1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Nineteen: Hobbies

I’m not sure I had hobbies in 1998. I definitely didn’t have the hobbies I have now, back then.

Hobbies are, for the purposes of this entry, things you do that you enjoy for themselves, and not because you plan to make it a professional part of your life to any extent. I think it also should be something that is slightly out of the normal rhythm of your life. For example, I wouldn’t call “reading” a hobby of mine, because it’s always just been part of my daily life. I read like I breathe. Breathing is not a hobby, it’s an essential. Same with reading.

In 1998, most of what I was doing was centered on writing, and getting paid for writing. So even things I enjoyed, I tried to make money writing about. And it worked; I liked listening to and thinking about music, so I found a gig writing music reviews. Music was no longer a hobby, I was getting paid for it. Likewise video games; I found a company that would let me write video game reviews, so while I was playing video games — and loving it! — it was all going into the hopper so I could write about it on my video game review site.

I had reasons for wanting to professionalize all my enthusiasms, not limited to the fact in 1998 I had a kid on the way, but what it meant was, really, nothing that might have been a hobby, was. It was all work, work, work. And while the saying is “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” I’m also here to tell you that sometimes I’d be grinding through a terrible video game for a review, and it was work, for sure.

These days, I would consider two things my hobbies: Photography and music, and this time when I mean “music” I don’t mean listening to it, I mean playing it. In both cases, I do it because it’s fun for me, and it’s not connected to my professional life in any significant way (I’ll add a small caveat to that in a bit). Also, in both cases, I enjoy them in themselves, and don’t worry about whether I’m “good” at them; I may or may not be, depending on taste, etc, but being so is not the point. The point is they get me out of my head and let me enjoy doing something for its own sake. That’s a hobby.

And I will note that in both cases one of the things that allowed me to get into the hobby was that it went digital.

Photography is the most obvious one for this. Prior to the advent of the digital camera, I think I may have taken less than three hundred pictures in my life, mostly “Kodak moment” snaps from disposable cameras. And of those three hundred, a non-trivial number were never developed, because back in the day, you’d have to go somewhere to get the film developed and pay for each snap you took. Film would get developed when I got around to it, and not when I didn’t. Basically prior to around 1998 (in fact), I mostly showed up in other people’s pictures.

But then I had a kid, and then also right around the turn of the century you could start getting digital cameras with decent resolution, which in this case meant something along the lines of two megapixels per photo. Which might not seem that much now but which is the resolution equivalent of an HDTV, and certainly right up there with whatever you might get out of a disposable camera you’d get from a CVS. Plus now I wouldn’t have to have them “developed” — I could just download them on my computer and be off to the races.

If memory serves, the first digital camera I bought was an Olympus Camedia C-21, which took 1600×1200 JPEG photos and ran on double-a batteries. That would have been 1999/2000 or so. Four years later I upgraded to a Kodak EasyShare camera, with an eye-popping 5 megapixels. But the next year, 2005, I bought my first digital single reflex camera, a Nikon d70s, and that’s pretty much when the photography went from being just a thing to snap pictures when they happened, to a thing where I went out of my way to take pictures.

The reason for this is pretty simple: the dSLRs allowed me to take more interesting pictures. They had bigger lenses, better sensors and encouraged actual exploration into photography rather than, basically, opportunistic photo capture. The dSLRs also took pictures in RAW format, which captures a lot more picture information than JPEGs, and means one can, with the right software, tease out things like shadows and details that are crunched out of the JPEG format. It makes a huge difference in what shows up in photos.

And also, of course, digital means that you can take dozens or even hundreds of pictures to find the few that work the way you intend them to; this sort of brute strength photo taking would have been ridiculously expensive in the film era. Mind you, over time the goal is not to have take dozens of photos to get the one good one; hopefully eventually you learn enough about taking pictures that you can bring that ratio down significantly.

I suspect that being someone who learned photography in a digital era means that I approach photo taking differently than someone who learned in the film era — for example, I suspect I am substantially more reliant on Photoshop and other photoediting suites to draw out the details and effects in photos than film-era photographers, who I suspect do much of their photo planning in-camera, picking specific shutter speeds and f-stops and such.

