What’s Your Favorite?

Not too long ago, some close friends of mine and I were having a conversation.  Generally when we speak the conversation can quite literally go any which way and change directions in an instant.  We talk about life, friends, elephant dung (don’t judge us but this is true), and everything in between.  But since we are all full-time artists, it can be all but guaranteed that the state of art industry  is going to pop up in any given conversation.  This was no exception.

As we continued musing about the highs and lows, gripes, griefs, rewards, and inspirations behind our work, we stumbled upon a question:  “What is your favorite (insert your own type of work here)?” Now this is a question I get ALL the time at shows.  Folks walk in, take a look around, enjoy the work, pick out a favorite, then ask me, “What’s your favorite photograph, JP?”  My answer is always immediately and unequivocally the same.  I don’t have to say a word.  I just point to Winter’s Light, which is always hanging…

Winter's Light

This is the image that started it all for me.  It’s not the image that launched my career in photography, per se, but it is the one that gained a little recognition and gave me the confidence to pursue a lifetime or creating images to share.  It features lovely light, nice foreground interest, and the composition is good.  It will likely always remain my favorite image I’ve ever taken. That is, until I heard the following.

When I asked my friend, Johno (of Johno’s Art Studio – check out his work here) what his favorite painting was, I was stunned by the simplicity and brilliance of his response.  “My last one,” he said.  My last one.  It made perfect sense.  His wife, Maria (of Maria’s Ideas – check out her work here) went on to explain, though the point hit home immediately.  We should ALWAYS be learning and improving on past works and experiences and incorporating the lessons learned into our next piece.  Simple yet brilliant.

I’d be lying, though, if I said that this revelation didn’t shake me to my core.  I just stated how Winter’s Light is my all time favorite photo I’ve ever taken.  Look at the watermark on it.  It was taken in 2011.  Clearly this is not my last photo.  In fact, it was one of my first.  Does that mean that I’ve not improved upon my photography process in the five years I’ve been taking photos?  Of course not.  This is simply a good photograph with a ton of sentimental value attached to it, so chances are it will still remain my favorite.  But that doesn’t mean there are not things I would change.  Not just with this photo, but every single photo I’ve ever taken.  Everything can be better.

And that, my friends, is the entire point of this post.  Never become complacent in your achievements.  You can be happy about them, but unsatisfied with them.  It’s okay to want more.  It’s okay to be your own toughest critic.  Every time I click the shutter I want that newest photo to be the best I’ve ever taken.  This is obviously unrealistic, as I take my fair share of “clunkers,” but I believe having that mindset will allow me to continue to learn from past mistakes and build upon current successes.

Fleeting

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It’s said that you shouldn’t stare directly into the sun because it can lead to permanent damage to your eyes. Since my eyes are literally how I make a living and provide for my family, I usually heed this advice, but only if the sun is unobstructed. If the sun is partially blocked, by say a bank of clouds, you get a beautiful array of light beams dancing gently in the sky making their way down to earth. Something so soft and beautiful couldn’t hurt, right?

Up until this past week I would have agreed. Now, I’m not so sure. But it’s not my eyes that I’m worried about. It’s my heart. I’ve heard before, and even said it myself (last night in fact), that those rays of light we see being filtered through the clouds are our loved ones watching over us. If that’s true, and I just might believe that it is, aren’t those very light beams also a reminder to us that our loved ones are no longer with us? Again, that’s true. That hurts. But the pain is temporary.

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If you’ve ever witnessed the scene I’m describing, you know these wonderfully golden rays don’t last very long. They are beautiful. They are intense. They are also fleeting. And for me at this time, perhaps these beams are a most appropriate symbol for the friend – no, brother – I’ve recently lost. His life was beautiful. The impact he had on anyone he ever met was as positively intense as his immense size. And his life, fleeting – a seemingly brief moment, gone at the speed of light. But, unlike the heartache and the light, his impact will be everlasting.

Anyone that ever met him remembered him…and they were better for it. Good journey my brother, until we meet again. And we will meet again.

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KICKSTART – Switching it up at the Zoo

I spend a LOT of time at the zoo.  On average, I visit once per month.  That number used to be roughly three times per month, but alas, life has a way of getting in the way.  It was at the Pittsburgh Zoo that I really found my calling as a photographer.  Before I was hired for my first full time out job out of college, I’d spend countless hours at each exhibit (with an extended period of time at the big cats) just staring and snapping, staring and snapping.

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The type of image I was, and still am, after is just like the one you see above: a nice, tight image of the subject animal with zero indication that the photo was taken at a zoo.  The snow provides a natural, realistic backdrop for this amur leopard which lives in snowy regions of Russia.  It’s a fantastic photo, but for me, it sort of felt like a been there done that moment.  I needed to switch things up to get out of a creative rut.  But how?

