Photography and the Zen of Seeing Sometimes, it's not about making a photograph (but it usually is)

This ad-hoc, irregularly updated journal was where I put down some thoughts - and not a few photographs - throughout the month of my sabbatical, during the early autumn of 2017.

Sabbatical? Really?

Yes, really.

One of the rewards Adobe gives to employees at every 5-year mark, is a fully paid, one-month sabbatical from work. It's even better than that, actually; at each 5 year anniversary, Adobe adds another week to your sabbatical. So, when I hit (hopefully) 10 years, I'll have a 5-week sabbatical! This is an awesome benefit, and rare enough that some people, when I’ve mentioned it, have asked what’s wrong, or if I’m sick.

The idea with the sabbatical is to take an extended break from work, a total disconnect, so that you come back energized – and hopefully appreciative – of this work benefit.

I’ve just recently passed my sixth year at Adobe, and – rather than getting on yet another airplane – I decided I’d take my sabbatical in the autumn, spending most of the time at The Fortress of Moderate Solitude (aka, the cottage).

So, this past weekend, with some trepidation, and after setting my out of office message, I deleted my work email from all my devices. A near total disconnect achieved in one simple action.

Cottage, Sweet Cottage

My time away began on September 11, and it was first spent in the city, getting some long-neglected chores done around the house. We headed up to the cottage on Tuesday morning.

Our rough plan is to spend the week days at the cottage and go home on the weekends, essentially inverting our usual routine. This time of year, many cottage owners in the resort are not up during the week, and there are very few people renting, so it’s incredibly peaceful.

A few images from the last couple weekends at the cottage

My wife, Karen, and I treat the cottage as “home-base”. Sure, we spend a lot of time at the cottage and resort itself, but we often go for road trips to other areas in the region. Case in point, this past weekend, we spent one day at the Lang Pioneer Village Apple Festival. It’s similar to Black Creek Pioneer village in North York, but a little more rural. Lang Village tells the story of early settlers, industrialists and pioneers in the area around Keene, Ontario. Lang includes a functioning 170-year old grist mill, and just outside of the village proper is the Hope Mill, a fully functioning, water-powered sawmill.

A short series of images from Lang PIoneer Village. Expect to see a full project on Behance, soon.

Photography - a Window into Myself

If you know me at all, you’ve gathered long ago that photography is part of my soul, with writing coming in at a very close second. I make photographs regularly, if not daily. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes, meh…but occasionally…Wow. I even impress and excite myself. I photograph landscapes by choice, people by obligation. It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that capturing nature through my lens is what really speaks to me. Nature has its moods, but it generally doesn’t get bored with you, or impatient. I can take my time with nature, and I’m not inconveniencing anyone else in the process. That is, unless you were tagging along with me, and don’t have a camera.

Sunrise on Rice Lake

I do photograph people; usually at events. And I’m pretty good at capturing those decisive movements between people. I’m not a portrait photographer, though. I’ve shot PR photography for a good deal of my professional career before joining Adobe. It’s a reportage skill, and one I seem to keep honed. Interestingly enough, that genre of photography is one that is getting me noticed elsewhere in the organization, outside of the field sales team. There’s nothing more flattering than the marketing team for Adobe MAX, asking if they can use MY photos of Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayan, because the photographer they paid to shoot the event didn’t have any good images. Makes you wonder what they did shoot well…

Adobe CEO, Shantanu Narayan

Yep, I still got it.

Digital Pinhole Photography

A few months ago, I backed a project by Thingify. They were proposing a pinhole accessory for digital SLR’s and M4/3 cameras. It looks like a 50mm lens, but has no actual optics, just a range of laser-cut pinholes. While there are certainly less expensive ways to try out this technique with a DSLR, I was interested in the variable aperture and the fact that I didn’t have to jury-rig my own version. I’m not the handiest guy in town.

I received my Pinhole Pro just over a month ago and have been experimenting with it at the cottage and at home. The results have been…interesting.

