Old dog, new tricks: My photographic evolution.

I have always preferred photographing landscapes. There are several reasons why, the most prominent being I’m good at it. In the same way that reading and writing came naturally to me, taking picture postcard style photos has been easy. Give me almost any kind of natural environment and someplace to stand, I’ll find pictures and take some good ones. As soon as I developed my first roll of film taken on a real SLR, I knew this was something for which I had natural aptitude.

Dry weeds by the river

But there are other, less obvious reasons:

  1. Everyone loves pretty pictures. Animals, waterfalls, seascapes, sunrise and sunset, trees and leaves … purple mountain’s majesty and fruited plains. There’s nothing controversial about landscapes.
  2. Landscapes (excluding wild animals, a whole different category) have the decency to stay put. They don’t wriggle, make weird faces, or try to stick their noses into the lens.
  3. Shots of nature are usually done in day time or at worst, dawn or dusk, which means no complicated lighting issues. Sunlight,shade, or overcast — daylight is easy. Nobody does lighting like God.

After more than 40 years of taking pictures of nature, I realized I wasn’t getting the same satisfaction from my photos as I had in the past.

Riverside

Part of the problem is that we live in a valley of rare natural beauty. That may not sound like a problem and it isn’t a complaint, but it’s a big change from how I’ve always lived. I was born and raised in New York, moved out to Long Island, then over to Jerusalem. When I came back, I bounced from New York to Boston.

The countryside  was where I went to find pictures to take. Now everything is upside down. It’s the city that’s far away; nature is all around me.

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It’s no challenge to find lovely scenery. I can stand on my back deck to catch a sunrise. It’s less than a mile to my choice of rivers, marshland, half a dozen waterfalls, the big pond where swans live and herons wade by the shore.

If I walk a few hundred yards up my street, Percherons are grazing in the pasture. Down the other way are the old barns and restored Victorian mansions. Anything I might want that’s pretty or illustrative of country life — other than the ocean (that’s a bit of a haul) — is easy, convenient and accessible. No parking problems, no crowds.

Swans

In the autumn, every tree looks as if it’s lit from within. When the snow falls, the world turns into a Currier and Ives drawing. The valley is beautiful in all seasons, stunning in several. Spring is glorious when we get one. Some years we have spring. Other years, we go from winter to summer with a barely enough time between them to buy a bathing suit.

Painted Lady - 2 Marilyn Armstrong

One day, while my granddaughter and I were out shooting, she commented that everything looks the same. I understood what she meant. Not that it isn’t beautiful. I had also begun to notice the same thing. There was nothing to challenge us.

Beautiful, but predictable. Woods are woods and we have plenty of that. We have lots of waterfalls, rivers, ponds and streams but they all look very similar to each other. Assuming normal lighting conditions, you don’t have to take your camera off automatic unless you’re looking for a special effect. We revisit places often enough so that even using all the creativity we can collectively find, we’ve much made our statements and have no more to say.

An office.

A few months ago, my back was bothering me more than usual, but I was in the mood to shoot. I started looking around to see if there was something worth shooting in my house. It turns out you can do a lot with light coming through windows. I became enamored of shadowy scenes of my house transformed by various angles of light. Eventually I ran out of windows.

Morning light in my kitchen as coffee brews ...

I yearned for urban architecture, abstract shapes and forms. I got a bit of a fix from some of the mills, but most of the mills are not architecturally particularly interesting. The very old ones can be, but the newer ones are just big square brick factories and often hard to get close enough — or far enough — to make a picture. I’ve never been good at that kind of photography but I wanted to try. Lacking a city, I began carrying a camera everywhere, even to the grocery store, the mall, the doctor’s office. I have been pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve found.

Symphony Hall Pillar

I’ve shot vegetables and farm stands, parking lots and street scenes and on our annual Christmas excursion into Boston, a fair number of night pictures in and around Boston Common and the Statehouse. I didn’t even have “the good cameras” with me. I shot all of it with the little Canon point and shoot I bought so that I’d have one very compact camera with a super-zoom that I could toss in my bag. The result has been better than I imagined possible. I’ve also gained even more respect for the capabilities of these Canon Powershot cameras.

KK

This is the fourth one I’ve owned. The first got passed to my son when I replaced it with a newer one and it is still working fine. It’s replacement was an amazingly good camera, but somewhere along the line, it was dropped. The culprit has never confessed, but the camera was dead.

Statehouse - Dec Night

In between, I got a relatively inexpensive Canon Powershot 130. I knew I would soon replace it, but I needed a camera in a hurry. It did the job, then moved on to my daughter-in-law.

That was when I got bought the big Canon that now belongs to my granddaughter, discovered the big camera was much too heavy for my aging wrists … and got the Olympus PEN E-PL1, then the Olympus PEN E-P3. Then a long zoom. There’s nothing wrong with that lens. It’s fine. I just never use it. It turns out that I rarely shoot long, but I frequently shoot close. I want — but am not likely to get — a good wide-angle lens.

The ones that are wide enough are slow and those that are fast enough are not wide enough or so expensive it makes my heart stop. So I treated myself to a 45mm 1.8 portrait lens which is delicious and since, next to landscapes, my strong suit is casual portraits, it fits nicely into my lens set.

City Life

Somewhere along the line, I bought the Canon Powershot SX 260 which has a good superzoom. It isn’t fast enough for most night shooting, although if I would actually use my tripod, I could overcome that problem. But if I’m going to haul the tripod, then I’m going to bring the Olympus cameras and lenses, not the point and shoot.

It is ironic that I take more pictures with the  little Canon than the much more expensive and higher quality Olympus cameras because I won’t just toss them into my bag. Compact superzoom is currently trumping higher quality. I’m beginning to think what I really need is one of the new generation of incredibly expensive but really high quality all-in-one cameras … but they are out of my price range. Still, there are a couple of good ones out there that make my heart go pit-a-pat.

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There’s no moral to this story unless it is that photography has been my hobby since I got my first real SLR in 1970. It’s the world’s best hobby. You never outgrow it. You never are too old to take pictures. It’s fun, very occasionally profitable (but not profitable enough to cover the cost of the equipment!), and there’s always something new to try.

If you have money to spend, there’s always a new generation of cameras and lenses. Giving my granddaughter a camera was the best gift I ever gave her. She has an entire lifetime of discovering the world through a lens ahead of her. No matter what else happens, it will still go with her.