I continued on through the zoo, still searching for a theme or idea.  Doing what I normally do in the winter time when it’s cold, I headed to the aquarium to breeze through the exhibits and warm up a bit.  To my delight, it was empty without another soul to be seen.  I won’t get in to all of the technicals of my shots, but suffice it to say that being alone gave me a lot of freedom, and time, to work on some techniques for shooting through the glass of the exhibits.  I’m very pleased with the end results and next time, I might not heed the advice of our absent minded fish friend, Dory.  I won’t just keep swimming.  I’ll wait then shoot, wait then shoot.  And hopefully I’ll swim away with some winners!

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KICKSTART – I Freeze So You Don’t Have To

One of the most common themes I notice this time of year is that people DO NOT like the snow and ice.  The reasons might vary, and to some degree, I agree.  Most of us don’t like the seemingly inherent danger that follows the cold weather.  Roads become treacherous if not treated properly or proactively, and if the snow (or ice) is significant enough, any amount of preparation and treatment may well end up being futile.  It’s easy to see why this would be a reason to wish away the cold and relocate to Florida.

Living in Pittsburgh, where winter -and certainly snow – are not a new concept, it can be very easy to become annoyed with snow.  If you look out your window and see falling snow, it’s almost a guarantee that you can jump on your Facebook Newsfeed and see no less than 37 memes and complaints about “people not not knowing how to drive” and “this is Pittsburgh, it’s snowed here before.”

You’ll also see even more dramatization about the amount of snow that’s going to fall and gripes about how the weatherman is NEVER right.  I try to give the meteorologists the benefit of the doubt – they are trying to predict the future, after all – but I don’t think they do themselves any favors by naming every storm.  And monikers such as “Snowzilla” and “Snowmageddon” don’t help, but I don’t believe those names come from the news stations.  Regardless of where the names originate, Facebook certainly does not help contain Snowzilla’s icy breath from causing the next Snowmageddon.  So, yes, Facebook drama queens and lousy traveling conditions allow me to sympathize with the winter haters.

My sympathies end there, though.  My disdain, if you can even call it that, for winter does not begin or end with the cold, snow, and ice.  It’s merely the other people that dislike it so much that they can do nothing but be bitter about it that causes me to sometimes, and only sometimes, wish the snow would melt.

In all actuality, I embrace the biting temperatures and the frozen stuff that falls from the sky.  To me, there’s no beauty like looking out at a scene with a blanket of untouched, pristine snow.  Walking along, listening to the subtle crunch of snow beneath my feet with my camera in tow…well that is euphoria for me and I forget about the cold.

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I forget about the cold, that is, until the mercury busts through the bottom of the thermometer.  Even when that happens, though, there’s a good chance you can find me playing near the banks of the rivers in the city.  See, when it gets to be so cold that the rivers, mostly the Allegheny River, freeze I find the patterns, lines, and shapes make for amazing compositional elements in my photographs.  This ice usually lasts more than a day also, and even though the it’s seemingly solid and static, the patterns are pretty dynamic which allows for unique photos with each visit, even if I stand in the exact same spot.

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Usually, inclement weather is a detriment to my photos along the rivers because I almost always try to incorporate reflections for added interest.  But if it’s windy and choppy, the reflections are nil and that can make for a dull subject and photograph.  Frozen rivers, though, provide patterns, shapes, and lines that negate the need for a reflection.  They serve as an interesting foreground and lead you right to the subject of the image.  If the skyline is reflected in the ice or unfrozen patches of water, then that makes the image even stronger.  Not needing calm waters expands the amount of “worthwhile” time I can spend on the shores and adds endless possibilities to what I can create.  So I say bring on the snow and ice.

Now I’m not saying winter is a season without its drawbacks or that it doesn’t get unbearably cold out there.  It does.  It gets really, really cold.  But I feel, when I’m not numb from head to toe, that after a freshly fallen snow, there’s too much beauty to be seen out there to stay inside.  If I’ve yet to show you enough to convince you to take a winter excursion yourself, well the cause might be hopeless.  So just cuddle up next to the fire with a nice glass of wine or mug of hot chocolate, and take a trip into the cold through my eyes.  Let me show you what most choose not to experience.  Let me freeze so you don’t have to.

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Kickstart – Playing in Puddles

As a 31 year old man, you would think my days of playing in puddles would be long behind me.  You would be wrong.  I probably play in the leftover rain more than most toddlers you know.  So I guess that “man” word is not suitable for me.  I suppose, in actuality, I am just a 31 year old kid.  And I’m okay with that.

