Back to Shooting


A few days ago I wrote about how my muse seemed to be stuck somewhere on the 110 near Staples Center, a metaphor implying that my creative side is just waiting for her to show up so that I can carry on with whatever I was meant to do on this cruel material sphere.

By the end of the post I decided that I can’t wait for her to show up; I had to be the one to make the move. And on Saturday, I did just that.

I was perusing the website of the Evil Empire for some reason or another, perhaps because I had been approved for one of their credit cards and was looking for some last-minute Christmas gifts. That’s right – last minute in October. We are DONE with our shopping before November as is always the case. We are by no means a Black Friday shoppers regardless of the bargain. Even better, we are not Thanksgiving shoppers because that shit’s just not right.

At any rate, I was looking at cameras because, above all else, I really miss taking great pictures with an DSLR. I had bought an Olympus EVOLT E-500 back in 2007 and I used it for the longest time until a little baby Monte decided to get all rubby against my wide angle zoom a few years ago, knocking it to the ground and pretty much destroying the insides. Digital cameras and lenses are nowhere near as durable as old film cameras. I’ve learned.

From that point on, although I still had a zoom lens, I gave up on DSLRs. It’s hard to shoot with only a zoom lens and most were out of my price range. The 8MP Olympus – the company has since trimmed down their camera line to only a few models – cost me well over $600 at Circuit City, a kit that came with the body and two lenses. Granted, you can now buy cameras of greater caliber for less than that but, as always, money was the issue.

But this time I had my Wally World credit card and was hoping to find one on the cheap. HA! How silly to think I could.

Or was it?

I came across one, the Nikon D3100, on clearance for $319: body, wide angle, and zoom lenses included. Even so, I debated about buying it because, you know, credit cards and all. I debated so long that by the time I threw it into my cart, I got this message.

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Aw man. I was crushed. I was this close to having the thing and missed out. Oh well, I guess it wasn’t meant for me to have another DSLR right now.

But I didn’t give up. I shopped the Walmart app which had several different models marked down for even cheaper, despite them only having one lens. I screencapped them the few I wanted and drove over to my local store to see if they had them in stock.

They did and I was happy. But when the associate was flipping boxes around in the storage cabinet, I noticed something: the Nikon D3100 set I had been looking for, the one that was supposed to be sold out online and in-store. No. Way.

I asked the associate if he could look up the price of the set and he told me that it was over $500 the last time he checked. If so, I would have to settle for the Canon Rebel T3i that he had in his other hand.

He scanned the Nikon D3100 bundle and *BOOM* it was $312, $7 less than the sold-out online price.

I’ll deal with the ramifications of credit card payments later. We normally pay them off each year once we get our tax refunds anyway. I whipped out my card and happily signed the cardholder agreement. I was officially back to shooting with a DSLR.

Of course, shooting it wasn’t immediate. I was going from one brand to another and naturally there is a learning curve with all the new bells and whistles that go along with it. Not only that, button placement varies from model to model. What was once the bracketing meter button is now an Info button and so on. I opened the box and gingerly unwrapped each piece of my new toy. I found the battery and charger and immediately plugged it in so that it could get a decent charge and I could test the camera.

About an hour later I put the battery in and went outside to see what it could do. Shooting in Auto mode, here’s one of my first decent shots.

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Why yes, it is an image of fall colors in the gutter after a small rain storm.

I continued to shoot in Auto until I could get a feel for button placement and functions. I tried a handful of lighting situations and most of the shots I took were mediocre at best because, well, Auto. But I have to admit that this takes pretty good shots in low light. This was with the candlelight and a small red bulb to the left off-camera.

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I was already feeling the creative juices coming back and I was so happy to get back to shooting with something other than a crappy smartphone camera because, let’s face it, they are all crap when compared to a device dedicated to doing only one thing: taking pictures.

