The Photography Interviews: Dan McDowell

Below is the seventh installment of an ongoing series on photography and those who are doing amazing things with their cameras.

I have reached out to many people in my Instagram feed, all who have captured and held my imagination, and asked to interview them about their art. There are teachers and non-teachers in this series, but each one brings something that can be applicable to the classroom.

I encourage you to check out their Instagram feeds and ask them questions!

Dan McDowell, @danmcdowell, shares his talents with us in this post. I had the pleasure of participating in a few photowalks with Dan and what stands out is his patience in observing the scene and not feeling  the need to take a picture of everything. Discerning eye that can teach us all a great deal.

What is your primary camera and/or camera app (stock camera/Hipstamatic/VSCO…)

I reluctantly have to say my iPhone 5 serves as my primary camera. This comes after years and years of using a DSLR almost exclusively. I wouldn’t even use my wife’s point-and-shoot camera. I lugged my D70, then my D90, with a small collection of lenses everywhere. On top of that, for the last five years, I added photography teacher to my history teacher persona. Taking high quality images with top notch equipment was important to model and fell into what I have always done.

Then 10 months ago I left the classroom to work at the district office. That gave me the excuse to move over to the iPhone almost full time. I need something quick, nimble, and unobtrusive on a daily basis. I didn’t even bring the DSLR to ISTE this year.

On the iPhone I use the main Camera app. Then move the photos to other apps for editing.

What are your favorite editing apps?

DistressFX is my hands down favorite editing app. It can really transform an average landscape into something spectacular or take a good one to the next level. I mostly use Photoshop Express to do all my base editing – I’ve used Photoshop and Lightroom over the years and this feels more natural than others. I’m also a fan of Mirrorgram, TangledFX, and my latest favorite, Circular +.

What is your favorite picture and story behind it? (Please include – link is fine, too)

This photograph was take in the hutongs southwest of Tiananmen Square. I was there consulting at a Beijing international school last year and was wandering the streets and alleys with some friends. As a former history teacher, I have always been taken with the idea of walking in the theaters of historical events. I imagined the chaos of the those hours after the Chinese tanks crushed the protest and forced thousands to flee through these streets. No doubt many found refuge in doorways like this. It was a typical smoggy, sunless sky so I decided to take out all of the color except for the red and add some grain. When we finally started back home, Google Maps brought us back to safety – navigating us through passages just 6 feet wide in some places.

It looks amazing as a 13×19 print.


Can you share a tip?

I have two:

1. Most photographs (on a phone or DSLR) need a little more contrast. It makes a huge difference. Try it.

2. Photography is a numbers game. First, it takes practice – to get good you have to do it a lot. Second, never take just one. Take a dozen or more of any one scene. Contemplate it and then take some more.

Who and what are your favorite photographers, communities, and hashtags you really enjoy and learn from?

As a photo teacher, I got a lot of inspiration from my students. When given the opportunity to be creative and stretch an idea, they always delivered. I grew more as a photographer in the last five years guiding teenagers through the creative process, than in the 20 before that. It really reinvigorated my own vision of photography. To continue to get inspiration today, I follow a number of my former students on Instagram along with a few pros and the likes of Nicole Dalesio (instagram: @magrelacanela), Karl Lindgren-Streicher (instagram: @LS_Karl), Reuben Hoffman (Instagram: @Reubenhoffman), Ken Shelton (Instagram: @kshelton) and you!

Why do you take pictures?

I have always had artistic inclinations, but do not have any drawing, painting, or sculpting skills. My dad took millions of photos, as did his dad. So when I was in high school it was a natural step for me to take photography. That led to working for the school newspaper. Which led to work as a photojournalist throughout college at UCSD, SDSU, and as a intern / stringer at a couple local papers. I also got a minor in Art Photography. When I decided to take the teacher path, I kept my photography up as a way to artistically explore my world and record the events that crossed my path. Today, I use it as a release from all the stresses of life. As I get into the zone of taking and editing photos all those worries blur into the background.

What is your style?

\r\nUnless it is my kids, I am a landscape photographer. I love looking at a scene and trying to find the best way to represent it. I certainly love a pure image that reflects reality at it’s best, but I also love a good edit. However, the transformation of reality into something surreal or otherworldly brings me great joy. Mirrorgram, TangledFX, and Circular + provide opportunities to expand the possibilities. On my DSLR have played a lot with motion, but haven’t been happy with the results so far on my phone.

My process has two distinct parts. First, you have to take a good photograph. I primarily use the Camera app on my iPhone. I think about lighting and composition styles – along with an special effects I might want to add later. I like to have the full unmanipulated image at my disposal. The thrill of capturing the right moment and angle gives me a rush. The second part involves editing. Sometimes I’ll just up the contrast and the clarity. Other times I add special effects, take out part of the image, blend a couple images together, etc. Most of the time, I’m thinking about the second part moments after that perfect capture, but they are two distinct phases. And two potential moments for victory!

How long do you wait to edit a picture after first taking it AND how long do you wait from when you first take a picture and when you post it.

For most of my photos, I generally have an idea of what I want to do with them when I take them. I look for opportunities to showcase the strengths of certain apps like Lorystripes or TangledFX. For those moments that I have an idea, I just have to do it. Other images I just have to contemplate and figure out what, if anything, I want to do.

I am a quick poster. If the image is done, I post it. Today that is final act of creating a finished image for me. I take enough images that in a few days, I’ll probably have something else.

What is the future for mobile photography?

Mobile photography is photography. People are not buying point-and-shoot cameras like they use to because their phone is almost as good. Many professional photographers I know use their iPhone for personal moments because of the convenience. I use to tell my students that the best camera is the one that they have with them. We might have to expand that idea to editing as well – the best computer is the one that you have with you – phone or laptop. It takes so much longer to take a photo on a DSLR and then edit it on my Mac. Unless I’m going to make a 13×19 print or shoot my daughter’s soccer game, my iPhone is my camera. I think this is the first time I have made that declaration.

Mobile photography in the classroom, any thoughts and/or suggestions?

Teachers need to find ways for students to use photography in the classroom. They have this amazing tool in their pocket – let’s empower them to use it. It could be they are looking to photograph a concept or idea. Or maybe they are documenting a process, a school event, or landmarks in the community. It can be the whole assignment or a component of a larger project. My advice to teachers is to just do it. Make it happen.

Thanks again Dan!