TGSMU#3, or The Great Scavenger Meet-Up in Orlando

(Cover image by Patt Dickson)

My main reason to go to the US last month was to attend the Great Scavenger Meet-Up in Orlando. The Scavengers are a group of photographers that I’ve been interacting with for a few years – responsible in particular for that sort of things: Scavenger Hunt 24, Scavenger Hunt 25 Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

For those who know me, it may seem wildly out of character for me to go meet a large group of people that I don’t really know. And I’d tend to agree – I would lie if I said I didn’t have any reservations before actually making the trip. But still, it went very well, better than my wildest hopes, so… let’s talk a bit about that! Beware, this may be a slightly more personal blog post than usual πŸ˜‰

Planting the seed

The Scavengers is a community I thoroughly enjoy being a part of. The group is made of people of all levels of skill (which helps not feeling too much of an imposteur) (not TOO MUCH, I said) and of general positivity and enthusiasm. Before the meet-up, I had met with two of them (and one of them twice πŸ˜‰ ), who had happened to pass through my corner of the world, and I had a brilliant time every time.

I first met Sivani – and I believe she actually planted the seed of “you know, this may not be that crazy”. She told me about the first Vegas meet-up, I remember babbling something along the lines of “oh, I could never do that, because, you know, PEOPLE” – and she pointed out that a/ most of the people in the community are introverts and I wasn’t the only one there b/ actually seeing people with familiar name tags (because I’ve interacted with them, or at least seen their names before) actually helps a lot. And I guess that it stayed with me – along with her stories and enthusiasm.

Somewhat more recently, but before I made any kind of plan (possibly even before any kind of plan was made at all), I met Dave – we walked a bit with our cameras in the city, and we went for dinner, and everything went well. It also happens that I have the deepest fascination for Dave’s work, because I’m in awe of his toy universe and imagination, and I’m amazed (and possibly slightly jealous) with what he manages to pull off.

And then, I remember a couple of coincidences, but not their order. I remember wondering if there was a meet-up at some point in the plans, and seeing that indeed things were getting into motion there. I also remember having a fairly vivid dream that I was at a meet-up, I was having a pretty bad meltdown, but that someone was actually taking care of me. Now, I don’t believe in dreams being meaningful or predictive or anything, but it made me consider the situation and deem that it was actually plausible that, if something like a meltdown happened, someone would indeed take care of me. (I remember talking about it on the Scavenger community at that time, and that people confirmed πŸ˜‰ ).

Making the plan

At that point, it felt like it was something I was considering, but not too sure about. One of the things that I was very hesitant about was the fact that the meet-up was in the US, which means a long flight, and more painfully… jet lag. And since my major concern was social-anxiety-related, and since fatigue (and ergo jet lag) really does not help with that, I was very hesitant. The flights to Orlando were also a fairly large pain from ZΓΌrich, which made me hesitate all the more.

When I talked to Pierre about that, he mentioned that the meet-up was roughly at a time where it would be good if he traveled to Boston, and so he suggested that I come with him to Boston, recover from jet lag, and fly to Orlando from there. I think that’s when things started to really click – that it was actually something that COULD happen.

Shortly afterwards, I told the Scavenger community “I’m in!”, and I booked the hotel in Orlando for the meet-up. It took us a little while to finish planning the rest of the trip (mostly because of procrastination), and at some point I said “folks, I do have plane tickets, I’m coming for sure, unless something super bad happens in the meantime.”

Uh-oh…

Well, the “something super-bad” was not that far. Two weeks before flying to Boston, I fell walking on a hiking path, and I sprained my ankle pretty badly. The following weeks were very stressful: I was in pain, I was super tired from walking with crutches, and it was generally speaking not fun. I had gone to the doctor and explained that I was hoping to fly; she gave me a prescription for blood thinners for the plane, which alleviated a very large fear of mine. I’d like to say that I didn’t waver, but it was a tough couple of weeks; just before leaving I told someone “well, see you in three weeks… assuming I’m actually making it to the flight, which I’m kind of doubting right now”. But in the end, I looked into “how do I fly with a crutch” (both in terms of security and luggage allowance), concluded it was not an issue, and off we went. I spent the first week in Boston, working a bit, getting over the jetlag, and getting slightly better every day; and when the time came to fly to Orlando, I was confident enough that I didn’t need my crutch and that I could walk enough… as long as there were not too many stairs going down on the way. Phew!

First evening in Orlando

I landed in Orlando around 3PM – Dave and Debbie had synchronized with me to pick me up at the airport (thanks again πŸ˜‰ ) and the adventure started for real! Most of us were staying at the Embassy Suites on International Drive – Angela had organized a group discount, and many people were sharing rooms – I had made the choice to not get any roommate because I knew I would probably need my space at one point or another, and I didn’t regret that choice. A bit of time to get acquainted with my surroundings, and I found a group of Scavengers around the hotel bar πŸ˜‰ I admit I have a fairly fuzzy recollection of the events and of the people at this point. I was still very flustered, probably terribly awkward, and a tiny part of me was going “oh God why am I here already?”. I’m happy I was happy to keep that part reasonably quiet πŸ™‚ I found something to eat at some point, probably; but then one of the major event of my stay was happening at 10.30PM: SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 on that day. Since I was not driving, and since I was not comfortable enough trying to organize SOMETHING to get closer from the launchpad, I didn’t have a plan for that. I had, however, looked outside of the hotel, looked at a compass, looked at a map, and secured what I deemed a “reasonable” point for seeing things, if things were to be seen. I had had the impression that I had been either annoying or super repetitive with my “and tonight there’s the rocket launch!” – but… I left the table where I was talking at around 10.25, announcing “okay, rocket launch time”… and I was outside of the hotel, in the fairly warm weather, hoping to see anything.

There was enough time between 10.30 and “something happening” that my heart sank a bit – “I should have tried harder to get closer” – but finally, a small bright dot appeared above the trees. The bright dot eventually grew a tail, making it really unmistakable, even at that distance. I was adamant I didn’t want to take any picture, so I didn’t have my camera with me, but I still had my phone – so there, I have a few pixels of rocket on a picture.

And even at that distance, it was still a profoundly emotional experience and, for what it’s worth, I’m still happy I didn’t have my camera with me. I fully intend to go and see a launch from closer up at some point in the future, and I also fully intend to not have a camera with me at that time.

I came back to the table with a very, very large grin, “I saw the rocket!” and that’s when I understood that nobody had actually understood/realized what I was talking about before πŸ˜€ I’ve then been told “okay, from now on, we’re following you, because you OBVIOUSLY have awesome plans”. So all in all – despite my initial wariness and awkwardness, it felt like I was starting to warm to the people around me, and to start to include myself in the group instead of staying on its outskirts. And since this was technically happening before the start of the meet-up, let’s call it a win!

Also: I SAW A FUCKING ROCKET LAUNCH. That counts.

Friday: workshop day!

On Friday, we mostly stayed at the hotel, in one of the conference rooms, where we had a fairly packed day! But, first of all, group picture! Scavengers are easier to herd than cats, but barely – in the end, it did work out, and we have a group picture or 15.

Back in the conference room, Lauri started with the welcome speech; we were also treated with a few videos from people who couldn’t make it to Orlando but still wanted to say hi. These are people that I had never met, but I was still moved by their messages, and it was still fun to see these people whose name and sometimes profile picture I knew come to life on the screen.

Then, we had a talk by Dave, who had a talk with the subtitle “A rambling discussion of photography, toys, and toy photography”. And it was basically that, except that my own ramblings are usually far less structured πŸ˜‰ He talked about how he came to the Scavenger Hunt and to toy photography, and he explained the process around a few pictures, including his Acorn for the latest Hunt. It was quite eye-opening for me – I really (really) like what Dave does, and I kind of “knew” that there was quite a lot of effort in his images, but it’s one thing to have SOME idea, and even to read about it, and one thing to actually see it explained. It made me feel both a bit better about my own efforts (there IS a huuuge gap in our level of post-processing skill, but I have some hope that the gap is far less than I thought on the “images straight out of the camera” level), and a bit worse (thinking that maybe I don’t put enough effort in this). But all in all, an inspiring talk – made me want to try some more stuff (and to up my post-processing game πŸ˜‰ ). I also learnt about PixelSquid, and I’m definitely keeping that in a corner of my mind, it might become handy if I just need a 3D model of an Atari 2600 joystick or of a PiΓ±a Colada. You never know.

