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.

Sometimes Less is More

Sometimes it’s more important what you leave out of the image than what you include. When you’re making an image always look around the viewfinder for anything that might be a distraction. If you are making a photograph of a wildflower, is the telephone pole in the background adding to the photo? Just changing the camera position relative to the subject can remove many distractions.

So what do you do if you cannot work around the distraction? This is where you have to get creative. In the photo below, I considered the trees a distraction but there was no way to remove them from the composition and still keep the reflection in the water. Since I was making a photograph of the sunrise, I simply underexposed the trees turning them into silhouettes and removing them as a distraction. Without detail, the eye ignores the silhouettes and goes straight to the colors in the sky, which is exactly what I wanted.

Red Sunrise