Sunday came around we had some errands to run, namely buy groceries. You gotta eat. On the way back from the store, we passed Forest Lawn cemetery where Ann’s grandparents were laid to rest. I noticed that there was banner outside for a Dia de lost Muertos celebration happening at 4:30 that night. I thought it would be a great event to shoot and also experience something we’d never seen in person before. Ann, who hadn’t been there since her grandfather’s funeral, was reluctant but I made her go and see them. She needed to.

Before the event I could see her already tearing up with memories of the time she’d rather forget. I saw myself rolling her up the ramp in a wheelchair – she was on doctor-recommended bed rest while pregnant with Anthony – like 2003 was yesterday. It was getting harder for her as we got closer to the mausoleum where her grandparents rested.

But we made it and shed some tears and memories – and a few laughs knowing how mad Grandpa would be for her waiting 11 years to come see him. I can see him sternly standing there like a rock, at ease, shaking his head in disappointment. Once a Marine, always a Marine.

With our visit over, we headed outside and found seats for the event. It was, for all intents and purposes, a bilingual Catholic ceremony as I expected it to be. That meant it would be extremely long as Catholic ceremonies usually are. Plenty of time to take pictures, right?

One of the beautiful things about Dia de los Muertos is that it is a colorful event even with its somber tone. It’s a day when the wall between the spirit world and the real world are torn down and the living spend time with their loved ones who have gone before them. Food, music, and the deceased’s favorite items are shared and displayed on an altar built by their relatives. I couldn’t think of a better place to take pictures, and nowhere I would have rather been regardless.

Before the ceremony began, the audience could leave the name of their loved one on a tree for them to be included in a prayer service. And although I’m no longer Catholic, the feeling I got knowing that this was part of my heritage was overwhelming so I added Dad’s name to it and shed a few more tears.

(Note: In my haste, I seem to have forgotten that Dad was born in 1933. I’ll chalk it up to emotions. Sorry, Dad.)

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Once the event began, Anthony and I left our seats to stand near the altar and take pictures of the Aztec dancers and with the sun setting, the lighting was darn-near perfect.

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The dancers were amazing in the celebrating life/death cycle. Again, I’m proud to call this part of my heritage. Once they were finished, a priest took over the microphone and pontificated, in English and Spanish, about the usual Catholic theme: “Are you ready to die?”

I’m ready to live, thankyouvermuch. We made a hasty retreat to walk around and take more pictures.

By now, I was feeling comfortable with operating my camera and decided to take it off of Auto and go full Manual. Not only that, but full Manual with an external flash. Here’s how that went.

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In my eyes, few things are more beautiful than religious imagery and symbols. Although my beliefs have changes, I still find a bit of comfort looking at these objects. These were on a table under a canopy and I aimed my flash to 90 degrees to have it bounce off of the canopy, gently lighting up everything. Any other flash setting would have been too harsh for the subject matter.

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The priest speaks from the altar. I was at the last row of seating for this shot and the external flash did a nice job illuminating things just right.

And finally, this last shot of the night seems to be my favorite.

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The seated men are Forest Lawn officials and something about their chairs’ shadows struck me as I was wrapping things up. I couldn’t leave without this shot which was taken with no flash, using only the available lighting. They are listening intently to the priest, the sun is still setting, the colorful altar paying tribute to souls lost. This one pretty much captures the spirit of the entire event.

Oh and Anthony? His old man is teaching him to shoot with his old camera so he gets used to a DSLR which I gave him. He’s only 10 now but by high school, he’ll have more experience than I did at his age. He’ll be a pro.

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Here’s one of his shots from that night.

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I give him credit: moving objects aren’t always easy to capture but he did a fine job because like me, he will learn.

So with all that said, I made the decision to forget about my muse ever showing up at my door for tea and going right for the throat by making things happen on my own. I can’t recall the last time I felt this creative or artistic, plus showing Anthony the ropes of digital photography is something I’m really looking forward to.

And for what I’m already getting out of it, this may be the best $312 I’ve ever spent.

You can see the complete set of photos at this Flickr set.

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