In life, they say it’s good to have a plan, a strategy to help achieve the goals or tasks we set for ourselves. I wholeheartedly agree. Without a plan, I all too often find myself orbiting around my own brain wondering what to do next. Having a step by step, actionable list of things to do is helpful to me and essential to keeping me focused and on task.
But that’s really only feasible from the business side of my photography, not the artistic and creative side. Sure, when a sunrise needs to be prepared for, many things can be mapped out and counted upon. I know the sun WILL come up and I know WHERE it will rise. I know the bridge that I want to photograph or make photos from will be there, potholes and all, because hey, this is Pittsburgh. But there are factors that are beyond control. Traffic getting to the city, complete drear and cloud cover (again…Pittsburgh), or my 6 month old baby needing me at 6AM so I’m late for the sunrise are a few that spring to mind. These circumstances render a plan completely useless, causing photography to often take on “take what you’re given” mentality.
Often times, this take what you’re given approach ends up feeling a concession. You can’t get what you planned or hoped for so you settle for something different and presumably not as good. In my experience though, different is better than good.
Other times, luck prevails, the weather cooperates, and the stars align. Or in my case, the planets do.
The weather in Pittsburgh this last week of January reached record breaking lows and can only be described by most as brutally cold. The meteorologists said stay inside but what I heard was the rivers are going to freeze. Time to make a plan. So I did.
And what did we just learn about plans. They change. The river was frozen, yes, but not nearly as much as I’d anticipated…or hoped. I’ve seen it completely frozen over several times when temperatures weren’t nearly as cold. Most of the river was still flowing, but with large chunks of ice slowly floating along. So I went with a long exposure to convey the motion of the floating ice contrasting with the static ice that was building along the bank of the river. Cool. Pun intended.
What I wasn’t accounting for, or expecting, is what I’m calling a happy little accident. And I was lucky enough to catch 3 of them!
If you look at the photo, you’ll see the moon and two bright stars. Normally I’m pretty in tune with where the moon is going to be, but I read my app wrong and was surprised, pleasantly, to have it in such a pleasing spot for my intended composition. Happy accident number 1. But those two bright stars, it turns out, are actually Venus and Jupiter. This was totally unplanned for, I must admit. They are a tiny, yet impactful, morsel of photographic tastiness that you were completely unaware of but privileged enough to not only see, but include in your photo in a meaningful AND intentional way! Happy accident number 2!
…and happy accident number 3? Well, I was lucky that Uranus wasn’t also in the picture!
You can read more about Jupiter and Venus HERE
2018 was another year of not getting out enough with my camera, making new but not exciting work, and feeling like I was underachieving against what I know I’m capable of. More of the same old, same old. Perhaps that is why I delayed completing my year-end wrap up until the third week of January. But that same old narrative is getting old. Really old. And when I sit down and actually review the year, I made some great photos that I’m really proud of, which I’ll summarize here. And I’ll do it briefly. Just kidding, I’m pretty wordy…but I hope you’ll bear with me. You might even see a photo or two that have never been released in to the wild. *Hint, hint* ⬇️ 😱 ⬇️
Okay, let’s jump right in. If you don’t already know, home base for me is Pittsburgh. Actually, it’s my only base. I wish I had an east coast office and a west coast office but alas….starving artist and all that jazz. Now if you remember, winter didn’t want to end last year. Ever! And most people hated that. I, on the other hand, was okay with it. Until I wasn’t. But the frozen rivers and fluffy white stuff have a way of providing an endless flurry of photo opportunities, opportunities I’m usually pretty happy to seize upon.
Perhaps my favorite part of the Endless Winter of 2018 was my incorporation of trees, snow, and the skyline. I never want to have a “thing” or something that defines my work, but if I did, my “thing” would be mixing nature and Pittsburgh. And winter is a great time to do this.
