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For the new year, challenge and inspire your photography

Create: 01/02/2017 - 12:39
Mike Elek, © 2003

What are your plans for the new year? Not New Year’s, but the new year.

Do those plans include photography? You are reading this on PhotographyToday.net, so hopefully that’s something that you plan to do.

If you haven’t given it much thought, here’s something: Challenge yourself.

I always think that it’s good to shake up your photography now and then. Here are a few ideas.

WATCH A MOVIE

While there are some movies that are about photographers, sometimes the best movies are those that inspire you and force you to think differently.

I should be the last person who should recommend a film to anyone. In the mid-1980s, after everyone raved about “Room With a View,” I finally broke down and rented it.

I kept waiting for something interesting to happen, and all of a sudden the closing credits appeared. The movie was clearly lost on me.

Maybe my goal in 2017 will be to watch this movie again and see how I feel about it more than three decades later.

Here are three films that you might find interesting:

♦ American Experience – Ansel Adams (2002)

This is an older documentary and is available on VHS tape, as well as DVD. The DVD is better quality, of course, although the content is the same.

If you are a fan of Ansel Adams, you will enjoy this. If you don’t know much about Ansel Adams, you will find it interesting and inspiring. If you’re among the group who don’t care for him, you should still watch it, because this goes far to explain how he felt about America, photography and what drove him to photograph Yosemite and America’s “Old West.”

The musical score, photo selection and interviews with those who knew Adams, as well as photographs and short video segments of Adams are put together in a cohesive story.

Like all of PBS videos, this is a high-quality production and well worth your time.

♦ Local Color (2006)

While it’s not about photography, some of the dialog talks about how we view the world around us. It also talks about being pretentious vs. being honest. I found the dialog of the painter to make me think about the photos that I take and what I want and expect from them.

This is a movie that I came upon one day, and it was well worth the time that I spent watching it.

As in life, some times, the best lessons are those that we learn from experiences that have nothing to do with what normally would be considered our passion. 

♦ Eloquent Nude (2007)

Edward Weston was one of America’s greatest still photographers and certainly one of its more interesting personalities. In this documentary, Charis Wilson, one of Weston’s models, love interests and wife, discusses her relationship with the photographer. Their relationship spanned more than a decade before it ended  in 1945.

Weston's photography (and perhaps, his life) was provocative. He turned the ordinary into the extraordinary.

This film, which clocks in at about 57 minutes, is as much about Wilson as it is about Weston.

TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT

When something works for us, we will do it again. If you cooked a great meal, you want to cook it again.

That’s one of the great joys in life.

But after the fourth or fifth time, the joy of that meal is no longer there.

This is like shooting only black and white or only digital or only at f/1.4. After a while, it’s predictable, and being predictable can lead to being complacent.

SHOOT A ROLL OF FILM WITH A FIXED-FOCAL LENGTH

The best teacher can be restrictions. In today’s digital age and zoom lenses, you can be slowly led into complacency. Software and firmware can correct almost anything.

If you want a real challenge, try the limits of a single focal length and one roll of film.

Most film shooters grew up on a starter camera with a 50mm lens while shooting Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP-5.

I was among that group.

A good challenge for me is to select one camera, one lens (not a zoom) and one roll of film and head out for some photography for several hours.

If you haven’t shot film in a long time or have never shot film, I highly encourage you to try it.

An all-manual camera is best, and that includes having to check the exposure for each shot and how to interpret what the meter suggests.

Do you want a bigger challenge? Make your own pinhole camera or lens.

USE A DIGITAL CAMERA

If you are anti-digital to the point that everyone who knows you is aware of this, now is the time to test the digital waters.

Borrow a camera or buy a used one and use it for one month.

Don’t compare it to shooting film, because it isn’t film.

Shooting with a different medium can be a way to reinvigorate your photography.

WHAT ABOUT A BOOK OR A MAGAZINE?

In today’s digital world, it’s very easy to see an almost endless number of photos on the Internet. When does it become too much?

A book about photography might inspire you to take your photography in a different direction.

The number of photography books is seemingly endless. There are those on specific things: portraits, weddings, black and white or landscapes. There are books about or by photographers from the 1900s right up to today’s photographers.

If you really want to challenge yourself, find a book about a photographer who you do NOT admire. Learn everything about that photographer.

As you head into the new year, take time this year to inspire yourself and challenge yourself. Your photographs can only get better.

About the Author

Mike Elek is a longtime journalist and was one of the original editors for The Wall Street Journal Online. He also has worked as a reporter and editor in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Vineland, N.J.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; New York City; and Hong Kong. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran. He shoots with film and digital cameras.