Year of the Alpha – 52 Weeks of Sony Alpha Photographyby Toni Ahvenainen

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Year of the Alpha – 52 Weeks of Sony Alpha Photography

by Toni Ahvenainen

Introduction

My name is Toni Ahvenainen and I am a 37 years old photography enthusiast who works as a graphics and web designer in Finland. I bought my first own digital camera, Sony Nex-5N, about two years ago and was immediately bitten by a photo bug. During my first year I took over 26,000 pictures, but as much as I liked it, after year and a half I found myself going in circles. I felt I was taking same pictures repeatedly and that there wasn’t anything new to shoot. I could take a couple of interesting shots every now and then, but never found a real reason to do it, because I didn’t have any meaningful place to put them – even in my hard drive I never found appropriate folder name for them. In short, I had locked myself inside my own perception and I needed to find a new direction to my photography.

Late 2013 I decided that the year 2014 would be my year of photography, in which I would concentrate in developing my own photographic eye and also get some publicity to my work. With some planning and inspiration from various ‘365 days’ projects I decided to put up a similar photo blog. After couple of months of hard work Year of the Alpha – 52 Weeks of Sony Alpha Photography’ was born and I started my year of photography at January 1st (and will end it at 31st December). So far it has surpassed all my expectations. In first month my photo blog gathered over 40,000 page views, which is quite nice considering that couple of months ago I was just taking pictures on my own and never sharing them with anyone. I’ve also received so much encouraging and positive comments from friendly photographers that it has really affected me deeply. Starting a photo blog has really been a magic carpet ride for me and my photography.

In this article I will introduce my photo blog and share some of the photographs I’ve taken during the first three months. I will also discuss some methods and ideas I’ve found useful while trying to develop my photography. I hope it will be an inspiring read because one of my goals has been to share inspiration with others.

What is Year of the Alpha?


Year of the Alpha – 52 Weeks of Sony Alpha Photography’ is a photo blog where I share my work on a weekly basis at least two images per week and often more. Name of my the blog refers to Sony Alpha brand (no affiliation with Sony corporation) and with this conscious choice as I’m searching for followers who use Sony Alpha photography equipment – but as photography is pretty universal I believe anyone can enjoy it. Chronologically Year of the Alpha is divided into five seasons. With every season I will explore a different theme, all of which are attached to my subjective taste and perception of photography. So far only the first season has been completed. Season of Blackness concentrated on lo-key photography with creative edge and most of the photographs you see here are from that season.

You can find my photo blog here: http://www.yearofthealpha.com

As I said earlier, Year of the Alpha has surpassed all my expectations. I’m mostly surprised about the way it has triggered my creative spot and make me take photographs I never dreamed of before. It’s been a good start and since it’s all about sharing inspiration, here’s what I’ve learned so far.

1. Being able to create photographs continuously is a state of mind 
When I started my endeavor the first thing came to my mind was, how I’m going to find something meaningful to shoot every week continuously for full year. It takes a fair bit of commitment to keep on working with your photography for full year and that’s what the most people are afraid with similar photography projects. Before I started I had, like everyone else, different concerns regarding why it might be difficult to find anything to shoot. You know the story, it’s the lack of ideas and inspiration, bad weather and lighting conditions, mundane close environment, not enough time, bad camera gear etc. Now when I look back after three months of shooting, I’ve come to realize that these reasons are not really about circumstances, they are about state of mind.

If there is one lesson that I’ve learned so far, it is that active photography creates new opportunities and great photographs by its own weight. If you just take your camera everywhere you go and keep on shooting even when circumstances don’t seem fruitful at first sight, you’ll be amazed how much there is good photography to be made. It’s not about ‘finding good subjects or circumstances’, but expanding your own consciousness regarding what you think is good photography. Learning to find new creative possibilities is a process which will happen in one’s mind, not by acquiring new gear or just wandering about in hope of a good situation. Limitations are good, because creativity happens if it has framework which it can challenge. If there is no framework, in other words limitations, there is no creativity either. It’s a self-strengthening process, first you just need to let go of perception that there isn’t anything to shoot – there is, you just have to shoot to see it.

