SoFoBoMo 2010 Reflections
I just about didn’t make it this year. Not for lack of trying, but because of very serious work and travel commitments that I could not schedule around–basically, I had to get two papers finished that were accepted to a conference, attend the conference, and make two presentations. When I finally got back, there was only about three weeks left and I was just beginning to turn over some ideas in my head for the book. Every book concept that I thought of needed time and planning. With only a week left to go, I hatched a desperate plan: attend a local photo walk and shoot a load of photos and try to cobble a book together around the idea of a photo illustrated walk. I knew the area well, and had some basic ideas about the main attractions in each place. The area is very scenic, but I had serious doubts running through my mind. I wasn’t keen on the idea of trying to put together a “pretty pictures” kind of book, which is what I was feeling like it might shape up to be. Whatever it would be, I would use the previous year’s book templates to lay it out, in the interest of expedience. The postprocessing and layout work would have to be straightforward in order to get done by the deadline.
The weather on the Saturday photo walk day was just about as ideal as you could imagine, which is to say challenging for photography. Sunny 16 pictures everywhere, and harsh contrasts right from sun up. I could see that I would have to be right on top of my exposures, as the sensor in my Panasonic GH1 does not have a whole lot of latitude. I arrived at the starting location and after a few short conversations with fellow photogs, I began to shoot, feeling the photographic mental muscles warm up and slowly settle into a rhythm. I was on a mission, and it would be accomplished. I plotted a rough course along the known attractions in the area, trying not to double over my tracks too much. When one has spent a lot of time in an area it’s rather easy to take it for granted and fall into old ruts–my challenge was to try to see it all again with a fresh eye. Pretty soon the part of my brain devoted to processing and evaluating photographic compositions began to run almost on autopilot (I love that feeling), and I spent most of my conscious effort staying on top of the exposures, trying to get frames that could stand up to some postprocessing work to mitigate the strong contrasts. Having shot slide film for 20 years, I have some good practice under the belt in that area, and it helped me out here big time. My technique depends on the kind of camera I am using, but if the built in metering is trustworthy, then I rely very heavily on a combination of spot metering, the autoexposure lock button, live histogram and the exposure compensation controls. These all got a very good workout.
As luck would have it, I ran across an unexpected event: outrigger canoe races on Hilo bay. This boosted the take by quite a few frames and I began to relax a bit and feel that maybe this book wouldn’t end up too heavy on the landscapes. When I reached the far end of the walk and hit the farmer’s market with all its colorful stalls and shopping bustle, I finally felt that the photo take for the day had some real balance. I thought that I had some potential on my memory card, but had I been careful enough with the exposures? Would the files stand up?
Back at home I downloaded the card and then let the files sit for a couple of days, to let my mind clear a little from the experience. On Monday night I began to take stock. After one brutal editing pass, it looked like there was some potential there, but there would be more postprocessing work than I had hoped. Lots of the shots looked ok compositionally, but I had to do something about the contrast. For many of the frames I turned to my old friend the contrast mask, a technique brought into the digital world from the old analog days where a second neg would be made of the original, but inverted and blurred. Overlaying the negatives would result in a print that lightened the dark areas and darkened the light areas. Of course this is trivial to do digitally, but the technique is still effective and relevant.
After the main remedies were applied to the selects, I went through another, lighter editing pass, tossing the images that were redundant or less strong. I ended up with around 40 some images, give or take a few. I suppose I could have cut it down even further, but I decided to go ahead and lay it out with what I had after the second edit, just to see how it worked. I had consciously chosen to go with the same aspect ratio as the previous year, in order to reuse the templates, and with my super geeky method for automagically laying out the book, it all came together in about 3 nights of total work, most of it in image processing and writing the captions. It was 1am on Thursday morning, the book was due on Saturday, and I would leave the following day for a much-anticipated vacation.
In retrospect, I am surprised at how well the book seems to work. That type of rapid shooting is not really my style, which is definitely a bit slower and more considered. And the subject and type of book being a complete last minute, last ditch effort, it felt rushed. Perhaps I just felt good about getting it done. However, I have had way more compliments on it than my other two books, which I was far more enthused about. All of which makes me think that perhaps I just have strange tastes. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Will I do SoFoBoMo again? It’s too soon to answer that. I’m beginning to feel that I’m reaching diminishing returns on this particular exercise. I’ve made three books, and am happy with all of them. I feel like I know the basics of making a photo book now. I do want to make more books, that is certain, but I think they will be longer term projects, where I won’t feel rushed. It’s a neat exercise though, to crank out a book in a month, and maybe I’ll feel up for it again next year.