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.
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…
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.
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.
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:
A lot of time while I’m out shooting, I take several exposures of the same scene. Well, actually, almost ALL the time I do this. I don’t just trip the shutter repeatedly, though, hoping that something changes and creates a meaningful impact that otherwise wasn’t visible in the previous exposure. Obviously there are variables I can’t control like weather or a stray airplane, animal, or pedestrian inevitably entering the frame. When that happens, I need to wait a moment for the extraneous element to leave and continue shooting. I try to concern myself with the variables I can change. Shutter speed, aperture, perspective, and the use of filters are just a few of the variables I employ regularly to add an extra element or bit of flare to an otherwise static scene. Most often a change in perspective provides the most dramatic boost to a photo, but you can achieve greatly different photos with simple change such as a longer exposure.
Take the photos above, for example. These two photos were taken roughly two minutes apart. The camera never moved from the tripod, the position remained 100% constant. The ONLY setting that changed with these photos was the shutter speed. Photo 1 was a 13 second exposure while Photo 2 was ten 13 second exposures stacked in camera to create a 130 second exposure. You’ll notice that in Photo 1, even though it is a long exposure, the fog is pretty well defined with a lot of mid tone contrast. There is a pretty clear delineation in the wall of fog moving into the city. It feels a bit ominous and foreboding. Photo 2, conversely, has a more smooth look to the wall of fog and the clouds above. The reflections in the river are also less defined. Overall the photo has a more pleasing mood to it, in my opinion at least. I’d like to know how you feel. Which photo do you like better? Please take the poll below and also please feel free to explain your pick in the comments!
Today for my photo of the day and Throwback Thursday, I’ve chosen my oldest photo of Pittsburgh that I offer on my website or at shows, “Pittsburgh Blues.” It was taken all the way back in 2010. I say that somewhat in jest – the photo was taken almost 4 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Anyhow, I took this photo from the North Shore about an hour after the sun had set. It was a bit past blue hour, but as you can see it is still quite blue and cool. Along with this photo, I took away a couple other things. The first was that a long, or longer, exposure really helps to smooth out the reflections on a body of water. At this point in my journey of photography, I had experimented with long water exposures, but mostly waterfalls so it was fun to try it with larger body of water that was moving, but not quite “rushing.” My second takeaway was that night photography, especially in the city, will trick your camera’s sensor into underexposing your photo due to the bright city lights. Set that exposure a little longer and you can really pull out the detail of the skyline while still keeping those highlights in check.
Welcome to the first edition of “Photo of the Day” here on the JP Diroll Photography blog. My plan is to write a little blurb about a photo each day (almost 😉 I’m sure there will be days here and there that I’ll miss) and post it to to my social media sites as well as here. To that end, I want to take a minute to thank all of you for the support for this idea. I had mentioned on my Facebook page about the possibility of doing this and the overwhelming majority of you essentially said…”Go for it” or “I’ll definitely check it out.” So again, thank you! I hope you enjoy this endeavor.
Without further ado, here is my first photo of the day (POTD from here on out!). As it turns out, today is Thursday, but you all know that! What you may or may not no is that Thursday is a widely considered “Throwback Thursday,” or TBT, on many of the social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter in my experience. So I decided I’d kill two birds with one stone and make my very first POTD my very first TBT as well. The photo you see above is called Winter’s Light. It was taken on a very cold, snowy Saturday in January. The reflection is surreal. The sky is full interesting clouds. And that light illuminating the Andy Warhol Bridge, well let’s just say I’ve never seen light so beautiful on that bridge since then. And I spend a lot of time on the North Shore, and I do mean a lot! Now I’ve shared this image a few times before across my various social media outlets, and if you’ve ever gotten a business card from me then you’ve certainly seen this photo. It’s kind of my brand, if you will. And for good reason. It holds a very special place in my heart. It is the first photo I received a great deal of attention for and gave me the confidence to continue down the path of becoming a photographer. It made me want to MAKE photographs instead of TAKE photographs. It ultimately helped my vacation become my vocation…or is it the other way around 😛 ? For me it’s a bit of both! Ever since this photo, it’s been pretty much full throttle and I don’t intend on easing up off the pedal any time soon. I want thank each and every one of you reading this for the support and I hope you’ll join me on the ride!