What’s also interesting is now we’re in an era where phone cameras are so good that you can use them for more than casual photos as well — some of the best photos I’ve taken have been with my current Pixel 2 phone. Add to this that phone-based photoediting apps are also increasingly capable and complex, and you’ve got an exciting age of photography. I can still tell the difference between my dSLR photos and my phone photos (it’s down to depth of field and artifacts in the details), but I wonder if other people notice. If and when the only camera I have with me is on my phone, these days I don’t feel like I won’t still get a good picture out of the moment.

I think in a general sense I’m a pretty good photographer, but I’m also aware of the gap between what I do and what I see in pro photos. Last year I stepped in to be a photographer at a wedding, and while I think I did pretty well, especially for a last-minute save, I can also see the difference in how I did it and what I think of as pro-level wedding photography. It’s not something I worry about; indeed I like the idea I still have space to grow, at my own pace, in this particular hobby.

My other hobby at the moment is music, and, well. I’m a better photographer than I am a musician. I have been playing guitar (both 4 and 6-string variants) and ukulele for a while now, and I’m pretty sure I’ve run up to that wall where, if I’m to get any better, I will need to actually practice a lot more than I currently do. I’m not sure that’s going to happen; I don’t see where I will have the time. Also, the current plateau I’m on lets me play chords, which is basically what I need for what I want to do, which is, play and sing songs, mostly poorly but with enthusiasm, in my office, while I’m taking a break from writing.

But didn’t you say digital helped you get into making music? I did! Back in the early aughts I bought music production software that included a collection of royalty-free loops, and I really got into that for a while, enough so that I actually ended up putting together an entire LP of the pieces I cobbled together with them. It is good? It won’t make your ears bleed, at least. But of course I can’t claim any credit for the music bits, just the sequencing and editing. And having done that made me interested in picking up actual musical instruments and attempting to learn how to play them a bit, and here we are.

Being a hobby musician is great for humility, and also makes me appreciate how hard making music out of one’s own brain is. I have a fair number of friends who are working musicians, and I’m constantly amazed at how they do it — play their instruments so well and write songs that people love and want to hear over and over. To be fair, many of them have said similar things about what I do, and how I can manage to write entire novels, which seems a mystical skill to them (there are some people who can do both novels and music. We’ve arranged to have them pushed in front of buses).

I’ve been paid for photos I’ve taken and I’ve even got royalty payments for my music — in both cases, enough to get a couple of pizzas — but I don’t plan to be (or will be, even if I plan it) a threat to actual professional photographers or musicians. What’s more, I don’t want to be. I like my hobbies being hobbies, which is a statement I don’t know that I could have made in 1998. Monetizing your enthusiasms is fine, but I’m at a point where the idea of monetizing everything makes me tired. It’s okay just to have enthusiasms, and to be less than amazing at them, and to enjoy them anyway.

16 Comments on “1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Nineteen: Hobbies”

  1. I love the idea of not monetizing your enthusiasms. Even for folks who are not financially secure the idea that canabalizing what you love for profit is always the way to go is one I would cheerfully see die.

  2. The joy of retiring, for me, was really having to learn my hobbies (music and photography) AND not having to try to make a living with them. This means I do them for pure happiness. Not monetizing things may allow you more creativity

  3. I was never into photography, for much the same reasons as yours. Then in 2008 my partner (who was into photography, but only on the hobby level) gave me an inexpensive Fujifilm Finepix for Christmas. And again like you, the difference was astounding. Having the viewscreen on the back of the camera meant that I got much better at taking photos that didn’t suck, and PIXELS ARE CHEAP, so I could take a lot of shots trying for a few good ones.

    Now… my Flickr account has over 10,000 pictures, my upgraded camera travels in a little case on my belt-pack, and my partner has been known to look at me with an expression of “What have I wrought?” :-)

    Unlike you, I do not find my cellphone camera to be a useful equivalent. What it’s good for is taking quick snaps of things to share with other people via Facebook or texting. And I should really get one of those apps that lets you upload video to YouTube in realtime, just in case I ever end up witnessing something that needs to be so recorded. But for serious picture-taking, I want my digicam.

