How I Learned to Love the Compact Camera

Winter's Grasp

Winter’s Grasp

I had never heard the term “polar vortex” until the winter of 2014 and that was just one of the things that will make this winter something to remember. In central Illinois, we experienced record a snowfall covering the ground with snow for days on end. Fortunately, snow and monochrome photography are soul mates. However, with my regular working schedule, I did not get as much time shooting in the snow as I would have liked. I could have thrown my gear into the car for any impromptu opportunities, but with below zero temperatures, that really was not an option.

On one of the miserable winter days, while returning to work from lunch, I caught a glimpse of a tree beside a frozen pond. The wind-blown snow covered the tree on one side with the dark bark of the tree showing through on the other. My eye locked in on the beautiful contrast between the dark bark and the glistening white snow.

In my pocket I carried my new compact camera, a Sony RX100 that was literally only one day old after being removed from the box. I purchased the camera to augment my black and white film gear that I planned on taking to Yosemite later in the year. I wanted a small camera that would capture a good image, shoot RAW images, and would fit easily in my camera bag without adding a lot of weight. A quick review of the user’s manual the night before gave me enough information to turn on the camera and find the menu screen and not a lot more.

I climbed over a neck-high pile of snow left by a snow plow and walked out into the knee-deep snow looking for the right composition. Once I found my composition, I fiddled with the menu options to find the manual setting since I needed to overexpose the image (against what the camera light meter was telling me) to make sure the snow was white and not gray. I fired off a set of three bracketed images, climbed back over the snow plow hill and returned to work.

The resulting image shown here would have never been captured if not for the compact camera I carried in my pocket. This kind of “opportunistic” photography is something I am not necessarily used to doing, but with my little compact camera it is quickly becoming part of my portfolio. While I do not foresee giving up my TLR or my DSLR anytime soon, I am learning to love my compact for those shots that would have never been captured.

P.S. Yes, I own a phone with a camera and could have taken a crappy photograph of the tree complete with gray snow and hardly any contrast. My phone makes calls, my camera captures photographs, and my tablet downloads email. No need to mix them together.

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Why Decay Makes a Beautiful Photograph

Quiver School © Jeff Burton

Quiver School

Have you ever wondered why photographs of something decaying will make people stop, look, and wonder? After all, it’s only a photograph of rust, rot, corrosion, degeneration, or general wear and tear. That old rusted junk heap of a truck sitting in the field behind the barn could not possibly be of any interest to anyone. Could it? It certainly is not worth my time to photograph it.

The most probable reason that people tend to like photographs of decay is they inherently have a story within them. We all know photographs that have a story are more interesting than ones that do not. Anytime people look at something that has obviously gone past its useful life, they begin to ask themselves questions. It’s our human nature to ask these questions because we want to classify everything into neat little groups. So people think to themselves things like “Who built this?”, or “What does it do?”, or “Why is it here?”

At this point the viewer is completely engaged with the photograph scanning the image for clues to these unanswered questions. They may study it for minutes or even hours or even spend their hard earned money to take it home with them possibly never knowing the answers to their questions, but always seeking out the clues in the photograph.

The accompanying photograph Quiver School captures the decay of a one-room school building outside Havana, Illinois that once housed and taught scores of children. The school established in 1917, was one of the last one-room schools in operation before is closed. Every time I look at this image I see the children running into the front door as the teacher rings the bell in cupola above. What stories would those children tell, who were they, how did their lives end up? These are my answered questions that keep me engaged and seeking the clues.

Front Desk Photograph

Front Desk © Jeff Burton

Front Desk

Front Desk is a print that carries us back in time to the turn of the century when technology had not infused our lives. “While touring the quaint town of Bishop Hill with my wife Vanessa I spied this quill pen on the front desk of the Bishop Hill Hotel and became instantly intrigued with the light reflecting through the glass ink container.” It is easy to imagine the weary traveler penning their name into the guest registry as the clerk readied their accommodations.

Antique Yale Lock Photograph

Antique Yale Lock © Jeff Burton

Antique Yale Lock

Antique Yale Lock by Jeff Burton. I am never sure if the purpose of a lock is to keep those on the outside on the outside or those on the inside on the inside. Nevertheless, this wonderful antique Yale lock hanging on an old barn door caught my attention from far away and begged me to create its portrait. The rustic charm of the lock is a perfect combination with the weathered wood grain of the door reminding use of simpler times. It appears the hasp has long since disappeared and the lock no longer has a role to play in life other than watch the days pass by. This print would compliment any rustic or country decor, especially in a den or family room.

Print is not Dead Despite the Rumors

Redwoods, Bull Creek Flat © Ansel Adams

Redwoods, Bull Creek Flat © Ansel Adams

I attended an exhibit of Ansel Adams work this weekend at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. To say that I am a fan of Adams work is a gross understatement. I wandered around the exhibit becoming almost teary eyed as I looked upon photograph after photograph that I had seen only in books and on a computer monitor. While standing in front of one of my favorite photographs, Redwoods, Bull Creek Flat, it struck me square in the forehead. This is why print is not dead. The experience of seeing this photograph with nothing between it and my eyeballs but a piece of acrylic is the reason print will never die. I felt as if I could literally step into the photograph, the depth and subtle details that no silicon diode can reproduce pulling me into the photograph.

Just so you know I’m one of those anal, obsessive, type “A” personalities. I like to have complete control over every aspect of my work, especially if I am going to sign my name on it. That means that I print my own photographs. I can hear the majority of you laughing and some just gasping at the mere thought. I have heard all the arguments about cost, time, and so forth. For me, it is about the end product and not about the bottom line—much to the displeasure of my wife.

Have you ever slid your memory card into the slot on the front of the printer and hit the print button? Odds are that the print that came out of the printer was less than exciting. I remember my first attempt at printing a black and white photograph; it was awful with hardly any detail and a green tint. That one print started me down a road filled with foreign concepts like color space, ICC profiles, color management, monitor calibration, and the list goes on. This is without a doubt the number one reason that no one wants to print an image onto paper themselves—“it’s really difficult to get it right”.

Today I can readily print a black and white image onto my favorite fine art paper Hahnemüehle Photo Rag 308 with fabulous results after only a few test prints. It is not impossible to obtain the results you want, but it does take time, practice, and education. In my case, it was nearly a year of trial and error until I developed a workflow that yields repeatable results. The point is, despite the sales brochure, do not expect to send your image to the printer and have it perform miracles on the first try. If you want to print your own photographs, do not be discouraged at the many failures you will have. These are all part of the learning process.

Whether you print your own or send it off to a professional lab, I challenge you to print one of your favorite images this week. You will get hooked on that feeling of seeing your photograph in print and after that you may quickly run out of wall space to hang all of your prints.