Morris County Group Challenges Members To Develop Their Photography Skills
In the age of smart phones and visually driven social media, it seems as though most people have at least a mild interest in photography. But not everyone turns their interest into a hobby. Not that hobby even begins to cover how a group local Morris County photographers approach their craft—participating in weekly challenges to share their passion, develop their skills, and inspire each other to, as the group’s kickstarter Callahan McIver says in the group’s Facebook description, “get outside the box of normal photography”.
After browsing the impressive digital gallery of photos on the open public group’s page, which provides direction through weekly themes such as ‘family’, ‘blue’, and ‘sparkle’, I decided to ask McIver a few questions about the group.
JY: What inspired you to start the photography challenge?
CM: I have seen several photo challenges and have never participated. I liked the idea of getting outside the box of my normal photography, so starting the group was mostly for me. At the same time, we have so many people around town who have an eye for photography and want to learn more. A photo challenge is a great way to push yourself. If you are a seasoned pro, try something different and teach the rest of us. If you are just starting with your first camera or a phone, try something new and learn!
Looking at other photographer’s work helps me to learn and grow. I was really interested in how other people would complete the challenges in our area. Many of them take planning and effort. Seeing final results from locals has been great. And an added benefit, I have gotten to know more people in our area and gained new friends.
JY: Do you come up with the weekly themes yourself? If so, where do you get your ideas for them?
CM: For this first year, I have been using a list created by “Dogwood Photography.” Our group is working through his 2016 list because they aren’t overly technical but still offer places to stretch our limits. The challenges cycle through three categories: Portrait, Landscape, and Artistic. I post a fresh challenge every Monday morning. The goal for this group is to get new pictures each week, not just sort through our past work.
I have already started planning for 2020 for the challenge list. I am going to make my own list (partially inspired by the Dogwood style) but one that is more Morris County specific, like adding Washunga Days, prairie fires, and more.
JY: Have you had a favorite week so far, and why?
CM: My favorite week for our group was definitely the “Hands” challenge. It was a portrait category but one that made hands the focus rather than the face. There were so many submissions! Calloused farm hands, soft child hands, worn elderly hands…each one had a story that went with it. I was impressed with the group.
Normally, I would choose one of the “landscape” challenges. We have been gifted with such a beautiful area. Flint Hills sunsets are probably the best in the world. But, my personal favorite week so far was the “Messy” portrait week. Let’s just say my wife Melinda let me throw flour at her face, she posed in front of our mixer in the kitchen, and I got a really messy portrait of her. The final shot made all of the setup and cleanup worth it.
JY: How long has photography been a passion of yours? How did you develop your skills?
CM: I grew up in the house of a photographer. My mother, Tina McIver, was always taking our pictures, using a film camera. She even did group shots for sports teams. Then my wife, before we were married, bought me a point-and-shoot camera. I used that like crazy for everything! Twelve years later, we still have that camera and now my boys use it for their own pictures.
After we got married I started to dig into what I would need for better pictures. I bought a Canon XS, about the lowest-price DSLR Canon produced. I loved that camera! I have memorable pics of my family from that camera. It took great pictures and was my go-to for a long time. When I started to hit the limits the camera allowed, I looked into a more professional model and bought a used Canon 5D, a full-frame first produced in 2005.
Through all of these different cameras I would try to push the limits of the technology. People have been taking beautiful pictures for over a hundred years with much less than today. I didn’t have an excuse that my camera wasn’t “nice enough” to get good pictures. It was all me. So, I really tried to learn the cameras and experiment with what they could do.
I really like a method called “light painting” where you leave the shutter open and drag a light source across the frame. Lights, fire, sparklers, anything bright! It records the whole stream onto a single picture for a fantastic result! I learned methods like this through trial and error and lots of reading!
Now I have the pleasure of taking portraits of families and individuals all over town. Senior pictures are a favorite because I get to know the students through the shoot and let their personalities shine through the pictures. My progression (and I still have a long way to go!) all started with a little camera, some reading, and practicing.
JY: What type of camera do you have?
CM: My main camera now is a Canon 6D. It was originally released in 2012; I have never been the type that has to have the latest and greatest--I don’t mind working with quality, several-year-old technology. It is the camera I complete most of the challenges with, along with a handful of different lenses for different looks. I use a wide-angle lens for most landscapes, a short telephoto lens for portraits, and often a macro lens for our artistic shots.
But these challenges are made so that even a camera phone can complete them. The best camera is the one you have with you. And with technology constantly increasing, I have seen some wonderful shots in our group coming from camera phones. It isn’t the camera that makes the shot, but the person behind it.
JY: What's your advice to those wanting to better their photography skills?
CM: Firstly, join our “Morris County KS Area 52 Week Photo Challenge” Facebook group. It is a great crew of very kind people. Having others look at your picture and offer constructive criticism and encouragement goes a long way. And the new challenge each week is sure to push your limits.
Getting really familiar with your camera is priceless. I was out this past week taking long-exposure Milky Way pictures in the pitch black. Getting a flashlight out or looking down at my camera wasn’t always an option. It is important to know how to change settings, focus, and zoom on the fly.
More important than knowing how to change settings is knowing what those settings do! How will increasing my ISO from 400 to 800 change this picture? What shutter speed do I need to crisply capture a child running? Shooting in the dreaded MANUAL mode can really help a person learn what different apertures, shutter speeds, and ISO can do for a picture.
Next, start reading. Find photography blogs where really creative men and women share how they take pictures--what is going on in their minds. Watch videos of photo shoots, how they set up, how they interact with the scenery or models. Then go do it! Shoot pics, mess up, delete, and repeat until you learn how.
JY: What do you hope the Photography Challenge will do for its participants? For the community?
CM: For our group of participants, my main goal is to help at least one person become a little better at taking pictures. If all this work for the past seven months has helped someone push themselves and get better then it was worth it. And I believe we have done at least that. In my posts and comments to other peoples’ pictures, I try to offer suggestions and assistance for better shots. How to change lighting, where to stand, how to frame the scene. These are all aspects that can be learned with practice, but some guidance can really help.
I didn’t really have a primary intention for this to benefit the community. But thanks to the hard work from our members, we have captured and shared pictures from our Morris County area that wouldn’t have normally been preserved. People have gotten out of their homes and brought their cameras with them with the intention of capturing the perfect shot. We have stretched each other’s creativity and inspired one another to try more. It has been a great year and I am already looking forward to 2020!