Pinhole photography is not for everyone. In a photo world obsessed with pixel-counting, noise reduction and image sharpness, the pinhole style of photography is counter to almost all of the above. And – for me, at least- finding the right subject matter is a critical part of the success for this technique.

1.6. Seconds, ISO 400 .25 aperture

I never in my life have made a pinhole photo. I was never in a camera club in school, nor did I ever take any photography courses beyond photojournalism (not much need for pinhole photography in that field). Hence this concept of creating pinhole images with my DSLR intrigued me.

As I mentioned earlier, pinhole photography is not for everyone. In the short time since I’ve owned the lens, I’ve produced many unremarkable photos. But I’ve also created a few gems. There is still much to be learned, and I’m still in search of that perfect scene (or scenes). In fact, I've written enough about this topic in my draft of this journal, that I'm going to publish a separate story/project on the topic, that will likely be a bit more technical and include some tips on getting the most out of digital pinhole photography.

Some of my more successful digital pinhole shots

Lang-Hastings Trail

The Lang-Hastings Rail Trail connects The Great Trail across Peterborough County to the City of Kawartha Lakes to the west, and Northumberland County to the east. Travelling along the trail is an adventure unto itself; from passing alongside horses and farm animals grazing in the fields to a beaver dam that acts as a home to numerous furry little creatures. The trail leads you through a large culvert before taking you along the Trent Canal, leading you to the Village of Hastings. (Information courtesy of Ontario Trails)

As I entered the trail off Villiers Line, I was immediately struck by the almost heady perfume of wildflowers – what we from the city often refer to as weeds. Bulrushes, asters, chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, yellow daisies, spotted jewelweed, crowded the sides of trail, as if vying for attention. It seemed that every other step I took, surprised a grasshopper, frog or snake into scurrying retreat, within the safety of the local plant life.

I only made a few photos on this short hike. It was more important to me this time to just take everything in.
I only walked a 1.5km section of the trail this time, a fraction of the over 50km segment of the Trans Canada Trail that runs through Peterborough and Northhumberland counties.

It's Friday and - true to our plan - we'll be heading back home to the city in a couple hours. It's been a relaxing few days, and, as you can see, it's given me some time to reflect. I'm looking forward to more of those times in the coming weeks.

Wine Won't Solve Your Problems...

But neither will a glass of milk. And let's face it, wine is more fun. It was with that mentality that we hit the road early Saturday morning to Niagara Wine Country.

Before the cottage, wine country was our go-to destination. Primarily Niagara, but sometimes Prince Edward County. A camera of some description was always with me, rain or shine. Between photography, and wine tasting, it was hard to have a bad day.

With the cottage as our new go-to, we've admitttedly been ignoring the Niagara region.

The physical region, that is. Not the wine.

Never the wine. I am a self-proclaimed Ontario Wine Snob and proud to admit it. There is a lot of good wine out there, but our Ontario wines are top notch and good for any occasion, even if that occasion just happens to be sitting on the deck at the cottage.

So, off to Niagara we went. I had in my mind that I would make use of my new pinhole lens one or more times. In reality, I used my iPhone and my Moment wide lens more often. Some of those images are in the background.

That said, I knew what I was looking for as subject matter for the pinhole, and when we arrived at Fielding Estates winery, everything came together in two frames.

The feathery wall of horsetail grasses, more than 6 feet in height, and a gentle breeze, gave me just what I had seen in my mind's eye.

Week 2

The older I get, the more I appreciate friendship. This is in great part due to the loss of some dear friends in recent years, and family. Often, the loss has been due to illness (that bastard, cancer) but on at least one notable occasion, it was a very abrupt parting of ways, and not of our choosing. I won't go into details, but this person is missed dearly in some ways. In others, frankly, a weight has been lifted. It's quiet times like these at the cottage, that I find myself wondering what went wrong.

In direct contrast to this loss, we've gained new friends. Perhaps more accurately, I've re-gained friends and Karen has gained new ones. Over the past couple years, former school mates of mine and their spouses have reached out, thanks to the good side of Facebook. We all enjoy each other's company, and can spend hours together, talking, laughing, and quaffing back a grape beverage or two (or three).