But the wintry photos were not only isolated to the confines of the city. I also took to nature to find snowy trees. There’s just something about a barren, lonely tree, maybe even stationed on the crest of a ridge against a backdrop of featureless sky that sings to me. Throw in some snow that accents the rhythm of every branch and you have a ballad worth singing out loud. In the car. By yourself.
And while we are on the subject of trees (#iliketrees – if you know, you know. If you don’t, just ask!), spring was pretty awesome as well. Once again, the opportunities Pittsburgh offers in the spring are unrivaled. I don’t have any sort of frame of reference to substantiate this claim, but Pittsburgh is pretty awesome once the blooms indeed begin to bloom. This season of new growth was also a metaphor for my approach to photography in 2018 which I continue to pursue as 2019 ramps up. Take often photographed subject matter and locations and make them fresh. Shed the old, but remain beautiful. Come back even prettier. That was and remains the goal. The three photos below, I think, exhibit this quite well. (Check out this unique look on flowers in the Pittsburgh)
Now again, the beauty of nature is easily found in between and along the edges of the banks of the three rivers, but it stretches far beyond that. This time, all the way to the far off land of Ohio!
As of late, I’ve been a little more in to photographing flowers. To that end, I wanted bluebells this past spring. So to the Googles I went. Google told me one of the best places to view such a wildflower is the UK, a place I’ve never been, and when Google talks, I usually listen. I was oh so close to booking a trip, too. Just for some flowers. Not sure how I would have pitched that one to my boss? What Google didn’t tell me, though, was I had another option. Luckily, with a little help from some friends, I was able to find a patch of bluebells in Ohio, which as you may have guessed, is far cheaper, quicker and more readily accessible to reach than England. I’m not saying I’ll never go, but for now I’m glad to have saved that airfare!
As lucrative as the spring was from a photographic standpoint, the greatest attainment was on a much more personal level, but still photographically centered. In April, I had the privilege to present my Pittsburgh photography to the Photo Section of the Academy of Arts and Science of Pittsburgh. Whew, I know it’s a mouthful. Essentially, they are the oldest continually operating club in existence in America, dating back to the 1880s. That’s right…1880s.
To say that I was honored to have been sought out to put together a program for this club is a drastic understatement. Fred Astaire was tap dancing on my nerves for two solid months. I’ve spoke in front of a group before, but never quite as long as was needed for this presentation, which lasted around 50 minutes.
In my effort to prepare a program that both educated and entertained the crowd, I put in more preparation and thought than I think I have in any other endeavor in my 34 years, resulting in a clear, concise story about my process with real life examples using actual photos I’ve taken. The reception by the crowd was humbling and I was thrilled with how taken by my work they were. However, the more impressive achievement was they laughed at every single joke. Phew. I left never feeling more confident about myself and my work and more inspired than ever to keep creating.
Not only was it a boon to my confidence and inspiration, but the preparation took me down the path of self reflection and research in to my own portfolio. What worked that doesn’t any more? What have I learned? What might be valuable to others? Which photos have stood the test of time? And what goes through my mind as I’m creating an image? This last one was the key and one in which I’ve thought about but never put on paper, which ultimately led to this series of blog posts about what makes me tick and how I begun this path to becoming a full time photographer:
- Once Upon A Time
- Be An Engineer They Said…
- Family First, Photography Second
- It All Started With an HDR
Another byproduct, for lack of a better word, was a gentle nudge from one of the members of the camera club to take a little journey out west. Through his guidance and experience, we were able to put together one hell of an itinerary for my weeklong trip through Colorado, a place that was always on my radar, but never really top of mind. If you’re reading this, Robert, thank you!
And while I’m thanking people, let’s hear it for my rock star wife who held down the fort like a seasoned pro with two girls, one of which was only 8 weeks old at the time, while daddy was prancing throughout Colorado. How she didn’t jump off the proverbial mountain is a mystery, an enigma the likes of which will never be solved!
