Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Art School Pros/Cons and Tips for Better Photos with Nature Photographer Jill Mullins

The best thing I've gained from my part time kitchen shop at Shakti Life Kitchen are the connections with like-minded eco-freak crunchy folk. Before, there was no one else in my close circle of friends I can vent to for hours on end about veganism or conversationalism. You might be inclined to drop kick us (Damn You Hippies!) for our crunchy convos; we're eco-natzis. No shame. Now that I'm trying to figure out a school path I finally had to grill my co-worker and friend Jill on her experience going to school for a Masters in Fine Arts in Photography and get some of her pro tips on improving photos and upgrading equipment.

Photo from Springstead Creek

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, Jill?
I am 32; I'm originally from Nashville; I am a photographer and kitchen manager at a raw vegan wholesale kitchen.  I have two awesome cats.

2. What college did you attend and what degree did you get?
I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from Watkins College of Art and Design in Nashville and my MFA in Photography from University of Florida.

Plant Wars series, 2009

3. What are the top three photography tips you'd recommend to a beginner?
1) Use the rule of thirds for composition and don't always put the main subject in the center of the frame - centered images can be static

2) Learn how to control exposure so you can use the manual setting on your camera, and bracket (make multiple exposures usually one stop above and below what your camera tells you) to be sure you get a good exposure. Study the light, get to know it and understand how your camera sees differently from your eye.  

3) Most of all take lots of photographs! 

Bugs that died in my house (a selection) #2,  2009

4. What's your recommendation for a camera and tripod?
Manfrotto makes the best tripods, as for cameras I'm not up to date on digital cameras but the last really amazing camera I used was a Canon 5D.  Hasselblad medium format film cameras are always on the top of my list, they have a digital one but I haven't had the chance to try it.

5. What's your favorite camera to use and why?
I use a 4x5 field camera for my more serious work when I can.  It is inconvenient for anything involving moving subjects so for those situations I use a digital SLR.  I have a Fuji S5 that I use for most situations but my 4x5 is my favorite camera.  There is just something about the medium and large format film cameras that I don't think digital has been able to recreate yet.  Also they are good for enlarging for really big prints because there is more information recorded on the larger film or digital sensor.

Jill's thesis installation, continuing her conservationist themes.

6. Would you recommend going to school for photography?
Not for anyone, you don't need to go to school to be a good photographer.  It depends on what you want to do with it and what program you choose.  I went more the fine art direction and that doesn't really qualify you for anything except to teach art, which is what I want to do.  But if your goal is to be an artist you can make great connections and get good experience with developing yourself as a practicing artist.  It can be a time where you are completely focused on your work and you have several advisors and peers who are willing to sit around and talk about your work extensively, that can be priceless if you are in a program that fits you.  

Our friend and former Shakti employee Val, working on her famous permaculture food garden. It's a lush food jungle!

There are also more technical programs and those can be useful if you want to be a commercial photographer but  for most photo jobs no degree or certificate is required so if you can learn on your own that's great.  But you definitely get access to equipment and studios that would be hard to do on your own.  Lighting equipment is expensive!

7. How about grad school, can you tell us a little about that experience?
I had a hard time in grad school, I felt that I was in the wrong program.  My work is always about nature, the environment, pollution, our culture of wastefulness and as such I wanted my work to be understood by non-art audiences as well as the art world.  

Another Favorite from Plant Wars, 2009

I was very much turned off by the elitism of art that I experienced in grad school, in which artists were encouraged to make work that referenced other artists, artistic movements, literary figures, philosophical ideas, etc. in obscure ways that I feel can only be understood by those involved in the art world.  I think that's fine for them but that is not what I am interested in and I felt stifled. I did grow as an artist but I almost feel that was in spite of the program rather that because of it.

8. What was your favorite aspect of art school? 
My favorite aspect would have to be all the other students.  I will say that my program did not have the competitiveness of other schools and we were all very supportive of each other.  I made great friends there and we still help each other when we can.  Also as a TA I got to teach my own beginning darkroom photography class and run a student gallery and I loved both of those experiences. 

Beautiful Ichetucknee Springs here in North Florida, can't wait to go back! 

And your least favorite?
Least favorite would be what I described above, being discouraged by my advisor and almost getting kicked out of the program twice.

9. What was the most valuable skill learned?
Digital printing and Final Cut Pro. The art of speaking in front of groups.

Brevard, NC

10. What are your favorite tips for getting a great composition?
I said some of it above but I will add to consider the entire frame, look over the whole thing not just the subject.  Think about the scene as a compressed 2D space and how that will differ from the 3D space before you - consider branches that appear to be coming out of your dog's head for instance and change your depth of field to push the background back or simply change your position. Have several lenses and know how to use them for different situations.

11. What would be your dream photographic situation? Job and project wise?
I would love to work for an environmental or animal advocacy group.  My dream project would be one that helped influence an environmental victory. I'd also really love to photograph whales and dolphins underwater - that would be exciting! And to travel the world photographing amazing landscapes and people.

12. Who are your favorite photographers?
James Balog is one of my favorites, his most recent project is the Extreme Ice Survey where he has been documenting vanishing glaciers all over the world and his "Tree" series was very influential to me. 

I love Joel Sartore's portraits of endangered species. Locally my favorite artists working to protect Florida's springs are Karen Glaser and painter Margaret Ross Tolbert. 

Jayanti Seiler's work on the relationships we have with wild animals is amazing.  And a big hero of mine is Zana Briski, the teacher and director from the film Born into Brothels.  Nick Brandt, Edward Burtynsky, Patrick Nagatani, Ikka Halso, John Pfahl, and Chris Jordan are some more of my favorites.

13. Do you have any recommended resources for scoring lower-priced, quality equipment?
B&H Photo Video is what everyone I know uses for film, paper, accessories, cameras and equipment.  They are trusted and have products no one else carries.  KEH I like for used equipment, they have good prices and test every item.

14. What are some essentials you feel should be in every photographer's bag?
A variety of lenses, lens cloth or brush for cleaning dust, a poncho, umbrella or plastic bag to protect your baby if it should rain (I used to get caught on trails running to shelter with my camera under my shirt, thankfully that was with a fully mechanical film camera so no electronic parts to get damaged!), and a good flash with diffuser.

St. John's River, Jacksonville, Florida

15. What's your favorite thing to photograph?
Nature! I never get tired of looking at beautiful photographs of all kinds of natural subjects - landscapes, vistas, close-ups; trees, animals, insects, flowering plants; rivers, mountains, tropical beaches. I photograph what I like to see and I get to feel like I am there when I revisit them, which I do often.  Right now I am most interested in photographing NE Florida's spring systems. 

Jill has a natural style that I admire, using earth tones and natural lights to their fullest. Thanks so much for sharing your tips and honest thoughts on art school with us. I can't wait to go on some nature photo adventures!

Anyone else have art school woes or triumphs to share? I'd love to hear it. I'm still deciding on what to go to school for, but I love practicing and teaching myself everything I can in the meantime. Send me an e-mail if you have a story to share.

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