On that list of doing things I've never done before (or ever thought of doing), we went to a taping of a local talk show, The Marilyn Denis Show, on Tuesday morning. All by sheer luck; we were having dinner with friends Janet and Jeff on Monday evening and she mentioned she was going with her sister, and did we want to see if she could get tickets for us. Originally, we had planned to head up to the Fortress first thing Tuesday morning, but looking at my wife, I could see she was interested in going. Janet was able to get tickets and the four of us headed down early the following morning in my car.

Driving in downtown Toronto - during morning rush hour - O.M.G.

I'm eternally grateful I do not have to make that trip daily. If I have customer meetings downtown, I'll often resort to mass transit instead of the headache of driving in the core.

As if the crush of traffic, street construction, and the press of pedestrians (many of whom seem blissfully unaware of the tonnes of rolling steel coming their way as they jay-walk) there is now the added bonus of roaming herds of cyclists. Toronto has put in some pretty decent bike lanes in the downtown core, to help reduce traffic congestion and give people another way to get to work. Conceptually, I applaud the initiative. From a practical perspective, it is truly another road hazard to be aware of as a motorist.

That said, I can deal with the cyclists who are actually good users of the road. It's a little nerve-wracking, because I'm hyper paranoid of making a turn and becoming an accident scene for a cyclist, but I manage. At least I don't have to drive downtown every day. But there's always that contingent who think they have a special dispensation to be - well - asshats of the road. Asshats who are seemingly in their minds, indestructible, who can - and do - ride out into traffic or against red lights, or cut in front of moving vehicles without a care in the world, like it's their right. I'd like to give them a right - then a left...

Even though this was not a live broadcast, it was very interesting to me to see how the production was managed. It was explained to us that the first segment had already been taped, so we would be participating in the final 3 segments, focused on home decor. We were all given instructions on how to respond to things happening in front of us. The key was "be excited! Have fun," and clap till your hands ached.

It's quite the production and the segments were very interesting. I was a amazed at how many people are involved in the production of the Marilyn Denis show - 91! From my own technical perspective, it was neat to see that all the lighting is now done with cool flourescent or LED lighting, rather than hot tungsten or halogen lighting. Overall, it was a lot of fun, and we had the added bonus of getting a photo with Marilyn!

Meet and greet after the taping
Time at the cottage was short this week, but thanks to my handy phablet (my iPhone 7 Plus), I managed a few worthy images.
The Echo of Wedding Bells...

This week is also my 27th wedding anniversary and my mom's 75th birthday. As our anniversary is the same day as Mom's birthday, we don't often spend that exact day celebrating with my mom. But this year we decided to do something different, because it's such a special milestone for my Mom. So we're taking ourselves and Mom to Stratford, Ontario to see a production of Guys and Dolls, and to get away for a couple days.

I've loved live theatre since high school. I took drama, acted in the high school plays and managed the school stage crew in those four years and even considered acting as a career option during that time. But I opted for journalism instead (it felt more secure). Little did I know then, that journalism would lead me to a significant and lifelong new love - photography. If you're interested in learning more, click the button below.

(Update: Guys and Dolls was FANTASTIC! And the Parlour Inn is highly recommended if you're staying in Stratford. Great food and service)

Me and Mom

27 years. 29, if you count the time before marriage. We've been through a lot, financially, emotionally. Some good, some bad, but at this point we're still making a good go of things and I think we have a lot of respect and love for each other.

Before bidding Stratford farewell, we visited the River Avon to see the swans.
Halloween is Coming

My favorite holidays of the year are Hallowe'en and Christmas. I have difficulty deciding which one I love more, but Hallowe'en does come first in the calendar year. Usually, I create an outdoor graveyard that trick-or-treaters must pass through before getting their candy. It's been quite popular over the years. Unfortunately, work has stepped in the way both last year (Adobe MAX) and this year (EDUCAUSE), so there has been no Walkway of Terror for two years in a row.

