Two lenses are better than one

It’s not often that I find myself shooting alongside another photographer. With the exception of sporting events, most of my assignments are solo affairs. It’s usually just me, and sometimes the reporter, and whatever event or person we’re covering that day.

So when I got two weeks of vacation to take a road trip to some great national parks with Michael, I was looking forward to seeing what our different creative eyes would come away with. Though we’ve both worked as photojournalists before (he at his college paper), he now works as a wedding photographer while I’m still at newspapers. I find my style is more photojournalistic, while his eye is more artistic.

We’ve been on many hikes, road trips and adventures together. We’ve even photographed a few weddings side-by-side. And I’ve often found myself marveling at the compositions he finds. This trip was no different. It feels as though a lot of this comes down to a willingness to experiment and look beyond the obvious. With newspapers, you are doing these things but you are also trying to communicate as much information as you can with one image, and it doesn’t always leave a lot of room for something out of the ordinary.

A lot of this is, I’m sure, my own worries. Yes, newspapers can be more traditional, but I also know that there are many fellow photojournalists who take chances with their images every day and come away with something beautiful. Whether it comes from the culture of their newsroom, personal drive, or some combination of the two, I’m not sure. It’s been a long while since I’ve had a photo editor that has encouraged me to push my boundaries and appreciated something a little different. Now that I’m really the only one approving my photos for (online) publication, I find I’m picking my compositions more conservatively. Perhaps it comes down to my own hesitation to push the boundaries of what can/should be published. I know what I like, but I pick the safer choice. Some of it is also me getting into a rut with my shooting style.

The point is, when I went on this trip I tried to let my eye wander a little more. I looked for something I may not have noticed before. I think having a bit of friendly competition helped. The first few days of the trip I’d come away from a scene sometimes a little frustrated that I couldn’t make something more out of it, already knowing I hadn’t got what I wanted, and then I’d see Michael’s frames and go, “…how?!” And it made me realize – we’re in the same place. We’re shooting with the same gear – passing back and forth two identical cameras with different lenses – and I’m still getting my ass kicked. Time to step it up.

So I did. Or I tried, at least. None of these photos are groundbreaking. They won’t make your jaw drop. But they did help me break out of a bit of a rut and attempt to capture the beauty of some of the places we saw. Now that I’m back to work, I’ve tried to bring some of that inspiration back with me.

Here’s a look at some of my favorite images from our National Parks trip. We had an ambitious schedule and a lot of hiking, but it was an amazing trip. I already miss the great outdoors.

Portland > Redwoods (CA) > Yosemite (CA) > Zion (UT) > Snow Canyon (UT) > Bryce Canyon (UT) > Provo (UT) > Grand Teton (WY) > Yellowstone (WY) > Sun Valley (ID) > Bend (OR) > Portland

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As a footnote, there are two reasons for the title of this post. Often I write the title last, with whatever random phrase has popped into my head. This one partly refers to the gear we used. Michael and I shot this whole trip with a collection of prime lenses, and we were forever debating which one or two to take with us on hikes. Inevitably, we’d always wish we’d brought a different one or an additional focal length. Every time.

It was also inspired by (stolen from..?) an article I read on PDN about photo power couple Brinson + Banks. I’m no where near the skill level of either Kendrick Brinson or David Walter Banks, but these two really inspire me. I really enjoyed this read (here!) about their partnership, both personal and professional, and the advice they had to give about working as a photographer.

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Settling in

If the first two months on the job were a little quiet, things definitely picked up in the spring.

It’s finally sinking in that I’m not an intern and I get to stay here. I’ve had long-term internships in the past, and I haven’t yet been at the Statesman as long as I worked at those places. I’ve had internships where I worked 60 hours a week and might as well have been a staff member, save for what was basically an unseen asterisk by my name. Molly J. Smith, Photographer*.

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I’d say there’s a certain weight that comes with that, but upon further thought I don’t think there is. As an intern I tried to work like a staffer, and as a staffer nothing is good enough for me. There is always room to shoot better. I was dissatisfied with a lot of work from March. I saved the few frames I liked to combine with April images for a longer post, but then I got to the end of that month and wanted to go back and re-shoot most of those, too. I guess that’s a good thing – better to feel this way than content, which I find can lead to laziness.

