Musings on Photography

The Doldrums

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on February 26, 2008

This winter, I’ve been becalmed photographically. Becalmed is sort of a peculiar word, because it sounds like it’s all about peace and tranquility. But the root meaning of the word describes a sailing vessel unable to move for lack of wind – and you can be sure that while the ship isn’t moving, the crew is probably tearing their hair out in frustration.

It’s not that I haven’t been trying. I’ve made exposures by the boatload. Despite my assertions that in many cases, it’s better to focus on quantity and not worry about quality, I feel like the past few months have netted nothing but ‘going through the motions’ photos.

But the weather is now changing, and the places I live in seem to be waking up from a nap. I’ve been out several times with the usual gear, and everything seems viscous and sticky, and although I can make exposures it doesn’t seem to help much. Even with the excitement of the seasonal change, there’s been no way to get up any steerage way, and it’s just been… frustrating.

So over the weekend, I decided to change gears. Thoreau told us “Our lives are frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” I figured I could do the same thing photographically – instead of trying to handle lots of complex stuff, I’d work on simplifying the images – stripping away stuff as much as possible.

To that end, I took the 24-105mm off the EOS-5d – it’s the lens that lives on the camera almost all the time. The replacement was my old, creaky 100mm f/2.8 macro – not the modern USM version but the old, almost can’t auto-focus one. For all its lack of mechanical niceness, I’ve kept that lens because I just love the way to renders things at large apertures, even in non-macro use. So with that lens on the camera, and the aperture set wide, I went for a wander. My plan was to get up good and close, and let the lack of depth of field isolate things. More on this shallow depth of field thing later, perhaps. My big problem was resisting my nearly overwhelming desire to have everything in focus. I wasn’t entirely successful at suppressing that urge, but I did manage to make a little progress with it. I made some photos where only very small regions are actually in focus.

The interesting thing is that, as a way to get out of the doldrums, it seems to be working. Maybe the change is making a difference.

[obligatory side note: Thoreau told us to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” It took geniuses like Strunk and White to remind us that if he’d been really serious about it, he’d have written “Simplify” and been done with the entire thing.]

7 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on February 26, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    Dumping the zoom and putting my 50 f1.4 (effective length 75mm) on my digital camera reminded me of what I enjoyed about 35mm – really using DOF to isolate things, plus having to frame with my feet. Use your 50 1.4, and esp. the 35mm f1.4 if you have it.

  2. Christoph Hammann said, on February 26, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    I find I can’t force myself out of the doldrums photographing at all. Instead, I lay the gear aside and try to experience, just see and be with my daily surroundings. Time for a bike tour or read a few good books. It’s like recharging the creative batteries!

  3. Guy said, on February 26, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    About this time, 2 years ago:


  4. My Camera World said, on February 27, 2008 at 7:40 am

    I sometimes think that the doldrums are a self-inspired malaise. Something is not happening or there is nothing at the moment that is inspiring us to pursue a challenge and I think we all do best when faced with challenge.

    I therefore recommend that you approach, and I have done this myself, a person who understand a bit about your work and will give you a challenge in new direction.

    In a previous blog article, I wrote about some creativity ideas that can open up new ways of thinking.

    Try one or modify to suit your needs.

    Maybe your readers could all make a suggestion and your could keep them in a suggestion jar when the urge rises take one out.

    Niels Henriksen

  5. Martin Doonan said, on February 27, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    At least you’re out there bobbing along. I feel like I’m stuck in port with the cargo rotting. Haven’t even picked up a camera in weeks.

  6. Denear said, on February 27, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    I love your analogy, being that I am a sailor. I live and breathe for the sport, and photography is right there along side of sailing. I think I live in a more northern climate than you, and it feels like we have been in the freezer for years even though it has only been months. I love Neils suggestion, I may even pick up ideas from your readers commnets and keep them in my jar. I also visit a few community forums and pick up many idea there. These usually include suggestions for basic set up of some of the more challenging suggestions.
    Have faith, I am sure spring will happen eventually, I sure am hopeful.

  7. Andreas Manessinger said, on March 1, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    Shallow DOF is one great way to get out of the doldrums. The Lensbaby is another, and I would even recommend isolating details with a longer lens, something between 200 and 300mm on your camera.

    Essentially all these are ways to go after detail, either detail of depth or detail of angle. I have bought the Sigma 70/2.8 Macro (eq. 105mm on my D300) in mid-December, and most of the time use it as a walkaround lens now. It’s great. Shallow DOF, restricted angle, 1:1 macro capability, sharper than a razor. Have a look at some of the images here:

    Another excellent lens is the Sigma 20/1.8. It is the only real wide-angle macro with significantly shallow DOF on the market. See some images here:

    You’ll have to scroll down for some of the more atypical uses.

    Both work on full-frame as well, and the 70/2.8 is said to be pretty perfect in that regard. I suspect the 20/1.8 will be vignetting as mad when used wide open (it even does on my D300), but used in the macro range, where is the problem?

    On the other hand, creativity is nothing to be found, it is to be made. Lenses can help, but it is mostly a matter of acceptance of the conditions that we work in. We can’t change weather anyway, so when there is no epic landscape in magic light to be had, then it is a good idea to simply look at what’s there, accept it and use it. There is no landscape in the world, in no meteorologic condition, that can not yield a remarkable image, as long as we are willing to leave the cozy cage of our expectations.


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