How to Find the Best Photographic Vantage Point

Isn’t this an amazing time to be interested in photography. Whether you’re a fan of the hype or not, the announcements of new tech are almost never ending. This week Apple announced the iPhone 7 Plus. With this Apple showed off the first dual camera on an Apple smartphone. This was something I had been anxiously awaiting. Just the technical achievement in having two different camera sensors, two different focal lengths, in your pocket, brings a whole new life to what’s photographically possible.

Nikon, Canon, Sony, Samsung, and all the big tech names in photography have been working diligently on that steady pace of incremental advancements that we often scoff at in tech reviews, and perhaps some would say boring. While we always want to see giant leaps from one year to another, the slow steady incremental advancements in technology are usually how innovations are made. This has been said for a long time over the history of technology. Walter Isaacson took a fantastic long look at this concept in his book The Innovators which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic.

Another camera company currently working on multiple sensors I’ve been eagerly following is Light.co who have been developing a camera called the L16 which uses 16 different sensors. Light.co is taking a different approach to multiple sensor from Apple and LinX. The new iPhone uses two sensors to house two different focal length lenses where the user can choose to use one or the other. Light.co is taking a 16 images from 16 different sensors and stitching them all together for a final 50mp high res DSLR-like image. But none of those advances alone can create beautiful or successful images. After watching the progress on the L16 for a while I was thrilled when they asked me to explore the aspect of  finding a good “vantage point” for photography here on my blog.

There are so many elements to photography which come together to make an image “successful,” and when it’s done really well it’s hard for the viewer to even put their finger on why, they just know they like it. One of those elements is the vantage point of the image, and that’s what I’m exploring here today.

The Jordan-Hare Stadium Vantage Point

Jordan-Hare Stadium at Night
Jordan-Hare Stadium After a Difficult Loss

A “vantage point” is a “place or position affording a good view of something,” and it’s not always the most obvious place. What’s unique about this vantage point at Jordan-Hare Stadium is how well it tells the story of this particular night. You can see so many visual elements within the frame, thousands of solum fans milling around from edge to edge, the blackness of night soaking down all around the stadium, except inside where everyone’s left. Even the trash around the grounds tells part of the story. Then you have the stadium itself. A solid, strong, towering creation stretching endlessly around the block, patiently waiting for next time, the next game.

Since we are now full-force into the college football season in Auburn the image I decided to start with is this photograph of Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn that I took after the Auburn vs LSU game. While I’m offering a few suggestions from the perspective of Jordan-Hare Stadium as the subject, this will work well in any large venue. So, to find the best vantage point for any given image I would offer up these three suggestions.

1. Explore All Possibilities

It took me years to find some of the obvious locations to capture the best images of Jordan-Hare. And it took exploring the stadium for all possible angles, from all possible vantage points 365-degrees around the stadium grounds, and at all given times night and day. I’ve shot from the ground, from the top deck, on the walkways, from Plainsman Park (the baseball stadium next door), from the basketball arena (both of them), from super far away, super close up, and all points in between. Some I like more than others, but I keep coming back to this one spot on the south side of the stadium.

In fact, the vantage point where this image was taken wasn’t even possible years earlier before “the night the barn burned” to the ground during the 1996 Auburn vs LSU game, and more unique vantage points have grown up over the years as Auburn has grown. I finally found one of my favorite spots after a very dejected loss to LSU as fans slowly sulked out of the stadium. I ran up to the top floor of the parking deck on the south side of the stadium and captured a few images with my camera perched on the concrete wall.

2. Always Have a Camera With You

As security at big events has become tighter and tighter it’s been more and more difficult to get high quality pro gear in or near sports venues. Auburn implemented a no-DSLR rule a while back (though I would argue not for security reasons), and now they have a restriction on the length of lens you can bring into the stadium (i.e. have with you because you aren’t going to walk back to the car once you are there). So, the compact cameras have now become my go-to cameras when it comes to shooting scenes like this, but you never know when you are going to find that perfect vantage point, so always have a camera with you. This shot was taken with a Nikon D700 (a 12mp full-frame DSLR, which at the time was huge) and the Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 lens, neither of which I could get in with today, but it was what I had with me that night. As Chase Jarvis has famously said, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” For secure venues like this almost any compact camera will do. I love the Fujifilm X70, and the iPhone, both fantastic cameras to take this very shot. Once the L16 openly available in 2017 it will probably fit the bill in an amazing way.

