Why Photography Is Like an RPG

A few months ago on Twitter I mused that preparing a photography kit for a trip was a lot like equipping your character to go to battle in an RPG. Why? Assuming you don’t have a bag of holding,* you only have limited space to carry things in most travel-friendly bags, so you have to plan ahead about what kinds of foes (read: photographic opportunities) you will face. As I get ready for my next trip, I’ve put a little more thought into this metaphor, so what follows is part photography guide and part geek-out session.

For instance, every fighter has his favorite sword, and every photographer has his favorite walkaround lens. Some of us like a superzoom, while others (like me) go for quality and image stabilization of a shorter zoom. My Tamron 17-50 VC doesn’t have great reach, but it serves my purposes well both in daytime and in low-light. A walkaround lens is a Jack-of-All-Trades, which means it won’t give you the best possible results, but its flexibility means you shouldn’t go on a trip without one. In fact, it may be the only lens you take! But one word of warning: the kit lens that came with your camera is probably not your best choice for a walkaround lens — it’s a little bit like leveling up your character in an RPG but still using the first sword you ever bought.

Specialists, though, will often choose a difficult weapon to master. In an RPG this means a weapon that starts out weak but builds a lot of power as your skill increases. For a photographer, the closest experience is having a prime. We children of the digital age are a bit spoiled by zooms and variable focal lengths, yet the prime lens is an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. The fixed focal length of a prime means that you can’t use it in every situation, but having a couple primes in your bag will prove valuable on most trips. My Canon EF 50mm II, aka the “nifty fifty,” is light and, at a price of $90, it’s almost disposable in the event of evil wizardry a travel accident. It works well as a portrait lens, a low-light lens, and a street photography lens. My Canon EF 28mm isn’t nearly as versatile, but is suitable for use in close quarters and when photographing museum pieces** — but stay out of the sun with that one! At the longer end, my Canon 85mm is great for portraiture and sneaking up on targets, though in some situations I need something with even more reach.

If the trip includes a zoo, outdoor performance, or a sports game, you might want to hit far away targets, and the photographer’s longbow is the telephoto lens. Regrettably, this is the weakest lens in my kit, a Canon EF-S 55-250 IS, but that’s because I do most of my fighting, er, shooting up close. Yet it’s also a very light lens, meaning I can always pack it and still have room for my good lenses.

On the other end of the focal range are flowers, bugs, and other small subjects, the kinds of things you’d like to shoot in a park during spring or early summer. Though you’re photographing tiny things, the best lenses in this case are actually pretty hefty, such as my Canon EF 100mm Macro. It’s easily one of the heaviest lenses in a photographer’s kit, and though it doubles as a long portrait lens on my Canon 50D, its bulk and narrowly defined function means it stays at home most of the time. (It’s a little bit like that Mace of Undead Smiting in an RPG that doesn’t work so well against other beasties.)

Let’s talk about something more useful. A wide-angle lens is like an area effect magic spell; sometimes there’s just so much in front of you that you want to get it all in one shot. You should consider a wide-angle lens such as the Canon EF-S 10-22mm if you’re going to be shooting moderate-to-brightly lit interiors, such as Chinese temples, or most landscapes or public squares (Tiananmen, here I come). Note, however, that a wide-angle lens won’t work miracles in dark places. Most lack stabilization and are just too slow.

To complement your array of weaponry, you’ll need a good spellbook — or just nice accessories. If weather is a danger on your quest, consider All-Weather covers for your camera, lens, and bag. If you must journey into dark caves and hollows, your external flash and bounce filter makes for a nifty globe of illumination. If you don’t know how long it’ll be before you can return to town, a battery grip and a few spare batteries can make the difference between life and death taking or losing great shots. Also, a Lenspen, while not a complete cleaning solution, is a veritable cure light wounds for your camera’s filters and objectives. Last but not least, a carbon fiber tripod is every photographer’s friend when a hex potion curses you with unsteady hands or you don’t trust another adventurer to take your picture. (I usually don’t.)

Finally, no would-be warrior or photographer would be complete without his sidearm. In most RPGs this means a dagger or other short weapon, but for photogs, it’s a Micro 4/3s camera or other quality compact. In my case it’s a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, which is more of an enthusiast’s camera than the latest and greatest piece of kit. But it’s pretty powerful in its own right, and lets me work HDR magic or take nice black and whites. The main advantage of a compact backup camera should be obvious the first time you’re shooting with a telephoto lens and suddenly need to go wide on a shot.

So there you have it: 13 years of photography and 16 years of playing RPGs crammed into one 1,000 word blog post. The important thing to take away from this is that planning for travel photography should begin as soon as you have your itinerary ready. Think through the venues and your photographic needs and choose the lenses that best correspond to your overall plans.

* I have it on good authority that LowePro is set to launch their Camera Bags of Holding line any day now.

** Don’t underestimate the value of a fast, short lens for museum photography. As long as you don’t use a flash you can shoot freely in most museums.


Site Notes

Tonight I played with WordPress.com themes a bit before settling on PressRow and uploading a header image. (The picture above the masthead should be iconic for people who’ve lived in Tianjin without being a photo that “screams China.”) Though many of the themes look great, one annoying thing is that so few of the fixed-width themes available can accommodate medium Flickr images without resizing or partially cropping the pictures. Even Youtube videos feel the pinch on some themes. Now, I’m not super-keen on flexible-width themes, but we really need themes for 800 pixel resolutions these days? A lesser annoyance, but worth mentioning, is that few themes look right when using sidebar widgets — formatting is always a little off.