We’re heading into summer now, and it’ll be my first summer in three years working for a newspaper and not off traveling for Rustic Pathways. I’m missing the idea of being abroad, but I’m really looking forward to spending a summer as part of the community I live and work in. The people in this area were really good to me in March and April, and I continue to feel fortunate to be welcomed into their private moments.

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at the Titan Track Classic at West Salem High School on Friday, April 1, 2016.

Quick shout out here to Salem hip-hop artist Matty – I did a shoot with Matty for the release of his upcoming album, but after reviewing the images I thought I could do better. He was great to oblige me in coming back for a quick 15 minute re-shoot later in the week. I really wanted to experiment in the industrial space attached to the paper’s building (where they used to house the printing press), and Matty was a great sport about trying out a few locations around the warehouse. There’s a lot of interesting textures, including this wall splashed with castoff ink. This second round, with an assist from Michael holding some LED lights, looked much more dramatic and interesting.

Salem hip hop artist Matty will be releasing his new album on April 5.

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___ at the YMCA on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

___ at the YMCA on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

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Not all who wander

Not all who wander are lost.

But I was.

By many measures, 2015 was a great year for me. I moved to Portland, Ore., the city that I have non-stop talked about since 2013. I worked for Rustic Pathways again, this time traveling to Australia to photograph programs in the outback and along the coast. I went on a lot of beautiful hikes in my new home in Oregon and some great road trips around the Pacific Northwest, and had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. I picked up a a few freelance assignments in Portland, and I spent a lot of time working for and learning from talented photographers I am lucky to call friends and mentors.

But for the first time in a long time, I also felt very lost. I wasn’t sure what direction I was going in, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do anymore. I’d become disenchanted with newspapers and journalism, but I’d dedicated my college career to that. I’d sacrificed relationships and my personal life for that. And then suddenly I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted anymore. It’s hard to point yourself in the right direction when you don’t even know what you’re working towards.

And then, in December, in the last weeks of the year, I found me again.

I applied for a job that I thought would be my last try at a newspaper. One last hurrah. And I went in expecting that once again I would be second place. 2015 was full of a lot of that. Close calls, but no dice. Looking back on it now, as cheesy as it is, all of those things happened just the way they should. The jobs I applied for hired people I know or have come to know, and they are great talents that are so deserving of the positions they’re in. And none of those spots were quite right for me, nor I for them. Until I found my place.

I’ve been at the Statesman Journal in Salem for two months now. I’ve been constantly impressed with my colleagues. I have realized just how much I missed that dry, dark newsroom humor. I’ve made new friends. I’ve been pushed to do better, shoot better, create better, and I’ve seen that there is still so much farther to go. I’ve been at assignments that I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear at – like the funeral home sale that was so quirky and weird – and events that made me want to cry – like the memorial for a young, newlywed marine who was killed in a training exercise. I got a call one day from the parent of a local high school student, thanking me for photographing his son in action at a basketball game. I had a stranger hug me in a park because they were so excited to meet someone that worked for the local paper.

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This is my first full-time, official job. One where my title doesn’t contain the word intern – even though, lets be honest, my internships have often been 50+ hours a week jobs. Now I’m on staff, with my own desk and official business cards and a place on the staff list. It’s a strange feeling. Some days I can’t believe I’ve made it, but then when I sit and think about things, I realize this is exactly where I should be. There are not enough words in the world to thank the people that got me here, nor the people that now let me be a part of their lives every day.

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To close… A few weeks ago I met a girl, a University of Oregon journalism graduate, working in a Starbucks post-graduation while she looks for a journalism job. She told me about her dreams and her goals and her frustrations, and I knew exactly how she felt. I’d spent a good chunk of my first year in Portland waiting tables to pay my bills, all the while dreaming of bigger and better as I watched friends and colleagues move up the ranks in our industry. I thought I was done for, many times. So I surprised even myself with the words that came out of my mouth. “Don’t give up,” I said. “It will happen. Work hard, don’t lose sight, and it will happen.”

It happened to me. I’m here. And I hope I never stop being thankful for it.

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Summer Down Under: Back to the Coast

After six weeks in the Australian outback, I returned to tropical Queensland to photograph programs based in the Glass House Mountains and along the coast. It was strange to return to the place I trained at in-country in early June; after weeks in the Northern Territory I’d almost started to forget about the beaches and forests that awaited me.

