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  • Robert Stephens

Reboot


"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." ~ Satchel Paige

It's always been about the "long game" in regards to my photography. One little step here, another there; slowly, but surely. My poor scatterbrain can't handle all-at-once success. There's a friend who is based in Texas who once mentioned that it took him seven years to break even and begin making profits in his photography.

I'm in my fifth year as a sole proprietor, and I came as close as ever in 2016 to breaking even since I started. It was only my mileage expense that kept "break even" from happening. I drove a whopping 48,000 miles last year; and my poor old Honda Civic is still hanging on a wing and a prayer. After getting the starter replaced, now the AC fan runs continuously, whether I have the switch on or off; and this is just one of a litany of electrical issues it has.

Yet I've had an awful lot of good things happen so far in 2017. I've been published six times, sold my fair share of prints and image licenses, and opened up a second mini-gallery of my work in Linville Falls, NC.

I've also had some nice images come through the pipeline this past spring, like a sunrise at Pretty Place Chapel in April:

(click on image above to order prints)

A dynamic sky on the Mountains To Sea Trail near home:

(click on image above to order prints)

A lovely cascade on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail near Gatlinburg:

(click on image above to order prints)

And a dynamic sunset in the Roan Highlands, as I shot in the rain as the sun burst through at the last moment, illuminating the wet granite:

(click on image above to order prints)

And of course there's the matter of the Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition in March, where I surprisingly came home with two awards and a trunk full of new camping gear (even though I'm admittedly a camping novice).

I think it was Phil Collins (of all people) who once said, "I'm only as good as the next thing I do, not the last thing I've done."

So despite all that's happened so far in 2017 - all the nice images, all the opportunities - I can't stand still. I'm one in a veritable sea of photographers out there; so resting on my laurels would be fatal.

For it's not about what's come before.

It's about what's next, in the time God gives me to do it. It's about growth.

And after a spring in which I'd been successful, I still felt I was beginning to reiterate myself again. I felt it was time for a reboot.

And ironically enough, it was that veritable sea of photographers that broke the ol' straw.

I returned to Roan Mountain the Sunday after the above image was shot, with thoughts of shooting a sunset, camping out overnight in "The Saddle" on Grassy Ridge, then awakening for a nice sunrise before returning home.

I took all the necessary items I would need - my tent, my sleeping bag, pad, and pillow; plus all the "little things" one needs - and schlepped them up the three or so miles to Grassy Ridge, only to find that the people I thought would be there weren't.

I didn't want to be a lone guy camping among a group of strangers; so I checked out the rhododendron bloom atop Grassy Ridge, then schlepped all that gear (roughly the equivalent of carrying a Volkswagen on my back) right back down the mountain, then back up to Jane's Bald where I encountered a throng of photographers, all jockeying for position, a few bickering about another photographer being in "their space."

I talked shop with a few of them, and most there were nice enough; but I felt as though I was one in a herd, and I don't like being in any conga line, taking essentially the same shot as everyone else. I shot one or two frames while everyone waited for the sunset, including the one below, and then left. I ended up watching the sunset - which ended up being spectacular - as I drove down the mountain while in my car.

(click on image above to order prints)

As I drove home that evening, I realized I had fallen into a rut, despite some of the good results I had gotten recently. I realized I was chasing the same shots as everyone else, in the same places as everyone else.

I had fallen away from the whole "Solitary Traveler" concept that had served me so well over the years - essentially, myself picking out a spot on the map; getting in my car and going there, peeking around every corner to see what's new and what's beautiful to my eyes, and capturing it, not worrying about "keeping up," just simply following the Spirit and where God leads.

I needed to get back to that concept. I needed things to be fresh again. I'd seen hints of that when I made my trip to Pretty Place back in April, where I had driven back roads in South Carolina after my sunrise shot, ending up in Highlands, where I captured the waterfalls there, accentuated by early spring blooms. That trip, and the winter-and-spring-in-one-day jaunt to Saluda and Charleston stand out as my favorite journeys so far this year. But soon came the same ol' same ol', at the same ol' places. I had become too involved in the routine of photography rather than the joy of it.

