I'm back from Berlin and I learned a lot of stuff. I don't even know where to start...

All images from the Samsung Galaxy NX camera.
0. Whatever plans you make an airline will probably mess them up...

My wife always thinks that things will work out just fine and she sometimes teases me for being so pessimistic about things like scheduling, arriving early so I always arrive on time and also for having multiple back up plans. Need to be somewhere far away in a short amount of time? I think you need to worry about everything from possible weather intervention to human incompetence. And you can never pad the schedule with enough time to take care of all the human incompetence you'll run across when you travel...

Case in point was my travel to Berlin. I got to the airport way, way early. Good thing as my original flight had been cancelled. I worked with United to get re-booked (on Labor Day...) on an American flight and I got the last available seat. What if I had come to the airport "on time"? Go early. Be ready to shift.

1. I hate the electronic (fake) keyboard on my iPad.

I finally tumbled over the line that separates spare from under-equipped when hubris pushed me to go on this trip to Berlin with only a naked iPad as an all around blogging and post processing tool. It might have worked if I had been smart enough to pack a small, Apple bluetooth keyboard. But I didn't and the blogging gods dropped by every night, after our late dinners, to mock me and use their powers to make letters become other letters. Letters I had no intention of using.... I vow never to travel without a full on keyboard again. I'm sure my blogs looked like Jackson Pollock's mother's quilts by the time they got sucked out on to the world wide web. Ouch. Lesson one: the keyboard is always mandatory!

2. Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt.

I was in Berlin as both a guest and part of a group. As such I felt a certain obligation to stay with the group (for the most part) and share in the activities.... And I learned again, as I rode on a little tour bus to a town two hours away, that I am fickle, irascible and hardwired to want to do all photography on my own schedule, in my own way and in as much solitude from other photographers as imaginable. 
Why is this such a hard lesson for me to permanently learn?  I was talking about this to a photographer I met in Berlin and he laughed and referred me to an article called, "Lonely Hunter, Better Hunt."  When I told him that I'd written that piece he laughed again. This time AT me. Note to self: Very little good creative work (or any other kinds or work) are done in groups. Be especially mindful not to go with groups where the majority of people enjoy landscapes and city skyline photography if you are resolutely a people photographer. It's like putting the javelinas in with the vicious leopards... Hunt alone and you get to eat everything you run down. Go with the group and everyone gnaws on the same carcass.

3. Street Shooting takes time for acclimation.

You can't just drop into a different city or different culture and start shooting good stuff. You need to feel the rhythm and the emotional spacing of a city's inhabitants. That means you've got to spend a day or two warming up your brains, your empathy glands and your skin thickness potential. I'm glad I got into Berlin a day early and left a day after the group. The warm-up time is conducive to good shots. You have to have an understanding of just where you fit into the whole milieu to know how to shoot someplace new.Ostensibly, in the perfect world you would stay long enough to know your way around physically and culturally but not so long as to loose your fascination with the new. A big city like Berlin? I think you need about three leisurely weeks to really get up to speed and be good at street shooting there. I could be wrong. Maybe you need a year.....

4. Start shooting....Now!

So you land somewhere and you're totally whacked out by time changes, lack of sleep, dehydration and frustration and you have some choices. You can surrender and try to go to bed. You can get drunk and feel even worse or you can brush it all off and take your camera and your favorite lens and head out the door of your hotel and go looking for something fun to shoot. I walked five minutes from my base and stumbled on to this light show. I may hate these images a month from now but they got me out exploring and sampling and of course looking for the classic lovers in the park in a picturesque embrace...

5. It's tough to learn a brand new camera and 
a brand new paradigm in two days of shooting 
with no manual....

But that's no excuse. If the sensor is good and the optics are good a competent photographer should be able to do good work. I was working with a camera that hasn't been launched in our market yet. I wish I could blame my short comings as a photographer on some foible or other of the camera but the reality is that the sensor and lenses are great and I immediately defaulted to what I knew: Set the exposure manually, set the ISO manually, set the color balance manually. Now the only parameters that should be challenging to someone who's been doing this for thirty years should be the camera's ability to focus and my ability to find an interesting composition and find the perfect moment to snap the shutter. 

A camera may have a thousand new features but if you want to hit the ground shooting you need only master the stuff above. That puts the onus right back onto the artist. My quick review of the pre-issue version of the Samsung Galaxy NX I was shooting with? I love the color and consistency of the image files. Great sensor. Great (really great) lenses. Everything else I'll figure out. If you have to blame the camera for something it may be that you didn't come with the human element fully engaged. Suck it up and shoot.

6. The Best Way To See A City Is To Walk It.

It was a revelation to me. But one I've had again and again. Like the movie, "Groundhog Day." You see best when you are fully engaged. Mentally and physically fully engaged. When we drove around in a mini tour bus and disgorged to look at some area or monument it all seemed so...disconnected. But if I walked to a destination not only would I find a dozen great things to photograph along the way but I felt organically connected to the destination once I got there. 