2. Finishing your photographs will close the feedback circuit
The second thing I’ve learned with my project is to finish my photographs. With today’s digital cameras and their massive memory storages, it’s easy to keep on shooting actively but never sit down to really look what you have done. The problem with unfinished photographs is that you are not truly engaged with your photography. Not selecting the best shot, not cropping it for best composition, not post processing it and not declaring it ‘ready’ is same as leaving your work halfway. Half-cooked pictures will not provide you enough feedback neither will they guide your learning process, because they will leave backdoor of your mind open for all kinds of excuses. 

Once I started my photo and was forced to finish my photographs properly, I quickly learned that finishing them will essentially close the feedback circuit of my own mind. After I’ve selected my shot, post processed it and declared to myself ‘it’s ready’, I can evaluate my success and failures more clearly. I would also recommend to put your finished photographs in a special place where you can see them all at once. When you see them there next to each other, you can finally start asking questions. ‘Why I like these shots better than those ones’, What’s common with most of my photographs’, etc. This kind of evaluative view over your own work will help you build up understanding of yourself as a photographer. But it requires that you have engaged with your photographs, which rarely happens if one doesn’t them finish in the first place.

3. Develop your photographic eye with goals and limits
The third thing I’ve learned with my photo blog is that I can develop my photographic eye by setting myself different tasks with goals and limits. My tasks are related to five different seasons which I’m carrying out, but they can obviously be anything from single photographs to total body of work. Setting yourself goals and limits will greatly benefit your photography. First of all, they will give you a guideline which to follow. Persistently diversified paths of endless possibilities will narrow down to something meaningful one can actually hope to realize. Having a goal makes it possible for you to plan your photography and planning means that photographs are something you make, not just randomly take from your surroundings. Secondly, the limits you impose will determine if you are succeeding or not. It’s soothing to have at least to some extent a clear indicator for succeeding. Of course you can make great pictures without limits too, but it’s easy to shoot too diverse stuff and not have a clear understanding of what makes them great in the end. Thirdly, the goals will make your work ready. They will define the stage when you’ve done your job. Without the goals defining the limits, one will easily splash across different objectives and nothing gets done to an end. And finally in the end, how you solve these tasks will shape you as a photographer. Starting a 365 days or 52 weeks project is great way to concentrate on developing your photographic eye, but one still needs to guide it with goals and limits to make most of it.

4. Anyone can do it
If I would have to raise up one thing from this lengthy article, it would be that anyone can do it. Internet opens up a new ground for creative ideas and it’s not meant just for big software developers like Flickr or 500px. It’s also a playground for single individuals who want to find new ways to refresh their photography. With all the diverse services available, one can build up their ideas and get them running very fast with very little costs. It’s been quite fascinating to see what I’ve achieved with my photo blog so far, but it’s not anything unseen before – others have done it before me and with much larger scale. In fact my photo blog was very much inspired by Italian photographer Luca Rossini, to whom I need express my gratitude for all the inspiration and help. But the bottom line is, anyone can do it.

What’s next?
I’m currently running my second season, Season of Tilt, in which I will try to guide my photography to more personal realms. Season of Tilt could be described as a psychologically tilted season which merges things from my dreams, memories and inner feelings. Name of this season also implies to Lensbaby which has been kind enough to support me with their most interesting lenses. With Season of Tilt I’ll be using exclusively Lensbaby Composer Pro with three of their most sought after optics: Double Glass, Sweet 35 and Edge 80. If interested, you might want to follow it through just to learn more about them. 

Thank you for reading my article.

Now, get inspired, create your own project and enjoy doing it!

Sony Nex-5N, SEL50F18, ISO400, f/4.0, 1/1250sec

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Sony Nex-5N, SEL50F18, ISO200, f/2.8, 1/13sec

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Sony Nex-5N, SEL50F18, ISO3200, f/4.0, 1/400sec

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Sony Nex-5N, SEL50F18, ISO640, f/1.8, 1/80sec

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Sony Nex-5N, SEL50F18, ISO100, f/6.3, 1/800sec

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Sony Nex-5N, SEL1855, ISO1600, f/11, 1/4sec

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Sony Nex-5N, SEL50F18, ISO200, f/2.8, 1/30sec

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Sony Nex-5N, SEL50F18, ISO250, f/4.0, 1/80sec

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Sony Nex-5N, Lensbaby Edge 80, ISO400, f/4.0, 0.8sec

