Go Take Pictures: What to do on a Photo Excursion

One of the simplest and most elusive truths about a creative lifestyle is that artists are the people who create art. Paul Simon summed up his decades of creative experience in his song “Hurricane Eye”:  “You want to be a writer, but you don’t know how or when?  Find a quiet place, use a humble pen.”

So if you want to be a photographer, go take pictures.  Get your gear together, leave the house, and go find someplace pretty.  Levi Curby, a Dayton-based photographer and videographer, calls this a photo excursion.  The Spare Room Project joined him earlier this year to experience his simple five-step process for a good photo excursion.

Photo Excursion Step 1: Bring Pantyhose

One of Levi’s goals from this trip was to try out a simple hack he read online: a pair of women’s hose can serve as a low-budget ND filter.  “A Neutral Density filter blocks out excess light, so you can shoot with the aperture wide open and get really good shallow focus looks in harsh sunlight,” he explained.  “For the record, ND filters are better than pantyhose filters, but a good ND filter is about $20, and a box of pantyhose is about $3.”

Curby doesn’t shy away from using filters in his photography.  “The hashtag ‘#nofilter’ is a snooty way of saying that I don’t need a filter to have a good photo,” he says.  “What people who do this don’t realize is that a camera doesn’t capture light the same way your eye does.  Actual filters, like an ND filter. help the camera replicate what your eye can see.

Seek to try new techniques every time you go out, and take the simplest excuses to spend your time on your art.

Photo Excursion Step 2: Meander

We were looking for a certain entrance to Caesar’s Creek, a state park managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.  Four of us packed into a Honda Civic coupe with a picnic lunch and a vague idea of the entrance we were hoping to find.  A few wrong turns later, we found a different part of the park entirely.  We went in anyway.

Curby calls this meandering.  “When you meander through a city or a park, you see things that ‘destination visitors’ don’t see, he explains.  “If you’re looking for something in particular, you might miss everything else.”  A good photo excursion is about finding great shots and building an experience, not adhering rigidly to a schedule or goal.  Keep your eyes open and go with the flow.

Photo Excursion Step 3: Lie Down in the Mud

We hadn’t been walking for more than five minutes before Levi was on his stomach in the mud, getting this shot of an early-blooming flower.  “Always wear clothes that you won’t regret getting muddy in,” he said, not bothering to brush himself off.  “When you see photos in National Geographic of some rare tree frog or an alligator in the pond, you’re not seeing the fact that the photographer lay there very still in the swamp for two to five hours waiting for something to come along.  You can’t get that kind of view from standing on the bank – you have to wade in the mess.”

Photography is about giving people a vantage point they wouldn’t normally have.  For Levi, this means going off the beaten path, getting a little uncomfortable and maybe a little dirty.  He ended up on his stomach in the mud for this shot:

and picked his way over slippery shale in a stream bed for this one:

Photo Excursion Step 4: Change the Plan

It was unseasonably cold, and the wildflowers we were expecting weren’t quite there.  So we finished the one-mile loop of trail we were on, squished ourselves back into the coupe, and headed to historic downtown Lebanon.  Instead of wildflowers and landscapes, we ended up with interior shots of a local chocolatier and coffee shop.Curby reminded us that when you don’t find what you were looking for at the place you went, go somewhere else.  Find a museum, a library, on old church, a skyscraper with an observation deck that’s open to the public – something photogenic you can do inside.  Be willing to call an audible, and don’t be afraid to abandon a good plan for a better one.

The business-savvy creatives might recognize this as the creative equivalent of the “sunk-cost fallacy.”  Essentially, you shouldn’t be tied to a project just because you’ve invested a lot of resources into it already; consider that a “sunk cost” and focus on using well the resources you have left.

Creative people can learn a lot from good business practices, even as they build a business around their art.  Get the resources and manpower to do this well with our sister venture Unit 25 – support and solutions for growing entrepreneurs.

Photo Excursion Step 5: Editing

Even after we packed up and went home, there was more to do.  Because cameras see the world differently that the human eye, most photos deserve editing.  The rule, Levi reminded me, is that post-production makes good shots even better – it doesn’t make bad shots good.  Curby has two philosophies of editing, corresponding to the software he uses for each.  The first is to create something as close as possible to the human eye.  Minor color adjustments are done in Lightroom.  “I am crafting the photo to what I saw with my eyes before I took the picture,” Levi explains.  “I might use black and white if it looks more elegant that way or if I’m going for something ‘old world’ in the shot, but if I do anything with color in Lightroom, I always have a reason.”

The second is to create something the eye could never do, and that means using Photoshop.  “I have a panorama of the Irish coast, and while your eye can see a 180 degree view, you can’t capture that all at once – but the camera can; it can capture that moment for you.  You can stare at that moment in time in different sections all at once.  Enhance to something that you can’t do with your eye.”

Much like the pantyhose, there are always new techniques to try.  In this case, Levi experimented with double exposure.  “When shooting to film, that means exposing the same film twice.  Often people would get a blank background like a white or black screen, then put someone’s face in front of that, and not advance to the next frame.  Then you’d take a picture of something else on the same plate.  Using different methods, you can draw out different aspects of the two photos.”

Photoshop lets you do the same thing digitally.  “Silhouettes work the best, because there’s a lot of canvas to paint on, rather than covering up someone’s face,” Curby says.  “I took out the background out of this shot, and double-exposed that with a picture of a tree I took the same day.”

Free software like GIMP 2.8 is a great alternative for photographers on a budget. Learn how to put this powerful software to work with our tutorials.

Big thanks to Levi Curby of Levi Curby Media for giving us the inside scoop on living and working as a photographer. To see more of Curby’s work, visit him on Facebook or go to his website, levicurbymedia.com.

Where do you go to get great shots?  What makes your “photo excursions” successful?  Let us know in the comments!

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