Regardless of work intervening, it has not stopped me from getting into the mood. In fact, my sabbatical this year has given me a chance to really plan and set up my Hallowe'en Town, which I did today. A few photos are below, along with some pretty awesome decor pieces I saw in Homesense. No, I did not buy them, shocking as that may be.

OK well, I didn't buy those ones...

Welcome to Spooky Town

Week 3

I was told my sabbatical would pass quickly, and to enjoy every day and do things I don't normally get the time to do. So far, I think I'm heeding that advice quite well. We've been busy doing so many things that the first two weeks have flown by.

When we arrived at the cottage this week it was terribly hot – the summer we never got, many have said. 30+ degrees C most day. I was greatly appreciative of the air conditioning at the cottage, believe me.

We went to a Jann Arden concert in Peterborough on Tuesday night. Jann is my favorite Canadian singer/songwriter. She has an amazing voice, writes haunting, often sad songs, and also has a sharp wit. And she not only writes songs; she is an accomplished author, with four non-fiction books under her belt. Her sense of humour and her ability to make you part of her experience come out in her songs, books and her live performances. You are as likely to tear up as laugh out loud when she is performing. She is truly a Canadian treasure. With the exception of one live album, I have bought all her recordings.

Waiting for the concert to begin.

And she packs a house! Within days, if not hours, the 600-seat Showplace theatre in Peterborough was sold out (I bought my tickets the first day they went on sale).

She opened her show last night with - of all things - a cover song; Rocket Man by Elton John, written by Bernie Taupin. I have always loved that song. When I was younger, in my I'm-going-to-be-a-science-fiction-writer stage, I wrote a novella, inspired by the song. I remember recording the song over and over on a cassette tape so it would play in the background as I wrote my not particularly original sci-fi action romance story. I still have the manuscript kicking around, along with several short stories and one other novella. All on good old hard copy draft paper. While the stories likely aren't that great, they represent a big segment of my young life (from 12 years old to 20, I was a young adult, writing young-adult fiction, before it was even a genre), and I can't bring myself to dump them in a recycling bin.

The show was fantastic (no surprise) and the intimacy of the venue established a deeper rapport between Jann and the audience.

Listening to her last night - her music and her words (she talks to the audience quite a bit during the show), reminded me of how long writing has been a part of my life. I was a writer long before I became a photographer, and regardless of my paying profession, writing has always found a way to be an active part of that career path: writing tutorials, creating web sites, documenting events or simply sharing my thoughts as I'm doing here. Far more non-fiction than I ever thought possible for me to write!

But photography... photography is a portal for me. What I see outwardly is directed inward, and then reflected back out in the form of an image, altered by my experience, my mood and my visual acumen.

Thanskgiving decor at the cottage

Wednesday was a scorcher until late in the day, then – in an unusual act of accuracy – the weatherman’s predictions came true; it started to cool off. By 6pm, I was shivering in shorts and a short sleeve shirt. And we went from air conditioned comfort, to debating if the furnace should be switched on. First world problems, indeed.

I think this is the longest continuous time that I’ve had the luxury of spending at the Fortress, from Tuesday afternoon to Sunday afternoon – nearly an entire week! I’ve enjoyed the time immensely, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it relaxing. Not a complaint – an observation.

An interesting - and flattering - thing happened to me at the Bellmere Winds this week. Well, it actually started near the beginning of my sabbatical, but the actual occurrence was the end of this week. The resort’s general manager, Luke Fraser, approached me and asked if they could buy some of my resort photos, and if I would like to photograph another resort as well as catch some more people focused shots for promotional use.

I was truly flattered, and appreciated the fact they are aware of and pleased with the my photographic creations around the cottage. We came to an agreement about price and - along with existing photos - I also went out on Saturday to photograph a nearby property, Woodland Estates, and got photos of a people using the multi-use sports court, playing in the swimming pool and some photos of the Thanksgiving feast potluck dinner, hosted by the resort.

Resort activities running right up to the end of the season.

It has been an awesome week! This time of year, during the week, the resort is so quiet. I stood outside one night – it might have been Wednesday evening, around 10pm and all the cottages around me were dark. No one was up, no air conditioners kicking in, no kids yelling or dogs barking. Just me and the frogs. It was amazing, to soak in the silence (and the frog song).

