Why I Like Photography
Posted on July 31, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 27 Comments
In fact, the picture above typifies many of the reasons why I enjoy taking pictures, getting them ready for presentation, and then showing them off to the world. Let me enumerate them for you now.
1. I have a lot of photogenic subjects around me: Krissy, obviously, and the cats, but flowers and clouds and sunsets and people I know and so on. Some subjects lend themselves to photography, yes, but the other thing is once you start taking pictures on a more than casual basis you realize that “photogenic” is not just about pretty or striking but what you can do to whatever thing to make it the subject of a compelling photo. You could take a picture of a fork and make it look compelling and interesting. “Photogenic” is as much about the photographer as the subject, and that was a cool thing to learn.
2. Good pictures are everywhere. The picture above looks studiously posed but is not. Krissy happened to come into my office to talk to me about her plans for the day, Sugar leapt up into her lap to be petted and then settled down on her knee. I grabbed my Pixel 4 phone, opened up the camera app and shot three photos of the two of them in rapid succession. One of them (this one, obviously) was good enough to refine further. I couldn’t have planned this shot (I mean, I could have, but I’m almost certain the cat would not have cooperated), but the fact it was there literally for the taking is a reminder that so much of what is worth seeing in the world isn’t planned; from a photography point of view it’s nice to be living in an age where a decent camera is usually within reach. Certainly not every photo I snap is gold — Out of ten pictures I take, four are blurry and at least two have people doing weird things with their faces — but enough of them are to make it worth it.
3. Photography hardware and software are conducive to how I do photography. I am not a studio photographer, nor am I one who usually uses the more complex setting of his camera; I use mostly natural or ambient lighting and I mostly keep my dSLR settings on “auto” for ISO and shutter speed. This means outside of basic composition of the shot (i.e., placing myself or my subjects somewhere to get the best picture) I do everything else in post-production, primarily with Photoshop but with some other programs as well, either standalone or as add-ons to Photoshop. I make pictures this way because it works for me, and also because as a self-taught photographer this is just how I have accreted knowledge and process.
This doesn’t mean my way is right — other photographers might find my process curious or laborious or the long way around to do things, and as I go through and learn more about photography, I’ll often find some way of doing things in-camera that, had I known earlier, would have saved me a lot of pain in the ass post-production fiddling. But I don’t actually mind that! I don’t kick myself when I learn something that I maybe should have known earlier. It just means that now I have two different ways of getting to the same desired point for the photo. And the larger point is: No matter how you do it, today’s photography hardware and software usually allow you a way to achieve an effect or look that you want. Also, here’s the thing:
4. I find fiddling with photos enjoyable and relaxing. The picture you see above has been altered from what came out of the camera in a number of ways: One, it’s in black and white where the original was in color. Two, before it was black and white, I went and did things with the lighting and color balance to give a more dramatic presentation, and to do things like even out skin tones and shadows. Three, I used Photoshop to clean up cat hair on Krissy’s clothes, and irregularities in the paint on the wall (I tried taking out the light switch but did a bad job of it, so it stayed). I played with various filters, in color and in black and white, to get a look I liked — for this specific black and white photo, I actually used a particular color filter (after all the other stuff I did to the photo), and then desaturated the photo’s colors. And then, at the end of it, I added a light dusting of “grain” to the photo, to give it a little bit of texture that all the post-processing I did had taken out of the photo.
And, I enjoyed every fiddly, nit-picking moment of that process. It’s fun to sit there on Photoshop and move sliders and apply brushes and slowly make a photo into something you like, and maybe want to show others. It’s a process I can get lost in, and in doing so forget about other things for a bit. Also, it’s a creative process that for me has a quick(er) result than my usual stock in trade: in the space of a few moments or an hour, I can make something I find artistically satisfying. As a novelist, whose books usually take months to compose and complete and then often even longer to go out into the world, this is something I appreciate quite a lot. Look! Art! In a couple of hours from snapping the photo to putting it out into the world! Wheee!
And it doesn’t even have to be “art” for me to enjoy it. One of my favorite things to do is, when friends post old family pictures on Facebook or elsewhere that are yellowed (or magenta-ed, honestly, that usually what happens to old photos), is to take the snap and do a quick color correction that brings the photo closer to what it was when it was originally taken. It’s a five-minute thing, it’s fun, and generally people are like, oh, cool, thanks. Process is enjoyable sometimes, folks, as much or even more than the final product.
