Refocusing – week two

Well, the second week of my Refocusing (as I’m calling it) has come and gone. Let’s see how I did.

Progress report – week 2

Once again, I’ll break down my progress goal-by-goal, then write about my overall results and feelings.

I will spend one hour a day exercising and stretching.

This went much better than last week. I stretched every day, and got out for a “power” walk five out of the seven days. The weather was still a factor, but I’m working on getting over that.

I’m giving myself a B- here. If I don’t get out for a walk, I could at least stretch again. And I haven’t consistently hit a full hour yet.

I will use a meal planner to eat healthier.

Rocking this one harder than last week! Didn’t go over my calorie count even once, and I added a daily multi-vitamin to the mix. I’ve also taken steps to diversify my diet a bit more, so I don’t get into a boring rut that feels like punishment.

This is A+ territory. I really don’t think I can do much better.

I will spend one hour a day on meditation and related practices.

Totally nailed this one again. In fact, I can probably afford to spend a little less time and energy on this, and use those savings on other goals.

That makes this another A+.

I will spend one hour a day with my family members.

Doing great here, as well. I’m taking the earbuds out more often, and interacting with everyone. I still see some room for improvement, but I’m generally happy with how this is going.

Let’s call it an A.

I will spend one hour a day on photography.

This one is a bummer. The point of this goal was to get me creating something every day. Instead, as I mentioned last week, I left it open and vague enough that I can spend my time doing everything but creating something and still call it good.

For example, I’ve been spending about half an hour on Instagram every day. That time totally counts as far as this goal is concerned, but apart from “popularity,” it’s really contributing nothing to my art. I have thousands of followers, get hundreds of likes on every photo I share from my archives, but haven’t actually taken more than half a dozen photos in the last couple of weeks.

That’s, you know, not good.

But that’s not all! Despite my best intentions, I’ve somehow managed to mentally box myself in as a “nature photographer,” and now that the flowers are dead and the leaves are off the trees, I’m having a hard time finding any sort of creative spark for photography. I really just don’t feel like pulling out my camera at all.

That’s, you know, really not good.

So, I’m coming back to this goal with a hatchet and a bad attitude. I need to scrap this vague-ass permission slip, and give myself a specific commandment. Right now, I’m thinking: “I will spend one hour a day creating something.” This puts the focus on doing actual, creative work, but also relaxes the photography restriction. I could write, draw, or craft for instance, and get credit for it.

Not sure yet. But since I started the week with the goal in bold up above, let’s grade myself.

Going by the letter, I have to give myself an A. But if I went by the actual spirit of the goal, this is as solid an F as they come.

Results

Once again, I’ve been in a great mood. I feel awesome, both physically and mentally, and lost another two pounds.

The time change is throwing me off a bit, though. I’ve been tired yesterday and today, but I’m not too concerned about that, as you can probably guess. I’ll adjust.

Likewise, my stress and anxiety is basically non-existent at this point. When I feel either begin to rise up, I’m able to quickly recognize it, and just as quickly adjust my thinking.

I can’t stress enough that I never for a second thought this Refocusing would have this kind of pronounced, instant positive effect on me. And while I realize I still have a long way to go before I’m where I want to ultimately be physically (specifically, I have another 64 pounds to go), I have no doubt that I’ll get there, and much sooner than I would have hoped.

How are you doing?

What is the best camera for learning photography?

Since I’ve been asked, I thought I’d write about what I think is the best camera for learning photography.

The short answer? The camera you already own.

Whatever camera you have, that’s the one you should learn on. Whether you have an expensive DSLR, or just the one built into the hundred dollar smart phone in your pocket–whatever camera you’ve got, use it.

Megapixels don’t matter.

Ghosts of Summer Screen Shot
If you click on the thumbnail, you’ll see that this photo is 477 x 593 pixels, for a total of 282,861. That’s less than a third of a megapixel.

Despite what you’ve heard, megapixels aren’t that important. Thanks to Instagram, the most common number of megapixels used in photography today is less than one.

