There have been a lot of changes for me over the last couple of years, especially related to my sources of cash flow and dividends. Without getting into detail, I'll just simply say that teaching US History in a foreign language high school – especially at the institution before my present one – has been intellectually fulfilling, yet physically and emotionally draining. It pays well, but also takes up an extraordinary amount of time and my school is really far off in the countryside.
Over my last couple years in the FLHS system, I haven't been photographing like I used to, like I should be, like I'd like to be; there's just not enough time in the day and actually, not enough room in my bag for a camera on top of 2-3 books, a DVD, and papers for students and whatnot.
But that's gonna end soon, and the Metropolitician's going to go low and fast with the dissertation as first priority, with podcasting, photography, and other media stuff now being able to work itself back into free time, as opposed to being mere indulgences that take away from time I didn't really have. You see, I'm not going to return to my school next semester and I'm gonna make money on the independent, non-school related tip; I plan to work from home, write every day, and shoot and otherwise produce as much as possible. That's the new me from this summer past and on through the upcoming August, when I would normally return back to my school and once again have no time to do anything.
Yet, on top of all this, the one change that feels the most significant and frightening, as well as tinged with a bit of guilt, is my apparent change over to digital. I've been shooting on film all this time, and most of my photography from when I was a kid until early 2005 was done with two old film bodies, namely the venerable Canon AE-1 Program and Canon T-90, the latter camera being my bread and butter body for almost all of my years behind a viewfinder.
The AE-1 Program was, without a doubt, one of the most popular cameras ever made, the one of choice for hobbyists and even professionals for a couple decades. Back before the microchip got complex enough to really do much of anything on cameras (autofocus and really complex metering modes are really only since the 1990s), most cameras were SLR's – single lens reflex cameras for which you changed lenses and attached external flashes, all for which Daddies across the world had to carry a big camera bag in order to take pictures of their kids' violin recitals.
This was back when point-and-shoot cameras occupied a totally different place in the market than they do now. Back then, point-and-shoot cameras we really, really, dumb, as they didn't have much more intelligence nor subtlety than most disposable cameras do now. They weren't much more than boxes to hold film, with a dumb flash that had a couple of settings. Kids and people going to the amusement park used them, and the images came out harsh and overexposed. Think back to those pictures from when you were a kid (if you're over the age of 30) – they look horrible, or have a whole range of underexposed people in the background and other pics with people's faces washed out by excessive flash. We accepted a lot back then.
If you wanted a real camera, you got an SLR – one of the cameras with interchangeable lenses that was probably both black and silver, metal and plastic. In order to take decent pictures, you had to get a camera over $200, which meant SLR, which meant you inevitably had to learn a bit about aperture and shutter speed, you had to focus manually (remember – there was not autofocus then!), and of you wanted to use a flash, you had to stick one on top and preferably actually know how to operate it.
The AE-1 Program was a huge seller because it was one of the first cameras to have a "Program" mode, which meant that you just stuck it in "P" and it took the picture. WOW! It determined both the proper aperture/shutter combination and just did its thang. And if you stuck on a Canon flash – also in "P" mode – it even took care of the flash, too! Jumpin' Jehosaphat!
All real cameras were in the price range of around $200 to $1000. Even the top photog for Sports Illustrated with a Nikon F3 was really spending the big bucks on the lenses and accessories that neither you nor I needed, such as 500mm lens or 5 frames-per-second motor drive. But most people could afford to buy the same camera as a pro and similarly, most people had little use for "consumer" cameras. Or perhaps it's better to say that the line between "professional" and "consumer" cameras was blurred to the point of being non-existent. Well, there was a line, as many people didn't buy and F3; but I tend to think that the pro features it sported were pretty solidly "pro" – such as a titanium, airtight body that could survive on Everest and even the moon. Most people weren't going to drop dollars in the 4-digit range just for that; most people were more than content to do with the very good cameras and lenses and flash that they had, which weren't all too different, in essence, from the cameras that any pro had. Times were good, things were simple.
