eFields: The Anatomy of an Obsession

Dear World,

As you know by now, I go from one obsession to another. This aspect of my personality used to drive me crazy, but I learned to accept it as a strength, instead of a weakness. I call my obsessions “Exploration Fields”, or simply “eFields”. An eField usually starts from something I read, and usually takes a life of its own.

I identified seven phases of the development of an eField.

1. Discovery
2. Research
3. Tooling
4. Tinkering
5. Refinement
6. Mastery
7. Incorporation

The seven phases overlap substantially. Usually a phase ends well after the next one started. Some phases keep on going indefinitely, while others are only short lived. Sometimes the progression stops, and I lose interest in the eField.

Discovery starts with something I read, hear, or something that I am otherwise exposed to. It usually comes in the form of some striking and fascinating new concept that catches my attention and makes me want to know more.

For example, at some point many years ago, I was  browsing the shelves of a bookstore and stumbled upon a book on High Dynamic Range Photography, or HDR. The images were so striking that I became fascinated with it and could not help but fall in love with the possibilities. I found out that HDR imagery is created using specialized software from a set of pictures of the same subject taken at different exposures. That blew my mind, and I was hooked.

When an eField catches on for more than a few days, I enter the Research period. This is when I get excited, and intellectually go as deep as possible. I read anything I can on the topic, purchasing dozens of books, and scouting the internet for knowledge. I find out who the experts are, examine their work, and choose my champions. This is an intellectual preparation phase designed to acquire the knowledge I need to dedicate myself to the eField. During this phase it is difficult for me to keep my mind off it.  I love this phase. It opens up new neural pathways in my brain, and expands my knowledge of the world.

In the case of HDR photography, I spent several weeks amassing a large number of books. I found many great examples, and created my own taste for a particular style of HDR that I call Hyper Photography. This style is realistic, and differs substantially from extreme HDR imagery, which I do not like at all.

At some point, if the eField is still interesting to me, and while I am still researching, I enter the Tooling phase. In this phase I start acquiring whatever tools and materials are going to be necessary to experiment with the eField. This is a more material preparation phase, and often an expensive one.

In the HDR example, I started evaluating and purchasing HDR software packages necessary to create and manipulate High Dynamic Range imagery. I also acquired a better camera with bracketing capabilities (able to take many consecutive shots at different exposures.) Finally, I got a solid Manfrotto tripod, which is indispensable for good results.

As soon as I have enough tooling to be able to start do something practical in the context of the eField, I enter the Tinkering phase. In this phase I start executing, using my new knowledge to create and learn hands-on. Note that the tooling phase continues during tinkering, as I discover new tools and materials that I need.

When I was in my HDR tinkering phase, I started going out and taking as many HDR photos as I could, and spent countless hours processing them. You can see my HDR photography here.

The progress from Tinkering to Refinement phase is a smooth, and happens naturally if I keep being interested in the eField. During refinement I practice, and practice, and practice some more. I make mistakes, correct them, rinse and repeat. Many times.

I cannot remember how many thousands of HDR shots I took and tossed, but I remember waking up every Saturday and Sunday at 4 in the mornings to go hunt for the perfect light conditions. Images like this one were created during that phase.

There is a moment after lots of refinements that I feel like I mastered at least some of the aspects of the eField. When I enter the “Mastery" stage I calm down and things get more relaxed. I continue tinkering and refining, but less aggressively and obsessively.

It took me a couple of years to enter the “mastery” phase of my HDR photography eField, but I am still tinkering these days on non-mastered aspects of it. Tinkering never ends, as complete mastery is simply impossible.

Past the mastery phase, I enter the Incorporation phase, when I simply inject the knowledge acquired to fuel something else I do. That "something else" could be another eField, or just an everyday moment.

For HDR, I started incorporating HDR techniques to other forms of photography. For example, for a while I experimented with long-exposure HDR imagery or in night photography shots. Still today I take many HDR shots when the light conditions are extremely difficult or impossible for traditional photography. I do it automatically, without thinking about it. HDR is simply another photographic tool in my belt, and I use it without thinking about it.