Seriously. The image on this post? It’s from my Instagram account, and it’s a little less than a third of a megapixel in size.

So, that six-megapixel camera in your cheap, prepaid phone is perfectly fine to learn on. And you’ll be able to share your photos on Instagram without them looking out of place or amateurish due to their “low” resolution.

Now, will you be able to create beautiful, 8×10 prints from your photos? Or blow up your image to see every last detail? No, but even then, the resolution of your photos won’t really matter because…

Your mistakes are what matters.

This is probably the biggest reason why I think the best camera for learning photography is the one you already have. When you first start out, you will make a ton of mistakes. Your subject will be out of focus, the light will be all wrong, you’ll have motion blur you didn’t intend–the list goes on.

And that’s okay.

You should be making mistakes, because that’s how you learn. But these mistakes will be way more detrimental to your photographs than resolution or the quality of your lens. No amount of expensive gear will fix a poor composition, blown highlight, or out-of-focus subject. You need to develop your fundamental skills as a photographer, and then better gear will start to make a difference.

And since you can only really develop those skills by taking lots and lots of photographs, that brings us to…

Convenience also matters.

I own a pretty nice DSLR camera, but I take nearly all of my photos these days with my phone. Why? Because it’s always with me, riding along in my pocket, ready to work at a moment’s notice. If all I had was a DSLR, I’d only take a fraction of the photos I do.

Convenience to carry and ease of use are huge factors to consider, especially if you’re just starting out in photography. A big, bulky DSLR might look cool, but how often are you really going to bag it up and carry it with you?

If a DSLR is what you’ve got, use it. Just don’t discount the six-megapixel wonder in your pocket.

Don’t learn on a film camera.

In most cases, I think the camera you already have is best camera for learning photography, but that advice goes right out the window if all you have is a film camera. Don’t try to learn on film, go buy a digital.

Look, film is not dead. There are a lot of really great photographers who still shoot film exclusively, and it’s worth exploring yourself at some point. But learning the fundamentals on a film camera? That’s just crazy talk.

The best and fastest way to learn photography is to take lots and lots of photos. We’re talking hundreds, if not thousands of photos, taken with various camera settings under various conditions. And when you consider a roll of film will cost about five bucks to purchase, another five bucks to develop, and you only get about twenty-four to thirty-six shots per roll…it can get expensive.

Then there’s the lag to consider. Take a photo with a digital camera? You can look at it immediately to see if your settings worked. Take a photo with a film camera? It could be days before you know how the photo came out. And are you even going to remember what settings you used?

Yeah, just buy a digital camera.

When should you upgrade?

At some point, you’ll outgrow the camera you’ve got. When that happens, you’ll know it. More importantly, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the sort of camera and lenses to buy, because you’ll have learned at least a little bit about what it is you like to shoot.

Unless you’re like me.

Just remember, while the quality of your gear can become more important once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, the best camera for learning photography is the one you have and will actually use to achieve that mastery.

Five things I’m doing to myself

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I’ve recently been paring down the number of non-essentials in my life, as well as putting together a list of goals to work on so that I’ll be happier and healthier this winter.

And I thought now would be a good time to write this all up. But first, let me talk about “goals.”

Why most people’s goals suck.

I’m not a fan of most of what we’re taught about choosing and stating goals. For example…

  • Lose 10 pounds.
  • Learn Spanish.
  • Sell more copies of my book/knit caps/bits of jewelry.

These are the sorts of goals most people choose and commit to. And, in my opinion, they’re awful. They’re awful for a lot of reasons, but mostly because they commit you to a result but don’t describe actions you can take to get there.

By way of an explanation, compare the list above with this one…

  • I will walk 20 minutes a day.
  • I will take a Spanish class.
  • I will post about my book/knit caps/jewelry once a day on my various social media accounts.

These are the sorts of goals I like. You can see that each is designed to get the same result as its cousin above, but instead of simply committing you to getting that result, they commit you to doing something.

I have three priorities.

In light of the above, I decided to take two passes through all the assorted crap in my life. The first pass was to figure out what my top three priorities really are. The second pass was to choose goals based on those priorities.

