Traveling for Steve’s Digicams is the best part of my gig. It’s a chance to try new techniques, learn about and test new gear, and see new places — all key components to sparking creative juices. But to be honest, those things aren only a small portion of what makes trips worthwhile…
What I love most about photography journalism travel is getting to know the people behind the brand. The engineers and executives. The PR team and pro photographers.
Meeting passionate and talented individuals cuts through the constant onslaught of press releases and spec lists, making our business feel more human. More personal. And isn’t that the whole purpose of photography — to capture something personal about the world or the people you meet?
Olympus Visionaries & Trailblazers
Olympus has a special team of pro photographers representing their brand to the public. The Visionary Program consists of twelve Visionaries and Trailblazers who shoot exclusively with Olympus gear, beta-test new products, teach the next generation of photographers, and who interact with the public and press in person or through digital channels to spread the good word about Olympus products.
When it’s your job to test a new camera, as it sometimes is mine, and you’re in a rush and can’t find the exact settings you need, nothing is more humbling, comforting, and invigorating than to have professional photographer standing by to answer any and all questions while cheering you on to get the best image possible.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and becoming friendly with three Olympus Visionary program members. Austin Lottimer joined us in Bermuda for the debut of the OM-D E-M5 II and TG-860 — Austin’s a filmmaker as well as a still photographer who creates art-in-motion. I next met Jamie MacDonald up in Whistler, British Columbia for the launch of the TG-4 (which included a secret First Look at the M.ZUIKO 8mm F/1.8 Fish Eye PRO). Jamie’s a family man who loves #PureMichigan and wide angle landscape photography of all kinds.
More recently I spent a night and a day in Phoenix, Arizona getting to know Trailblazer Alex McClure, who recently wrote an Astrophotography How To Guide for Steve’s. Olympus ambassador. Storm and star chaser. Husband. Father. Professional photographer. McClure is a man of many hats.
My mission was simple. Get hands-on time with the OM-D E-M1 flagship micro four-thirds ILC system along with the the M.ZUIKO 8mm F/1.8 Fish Eye PRO and M.ZUIKO 7-14mm F/F2.8 wide angle PRO zoom lens. More than the gear, my ultimate goal was to find a little more out about the type of people who work full time in an industry many aspire to join. What are professional photographers like? What does it take to be one? What does it take to build a career as one?
Part I: Getting to Know Alex McClure
What pops into your head when you think of a professional photographer? Maybe a man or woman on the sidelines of sporting events with huge lenses. Maybe it’s fancy people surrounded by models and expensive lighting gear.
In truth a pro photographer could be anyone.
Alex McClure is a full time Dad who starts his days early, up before everyone in the house checking emails and social media. He then spends a couple hours getting the kids ready and off to school before heading out to a gig, if it’s a shoot day, or returning to his house for more emails and blogging and social.
McClure’s schedule is like many freelancers in the digital age — a lot of correspondence, every day is different, and he needs to be ready to go when work’s available. McClure’s typical (if there is such a thing) month consists of two to three commercial shoots, one to two product shots, selling four to seven prints of his work, and hosting at least two Photo Events.
No matter what the day consists of, McClure is seeking out photographic subjects (often new landscapes or chasing storms to familiar ones) while helping other photographers improve their own skills. Because digital photography is a relatively new medium, McClure thinks of his students and fellow photographers as Digital Pioneers. Learning the craft, evolving the medium, and working to spread the good word.
One way he does this is by hosting Photo Walks around Phoenix. For a nominal fee (I think it’s around $5 or $6, and is only charged to ensure those who sign up actually attend), you can follow Alex to a location, learn more about Olympus gear and, of course, improve your shots.
Alex also hosts more in-depth classes that cover shooting and the post-production process. The obvious portion is using editing software like Adobe Lightroom, but there’s also a component of culling down. For the purpose of a single class, Alex suggests his students only edit (develop) two shots. This not only gives students more time to work on each shot, but it’s also an important lesson. Don’t share every single shot you take. Cull. Reduce. Learn to know which ones are worthy for public consumption. Then it’s on to Lightroom, where Alex recommends working from top to bottom (to, effectively, follow along with the app’s design structure), which I’ve started doing to noticeable success.
Alex hopes to evolve his photo walks and classes into a new workshop that combines digital techniques with analog results. Described as Concept To Printer, photographers will go on a photowalk, work with Alex to capture evocative photos, pick one favorite, adjust it further in Lightroom and, finally, deliver the asset to a professional shop for a 20″ x 30″ rendering. The intention to get back to basics; to embrace the physical in a world where so many pictures never become a tangible thing.
