The Good Enough Photographer
Pathological moderates need special help to create anything approaching photographic art. Moderation certainly affects my photography process and product in ways that are predictable because I seek the exceptional more than excellence. Ideally, I would pursue both but in my day-job as a wildlife biologist, my attention and responsibilities lie outside making photographs. If there is genuine strength to my photography skill though, it is through being a keen observer. The photographer’s eye happened to be the easy part and mine was cultivated from my earliest days of birdwatching, wild animal pursuits and interaction via ant farms, rescued baby birds, snakes capture, raising small alligators, and aquaria fish of all sorts. It was a natural step to begin capturing these subjects on film which extended to wild environments then to people engaged with wildlife then onward to people in human environments.
Street and party photography skills can borrow neatly from proficiency in wildlife observation and image-making because people move through their lives and social gatherings in ways not unlike wild animals moving through their environments seeking food, sex, security, resources, shelter, and comfort.
The photographer and the pre-teen snake hunter share many of the same skills as they stalk and capture their beloved quarry using: habitat selection (setting and events), detection (framing and content), tracking (panning and viewfinder following) positioning (light angle), camouflage (candid non-intrusion), capture (shutter release), and handling (processing). Throughout both endeavors there is joy generated at each step by curiosity and the uncertainty of factors beyond our control, thus, photo-making is gratification pursuit. The closely inspected magic of a sleek ribbon snake gently wrapping around fingers is not so different from an image appearing in photons or in a development bath or the pop of a photo when a clarity or gain slider is moved in post. The endorphin surge of this creativity and learning draws us in like hikers to a campfire or hunters to a duck blind. The rewards are ineffable and the EUREKA! moments, though frequent, are never assured. Nothing is so addicting as intermittent rewards.
Yet, I am a moderate and my life is filled with compromises of the “Hmmm . . . good enough” variety. Like many, I rely too much on luck emerging from prodigious digital clickage, yet, luck and patience are large parts of nature photography. I succumb to the criticism of “Oh, a snapshot”. My occasional photo successes come primarily from (a) always carrying a camera while afield, (b) cultivating an eye for noteworthy phenomena, and (c)deliberately seeking interesting settings. It is not just a bumbling approach even though I regularly bumble and bungle, but it works for me as a relaxed approach.
Thematic images are really useful in my professional life for seminars, university courses, and on-line outreach. Other images though are purely eye candy and life-spice for sprinkling into correspondence, birthday and holiday greetings, blogs, websites, and digital scrapbooks for my kids. On the commercial side — and humble-brag notwithstanding- the sale of 50 or 60 of my images to magazines and newspapers has generated a little income on topics as diverse as motorcycle touring, music concerts, conservation work, and outdoors magazines. To be honest however, those images typically compliment stories I have written, like this one. I would starve trying to live on a freelancer photographer’s salary but the combination of an article with original photos can generate a nice cash bump to cover equipment, travel expenses, and to justify a small deduction on taxes.
My equipment is modest; I typically buy used micro-four thirds camera equipment such as the svelte 10-year old Lumix GX-1 for coat pocket carry. More recently I moved up to the 20 MP of the Lumix GX-8 with lots of bells and whistles. I like the 4/3 format because the gear is so portable and fits my “Always carry” mantra. I have shopped E-Bay and added five Lumix OIS-compatible lenses across a magnification range which is more than most anyone would need, however, I do ask a broad range of tasks from my lenses.
Metal Art, Train Museum, Missoula Montana
Ironically, for the house party close-ups or crowded stages, as well as chest-expanding distant skies and landscapes I reach for the same lens; a 7–14mm Lumix wide-angle at f1.4. For flower photography, portraiture, and more work-related photos, the Leica glass in the 25mm f1.4 Summilux prime lens gives great results and the f1.4 is necessary in the 4/3 format where it equals an f2.8 in 35mm format.
My casual pursuit of wildlife photography sees me fitting both cameras with telephotos including a Leica Vario-Elmar 100–400mm, f4.0–6.3 to produce a 200–800 equivalent magnification; and a Lumix G 45–175 zoom at f4.0–5.6. Not particularly fast but these lenses work very well with the coordinated Lumix five-axis image stabilization in-lens and in-camera body, allowing handheld shots down to 1/60th second to compensate for the slightly limited f-stop opening.
Having apprenticed on SLR film cameras such as Mamiya Sekor and Pentax 35mm formats, framing through a viewfinder is second nature so I reverse engineered a viewfinder for the GX-1 which has a rear screen only. This small viewfinder came off an old Yashica rangefinder but slipped neatly into the hot shoe slot. It gives a very good approximation of the field of view for quick shots.
I think even a moderate passion for photography makes our lives better. The awareness enhancement that is beckoned from a street photographer, a wildlife photographer, or a storm photographer means they live in a state of readiness and observation. Inadvertently, that yields an engaged life where we are brought into the moment. The premeditated intention to make images means we watch carefully which incentivizes and propels us into life richness. These adventures, small or large, lead to precious flow experiences not unlike the 100% commitment and risk-management of a seven-year-old boy trying to capture a bumble bee in a jelly jar. It carries us back to those primal joys and it preserves events and sentiments more accurately than simple memory, thereby carrying joy forward by generations. Making images is one way to move with appreciation and gratitude through this big messy intriguing world. If we can’t make sense of it now, maybe we can revisit the images later for insight or at least a laugh.