171227 End 2017 - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

At the end of 2016 I wrote a post about the year in cameras, which I'm not doing again this year. Frankly, my Cameras of 2017 is an easy and slightly boring story. The Fuji X100F obliterated all of my small cameras, as it was meant to, and was used for just under half of the photos I took; add in the Ricoh Theta and it's a comfortable majority. The utility Fuji XT10 and specialist Nikon D800 each turned in enough to justify owning them, but not enough to merit upgrades, so with luck my equipment roster will remain mostly unchanged next year.

So that's enough about that.

Instead, to close out the year I'm reflecting back on where I've been with cameras, and my adventures through 2017 in general. 

She Believes In Light

2017 has had a very different tone than 2016, even here in Canada. I've been to four political rallies since the start of the year, and hadn't been to any in the previous two decades. The Women's March, above, was the most festive of the bunch; they've been increasingly grim since then. I don't see that improving next year.

Photos sometimes take me to odd places. I printed this one for the Forum – they really liked it, 200dpi at 22" wide notwithstanding – but it needed a worthy title that I just wasn't finding. Eventually I noticed the quotation marks on the most prominent sign, and looked it up. (That's a smarter-sounding way of saying "googled".) It's from the poem "Sekhmet, Not Pin-Up Girl" by Venetta Octavia, from the collection 'Prelude to Light'. Her biography blurb ends "she believes in light, and thinks you should too", so that's where the title came from. I've downloaded the collection in Kindle format, and it's pretty good.

Two fun facts about this, one of my very favourite photos of 2017, before I move on. One is that it's a completely new edit from the version included in my Women's March blog post, and it has been shifted and improved in ways that I couldn't do back when it was first taken. The other is that it was captured completely by luck. This was taken by my Theta, which was running on an interval timer atop a selfie stick… and this scene was happening behind me at the time.

Cars 2017

The auto show is a long-running subject for me. I enjoy it both as a photographer and as the brother of two very car-people guys. Listening to them gives me a glimpse of what it's like for normal people to hear me talking cameras – rapid and largely incomprehensible, but done with an amazing amount of enthusiasm. My brothers would often have to tell me which car they're talking about by colour, but that's become increasingly difficult as cars become increasingly monochrome. Five years ago it was a playground of colour, but now there's hardly any variety to be found.

In 2016 I responded to the sea of greys by focusing on the marketing and messaging that surrounds the vehicles; word play is something that I like anyway. For 2017 I went to the other extreme, and did almost the whole show in infrared monochrome, which removed most of the ad companies' hard work. Unfortunately most of these images remain in the "future potential" pile as I haven't yet completed a finished project for the 2017 show, which is something of another trend for 2017.


Passage

Walking has always been one of my favourite activities, and during the summer my favourite person and I did pretty well at getting out and exploring the city. This photo was taken at the end of a walk along the Scarborough waterfront which had started at Long Branch GO Station. Long Branch was along the way of one of our first walks together, and this sculpture – "Passage" by Marlene Hilton Moore – is one of the many public art installations by her aunt. You never know what you'll find in the city.

Naturally I also took a few photos with the Theta and put them on Google Maps, which is one of my ongoing amusements. Since November 2016 I've put over 250 photos onto that service, all of which have some quirk or feature that appeals to me, and they've accumulated almost 2.5 million views between them. Google's selection process seems fairly arbitrary, but that can also be part of the fun.

Red Right Returning

I've also been lucky enough to be able to regularly take the cameras for walks with a friend, which has been a good opportunity to get out and explore. In addition to the Auto Show and other adventures, we wound up down at the lake a couple of times, including this visit to the foot of Spadina back when the water was near its crest. It's normally a few feet lower than this.

In true Toronto style, even our natural disasters are slow-moving and conservative. The water level closed the island parks for a while, and flooded our sandy fringes and a few parking lots, but did no real damage. Still, we're going to need to be much more resilient than this, and need to be much better at managing stormwater in particular, both to prevent inshore flooding and protect the water quality of the lake.

Means "Water"

2017 included my longest walk, which was also my most important. Sunday, September 24th was the Lake Ontario Water Walk, an Indigenous-led ceremonial walk committed to honouring and protecting the waters we depend on. Hopefully this becomes an annual event, and for 2018 I'll be looking for other water protecting activities as well.

I joined the eastern walk, which covered about twenty-five kilometres on the hottest day of the year – it was above thirty degrees before dawn, and the day was sunny and humid. To that distance I can also add four or five extra kilometres of walking to get to and from the starting and finishing points, but despite hours in the sun I finished with plenty of energy and not dehydrated. Walking within sight of the staff and the water made all the difference.


Best Photo Ever

I enjoy travelling and doing just slightly absurd attempts at endurance for the sake of photography. I used to do this with day trips to New York City and Chicago, but trivial trips to America isn't something that I'm doing again until their civil and political situation is more settled. So in a search for substitutes, among other things, I've tried going to Niagara Falls. It's not quite the same, but I had a blast playing tourist and getting thoroughly soaked. I still regularly wear the hoodie that I bought to warm up as I dried out.

My initial hope for Niagara was to make one trip per season, but timing through the summer didn't work out. I'm still hoping to go again for the winter, making a set of three trips with a different theme for each. We'll see how that goes.

Pancake House

Pancake House

Styles change. It was something of a shock to look at Pancake House and realize that it's exactly the sort of composition I would do three years ago. Cropping words into mystery, the active frame, lots of negative space – I don't really do that much anymore, and they used to be my signature. Funny, that.

While my Spring trip to Niagara Falls was about taking the best photo of the falls in history, my second trip at the end of August mostly stayed inland. I really like signs, especially those for old businesses, and particularly those from independent motels: this combination is a distinct strength of that city. Ones boasting "Colour TV" are my favourite.