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I’m okay with being a thirty-something man child because very near the beginning in my journey to becoming a photographer, it was playing in a puddle that taught me an invaluable lesson.  That lesson was one about perspective and just how important it is for creating a compelling image.  If you look at the photo above, my first puddle photo and aptly named “Puddles of Pittsburgh,” it’s pretty clear to see that the skyline of Pittsburgh is being reflected in a puddle.  What’s not so clear is the collection of outtakes I snapped before I was able to get “THE” shot.  Standing in front of the puddle just didn’t do the scene any just or convey the image I had in my mind.  It wasn’t until I got down on all fours, and then eventually flat onto my belly, that I realized I could include a large portion of the buildings in the reflection, creating a much more dynamic and interesting photograph, simply by changing my positioning.  I had discovered there is more to plopping a camera down, snapping a photo, and moving on to the next shot.  Work the scene.  Change positioning.  Change up the perspective.  Get creative.  I had read many books, articles, and essays on composition…but it was that puddle that taught me this most important lesson.

…and as a bonus, here are some of my favorite puddle photos:

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2015 – The Year in Review

1. This photo is my crown jewel of the year.  The USS LST 325 is a WWII ship that spent some time here over the summer.  I knew when and where it would depart, so I camped out on the West End Bridge.  I was the only photographer there, so I'm the only one with this shot.  And it went viral.  What a feeling.

Well, it’s that time of year again my friends.  The end of the calendar year for me is a time to reflect upon the previous twelve months.  This is done on both a personal and professional level, but the focus here will be on the latter here, for obvious reasons.  You will, however, find some overlap since I had some personal milestones and moments that were more than worthy of being photographed.  If you don’t already know what I’m talking about, you’ll soon see.

During my self-imposed yearly review, the most significant and challenging task is to is to choose my best and/or most memorable photos from the year.    Generally, they are not always the most popular on social media or the top 10 or so selling prints of the year, but they have special significance.  This year is no different.

Luckily, 2015 was a pretty darn good year if I may say so myself.  It was filled with features on the news, successful social media campaigns, great shows, and even a tv interview on Pittsburgh Today Live.  Most importantly, though, it was a year of great photography and I’ll let you be the judge in just a moment.  What 2015 was not good for, apparently, was blogging.  This is my first post of the year and it’s only 4 days before year’s end.  That’s a problem I REALLY intend to fix in 2016…but why wait until then?  Let’s get to the photos already!

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10. McConnells Mill is an often photographed subject. A new composition is touch to come by, but with a bit of hard work, I think I was able to come away with a unique, beautiful photo.

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9. The Smithfield Street Bridge is an amazing, yet often overlooked (by me) structure. Combine the details with this amazing sunset and it’s now wonder this is in my countdown.

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8. I’ve always had an appreciate for wildlife, particularly big cats.  In fact, the first place I ever used my first “real” camera was at the Pittsburgh Zoo.  I’ve spent countless hours there and many motionless moments in front of the lions.  This photo is my reward.

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7. Light is crucial to my work. I can’t stress this enough. This year, there was plenty of great light on my adventures, but not much colorful light around sunrise. Except here. Wow.

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6. The elephants at the Pittsburgh Zoo are always a real challenge for me. The light is usually harsh and I prefer my zoo photos to be as natural (no enclosure elements) as possible. This is my best EVER elephant photo.

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5. This fall, I really focused on details. Grand landscapes are great, but when the foliage is as colorful as you see here, and the light is isolated on one tree, the photo should isolate that tree as well.

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4. Every fall I trek up to the “Old Faithful” of Pittsburgh, the Duquesne Incline overlook. Once again, the light dictated the composition here and allowed me to shoot a bit wider than normal for my favorite photo I’ve taken from this spot.

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3. Luck is sometimes a crucial part of photography, since I cannot control light. For most photos, I’m in position up to an hour beforehand scoping out the area and setting up my shot. I arrived on the North Shore about 5 minutes before this scene unfolded. Check out that lone leaf.

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2. I don’t have to say much about this photo. It’s not often a portrait makes my list, but my sweet little Kaylee dressed up as Snow White…this is perhaps the ONLY photo I’ve ever taken that I wouldn’t do anything differently if I had to do it over.

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1. This photo is my crown jewel of the year. The USS LST 325 is a WWII ship that spent some time here over the summer. I knew when and where it would depart, so I camped out on the West End Bridge. I was the only photographer there, so I’m the only one with this shot. And it went viral. What a feeling.

So there you have it, my year of hard work summed up in 10 photos.  Before I started this endeavor, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to come up with 10 quality shots.  But as I dug deeper, I actually found it hard to select ONLY 10.  So to that end, here are a some bonus photos from the year that didn’t quite make the cut.