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I’d say it was nice to sleep in a proper bed again, but the truth is that missed sleeping under the stars in the outback. It was an adjustment to stay in a nice house near the beach and to have a real kitchen to cook in, rather than the camping stoves and fires we had in the outback. We had lived out of one trailer and the back of the four-wheel drive cars we took everywhere. Now I was driving a 12-seater luxury van on paved roads and I could actually unpack my bag in my room.

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The Queensland programs are based between a beach house in famous Noosa Beach and a cozy home in the Glass House Mountains. Students spend the beach week taking surfing lessons, and the other week volunteering at a local school and staying at an outdoor outback-style camp. So, not a total break from camping for me, but it still had many bonuses we didn’t have for the first half of my summer. Namely the German man who runs the place, Richard, who cooked us all wonderful meals and dispensed great advice to all of the students. Richard built the farm in the style of an old bush camp, and he runs rehabilitation programs for youth on the property. Every summer he kindly opens his home to Rustic Pathways and teaches students to work with horses, as well as a few other skills (spear throwing, boomerang throwing, lassoing, etc).

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I have one more round of photos to share from my summer in Australia, all of which are from my last ten days in country. They’re a mix of coastal photos as well as a brief return to the outback.

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Summer Down Under: Six Weeks in the Australian Outback

I’ll be posting my images from Australia across the next few blogs, this being the first post of (most likely) three. I’d originally intended to blog while I was traveling, the way I did in Asia last year, but that proved to be difficult while spending my first six weeks in the outback. Many of these images I managed to share on my Instagram when I had service, but for some this is the first time I’ve published them.

There are so many incredible things I saw and experienced in Australia, it seems almost impossible to condense over 500 GB worth of images down to just a handful to show. It feels like the easiest way is to split them into regions or segments of my summer, so this post is dedicated to my time in the Northern Territory and the outback. Australia is a beautiful and wildly diverse country, and I’m lucky to have spent time in a region that many Australians don’t even get to see.

(*The first three images are from my week of staff training in the Glasshouse Mountains; the rest were taken in the Northern Territory and Western Australia between June and July while working for Rustic Pathways.)

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Part of the reason I applied to the Australia programs, out of all of Rustic’s travel destinations, is because I wanted to spend time working with and learning about the Aboriginal community there. The Outback Aboriginal Service Program is a trip that spends time volunteering with local Indigenous organizations and schools as well as visiting a handful of sacred sights to learn about Aboriginal culture and tradition. I photographed three of these trips, spending most of June and part of July traveling between Darwin, Kununurra, Katherine and Arnhem Land along the northern end of Australia.

Aboriginal culture is thought of as the longest surviving culture in the world, having been around continuously for at least 40,000 years (though many estimates I heard are closer to 60,000 years and beyond). Many of their stories and beliefs have been passed down orally, and Aboriginals today can still look at paintings from thousands of years ago and tell you what Dreamtime story the images represent. Within Australia, there are hundreds of Aboriginal countries, some the size of small European countries and each with their own unique songs and language. Today it’s estimated that all but 13 of these languages – that once numbered over 250 – are considered endangered.

The challenges this society faces in modern-day Australia are complex, and difficult even for born-and-raised Australians to explain to visitors. I spent time in several different communities and I feel lucky to have witnessed different lifestyles and perspectives on the issue, but I am by no means an expert on the subject. There is so much more to learn and understand. For that reason I won’t expand upon it too much here, except to say a big thank you to those that welcomed myself and our Rustic students into their homes and communities. I won’t forget the magic I saw in this part of the world.

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A New Chapter

I’ve tried to start this blog so many times. I write a few lines, I erase them all. I step away and say I’ll do it next week. Next week rolls around and I make more excuses for myself.

The last few months have been exciting, difficult, turbulent and wonderful. In February, I finally made the decision to move to a city I’ve talked about every day since I left a year and a half ago. I emptied out my childhood bedroom, packed up everything that would fit into the back of my small sedan, and drove up to Portland, Ore., to start a new chapter in life.

Two days before I left, I went to visit an old friend in Southern Arizona. Dennis Moroney welcomed me to his ranch two years ago when I was a senior at Arizona State working on an in-depth reporting project about the lives of those who live along the US borders. I spent several weekends with him and his family, talking to them about their experiences running their cattle ranch only 20 miles north of the US-Mexico border fence. Dennis is intelligent, articulate and wildly interesting. He is also incredibly warm and welcoming, and I have wanted to return to the ranch many times in the two years since my last visit. I finally got my chance just before I left for Oregon, and I couldn’t have picked a better weekend.