  4. John I like the music you make a lot more than I like the music you listen to (i.e. the “20/20” list from a few days ago)! Kinda reminds me of early synth LPs that I bought in the late 70s/early 80s (Jean-Michel Jarre, Yellow Magic Orchestra etc.). What software went into making that, and did it have any capability to enter specific pitches (and so create a melody) and choose a synth patch to go with it? Some of those songs are crying out for a lead solo instrument to blow over top of it. For example I just played your third track (“Why Don’t You Love Me”) over a bluetooth speaker perched on my piano and improvised to it. Interesting that it uses Aeolian mode (natural minor), as modes and minor are not often used by rockers…and it uses an odd, stepwise chord progression (i-VII-VI). I used to have a home music studio set up in our spare bedroom, using Cakewalk “Home Studio” PC software and a bunch of MIDI and audio gear, but I found composing to be more work than play, and a time-sink not compatible with job+family priorities.

  5. A semi-famous golfer whose name I’ve entirely forgotten once made a comment about golf that I’ve found generalizes into any hobby. He said it was like sex. You didn’t have to good at it to enjoy it.

  6. Dear John,

    A missive in three movements (because I do run on)…

    The Technical Part

    You may well already be doing all three of the following, but if you’re not you can significantly improve the photographs you’re getting out of your cell phone:

    ~ Check your settings to make sure they are being recorded at maximum quality (largest file size). A lot of times the software default is at a lower level of quality.

    ~ Turn on HDR as your default. It’ll let you capture a stop or so more exposure range but more importantly (to my mind), it massively reduces noise and artifacting, especially in lower-light photographs.

    ~ You can get an app that will let you pull RAW files from your cell phone instead of JPEG’s. Benefits: every bit of tonal information and exposure range you can get from a single exposure is there (not the case with a regular JPEG) and you’ve got “16-bit” data, which means no annoying contouring in saturated colors and blue skies. Disadvantages: more processing for you to do and sometimes the in-camera noise/tone processing for a JPEG is so formidably good that you can’t actually do as well starting from a RAW file in Photoshop.

    As one of those elite custom printers who gets paid hundreds of dollars to print a single photograph for somebody, I will claim the authority to state that cell phone photographs are, on the whole, excellent. Good ones are entirely suitable for 11 x 14 or 16 x 20 prints. Fixed focal length lens aside, there are edge cases where the DSLR will produce a decent photograph and the cell phone won’t, but they are far less common than people imagine.

    The Personal Part

    My history parallels yours. When I was a kid I was the one carrying the family camera on trips, but the photographs were crap. I’ve gone back and looked — no redeeming social value. Even the most sycophantic biographer is not going to write about the artistic promise I showed as a child. Then, 55 years ago, my grandfather gave me a Polaroid Highlander 80A, and it all changed. Once I had the instant feedback my photography improved at an astonishing rate. I was good inside of a year and very good inside of two.

    There are differences: digital photographs are (almost) free, whereas I couldn’t afford more than a dozen or so photographs a month. I had to make everyone count. But the learning process was the same. Also, getting that camera changed my life forever, without a doubt. Yours, not so much.

    Unless you succumb to terminal writers block AND decide you still need to earn more money. In which case, as I’ve said before, you can definitely become a professional photographer. You’re good enough.

    The Social Part

    I think digital cameras, both in their own cases and in phones, are the greatest thing to happen to photography since George Eastman said, “You press the button, we do the rest.” There are those for whom photography is a studied craft and/or profession. Some of them still try to act like they own photography, although that ship sailed with George Eastman. Photography became the premier folk art form of the 20th century, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down in the 21st. That’s an absolutely wonderful thing. I get to play on the elite fringes, but I rejoice in photography’s mass appeal.

    I also benefit economically. Most of the advances in photography and cameras, both analog and digital, would not have happened without a large market.

    And digital cameras make it easier for more people to make more good photographs. What is a good photograph? One that makes them happy. I say three cheers!

    – pax / Ctein \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 

  7. Photography and music as hobbies, yes. Never really had the ear for music, so I had to let that go. But I believe I can claim to have the eye for photography, which I’ve done since the days of film, and still do with great enthusiasm.

    But reading… must agree with your comments, it’s more like breathing than a hobby, an essential part of my life ever since I discovered it as a child.

    You could take away TV and movies and radio, all of it, and I could still be happy, as long as I still have good books to read.

    Thank you for providing so many good ones.

