Gear

The Darkroom Underground magazine

I have some exciting news!  I’ve been asked to be on the advisory council of a brand new magazine:  The Darkroom Underground.

It’s founded by Tim Layton, a fine art photographer who specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, primarily with large format film, and processing traditionally.

Here’s an overview of the magazine from Tim:

The focus of The Darkroom Underground publication is rooted in art, imagination, and brought to life through the creative souls that share their most personal thoughts and experiences.

Photography has evolved over the last 175 years to a place that the 19th and 20th-century photographers could have never imagined.  In spite of the proliferation of technology and digitalization of just about every area of modern life, people still have a strong desire to create handmade artwork in the darkroom.  Photographers that have only used digital gear are discovering the joys and mysteries of darkroom photography.

The Darkroom Underground publishes a balance of technical and creative articles in every issue along with featured photographers and their portfolios.

We are pleased to offer editorial from internationally recognized photographers and writers and also publish articles and portfolios from our readers.

I’ll be talking primarily about the creative process itself rather than gear.  Any magazine that welcomes a dialog about photography today, I’m excited about.

You can check out the website here:  The Darkroom Underground.  Please subscribe and support the arts!

Mark

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Moving forward

 

Living the Dream

Technology is not a panacea. It alone will not move your art forward. Only through developing your own aesthetic – free from the tools that create it – can you find new dimensions for your work. – Robert Hall

Photography, like life, is all about moving forward.  I absolutely love to learn, and am constantly searching out new sources of inspiration, techniques, and locations.

One of the best ways to do that is to take a photographic workshop. They’re amazing opportunities to see new places, learn new techniques, get fresh eyes on your work, meet like-minded people and even hang out with some of the greats in the business. How else could you hang out with guys like Keith Carter, Sam Abell or National Geographic photographers and ask them all the questions you always wanted to ask?

The market is flooded with workshops though – some good and some…not so much.  So how do you know which one to choose before you hand over your hard-earned cash?

That’s where my friend Marco Ryan comes in.  He a fantastic photographer and just wrote an amazing e-book all about workshops called “Living the Dream”.  You’ll learn:

  • Questions to ask when choosing a workshop
  • Different types of workshops
  • Preparation
  • Gear choices
  • What to do when you arrive
  • Setting expectations

Honestly, I learned a ton reading it, and I’ve done many workshops over the years.

Here’s the best part: It’s only $7 and all of the profit goes to charity! Marco is heavily involved in Focus for Humanity – a great organization that provides grants to photographers pursuing projects in the area of humanitarian photography.  So your $7 will not only get you some fantastic information but you’ll be helping out other photographers as well.

It’s 71 pages long and filled with great information as well as Marco’s stunning photography, which in itself will inspire you to take a workshop.

You can purchase the ebook here: http://www.marcoryanphotography.com/ebooks/living-the-dream/

Me?  I’m off to photograph Kyoto, Japan and Thailand. See you soon!

Mark

Crossroads part 2 – and no more Holga

When I finally reached an age with some acquired wisdom, I decided I would just do my photography for myself and not care whether my work was liked or sellable. That was a very liberating decision for me. – Cara Weston

In my previous blog post, I talked about reevaluating my photographic goals and my approach to them.  I reviewed some great advice from the replies on the blog, social media, and privately.

I tried to distill the joy I feel from my photography to its essence:  Why was I doing this?  What was it about the medium that made me happy? I had mentioned that my goal one day was to be in a museum collection.  That would still be fantastic, but I realized that was clouding my judgment.  I was trying to think of strategies and tactics to accomplish that goal.

Ugh. Just reading that last sentence makes me ill.

Strategies, tactics, agonizing over gear and methodology. How would it all be perceived by gallery owners, fine art collectors, curators?  I was spending way to much emotional energy on these – it was physically draining me. It wasn’t about the art itself anymore.

Peter Liepke, David Pitcher and others encouraged me to just concentrate on making the photos that make me happy and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  The rest will take care of itself. That’s not to say that I won’t market myself – I will – I just want the images to be first and foremost.

One of the things I was fighting against in the fine art world was being perceived as a “Holga photographer”.  To be honest, this pissed me off to no end.  I’m a photographer. Period.  What does it matter what gear I use?  Does a chef have to declare what type of pan he used to create an amazing meal?

So the other decision I made was to not discuss gear at all.  I use a variety of gear – whatever I need to use in order to get the vision out of my head and on to paper.  I’m simply not going to talk about it because it inevitably leads down a path that I find incredibly boring.

Will I continue to use a Holga?  Possibly.  Possibly not. Doesn’t matter.

Will I enter competitions that focus on toy cameras?  No, sorry.  That would only reinforce a label I detest.

