Life on the Road with a Camera in Hand

April 22, 2017

Life on the Road with a Camera in Hand

Getting to this point of being on the road with a camera in hand happily taking photos again was a bit of a journey. Back in 2001 I graduated and moved away from my hometown of Calgary up north to Edmonton to study Photographic Technology. It was sort of a random chain of events, but one I am fortunate happened.  

I remember being in high school and to be honest what I wanted to have as a career wasn’t really even in my head. I had no idea what I wanted to be. I was really good at math, loved physics and quite honestly any of the testing you took in school to show you your strengths always pointed me to Engineering of some kind and more specifically it said aerospace engineering. So the better question is … how the heck did I end up going to school for photography. Well it was one of those classes where you had to do some research into what you wanted to be and write a quick report on what that was, what you’d learn, why you wanted to do it and if you wanted to pursue it as a career what it meant for studies and future career paths. I had no idea so I remember entering … photography … and well that is how it all started. At the time I went out everyday just shooting photos and was also a weekend warrior snowboarding in the mountains so I dreamed big and thought … maybe I could make a living as a professional snowboard photographer even go so far as to train with a competitive snowboarding club too. I laugh at this now, but I loved both so why not. 

Once I started to do the report on where you could learn this a whopping 4 schools specializing and having programs specifically for just photography came up. I know you’re thinking, only 4. The answer was yes. Many schools had photo courses, but not full 2 and 4 year programs where that is all you learned. At the time before digital it was very specialized because it required full hand processing, and we’re not just talking black and white, which is easy, it meant full hand processing in colour as well. If anyone has done this you know it means working completely in the dark (the paper is sensitive to all colours of light … even the yellow light in normal black and white darkrooms) and it means processing your film within decimal points of temperatures. Not like black and white where you just adjust the time to develop based on the water temperatures. It had to be within .3 degrees if I remember correctly. At the time there were only 2 schools offering this in Canada so I just applied and went for it. 

Somehow they let me in and I didn’t really think about it, I just packed up and went north. At the time I had no idea what I would learn. I was sort of naive on what a 25K education meant. For Canada that is CRAZY expensive for a 2 year program. Tuition I believe was 4K a year and the rest was living (I worked through school too) and photo supplies. Film was outrageously expensive and since we weren’t allowed to shoot 35mm and were only allowed to shoot 4 x 5 film ($4 per photo) for the first semester and only medium format the rest of the 2 years ($10 per roll for 12 photos) it got expensive. We also would shoot Polaroid, not because it was trending, but because it was needed and better to shoot one Polaroid to check lighting then use a whole roll of film, spend an hour developing it only to learn you messed up all the lighting and nothing turned out. You learned a very different skill set, one that is slightly obsolete these days with digital, but so happy I have that technical background and knowledge. 

These days much of it can be adjusted through digital altering and filters, but I resented that for so long. I’d honed my skills for perfect dodging making the funkiest little tools out of wire and pieces of matting material and mastered burning those corners in while black and white printing. I loved it and there was never a print that ever turned out the same. I went to school with 20 other people for 2 years. In our first year it was all black and white and we had our own enlarger in the “tunnel”. It was this big long room where we all printed. I wonder if it even exists anymore. In the second year we had a room we shared with one other person the whole year and it was basically the size of a walk in closet with a small counter space for the colour enlarger. I guarantee that portion doesn’t exist anymore at all since the equipment to process the colour prints was expensive to run and maintain. We would adjust dials to colour correct a bit more cyan, a little less magenta and were trained to spot the smaller colour variance in our printing. It took hours sometimes to print one photo, wait for it to process through the machine and check it out under the right lighting. Basically the same adjustment you now do in levels in 2 seconds. 

The best bit about all of this is I sound like I am now 50 years old and this all happened back in the 70’s or something, but this was 2001 and we were actually the second last graduating class to learn this way. Digital was just an up and coming thing and although we all knew it was the way of the future, it just wasn’t affordable yet. My digital experience in school was mainly the highest resolution scanner and doing very basic adjustments in Photoshop and at the time it was Photoshop 7, which was brand new, the latest and greatest and part of the time when you’d just say, “can you just clone it out?” ha. 

