After a 15 year ride on the rollercoaster that is the San Francisco startup scene, I moved back to my hometown in early 2020 to be closer to family. After going head's down in work mode and getting adjusted to our new remote world order, this year I finally got back to one of my favorite old hobbies: photowalks.
“Photography is a love affair with life.”
— Burk Uzzle
I just love going out to find interesting shots, taking little day trips around town to different spots. I’ll put the earbuds in and get into a flow state almost instantly, walking around while pleasantly lost in thought, people-watching and hunting for angles.
What really motivated me to practice my shooting skills more regularly is that I bought an actual real camera last summer, a Sony ZV–1. It came out last year as the first of a series of models made specifically for content creators and vloggers, with especially impressive 4k video output from a 6k sensor.
Well ok, it’s technically a point-and-shoot instead of a “real” camera with giant interchangeable lenses, but it’s my first non-phone camera in years and more than real enough for me. It’s been fun to put it through its paces and re-learn the basics like exposure and aperture.
A super obvious insight: pretty much any camera is good at portrait and macro shots compared to even the best smartphone.
I knew intellectually that cameras took good closeups but I'd gotten used to the programmatically-generated “portrait mode” as a substitute. There really is just no comparison though when you want to get a nice crisp foreground subject that’s bathed in a deliciously blurred backdrop.
Check out the little details around my dog’s face for example, with the intricate whiskers and hairs that usually get wiped out in my iPhone's portrait mode:
Another thing a camera does easily is to blur foreground elements:
I could be biased but I think those photos “pop” more, although honestly I’m probably the only one that notices. It’s become a pleasantly entertaining hobby even if these details end up going unnoticed by others.
It’s turned into a fun game to learn my camera better and find the kinds of shots that it’s uniquely good at.
Here's a few more examples with buttery smooth backgrounds:
Also, it’s been an interesting learning experience to find out what a camera isn't good at.
I knew that our incredibly capable smartphones have spoiled us these days with crisp images under most conditions, but I still assumed that photographs I liked were "good" in the sense of "good for a phone". I figured that these amateur phone pics couldn't hold up to the larger dedicated lens and sensor of a semi-pro camera.
That turned out to be true. Well, kind of.
Apparently there are a wide variety of situations where a bigger camera still can’t beat our tiny little pocket companions, especially when doing things like handheld landscape photos or stabilized video. Those types of shots have invisible amounts of complexity under the hood that I never really appreciated until they came out blurry or shaky on my fancy camera, and I’d often still prefer shots from my phone even if they didn’t.
I realize now that my camera & phone both take amazing shots, just in different situations.
So in the end, my trusty old iPhone X also took a bunch of my favorite photos this year. Plus all of the camera’s output would end up on the phone anyway because that’s where I do color correction and share to social media, so I definitely got a lot of use out of both devices as a pair.
Another thing that’s great about photography as a hobby is that it can be a great icebreaker with strangers that are doing interesting things, like when I came across an artist teaching their craft to the next generation.
With my camera in hand and inspiring me to drive around town for no good reason, I found myself seeking out colorful areas that looked like they had a story to tell. A recent highlight was Chicano Park, home to the country's largest collection of murals.
I’m especially grateful that this year included much-needed getaways to Julian and Big Bear, driving winding backroads through panoramic country scenery. It was exactly the change of pace I needed from feeling cooped up.
One of the unexpected highlights early in the year was walking around a partially-opened Disney California Adventures on my birthday. It was an incredible opportunity to go into a theme park for free and simply absorb the ambiance without any rides, something that will most likely never happen again.
One place I particularly missed after moving away was Balboa Park. It’s just such a unique location: a world-class zoo, 16 museums and an assortment of theaters, gardens and other cultural highlights, all in one immensely walkable location.
My wife and I love it so much that we got married there!
We’re fortunate enough to live near a charming little hippie beach town named Ocean Beach. The slow pace of life and central location make it a hidden gem right in the middle of the city.
Although I grew up here and thought I knew the town inside out, it turns out that I still have a lot to learn.
I’ve been completely oblivious to the calm river that runs right through the middle of San Diego.
I’ve seen a few people fish and bike along the banks, but for the most part it’s empty by design because it’s meant to be unspoilt as possible. For example, kayaking is forbidden except for one time a year during an organized event to clean up litter.
Of course, no photo set of San Diego would be complete without its marquee attraction: the gorgeous beaches. Nothing clears my mind like taking my dogs out for a walk and getting some sand between my toes.
And rounding it all off, here's grab bag of random uncategorized photos that caught my eye: