Monday, October 11, 2010

Canadian Rockies: Epilogue and Conclusions

The flight home was uneventful, though as some of you know, the aftermath of the return was anything but.

I feel that I'm bragging when I declare the trip to be a success. I had several goals for the trip:
  1. To see how much skill loss I had suffered from 8 years of neglecting my photography hobby.
  2. To do a solo trip, something I had not done for 10 years, since the second half of the New England bike trip.
  3. To get used to shooting in digital format, and learn what differences in my work style and work flow I had to make in order to best take advantage of the digital medium.
The answer to #1 was that I did not suffer any apparent skill loss. This really surprised me. My brother, who's normally very critical of my work said, "This is the best shoot you've done since you acquired the 5D2." While I've had other serious shoots (for instance in Australia), none of them came close to producing this much good work. I did get rusty in a few areas: I was slow at first with the tripod and I'm still ham-fisted when it comes to my filter rings. One of my filters has a small chip in an unimportant area as a result. But that improved dramatically during the trip. At one point one of the hikers I met said, "Did you notice how fast he set that up and tore that down?" The other part of it is that during the past 8 years, I've made myself a better outdoors person. I'm more comfortable now hiking in the dark. I'm more able to anticipate where the light will be, and have better hunches about the weather. That's happened so slowly that I never even noticed or paid attention to it, but it shows up in the photos I make.

Traveling solo turned out to be great for me. There was no one to second guess me or whine about yet another 6:00am start. OK, I whined to myself a little bit. That contributed to better photos as well, since not being screamed at for an early start makes me more willing to start early. I met so many people, and made so many new friends. Janice and I were discussing this and we agreed that the trick is to be open to new experiences and new people. If she had not waited for me and smiled, we wouldn't have had company for the day, and it would have been our loss. Women in particular have to be more careful when solo, but when I asked Eungshin why she accepted my invite to chat, she said, "You were obviously shooting with expensive equipment and you knew how to use it. I decided then that you couldn't be dangerous!" So being a photographer does help in your social life (it's usually a hindrance as girlfriends and wives get impatient with you), just not in any way I would have imagined. In any case, I rediscovered that meeting and talking to strangers was something I wasn't shy about, and that was a big confidence builder. Every time I proposed a trip, someone would ask me, "Would you really have gone alone if no one wanted to go with you?" And now I can truly say the answer is "Yes. I've done so recently, and thoroughly enjoyed it!" In fact, I suspect that for nature photography I really have no choice but to do solo trips or trips with other photographers. There is no easy way to get quality time otherwise.

An intriguing idea that occurred to me would be to travel with another photographer, go for morning and evening shoots, and swap memory cards for post-processing/culling and selection. That's a great way to eliminate the photo-shooter's bias, which is to include shots that had a lot of work put into them even if they aren't as good. Plus, I always like seeing what other photographers do to pictures, and seeing how someone else crops or manipulates your image has got to be educational no matter what. For this, of course, you couldn't leave your laptop at home like I did!

I've written about the digital transition before in two articles: about "cheap film" and no need for 81b filters, and how some things stay the same. There are some dramatic improvements. For instance, there was a dust speck in one of my lenses, and Photoshop cleaned that right up. Thank you context-aware fill! With slide film I would have been stuck with one ruined slide after another. The flip side of that is that with slide film I was putting a new "sensor" behind every exposure. Pengtoh looked at one of my photos and told me that my sensor needs cleaning (despite the self-cleaning nature of the sensor)! Obviously, I need to send my camera in for a cleaning before the next major trip. Nature photography is naturally hard on equipment. Wind and rain and switching lenses in less than totally clean conditions is something that every nature photographer has to do, and very few portrait/wedding photographers have to face on a regular basis.

One unexpected delight: with my ultra-fast PC post-processing, selection, and culling is extra-ordinarily fast. Lightroom 3 with 2 24-inch monitors really takes the cake. It felt like having an infinitely large light-table, and while I think the program could use a speedup, it's quite clear that the latest version is significantly faster. In the film days, the turnaround time for slides was at least 1 week! Then the culling would have taken another, just because the physical process of loading slides into a slide page and then laying it down on a slide table was tougher. Cropping, color correction, dust removal, and even post-editing with ND grad. filters is fast and produces amazing results. Not to mention to shoot as much film as I did, I would have had to carry 100 rolls, which was $1,000 in film. That's an extra-ordinary amount of money for a 2 week shoot, and I would have curtailed my shooting rather than carry 100 rolls. My old standard was 30 rolls for a 2 week trip. Making as many exposures as a National Geographic photographer makes in the field cannot help but improve your photography.

It was clear to me that the choice to stay with full frame cameras was the right thing for me. I liked using my wide angles like wide angles, and I think my desire for longer than 200mm lens can be satisfied with tele-converters in the future. I wish I had brought my laptop with me, because then I would have spotted dust on the lens, etc. The display on the 5D2 is good, but not so good that I can spot little dust specs. All in all, this trip has re-kindled my love of photography, and re-injected confidence that yes, I am capable of using the $2500 piece of gear I bought to the maximum extent. The Canon 5D Mk 2 is certainly the most expensive piece of equipment I've bought, but it easily justifies every penny of the price. And obviously if I shoot enough with it the savings in film alone would make it eventually the cheapest camera I've ever bought.

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