As regular readers know, I’m not the sharpest lens in the bag. One of the reasons I maintain this blog is to record lessons for myself – despite the fact that, in the words of Elvis Costello, “I talk to myself but I don’t listen.”
So, several of these lessons are things we all already know. In fact, most have been featured on this blog before. Still…
1. Always carry the camera.
After several days in Monument Valley, we spent a leisurely day driving to Mesa Verde for a brief visit, and then to Canyon de Chelly, where we would spend the remainder of our vacation.
We arrived at Canyon de Chelly in the late afternoon on Easter Sunday, unpacked, and rushed to have dinner before the one open restaurant in Chinle closed. We were quite tired after dinner, but it was just approaching sunset, so I suggested we drive to the first south rim overlook so my wife, who had never been to the canyon, could get a taste of what we would be doing for the next three days.
As we stepped out of the car and walked to the edge of the overlook, the sky caught fire. My cameras and tripod were in the hotel room. I took the picture above with my iPhone, and felt lucky to have it. I also felt excitement, imagining capturing such images on the following two nights with my D610. Unfortunately, the next two sunsets were bland. There was no reason to not have my camera bag in the trunk of the car. Just laziness.
2. Listen to Galen and Thom
Always carry a camera (or, in this case, at a super photogenic location, always carry the really good camera) has a corollary that I’m calling the Galen and Thom rule, because I read this Galen Rowell story on Thom Hogan’s website the night before we left on vacation.
In a nutshell, Galen’s message to Thom was this: you only get one dawn and dusk each day, and you only get so many days. That’s true for those of us old enough to be considering eternity and even more true for those of us on a one-week vacation. I didn’t just take a sunset for granted by leaving my gear in the hotel room – I lost the best sunset of the trip.
3. An interesting place does not guarantee an interesting photograph. I visited two of the most photographed places in the world. Every landscape photographer knows to create layers of foreground, middle ground, and background, but I should also know from experience that I need something extra in a landscape – something that makes the moment mine. Some element of scale and personal connection. I am pleased to say I got a few images like that, but I also got about a thousand meaningless documentations of the same landscape features that millions of other people have captured. I could have saved a lot of card space and post-processing time by remembering to make photos rather than take pictures. Although to be fair, I always have fun taking pictures too.
4. Take notes when experimenting. Because we were staying at The View hotel in Monument Valley, I had the luxury of a private, secure balcony in a lovely dry climate. I decided to experiment with interval shooting, by setting up the camera on the balcony and having it shoot every few minutes throughout the night. I did this on three successive nights, but I did not keep notes, so I lost the value of experimenting, because I couldn’t remember the details of each night’s settings. Some of these were viewable in EXIF data, but not everything. Moreover, what I DID learn I didn’t apply, because on the second and third nights I forgot to focus before the sun went down.
5. Carry less, but carry the tripod. How much gear to carry is my eternal struggle, whether I’m going for a walk in my neighborhood or traveling to Europe. And I always, always, always come back wishing I had carried less – except when I wish I had carried more.
On this trip, I used both camera bodies (D610, D7100) and three lenses (11-16, 24-70, 70-200), but I think I would have been happier with just the D610 and 24-70, for the sheer simplicity of decision-making. I would have missed some shots, but I missed some shots anyway. I think I would have enjoyed my vacation more.
But the real epiphany on this trip was something I’ve resisted for forty years – admitting that I make better photographs using a tripod. I do not typically shoot landscapes, but as I alluded above, landscape photography depends on composition even more than other types of photography for me. I need the tripod for sharpness in the longer exposures required by smaller apertures, but I also need the tripod because it lets me slow down and carefully compose the frame.
In the future, I’m really looking forward to working with a tripod, because while my wife and I scurried along a trail to catch a sunset at Spider Rock, she offered to carry my gigantic 25-year-old Bogen tripod, and I let her. When we returned home, she promptly bought me a carbon-fiber tripod for my birthday. Yes, gentlemen, this is how it’s done.
6. Shooting or post-processing, don’t forget to play. I was on vacation, having fun with my wife. That is more important than any photograph – unless it’s a photograph that preserves the memory that I was on vacation having fun with my wife.
Then, back at the computer, I had terrific fun turning sub-optimal documents into personally satisfying images.
Perhaps that is the big lesson, one worth re-learning over and over again – that I do this for the love of doing it. For the fun of it. And let me tell you something: I had a lot of fun on this trip.