Lockdowns and Photography

1. Lockdowns are Depressing

When Ontario went into lockdown in mid-March 2020, I became caught up in the paranoia of COVID-19. The dreaded virus, I assumed, would kill everybody. My job wasn’t deemed an essential service, but, luckily, my employer transitioned us to a seemingly permanent home work situation. And although this took away my daily commutes and expensive transit fares, I was listening to the radio during those early lockdown days, and every radio station had sixty-second COVID updates every ten minutes that enhanced my paranoia. And although I wasn’t technically supposed to go outside during the early part of the lockdown except to go grocery shopping or some other essential service, I had to get out and go for walks and long runs to keep my sanity. (In my paranoid thoughts, I justified this by keeping more than two metre’s distance from people.) The lockdowns are an experience that I hope to never relive.

I knew that I had to keep busy beyond streaming movies and TV. Vaccines wouldn’t be available until the next year, delaying Ontario’s reopening. The years 2020 and 2021 would become a revolving door of openings and lockdowns, and Ontario had perhaps the longest-lasting restrictions in North America. But perhaps one industry that year that thrived during the pandemic restrictions was online learning–and that was ultimately how I would keep busy during the pandemic. If I did take online courses, what would I take? Could I find something that would give me a skillset that would keep me busy? And could I find an extra skill to add value to my writing work?

2. Photography Could be a Solution

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with photography, but it wasn’t a skill that came naturally to me. In grade school I dreaded art class. I lacked eye-hand coordination, making me bad at all things art. My grade eight art teacher, seeing me struggle on a project, said to me, “Your art is worth a F, but I’m going to give you a C because of your effort.” In high school, I took a photography class. This was way back when photography was still on film. Although I enjoyed the class, I ultimately didn’t do too well. (Because I’m not naturally a visual person, I don’t think that I was adequately mature enough at the time to bridge the technical elements of photography with the artistic side of photography. Notably, I kept shooting out-of-focus photos.) And again in university I did a photography class that required us to shoot on slide film. This class, too, focused on the basic skills of photography–Fstop, aperture speed, different film stocks–and again, it didn’t stick. But I still had the interest in photography. I knew that if I found the right entry, I could figure out the right way to effectively tell a story through photography.

Fast forward to the fall of 2020, and I enrolled in an introductory digital photo class that counted towards a digital photography certificate. By this point, everything was digital–the camera I bought was digital, as was the editing, which has transitioned from the darkroom to the computer. The five mandatory classes again covered the basics but also taught things I hadn’t thought of before–white balance and the role of light in composition, for example. I still struggled with the technical side of photography, and many of the other students picked it up faster than I. And digital editing still overwhelms me. (Why is Photoshop so brutally expansive and complicated?) But I was motivated. I work as a writer. I am a rarity among writers in that I am a writer with a well-paying full-time job. However, I wanted to pick up freelancing opportunities on the side, and I figured that if I had photography skills, I could attract prospective employers. But until I began the certificate’s elective courses, I didn’t know how photography would help me.

To complete my certificate, I took three elective classes–flash photography, which focused on using a flash as an additional lighting and compositional tool; street photography and photojournalism; and portrait photography. It took me almost two years to complete the program, so by the time I took the photojournalism class, outdoor events had begun to start up again. And with the portrait class, people had started congregating again by the time I took it. For my assignments, I paid some of my art modelling contacts (I previously worked as an art model for three years) to model for me while I practised lighting patterns. (It turns out that the lighting styles used in portraiture are rather consistent and established.)

The one model I worked with most during my portrait class was Sara, whom I had met just a couple of times before. Sara had agreed to model for me at an affordable rate, and because I had explained to her in advance that I was just learning my skills, she was adequately prepared to be patient with me. It was September when we had our first session together, and when Sara and I met at a park in her neighbourhood, she was well into her third trimester of her first pregnancy. She was a trooper, walking around the park with me and standing while I took photos of her, despite the extra load she was carrying. Because I was focusing on her shoulders and face, my photos never captured any evidence of her pregnancy, but Sara went on to give birth just a few weeks after my class ended.

At the time I took this photo, I was quite proud. The photo of Sara is a clear example of split lighting; I achieved it my placing an external flash on a stand to the left of Sarah, with the flash at Sara’s eye level. I was happy that I was able to achieve the lighting pattern, but I would never try to pass the photo off today: the lighting is much too harsh. It’s much too close to Sarah, and the lack of diffusion is not flattering. (Sara looks fine, as usual.) And there’s some blurriness; perhaps the shutter speed was too slow. But considering that this was taken on my very first session with a model, it wasn’t too bad an attempt. I do have to thank Sara for two things–for patiently posing for me and for helping me open my eyes that I may enjoy doing portrait photography.

