Helen Melville Inspirational Story

©Helen Melville

When I was a kid I found photography to be incredibly enjoyable, but I never really considered it to be a career option.  It seemed too fun and too easy to be considered a ‘proper’ career.  I thought of a job as something that should be serious and difficult, something that you do to earn a decent income to pay for the life that you live when you’re not working. 

It took me 12 years to come full circle.  During those 12 years I gained some important life experiences, one of which was being in a job that paid very well, but made me miserable.  This was strange to me, as up until that point my perception had been that a lack of money was the main roadblock to me enjoying my life more fully.  I look back to that moment whenever I need to remind myself about why I work as a photographer. 

So, older, wiser and far happier, I worked first as a photography assistant and then after three years I stepped up to being a photographer myself.  I quickly realized that a commercial photographer’s task is far more challenging than any of those ‘serious’ jobs I’d had before. 

I’ve discovered that it’s that push and pull of extreme challenge against the relief of success that makes me feel fulfilled.  In those 12 years my learning of new things had slowed to a snail’s pace but now, as a photographer every day I peer up that mountain of training that’s still to go.  I climb slowly and make mistakes all of the time.  After every shoot I ask myself ‘what could I have done better’?  My achievements are much sweeter for my efforts. 

Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at the start of fall, a new set of people started fishing right at the end of the pier, flinging their lines as far out into the ocean as they could. Just as the sun edged over the dawn clouds the first albacore tuna of the day was pulled out.

It seems to me that the full pleasure of photography doesn’t come simply from the act of pressing the shutter button on my DSLR to capture a moment.  It also includes everything that surrounds the moment, from the anticipation of planning the shoot, to the interactions with my surroundings and the people who I photograph, to the pleasure of seeing the completed images on screen, to the tweaking of color grades and retouching afterwards. 

I particularly enjoy working on my personal projects, which inevitably involve overly elaborate preparations and setting myself near-impossible parameters to work within.  Perhaps ‘enjoy’ is the wrong word, since most of the time I’m internally berating myself for not moving quickly enough or for having set myself such a difficult task.  I take weeks and sometimes months to plan and execute a single image for these projects.  It’s usually an agonizing, yet also incredibly satisfying experience.

Pulling Crabs
Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III one warm morning, I found this man on the end of the pier that’s closest to the shore, rhythmically tossing out and pulling in his crab nets. The repetition of his actions allowed me the rare luxury of shooting multiple takes of the scene.

My current project started a year ago when I visited Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier at sunrise with my Canon DSLR.  At that time of the day the pier had an other-worldly quality that was unlike anything I’d experienced before.  Coney Island itself, with its creaking fairground, clattering train line and substantial homeless population was a mournful place that morning.  But once I stepped onto the pier a softness overtook.  Here the gentle chime of bells attached to fishing lines filtered through the soft wash of waves.  The local fishers chatted quietly while tending to their rods, and the occasional jogger passed by, leaving wet footprints on the spray-coated boards.  The light just before the sun rose was exquisite and it took me a few return visits to understand why.  The magenta-hued electric lights that line the pier perfectly balance out those soft pre-dawn shadows, and their color is a striking complement to the blue-green of the ocean.  The effect is spellbinding.

Pre-dawn Light
Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at dawn on this still morning, all was soft magenta and pink. I prefer to have some clouds in the sky, but here a slow-moving ship substituted to provide depth and context for the scene.

So, I now have email alerts set to tell me when there’s going to be good fishing.  On those days I drag myself out of bed at 3:30am and travel an hour to the pier to catch that five minutes of perfect pre-sunrise light.  I hope that there will be some clouds to create interest in the sky, but not too many that will block the light.  I hope that the fish will be biting so that there will be people fishing on the pier to photograph, and I hope that those people will be in the mood to let me take their photo. 

Complementary Colors
Shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III the magenta tone of the pier lights can be seen reflecting off the ocean. Back on the pier these lights fill out soft pre-dawn shadows and are a striking complement to the blue-green of the ocean.

It’s times like these that I’m relieved that I have incredible technology at my fingertips, when I can at least rely upon my Canon EOS 5D Mark III to perform!  I’ve always used Canon, from my first film camera through the various iterations of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III.  All those years ago when I decided to become a photographer the first L series lens that I bought was the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, and it’s still my reliable go-to for projects like Coney Island, where I need to quickly shift from close-ups to wide shots within tight timeframes.  

For this project I’m particularly grateful that Canon has such an excellent auto color balance setting.  I’m a control freak and prefer to keep my settings on manual, but am happy to let Canon do the heavy lifting with recording the color balance on my daylight photos.  I couldn’t possibly do better at accurately replicating those subtle layers of color.    

I’ve been to that pier around 15 times, and have captured around eight images that I’m definitively happy with.  I wish the conditions were perfect more often.  My friends and family think I’m a little crazy to spend so much time on this project, but I know that it’s not just about that moment I press the shutter button.  I go fishing too on those mornings, for the right clouds, interesting people and that incredible light.