This photo, though, is not from a motel. This  autumn was a bad time to be extolling the virtues of hotels as an impersonal and transient – dare I say it: "interstitial" – space. So that's another project that resides in the 'to be done at some undefined point in the distant future' pile instead of the 'complete' section, where it sits alongside America's Discussion About Gun Control. Sadly, I'm far more likely to complete a trivial photography project than my neighbours are to have any sort of examination of their collective affection for mass violence.

Globemaster

Not that us Canadians don't have our own affection for mass violence. Almost every year I try to photograph the Air Show, which is largely a celebration of the awesome power of militarization. But for 2017 I found something even better than the Air Show, which was Toronto's proclaimed "Air Force Day" when the Air Force was given new colours at city hall.

The ceremony included a land acknowledgement by Canada's representative of the Queen, our Head Of State, which was interesting if symbolic, much like our head of state. And the ceremony ended with a direct low-level flyby of a wide variety of Force aircraft, far closer than I've ever seen them while they're flying. This photo of a C17 Globemaster is full frame, as I couldn't zoom out with my XF55-200mm lens fast enough.

I've been experimenting with a way of creating unique prints by feeding the same piece of paper through the inkjet machine multiple times. I like controlled processes with unpredictable results. For this print I was trying to recreate the feeling of having such a big jet pass directly overhead.

I did my first half-dozen attempts the hard way, by printing a simple file ten times or more, but the process itself inevitably failed just before anything interesting happened with the print. So instead I've layered multiple impressions of the image in Affinity Photo and then printed a mere three or four versions of that composite file to the page. It's not as ideologically pure as doing it all organically, but that method worked much better. The print of Globemaster that came out of this digital file was a bit more nuanced than the digital image above, and it went over well at the Forum. 

But they hated my first attempt at overprinting last year, so my print for the next meeting will to be the tie-breaker.


Country Road

There are two things that I spent a lot of time with in 2017 that I hadn't done before: night photography and owning a Fujifilm X100F. Those things are very closely related.

It really started by accident. I have a hard time getting anywhere as early as I mean to, and eventually I realized that perhaps I could stay later. The little Fuji is really nice on my medium-weight tripod, I like doing slightly absurd and lightly challenging things, so one thing led to another and night photography became another partial replacement for weekend bus trips to New York or Chicago. It's cheaper, more available, and has better politics. And while the cultural opportunities are fewer, the feeling of being somewhere with nobody else around is hard to find in a city.

Moonrise, Goldfish Pond

Not all of my long walks at night have used the X100F. For the photo above I used the D800, and between the camera, two lenses, and the heavier tripod it meant that I was carrying ten pounds more than the usual twenty-five I'd have for one of these outings. I like some of the photos that only the D800+85PCE combination could produce, including those I needed to improvise due to its limitations, but haven't used it for that kind of an endurance event since.

But night / landscape photography has made me more sensitive to my surroundings. I've become a regular user of The Photographer's Epemeris on my phone, which I used to plan my position and timing for the photo above. I have to admit that as a photographer I'm remarkably insensitive to both light and planning, so that was a big win even if the photo doesn't go anywhere. I've also been trying to plan a skyline photo with the setting sun transiting the CN Tower, but so far weather has foiled me. Perhaps that will work out for 2018.

Dawn Supreme

Excellent advice for photographers: find something you're passionate about and apply your camera(s) to it. In my case, my passions include contingency planning and flashlights, so night photography has turned out to be an excellent application. Lights aren't really needed for navigation this close to the city, even on a moonless night, but I'm learning to have a subtle touch with light painting. There are a few cues that some of the light has been added here, but overall I think it's my most successful effort, especially considering just how much light has actually been added.

An earlier edit of this same file was used for my Night Photography Basics post, and the difference between the two goes back to something I mentioned at the very beginning of this post: new software. 

Like Adobe, I've abandoned Lightroom.

Instead I'm now using Capture One as a raw converter, and to fill in some of the missing merge/pano capability I've also started using Affinity Photo, making this the first time I've ever really used a powerful pixel editor. It's not an easy transition, but it has been as big a change in the quality and nature of my results as anything else I've ever done. That includes switching from my Olympus E-3 system to a Nikon D700 with a shift lens, moving to lightweight mirrorless cameras, or adding the Thetas to my roster. It's not just that the results are better – they are – it's that what I can do is fundamentally different, which ripples all the way from planning a shoot to printing the results.

City Hall, Queen Street

And here, for example, is a 'for instance' of the difference the new software makes. This is the X100F on my light tripod, same as before, but the photo is a composite from about a dozen frames. I expose once for the scene, and then use bulb mode to capture light trails by opening the shutter only when things are moving. Edit in Capture One for the scene and the lights, export to an aligned stack of images in Affinity, clone or erase from various layers as needed, and then merge brighter. Easy. Except that I couldn't do that with the tools I was using before – or if I could, it was harder-enough that the very possibility hadn't occurred to me.

Now all I need to do is keep working and find ways to apply the technical ability to photos that express something important to me. But that's always the challenge.


Work In Progress

So that, in a nutshell, is my 2017. Some of it is continuing on as before, some is adding interesting new starts, and not much is finishing things and moving forward. But that's not unreasonable. As with 2016, it's been a time of learning new things, working with new cameras and new techniques, and exploring more than mapping.

2017 has been good. I'm pleased with what I've done and feeling positive about moving forward into 2018.

But while it's entertaining and easy, the idea of always experimenting and trying out new things can be an excuse for not actually doing anything worthwhile. So it's a good thing that I'm starting to get restless with novelty itself, and would like to get back to fundamentals soon. Perhaps next year will be about finding meaning instead of techniques, and embracing productivity instead of process.

That would be nice.


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