I covered a lot of ground on foot this past Friday. I basically walked from my hotel through the major central park (Tiergarten) and through most of the historical parts of the town and I felt so connected and inserted. I could stop, turn around, shoot and then continue in such a fluid and satisfying way. And since I like to watch people and document the flow of humanity I didn't really need to be in any special place physically. I just needed to be in part of the flow, humanly. And what better way to get into that mental state than to be actually, physically immersed? Added benefit? Nine hours of steady walking will keep you trim and fit...
7. We love to talk about all kinds of esoteric lenses but
when push comes to shove the range covered by
the normal kit lens is really, mostly all we need....

I know, I know. You shoot sports. You shoot NFL football games. You shoot soccer. You desperately need the long, fast glass. But the rest of us mostly make documentations of our lives in unhurried and thoughtful photographs of the world around us, and most of the time we're unconsciously happy to be in the range of 18-55mm (on an APS-C camera). I can count the times I wished I'd been able to use a 400 mm f2.8 lens on one finger. And that fisheye lens they invented to study cloud patterns? I never wanted one of those, ever. When I walked around Berlin I'd stick the 16mm lens on the front of my camera because I thought I should shoot it but it really never felt long enough for me to be able to make a good composition of the stuff I liked to see. 

At the other end of the spectrum I was smart enough to leave the 85mm 1.4 lens at home because I knew it would so long that for quick snaps in the street it would require me to know how a composition was going to come together seconds before it ever happened. I may be a good photographer but I'm no clairvoyant Henri Cartier-Bresson. In point of fact, nearly all the time I was happy to have the small but potent kit lens on my camera or, in low light, the 30mm f2 lens. They just feel right to me. They seem to match the way I see unless I'm trying to shoe horn my vision into someone else's style.
8. When I'm in the testing phase with a camera I take a lot of
"snapshots." You can understand that this is part of a process or you
can stick bottle rockets (fire crackers)  up your nostrils and light em...

I don't know about you but 99% of the images I end up shooting don't work as great art. Or even good art. But they are effective documents. You should be able to look at images that I post and see if a camera has the quality levels you need. I'd love to hit it out of the ball park every time my forefinger glances across the shutter button but, sadly, it was not meant to be. I am not that gifted. Most of the images in this blog were shot over the course of five short days in Berlin. Some of the time I spent there was at a trade show or in events. When you distill it down I had maybe ten or twelve hours of hands on time to really shoot with a new camera. I think I was able to nail focus and exposure for those images but sometimes you have to wait around for art or wait around even longer for inspiration... 

I'm sure you would do a better job (Mr. Anonymous Commenter) but I am just a flawed human and rarely am able to operate above the 90% mark. 

I hope the rest of my readers will be able to look through the work and discern what I was trying to do and why. I wanted to put a new camera through the paces and show what it was able to do. Is that art? Probably not.  Does it fulfill a purpose? Maybe.  Was it fun? You bet.

9. Juxtapositions are fun.

10. Photographing people in restaurants means you have to get the right seating...

I've noticed a self-serving pattern in my life. If I'm out to eat with a friend, acquaintance or even a family member I find myself always seating myself with my back to the prevailing window. It's not that I don't enjoy gazing out into the big world, it's more that I'm greedy to get the best light onto the faces of people I'm dining with. In Berlin on day we headed to a Chinese restaurant as a group. I found myself maneuvering myself into the seat that was at the perfect opposite angle to the light falling on the two Korean photographers I was with. These two guys really like photographing their food so they enjoyed the nice backlighting that their table position afforded them. I chose my position because, as Derek Zoolander would say, I'm a face guy.  I was thrilled to get angled ambient light across both of their faces and a nice was of ambient light interwoven with the restaurant's lights in the background areas. If you would work as a portrait photographer then choose your restaurant seat accordingly. You might miss the view of the outside world but you'll be rewarded with better light on your intended subjects....

11. Pack light. Because you'll be the one who has to carry all this crap...

I left a lot of stuff at home on this trip. I overstepped a bit when it came to writing tools. I left with just an iPad and while the software was fine I was sorely disappointed in my ability to get used to the virtual keyboard. I could have handled the weight and size of a blue tooth keyboard. Maybe even a 13 inch Mac Pro....

I also didn't bring multiple camera bodies, fast, fat and heavy lenses, tripods, flashes or other gizmos. And I'm thrilled because I believe it is human nature to adapt quickly to the tools instead of pining away for stuff we didn't bring along. My bag felt so light compared to my recent forays with full frame camera tools and their associated lenses. Don't discount this logic until you've needed to carry your camera bag for a couple of 12 hour days.... The difference between six pounds and thirteen pounds can be astounding. If you don't absolutely need it-----leave it at home.

12. Wanna get invited back? Shoot some stuff for your hosts.

This ersatz fashion show at one of the trade show halls made me laugh.
I kept thinking of Derek Zoolander, the male model in the movie, "Zoolander."
Being from Texas my first thought was, "do they make that outfit in camo?"