 

2014 – The Year That Was

The end of the year brings about many things.  Some people think about the year to come while others like to reflect upon their accomplishments and memories from the previous 12 months.  I tend to fall in between the two, but this post is more geared towards the latter.  Each year I like to review my portfolio and select my finest and most memorable photos, or ones that represent a particular achievement that I am proud of.

Below you will find the 10 images which I believe best represent my photographic journey in 2014.  There were many highs and not too many lows.  Whittling down the year into 10 images proved to be quite difficult actually.  It is dominated by Pittsburgh photos, with 6, and for good reason – it’s accessible to me, it’s beautiful, and I enjoy it!  But I do enjoy landscapes and traveling (perhaps even more so!) so you’ll see some of that too.  Sadly, this is the second year in a row that I have no wildlife in my top ten so I think I’ll work on that for next year.  But alas, enough words…let’s get on with the photos!

10. "Sprung Re-Envisioned" could easily be number 1 on this list.  This is a probably the most meticulous composition of the year and I think it payed off.  The image has a lot of depth and is framed quite nicely.

10. “Sprung Re-Envisioned” could easily be number 1 on this list. This is a probably the most meticulous composition of the year and I think it payed off. The image has a lot of depth and is framed quite nicely.

9. I've always wanted to photograph the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. and this year I had the chance.  "Pretty in Pink" represents the last morning where the light and conditions combined for a perfect sunrise!

9. I’ve always wanted to photograph the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. and this year I had the chance. “Pretty in Pink” represents the last morning where the light and conditions combined for a perfect sunrise!

8. "Magic Mountain" from Mount Washington in Pittsburgh represents one of the few sunset/night sessions from 2014.  Plus...what's a countdown without a photo from Mt. Washington?

8. “Mountain Magic” from Mount Washington in Pittsburgh represents one of the few sunset/night sessions from 2014. Plus…what’s a countdown without a photo from Mt. Washington?

7. "Distant Peaks" from the West End Overlook provides the best of both worlds, cityscape and  landscape scenery.

7. “Distant Peaks” from the West End Overlook provides the best of both worlds, cityscape and landscape scenery.

6. "Twisted" represents my backyard.  Not literally, but this beautiful spot is only a few my from my home and I've had my eye on these trees for some time.  The fog rolled in and provided just the mood I was looking for.

6. “Twisted” represents my backyard. Not literally, but this beautiful spot is only a few my from my home and I’ve had my eye on these trees for some time. The fog rolled in and provided just the mood I was looking for.

5. "Walt's Wish" is taken at Walt Disney World...as though that needed to be explained.  My wish for some time was to be able to photograph the nightly fireworks at Disney and I got to do so a few times this year.  This is my favorite.

5. “Walt’s Wish” is taken at Walt Disney World…as though that needed to be explained. My wish for some time was to be able to photograph the nightly fireworks at Disney and I got to do so a few times this year. This is my favorite.

4. "Steel on the Rocks" is taken from one of my new favorite spots on the North Shore of Pittsburgh.  This is another meticulous arrangement - you'll notice the rocks and reflect NEVER converge in the picture.  That is not an accident ;-)

4. “Steel on the Rocks” is taken from one of my new favorite spots on the North Shore of Pittsburgh. This is another meticulous arrangement – you’ll notice the rocks and reflection NEVER converge in the picture. That is not an accident😉

3. "Lines and Falls" from Ricketts Glen State Park in northeastern PA is a beautiful little gem with graceful lines, colorful rocks and moss, and a serene waterfall.

3. “Lines and Falls” from Ricketts Glen State Park in northeastern PA is a beautiful little gem with graceful lines, colorful rocks and moss, and a serene waterfall.

2. "Power Surge" was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  A lot of technical know-how and preparation was needed for this photo...but I also need a lot of LUCK!

2. “Power Surge” was a once in a lifetime opportunity. A lot of technical know-how and preparation was needed for this photo…but I also need a lot of LUCK!

1. "Reflecting Pond" is not necessarily my favorite photo of the year.  However, I was chosen by Popular Photography to be featured for a piece on Pittsburgh.  This is the photo they wanted so, yeah, it's number 1 this year!

1. “Reflecting Pond” is the crown jewel of the year.  It’s not necessarily my favorite photo of the year, though. However, I was chosen by Popular Photography, the largest and most distributed photo magazine in the world, to be featured for a piece on Pittsburgh. This is the photo they wanted so, yeah, it’s number 1 this year!

So there you have it – my favorite, best, most memorable photos of the year.  It was certainly and awesome 12 months and I’m a big fan reflection, but at the same time I’m pretty pumped about the year ahead.  I hope you’ll join me on my journey in 2015.  Oh, and by the way, just in case you’re looking for more…scroll on just a bit for 10 MORE photos that were close, but didn’t make the cut for this year.

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