So in order to get back to where I once belonged, I decided to step waaaaay outside my comfort zone and try something that might give me a creative muse and a nice kick start.

I've known my friend Shardae for three years now. She is an individual in the truest sense, following her own drumbeat and her own muse, with no regard for what's trendy or in style - she has a style all her own. She is lean and lovely, with blue eyes and blue (yes, blue!) hair. Trust me, it really suits her.

Shardae is also looking to get back into modeling. She spent several years in Barbizon modeling school and had some modeling offers, some of which were a little more demanding than she was willing to commit to. One absurd offer was for her to "get taller" by surgically lengthening her legs. Needless to say she turned it down.

We got to chatting one night after work, and we both agreed that a creative portrait shoot would be beneficial for both of us. For her, it would give her a few fresh images to submit in hopes of getting modeling work; and for me, it would serve as something that would not only expand my horizons, but challenge my technical and creative abilities as a photographer.

We set a day aside for an outdoor shoot here in the Smokies, one that made me rather dubious as to whether I could live up to the task, but one I needed to try.

We drove out on a Thursday morning. My hope was that the overcast skies forecast would hold out, as I would have better and more even lighting. Since I'm not a portrait photographer, I have no flash or speedlight; so a 500 lumens spotlight I purchased (with tissue paper or a white plastic bag attached to diffuse the harsh light) would be my source of light if I needed it in low light.

The forecast overcast skies weren't so overcast, so I had to make do as best I could. I sought out shaded areas inside old barns and buildings, letting the sunlight filter in.

Shardae likes to create characters when she's modeling. And while our tastes are distinctly different, we found a happy medium in terms of the characters she made. She used a short, black bob wig initially; and from my very first shots I realized I was shooting a real model, not someone I was going to have to whip into shape:

I also used the window light from an old house to highlight Shardae's profile:

She later changed into a blonde wig and a pseudo-fairy outfit, where we took a more whimsical, fantasy-like approach. I had an inflatable camping lantern with me, so I had her hold it for an image. The first shot was of her looking down at the lantern, which I ended up not using. On the second shot, she decided on her own to look up at the camera in a rather sinister way, but I liked the contrast between the dark (coming from her) and the bright light she was holding. To me, there was some symbolism here - though it was just a character she played in this image, I saw it as someone in darkness, embracing the Light:

I added more light to the lantern in post-processing for effect.

We then slipped back into a less dramatic and more whimsical, dreamlike approach:

It was a fun experience for us. I missed a lot of shots, and Shardae spotted a few posing errors on her part (mainly, keeping her shoulders back and not rounded), but future collaborations promise to be better, even more fun, and hopefully rewarding. It was a nice departure for me and a creative challenge I needed.

We revisited the fairy-and-lantern theme a few weeks later in the rhododendron tunnels at Craggy Gardens. I knew it would be a wonderful canvas for merging my love of landscapes with Shardae's creative characters.

But I also had some definite concepts in mind, creative ideas that I had never really tried before - all centered around Photoshop, all attempts at taking the embryonic fantasy scenes we had tried in our first shoot and taking them to another level. I would essentially be creating graphic art around the images I took of Shardae.

The skies were overcast at Craggy Gardens on the day of the shoot - ideal for the images I had in mind. But the hordes of pre-Independence Day tourists that swarmed the trail was not ideal. We had to be patient. Once there was a break in the crowds, we managed to make things work, even though my Nikon D3s suddenly decided that day to NOT work - at least with my old Nikkor "D" lenses. Somehow my camera no longer could "read" my lenses, as the CPU contacts had become worn or misaligned. We bee-lined it back to Ball Photo in Asheville, where miraculously a 50mm Nikkor "G" lens they had would work on the D3s. So they kindly let me borrow it, the shoot was back on, and we duly drove back up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Craggy.

