A “Developing” Photographer

Around this time last year (December 2014), I remember driving home from my last final exam of the semester. I called my parents to tell them how I thought I did, whether I would think I would pass, and endlessly worry about my final grade in the class. In an effort to try to sway my mind off of what was already done (the exam and the class), they asked me what I wanted for Christmas, like they do every year. I spontaneously thought to myself, how about a camera…? You know, a decent “point-and-shoot” camera to take with me and just capture some memories. A week later, Christmas arrived, and I had found out that I had passed that class (thank God!), and that they surprised me with a Nikon DSLR! Like many people who receive their first camera, I took it outside and played with it mindlessly at every moment that I could. I realized that taking pictures with a DSLR is more than something that’s mindless… it takes time to create a photograph and set the camera settings to the right variables to create that perfect shot.

Around this time last year (December 2014), I remember driving home from my last final exam of the semester. I called my parents to tell them how I thought I did, whether I would think I would pass, and endlessly worry about my final grade in the class. In an effort to try to sway my mind off of what was already done (the exam and the class), they asked me what I wanted for Christmas, like they do every year. I spontaneously thought to myself, how about a camera...? You know, a decent "point-and-shoot" camera to take with me and just capture some memories. A week later, Christmas arrived, and I had found out that I had passed that class (thank God!), and that they surprised me with a Nikon DSLR! Like many people who receive their first camera, I took it outside and played with it mindlessly at every moment that I could. I realized that taking pictures with a DSLR is more than something that's mindless... it takes time to create a photograph and set the camera settings to the right variables to create that perfect shot.

I aimed at taking a photo a day for a year to improve my skills with a DSLR and get familiar to the art. Due to school constraints and a limited ability to travel outside of Purdue's bubble in Indiana (people refer to it as West Lafayette), I cut it down to 180 days. During this period, I quickly gained an appreciation of the art and discovered my passions within photography. I ended up taking mostly landscapes and landmarks, (with a couple of portrait projects in between).

As 2015 comes to a close, I look back at my young journey and notice that my Nikon D7100 wasn't just a great gift from my parents. This camera has opened my eyes (literally) to becoming more observant, increased my admiration for art, and has increased my creativity skills. These intangible traits are some of the best gifts you can share with among friends and family.

Here are some highlights and self-critiques of my 2015 "storyboard".

January: Dog-Gone It!

My first photo-opportunity was playing frisbee in the back yard with my dog, Max. He would chase his four red frisbees, and would never take his eyes off of them. In this shot, Max is focused on a frisbee about to be thrown at him.

Reflection: I immediately notice that the picture is not fully focused, and that the color is a little dry (white balance setting probably). Also, his tail is slightly cropped out. But I had to start from somewhere...!

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February: Magnified Creativity

Half of the battle is understanding how to use a DSLR, and terms like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The other half, is coming up with a unique composition for the photo. I visited some friends who worked in the EE lab, found a magnifying glass and a circuit board, and instinctively figured these two props into an image.

March: Art - It's in Your DNA

In March, I learned about the difficulties of taking a picture in the dark. I was fairly new to the concept of long-exposure photography and didn't realize that having a tripod is mandatory for low-light shots. Unless... you want that grainy-looking Snapchat-esque photo. I didn't have a tripod yet, so I had to compensate by finding a flat-surface and setting a timer.

I love the contrast in this photo: the dark sky meets an illuminated bridge, giving off a purple hue (with a pinch of red), and an orange glow fills the bottom of the bridge.

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April: A Sweet Mistake

One night, when I was out in town, I was attempting to do more night-shots. As I was trying to auto-focus on a dim-lit figure, my camera's AF did the typical focus-out, focus-in shift. I then discovered that the distant street lights created a bunch of circles that I discovered is a popular technique called bokeh. A simple focusing mistake led to my introduction of a common trick!

May: Selective Coloring

Around this time, I was introduced to the post-processing of photos. I assumed that whatever pictures were taken on the camera were the final product. I didn't consider how photographers make adjustments through programs like Picasa or Adobe Lightroom. I simply assumed those were photo libraries mainly used for storing and organizing photos.

Using Lightroom, I asked myself "What do I want to draw attention of in this photo?" Well... graduating from college is kind of a big deal - why not bring attention to the mortar board? One common way of doing this is to keep the item of focus colored, while grayscaling the rest of the photo. Turned out pretty neat if I say so myself!