And here the designer explains his inspiration. I didn't listen carefully but think it had to 
do with oatmeal and an affinity for early TV episodes of Star Trek....

When on a date be sure to treat your friend to "the red carpet."
The Concert Hall steps.

We interrupted our elegant outdoor dinner to rush over and shoot some quick stuff at magic hour.
Just because we could....
13. The bottom line? Always think about what you want  to shoot.

I know myself pretty well and while I can appreciate all kinds of photography I know that I shoot like a writer, not like a painter or a traditional artist. I like images that tell stories more than I like images that show off a new way of seeing something. I like the story over the flourish and I like the present more than the wrapping. So I look for an image that can incapsulate a story. A short hand approach to the narrative using imagery instead of words.

It's easy to be side-tracked by what other people are doing---especially if they are getting lots of positive feedback. But you really have to be loyal to the visions of the things at your artistic core. I know I'll never be a landscape photographer but I've never met anyone whose story didn't interest me. I've never been to a city that didn't yield up straight forward visual documents of beauty just based on representing what was there.

I'll never be a photographer who coats my images in a style to make a visual point but I hope my successful images reflect my years of experience in life and my curiosity in knowing what makes people who are different from me tick.

I guess that's one of the lessons I re-learned in Berlin last week. More to come tomorrow.  

Also, I'm saving up my cash for my upcoming trip to Tokyo. My target date is November second. I'd start a Kickstarter campaign for myself if that didn't seem so narcissistic to me. Besides, I still have tons of frequent flyer miles to use up before they go stale. Thanks to Christian for helping me get ready.

Hope you are happy and well.


Claire said...

Glad you are back safe Kirk ! I bet it was pretty hard to make do with new gear in such little time, kuddos to you for that. I have yet to be kicked in the gut by any evidence of a possible Samsung photo mojo. The gear is there, the glass is there... I dunno what's missing, if it's a photo heritage (at least Sony has Minolta's) or something else, but something lacks. That being said,it's just a personal opinion, everybody has one ;)
There is one picture I truly love though, the first one color abstract of the "light show". Wow, beautiful.

Craig Yuill said...

You are absolutely correct in saying that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around in it. I did exactly that several years ago in Chicago, in and around "The Loop" to be precise. A far better way to experience the city than via a tour bus. You are also absolutely correct in saying that the iPad on-screen keyboard sucks, although it is easier to use than the same type of keyboard on an iPhone.

I'm glad you are back safe and sound. I look forward to reading more about your journey in the coming days.

Joe Gilbert said...

Really fun read, welcome home.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Joe. And thanks for the great article on LED lights you wrote for me. I really enjoyed reading it and have passed it along to a few other folks. Much appreciated.

Ibarionex Perello said...

Great article, Kirk. After my vacation in New Orleans where I shot only with my iPhone, I've learned the same lesson of leaving the "big guns" at hope. Those long days just magnify weight. I think that there must be a formula: camera gear weight x photographer's age = exhaustion. Glad to see you made it back safely.

AdamR said...

You make a great point about most of us being able to get by with just the kit lens. While its not as "cool" as a fast 50mm or my 105mm Nikkor, a Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 is what's stuck to the front of my camera 85% of the time. It gets the job done with no fuss. Convenience doesn't need to be a dirty word all the time.


David I said...

Welcome back Kirk, I enjoyed this. I especially like the image of the couple eating on the red carpet and sharing a set of headphones.

jason gold said...

I like your shots.It's really hard (or me) to come to grips with a new place.
The added weight of doing well. Shooting better than someone else..
Ya did really fine. The colors look great, sharpness OK and subjects very good.
Leaving "everything" behind is a good and healthy shock.
My last trip to South Africa to see my kids and grand kids was done with a few point and shoot digitals.
Lotsa memory cards and back up batteries,AA.
My daughter's Nikon DSLR and lenses were there for my use,but i deferred.
Small is light. Light to carry all the time. Easy to protect from weather and assorted problems..
A good thing is to read about a place.. i.e Tokyo. It helps the shooting.
Again most interesting and worthwhile.As usual..

stefano60 said...

great to hear the trip was overall really positive; i am with you 100% on the 'need' to 'walk a city' in order to get a good feel for it, that is what i have been doing my whole life; funny thing, it works just as well at home, we get to discover so many things that have always been there but never noticed when we were driving by ...

well, you sure are in for a big surprise, if this will be your first trip to Tokyo! if Berlin was a revelation, Tokyo will be a shock to your senses. I will never forget my first trip there, i felt as if i had just landed on another planet - or on future earth.
it is so vast that you will need some advance planning, but regardless of where you go, you will capture a fascinating culture.
i have not been in about a year, you are making me miss it now!

Clay Olmstead said...

I've learned to leave my camera at home when I'm out with a group. When I have the camera with me, I want to close everything else off and shoot - and when I don't have it, I'm free to socialize.

Anonymous said...

those really aren't so bad