Project 365 is simple concept – take at least one photo each day, every day, for a year – that requires a serious commitment but promises a fitting reward of progress. It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill which is why every photographer gives the same answer when asked how to improve at photography: take more pictures.
So, exactly one year ago today, I set off on this photographic quest. Now, after a year’s progress and experiences, I am very, very glad that did.
My Project 365 was certainly not the only source of photographic growth in 2010. I embarked on several photo field trips, shots a few weddings and did some experimenting with studio-style photography as well. But in the same way I found that keeping a travel journal motivates me to choose experience over routine, the day-to-day pressure of needing a new photo got me off the bench actually doing the things I had always said I wanted to do (like waking up at 4:30 am to drive into DC for the Cherry Blossoms at sunrise).
My enthusiasm for the project ebbed and flowed, as you can track in each of 12 Best & Worst posts. I would discover something new, apply it and eventually add it to the repertoire. At first, the pressure of a daily shot-edit-upload-blog was overwhelming, so I built in some flexibility by posting photos a week behind the day they were taken. This allowed me to shoot daily, but only worry about uploading and blogging once a week. On rare days – especially toward the end – I didn’t get my shot, so I had to make up for that on other days by taking two. Other days, I had to pluck my shots from my daily routine which, by March, had already been pretty extensively documented. That forced me to start looking at regular things for their photographic potential.
I actually started to see the world as a photographer. I’d read other photographers describe seeing the light instead of objects, and I always discounted it as incorporeal artistic flair common among creative people. But it’s not a metaphor. At some point that I can’t really distinguish, I started seeing light as much as I saw objects and compositions. As I progressed, I learned to use, interact and eventually control that light I was, as Joe McNally put it, learning to paint with light and shadow. The results have been very exciting and I am often surprised myself at the results I can get.
When I set off, I had a list of goals – touchstones – to mark my progress. Reading this list now, I’m reminded of how far I have come. A year ago today, I was shooting jpeg images almost exclusively in Auto mode. I knew about the exposure triangle in theory, but using it was a chore and it seemed Auto almost always gave me better results. Now, this list isn’t nearly so intimidating.
- Controlling depth of field – Aperture is the most significant setting for depth of field, but it’s complicated. F/1.8 is actually a bigger hole for light to go through than f/5.6 (which makes sense if you think of it as a fraction. But bigger hole (smaller F-number) means smaller depth of field. As someone who still struggles with left and right, my problem was always remember which direction did what. The breakthrough came when I got my Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens – a speedy little sucker when at F/1.8. Suddenly, I had a reference. After that I learned that depth of field changes depending on how far you are from the subject and that even f/1.8 can render an entire scene in focus if the subject is far enough way.
- Mastering ISO settings – Easier than you think, it’s just how light-sensitive your camera is. The trick for my D50 was that ISO doesn’t have a dedicated button, so it’s easy to forget. I learned that my camera doesn’t do too well once ISO gets up to 800 or more (it only goes to 1600). I did shoot with some pro-cameras that looked pretty good at really high ISOs around 3,200 or even 6,400.
- Controlling white balance – I understand white balance, but I have never dialed it into the camera. I tend to control the color temperature in the post-processing period.
- Understanding and using a histogram – Easy, thanks in no small part to my friend Markus who I shot some weddings with. Pretty self-explanatory, the important part of the histogram is the edges – you don’t want to clip too much. Blinkies are also helpful.
- Increasing or decreasing contrast – This requires filters – which I don’t have yet. But I know how to do it and have found that most of the time I can add/remove the contrast I want after-the-fact. That being said, throw in a flash, and I really learned how to drag the shutter speed to increase or decrease the background contrast. Long enough shutter speeds land some pretty neat results (although my camera only does front curtain now, I want to try rear curtain sometime).
- Shooting in RAW format – Wow. Let’s just say, I love shooting in RAW. The only downside is that every shot now requires some level of processing to get web-ready, but the payoff in control is well worth that.
- Shooting strangers comfortably (w/ permission, of course) – Check. Although I still get nervous. And now that I see the world more photographically, I find there are a lot more people I wish I had the guts to ask.
- Shooting with one and two hot-shoe flashes – I shot with a hot-shoe, and 1 to 3 strobes at several weddings. I also set up a studio at home with lights (not flashes) that implement the same concepts if not allowing for shorter shutter speeds or smaller apertures.
- Shooting a model in a controlled environment (Tiffany volunteers) – This is fun! Tiffany was a great model, as were so many of my other friends.
- Shooting sports and high-speed action – To do this one right, you need the right hardware. You need a fast lens. I made do with my 50mm at f/1.8, which worked if I jacked the ISO all they way up to 800 or 1600, but at least for shooting indoors, I didn’t get a lot of good experience. I did capture some action outside in the daylight though.
- Storytelling in a picture – Yep.
- Experimenting with manual focus – Experimented and found that, in most cases, it’s not necessary.
So where does that leave us for 2011? I’ve still got so much to learn, and while I’ll appreciate the reprieve from carrying around my DSLR all the time, I’ll also miss it. Unfortunately, as was the case when I graduated from a point and shoot to a DSLR in the first place, I find myself approaching the technological limitations of my current hardware. My Nikon D50 has 49,000 shutter actuations (it’s rated for ~50K before you can expect it to die), so I’ll likely get a new camera next year. The next major steps forward will require a substantial investment in new hardware. Any photographer will tell you that great photos are made by a person not a camera, and that’s certainly true. But any tradesman will tell you that they are only as good as their tools will allow them to be. That seems about right too.