So let’s look at my priorities first. In order, they are…

  1. Health
  2. Family
  3. Photography

Putting health at number one should be obvious. If you aren’t healthy (and I include mental health, here) then you’re not going to have much success at anything else. Your body and mind are the foundation upon which everything else in your life needs to be built.

Family comes next. My various issues often make socializing with anyone harder than it is for the average person, but whatever “social energy” I do have needs to go to my family first.

Lastly, photography has become increasingly important to me this year, and it’s something I think I have enough talent and passion for that I owe it to myself to see if I can turn it into more than just a hobby.

Now, just because something isn’t on this list doesn’t mean it gets no love. Rather, these are the things which get loved first. We all have limited time and energy to spend on things. So, think of that time and energy like water, and the things you spend it on like buckets.

Every day, you get a limited though varying amount of water, and you need to fill all of your buckets with it. Well, my health, family, and photography are the first three buckets I fill. If I’ve got water left over that day, great! I’ll use it for something else. If I don’t, well, at least I got the most important stuff taken care of.

I have five goals.

Next, I picked goals. Since “health” is my highest priority, and it encompasses both physical and mental health, I’m giving it the most attention. Specifically, it gets three goals all to itself. My family and photography each get one.

Here’s my list…

  1. I will spend one hour a day exercising and stretching.
  2. I will use a meal planner to eat healthier.
  3. I will spend one hour a day on meditation and related practices.
  4. I will spend one hour a day with my family members.
  5. I will spend one hour a day on photography.

Most of these are no-brainers, and all of them describe either definite actions or set aside a definite amount of time. That said, two are a bit vague, and I should explain them.

First, my “eat healthier” goal doesn’t set a calorie count or describe the nutrition I want in detail. I’m not terribly happy with that, but I’m letting it slide for now, because I’m going to use a meal planner app to track all of that as I go. If the vagueness bites me, I’ll revisit it.

Then there’s “meditation and related practices.” I’m intentionally leaving it vague (ish) here on the blog (for reasons I’ve covered briefly before), but I’m actually going by a much more solid metric privately. For now, though, I’ve stated as much of that goal as I’m comfortable with. Besides, it’s a fairly decent description even in this slightly vague form.

Check-ins are coming.

I’ve decided that I’m going to do a weekly check-in, both as a way to keep myself motivated, and to inflate my post count here. Every Monday, I’ll run down the list, write about how I did, and how I feel about that.

Also! If all of this somehow ends up motivating you to do something similar, let me know in the comments.

Wednesday Wupdate

It’s Wednesday again, so let’s continue the tradition of me hurling a bunch of gibberish at you about how my week’s been going. Think of these Wednesday updates like the “merchandising” restaurants do, where instead of throwing out their old, gamy food and taking a loss, they turn it into the “Chef’s Surprise” special.

Only instead of suspicious seafood, it’s my life.

That Instagram thing is going well.

“Broken and Beautiful.” I took this photo last week while walking through a local park.

I’ve somehow made it to three thousand followers on Instagram. That’s…really awesome. People seem to like my stuff, I’m often one of the “Top Posts” for my town and many of the hashtags I toss my stuff in–it’s cool. And to be honest, I kinda needed something like this to happen.

I hear a lot of artists rattle off the line “create art for yourself, don’t worry about what other people think,” but I’ve yet to personally meet any artist who isn’t secretly a needy little victim of impostor syndrome who desperately craves the approval of others. Myself included. I don’t need much, but I do need a little love from people who aren’t related to me before I can mentally say: “Okay, I am actually kinda good at this.”

Alex is a teenager today.

I foreshadowed this on Monday, but my daughter turns thirteen today.

It’s kind of freaking me out.

Changing priorities.

Despite the sleep and family health issues last month, things have generally been going well. There is the looming threat of winter and how that’s going to affect my mental health (I have a post about this sitting in my Drafts folder that I’m hoping to get out soon), but overall? I think I’m in a better place today than I’ve been in quite some time.

