Jeremiah Rogers

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Wed, Dec 31, 2014

Every year I review my favorite pictures to see what I can focus on for next year. For 2014 I decided to focus on photographing pictures of people.

Here are my favorite images of people from 2014 and the stories behind them.

Single frame from Hanoi, Vietnam showing the insane nature of traffic. June, 2014.

Woman walking in the Ginza district of Tokyo. April, 2014..

Group exercise in Beijing, China. August, 2014.

The rainiest day on my trip in Shanghai, China. May, 2014.

Kids running to cross the street in Kyoto, Japan. April, 2014.

A crowd of people watching the sunrise at Mount Bromo. August, 2014

Climbing Mount Bromo in Indonesia. August, 2014

Kid eating ice cream on the sidewalk. Beijing, China. August, 2014.

Motorbikes blow through an intersection in Hanoi, Vietnam. June, 2014.

Boys driving through the flooded streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. November 2014.

Military officer standing watch after the coup. Chiang Mai, Thailand. May, 2014.

Boys jumping into the river in Siem Reap, Cambodia. November, 2014.

For 2015 I’m going to focus on taking better pictures, getting closer to people, and telling stories.

Tue, Dec 30, 2014

With long exposure photographs like the one below half of the magic is just waiting to see what shows up. This time the magic didn’t arrive.

I like how I can see people walking in and out but I was hoping that the long exposure would better show the volume of people moving. It doesn’t reflect the insanity of a morning at Angkor Wat at all.

Why did it fail? To show people moving in a long exposure you tend to need a lot of people or a long time. If someone moves fast they’ll only register as a ghost.

To show many people you need many people. I should have gotten more into the crowd and set a longer shutter.

Here’s are two more shots from the same day that I think failed for a similar reason.

And finally one from back in June in Hanoi that I love.

The Leica M9 is not a good camera for long exposures. It always takes a noise-reduction shot of the same duration after each exposure. If you shoot for 60 seconds you’re then wasting the next 60 seconds waiting for the camera to clean up it’s noise. That noise-reduction shot isn’t necessary on Nikon or Canon cameras.

Sun, Dec 28, 2014

I got an email last night from a friend of a friend, a new photographer, asking for advice on what to read, what camera to buy, and how to avoid having things stolen abroad. Here’s roughly what I wrote back.

What to Read?

To take pictures you first need to learn how to use a camera. Ansel Adams covers that in The Camera ($18, paper only). Just buy it, it’s awesome. He perfectly explains what aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focal length mean and how to combine them to get the effect you want.

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” - Ansel Adams

Using the camera is really only the beginning. As Ansel Adams said “there’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Afterwards you will want to read The Art of Photography ($20 kindle, more expensive on paper). It’s similarly great. I recommend a few more books on photography here but this is all you need to start with for good technique and composition.

The next step is to find photographers you actually like and try to emulate their work. Only draw inspiration from what you see circulated online if you want to. A friend of mine describes 500px as “mostly shitty over-edited stock photography.” I tend to agree. I’d suggest looking through either Magnum or VII Photo for inspiriation. Those photographers are outrageously good and you won’t get a photograph like theirs for years. That’s fine, but I think the higher you aim the better. My favorites right now are Alex Webb and Sebastio Salgado.

Camera Basics

I think you should probably use a fixed focal length lens, also called a prime lens. These are lighter and higher quality than zoom lenses and they teach you to move your body around to compose a photo. One of the less known facts about cameras is that zoom lenses aren’t the same as walking closer or further away.

When you walk closer to something the perspective changes and the picture looks more three dimensional. If you zoom in from far away the picture looks more flat. Fashion photography is often done from far away with a long lens to flatten features like noses. If I got up really close and photographed you, your nose would look huge in relation to your face. It’s not flattering.

If you imagine a person standing in front of a statue, they will be smaller than the statue if you zoom in on them. If you get closer to them they’ll appear almost the same size as the statue or larger. These perspective changes are all over photography and they communicate something even to people who don’t understand them. A huge part of any creative endeavor is doing subtle things on purpose that people will never realize were done on purpose.

I tend to use short focal length lenses (50mm or lower, these days 40mm or lower) to show people the right perspective. I don’t own any zoom lenses. Most of my professional journalist friends also only shoot with primes unless they are getting paid.