When you hear Colorado, what do you think of? Mountains of course! Flying in to Denver, I was surprised how flat it was. Again, until it wasn’t. Once I was beyond the Denver city limits, I’m not sure my vehicle was ever perfectly level. It was kind of like Pittsburgh but on a much grander scale. There were mountains and hills every which way and they were stunning. Everything I’d imaged since I’d never actually seen a ‘real’ mountain before.
The mountains were of course jaw dropping, but for my first experience I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a touch disappointed. When I envision the mountains of Colorado, I think tall and I think snow capped peaks. During my visit, I did not see a single speck of snow. Of course, the day after I left most of the state was pounded with it, but that’s a different story. But because of the lack of snow and because of the time of year I visited (late September), the trees kind of stole the show.
Have I mentioned I like trees? No? Okay, well I do. And there were plenty of them on this trip. Aspen trees as far as the eye could see. A see of yellow nestled in every valley between every 14er (that’s what they call peaks 14,000 ft and above in CO). These aspens surely did put the COLOR in Colorado, and I won’t soon forget them.
Aside from the snow, another element that eluded me out west was the light. There were definitely challenging conditions photographically speaking. Aside from the first night in which I was treated to a stellar sunset light party, there were really no epic skies to speak of.
In fact this notion of outrageous sunrises and sunsets, the likes of which cause the angels to weep, was largely absent for me and pretty much an undertone of the images I was able to produce this year, both in Colorado and all year at home in Pittsburgh. Make no mistake I’m happy with what I got, which is a collection of SOLID images.
But by and large, the super dramatic, ultra colorful dusks and dawns (and there definitely were more than a few) remained unrecorded by my camera’s sensor, seen only out my front window or through my rear view mirror. Except for this one.
So that’s it. My year wrapped up in to a clear, concise, 1600 word, 30 photo nutshell. And what a wild year it was. WAIT! Did I just say wild?? How could I forget? It actually was wild this year. Back in early spring, I bought a new toy. A Nikon 200-500mm telephoto lens. It was bought mostly for my wildlife photos, but I’ve also found myself using it in the city for some abstract and detail photos. But, the animals look best through this lens.
Ok. NOW we are done. I promise. And if you made it this far, wow! Good for you and your attention span. You must not have little ones with you. But in all seriousness, THANK YOU! Whether this is your first time on my blog or you are intimately familiar with my work, I appreciate you and I appreciate the support. You help me to do what I do. You helped make 2018 an amazing year, so let’s do it again in 2019!
Who out there likes flowers? Not me. I was never much of a flower guy. There was never much of a need for me to like them. Sure they were nice to look at, but…well, that’s it. They were nice to look at. Occasionally. Up until last year, my only real experience with flowers was getting a corsage for my dates to prom and homecoming, which my mother took care of, and the flowers for my wedding which my wife took care of. In my defense I suppose, I did pay for and pick up said flowers so I wasn’t completely dead weight.
Then something changed. Last year a bought a macro lens for my photography. This allowed me to get super close to things and photograph the fine details of an otherwise uncomplicated subject. As it turns out, flowers were a PERFECT subject for experimentation. So experiment I did and now I can’t seem to get enough flowers and plants in my life. I find myself noting new ones I’ve never noticed or seeing if there is a safe place to pull off when I see a spectacular roadside bunch of blooms. I’ve even bought some plants. What!?
The world of macro has really opened up my eyes and allowed me to see things differently. I don’t intend for my flower photos to over take my Pittsburgh photography as my best sellers in print, but I do intend to look at things differently as a result of my foray into flower photography. And I’ve been able to do just that.
Seeing differently, and uniquely, has always been paramount in my work. There are a lot of photographers these days so standing out is a challenge. With the Pittsburgh skyline being my perennial (see what I did there?) favorite subject, I wanted to incorporate it in to my newfound, ever-growing interest in flora. But how to do that? I think I found a unique way which you will se in the proceeding photos. Each composition will include some sort of bud, blossom, or bloom and also a bit of the ‘Burgh. Whoa! Holy alliteration, Batman!