3. Ask the Local Photographers

This is something I think many of us are hesitant to do. We photographers can be very competitive, threatened by anyone with a camera self-conscience types, always questioning our own work and hunting down the best vantage points. So the thought of giving up your sacred secret spots was once taboo at best, but has since vanished (for the most part) with the proliferation of photography in our digital age. Besides, what’s the worst that can happen, they don’t respond or say no, but any time someone asks me where I took this or that shot I’m more than thrilled to point out the specifics. So my suggestion would be to hit up the locals wherever you are on Twitter or Instagram and just ask. Most likely they already know where the best vantage points are, and are happy to share them with someone who also has a love for photography.

One thing Apple did was bring photography to the masses, a fundamental shift in the world of photography. That didn’t make everyone an award winning photographer, but it removed biggest barrier, owing an easy to use camera. Whatever the camera, constantly trying to improve my own photography is one reason I’ve spent so much time studying photography on every level I can find, the #VantagePoint being one of those areas. I especially love deep thick philosophical photography books, and one of the absolute best I read this summer was The Road to Seeing by Dan Winters which I’d highly recommend. Until next time, happy hunting that unique vantage point.

Graflex Speed Graphic Medium Format Film Camera

If you study the history of photography from it’s first shot through today’s almost incalculable iterations, you will see the art form takes on an enormous range of artistic expressions. I’m actually proud to say I started off in the age of film photography. I know what it’s like to have to be super intentional about the exposure, about getting it right the first or second time because film cost a fortune, and getting it developed cost even more. I also know what it’s like to take a photo and not see the results for a week or more (that was probably the worst part about shooting film back in the day), which made improving as a photographer a slower, more intentional process. Looking back at all that film I shot, I know it helped me tremendously when it comes to shooting in today’s digital world.

My grandad was a photographer as well, and he of course also did all of his work in film, but it wasn’t the 35mm film I grew up shooting, it was a medium format, 4×5 film, and still popular 220 film roll that he used. The one 4×5 negative I still have of his is this self-portrait, taken with the very camera showcased in this post. It was taken back in the 1970’s (when you kept cameras for more than a year or two), back in a time when these were called “self-portraits” not selfies.

I was given his camera a few years ago and took it back out over the weekend. I’m always contemplating giving film a go again, until of course you consider medium format film now is like $40 for 10 sheets it’s hard to pull the trigger. So instead I took it for a spin and made it the subject instead of the shooter. Maybe one day I’ll splurge and shoot some film through this camera, but for now, it’s such a great looking classic view at a little piece of photographic history.

Graflex Speed Graphic with 135mm f/4.7 Lens
Graflex Speed Graphic with 135mm f/4.7 Lens
Graflex Speed Graphic with 135mm f/4.7 Lens
Graflex Speed Graphic with 135mm f/4.7 Lens
Flash for Graflex Honeywell Strobonar
Graflex Speed Graphic 220 Film Rollers
Graflex Speed Graphic 220 Film Rollers
Alpex Light Meter for Graflex Speed Graphic
Graflex Speed Graphic Camera Case

Post Process of Smelling the Roses

I finally had a chance to get out and “smell the roses” as they say. I’ve found it to be harder and harder over the years to just slow down and spend an hour or two walking through the property, there always seems to be something pressing that needs attention, and that is not my most enjoyable (or effective) pace. I took a few images here straight out of the camera that were my favorites. There was no post-processing done on these images, they were the jpg’s right off the card (and as such need a little sharpening and so on).

For those who don’t quite get the often-misunderstood post-processing world, it’s really hard to shoot in-camera today without post-processing in mind, but it’s only a “process” to develop the artistic expression of photography, it doesn’t make bad shots better. Black and White film photographers were probably the ones who perfected the post-process in their personal labs (my grandfather had a great one in his basement). I find post-processing a valuable and perfectly acceptable part of the photographic process. It has always been a part of the art of photography (even Ansel Adams post-processed his B&W’s), and it takes just as much art to post-process well as it does to take the original image well. You still have to create the absolute best image within the camera to start with, otherwise no amount of post-processing will matter.

But, never mind all that today. I did some depth-of-field shots of our roses in the garden, and then again with the wildflowers growing out in the pasture, and then of course of the cat. Have you ever tried to get a young cat to sit still for a portrait? That’s why I’m so impressed with good cat portraits, they really aren’t as easy as one might think.

Portrait of Emerson the Cat
Rusted Tractor in the Pasture
Red Wildflowers in the Pasture
Spring Roses in Bloom

That On Again Romance with Photography

One of the first pictures created was said to have been taken in 1838 by Louis Daguerre, which shows Boulevard du Temple, in Paris. Susan Sontag in her classic 1977 criticism On Photography said “to collect photographs is to collect the world,” and as a photographer I often ask myself, hasn’t the entire world been collected yet? Why does the world need one more photographer taking one more photo?

