Auto-Focus State of Mind

I have a confession to make…. I am not a professional photographer. I do not claim to be one, nor do I consider myself the equivalent. I am a photography student, who successfully completed Photo I on Black and White Film photography. And I received a Nikon D3000 as a Christmas/New Year’s/Going away-to-Trinidad gift in December, so I am just beginning to learn through experience about digital photo taking. That said, there are moments when I wish I could take beautiful photos, but absolutely fail. Sometimes failing makes me work harder at trying to get the image I want, but other times, I get really aggravated and turn the camera off completely for the rest of the event. It is sad, but true. At one point, I even found myself consciously choosing to not even try to take photos at an event simply due to the environmental conditions (with light, motion, estimated crowd density, my role). The real shocking point was when I went to a show completely forgetting to bring the camera out of the apartment! My mind was ‘out of focus,’ I suppose, on photography.

But that’s just it. Over the course of a month, I’ve learned that –for me- photography is more than shutter speed, aperture, point of view, and an idea, photography includes a huge element relating to state of mind. I can go into an event as either a witness (to participate in that performer-audience relationship) or as a photographer who documents the experiences other people are having, but I cannot do both. I simply can’t have dual focus. When I bring the camera, my eyes see everything. Every sense is heightened, every color illuminated, contrasts made beautiful, and minute detail emphasized, that I lose focus on the cultural value or personal experience of the event. I no longer see the big picture. My mind becomes mechanical to the point where I can’t enjoy taking photos and that is a problem. There are so many parts to taking a picture, just in preparation of the moment where one pushes the shutter button. I have to find balance.

The greatest issue I’ve had so far, especially due to the Carnival season, is taking photos of moving subjects at night- perhaps a concert or art show or media launch. There is a huge difference in technical stress between daytime landscapes and night concerts with moving subjects. The 3 Canal Media Launch was the first night event I attempted to photograph and it was no easy task. I found myself either packing the camera away or using Auto mode with Auto Focus to take shots (though that mode uses flash, a feature not condoned by my advisor). A while later, I started taking photos in Program mode with AutoFocus on. This means I can concentrate on composition, content and available light rather than everything technical all at once. Now, while some may say, ‘it’s about the image itself, not the camera mode the image is taken in,’ I have a hard time grasping the thought that the camera is doing the calculative work and I am just there to position it in the real world. I am not the tool; I want to make the choices. But I think the pressure of getting tangible photos from a plethora of once-in-a-lifetime events was distracting from my enjoyment of some events and from the action of taking photos, but also from developing ‘manual’ photo skills.

So I decided to bring the camera to a 3 Canal concert rehearsal. It was interesting to be a part of the production making process; hearing commands for lighting cues and watching the actors mark stage positions. Since it was a rehearsal, there were trial runs of color projections and spotlights, sound checks and script mess-ups. As a performer, it made me feel right at home to be amongst the madness of show preparation. I felt pretty special getting to watch the actors practice, meet the director, and shake Wendell Manwarren’s hand. Then I realized that there is an interesting relationship between visual arts and theatre set design, where traffic patterns, color focal points, prop mediation, and activity balance all come into play. No wonder why my senses were so heightened!

The dilemma then became: taming my performance drive to allow aesthetic visual comprehension. In other words, I needed to dissociate myself from the excitement to see the aesthetic values worth photographing. This, of course, was extremely difficult. I chose not to bring the camera to the official show performance. This decision had its advantages and disadvantages. Given that we attended the first half of the rehearsal show to photograph, I found myself really enjoying the final visual product on show night. Yet, I also knew what to expect. The second half of the performance was the greatest thing I’ve seen cross a stage in about a year. Song, dance, humor, lighting excitement, climaxed plot and even audience interaction where I got to sing into the microphone! It was so much to see- almost too much. So though there were beautiful moments where a good image could have been shot, I don’t regret leaving the camera home. It was such a great show to experience. If I could do it again, however, I would see the final show twice and photograph at my second attendance. There is a different awareness that accompanies familiarity. Moments are anticipated and the experience intensified, when a performance can be enjoyed as a whole first, then zoned in on visual aesthetics separately. Just as one shouldn’t take snapshots of people and call it portraiture, every performance has a personality which needs dissection before documentation- not to devalue the great photos my co-interns were able to capture at the final 3 Canal show. Besides, I really would’ve loved to see the show again.

Recently, however, I have found myself less intimidated by digital photography. Through meeting other art students in my Three-Dimensional Design class at the University of the West Indies, interested in graphic and fine arts, I have realized how lucky I am to have such a good camera. They can do some beautiful things with point-and-shoot technology and they have tried to assist me with my own camera. I am very grateful. So on Sunday we visited Hanuman Murti and Temple in the Sea and I was inspired to put the camera on manual mode, with manual focus on the lens. I tried various combinations (examples featured below) of program mode, auto focus, manual focus, aperture changes, and shutter speed etc. to take various photos in different locations (shade vs. sun placement) or of the same object but in different camera settings. I really do want to become familiar with the technique so I will have better reaction time to set up when I want to take photos. It will take time and practice.

Next on my list of “things to attempt before leaving Trinidad” is figuring out the basics of Photoshop. The most I do now is crop the photos, but adding an artistic touch to my own photos though a program could also be valuable. I am not ready to tackle that yet due to my low comfort level with my camera at this point, but I would like to experiment with Photoshop before the end of March. I like a good challenge- but I’ll definitely be in need of some assistance when that time comes. Until then, I will work on altering my Auto-Focus state of mind and befriending this Nikon.


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