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!
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.
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!
Well it’s Monday and that means another weekly installment of my Kickstart series. Looking at the forecast the night before, last Monday seemed like it was going to have all the makings of a beautiful day. And it did! I started off my week by heading to the West End Overlook, one of my favorite spots in the city, to work on the week’s series. The clouds were nice and moving quickly, but they were overly abundant and the light of sunrise just never developed. Dud! There went that idea.
I returned home and wondered how I would fit in my Monday shoot if the morning session was a bust. Harsh mid-day light does not make for flattering scenics and I had plans in the evening. It didn’t take long before I convinced myself the Pittsburgh Zoo would be an excellent choice for such a nice day. Now I could have settled for my theme (which I like all of my Kickstart posts to have one) to be animals. I took it a step further and decided only African mammals would be included. Still that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to head to the zoo and simply slap on my longest lens, take some nice closeup portraits of the African wildlife, and call it a day. I needed something unique and challenging, something I’ve not done before.
On the drive to the zoo, I wracked my brain. Even as I was going up the escalator into the zoo, I’d not come up with anything. Then I got to thinking about camouflage and how both predator and prey generally do not like to be seen. Some have natural physical features to aid them in remaining well hidden and others employ techniques for hiding. Now at the zoo, most animals don’t have a reason to hide, and obviously visitors don’t want them to either, not that they have any control.
Enter JP. After thinking about this a little further I realized that if the animals were not going to hide, I was going to make them. The zoo does a great job of keeping the habitats looking pretty natural so there is no shortage of long grass, brush, and tress. This lush greenery would serve as the “hideout” for the animals. Instead of the rhino, for instance, positioning itself behind a tree or bush, I positioned MYSELF so that the tree would be between my lens and the rhino. I did this at all the exhibits I visited and to be frank, I really enjoyed the challenge. And a challenge it was!
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, I am having no problems seeing the animals in the photos. They are not very well hidden.” I agree. I had and still have no delusions that the photos would be a “Where’s Waldo” of the wildlife sort. My challenge to myself was to portray the animals at the zoo in a different perspective and create the illusion that perhaps they were out in the wild as opposed to in captivity. I’m sure I got some strange looks and some “what the hell is this guy photographing?” along the way, but I enjoyed the challenge and it got me thinking out of the box. And for me, that’s what helps me grow.
Ever since I can remember I have loved wildlife. Growing up I wanted to be a either a zoologist or a marine biologist. All throughout high school my passion for wildlife was present, if only a little less prevalent. I was really good at math and physics, however, so people said I should be an engineer. I listened. And even though I became that engineer people recommended I become, I held on to my affinity for wildlife. In fact, after college when I picked up my first camera in 2007, that affinity grew. It was the zoo and its animals, not the Pittsburgh skyline, that I had a connection with as my interest in photography began to bud. I would go 15 or so times a year and spend hours going back and forth between exhibits. My favorite animal(s) generally speaking are the big cats so I spend the most time at their habitats – lions, leopards, and tigers primarily which is great because I have access to them. When you spend enough time at the exhibits like I do, you’ll tend to have better luck seeing them up and moving about as opposed to laying there like a lump, which is all too often the case. I also learned that winter is the BEST time to go. The animals are active, the snow (if there is any and hopefully there is otherwise backgrounds for photos tend to be very….well BLEH!) provides a calm scene especially if it’s falling, and it’s empty! I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve been the only one at the zoo, or so it would seem at least. Unfortunately, though, my trips to the zoo have dwindled in the past two years. Life has a way of taking over and we somehow forget to make time for things that are important to us. I wanted to put that to an end so last Friday, Valentine’s Day, I set out for the zoo while my wife was at work. It was cold and snowy and I was all alone, just how I like it. I figured maybe there’s no better day than Valentine’s Day to reconnect with an old friend. I was right!