Until about a year ago, I used an Olympus camera that belonged to Janet for the pictures I post here. The camera was a gift she had received from her employer on the anniversary of her hiring, and she was a very good sport about the fact that I had commandeered it for my pencil stuff. There have been only a few times when she has pointedly asked, "Can I use my camera?"
When I finally decided to invest in a new camera, it was partly to return Janet’s camera to her – in great condition, excepting ordinary wear and tear from about four years service – and partly because I was no longer happy with the results I was getting and I wanted to do better. When I came home with a new camera, new lenses and some fancy new lighting, I could hardly wait to snap off a few shots, and this was the first pencil I reached for:
This, however, is not the picture I took that day. The first few pictures I took with my fancy new equipment were not nearly as good as what I had been shooting with Janet’s camera. In fact, they weren’t even as good as what I could get if I pulled out my cell phone, aimlessly pointed it in the general direction, closed my eyes and pushed the button. All I was getting was pictures that were too dark and too blurry.
It was terrible.
Maybe, I thought, I still don’t have all the right equipment. I’m adamantly opposed to using Photoshop on my pictures – yes, you can make terrible photographs look great with the program, but you can and many people do alter the subject matter and create pictures that show something that isn’t there. To me, using Photoshop a little is like using cocaine a little . . . you either use it or you don’t.
I returned to the helpful folks where I purchased the camera and, after going through the foregoing vehement objection to Photoshop manipulation with them, I decided to try a different program called "Lightroom," which is used to alter exposures and sharpen focus – not to alter content. I spent a couple hundred bucks on this new doohickey, and after I played around with it for a couple of days using my pictures of this pencil as a test subject, the results were . . . terrible pictures that were brighter and looked like they had been sharpened by drawing on them with a pencil. I was disgusted.
My scientific process for deciding what article I am going to write about next is as follows: all of the pictures I’ve taken are dumped into one file folder. I thumb through them. I see one that I want to write about. I write about it. There’s usually no more direction to my agenda than an iPod shuffle.
But every time I opened up that folder, the first thing I would see is these shots. Every time, I’d think to myself how much I’d like to write about that one, then I think about how terrible those pictures were, and I’d get a little disgusted all over again and move on.
The other day, as I was putting some pencils away, I decided to take it down from the shelf and try reshooting it again:
I took another stab at capturing the intricate basketweave pattern carved into the bone barrel:
and I took another stab at capturing John Holland’s mark on the rear extension:
No, my shots aren’t perfect, but they are certainly good enough to convey the beauty of this pencil – presented without any help of Photoshop or Lightroom. Photography is frustrating stuff: sometimes things come together perfectly, and you’ll wonder why you can’t do that all the time. Other times, you’ll wonder why you bothered to take the cap of the lens. But what I learned in the process of shooting this particular pencil, and what I’m hoping to convey to anyone out there who thinks they can’t shoot decent pictures, is that it turned out that what I needed wasn’t more and better equipment – all I needed was a years’ worth of practice.
Now excuse me while I go delete those crappy pictures.