They felt it was important we had some idea of what was coming so I remember being handed a digital camera, about the size of a DSLR and being told to take care of it because the program could only afford 2 of them for people to use. This camera you can only laugh at now because it was an impressive 2.0 MP. I know your mind just got blown away. You’re phone camera blows this completely out of the water. On top we didn’t really even have instructors to teach us digital programs since it was that new. We sort of all fumbled through it together. Luckily at the time it was our last semester and it was only a short module, because it just made for horrible photos. 

In the end I basically came out of school with knowledge on how to coat my own paper and make my own film and I loved it. However, after years of critiquing classes I was now trained to spot a half stop difference in perfect lighting, a slight wrong colour correction and basically within seconds I could see all the technical flaws in a photo. It sucked! I loved photography and beautiful photos, but digital was the new thing and it had every technical thing wrong with it. I could no longer enjoy a photo because it was a time when we over sharpened everything and just cranked the saturation up so the colours would burn your eyes. Few photos were now realistic and everything just looked over produced and I hated it. 

I shot film for a long time after because I loved getting grain in the photos because I used a 1600 film, not because I put a noise filter on it. I would shoot different films because I was shooting nature or because I was shooting a portrait and wanted soft skin tones. I ended up falling out of love of where photography was going. I remember being in San Francisco on the 100 anniversary of the first great fire and there was a museum exhibit of all the photos taken during that year. The before, the after and during the first. Contact 4 x 5 prints, beautifully lit portraits and photo journalism of that era. This is what I loved and it was a small moment of love for photography again. During 2006 it was more about how to Photoshop an elephant driving a car. Even to this day if there is a photo exhibit like this I won’t miss it or if I see someone hand printing their own black and white photos I’ll stop and admire. 

After school I walked away from photo for a long long time and even to this day I still have one foot out the door. I only ever pulled out my camera when I needed to shoot a photo of product for my website and even then they were horrible. The truth is that I didn’t really care how they looked; they just needed to show the product. To this day they are still the same way. Even though I have a DSLR you’ll never see me pack it for vacation to a beautiful destination where you know you could get a great photo. I had shifted to be more about experience than capturing the photo. 

It wasn’t until recently I started to see more and more beautiful photos being posted. You all know those accounts on Instagram. The direction over the past few years had finally started to head towards the perfect balance of photography and reality. Photos were starting to look like they were shot on film again and I found the respect to the art of photography was coming back. Sure there are adjustments to basically all the great photos you see, but it’s in a way that it is no longer over produced. They aren’t over saturated, they aren’t over sharpened and they look like a beautiful print you’d see in a gallery hand printed, if not better and I love it. Finally digital had hit the level of film, which it had for some time, but it surpassed it and went far beyond in how it handled the light coming through the lens. I am sure we all remember the beautiful banding in highlights that used to exist. 

My heart has started to grow for photography again and although I admit I have never really lost seeing the flaws in a photo, I’ve come around to not caring, which wasn’t easy. There were enough amazing photos and photographers out there to outweigh all the bad. Photos were dreamy to me again and I couldn’t wait to pick up a camera and start shooting myself again. With that said though I wasn’t EVER going to lug around a big camera again and I didn’t even want to deal with lenses. So I now have a camera that is small and compact that I throw in my backpack and has a fixed lens with a viewfinder. All a must for me. 

I’m a pretty private person, but I wanted to share our journey in my van. Not so much a look at me and what I’m doing, but a story to show the adventure in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. This is where I could fall back in love with taking photos. I wasn’t going to lose sleep over it being the perfect photo, or perfected colour corrected, but just wanted it to show a timeline and act as a memory. In the end photos are just a memory captured in time. Least that is how I see them and any photos I have ever fell in love with captures that perfectly. 

Although my whole Instagram feed is mostly the photos from my iPhone vs my real camera, I’m loving having it back in my hand and when I get back to the van and look through the photos I took that day I can feel a little spark again. I’m so happy to share our story through photos after falling out of love with it for so long. I would never want to take away the education I have, but wish the transition was smoother for me and I never stopped shooting in the first place. Who knows maybe one of these days I’ll set a darkroom back up in my basement and will start using my mastered skills in burning and bust out a professional set of dodging tools made from scrap cardboard and wire again! 

Happy shooting!

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