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Sony Nex-5N, Lensbaby Edge 80, ISO100, f/2.8, 1/80sec

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Sony Nex-5N, Lensbaby Edge 80, ISO100, f/5.6, 1/1250sec

Image-11Sony Nex-5N, Lensbaby Edge 80, ISO100, f/5.6, 1/1250sec, Raw

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52 Comments

  1. I totally agree with most of the ideas you point out here, Toni, specially with photography as a ‘state of mind’, or rather as a way of thinking/living/interacting with the world around us: that’s absolutely true!
    Also, commitment, work, passion, and persistence, it’s very important to work seriously from beginning to end (not leaving things unfinished, as you say) and enjoying the whole process.
    I created my own blog almost 2 years ago and I have consistently posted at least 3 times per month (the goal was weekly posts, but my articles are rather lengthy and full of images so that’s not always possible) but I have never embarked on a specific project, and that might as well be what I need to go a step further in my photography!
    Thanks for sharing your story!

    • One Nex-5N, a simple Led-light, Lightroom for post processing and some creative thinking. Really, most of the pictures are not so difficult. I just make sure I’ve made ‘things interesting’ before I press the shutter. Using darkness goes a long way really. The thing is to avoid ‘normal’ circumstances and adding surprising elements, like things that are not usually connected to subject, etc. It takes a bit effort but is much more satisfying than casual photography. 🙂

    • Thanks for your kind words, Jim! Coming from such an experienced professional photographer like you, they mean much to me.

  2. Very nice images!! Mystery, light, beauty… all there. Bravo!!
    (Didn’t read the text tough, images are still stronger than words.)

  3. Really great pictures. Remarkably sharp with slow shutter speeds, tripod? (The subject matter doesn’t seem like bring-a tripod occasions.) Really steady hand? Resting a on a table? What’s you’re secret?

    • Hi Ben and thanks for your kind words. Actually with just one picture uses tripod (the lumberjack picture of my brother). Most of the slow shutter speed photos are taken with SEL50F18 which has Sony OSS (stabilized lens). It’s amazing how one can take sharp 1/10sec pictures hand held with that lens. Taking pictures in darkness is great because I can drop ISO to 100-400 and have a great dynamic range for post processing. As much as I have eyed the new A7 cameras I feel Sony is missing similar large aperture prime with OSS. FE55 would be perfect lens with OSS. 🙂

      • Interesting…been thinking very seriously about picking up the SEL50 1.8 for my NEX 7 but I didn’t think OSS made such a difference at slow speeds. I too am waiting a bit on the A7, and the A7s makes me think they’re moving my way and the longer I wait the better…

        • SEL35 1.8 is even better for what I’ve heard. I don’t have it, but I think 35mm fov would suit me even better than 50mm which is kind of long with APS-C (75mm).

        • Upon reflection, I need to correct my standing corrected; I have a great number of lenses with an “”Alpha” mount, none of which will fit any NEX camera without an adapter. It seems to me the type of lens mount is a bit more important in terminology than a small letter “a” on the camera. This may seem like nitpicking, but if I were to offer for sale a lens as fitting a Sony Alpha, the purchaser might be just a tad upset to find that the lens would only fit a NEX camera. Of course, Sony has knocked all of this Alpha/NEX terminology stuff into a cocked hat with the new run of cameras: A7/a5000/a6000.

  4. Hi everyone and thank you for all the kind comments so far! I was just about to ask Steve to estimate when my story would be published and I found out that he had already done it! Thanks Steve, you’re the best! 🙂

    I really appreciate that people take their time to read the story and comment my work. I feel that I’m succeeding in something and it inspires me to continue. One of the nicest things with my photo blog project is that I get to meet all kinds of photographers who happen stumble on my blog. I always try to check their work and give them feedback if I find something meaningful to say – and I’ve tried to reply to all comments I get in general. Now that I’ve found that Steve already published my story and that there are so many kind words shared here, I try to reply to at least some of them. 🙂

  5. As someone who has also been swept into photography by the NEX-5n, I say congrats my friend. Great pics! I get a lot of funny looks for bringing a “point and shoot” (sigh!) to photo shoots, but with the 50mm 1.8, there’s no limit to what these cameras can do… only your imagination holds you back. Way to go! 🙂

    • You’re so right Steve. For me Nex-5N was perfect because it wasn’t a big DSLR and with my little ‘point and shoot’ I could go and learn phography without too much of a pressures which using a DSLR might have given me (especially front of other people).

