vehicles around wildlife, etc.

Zambia

The focus of going to Zambia was to photograph Victoria Falls.  We flew into Zimbabwe and then had a short drive across the border into Zambia.  This was probably one of the biggest surprises of the trip, although not in an altogether positive way.  We knew going in that we were hitting the Falls at low-water season, so they wouldn’t be at their most spectacular when 10 million gallons per second rush over the falls.  Having said that though, the water was really low, so, while we could envision how spectacular it could be, it was merely beautiful.  I had planned to do a helicopter tour to photograph them, but at $189 for 15 minutes combined with the low water, I decided it wasn’t worth it.

The other surprise was the tourist infrastructure (or lack thereof) for the falls.  We had pictured a fairly developed “touristy” area around such a renowned world-wonder, but it really wasn’t.  It seemed like most people stayed near their lodge, hit the falls for a day or maybe two, and then flew out again.  The town of Livingstone, near where we stayed on the Zambian side, isn’t really set up for tourists at all.  We had pictured something like Siem Reap in Cambodia, which has grown to be a tourist center near Angkor Wat.  Nothing like that at all.

Highlight:  Cruising the Zambezi river at sunset

Lowlight:  The Falls.

Botswana

We visited two areas of Botswana:  Chobe National Park and the Okavongo Delta.  Both were absolutely spectacular, especially for wildlife.  The topography here is very different from Namibia.  Instead of desert, it’s very lush and green.  In the Okavongo our lodge was actually on an island and we used a boat to get to the safari vehicles, etc.

Chobe is known for its abundant wildlife, especially elephants, due to the protection of the Botswana Defence Force against poaching.   Wow, it certainly lived up to its reputation.  We came around a bend and were smack in the middle of a herd of probably 200-300 elephants.  They were everywhere and I was in heaven.  Lots of other wildlife too:  giraffes, impala, baboons, birds, etc.

The Okavongo Delta was spectacular as well.  It’s known for the big cats.  We saw lions and a very rare encounter with a leopard who came across a herd of elephants (the elephants won).  We were also very privileged to see wild dogs hunting, which was a thrilling experience.  An unexpected surprise was that we got to fish the Okavongo!  I caught a Tilapia and an African Pike.

Highlight:  The encounter with the leopard and the elephants

Lowlight:  Hmmmm.  It rained, but that’s minor when you live in Seattle.

Overall it was the adventure of a lifetime…and we’re already planning on returning.

You can click here to see some of the digital photos I took.

I also did some infrared with the Holga.  Click here to see those.

The next post will talk about gear – what worked and what didn’t. 

Ttyl,

Mark

My Unconventional Africa Kit

People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will. The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there, things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of…Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen)

I’ve dreamed of going to Africa, specifically Namibia, ever since seeing a National Geographic special on the desert elephants there.  As I type this though, I realize the dream went farther back than that – to Elsa the lioness from Born Free, to Isak Dinesen and Out of Africa, and more.  That’s why it’s high on my “bucket list” of places to visit…and tonight I start my journey there.  Almost a month, visiting Namibia, Zambia/Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls area) and Botswana.

Many people have asked me what type of gear I’m taking.  If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that I loathe talking about gear.  Not because it doesn’t matter – it does – but it matters only because you need to choose gear that will align to your photographic direction.  No one can tell you what that is; you need to figure it out yourself.

I also wanted to set my own internal expectations.  I’m a huge fan of Nick Brandt – he’s simply the best African wildlife photographer I know as he lends a true artists touch to his “portraits” as he refers to them.  He shoots a Pentax 67 (medium format film) and will spend weeks patiently waiting for a shot of one animal or herd.  I simply won’t have the time to do that.

Oh, one other question I’m frequently asked:  Am I going with a tour group?  Heavens no.  Despise them.  We’re actually doing a self-drive around Namibia and independently flying/boating to the remaining parts.

With that out of the way, here’s my kit:  

Film:  I’m taking two Holga’s.  My one outfitted for Infrared photography and one “straight”.  I thought about taking a higher-end film setup but I couldn’t pull together the configuration that I wanted in time. My Holga’s have been very good to me and I plan to use them extensively in Africa, especially shooting infrared.  I’ll use them for landscapes, villages, pretty much anything.  Hey, if an elephant gets close enough  maybe even wildlife! I”m hoping to include some of this work in the big show of my Holga work I have coming up in the Spring.

Digital:  For wildlife, my main digital camera will be a Panasonic G1 with a 45-200 lens (90-400 equiv.).  I’m extremely happy with the output I get from that camera and have done beautiful 50 inch wide enlargements from it.

For landscapes and around camp, I have a Canon 5D (original) with a 70-200 2.8 L IS II lens and a 50/1.8.  This was a last-minute addition as I was able to buy one in great condition for only $750 just before I left.  The 70-200 was rented using lensrentals.com “lens lotto” promotion.  I got it for substantially cheaper than renting it “straight”.  I highly recommend Lensrentals – a great group to work with.  Why this camera?  Full frame goodness…cheap.  And 12MP is plenty for me. No, no teleconvertor.  I don’t plan on using it for wildlife at all unless they’re very close.

For going out to dinner at night, I have a Canon S95.  I’ve been very impressed with the reviews and can easily fit it into my pants pocket.  I hate lugging around my gear when I go out to dinner at night and with the f 2.0 lens, big sensor, shoots RAW,  and very high quality, this should do great (same sensor as the G12, by the way, just in a smaller form factor).

I have an Induro CT014 tripod which fits into my carry-on bag easily. I was very impressed with the quality of this tripod.  I compared it side-by-side with the Gitzo and actually preferred the Induro.  And it’s less than half the price.

Is it my ideal Africa kit?  Not even close.  If I really wanted to do wildlife properly I’d have all sort of monster tripods with gimbal heads, 500/2.8 lenses, etc.  No way was I going to do that.  There are some serious internal weight & size restrictions on the internal charters and I didn’t feel like coughing up an additional $1000 to buy a seat just for my gear.  I wanted light and able to handle a variety of shooting conditions.

BUT – my entire kit (aside from the tripod) easily fits into a Think Tank Retrospective 20 bag.  I really like that bag as it doesn’t look like a normal camera bag.

Oh, one more thing.  I’m doing the whole month-long trip out of one small carry-on bag – 24″ x 12″ x 10″ (plus the camera bag).  Again, I’m trying to do this very light weight and that’s the largest size allowed on our internal charters without paying extra.  The only way that this is possible is that virtually every lodge we’re staying at has free laundry service.  Yay!

So that’s it.  I leave tonight at 3:40am.  I have no idea what to expect photographically, but I do know that I’ll come back with lots of memories and have lots of fun. If you want to follow along on my trip, you can follow my personal Africa blog here.  Since we’ll be without Internet for much of the trip, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to update it, but I’ll do my best.

Talk to you again after Christmas.

Mark