Late in the evening when not ready for sleep, but too tired or relaxed for anything else… What to do? Often my answer is to browse through YouTube or Vimeo watching creative short videos. In these days of excellent video from every camera, powerful CGI and desktop editing software that anyone can afford and master, the limit on creativity in video is limitless, or at least limited only by one’s imagination and willingness to put in the substantial effort required to create the video. Thus creative short story videos abound… Many are just bad, a lot are fairly good, and a few a really quite good. The good ones? They not only feature good technical efforts and perhaps good acting, but ask troubling questions, things that make you think.

My favorite genre is usually science fiction. A good science fiction video (or book for that matter) asks uncomfortable questions about where our society is going, what are the implications of societal trends or technological innovations? How will our world change if current trends continue or some new technology disrupts the current order. Some simply critique current problems in an attempt to educate or change our society, the best look beyond to ask “What if?” You know that the video was good when you find yourself thinking about the video days later

One thing I do note is the abundance of post-apocalyptic videos. There are dozens upon dozens of them to be found, they seem to represent the majority of creative sci-fi shorts on YouTube. The causes of the apocalypse are varied and predictable… War, disease, famine or environmental collapse. Indeed the form of the apocalypse is often unimportant to the story. A ruined world, people struggling to survive with only fragments of technology, violence and brutality ruling the lives of the survivors. Often the message can be powerful in a well written and produced video. Sad stories set in the ruins of an almost recognizable world.

What I wonder about is the reason there are so many such videos? Is it that these videos are easy to produce and have such a wide range of possibilities to explore? The sets and costumes are easy, a ruined factory and a few wrecked automobiles often provide an easy backdrop for the action. Ragged clothing from a surplus store, well within the non-existent budget of an aspiring filmmaker or a film school project.

Or is it that there is a sense of pessimism that pervades today’s society, that when creative filmmakers look to the future they see only bleak possibilities?

It is this last thought that haunts me. So many look to the future and no longer see a limitless universe among the stars. Gone is the optimistic vision that formed the basis of shows like Star Trek or Lost in Space. I suspect that endless controversy and dire predictions over issues such as climate change, genetically modified organisms, and endless middle eastern wars has so taken root in our collective consciousness that it becomes very easy to imagine an apocalyptic future.

Using the Nifty Fifty

Some photo instructors advocate using only a fifty millimeter fixed focal length lens as a creative exercise. A nice idea for an exercise, but I really did not want to do this while on an extended trip along the Alaskan and British Columbia coast by boat.

A workshop at Lagoon Cove, British Columbia
I did not get a choice in the matter.

Looking to pack light I had taken only three lenses to accompany the Canon 60D that would travel with me. This set included a Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens, a 70-200mm f/4 L series telephoto, and a 50mm f/1.8. The 50mm was almost left behind, I grabbed it on a whim while packing realizing that it took up very little room.

It was a few days into the trip when trouble appeared. I began to get occasional errors when using the 17-85mm, the camera complaining about a lens communication error. After a day this became a serious issue, the camera refusing to take photos with the lens. The other lenses worked fine, thus I was sure the trouble was in the lens, not the camera.

A set of tools awaiting use in the workshop at Lagoon Cove
Sitting down and experimenting, I discovered that the issue only occurred if I was attempting to stop down the lens, used wide open I had no problem. During a series of gray and dark days, this proved little issue, I just set for aperture priority and continued to shoot, with some loss of creative control.

A couple more days and even that solution failed, the lens just jammed up entirely, with the aperture stop about halfway closed.

I was down to the the telephoto and the 50mm… Time to get creative.

The 50mm lens is interesting. It is small. It feels like you have forgotten to put a lens on the camera. It is sharp! The lens may be the cheapest lens Canon sells, just over $100, but there is nothing to complain about in the performance, crisp and sharp photos from corner to corner. It is fast. The very fast f/1.8 ratio allows for photos in low light conditions as well as providing a wonderfully shallow depth of field when you want it.

Cans of nails in the workshop at Lagoon Cove
I really missed the flexibility of a zoom and the 17mm wide angle in the close confines of the boat. The ability to go from wide to a moderate 85mm telephoto in a flash was a major issue when something popped up unexpectedly, something that happens on a boat in the wilds of Alaska.

I did have my little Canon G11 along, giving me some capability with a zoom lens. But I really wanted to shoot with the DSLR and the higher photo quality offered by the big lens and larger sensor when the photo really mattered.

On an APS-C camera like the Canon 60D there is a 60% crop factor, converting a 50mm to a mild telephoto. With a fixed focus I had to control the field through positioning myself instead of adjusting the camera. I do wonder if I got better shots as I had to become more involved and plan the shot?

I did take some great shots with the 50mm. Going through the 1,800+ photographs from the cruise I am quite happy with a number of them. An unintentional creative exercise, but a successful one.