Week 4

With only one week left to my sabbatical, I realize there are at least two goals I have not achieved yet – a trip to the Warsaw Caves, and a trip to Prince Edward County wine country. I’m hoping to at lest achieve the Warsaw Caves goal later this week when we head back up to the Cottage. But it will be a busy time; Canadian Thanksgiving is this coming weekend, and we’re having friends Glen and Chloe up for a cottage Thanksgiving. With any luck the local fall color will be kicking in by then for our aerial flight over Rice Lake on the weekend.

Planning Hallowe’en - I won't be home for the special night, but I'm planning a couple things I can set up that should remain safe and intact until I return.

The month has flown by, but not in a bad way. It’s flown by because it’s been a month full of experiences. Having this time away from work has been tremendous. I’ve done so much, shared time with friends and family, and got to spend the better part of autumn at the Fortress of Moderate Solitude. It’s been truly restorative.

With only a few days left, my mind is drifting toward work a bit more - wondering what’s going to hit me next Tuesday. I know that nothing serious has occurred with my accounts because I’ve not gotten any emergency texts from my colleagues. That’s a good feeling in itself.

Harvest Moon over Rice Lake

I’m also excited for this coming weekend - Thanksgiving at the cottage! What an awesome way to wrap up a sabbatical - and a reminder that I have a lot to be thankful for.

Canadian Thanksgiving

While the holiday weather hasn't been the most cooperative, we've had a very nice time at the Fortress, with good friends of ours. Lots of laughter and sharing on a holiday where one is to reflect on - and be grateful for - the things they have and the people they know.

Friendships like the one we have with Glen and Chloe are one of the many things I am thankful for.

Thanksgiving dinner was excellent. 95% of dinner was cooked on the BBQ - turkey breast, roast potatoes and carrots. We certainly ate our fill and topped it off with a local Mennonite-made blueberry pie. Delicious, all of it!

My friend Glen is also an avid photographer, so we had loosely planned on at least one photo excursion, and a flyover of Rice Like to see the fall colors. Weather conditions removed the flight from our options, and limited our chances for a photo walk, but we did manage a 2-hour driving tour up and around Stony Lake and Clear Lake, finding a few spots worth stopping for. I'm a firm believer that there is always a photo opportunity around, if you take the time to see. The colors this year in our area are pretty spotty (still mostly green) and quite muted, compared to last fall. I have a feeling that next weekend (the weekend I will not be at the cottage) will be the peak in this region.

A final photo tour of the fall colors (such as they were) .

As I sit here, on a quiet, rainy Thanksgiving morning, I realize I'm thankful for many things; a list long enough I'm guaranteed to leave something out, it's so extensive. But at the risk of doing so, I still want to recognize many of these things here:

  • My health
  • My wife, Karen, and our furry family of felines
  • My friends and how they enrich my life experience
  • My home and my cottage, both of which have a huge impact on my quality of life
  • My abilities to create, in both words and images
  • My many careers in the past, all of which culminated in my current role at Adobe
  • My career at Adobe, which has opened up so many opportunities for me. I’ve gained skills and insight through this job, and made many new friends. It’s not always a bowl of my favorite candy, but what job is? And for the record, the times it’s been frustrating are few and far between.

Tomorrow marks my first day back to work in a month. I’m excited and a little nervous about my first day back, and I’m looking forward to catching up with my friends, colleagues and customers at Adobe.

I hope you and yours in Canada had a wonderful holiday weekend. And even if you’re not Canadian, I encourage you to take a few moments to think about your lot in life and what you are grateful for.

A final parting image of the harvest moon, as I close out this sabbatical journal. I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at the photographs and that perhaps something I’ve written has resonated with you. Life is too short to not try to find joy in at least part of it.
Created By
Jim Babbage


Unless otherwise mentioned, all photographs have been made by and are the property of Jim Babbage. Friendship image by Alexas_Fotos - "friends sympathy friendship" Marilyn Denis photos courtesy of Janet Cooper