Behind the Lens With Victor Engel
I was born in Canada and grew up in Guatemala, a child of missionary parent. In 1980 I moved to Texas where I got a degree in math. For most of my career I've been a database programmer, but one of my true loves is photography. In 1992 I moved to Austin for a job and fell in love with the city.
Because I've had a stable career as a database programmer, I've been free to explore my photography. At first, I had a dislike for people photography. But I've grown to appreciate it. I prefer to try to capture things as I see themnot creating a studio scene with artificially perfect lighting, composition, and posing. Recent advances in digital photography thankfully have made shooting in available light more possible than it's ever been.
Currently, I shoot with Canon gear for the most part. Although the new Canon 5D Mark III looks interesting, I'll be sticking with my 5D Mark II for now. My go-to lens for jazz photography is my Canon EF 135mm f/2 lens. It's a little long for some people, but it suits my style. I generally dislike getting up in people's faces, or blocking the view of audiences. I'd rather be invisible to the artist as well as the audience. So I also don't use flash.
I have plenty of other gear for other styles of photography, but the 5D II/135L combo gets my 99% of my shots in music venues.
Teachers and/or influences?
My father was a photographer. He taught me about exposure, tripods, lenses, and I also assisted him in the darkroom. He got me my first camera, one that used Agfa Rapid film. After I used that a few years, he also got me my first 35mm camera, an Exakta Twin TL. When he became director of a museum in Dallas, he let me use the darkroom there.
I never took any formal courses, but did a lot of reading in magazines, such as Shutterbug, Popular Photography, and so forth. Photography was also discussed around the dinner table at home.
I guess I'd have to say my older brother was also an influence. He was given the same treatment I was from my father and also had a like interest in photography. He, though, pursued other fine arts and is now a professional architect.
When the photography world went digital, a whole new world was opened up. For those of us who got involved early on, we learned by challenging each other and participating in online forums. Those forums, finally, were a large influence in my development and understanding of digital photography, and the photo challenges, helped me to explore and learn different perspectives in composition, style, processing, and so forth.
I knew I wanted to be a photographer when...
Actually, I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a photographer. I guess my desire was spurred by receiving my very first camera. I can still remember waiting in anticipation for the pictures to be developed to see how they turned out. It's amazing how a week-long wait has turned into a fraction of a second wait.
Your approach to photography:
I try to capture what I see. I think I see things a bit differently from how other people see things, and I think I capture some of that. It sometimes is a real challenge, though.
Occasionally, I will also design a picture first in my mind and then collect subject matter and pose things to craft the picture.
I rarely use flash. It's useful in macro photography but I dislike its use in people photography. I find it to be disruptive.
Your teaching approach/philosophy:
I think first, it's important for a photography student to grasp certain fundamentals. They should know about focal length, aperture, exposure, ISO, zoom, prime, stopping down, foreshortening, motion blur, etc. These are all concepts that relate to basic elements of photography. Just as a mathematician had to memorize the multiplication tables in a low grade, so a budding photographer should learn about these fundamentals.
Once these fundamentals are learned, the photographer is free to explore creatively. There should be no boundary to creativity.
Your biggest challenge when shooting indoor (or low lighted) events:
It used to be the case that low light levels were the biggest issue, and that still is a big issue. However, I think another major issue has been contending with the choices that someone else might have made with the lighting. Why on earth, for example, would a stage be illuminated with predominantly yellow gelled lights? Yuck. Sometimes the lighting situation "inspires" black and white final prints.
Another hurdle is getting a good vantage point without obstacles (like audience members) interfering with the composition.