Saturday, February 17, 2007

The promised story.

Back in December, on day two of the Academic Mayhem, I shouldered my new camera, left the interview suite where I'd been working all morning, and headed out to buy some lunch and take some pictures.

Longtime readers may recall my trip to Ottawa in April, when I wanted very badly to take pictures inspired by Ttractor but instead kept gravitating toward more of what I see in Gambier: lots of sky, lots of flowers, lots of still life nature stuff. That weekend yielded perhaps my first realization that I find and make pictures with a specific kind of visual sense--that even cities look different to me, because of what I look at all the time, than they do to her (and others). And: there's room for all of us in the world of picture-making! Sometimes I'm stunned to realize that these things that now seem so intuitive came in as such startles (small and great) over the course of last year.

I was so excited to keep trying out the new camera in Philadelphia, and I had a two-hour lunch in which to wander around seeing what I could see. Just down the street from the pho restaurant where I had lunch was a film development lab whose name translated to Pretty Photo. That seemed an auspicious sign (ha! haha!), so it was the first picture I tried to get after my colleague and I parted ways when lunch was over.

But when I put the camera to my eye, I had the same experience I'd had over and over already in the three weeks since I'd purchased it. My light meter told me that my settings were right on; my picture told me that I needed a vastly longer exposure. My pictures from that afternoon are full of missteps and do-overs. (With the graffitied wall on this writing, for instance, I needed more attempts than I'd like to talk about, just to get the veil of darkness off the picture. And with the Pretty Photo picture I posted yesterday, I never did get a properly lighted shot; yesterday's is so comic-book-colored because of the swift-moving job I did on the original image with Aperture last night. I love it, but it's a lot flatter and more garish than what I saw in Philadelphia.)

Now, normally, I'm a fast learner, and, as the daughter of a technophile father, I'm not someone who has difficulty figuring out how new pieces of technology operate. The whole point of getting the new camera was that I wanted to wean myself from the point-and-shoot's assistance: I wanted to compose my own images not just by framing them but also by determining their depth of field and lighting. But instead I found myself backsliding all over the place, and I assumed that it was all me and my incomplete understanding of things like how to meter light in order to get a proper exposure. (This is no small task, to be sure.) It was particularly frustrating because I'd bought the new camera in order to capitalize on and then push farther what I'd figured out how to see with the point-and-shoot. I didn't want to feel like a big dummy--who wants to feel like a big dummy?--but I did, repeatedly. One can change a digital photograph's exposure with a good imaging program, but I hadn't expected to leave behind the days of getting the picture I wanted as readily as I had been for months with the little camera.

If you've been reading for the past couple of months, you know that I've been struggling with no small degree of frustration and self-doubt over my photographic skills, almost all as a result of this exposure problem. Here's your little photographic lesson of the day, in case you don't know this stuff: there are a couple of ways to control exposure time, or the amount of light that gets through to your film (or, with a digital camera, the sensor that sends data to your memory card). One is to change the aperture of your lens; if you ever hold a camera lens in your hand without the camera attached and then change the f-stop, you'll see the aperture inside the lens getting smaller or bigger, much as your eye's pupil gets bigger or smaller to let in more or less light. The other way to change exposure time is to slow down the camera's shutter. In very bright light, or with very fast motion, you might want a camera to open its shutter for only 1/3200 of a second or something just about that infinitesimal. At about 1/60 of a second, you start increasing your chances that your body's own motion will blur what you're catching with the camera. My camera can, if I want it to, keep its shutter open for 30 seconds--or even longer, if I use the "bulb" setting and keep my finger on the shutter button. For anything even near a second, much less multiple seconds, you should have a tripod or monopod, unless you're going for some deliberately blurred effects.

Thus endeth your lesson.

In order to get a shot with anything like proper lighting, I've been shooting almost entirely on the camera's largest aperture (f 5.6 or even f 4) and slowing my shutter speeds down to 1/30 of a second or slower in most of our wintry light. These slowed-down shutter speeds have, in turn, meant that I've had an unnecessarily high amount of camera blur, simply because each slowdown has made it so much harder not to register the movement of my cold and shaky hands. And I haven't been able to use anything but the camera's manual mode, because the camera's own sense of proper lighting is so wrong that when I've let it participate at all, it's screwed everything up, effectively dropping a dark veil across my images.

Now, Thursday night, as part of another development (as it were), I was looking at something photography-related on the web and came across a discussion forum at which I'd looked briefly in December, just after getting the camera. On this forum, people had complained about having underexposure problems with their cameras--which were the same model as mine. I haven't thought to check that forum again since then, but on Thursday the top post was about how the camera's manufacturer had fixed someone's camera so that it no longer had an underexposure problem.

Suddenly the world grew just that little bit clearer.

I called the company yesterday, verified that I, too, have had this problem, and received prompt and polite instructions about how to pack the camera and send it to Flushing, NY, for repairs. From the discussion board, I've gathered that lots of these cameras require recalibration of their light sensors. And when they return from their repair centers, they work the way they're supposed to.

Despite the fact that the camera has been making me disappointed and (unnecessarily) angry at myself for months, as I wrapped it in its bubble wrap and packed it in its styrofoam peanuts yesterday afternoon, I found myself regretting having to part with one of my chief creative tools, a thing that has been my near-constant companion since early December. It was not unlike saying goodbye to the PowerBook after October's great coffee disaster. And when I picked up the point-and-shoot and took some pictures of the icicles outside my office, I felt as though I'd gone back to a pretty retro technology--so small a camera! so tiny a viewfinder! so little information anywhere! All of which are further lessons in how swiftly we acclimate to new things, I suppose. (Also in just how technologized my life is, something that is not really a surprise to the girl who's been at a computer keyboard, or in a pair of headphones, or behind a camera, for the last 24 years.)

When the camera comes back, you all will be among the first to know. You may just feel the jubilation radiating out from mid-Ohio. But you'll certainly see the pictures, too--if (deo volante) all goes well and the light sensor actually works upon its return. I'm so hopeful about being able to get pretty photos, and about no longer having to fight against the camera itself in order to achieve my images at all.

(In the meantime, that enigmatic wall wants you to make up a text for it. Can't you see that? Its impassive waiting is merely a front; it's secretly yearning for your words, whether they're narrative or not. A dear friend has suggested that the dead bird symbolizes the nihilistic onrush of the nouveau bourgeois. I'm not so sure; I tend to doubt symbolism, as a signifying practice.)


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