Can you tell which part of Pittsburgh is peaking through in the pictures?
Walt Disney once famously said, “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started with a mouse.” That mouse is of course Mickey Mouse and “famously” might be too strong a description of the quote unless you are a Disney dork like myself. The “it” he is referring to is essentially the Disney empire, which I could go on in detail about, but since I’ve alluded to my love of all things Disney in another post (READ IT HERE), I’ll skip that part. What I’d like to call attention to, though, is what this quote means to me: We all start somewhere. I’d like to share with you my somewhere.
Let’s travel back a few years, somewhere around let’s say fall of 2004. I was a sophomore in college and things were going well for me. Grades were improving and I was in what at the time seemed like a perfect, serious (for a 20 year old) relationship. I was happy…until I wasn’t. Well, actually, until she wasn’t. Several hours before the stroke of midnight on February 14, 2005 – that’s Valentine’s Day, folks – my “serious” girlfriend broke up with me. Ouch. As if that weren’t bad enough, at that very stroke of midnight, we’d rip another page off the old day-by-day calendar and I would turn 21 on February 15. Double ouch. But at least I could now legally drown my sorrows in beer. But I did not.
I’d like to say what I did was take this opportunity to take a negative and turn it in to a positive. I’d like to say it was no big deal and that “things happen for a reason.” I’d like to say those things, but I can’t and a discussion with my best friend recently reminded me that this saying is bullshit. Sometimes things suck and it’s okay for you to acknowledge that they suck. This was one of those times, even if only temporarily.
Make no mistake; I don’t recount this story for pity or feelings of sadness. By all accounts, I wouldn’t be where I am today without this chapter in my life. I am HAPPY now so I am grateful for what happened back then. It turns out that, in retrospect, this actually was one of those “things happen for a reason” scenarios. At the time, however, a void was present in my life for several months, a void that needed filling so that I didn’t sit around all day, wallowing in my self-pity making mixed CDs, which I did. I needed something to occupy my mind, to numb the pain but with a more positive influence on my life. As it turns out, that empty part of me took the shape of a camera and it was easy, satisfying, and productive to fill.
I started taking walks with my tiny little point and shoot camera, just snapping away with whatever struck me as interesting, with Point State Park being a common subject. The photos – snapshots really – were no good, but my mind was occupied and I was done feeling sorry for myself.
The void inside me began to shrink, and as it did my desire to turn snapshots into actual photos grew rapidly. Consequently, so did my camera when I bought my first DSLR in 2007. It was a used, entry-level camera – a Nikon D50 with a monster 6-megapixel sensor. It would be just perfect for my upcoming trip to St. Thomas and many trips to the zoo. But that camera just didn’t cut it. I needed more. I needed bigger. I am a man after all!
In 2009 I upgraded again for a trip to Mexico, this time to a new Nikon model, the D300, with twice as many megapixels as my last camera. At the time I thought megapixels was all that mattered, even though I wasn’t really printing photos. They’d only be seen on a small screen so resolution wasn’t as important an issue as I was making it out to be. But again, bigger means better, right? After Mexico, the camera probably spent more time on the shelf than it did in my hands – just kidding, I was a slob so it was probably in corner of my room on the floor under a pile of clothes and some empty Gatorade bottles. The point is I didn’t use it very much in ’09 or ’10.
Fast forward to 2011. I’d been using my camera a little more regularly at this point and uploading the shots to my Flickr account, a popular social photo sharing platform at the time. No one had really noticed the photos, and for good reason – they weren’t anything special or different. There was mostly wildlife and some marginal landscapes with a poorly executed Pittsburgh skyline shot sprinkled in here and there. (I just went back in to the account for the first time in year’s today to have a look at the early stuff, and wow! It’s like looking at pictures of yourself decades ago….”What was I thinking!?!”).