3. The Dreaded Self-Portrait

As the course progressed, and I practised more, I became more confident in my skills. But I knew that two things were true: I needed to get more adept at using a flash (fortunately, I was taking the portrait and flash courses at the same time), and I needed to photograph lots of people to get my skills up. Near the end of the class, our instructor told us that we would have to do something that would probably make most of us uncomfortable: we would have to do a self-portrait. The concept of a self-portrait didn’t bother me. As a former art model, I was used to being depicted on a canvas, so taking a photo of myself didn’t bother me. I decided to take it one step further: I would photograph myself first thing in the morning, straight out of bed. No shower first. No getting dressed first. No eating breakfast. I will say that taking a self-portrait is hard: it requires you to be able to figure out which lens to use, where to place the camera so that you’re in focus, and set up the lighting. Then you have to edit the photo of yourself. I will say that the instructor was probably shocked at the photo that I submitted of myself: I’m not the loudest person in the room, and I don’t think he anticipated anybody doing a self-portrait like this:

Again, it’s split lighting. At the time, I was amazed that I was able to do lighting like this, but in retrospect, I should have used some kind of reflector on the left side of my face, if just to make it more visible.

4. I Complete the Certificate, But I Need to Practise

But enough of these photos that I took while I was in class! I was determined that if I were to sell myself as a writer who could write profiles of people and take a decent-looking photo of them to accompany the article, I needed to practise. I needed a captive roaster of people to model for me. The first choice was my three nephews, the only kids that I have access to on a regular basis. And although I have practised on my nephews a few times, including capturing one spectacular image of my then-two-year-old nephew, I know that I have no interest in working with children. I don’t have the patience.

It dawned on me that if I wanted to practise, I should see if there were performing artists who would want to model for me. People working in the arts don’t necessarily have the money to pay for an experienced professional photographer, but at the same time, they need decent photos to promote themselves. When I was art modelling, I took burlesque classes to increase my confidence in front of the audience and be more comfortable creating more interesting gestures. I thought about reaching out to some of the models that I had met throughout my burlesque odyssey. I reached out to some of the burlesuqers whom I follow on social media and whom I thought would be interested in modelling. There are certain burlesque artists who are very good at consistently creating a presence for themselves on social media, particularly with images of themselves. I started putting feelers out there and see if any would be interested in modelling for me. And I got responses!

The first burlesque artist I photographed was Bellamie, with whom I had first met in a burlesque class and whom I would also profile in a blog on my website. When I approached Bellamie, I told her that I would be initially interested in doing headshots unrelated to burlesque–shots she could use on LinkedIn or show to her family. If she was comfortable with the photos I took and with me as a photographer, then we could perhaps revisit and do something more burlesque themed. She agreed, so we rented a studio, and we got busy taking photos.

I’m still quite happy with the photos that I took of Bellamie that day: For two hours, I took photo after photo, and, to be honest, she looks good. I got some good lighting patterns on her, but if I had used reflectors and diffusers, she would have looked even more spectacular. (I knew to use them, but as a photographer working on my own, I was hadn’t yet figured out how to balance using them while taking photos.) But I was on my way. Luckily, Bellamie felt the same way too. A few months later we regrouped for more bourdoir-themed photos. I was still cognizant of planning my compositions and lighting.

More photoshoots with other burlesque models followed, including Mary, a local actor and burlesque performer. We did a regular photoshoot in High Park during the summer and then later in the fall a more boudoir-focused shoot in a studio.

Or there are the sessions that I did with Felix, who was active in burlesque prior to the lockdowns. We did an outdoor shoot at Evergreen Brick Works in the fall, when I used only natural lighting. (I had dropped and broken my flash). Later, we did an indoor boudoir shoot.

5. In the Meantime, I Pursued Street Photography

I have to admit that as a photographer, my biggest challenge has been attracting men to model for me. Women are more willing to expose themselves in front of the camera in a way that men typically aren’t. Perhaps this is the male gaze taking effect? But in the meantime, I’ve pursued to street photography. Over the past summer, I went to High Park to photograph people at the cherry trees, photographed people riding bikes along the waterfront, went to a book festival, photographed an outdoor dance show, and went to the gay pride festival. I love taking photos of people who aren’t necessarily posing. Photos of people in their natural element can be fun!

6. I Seek Feedback about my Photography

Not too long ago, I showed my photography to people I work with, and although they praised my eye for composition, they acknowledged some truths: I need to get better with lighting. Diffusers and reflectors need to be more effectively and consistently used. Tone down contrasting lighting. It was advice that I took to heart. So a couple of weeks ago, I contacted Crimson, who, in the past, has done burlesque and currently does a lot of ariel circus. She was eager to do a straight-up photography shoot, so I rented a studio, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I decided to make an effort to use great lighting on Crimson. And I have to say that it worked.

7. What Have I Learned?

I know that I have an eye for photographing people, and I’m ready to incorporate it into my writing. Indeed, I already have incorporated my photography into a couple of articles that I wrote for my full-time writing job at the engineering regulator. Notably, I photographed a retired engineering professor for a profile I wrote about her and included street photography for an article I wrote about engineers on transit projects. I want to continue with my photography. I want to continue to get better. And I want to include it with my writing. I’m already a good writer. Will my photography be as equally good?


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