The vision is getting clearer and my heart is feeling better. I think my photography will be better as a result.

Mark

How I prepare for a long trip

From last year: My total kit for a month in Africa

Every year I do a number of shorter trips, plus one long one (5-6 weeks in length) dedicated to photography.  I have one of the long ones coming up in a few weeks and thought I’d share my thought process when preparing to shoot somewhere I’ve never been.

Research

I’m a voracious researcher, so I’ll normally buy or checkout every book I can on the location.  That not only includes travel guides for the logistics, but also memoirs, travelogues, and even fiction that may be set in that country.  I want to get a sense of the place before I leave.  This will help me in my visualization and shot list (see below).

I’ll use Bing image search and Flickr to see what shots have been taken there before.  I absolutely hate, hate, hate cliché photographs so this will also put a picture in my mind of the shots that I don’t want to get, which is just as important as the ones I do.  Seeing the locations also helps me plan how I could photograph it differently, the times of day that might work best, etc.  Again, building that visualization and shot list in my head.

I’ll read travel blogs which share real world experiences about traveling there.  I can pick up tons of little tips which make a huge difference in the ease and quality of the trip.

Logistics

Through all that research, I’ll also find out about transportation, guides, food, the distance between shots, accommodations, etc.  This will also give me a better idea for how long I want to stay at each place.  I also look at small things like whether laundry is available in order to reduce the amount of clothes I take.

The shot list or series

By this time I have a pretty good mental picture in my head of the country.  I’ll write out specific shots that I want to get, a story that I want to tell, the emotions that I want to convey.  Ideally I’ll have a series of photos in my head that will form a cohesive body of work when I return.  Depending on the subject, I may even storyboard it out.  All these exercises help me clarify the end result I want. Note:  I definitely am open to other shots once I get there, but I at least want this core set of photos if at all possible. This process of visualization is by far the most important part of the planning – spend time on it!

From all of the above, I create an itinerary.  I want to spend x number of days here, x number of days there, etc.  I build in travel time and even rest days, which gives me a great outline for planning.

The gear

I now have the series in my head, so I know the look that I want.  I know how I’ll be traveling (heavy or light.  In my case it’s usually light or lighter).  I also know how long I’ll be there, which will help me decide how much film I need to take, batteries (if applicable), etc.  I decide which cameras I need, which filters, which films (and how many rolls), etc.  I really try to simplify things here.  I don’t take a ton of backup bodies, I don’t carry spare hard drives or laptops (an advantage of shooting film).  I do take my point & shoot but I just use extra memory cards as backup there.  If I lose one, oh well.  Nothing critical goes on there anyways.

A note about traveling with film:  I always, always have it in my carry-on, not in my checked bag. I don’t ask for a hand inspection primarily because I shoot slow film.  If I was shooting at asa800 or above, I’d definitely ask for one, but I usually shoot 25 or 100 film, with some 400.  In traveling many tens of thousands of miles through countless x-ray machines in all sorts of countries, I’ve never had a single problem with fogging.

Flexibility

You might be thinking “yeah, but with a shot list and series and limited gear, that really limits you”.  Well, it does in a way, but I’ve found that the times where I’ve wished for a different piece of gear to be a very rare occurrence.  If there is a limit, it can force you to be even more creative in getting the shot.

So…where am I going?

Well, I’m keeping that to myself for now.  It’s in Asia, lol.  I’ll be taking a 35mm, high end medium format as well as my trusty Holgas. Oh, and a digital point & shoot.  I still have a couple of weeks to refine things though.

I hope this helps.  I’d love to hear how you plan for an extended trip.

Ttyl,

Mark

Photography is not enough

Look at the things around you, the immediate world around
you. If you are alive, it will mean something to you, and if you care enough
about photography, and if you know how to use it, you will want to photograph
that meaningness. If you let other people’s vision get between the world and
your own, you will achieve that extremely common and worthless thing, a
pictorial photograph. – Paul Strand

Thanks to technological advances, many more people can take beautiful photographs more often than in times past.  More beauty in the world is good, but when you add passion to the mix, you can create lasting art.

If you look at the Masters of photography, the photography isn’t the end.  It’s a means of expressing their passion for a subject.  For Clyde Butcher it’s his passion for the unique environment of the Everglades.  For James Nachtwey, it’s his passion for the underprivileged and the unjust that is conveyed through his photography. For Sally Mann it’s the passion of exploring the impermanence of life. I could go on and on.

Your passion may be for your family, your partner, the night sky, the human form, the ocean or an infinite number of things – photography is a tool for you to convey that passion.

It’s when you lose sight of that and get caught up in the tools that your photography can become shallow and ordinary.  Here’s an exercise:  If photography didn’t exist at all, what would you care about?  What would make you excited to get out of bed in the morning?

Photography in and of itself isn’t enough.  It’s about your passion for life, the emotions you feel, your perspective, the values inside of you – that’s the important stuff, the stuff that’s unique to you. When you tap into that, there’s absolutely no chance that you’ll be making photos that look like anyone else’s because it will be unique to you.

Ttyl,

Mark

Back from Monument Valley

The Mittens, Monument Valley

A quick post to share some thoughts about my recent trip to photograph Monument Valley.

I went down with three purposes:

  1. To hook up with my buddy Ian Whitehead.  Ian is a fantastic fine art photographer who specializes in the Southwest (and California). He’s based in Sedona so he knows the area inside and out.  When I was first starting out, I took a workshop of his to Sedona and Antelope Canyon and we’ve remained friends ever since.
  2. Ian offered to show me the ropes with his large format gear.  He shoots all LF color for his fine art work.  I’ve always been curious about it, especially with the amount of control that’s available to change perspective.
  3. To build out my portfolio with photos from locations in the area.

Seeing Ian again was great. He’s like me in that he doesn’t get caught up in all the latest gadgets – he just loves to talk photography, especially composition, locations, etc.  Some of the best moments were all of the discussions we had while putting many miles on his pickup truck.

About Monument Valley

Monument Valley is a large and very remote area straddling the Arizona/Utah border.  There just isn’t a lot of infrastructure around.  There is the one hotel at the visitor’s center but it’s rather expensive due to its prime views of “The Mittens” (shown above).  We based ourselves at the fun & funky San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat Utah, about 20 minutes away from MV.   Reasonable prices, clean rooms and close to both MV and other locations north of MV such as Cedar Mesa.

If you’re going to shoot MV, there are two great views to shoot from:  The first is from the deck or parking lot of the visitor’s center.  You’ll see many photographers lined up here.  A “secret” place that in my opinion has an even better view is the campground just prior to the visitor’s center.  I use the term “campground” loosely as it’s really just a dirt area that they call a “primitive facility”. You’ll see a small dirt road just prior to the parking lot for the visitor’s center – turn left on that and you’ll see it.

Other areas we visited were Cedar Mesa, Muley Point, the Goosenecks, Flaming House ruins and a couple other locations that we’ll keep secret for now.

Gear

I shot primarily with my Holga, despite wanting to do quite a bit of work with Ian’s Ebony large format gear.  My time with the large format gear ended up being limited due to the wind.  Man, it was windy.  Walking along cliff edges, dealing with blowing sand, 50 MPH winds made things challenging sometimes.  The 4×5 can turn into a kite and I in no way wanted that beautiful Ebony to blow off a cliff as I was using it.  I did get some weird looks using the Holga (as usual) while others at the sites fired away at 5FPS with their Canon or Nikon, but I’m used to that. We had one encounter at one of the Anasazi ruins where the other photographers couldn’t believe we hadn’t even taken one photo yet with the 4×5 because we were still setting it up.

The 4×5

I did learn a couple of things about shooting the 4×5.  First, it’s much quicker to set up when focusing at infinity than I anticipated. I could go from backpack to shooting in about 10 minutes.  If you need to use many of the movements though, it’s another ballgame requiring much more precision.  That was a net positive.  What I found most challenging was using a wide angle lens on the 4×5.  The ground glass severely vignettes which makes focusing very difficult.  Overall I liked the methodical nature of shooting with it but worry about the portability when traveling around the world.

Think Tank bag review

Think Tank Photo kindly sent me one of their new small travel pouches for review. I found that this was the perfect bag for storing film. As you can see below, I was able to fit 6 rolls of 120 film, a 25 sheet box of 4×5 film, plus 4 loaded 4×5 film holders in it! It may look small but it holds quite a bit.  This is a very handy accessory, especially for film shooters, as most companies don’t consider film at all anymore. Despite its small size, it’s still built to Think Tank’s pro quality standards.  If you’ve never checked out Think Tank camera bags and gear, I can heartily recommend them.

Think Tank Small Pouch

Wrap up

So where are the photos? I’m traveling all next week, so it will be a week and a half or so until I develop the film.  I have no idea what I’ll get with the Holga as I was shooting in situations that I haven’t encountered before.  Should be fun!

Ttyl,

Mark

P.S.  If you ever want to shoot the American Southwest, I highly recommend doing it with Ian Whitehead.  He runs Southwest Photo Workshops all around the area and they’re extremely affordable.  Compare what you get with others and you’ll immediately see the value in his workshops. He offers both group workshops and private ones customized to what you want to shoot.  If you want to learn about composition and taking your photo skills to the next level while seeing some of the most beautiful areas of the country (including secret ones only the locals know about), he’s the guy.