That said, my choice of theme may be moot, since most of you who read this blog — if you do read it — are probably doing so through a news reader, so any aesthetic changes I make will be transparent to you. Syndication has the potential to replace most direct blog visits, and I’ve already seen some bloggers start to link using syndication links rather than direct blog links, which could diminish cross-blog connectivity. For instance, if I link to a Feedburner RSS link for someone’s blog post, then she will likely see the incoming link from Feedburner, not from me. Traffic remains the same, of course, but, what if, on top of these developments, there were also a universal way to comment blogs without visiting them? If that were the case, why would anyone directly load a URI again? That’s one ultimate direction we may take when we separate form from content.

Webby musings aside, I’ve made another small change to my blog content by adding a second miniblog powered by Fanfou, the Chinese Twitter/Pownce clone. I had initially tried to use the QQ-integrated Taotao but Tencent has annoyingly established a daily quota for registrations and I lack the patience to keep trying. Thankfully, I chose Fanfou after a pointer from a Twitter friend and found it more user-friendly (not to mention better-looking) than Taotao. As some readers will note, my Fanfou miniblog is in (bad) Chinese. Other readers will just see a lot of gibberish in the sidebar. To clean up the RSS a bit, both the Twitter miniblog and the Fanfou miniblog are syndicated through a Yahoo! Pipe* that strips out the name from the beginning of each post. The only drawback to this is that updates are a little slow.

On top of the changes listed above, I also reorganized my tags and categories to strip out some redundancy and clarify things a bit. On a professional WordPress install, the right plugins can make this task easy, but on WordPress.com, editing tags, and, to a lesser extent, editing categories, is a chore. I’m lucky my blogging output has been so light — I had to edit all of my posts manually to clean up the tags and categories. I like WordPress a lot but the lack of built-in tag management has always been a little disappointing.

* Pipes, which allows for all kinds of RSS syndication, is just about the best thing Yahoo! has done in years.

In Search of Status Synchronicity

Like a lot of bloggers, I’ve taken the status/miniblog plunge in the last few months.

  • I used to use Jaiku before China blocked it.
  • I’m using Twitter because it’s still unblocked and a bit more communication-friendly than Jaiku.
  • I also have a Facebook account and update my status there.

This kind of blogging is on my mind because WordPress just introduced Prologue, which as far as I can tell, is a bit of clever theme coding that emulates Twitter in group form. In fact, Prologue doesn’t represent a terribly new concept, since short-post form sideblogs have been around in WordPress for years, but it looks nice and is bound to give people some new group blogging ideas.

But the addition of Prologue to the WordPress theme set also reminds me of a problem arising from the glut of status/miniblog services, namely, how can we effectively manage updating so many different services with our information, and how can our friends access our statuses or miniblogs in a convenient manner? This echoes the old “how many blogs do you need?” question, but with statuses the possibility for redundancy is far greater.

For example, Facebook offers both a current status feature and posted items feature, which, in turn, provide the same capabilities as Twitter or Jaiku. In my case, I usually make my Facebook status the most “personal,” since it’s for my Facebook friends only, whereas my Twitter is public and therefore has less “man, I drank too much last night”-type statuses, but there’s still overlap. If I joined a Prologue blog, would my posts there be significantly different from either Facebook or Twitter? It’s doubtful. On another front, I’ve considered making a Chinese language miniblog on Taotao, since most of my friends on Twitter can’t read Chinese and would probably get a screen filled with boxes when they see my status updates. Yet fragmenting my writing once again doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

Overall, if there was a way to easily synchronize status updates between the different web services, it’d be a boon and cut through the clutter of managing and reading so many different services. (The alternative, of course, is to only use a single status service — or no services at all.) There are some messy web applications along these lines, such as the Twitter application for Facebook, which turns your Facebook status into an ugly “X is twittering:” line. But what’d really be helpful is a software solution, possibly designed along the lines of Thwirl, that’d let me manage all of my statuses or miniblogs from one place. This would require either sticking a lot of different API-handling features into the software or having the web companies standardize their posting APIs.

Similarly, if the program included an interactive “status reader” that pulled all of a person’s statuses which are visible to you* together for you to read, it’d make following someone’s activities more interesting and enjoyable than by loading each service individually. This may actually be the easiest part of the program to create, since most statuses are output as XML and are thus easy to present to the end user. But it’s important to make it more than just a glorified RSS reader.** It needs to be interactive by ensuring that the status reader is compatible with the web service that the status is being pulled from. For example, if I see that my friend Ed on Facebook has a big job interview tomorrow, I should be able to click on his name and send him a Facebook message of support. At the same time, if I see that a friend from Twitter has posted an interesting link, I should be able to click on her name and send her an @user message. The heart of the reader side of the program would be a “status address book” that contained each friend’s various status feeds, which could either be manually input or discovered via email address input.

Over time, I expect that the status update services will go the way of the IM services and social networking sites, which started out numerous but have slowly faded away into duopolies like Facebook-Myspace and MSN-Google Talk. Consequently, over time, my software bleg might be rendered moot by user preferences, much as multi-platform chat has become less innovative with so many new users sticking to MSN or Google Talk. But for now it’d be a damn cool tool to have.

* The key here is “visible to you.” If the status would not be normally visible to you, you shouldn’t be able to read it. Privacy matters.

** RSS readers make blog reading much easier, especially here in China where loading individual pages is slow, but the lack of interaction through the reader — I need to load the website directly to comment — has always struck me as a weakness.