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The story of how an old love of photography was revived with the magic of a new DSLR.
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My wife Julie had not touched a “real” camera for over 30 years. In that period of time, much has changed in camera technology since she used her Olympus Film camera. As a ballet dancer and instructor, she was interested in taking photos of dance back in the 1970s and ‘80s. She took two photography courses at a community college where she discovered that she had an exceptional eye for photo composition.

A close-up photo of Dan's face peering up at the sky.
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This spontaneous photo of Dan encapsulates all of the elements that I am enjoying with the DSLR. It captures Dan’s kind spirit in a frequent gaze skyward looking at airplanes. Plus the color is rich and the soft background enhances his portrait.

But when that Olympus camera was stolen in the early 1980s, Julie never again picked up anything except small, inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras, or she used her mobile phone for the occasional quick family shot. Since we married in 1987, she had watched me work as a professional photographer using a Canon DSLR, and deep down, I believe she missed looking at the world through a proper viewfinder.

The Opportunity

This year, she was offered the opportunity to handle public relations for a client of our advertising agency on a business trip to Beirut, Lebanon. Being half-Lebanese, the trip was a chance to see the roots of where her family came from, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit a country we Americans rarely see. She knew that a mere point-and-shoot camera would not suffice for this trip. Our son, Scott Connolly, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, generously offered to “loan” her one of his extra DSLRs, a nearly-new Canon 60D.

When the camera arrived, I developed a plan to train Julie on the operation of this far more complex camera. The DSLR had more menus, buttons, and settings than her old Olympus film camera, but at the core of the training would be an understanding of the basics…f/stops, shutter speeds, ISO settings and how they all related to each other.

“I was fortunate to have my husband Dan as a mentor since he is a professional photographer. He explained the buttons and menu options first before we fast-tracked to the settings I would need for lighting the tight spaces of small conference rooms at the Lebanon conference. I knew I couldn’t use flash during the meetings I wanted to shoot and was aware that the 50mm lens Dan had on the camera would present some challenges.”

Often, the optimal photo was taken with a high ISO setting.

A photo of the blocks that make up a ruin in Byblos, Lebanon.
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Ruins at the city of Byblos, Lebanon, built in 8000 BC. The composition of the rocks with just a peek at the sea was intriguing to me.

The Learning Curve

As her trainer, I started with ISO settings. This was a whole new world to Julie, with her only reference being from her film camera days.

“With film cameras, the film was purchased according to ISO. With ISO 800 or higher, I always knew a grainy photo was very likely. I had a very difficult time believing that an ISO setting of 1000 to 1600 was not going to produce a grainy photo. I proved to myself that high ISO settings would work by shooting the same scene in a combination of settings and reviewing them with Dan. Often, the optimal photo was taken with a high ISO setting.”

Each time Julie would pick up the DSLR, she learned more about the camera’s settings. I trained her to keep it simple, and how to use lower ISOs for outdoors, and how to bump that setting up in lower light indoor situations. Once she felt comfortable with ISO, I taught to depend on the “Tv” or shutter priority mode of the 60D, to assure a high enough shutter speed to eliminate camera shake, which has always been a problem for her.

A photo of the French countryside.
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This is an example of exactly the minimal element composition I am seeking. And I was able to shoot it while driving on a small country road in France!

Before the Lebanon conference, she practiced on both indoor and outdoor scenes, using a variety of settings. Julie would then upload the images to the iPhoto app on her Macbook Air, and we’d open the “Info” tab and study each test image. Being a brilliant woman, it did not take her long to dial in the skills needed to read a scene’s light and set the DSLR appropriately. From there, it was all in her eye, how she composed the scene.

“Composition comes naturally to me. I like to shoot scenes with minimal components as I favor contemporary art and design, and the negative space becomes an important element of the composition. Although depth of field was part of my community college photography classes, I never really understood it until I learned about the DSLR’s automatic focus, how it was easy to pinpoint what will be in focus, and how a blurred background or foreground will enhance the photo.”

Using the DSLR camera has brought a new dynamic to my enjoyment of travel and occasions.

A photo of Dan's son and his son's daughter at his wedding.
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It is great to be able to capture important family events, like my son with his daughter at his wedding. I have learned to photograph even when every element of the composition isn’t ideal, knowing that I can crop the photo and it will still be clear.

The Outcome

Julie has recently upgraded the 60D’s lens to a Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 lens. With this new wide-angle capability, she looks forward to shooting more journalistic photos.

“I find that people tend to want to pose for the camera, and for me, that takes away the emotion provided in spontaneous photos. One of the favorite photos I’ve taken is of my son dancing at his wedding with his 8-year-old daughter. The body language and expressions show how unique their relationship is. This is the kind of story I want my photographs to tell.

As she becomes more comfortable shooting with the DSLR, Julie looks forward to new adventures that will have a strong photography component.

“Overall, I’m very pleased with many of the photos I’ve taken. Using the DSLR camera has brought a new dynamic to my enjoyment of travel and occasions. Photography is something I’ve always wanted to bring back into my life, and it’s great to finally be enjoying it again. Through the generosity of my son Scott, that ‘loaned’ camera seems to have become a permanent possession of mine!”

Let us know in the comments your favorite memories while learning photography!

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