Stephen Kirkpatrick

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gear Check


When I teach a photo workshop or lead a photo trip, the participants always want to take a peek in my camera bag. I can’t tell you how many times a workshop student has looked into my bag, then looked at me with an expression of confusion and said, “But everything in here is old or dirty or broken.”

When I say I’m not a technical, gear-oriented kind of photographer, I’m not exaggerating. I keep my equipment to a minimum for several reasons. One, I like to be able to carry almost everything on my back. That’s a big advantage not only when hauling gear through the Amazon rain forest or across the Alaskan tundra, but also when you’re trying to cram it all into an airplane overhead bin.

Using less gear also enhances my response time. The more cameras I have, the more I have to think about before I shoot. In wildlife photography, stopping for even a split second to consider which camera or lens is better for which type of shot can mean ending up with no shot at all.

And finally, buying more gear means spending more money in a profession that doesn’t exactly rank at the top of the list of highest-paying jobs. Hence the completely accurate comment above about everything being “old or dirty or broken.” I use a piece of equipment until it just won’t go anymore, then still try to coax out at least one more shot.

Since most of my workshop students are amateur photographers with “real” careers who spend all of their disposable income on their photography hobby, their gear is almost always newer and more elaborate than my own. In fact, I once arrived home to find a UPS box waiting on my doorstep. Inside was a fairly new camera, along with a note from one of my former workshop students. It read, “Please take my camera. You need it more than I do.”


In My Gear Bag:

• Nikon F5 – the workhorse

• Nikon F4 outfitted with a unique, high magnification macro set-up

• Two Nikon F100s used primarily for underwater photography  

• Two Subal underwater housings, strobes, ports and various attachments

• Four lenses – 500mm, 180mm, 60mm, and 17-35mm zoom

 2x Tele-converter, extension tubes and split ND filter

 Two tripods

• 10 rolls of Fujichrome film

• My first camera, a Nikon FE I’ve owned since May 13, 1981. I no longer use it, but can’t seem to part with it.

• And finally, two universal outdoor photography essentials – duct tape and toilet paper

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

First Exposure

I’m a fulltime, freelance wildlife and nature photographer. For the past 30 years, I’ve made my living wading through swamps, hiking through forests, and diving reefs, all in search of the next elusive shot.

When I began this work three decades ago, there was no such thing as a digital camera. While the brand name might have varied, everyone in the photography business shot with some form of film. Today, many people who follow my work (thank you to those loyal fans) are surprised to learn that I still shoot professionally only with film – Fuji Velvia slide film in a Nikon SLR camera, to be exact.

I have nothing against digital. Digital is more forgiving, can be more affordable, and is certainly more convenient than film, and in many areas of professional photography, digital has become a necessity. For photojournalists and others who need to see, send, or publish a photograph instantly, it’s clearly the only way to go.  But when it comes to my business niche, well, no one is really in that much of a hurry to see a ‘possum. And, truth be told, I still prefer the feeling, the final look, and the creative challenge of working with film.

I’ve participated in many film vs. digital discussions with other photographers, and realized that while one is not better than the other, the thought processes behind using film or using digital are very different.

For example, the fact that there is no “original” with digital bothers me. You cannot hold a digital shot the way you can hold an original transparency. Yes, you can make a print. In fact, you can make thousands of prints, but none of them is the original. There is long-term, collectible value as well as some emotional comfort in possessing an original image that with digital, simply does not exist.

Something I hear often is, “You can shoot 10,000 digital images cheaper than 10,000 film images.” While that may be true, the mindset created by this statement is a creative death trap. Why strive to capture the perfect image, plan the shot, wait for the light, position yourself in just the right angle, when you can simply snap away and hope that one of those 10,000 will be good enough? The great Ansel Adams recognized the fallacy of that approach decades before digital was invented, saying,
"The ‘machine-gun’ approach to photography – by which many negatives are made with the hope that one will be good – is fatal to serious results.”

I’ve come to think of film as “earthy” and digital as more “techy.” Most of my generation of wildlife and nature photographers are nature-oriented first and photography-oriented second, while the newer generation seems to be more photo technology-oriented. Film shooters, those of us dinosaurs that remain, are pre-photo thinkers, while the newer generation of photographers tend to be more post-photo thinkers. Those shooting film are programmed to “prepare, set up, and get it right while you have it in front of you,” while the newer generation is more geared toward “grab the basic shot, then fix it in post.” PhotoShop and other digital applications have many beneficial uses, but for many photographers, they have become a crutch. I personally prefer to make my photographs in the field instead of in my office.


I have the disturbing sense that thanks in part to this post-photo thinking, the true art and craft of photography is being lost. At recent photography workshops I’ve taught, many of the students seemed completely unaware of the creative photographic process. When I discuss aperture, shutter speeds, angles of view with different lenses, and other creative tools, many of the faces looking back at me are blank. When I explain that you can take the same subject or scene and make it look totally different by changing a few settings, the response is often, “You can do that?” or simply, “Huh?”

All of this put together started me thinking – what if you only got one shot?

That’s right, a single composition, shot in unpredictable Mother Nature. One chance to predict the optimum moment and capture it. No do overs, no second chances. And what if you saw the perfect shot and pressed that shutter release, only to see the really perfect shot in the next split second – one split second too late?

Oh, and by the way, your one shot is on  film.  So not only do you have to prepare, position, and be ready to press the shutter release at exactly the right moment, you also have to wait until the film comes back to see if you captured it or not.

Facing that challenge has become my current, self-assigned project. My goal is to shoot three rolls of slide film, each with a different subject matter, and publish them as a complete set, 108 exposures in a row. I will be designing a book and an exhibition in my head and on the film as I shoot. The film will be developed but not mounted, so it will be a complete, intact roll, proof of the integrity of the process.

I’m pretty conservative when it comes to pressing the shutter anyway, but this project brings a number of other challenges. First, the shots must be 36 very diverse and interesting compositions. Second, each shot has to be perfect in every way – no cropping, no editing, no bracketing. Third, the order in which they appear must have an interesting flow.

And of course, we are talking about nature photography, not tabletop shots or architectural shots or even portraits that allow you to ask a person to pose just so. A part of the magic of nature and wildlife photography is its sheer unpredictability, which will add to the challenge of this project.

I hope the thought of this book project intrigues you as much as it challenges and excites me. I invite you to join me as I try to make the magic happen…

On A Roll




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