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June: Another Sweet Mistake

Right before I left for Seattle, I spent a late night stargazing with my two best Hoosier buddies at a farm in rural Indiana. At the end of the evening, I decided to attempt to get a picture of a windmill when the only source of light was a full moon. With tripod in hand, I focused it on the windmill. There was just enough of a glaze from the moon making it look like sunrise! I can confirm that this picture was taken at 2 in the morning, however...

July: Fall-ing In Love With Long Exposures

My father and I were wandering through Washington roads and pulled over at a tourist attraction called Snoqualmie Falls. By complete accident coincidence, we were stunned by a magnificent waterfall on a clear day. Luckily, the sun was cooperating to give us a nice rainbow along with the waterfall.

While I grasped the idea of taking long-exposures at night to capture the right amount of light into a lens, I saw many examples online of creating a silky-water effect. This can be simply achieved by taking a long-exposure shot of a body of water.

However, there's too much light during the day to achieve a shot longer than probably half a second! I then discovered that there are neutral-density filters that intentionally block light, providing an avenue to take a daytime shot.

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August: Go Out On An Adventure

Some of the best photo opportunities are getting out of the apartment, grabbing a few friends, and going on a trip to your own private island!

But with the prices of rent in the Pacific Northwest (look it up... it's as scary as the interior pictured left), neither my friends nor I can afford a private island... instead, we compensated by going to a ghost town!

By not knowing what to expect or what to take pictures of beforehand, it really exercises creativity skills and tests your ability to document or analyze your surroundings (in this case, this was a house once inhabited decades ago).

September: Parks & Tech

National parks are some of the best places to take pictures at (in case you didn't know). I wandered in the middle of the vacant road to take a picture of Crater Lake in Oregon.

I didn't notice until I post-processed this photo that I implemented a leading-line in the composition. The road bends towards the right, shifting focus from the road to the deep-blue lake. This is one of my favorite pictures of the year, and definitely my favorite road-trip adventure of the year.

In the post-processing step, I added a Lightroom HDR Preset (there are many online - feel free to experiment with them to enhance your photos).

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October: Rock On

I haven't been to many concerts growing up, but when Microsoft held a free concert for the city of Seattle, I couldn't pass that up (especially from one of my favorite bands, Chromeo!)

I brought my camera with me to see if I could even get a picture of the stage, and surprisingly, I could! I found it just as entertaining to watch a concert through the lens than watching it without one (it helped me see what was going on from 1,000 feet away at least).

While it may be addicting to capture the moment through a lens, it's also important to experience the vibe around you and through your own eyes!

November: Put Yourself In Front

As the photographer, you are the storyteller about what's going on through your eyes and mind. But sometimes, people want to know what those eyes and mind look like. There's also a story about the mastermind behind the camera, and it can't be left out.

In November, I ran my first marathon, and my mother took this photo of me crossing the finish line.

December: Final Thoughts & Looking On to 2016

As for this year in review, it's been packed with adventures. Prior to having a camera, I never really captured my moments or memories... I felt apathetic to pull out my phone to take a picture, and then put it back into my pocket. Having a DSLR taught me to capture memories (either alone or with friends). It taught me to be more observant... to appreciate nature, and to think abstractly.

When starting out in photography, it's hard to determine personal interests and skills to use. Just like anything else, it takes repetition and practice. I discovered that my main interest is landscapes and astrophotography. Based on the amount of places I visited, I focused on taking pictures of the great outdoors (I used to be an indoorsman... that sometimes applies today). But having a camera incentivized me to get out more!

One of the best ways to learn is to get out of your comfort zone. My goal for 2016 is to shift my focus from landscapes and to work on portraits. Taking photos of landscapes can be done in solitude - find an area, focus, set the camera, and shoot. With people, it's not that easy. It's learning about an individual, communicating with them, and visually telling their story.

The Year Ahead

My New Year's Resolution is to improve my portrait photography skills while listening to the stories of my peers. I was inspired by the Humans of New York photo-collaboration project regarding their presentation of everyone's unique story. Throughout the year, I'll be highlighting friends and others in blog posts titled  "Ah-necdotes". These posts will highlight a story in their lives along with portraits that tell their story. I can't wait to share these stories in the upcoming year!

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