Primes are lighter and higher quality than similarly priced zoom lenses. If you have the time to move around and shoot, taking pictures with primes is rewarding. I’d suggest geting something at least f2.8 or wider (so f1.8 and f2 would be fine, f1.4 is overkill). My main lenses right now are a 35mm f2 and 40mm f2.8. I used to have an f1.4 but traded it because it was pointless.

What’s a Good Camera for Under $300?

Buying a good digital camera, one where you can really learn to photograph and take pictures of people, is difficult for under $300.

My top suggestion based on personal experience would be to get an old crop-sensor Nikon body (D40, D90, D3100, D3200, D5100, D5200) and the excellent Nikon 35mm f1.8 dx lens (hereafter called a 50mm equivalent lens). Shop around until you can find a body for around $100 and try to get a used copy of that lens for $150 to $180. It can be done.

If you’re skeptical about buying used equipment on Amazon I can suggest either buying from Amazon Warehouse Deals or buying from B&H in New York or the Adorama used department. All three of these sellers are reputable and allow returns.

That Nikon 35mm f1.8 lens was one of my best performing investments ever. When a major earthquake hit Japan, lens production stopped for a while, and I managed to sell it for $350 after buying it for $195 on the street in New York City.

Canon and Nikon are roughly equivalent. I like Canon’s high end DSLRs and Nikon’s low end DSLRs. Nikon makes better lenses for their entry level cameras.

You don’t necessarily need an extra battery but I’ve always enjoyed having an extra. It eases my anxiety about a dead battery since I have never drained through two full batteries in a day. I have drained one full battery in a day, but only about 10 times in five years.

It also makes it easy to always have one battery in the camera and one in the charger — avoiding leaving the house without a battery in the camera. I generally use no-name third party batteries and they work fine. My only camera for the first four years I took pictures was a D40 and that lens. With the super fast f1.8 lens the D40 was fast, light, and usable in all kinds of light.

The lens I recommended above is a “50mm equivalent” lens. Today I use 35mm and 40mm equivalent lenses more often than 50mm equivalent lenses, but 50mm is often better to start with. The compositions are tighter, you can stand further away from people, and the lenses are cheaper.

All Henri Cartier-Bresson used for his personal work was a 50mm lens. So I’d argue that it’s good enough for anyone. I mostly use 35mm because I like to sit down and let people, especially kids, walk up to me. A 35mm is better when you can’t back up.

Making Your Camera Look Cheap

I cover all of the logos and brand names on my electronics with black gaffer tape. The amazing thing about gaffer tape is that it doesn’t leave any residue when you remove it. Gaffer tape is about three times as expensive as duct tape and three times the quality. It’s used by lighting crews in Hollywood to secure and then remove cables.

I regularly have people ask me “what happened to your laptop?” and “why don’t you buy a nicer camera?”. That’s the benefit of coating my electronics in tape to make them look cheap.

In a developing country someone’s going to steal anything that looks expensive and fencible. You’ll need to protect your gear. I don’t even go to the bathroom at a restaurant I trust without my laptop under my arm. That said I think covering my new Canon 6D with gaffer tape and creating my own strap

Blacking out logos and using a cheap strap doesn’t make a camera any less expensive, but it makes people question the product they see and if it’s broken or even the brand they assume. Unless you read the inside of the lens this could be an old Pentax.

Shoot a Lot

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” ― Henri Cartier-Bresson

My final advice is to shoot a lot of pictures. Having images in RAW is cool, and I do it, but I kind of hate it. RAW files take up a ton of storage and take a long time to edit. Those Nikon cameras will give you good enough JPEG files to print directly.

I wouldn’t worry about shooting in RAW for the first six months. Just go take pictures all the time, bring your camera wherever you can, and think carefully about why each picture works or fails.

Fri, Dec 19, 2014

My friend Alex Bain pointed out that it might be fun to discuss photo failures, what I tried, and what didn’t work.

One of the best stories I remember reading about photography was by William Klein. He captured this amazing image of a boy pointing a gun at him.