The beginning of the end of manual cameras – the last manual camera made by Canon and the beginning of the EOS line. But even at the top of Canon's line, it was only $499 for the body. Compare to now, when, depending on what you're looking for, the top-of-the-line Canon body can still net you 5 figures. Things done changed.
Then came the ergonomic bodies (the T-90 was the prototype for the EOS line that exists to this day and the first "sleek" design that broke away from the boxy silver-and-black design that dominated 35mm since forever) and the autofocus and the fuzzy logic and the digital recording backs and smarter flash modes that measured the reflected light off the surface of the film during the exposure and oh, Lord, oh Lord.
Things started getting expensive and the SLR started slowly shifting – I noticed this as far back as high school – from a general camera for the masses-to-masters of photography to an expensive luxury that could only be justified by actually having professional reasons to want one.
This was happening while consumer cameras were starting to get smarter, smaller, and better at taking the pictures that most people wanted anyway. Autofocus was in, so you could aim and actually guarantee that what you were aiming at would be in focus, they were measuring exposure better and more subtly, with flash pictures actually being better than the camera's mere guesses in the dark. They were even sporting zoom lenses! And they were getting smaller every day. What would you need a big and bulky, complex and scary SLR for? I don't want to carry a camera bag to my kid's piano recital! I just want a picture, ferchrissakes!
Autofocus, oh, my!
In the big picture, it was kinda good, I guess. But now, a new SLR in the mid-1990s with the same features as my old AE-1 Program from the 1970s/1980's was in the couple-to several thousand dollar range. Now, all that extra stuff like autofocus and better flash modes meant more, better, pricier chips in the body. And when the first digital SLR's started coming out in the nearly $20,000 range, I had officially checked out of being interested in buying any new major photo equipment besides a lens here and there.
I had my AE-1 and T-90, a dedicated flash for the latter, and the same features that others were paying out the nose for. I really only lacked autofocus, but it was a lack I didn't feel, as manually focusing was second-nature to anyone raised on manual bodies back before autofocus sounded like anything other than magical hocus-pocus voodoo. And since film was busy being in transition to digital, keeping prices up beyond anything I could afford or justify, I was happy. No need to even consider anything else, right?
Well, as a street photographer working in Korea, I was used to "zone focusing", which means that on a sunny day (having enough light is important), you choose a wide aperture setting and let the camera pick the shutter speed automatically (you have to choose an aperture that will get a higher shutter speed, which is why you need a lot of light for street photography).
Zone Focusing: See the strip of numbers with the red dot? Take a look at the "8" for example. It stands for f8, so if you set the aperture at f8 on the camera and turn the focus ring (the big top part with the grip), everything between the two 8's on either side will be in focus. As it is in the picture, everything between 3 and 10 feet (the green numbers – the white ones are meters) will be in focus. If you set the aperture at a very dark f16, everything from about 2.3 to infinity will be in focus. The joy of zone focusing and the detailed controls of the manual focus lens have been lost in the autofocus days of the present. The problem with zone focusing with autofocus is that if you're not looking through the viewfinder and shooting, your camera is still focusing on a specific point, yet you can't be sure of what that is.
If you do that, there is a zone of perfect focus, within which, if you're shooting on the street, is essential for getting shots when you can look through the viewfinder directly. With an extreme wide angle lens (20-24mm), liberal zone focusing (with an aperture of f5.6-f8 and above), and enough light to get a shutter speed capable of freezing any human movement (above 1/125 or so with a wide angle) with that narrow aperture – you can get pretty much anything within a pretty liberal range – everything from 3 feet to infinity – in focus and just worry about the action while shooting from the chest or hip. Knowing about where the frame falls is important, but this becomes pretty instinctual with practice.