Part II: Balancing Life & Artistic Pursuits
McClure’s passion is landscape photography. Commercial photography is his craft. His craft allows him to follow his passion. McClure likes to travel once a month with his kids and wife. Go camping. Find a new location. Watching the light. The clouds. Cooking supper. Playing with the kids. Spending family time together until Alex’s wife notices his eyes wandering to a particular cloud, or to the movement of the sun. Alex favorite time to shoot, he said, paraphrasing David Wells, is “when my shadow’s longer than me”. There’s warmth to the light then. Softness.
In addition to magic hour landscapes, Alex also favors astrophotography and storm systems. The goal, for Alex, with any of his work, is not only to support his family and earn a living, but to shoot three to four Great (with a capital G) shots per year. That might seem like a small number when you think of the sheer number of electronic shutters clicking every single second of every single day of every single year. But when you watch Alex shooting, when you hear him share his passions, you can see what professional truly are.
Very capable technical artists who, through experience and time, learn to know what’s worthy and what is not. Like all passions, there is no such thing as Best or Perfect. It’s a learning process. And Alex McClure is going to keep on learning. And keep on sharing.
This is why Alex is an Olympus Trailblazer.
Part III: E-M1 + M.ZUIKO + Dramatic Art Filter
Make no bones about it, I’m an enthusiast photographer at best. Over the course of the last year I’ve been honing my skills, thanks not only to professionals like Alex McClure and other Olympus Trailblazers, but also simply by spending a lot of time with the Olympus OM-D series. I carry an OM-D E-M5 II in my personal kit, but for my time with Alex, Olympus loaned me an Olympus OM-D E-M1 plus the M.ZUIKO F/1.8 8mmFish Eye PRO and the M.ZUIKO F/2.8 7-14mm PRO.
Our original test was to include astrophotography, but the Cloud Gods were unhappy that evening and we settled for roaming the desolate streets of downtown Phoenix on a late Monday night. There we played with Live Composite Mode and the city’s light rail system, while also checking out local art work. Live Composite is great because it allows you to create long exposures at night without having to worry about over exposure.
On Day Two we trekked out to the edge of the Sonora Desert around Superstition Mountain where we checked out the Elvis Chapel, a quick hiking trail, and a Old West style mining town. McClure encouraged me to shoot using Art Filters like Dramatic Tone I (bold colors) and Dramatic Tone II (black & white). This filter has long been one of my favorites — it creates ultra high contrast images that appear super sharp — and in the desert landscape, results in pretty spectacular material. Some scoff at using Art Filters and other in-camera effects, but I say why not embrace what your camera offers. And, what’s great about shooing with the OM-D line is that, when you’re shooting RAW and select any Art Filter, the camera captures one JPEG image using the Art Filter, and one completely tone-neutral RAW image (no filter applied). It’s basically the best of both worlds.
So what’s it like shooting on the OM-D E-M1?
The E-M1 will be familiar to anyone who has recently shot on Olympus gear, but the learning curve will be speedy for anyone who has ever shot with a DSLR or ILC. Having spent most of my Olympus time with the E-M5 II, I was right at home with the E-M1’s menu system and performance features. But I have to say the E-M1 feels more rugged in hand, there are more customizable buttons, and the flip up (and down) rear touchscreen display is perfect for shooting low, high, or at eye level.
The other great thing about the E-M1 is that, as we reported earlier this fall, it’s about to receive a significant firmware upgrade (read about all the updates HERE). Olympus describes its dedication to support current models with big upgrades as a chance for their customers to “download your next camera.” I love this.
Overall, the E-M1 is easy to use, fast, a strong performer. It remains highly recommended, particularly when one considers the impending Firmware Update. My only complaint was its Time-lapse movie mode, which processes and creates an in-camera 720p HD video of stills captured during interval shooting. The quality was a little low. However, this is one of the areas where the M1 will change with the new firmware, jumping up to 4K internal Time-lapse. As for the lenses we tested, both are excellent. I love the surreal imagery the 8mm produces, but if you can only get one, the 7-14mm would likely make a more versatile member of your M4/3 kit.
Even better than testing out the gear was getting to know Olympus Visionary, Alex McClure. If you’re ever in the Phoenix Area, and looking to take a class or join a photo guild that has monthly activities to help you learn and grow as a photographer, definitely look him up at AlexMcClurePhotography.com.
Thanks again to Olympus and Alex for another grand adventure!