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Living with Photography: Retracing Your Steps

By Norman Chan

While in New York, I revisited my favorite museum from last year, with new camera gear, more photography know-how, and a fresh perspective. Here's how much difference a year of shooting experience can make.

Apologies for no new column last week. I was traveling for World Maker Faire, and got caught up with half a dozen other things to take care of for the trip and on the site. Believe me, I feel bad for leaving you guys hanging. But the trip was very productive and great, not just because it was in New York, but because it was an opportunity to see the city with a new eye--that of my DSLR. It's been almost exactly a year since we were there last for Maker Faire, when I brought the Sony NEX-C3 camera and went shutter crazy. I took so many photos of the city streets, of the awesome food, and of the museums I had time to visit. And I was really pleased with those photos, too. But going into this trip, I wanted to take another stab at them. After all, not only has my gear significantly changed since getting the Canon 6D, but I've had an extra year of experience under my belt since the last visit. That's experience with camera settings, composition, lighting, and also post-processing. Shooting now in RAW alone makes a big difference.

So that was the experiment I had in mind during my downtime in New York. I would visit my favorite museum there, the Museum of the Moving Image, and spend some time taking photos of the same objects and exhibits that were still on display. I'm a strong believer in Kaizen--the Japanese ideal of continual improvement--which requires some degree of self-reflection in order to evaluate your processes and make incremental improvements.

Important to this endeavor was not reviewing the photos I had taken last year ahead of time. I already had some sense in my memory of what objects caught my eye last year, but didn't want last year's photos to influence how I would approach those same subjects this year. The goal was to see if I had made any strides in technique, not only to see what was different, but what from year-to-year remained the same. Here are some examples of what I ended up with.

The Museum of Moving Image, which I highly recommend checking out, is a comprehensive celebration of the history and process of filmmaking, with galleries dedicated to every facet of film and broadcast production. There are halls lined with old movie projectors, film editing machines, and even television sets from every era. An entire floor is dedicated to production equipment, and another to movie props, costuming, and even promotional materials. But my favorite exhibit is the one on film cameras. The MoMi has an incredible collection of historic film and television cameras, like the giant Mitchell cameras used for VistaVision productions and the 35mm Arriflex camera favored by Kubrick. You can get right up close to these artifacts, and, fortunately for photographers, they're impeccably lit against a nice dark blue wall. Pretty ideal for taking photos--which contributed to making last year's visit so memorable.

I ended up only having about an hour this year at the museum, so felt a little rushed for grabbing as many photos as I would have liked and also enjoying the new exhibits. It was good practice in shooting under time pressure, and my memory of last year's trip made it easier to head directly to the items I wanted to photograph. In the end, about two dozen of this year's photos matched up to last year's shoot, and I've chosen four sets that give a good example of how I've changed (and haven't) year over year.

In the following series of photos, the first of each set was taken last year with the Sony NEX-C3, followed by the one taken with the Canon 6D. Click the images to see them at full resolution and without compression artifacts.

This first comparison is pretty exemplary of the biggest difference between last year and this year. In shooting these gorgeous film cameras in 2012, I was primarily concerned with fitting the entire subject in the frame, and took many photos at what I thought were dramatic angles. For this specific film camera, I remember wanting to emphasize the exposed red film from the camera body, but don't think I did a particularly good job of it in retrospect. What instead directed the composition was the low angle perspective, with the lines along the body of the camera and the square lens hood meeting at an angle at the top of the frame. That draws the eye away from what I intended the subject to be--the striking red film. Also of note is how I wanted to keep the edge of the flipped out camera body door perfectly parallel with the bottom of the frame. That level door inadvertently anchors the entire image and guided the composition.

In contrast, the photo I took this year of the same camera clearly highlights the red film. It's not only the brightest spot in the frame, but the profile perspective draws my eyes from the film reel "spokes" to the open chassis. I noticed the striking silhouette of the camera more this year--it's exactly the kind of prototypical film camera that we imagine when thinking about old hollywood filmmaking.

This set of photos surprised me a little bit. Compositionally, what I took this year ended up being almost exactly the same as what I took this year, in that I wanted to frame the subject on the right and include the NBC TV-News box in the background. I think the lighting conditions were the same, meaning it was a pretty dark setup. What's changed, of course, is the raw (and RAW) ability of the Canon 6D, which packs just so much detail into the image file. A RAW file let me color correct for the white display stand, bring out tons of shadow detail, and spotlight the camera on the right using radial filters in Lightroom. There's no question that this year's photo turned out technically better than the older one, and even my composition is more balanced in terms of how much "breathing" space I left on each side of the subject.

But there is one thing I did better last year, which was shoot at an aperture that made the text of the box in the background actually legible. If my purpose was to associate the yellow NBC logo on the camera with the NBC signage on the carrying case--to communicate that these are related objects--then I did a better job of that in the first photo. This is a trap that's easy to fall in--shooting in wide apertures (f/2.5 in the latter case) at the expense of getting the right details across. And I don't think I was cognizant of this last year, either. It was just that the kit lens on the NEX-C3 only opened up to f/3.5.

This comparison is a lot like the last, in that compositionally, the two photos I took are very similar. But the thing I was much more aware of this year is the effect of lighting. In last year's photo, I recall choosing to place the model ship (the Discovery spaceship from 2010) in front of the model of the Moon because I thought its silhouette would look good against that surface. A common idea, as it turns out. But because of the way the exhibit lights are positioned, framing from that direction causes two ugly overblown areas on the model ship's rear section and the model Moon. This year, without consciously thinking of it, I went for a more subtle composition, framing part of the Moon out in the corner and making the ship the focus. It ended up working well--the yellow light bouncing at an angle off the spaceship's rear section looks like it could be sunlight. It's more subtle and dramatic lighting.

This last comparison shows perhaps the biggest impact from a year's worth of practice. If you recall from a column at the beginning of this year, I was (and still am) obsessed with clean image quality, almost at the expense of other factors. For still subjects, I like shooting at the lowest ISO possible, even if that means having to hold the camera still for long 1/6-second shutters and risking the occasionally blurry photo. It's taken a while for me to accept shooting at high ISOs, and to realize that with a full-frame camera and RAW editing, even ISO 1600 photos are very usable. Given the time constraints of this year's trip to the museum, I made a conscious decision to trade low ISO for faster shutter speeds, shooting at ISO 640 and 800 for most of my photos. The world didn't end, and the photos turned out fine. What the faster shutter offered was the luxury to worry less about holding a still camera and getting a sharp shot, so more time could be spent on experimenting with different compositions.

I think this exercise was a huge success, and it's something I recommend other learners try to do, too. It's not just about going back to a random place that you've been to before and shooting the same photos--what made this comparison work is that I chose a location and subjects that really resonated with me the first time. And if given the opportunity, I'd love to go back again in another year and go through the whole process again. Always be improving.