But all the good equipment these days – the new stuff – is unfortunately designed for the autofocus bodies that I didn't have. And with the downward creep of autofocus into the market – Nikon recently announced that it would stop producing film bodies as of this year , for example – the price of film cameras had started coming way down by 2004 and 2005. My veteran T-90 flash just wasn't cutting it anymore, so I decided to move up to an entry-level Elan 7 (discontinued now) with 20mm and 24mm lenses. I figured it would be a good move, since I could get an Elan 7 body for less than $300 and the money I'd spend on the matching flash could be used with any future autofocus EOSes I might purchase down the line. So even though there's a downside to autofocus and street shooting, the upside is that the camera actually focuses on a specific point, and it's usually pretty smart about it, most of the time.
Body with battery pack/grip. This camera's a sweet, economical buy for people wanting to get into film.
So with that in mind, I had made the move to autofocus in February of 2005 and really haven't felt much of a loss. I was a little sorry to suppress the instinct to turn the focusing ring while composing shots – isn't that what makes photographers in the movies so...umm...photographery? – but I felt like I had held out long enough. Digital, besides the little consumer model I had bought for friends birthday parties and such, was still way too expensive to be affordable for a photographer like me, right? Right?!
Enter my friend who wants to start her own online clothing retail business. She calls me up a few weeks ago about possibly shooting some pictures of the clothes she plans to sell online, with a couple of friends as models. But I knew that rolls and rolls and film were not going to cut it and that I needed to go digital. So I treated this as an opportunity to get into digital by getting some help to get the equipment to do the job. A good chance for me. But I was broke as a joke and still had to come up with some money to get everything I needed, since the camera's not everything: faster memory card, another battery, etc.
So? Either do the shoot and take this gig as a way to get in on a one-time big discount, or simply stay in the film world and save a little money that I could sorely use. I decided to take the pain, weather the lack of summer income, and do the shoot. And getting this camera would open up possibilities for the future, as well as give this documentary photographer some practice at the very different conditions of setting up commercial shots.
Here's what I end up with, the digital version of the low-end film camera I bought last year, with battery pack to add heft to the overly-small body that my hands were slipping and sliding all over, as well as allow me to use normal AA batteries in a lurch. The bottom battery pack has two cartridges, one to house 2 of those weird Canon digital camera batteries, another for 6 AA ones. And it makes it heavier. These new-fangled cameras are waaay too light. Now, I was set to shoot.
My new baby, my first digital SLR, ready to take pictures and actually have them ready to use when I need them! The camera's only 590,000 won, which is amazing, considering the fact that something similar to this was well over $10,000 just a few years back.
We decided to highlight the clothes and experiment with everything from a "catalog" style to a natural environment look. Here are a few of the first attempts, from that first photo shoot, which are a decidedly mixed bag. The first of our shots that day came while walking around Yongsan's new mall, with a 50mm lens set at 1.8 to reduce the depth-of-field (making the background go out of focus, which they do a lot in fashion and portrait photography). Since the size of the chip in the camera is still less than the 35mm of a normal film frame, the effective frame size of the lower-end (full frame 35mm pro-level SLR's are still pricey as hell) cameras is muliplied by a factor of 1.6. So my 50mm lens becomes almost the ideal 85mm (80mm, actually) "portrait lens" that a lot of people use to take said fashion and portrait shots. So it was perfect to get that "catalog" look with this lens, which is a cheapy at $100.
We then gave my documentary shooting skills a whirl and decided to highlight the clothes in motion, like a cool fashion photography shoot. So I set the flash up and my friend changed clothes, and we prepared to enter the most colorful area of the building, that being the ticket area at the CGV, where there are lots of neon lights and flashing thingies. I wanted a mixed flash and ambient light effect, where the background gets motion blurred (the shutter stays open for a long time, so things get blurred with the camera motion as it pans) while the flash captures a clear-as-crystal image while the shutter is open. The effect can be pretty stunning; and it can also be simulated in Photoshop by cheaters, but it never comes off looking right, and a trained eye can always tell, I think.