The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. ~On Photography, 1977.

The answer often seems much more complicated. What is amazing about Sontag’s words from almost 40 years ago is we actually haven’t yet photographed Plato’s cave, our world. Today we upload over 2 billion images a day to social media sites, and just trying to figure out how many images may have been taken in the world is basically impossible. How, with billions of photographs being taken each day, has the entire world yet to be fully photographed? Because time is always moving forward, and the world is always straining under the constant change that time provides. If constantly changing, the art of photography an always ever changing medium, showing the world we live in 1/250th of a second at a time. A small point in time, but one that will never happen again.

For the past 25–30 years or so I’ve had this long standing love-hate relationship with photography. Mostly love, for the art itself, mostly hate for the business side of photography, never quite able to conquer it’s depths. I’ll shoot non-stop for years. Then comes the demands of life. The experience of skilled knowledge, equipment needs, changes in the industry, copyright issues, lack of funding, unrealistic expectations (from others and myself), lack of focus, busyness of schedules, doubt, lack of “paying” customers, drive, will, desire, on the list goes, until one day I say enough is enough, I don’t need you anymore photography. Then, inevitably, eventually, I come back once again, sad that I’ve been away for so long. I guess everyone needs a break now and then. And realistically, I really never did leave you, I just prioritized you to my back pocket and a phone. I’ve still managed to take at least one image a day for years on end now (half a million images and counting). There is just something special about having that DSLR in my hands that makes it official, to say, I’m serious about you, it’s a photograph with purpose, intent, where you have my full attention.

wisteria-spring-2016-a
Spring Wisteria Blooms in the South
kodak-instamatic-1982
Kodak Instamatic Photographs Taken by Me in 1982

I could say I’ve been intrigued and fascinated with you going all the way back to my first camera (an eternity ago back in 1982), the Kodak Instamatic. Of course I had to give you up when Polaroid sued Kodak and won. That taught me some valuable lessons in photography I still remember today. The joy of seeing those instant results, the disappointment of when you were taken from me, before I was ready. I so fondly remember that first “serious” film SLR (a Nikon N70). You were so kind, but often so unforgiving. Then that first DSLR (the Nikon D100)… once again being able to see instant results just like I did back in 1982. Since 1982 some type of camera has been in my hands practically every day, so see, I never really left you. I have, however, taken a break now and then when you’ve been too much for me to handle.

azaleas-spring-2016-b
Spring Azalea Blooms in the South

Our longest separation from “serious” work came in May of 2013, and ended today, with the fragrance of wisteria and azaleas blooming in early spring as they do down here. The seductive pinks and purples of spring arriving in the South, beaconing for someone to see them and take note, to capture their brief beauty. You could say it was like a long lost romance returning after many years apart. That familiar look and feel, but refreshed from being gone for so long. Exciting, alluring, the same, yet new once again. Like the past had been forgiven, perhaps forgotten. Together again, present at long last, ready to move on with life, a little older, and hopefully a little wiser.

wild-flower-spring-2016-a
Small Wildflowers in Spring

How does one keep alive, rekindle, redefine, a 25–30 year old relationship that’s been confined to the back pocket of my jeans for a few years? How did it take this long to be ready for a lively conversation, living life together, discovering new things once again. Why do the eyes see things new and fresh that have been right in front of them day after day after day without notice. Complacency, or maybe just familiarity?

This time around it feels different. There is more purpose, more direction, perhaps more intentionality not to delay anymore. A longing to forego negative opinions and detractors, to follow the will and the call to use the gifts so graciously given. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead. To collect the world once again with purpose and intention, a sliver of time measured in fractions of a second. To find those things, and places, and people that have yet to be confined in a photograph, in Plato’s Cave.


On a practical note… I am creating an actual portfolio over on https://scottfillmer.com, something I’ve wanted to do for years. Head over there for a place to let the photography speak for itself, and stay tuned here on my blog for a more casual commentary on photography

Fall in the Face of a Child and His Parents

The Brian Johnson Family

Last week I did a photo shoot with this little guy and his family. I love his countless expressions, his pure innocent adoration of his father, and the love he has for his mother. Here are a few shots from that day on one of the last warm days for a while. We just barely have enough leaves on the ground to make it somewhat fall like, but being the first of November, fall is finally here.

The Brian Johnson Family

The Brian Johnson Family

The Brian Johnson Family

The Brian Johnson Family

The Brian Johnson Family

The Brian Johnson Family

The Brian Johnson Family

The Brian Johnson Family

The Brian Johnson Family