One of the things I like to do with this blog is give a little bit of insight into who I am beyond photography. Each tidbit I share ultimately plays a minor role in my actual photographs, the inspiration behind the name of a photo or series of photos, the story of behind the photo, or the story it makes me want to tell. Today’s little tidbit is that I am a big comic book dork, specifically Marvel Comics. Wolverine is my favorite superhero but I enjoy all the X-Men comics. I’m also a big fan of Spiderman and the Avengers too. If you don’t know anything about superheroes and I’ve lost you already, you can give my wife a call. The two of you can sympathize together because I guarantee she’s lost too. In fact, she refers to all superheroes as “X-Mans” because she can’t tell them apart. She thinks it frustrates me but deep down I think she knows how cute I think it is. But I digress…
What does any of this have to do with photography and how do fictional heroes relate? We’ll get there soon, I promise, but for now just a bit more back story. Last month some wild storms came through the city of Pittsburgh. It’s always been a goal of mine to capture some excellent streaks of lightning over the skyline. It was my number one “bucket list shot” in terms of Pittsburgh photography. I’ve made several attempts but to no avail. My next opportunity came late one evening last month. I got a call at 11PM while I was sound asleep. Much to my chagrin, I answered. Barely. On the other line was my cousin, “JP, work can’t wait. The lightning is going crazy!” Begrudgingly I got my hind end out of bed and headed out the door. Luckily I keep my camera bag packed and batteries charged for just such an “emergency” situation. I spent the evening and wee hours of the morning atop Mount Washington with my camera set up watching the clouds illuminate ever 2 to 3 seconds. It was really cool but there was one problem. All the strikes were about 30 miles north and completely blocked by the clouds. Another unsuccessful opportunity.
Luckily for me though, I’m persistent. The very next day more storms were being called for. I was in town just leaving the Pirates game when I saw a few flashes of lightning. Aha! I called my wife and let her know I’d probably be home later than planned and headed back up the mountain. I staked out the perfect spot and got my camera situated with the right settings, the perfect composition, and a rain sleeve. I was expecting the best but prepared for the worst. Guess which one I got! A few strikes behind me really lit up the clouds and building nicely. Before the lightning moved over the city, though, sheets and sheets of rain fell upon me. My camera was mostly protected but I just couldn’t risk my gear. I was packed up ready to head home when the worst really happened. I shut my back car door and my wedding ring flew off! It was dark and raining terribly. I knew the ring had rolled into gutter where the water was rushing rapidly towards the sewer. Right about then I started wishing I myself were a superhero. What powers would I need? X-ray vision to help me spot the ring? Maybe. Super-human strength to smash through the grate to get into the sewer? Probably. The ability to control metal with magnetism? That would likely help. Deep down, though, I knew I’d need Wolverine’s power. See Wolverine has the power to heal himself and I knew that would be most helpful because, well, my wife was going to KILL ME! Out into the rain I went. I was soaked, absolutely soaked. After 1o minutes of looking in the gutter, under my car, under the car in front me, and in the middle of the road I was ready to give up. I got down on my belly one last time and looked up the road. There it was! Sitting right next to my car. Apparently in the moment I dropped the ring I did have they ability to control metal because there is no other explanation on how a round object dropped on a downward slope doesn’t roll anywhere! I wasn’t complaining though.
By this point, I was sopping wet and that wasn’t changing anytime soon. I really had no other choice but to stay out and give another shot at catching those lightning bolts. I’d been through so much already, what was the worst that could happen, short of electrocution? This is when the best happened. The rain tapered off and the lightning moved right on in. It was the most intense and beautiful display of nature’s power I’ve ever witnessed in person. I stood there, sopping wet, but happy as could be. Every few seconds there were bolts, not just one but many bolts of lightning stretching out across the entire sky. I’d open the shutter, review the image, the click then shutter again for the next bolt which I knew would be coming soon. The best of the evening are below, and if you look closely you might just see an unsuspected visitor. A visitor from Asgard, a world very far from here. A world home to Avenger and Norse God of Thunder. A world home to the mighty THOR!