So I had her set up to walk past me a few times, and since I knew that security would ask us to leave after only a few shots (the flash gives it away), I planned on getting 1-2 shots at best. As it was, the two young ladies in CGV uniform were more into their gossiping than doing their job of "protecting" the art design of the interior from industrial spies, which was fine by me. So we got several good shots and a costume change before a guy in a suit asked us to leave. Score!
Then we moved to a great little coffee shop in the mall called Harue (pronounced "하루에) that had this ornate interior and great backdrop to shoot against. My friend knew the place, as well as the owner, so we got carte blanche to do whatever we wanted in there. It was a fun shoot, but actually kind of boring to me, since I like light and colors and action and motion. But I know that's just me.
I had some issues with flash balance and focus (I know, such a rookie thing, no?); the funny thing was that the higher standards of getting the exact point to highlight in perfect, razor-sharp focus has never been super important. When shooting in the street, getting the subject pretty much in focus is ok; when doing something more commercial, missing focus or botching the composition even just a little is a crime – given the fact that you have time to prepare, there's no excuse to be sloppy with the exposure, flash, or composition. I realized that it was high time to tighten my shit up.
We shot quite a bit, talked, ate, talked some more, and planned for the next photo shoot. That's where the models came in, who were just friends but quite eager to get the chance to be the focus of attention in the middle of the Ehwa area (where we decided to do the next photo shoot), get some free clothes, and also gain some pictures for posterity's sake.
I also got some pointers in the form of a slight dressing down from my friend's friend, who is a designer, as well as her partner in the online clothing venture, in which she pointed out how I didn't think much about what the focus of the pictures were (as a documentary shooter, I usually compose to emphasize people and human relationships in the frame, not clothes), as well as as myriad other small points, such as when to change angles to flatter the model, as opposed to the item of clothing, and vice versa. It was quite a useful mini-education and opportunity to practice these brand-new principles in action.
We chose the Ehwa Womens University Area because it was 1) so femme, and 2) had so many colorful little stores and backdrops; the shoot was more fun than we thought and I learned a lot, this time about balancing flash with outdoor photography for portraits and making the subject "pop" out of the frame (that was the one thing I had hoped to practice, since I hardly ever use flash as a street shooter, since people tend to freak out when a random stranger starts popping off flashes for no apparent reason).
The shots we yielded made me very happy. Here's an example of a successful clothing shot, properly framed and slightly cropped, with just the right expression and pose by the surprisingly good first-time model:
Yow! Work it, girl! I never had to direct a model before, but it was certainly fun to enter Austin-Powers-as-photographer mode and actually have to give emotional cues such as "Look at me like you don't like me" or "Stand sassier, like you're turning me down for a date" and sometimes just "Smile!"
Actually, I didn't have to give much direction since she's a cute girl and far better at being sassy or sexy or sultry than me. I sort of just pointed her in the general direction and caught the best moments on film...ahem...I mean, CF card:
Ouch! Beside the heterosexually obvious, what I like about these two shots photographically is how the flash makes the models pop out a bit from the dusk background, which isn't as out of focus as I'd like it to be (I can't yet afford a wide-angle lens that goes down to f1.8 or 2.0).
I also like the busy background, which doesn't conflict with her top or bottom (in the first picture, the colors contrast, which also doesn't conflict with the top). Since my friend wanted to highlight the legs (obviously) with this mini/top combination, I took the designers simple advice of not shooting from the top, but rather got down on my ass and shot from underneath, making her legs look loooonger and the model look more powerful and imposing.
In any case, with my changes in my job, getting more time to do dissertation and my personal projects, look for a lot more and various kinds of stuff from me in the near future.
I'm looking forward to getting back to photography and what inspires me, getting back on academic track, and also having a bit of fun while doing it.