  8. John, could I just say how much I am enjoying these pieces: they have a gentle, contemplative feel to them which really chimes, possibly because, at 48, I’m at a similar place in my life


  9. I like Robert Littell’s definition: A professional is someone who thinks that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. An amateur is someone who thinks that if a thing is worth doing, it may be worth doing badly.

  10. “Mind you, over time the goal is not to have take dozens of photos to get the one good one; hopefully eventually you learn enough about taking pictures that you can bring that ratio down significantly.

    “I suspect that being someone who learned photography in a digital era means that I approach photo taking differently than someone who learned in the film era — for example, I suspect I am substantially more reliant on Photoshop and other photoediting suites to draw out the details and effects in photos than film-era photographers, who I suspect do much of their photo planning in-camera, picking specific shutter speeds and f-stops and such.”

    You’d be wrong about that.

    I used to read the photography magazines, where each photo had recorded in the caption the type of film used, the f stop, the exposure, and I had the same idea. But having been a photographer in a former life, I’m here to tell you that brute force is how professionals have always worked. It was just a lot more tedious and expensive in the film days. You had a motor drive on your camera to automatically advance the film. You replaced the camera back so that you could use bulk rolls of film. Instead of Photoshop, you did your editing in the darkroom, dodging and burning with pieces of cardboard held on wires under the enlarger. Forget combining pieces from more than one photo. Even if you did that, it always looked like crap. And you always, always took a ton of pictures to bracket your exposure settings, because you weren’t going to be messing with shadows or blown out highlights after the fact.

    That’s why I got out of photography when I went off to college in the late 70’s. It was just too damned expensive and time consuming. But since digital photography has dramatically compressed the time involved and reduced the incremental cost of additional photos as close to zero as makes no odds, I’ve been drifting back in.

    You just don’t know the magnitude of that change unless you’ve been on both ends of it.

  11. Dear pjcamp,

    I’m in broad agreement with what you said. With some twists.

    For 40 years I was on the other side of the looking glass, um, magazine page, a gazillion articles and on the editorial staff of three different magazines. That technical information published with each photograph? A lot of it was made up. Possibly most of it, I have no way of knowing. But, really, how many photographers, out in the field, bothered to write that stuff down? Articles written by staff likely had more made-up exposure information than not.

    Market studies — On average, pros spent more on equipment and film than amateurs, no big surprise, because you had to deliver. Only a small percentage of pros owned things like motor drives and bulk film backs, for the simple reason that you also had to show a profit. You spent as much on a job as you needed to get the job done, and you tried not to spend a cent more. Some businesses and assignments demanded photographing prolifically, but most didn’t. Fortunately, because of that profit thing.

    But… the top consumers among our readership? Amateurs. We jokingly called them “rich-doctors-who-retired-to-Miami-and-collect-Leicas.” The gaming industry has a more concise name — “whales.” Not only would they buy just about anything, regardless of price, they burnt through film at insane rates. A couple of percent of our readership spend more on film and processing each year than any of us made!

    And, wow, has digital changed that. All for the better, in my invariably-humble-and-self-effacing opinion.

    – pax / Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 

  12. I started as a “pro” photographer, at a newspaper where all the reporters took a camera around to football games and train wrecks and auto accidents. We had a 4×5 Speed Graphic with a Polaroid back for late night shots, after the darkroom tech was done for the day. From 1969 on up.

    I have shot 4×5 color slide film, in the distant past, had a darkroom, printed color prints from slides. Etc. Then life changed, I got busy in software, didn’t have time or inclination. Then digital cameras happened. I got a Nikon Coolpix first, then the same D70s you got. After a while, carrying the Nikor glass got old, and now I shoot with a superzoon Panasonic FZ1000, from 26mm to 300mm. Big fun, Macro focus, pics in the freaking DARK…

    Also got an Olympic TG5 waterproof camera for when we took a whale-petting cruise, with sea lions to pet, under water. More big fun. Many guys on the National Geographic whale cruise had big glass Canon and Nikon rigs, but I bet I got as many good photos as they did. Way less weight, too. 20Meg images, brackets exposure automatically, saves Raw as well. 1000 different exposures in 10 days. Big fun. The editing was hard afterwards!

    I like music too, but don’t play for others any more, my hands aren’t what they once were. Viking hand, don’t look it up, but it sucks.

    Thanks Scalzi, for all you write and do!!


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