5. It’s not my job. I know a number of professional photographers and they have a very cool job that generally speaking I do not aspire to. One, because I already have a very cool job, and, thank God, I don’t need another at this point to eat. Two, because I stepped in to be an emergency wedding photographer once, and having done so I have some small inkling of how difficult the job is when other people’s expectations are on the line. Three, because I’m good enough to recognize where the skill/knowledge gap is between me and the professional photographers of my acquaintance, and what I would need to do to level up, and, meeehhhhh I’d rather not?
But, and mostly, four: because I enjoy photography as a hobby, and as a hobby it provides me certain artistic and mental benefits which are actually useful and important to me. So that’s where I’m going to keep things for the most part. Do the occasional photo shoot for friends? Sure, why not? (I did some author photos for some folks recently and it’ll be cool to see those in their books.) Do that on the regular? Nah, I’d rather take photos of my hibiscus plant and make it look like an alien appendage just because that looks cool to me.
6. Because memories. Which is why the vast majority of people take photos, so I’m not special there. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. As it turns out I don’t have a huge number of photos from when I was growing up, or indeed, really before the advent of digital photography at the turn of the century. However, I have lots of photographic evidence of my life from about 2000 onward. There are those who suggest that people spend so much time taking pictures or video that they’re not actually experiencing the moment, and I think there’s a small argument for that. One’s memories should not be just looking into a screen or viewfinder. But I also think you can do both: Experience the moment, and at some point in it, record it in a photo to help remember it better later.
I also think photos can be their own moment; not just what you’ve captured, but the experience of the photo in itself. That’s a real thing, too, and and experience worth having. As well as the experience of everything else that comes with making a picture from that photo. I enjoy the whole experience of photography, from shot to showing. I’m glad to have that experience. It makes my life better.
It also looks pretty good in color, too:
The top one is fierce! Krissy is totally one with the cat, and together they look like a contemporary version of an ancient nature goddess. (American Gods-style.)
I wonder if you could get K to pose with a snake for the full Minoan effect. :-)
And I love your super-saturated colors.
I love your photography posts. I find them relaxing.
The color pic is good, too. I noticed the light-switch immediately. It’s POSSIBLE to get rid of it, but It would take a lot of fiddling. Probably more than it’s worth.
I think it’s a lovely and striking photo. It is “special” in a way that stands out from some of your other work.
This photo evokes formal portraits that would be commissioned before the age of photography in ye olden days.
If you put your wife in a whalebone corset, formal 18th century dress, and sat her in a drawing room, one could envision just this pose, and just that expression, and…. the cat.
It would sell at auction as “18th century portrait, oil on canvas of Dame De La Fleur, Matriarch of the Montagues, at rest, before her coronation”
It has that kind look to it.
With the sunglasses, skull shirt, yoga pants, it is very much of “today” at the same time which makes a nice dichotomy. Times change, people don’t. That kind of thing. It also makes it look would be equally comfortable in either setting. Like she is the kind of woman you could take to a rowdy BBQ or a formal dinner, and she would be equally at home.
It also has the 18th century look of Formal, regal restrained impatience that you see in so many portraits, though perhaps this is directed at you. I may be projecting though. When I see that look I immediately know that I have forgotten to take out the garbage.
I delight in the number of times you mention removing cat hair from a photo.
Number 5 is the key. Over the years several of the things I did as hobbies have become profitable. When that happens it takes the fun out of it.
Photography should be fun, especially in the digital format. You can take a hundred different shots at something and pick the neatest, not necessarily the best, for no extra cost.
You can also manipulate it to make it be completely what you want. Photoshop is downright scary at times.
I vote for the B&W version. (What– art isn’t a democracy?)
It’s wonderfully ominous. I can’t decide who fills me with more terror in that photo, Krissy or Sugar.
pax / Ctein
In my personal experience, the one significant thing (as far as the final image is concerned) that I am able to do on-camera (dSLR) that I can’t in post-production is control the depth of field, which requires me to switch the dSLR off of Auto. And yes, newer smartphone cameras do software magic with multiple images from multiple cameras or other voodoo to enable one to manage that in post, but (a) I still have a very old smartphone; (b) I don’t think dSLRs have a similar capability by and large (though I also have an old dSLR); and (c) I grew up shooting on a Minolta XG-7 that I permanently kept in aperture-priority mode, so that’s my comfort zone…
Please take a photo of a fork and make it look compelling and interesting.
(You knew SOMEONE was gonna take you up on it, right?)