But then I uploaded a photo called “Winter’s Light.” This photo, oh this photo. It’s an HDR, which is short for High Dynamic Range meaning it contains fine details in both the dark shadows and the lightest lights and generally includes multiple exposures since camera sensors at the time were unable to record the detail that your eye can process in a single frame. Admittedly, it is very easy to let an HDR photo get away from you, looking almost cartoony and certainly fake. This photo is no exception. It has a painterly feel, keeping it just on the cusp of natural meets unbelievable but definitely falls beyond the range of my processing these days, which tends to have a vibrant, yet natural feel to it. That said, Winter’s Light has held up to the test of time for me, partially because I’ve yet to see comparably impressive light on the Warhol Bridge, which is the main showcase of the photo, since that cold winter day in January of 2011. Oh yea, and it still sells too!
A few hours after uploading to Flickr, it began to rack in the ‘favorites’ which is today’s equivalent to a Facebook ‘like.’ “Cool,” I thought. And that was it. Then the photo got “Explored,” which means a daily feature essentially. Again, cool! Up to this point, most of my photos received a whopping 2 favorites and if I were lucky, a comment or two. Again, they were mostly overdone HDR landscapes or wildlife shots that didn’t deserve much merit. This one, though, made it to triple digit likes and was racking in the views. This felt like a big deal for me. It turns out that it was.
Looking back, that extra bit of exposure on Flickr really was a catalyst for me. Though it didn’t go viral or directly result in any immediate sales – selling my work wasn’t even an afterthought at this point – and didn’t bring any notoriety either, it did serve as a fulcrum allowing me to leverage my passion for photography in to something a bit more. Winter’s Light did not launch my career in photography, but it sure has hell gave me the confidence I needed to pursue it!
They say that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” By that measure, I certainly must be certifiable by now. I’ll get to why, but first a little lesson I learned early on, before photography was a career and just my weekend hobby.
Ever since my first time picking up a camera, I’ve attempted to keep a strong gras o the number one trait a photographer must possess. It’s not a unique eye. It’s not the most expensive camera or lens. It’s not even an endlessly deep wallet that allows you to travel to the most exotic locations. Nope, none of those. Necessity numero uno for someone wanting to MAKE excellent photographs is….drum roll please…. PATIENCE.
In most areas of my life, patience is a virtue that has eluded me. I won’t get in to the messy details of why I think that is so suffice it to say I don’t like to wait. That is unless, of course, I am behind a camera. When I’m framing up a shot, I’ll tinker and tinker until everything is just how it needs to be. That’s more of an issue of perfectionism and being in control at this point, but once the camera is set, I’ll wait for the conditions to compliment the composition. Sometimes this takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes 30. Sometimes, like on a cloudy windless day where I’m playing around with macro photos, I’ll be able to setup and shoot with no waiting because conditions aren’t changing. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes as long as I get the shot I envisioned.
So what does having an enduring resolve behind the camera have to do with being clinically insane? Well, not much, really, but please allow me to try and connect the dots for you. As it turns out I’m not quite as tolerant with waiting as the picture I just photographed for you would suggest. It turns out that if conditions are not shaping up the way I think they should or the way I want them to, specifically 15-20 minutes before the sun comes up or before it goes down, I’ll probably call it a day. I can’t begin to count the number of sunset explosions I’ve watched in my rearview mirror because I had been out for 2 hours and didn’t have the patience to stick around another 20 minutes because “it was gonna happen.” I can’t begin to count the number of sunrises that have looked like gloomy duds that turn out to be quite photogenic.
Realizing this problem doesn’t always happen in my rearview mirror either. Since photographers are so plentiful these days and everyone shares on Instagram, seeing my blunders is all but unavoidable because if I didn’t stick around, someone else did. And then they shared it. And I saw it. I saw the photo I didn’t get, but could have, serving as an instant reminder of the mistake I’ve made countless times already and probably will make countless times more. I see the photo of the sunset I missed…and it might as well be a photo of me in a straight jacket, because I am insane.