Turns out that Dennis’ wife, Deb, and some of their friends were finishing up shearing the last of their 118 sheep. I got to the ranch just in time for the most beautiful late afternoon light, with a golden glow and a pastel sunset.

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I cannot begin to explain how lucky and thankful I felt. To make images just for myself, to be surrounded by some of the most kind and welcoming people I’ve ever met, to see all of these beautiful things bathed in this beautiful light… I was drunk on the wonder of life and my fortune to be where I was at that exact moment. It was exactly what I needed before jumping into the crazy adventure of moving.

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I’ve tried to hold on to the way that afternoon made me feel. How in love with life I felt and how lucky I knew I was to be doing something I loved just for the sheer joy of it. That’s when my images are the best: when I have a camera in my hand and I can’t stop repeating in my head, “you get to do this for a living.” That’s a feeling worth chasing.

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I haven’t shared these images because that high fades. Because many times when I looked at these frames I was reminded that I hadn’t photographed anything like that since I got to Oregon, and so I’d broken a promise to myself that I would keep pushing myself and pursuing this way of life. Every time I sat down to edit these frames and write this blog, I still felt like I was in this hole that I couldn’t get out of and that I wasn’t about to share with anyone.

That I’m sharing these now doesn’t mean I’m out of that hole. There are days where I still wonder what I’m doing and where I’m going. But I’ve learned to accept that, and to accept that I can’t have a plan for everything. Which is a very good lesson to keep in mind as in just a week I’m headed to Australia for two months to work as a photographer for Rustic Pathways, the company that I worked for in Southeast Asia last year. A summer with Rustic means a summer of unpredictability, of last-minute plans and adaptations and flying by the seat of your pants and making it look easy.

I’m very much looking forward to getting back to making images for a living. I am looking forward to getting that feeling back. And I am determined to bring it back with me, to remind myself every day that I am lucky to do this. I am lucky to see the beauty of this world and to meet people like Dennis and Deb and Penny and Vanessa, who made me feel at home the moment I walked into that barn. At the end of the day, it’s the people that make this the best job I’ve ever had.

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2014 in review

2014 has been one hell of a year.

I originally wasn’t going to do a year in review. It’s already late in January and I felt like I’d been consistent in sharing my favorite images throughout the year. But last week I was asked to cull some photos for the paper I worked for in New Jersey, and I realized just how many things I’ve photographed in 2014. There are some repeats in here, images which I’ve shared before via Instagram or this blog, and there are others that were originally marked as outtakes. They aren’t all necessarily my best frames, but I’d like to think they’re a good representation of some of the things I’ve seen and done this year.

I started 2014 living in Newark, New Jersey. I learned – among many other things – that even four layers of clothing won’t keep you warm in a polar vortex and that digging your car out of snow takes three times longer than expected. In May I left the cold and headed to Southeast Asia to work as a photographer for Rustic Pathways, photographing travel programs for the company’s website and catalog. I toured five countries in three months, dropped a camera in the Mekong River, bought a new one in Bangkok, and met some wonderful friends and students along the way.

I’ve been back in Arizona since September, and the last five months have been a nice change of pace after the frantic nature of the last few years. I’ve picked up freelance work, taken a few trips to my favorite places, and then closed out the year with a visit to family and friends in England. Now, after some much needed rest, I’m ready to get back into things. Here’s to what 2015 will bring. Big changes and new adventures, I hope.

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St. Anthony defeats Blair Academy 38-45 in the Dan Finn Classic

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Bayonne High School Drama Junior prepares for opening night of Seussical Jr. The Musical

District 16 Wrestling Tournament finals on Saturday, Feb. 22

District 16 Wrestling Tournament finals on Saturday, Feb. 22

St. Anthony's basketball defeats Saddle River Day 77-42 in NJSIAA quarterfinals

New Jersey Golden Gloves boxing tournament in Jersey City

Children learn to swim with help from Bayonne High School swim team

Hoboken Historical Museum's Swingin' Speakeasy fundraiser

Bayonne High School rehearses for performance of Hairspray

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Signs of spring in Hudson County

Hoboken photographer Craig Wallace Dale

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New Jersey Golden Gloves boxing tournament in Jersey City, March 22

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Clinton Avenue 2-alarm fire

Hudson Catholic softball defeats Morris Catholic 6-5 to advance in tournament

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Takeo

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