Although it looks like it, the gun photo isn’t a candid. Klein says:

“…It’s fake violence, a parody. I asked the boy to point the gun at me and then look tough. He did, and then we both laughed. [I see it] as a double self-portrait. I was both the street kid trying to look tough, and the timid good little boy on the right.” (Klein, 2011) from here

Last week for fun I tried the same thing with some boys I found playing with a toy gun in Siem Reap. I said “look at me and try to look as angry as you can.” I smiled, then aped a gun and looked really angry so they would know what I meant. The best I got was this fake laughing/angry face. Not a bad outcome for a country with a language barrier, but nothing great.

My favorite image from the set is the last one. It’s nothing special, but I like the way that the boy is looking at me.

Wed, Dec 17, 2014

When I worked at Facebook we had a concept called “Fail Harder.” In Facebook culture it’s better to get something out and test it and see if the idea even works than to refine an idea until it’s perfect and then finally, after you ship, find out that it sucks and no one wants it.

“Fail Harder” means don’t be fooled by your own hubris, don’t pour a ton of engineering into a project when you don’t even know if anyone will use it. Instead throw things against the wall and see if they stick, throw them away when they don’t, and keep grinding away at them in the rare cases that they are a success.

You think Facebook was explosive success from start to finish? Not at all. Easily four of five ideas Facebook tries fall flat on their face. One in five explodes. Facebook succeeds because it embraces failing.

We, as humans, are remarkably bad at predicting the future. Embrace that. Your half baked shitty solution is going to be a pain to maintain but it’s going to be better than a fully baked solution that no one needs.

My Failures

“Persistence isn’t using the same tactics over and over. That’s just annoying. Persistence is having the same goal over and over.” - Seth Godin

At the beginning of this blog I had an idea. I loved Maciej Cegłowski’s writing. I loved great images. I thought I could try my ass off to emulate that content and probably make enough, say $20,000/year, to pay for myself to travel and tell stories indefinitely.

I’ve failed a dozen times, I’ve at times been intensely discouraged, but I’ve also made almost $2,000 in my first year as a writer and a photographer. It’s not enough to support myself full time but it’s a solid start.

My past year as a full time blogger has been a remarkable shitstorm of failure, but my God have I learned a lot. I’ve tried tons of ideas, failed at 810 of them, and immediately moved on.

  • I thought that a photography blog could fund itself by selling prints. I sold five. I also learned that I have basically no interest in taking photos that someone would want to frame on their wall.
  • I thought that non-clickbait writing could do well on social media. It doesn’t.
  • I thought that affiliate income could scale from $150 per month to $1,000 per month. Nothing in the world can make that shit grow, I’ve tried everything.
  • Even though the idea seemed insane, I figured maybe someone would want to donate to support this blog. In an hour I put up a donation form and this year it earned over $700.
  • I thought most of my income for the year would come from a holiday print sale. I even made it donate half of the profits to the best charity in the world. It failed so hard. I sold five prints and made about $65 (but we also donated $65).
  • I put up a paywall and a day later realized it was a horribly flawed idea. No one wants to pay for something they can read just by resetting their browser cookies. I pulled it immediately.
  • I created what I thought was great stuff and saw it get no response. I saw massive response for creations I thought were mediocre.
  • Finally, I thought that a paid mailing list was a vague idea that only my close friends would pay for. It now pays almost all of my rent. While some of the subscribers are relatively wealthy friends, the majority are more distant connections. Most surprisingly, only four of the subscribers are people I talk to every few days. My cohort of 20 close friends really doesn’t want to pay me to write, but a ton of people I talk with less often, and a bunch of people I’ve never met, do want to pay and love it.

My biggest lesson from all of this is that you should not, by any means, listen to what people tell you that they want. Follow the money. If I had $20 for every person who said they love my pictures and want to buy one I would be living off of print sales. If I had $5 from everyone who said they were just about to subscribe to The Signal I’d have twice my readership.

People, myself included, don’t know what they want to pay for until you show it to them. Finding the right market takes trial and error.

As the year closes I have been wondering: Would I be happier if I had just taken this time off to travel and not written a thing about it, not published photos, and never tried to make money? Would I be happier if I took this chance to totally withdraw from the world and explore myself?

Definitely not. I’m not the kind of person who can sit quietly and enjoy life. I like to tell stories and I like to create things. I need to a project to work on. The human experience needs to be shared.

I’ve also realized that I like to fail. I’ll keep failing. I get enough of a rush from one success to justify a dozen failures.

Khmer Boxing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. December, 2014.

Money Sat, Feb 22, 2014