As I sit here on my front porch writing this on my phone, my wife is inside working from home on her laptop. She is uber-pregnant and hoping to go into labor any minute. I’m hoping so too because as much as I marvel at the miracle of pregnancy, I know she is in a great deal discomfort and all I want is for her to be resting easy, holding our new daughter tightly in her arms while our older daughter snuggles up next to them both. Me, I’ll probably sneak off to the corner for a minute and soak it all it.
See, as you know, I’m a photographer. My work is all about moments and crafting images to capture those fleeting seconds, hopefully creating a memory and if I’m lucky maybe even a piece of art. But moments don’t just define my work. They define my life. I live for the moments, big and small, and make no mistake, I’ve got a big moment coming soon.
In my life I’ve had a lot of impactful moments, most of which revolve around family. I’ve also had some early success as a photographer. Those moments are certainly meaningful and at the age of 34 I suspect I have a whole lot of time to create some more professionally (at least I hope that’s the case, but I better lay off the Dunkin’ Donuts for awhile just to be sure.). For example, I have aspirations of traveling extensively for my photography. Pittsburgh, my main subject is wonderful and I love it, but there is so much more to see. But the truth is, I’m not positive if I can ever do that unless I’m able to pick up my family and take them with me. I want to see the world but I don’t want to do it by myself. I want my girls right beside me. I didn’t start a family to just leave them at home.
No matter how long I live, though, and no matter how much I accomplish professionally, when I (and others) reflect on my life, I don’t want to be remembered as a photographer. I want to be remembered as a loving husband and father. I want my legacy to be carried on through my children, not the photographs I’ve created. I’ll cherish the moments and not worry about recording them. For me…it will always be family first, photography second.
We’ve all heard the term “the one that got away,” yes? Yes, of course we have. And for some of us maybe the phrase is even applicable. Not so much in my case because I’m married to the woman of my dreams and am about to have my second beautiful daughter with her. For those that are wondering, I’m not in the dog house or sucking up because my wife probably won’t read this, my first daughter is 3 and can’t read yet (yet!) and my second daughter, well the library in her womb has been closed for renovations for weeks so no reading in there either. Okay, let’s crawl out of the weird rabbit hole and get back on topic here. Focus, JP!
Now where was I? Ah, yes…the one that got away. I don’t have one. I do, however, have many many many suns that got away. See what I did there? I love puns and plays on words. I’m of course talking about sunrises and sunsets. As a city/landscape photographer the sky is my canvas and the sun provides the paint for it. Without light, a photographer has nothing. I think I’m pretty good, but I am no exception to this necessity for the suns gleaming rays.
With this dependence on light, for me, comes a constant, almost gawking and definitely studious observance of the sky, the position of the sun, and clouds or lack thereof. There is no foolproof method to predicting whether a sky will erupt with color or be a dud, but there are apps and programs out there to help predict such occurrences, but even without the technology, I usually have a pretty good gut feel for what’s going to happen. But just like the software, my gut, impressive as it might be, is not infallible.
Tracking the position of the sun, however is pretty precise and always reliable. But, just because I almost always know where the sun is going to crest or dip below the horizon, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get away from me. What do I mean? Sadly, that means I am not physically able to catch on camera every jaw-dropping sunrise or every sunset that makes the angels weep. Sometimes, when I don’t have my camera and I’m watching the sky explode with every shade of red, orange, and yellow imaginable in my rear view mirror or from my bedroom window, I sit right beside the Angels and shed a tear with them. And by sometimes, I mean this happens A LOT!
This mourning for color undocumented is usually pretty short lived once I drift back down to earth and realize if I wasn’t out catching the glow of a fiery sunset, I was more than likely spending time with my family…and maybe even able to enjoy that sight with them. So that’s the point of this kind of bizarre rambling. Take in the color. Enjoy it. Remember it in your mind’s eye. And certainly don’t sweat if you weren’t able to snap a photo of it.