      You’ve got amazing pictures in your facebook profile!

  6. Some very original photography here, Toni. I particularly like the image of the baby in yellow with white polka dots.
    I share your philosophy: ” If you just take your camera everywhere you go and keep on shooting even when circumstances don’t seem fruitful at first sight, you’ll be amazed how much there is good photography to be made.”

    Nick

  7. Skipped the story but really like the images; they’re very imaginative. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I like your blog and also your thoughtful and philosophical musings. They go perfectly together! And the photos are very inspiring!

    • Thanks for reading my texts also! Always loving it when I notice that people have take their time to also read what I’ve wrote. 🙂

  9. great photos! some real keepers and you have a great attitude

    would however make a simple suggestion;

    stop using “I” and “my” so much in your narrative. When you get informative and drop the first-person your words are as interesting as your photos. When you insist on at least one “I” and “my” per sentence it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard

    You have a lot of talent and it’s evident. no need for the drumming

    Cheers (really)

    • Thanks for your nice comment. I really appreciate you mentioning this since I’m not a native english speaker and writing my stories in english takes a little work. In future I have to pay attention to this manner of ‘I’ and ‘my’. 🙂

  10. Your graphic design experience reflects beautifully in your photography which is clean and devoid of clutter. Very nice images.

    • Hi Clint,
      Actually I think with all of these I’ve used matrix-metering, but I always use the exposure compensation to make sure I have proper exposure. Doing dark scenes with matrix metering often requires something like -1.0ev to make pics black enough.

      ps. Following your flickr-stream

  11. I like all the photos – I think however that the narrow depth of field in the 3 photos starting with the lumberjack take away from the feeling as a whole. Lumberjack’s whole scene is well laid out, but the frontal blur is distracting. The cars on the street have that miniature look which I find a bit contrived. The baby is cute but his legs blur so much as to distract too much. I imagine this was all intentional – and you’re a pro – but I feel that these photos would have been better without the lensbaby.

    • Hi Michael and thanks for you comment. I’m not a pro by any means and I can say that I’m still learning to use Lensbaby lenses. It takes a bit more thinking and planning, because you have to think what you are trying to achieve with a distinctive look they offer. They are not a everday lenses (at least to me) and some of my shots succeed better than others. I think the picture of Aura works better in small and with the original context, which you can see here: http://www.yearofthealpha.com/home/2014/3/29/lookalike

    • Hah! 😀

      Nex-series also belong to ‘Alpha’ brand (logo is engraved to the body and UI), even if they have e-mount. Can’t blame you though, since Sony surely has created a lot of confusion with the current rearrangements of the Alpha brand. 🙂

    • @bmlsayshi:

      Then you disagree with the brand owner (Sony) which clearly state that the NEX (“New E-mount eXperience with Alpha”) series has been part of the Alpha series, just like the ILCE-Series of today is part of the Alpha series now.

      BTW, I am happy if there is NO IBIS inside a camera body – who needs a stabilizer (moi, non…)…?!

    • Hi there Mogaiyone!

      Not sure if you mean this in a positive or negative way about my photographs, but I thought I might share something about my post processing. In general I photograph everything in raw and post process my pictures with Lightroom and Photoshop. Most of my work (95%) is done in Lighroom and I sometimes use VSCO (#4 slide films). VSCO gives nice colors, but I try to make sure that colors in my pictures look ‘mine’ and not ‘the faded film look’ which is often associated with VSCO. With Photoshop I have Nik Collection and although there are lot of stuff in it, I mostly use just ‘Pro contrast’ from Color Efex Pro. I also have some Mirabella action scripts which I from time to time but in very subbtle way. In general I try to avoid the look that looks processed, but there are exceptions too.

      ps. You’ve got great b&w pictures in your own photo blog.

  12. Toni- nice work! I thick that you would make any brand work-its your eye!…. Daniel

  13. This is my favorite set I’ve seen on here in quite some time. Really great shots, lighting, and PP. All-around awesome. Keep it up!

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