Friday, October 17, 2008

Got the Photo Blues? Bust-a-Prime!

by Miserere


It happens to every photographer: One day you find yourself just going through the motions, pointing the camera in random directions, clicking, and not knowing what it was you were really taking a picture of. Then you pick up the prints from the store or look at your digital files on your computer and wonder why it is that your pictures are so uninspiring. In many case you don’t even care that they’re bad.

If this is an accurate description of how you’re feeling right now, let me diagnose your ailment: you have the Photo Blues.

Anyone can be affected, and it can happen anytime, too. Sometimes the stress of work and life get to us and start to encroach on our favourite hobby. Where we once found peace, calm and inner tranquillity, we now face boredom and lack of motivation. Other times, our life is going so well and is full of so many other pleasurable activities that we forget or neglect our photography. Whatever the reasons, the outcome is the same: you’re stuck in a photographic rut and you don’t know how to get out of it.

If stress is your main problem, then my recommendation is going to be to stop working 80-hour weeks, or studying for three degrees at the same time, or maybe send your four kids to a private school in Switzerland. Find out what’s stressing you and cut it out from your life! OK, maybe you can keep your kids at home, but let them know that it’s important for mummy/daddy to have some time to indulge in their favourite hobby once or twice a week.

Once you’ve established that your apathy is merely the manifestation of photographic boredom, it’s time for you to do as the title suggests and Bust-a-Prime.

For those of you not familiar with the term, “prime” refers to a lens that has a fixed focal length, and therefore doesn’t “zoom”. Back in the old days all lenses were primes, and zooms didn’t become popular until the 80s or so. I will reserve my opinions on primes for a future article; for now I will simply explain how a prime can be used to reinvigorate your photography.

First, let me state the obvious: A prime lens offers a single field of view. This has many implications, the most important being that the magnification will always be the same, as too the possible distortions (if it’s a very wide angle lens or a fisheye). But it’s precisely these limitations that are going to help your creative juices start flowing again. You see, when you lift your camera to your eye and your FoV is not what you would like it to be, you will have to move. Yes, you will actually have to walk, or run, from A to B in order to frame the shot the way you want it. In some cases you’ll want to move closer, in others further away, but move you will. And it’s this process of moving around that will get you thinking, even without realising, about other possible points of view for your subject. After all, you’re already moving back and forth, you might as well try going from side to side, no?

After a while of using a given prime you also start to learn what subjects work best for that particular focal length, and you’ll find yourself looking for them while walking about. This is another important benefit and side effect: looking. Like Yogi Berra said “you can observe a lot just by watching”, and when I’m in a slump it’s usually because I’m not looking out for scenes to photograph.

Sometimes we’re just like a car that’s been left in the cold too long: we try to start it up, it chugs a few times, and then stalls. But if you get somebody to push you and get it rolling fast enough, you can get it started and driving like nothing was ever wrong with it. A prime lens can be that friend that pushes us when we’re stalling.

You can choose any focal length for this exercise, but I have some recommendations. If you’re new to shooting with primes, then a normal length lens is probably the best option; something around 50mm on film (or around 35mm on DSLR) would be best. If you’re used to shooting with primes, then I would choose an extreme focal length, either wide or long. The objective here is to make yourself feel slightly uncomfortable and disorientated.

Once the lens is on the camera, sling it over your shoulder and head out for a walk. If at all possible, don’t set yourself a time to be home, and try to go somewhere you know well and have photographed often. Going somewhere familiar will force you to look at old subjects with new eyes. Furthermore, having only one lens on your camera will make you think harder, try harder, and in the end, make you be more creative. If you feel like you’re not quite sure what you’re doing, good! That means my plan is working.

Chances are that by the end of your walk you’ll be shooting that prime like you had been born with it. I would also be willing to bet that when you look at the pictures you took, you’ll find quite a few winners.

Some weeks ago I was feeling very uninspired and down about my photography. My mood in general wasn’t good either. When Friday came around I realised I had not shot a single photo that week, which hadn’t happened since I bought my DSLR. Resolved to get myself out of the funk, I decided to Bust-a-Prime and mounted my Sigma CAT 400mm f/5.6 on the camera at the end of my work day and headed off for a long walk home to make the most of the Sun’s last rays.

400mm is not exactly an urban walk around lens, but using an unfamiliar focal length was exactly what I needed. And thanks to Pentax's sensor-based image stabilisation I was able to easily take hand-held shots at 1/100s. Given the fading light, I would not have been able to use this lens without a tripod or monopod had it not been for Pentax's IS.

Here are some of the pictures that came out of my Bust-a-Prime therapy session. They may not be worthy of hanging in the MFA, but I had much fun taking them; the first fun I’d had with photography in quite a while. Let’s remember that that’s what this hobby is all about: fun.


Some withered flowers, abandoned on a window sill.

Pipes chatting about the state of tubes.

An old car in its retirement home.

Pale Life.

Barbed wire gleaming in the Sun can be beautiful.


A baby mocking bird impatiently calls for its mum to bring dinner.


Thank you for reading.

Miserere


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