Hunh. I have discovered that I can’t tell Sugar and Spice apart in B&W photos. I had thought it was Spice in the photo until you said otherwise.
There are those who suggest that people spend so much time taking pictures or video that they’re not actually experiencing the moment, and I think there’s a small argument for that. One’s memories should not be just looking into a screen or viewfinder.
I both grant this point and argue that as I’ve gotten more interested in photography, I’ve begun to experience the moment in ways I didn’t do before. My first visit to Notre-Dame was what made me realize that now I notice small details that I probably would have just glanced past before, like door knockers or stands of votive candles or the nifty lighting on a statue, because a part of me is scanning for little things that would make interesting shots. This works in part because my taste in photography runs in that direction — but also I have that taste in part because I began looking more closely at the places I was visiting.
I am getting a definite Bond Villain vibe here. I hope you haven’t Failed Her For The Last Time.
Auto is what pros do as well. When I first started a photography hobby back in the 1970’s, I used to read photography magazines in which every picture had shutter speed and aperture. I gained the impression that to do it right, I had to be able to make those judgments instantly.
You don’t. Pros have always done the same thing — take 1000 photos and filter the 2 or 3 best ones.
It helps to have two willing subjects ( not including the cats). My mom didn’t much like getting her picture taken and my kids are the same way. If I’d tried to take such a picture they’d hold a book in front of their face or something.
Would you show us a series and explain what you changed from beginning to final? I’m most curious about what tools you use and how. Seeing as the last skill I mastered for improving prints was retouching with brush and grayscale inks to remove dust and hair shadows. My teacher said his final exam on retouching was being given a print of a fountain spraying into the air and being told to remove all the water droplets. Given a good enough eye for grayscale, it’s doable. I’m sure the technology has improved.
OOPS, how’d I manage to paste a password into the Name field?
I love this post, because beyond the specifics of photography, it’s a so wonderful to have someone extoll the benefits of doing something for the enjoyment of it rather than pushing the ‘you must monetize your hobbies” drumbeat that’s been promoted for the past 10 years.
A totally off subject question, from the wife: What sort of copper band does Krissy use for her knees? My wife uses Tommy Copper but gets mixed results between help and too much pressure.
Oh man, now Hank is gonna have to change his password for something important.
When I started photography it was with a manual film camera and the only controls were f-stop, shutter speed, and the shutter release. I really like the full auto modes.
Hah, yes! My second thought when looking at the photo was imagining Krissy intoning in a deep voice, “Ah yes, Mister Scalzi, I have you now.”
Dear Marie and John,
There is some truth to the not-experiencing-the-moment thing. It depends a lot on the moment. For the 1991 solar eclipse, my goal was to make the best possible film photograph, and producing the necessary set of exposures occupied most of my time and attention, to the detriment of simply enjoying the experience.
I’m exceedingly happy with the result:
and it made me plenty of money, but it was at a significant cost.
I decided that for the 2017 eclipse, I would make no photos at all and simply enjoy the experience. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t have the strength of character to happily hold to that, so I made myself a promise to make exactly two exposures. If one of them worked, great. If it didn’t, shrug– there are lots of lovely photos on the internet.
One did and, again, I am happy:
But it was still a minor distraction from experiencing the eclipse.
There’s also the inverse– my first eclipse, I was so mesmerized by the experience I neglected to make a single exposure!
pax / Ctein
— Ctein’s Online Gallery http://ctein.com
— Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com
Oops, apologies! I didn’t expect the site to embed a photograph, just a link.
I’m never gonna understand this interwebs thingie…
Ctein — that’s a lovely photo, though! I’ve never messed around with eclipse photography.
Better you should spend that precious time enjoying the eclipse!
pax / Ctein
@ctein, on my own blog the other day first I had a Youtube link become embedded by accident, then the location of the embedding changed, then it accidentally changed back to a link, which was what I had wanted in the first place. So I left it. (To reduce the pixels for folks on telephone dial up)
@Ron, I am surprised, because I once read that the modern generation with video cameras and cell cameras are used to being photographed. I have never owned either of the above, but I did lose my fear of being recorded after I had over 300 still shots taken of me for a training video.
So now, camera-wise, I feel as self confident as a fashion model because I utterly know what I look like, and I am OK.
When I saw that picture my first thought was that Krissy looked impatient for you to hurry up and take the shot so she could get the damned cat’s claws out of her knee. (When my cat’s on my lap she gets comfy, flexes her claws, and hooks in. Ow!)
Man, Krissy has that Morticia Addams vibe down pat!