Which means that I’m starting to re-evaluate some of my priorities. Projects I’ve had kicking around, things I’ve been “meaning to do,” habits I’ve wanted to change–now that I no longer need to just live day to day, I’m taking some time to organize and plan.

If this smells a little like vague-posting, it’s because it is. Even I’m not sure what “organize and plan” means here, or which “priorities” I’m really talking about. I just know that I’m staring down the barrel of some hard choices as to what I’m going to focus on, versus what I’m going to kick to the curb once and for all.

Once I figure out which is which, I’ll let you know.

Photography pet peeves

Okay, right up front, let me say this: I’m not an expert photographer, but I’m not half-bad either. I have a decent grasp of the fundamentals, and can generally get the photos I go for.

More relevant to this post: I know how to spot many of the most common photography mistakes–the sort of problems which are so common and easy to avoid or fix that it drives me right up the wall when I see them. So here are my three biggest photography pet peeves and what to do when you see them in your own photos.

And before you ask: No, I’m not immune to these errors. Every single example of “what not to do” below is taken from my own collection.

For I, too, am just an ordinary sinner.

Slanted horizons.

This has to be the most common problem I’ve seen, and it’s crazy easy to fix.

Left = Bad; Right = Good

When you’re taking a photograph of a landscape or similarly-wide view, you want your horizon to be straight. So before you take the shot, make sure your camera is level. If you’re using a DSLR camera, look for a built-in leveling indicator, or you could use a tripod with a bubble level.

Can’t get level when you take the shot? No problem. Just eyeball it and fix it later. There are a ton of free or dirt cheap photo editing apps out there, both mobile and desktop, which you can use to straighten your photos after the fact. This is a really quick fix which will improve the quality of your landscape photos tremendously.

The shot that almost was.

You sneak up on a bumble bee, get in close, and snap off the shot. Boom!

Yes, it sucks that you didn’t get the shot you wanted. Deal with it.

Alright, so you didn’t get the photo you wanted. The bee’s cut off, out of focus, and everything is terrible. So why post it?

My guess? Most people post photos like this because they feel like they have to get something for their efforts. They went through the time and trouble to set up the shot, and feel like it’s somehow wrong to just walk away with nothing to show for it.

I get that. But learning how to walk away from a bad photo is just as important as learning how to take a good one, so maybe don’t share this one to Instagram.

Blown highlights.

This is the trickiest of my photography pet peeves to explain, and it can be a lot trickier to avoid. You take a shot near water or some other reflective surface under bright light, and wind up with a big blotch of pure white in your photo.

At left, the photo as taken. At right, I’ve colored the “blown” section in red so you can see it.

That’s called a “blown highlight,” and what this means is that the spot was so brightly lit that the camera just said “to hell with it all, that’s white.” There’s no way to fix it. No way to bring back the detail that was there. It’s just gone.

Blown highlights are most common for outdoor photographers who have to rely on sunlight for their shots, and it’s why a lot of us tend to avoid shooting from about ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. During those hours, the sun’s hitting at very near its full power and everything is all harsh light and dark shadows–a situation which cameras have a really hard time dealing with.

Some cameras have a setting called “Exposure Compensation,” which you can use to prevent blown highlights when you take the shot, but after the fact? There’s just no way to fix it.

Creative choice trumps all.

In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, you want to avoid these mistakes, but sometimes, sometimes, they’re not mistakes at all. Like almost anything in art, you can invoke one of these “problems” as a creative choice, and that’s totally fine.

For instance, I’m fine with the blown highlights in this photograph…

Blown highlights as a deliberate, creative choice. (Gray border added to illustrate.)

Is this a particularly good photograph? Eh…not really, but that’s not important. What is important is that I intended to have the top third and those two windows blown out to pure white. I made a creative choice to break with my “no blown highlights” rule for this shot, and I got the photograph I intended to take.

Creative choices like this trump all the rules. So, if you want that horizon at a forty-five degree angle, or you want everything blurred out or chopped off, go for it.

But only if you mean it.