One of the concepts I had in mind was Shardae walking down the rhododendron tunnel with the lantern, with a trail of light behind her - keeping with the theme of "light in the midst of darkness" I had pursued. The original shot looked pretty dull and ordinary (well, except for the model):

I spent hours watching tutorials on YouTube on how to create certain effects in Photoshop, far beyond the modest abilities I had going in. There was an awful lot of trial (and many errors!) but the end result captured my concept nicely:

Other images were simple edits where I only needed to add light to the lantern:

Others took a fair bit more work; but I liked the challenge of bringing in a model, plus creating graphic art around her, into my traditional landscapes. A simple shot of her as we walked up the trail, as I created strong light into the distance to add interest to the scene:

I had never tried to create lightning on Photoshop before; but the following image was begging for it. My first attempts were, shall I say, comical. Like I told Shardae as I was sending her my works in progress, it was like I was in kindergarten again, scribbling with crayons.

But finally, I got what I was after, superimposing real lightning from another image to get the effect and impact I envisioned:

Keep in mind it was neither dark nor stormy here. Shardae was relatively untouched in this image, save for the glow I created around her figure. Again, it was a case of creating graphic art around her. It took a hefty dose of photographic alchemy to get this result, and I'm sure future images will look even better.

It should also be noted that Shardae contributed some great ideas of her own as we walked the trail. She saw some things along the way that I hadn't noticed; and I used those ideas to great effect, such as the one above the lightning image, as she kneeled with the light in her hand.

I also bounced ideas off her after the shoot as I processed the images, and I appreciated her input. I don't think we did too bad this time. It's a fun, rewarding collaboration that shows a lot of promise. Like my photography mentor and friend Heather told me as I showed her my images, "You both are on the right track."

Although it's still a work in progress and the learning curve is steep, I cannot help but think these creative shoots and all of the things I am learning, both in portraiture and in post-processing - will have a highly beneficial impact on my future landscape images. Not that I will suddenly be delving into graphic art in future works, though I might if the image calls for it. But I'm finally grasping the advice Andrew Caldwell gave to me at the AMPC as he was poring over my images - that photography is indeed an art; and I truly needed to, in his own words, "do more" to bring out the artistic value in the images I take.

And I can only think that this will be helpful to Shardae as she tries to kick start her modeling again. She has a very unique look and style, and I really hope she finds the success she deserves.

Meanwhile, I could sense the beginnings of that newly acquired "artistic value" in recent work, like a morning I had spent in the nearby Cashiers/Sapphire area. After a bust of a sunrise, I ventured east towards Panthertown Valley. But first I pulled into Lonesome Valley in Cashiers, where I set up and took a couple of uninteresting frames.

But as I left, I instantly saw a composition that would work well. There were three trees in the foreground, framing the foggy valley and hills behind it. I took this from my car just as I as about to drive away. The color version of this seemed to be lacking; but once I converted it to a sort of sepia-tone, it came alive:

(click on image to order prints)

In the meantime I had sent the malfunctioning Nikon D3s off for repair. But I had another camera waiting for me that same day, a virtually brand new Nikon D3x. Both cameras are identical in every way, except one thing - the D3x has a 24 megapixel sensor to my D3s' 12 megapixel sensor. That means much larger files, much larger prints, and vastly more detail in my images (though the D3s is clearly superior in low light).

It also meant that the integrity of my lenses would be tested like never before. And one or two lenses may not survive, as the high resolution D3x sensor reveals the flaws my lower resolution D3s does not.

But one lens I recently purchased passed the test and then some - the tiny but sharp Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 prime. Paired with the D3x, it delivered nicely on an impromptu morning sunrise scene on the Balsam Mountain Spur Road close to home. Again, this was taken from inside my car, as I noticed this composition as I was driving off:

(click on image above to order prints)

So - a new camera, a new creative outlet, new places (I'd never shot morning scenes at either of the two above images) and a fresher outlook for the remainder of the summer as I gear up for the new places I want to encounter for autumn.

Sometimes you have to hit that reset button and start over. Sometimes the going is a tad rough as you try to refresh and shake things up a bit.

But no one gets anywhere by standing still; and this reboot will hopefully continue to keep things fresh and keep me growing.

And growth is the name of the game for me.....

#friends #travel #Nikon #blueridgemountains #modeling #creative #graphicart #photography #fineart #blogging #NorthCarolina #landscapes #outdoors

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