The second talk was Gilmar – whose work is also very recognizable, and very inspiring too – at the risk of sounding very obvious, I really like her handling of colors, that make her pictures really stand out. She first talked about creativity and getting ideas, as well as about her own journey and inspiration, with a few examples. Then she dug a bit more into the technical specificity of building composites, and I learnt a ton of stuff, even though I’m not using the same tools as she is – many things are transposable, and these were not things I was even aware of asking about (the unknown unknowns!), so this was brilliant!

We then split in groups for lunch – I ended up at the Bahama Breeze with a group that got split over two tables – I was a bit nervous during lunch, because the planned lunch break was an hour, and we for sure went over that πŸ˜‰ but since one of the presenters for the afternoon was with us, well – I tried to relax and enjoy my food still πŸ˜‰

In the afternoon, we split into groups. I first saw Mark‘s presentation about how he created his Fire entry for the Hunt – he released a speed edit video since then. This was also super interesting – I learnt about a number of tools and “but how do I do that”, and mostly, I learnt about the quantity of work that goes into that sort of things. One of the things that struck me is that I usually consider that if a given “final image” requires me to take, say, 60 shots, it’s… a lot of shots. Mark was showing his Lightroom catalog, and he literally had hundreds of shots… only for the “body” part of his picture. I also found very interesting when he was talking about his light setup and how he adjusted it and so on. Those are not processes that are even remotely on my radar, and that’s definitely something I want to explore more.

In the second part of the afternoon, I joined the toy photography part, provided by Dave again. He had setup a light box, and provided a LOT of toys and figures, as well as Lume cubes to play with, and a fair amount of advise about posing the figures and lighting them. This was a ton of fun – I did fall in love with the Lume cubes (I just ordered a couple yesterday), and I’ll probably splurge on a decent light box at some point (for now, my ad hoc tinkering with a box and a bunch of tracing paper to soften daylight is good enough for me… especially in the summer). And I do have a few shots with which I might make images at some point – we’ll see how that goes πŸ™‚ Dave wrote something about the whole experience too: A Toy Photography Workshop.

There was also a third group doing portraits with Gilmar and her awesome-looking lights, but I got hit by a case of the shys and didn’t approach that group from less than a few meters away.

In the evening, we had dinner at Olive Garden (incidentally, we had one of the best waiters I’ve ever seen) and, as we came back to the hotel, I declared that I was going to go for a walk in the direction of the Ferris wheel that was visible from the hotel, because Ferris wheels are pretty cool picture topics πŸ˜‰ We made way with a few other Scavengers, met another group on the way, and generally speaking had fun. And so, I have a first set of pictures here: Orlando – Icon Park. (Yeah, there was more than just a Ferris wheel there.)

At the end of the day, I was bubbling with ideas and motivation and all this sort of things; I believe that Friday was the day that made the most contribution to the motivation that I still have today, and gave me the most ideas of things to explore. It’s also the direct cause the my “Spiderman” image that I built a couple of weeks ago when coming home (more details in Spiderman visited ZΓΌrich!)

Saturday – Bok Tower Gardens

On Saturday, we went for a field trip at the Bok Tower Gardens. The garden has a very pretty tower (the Bok Tower in question):

There was a Game of Thrones event in the garden that day, with a lot of cosplayers! It took me a while to connect the dots between “wait, this guy is REALLY reminding me of someone” and “ooooh, he’s cosplaying as George R.R. Martin! Well done!” before I had seen the rest of the people. I know that many Scavengers took the opportunity for some great shots, but I was, at that moment, both too shy and too flustered to even try to interact with them 😦 It’s a bit sad, it would have been cool – they were really looking fantastic! It must have been quite difficult, though, because they had a lot of layers on, and it was probably around 33-35Β°C at that time… The tower is also hosting a carillon, and it’s been playing for a long while – including, at some point, the GoT theme, which I found very cool πŸ™‚

The garden also encloses the Pinewood Estate, which I could visit. It has, in particular, fantastic tile work and light fixtures πŸ™‚ And a very cool sink.

And that yields a second album: Bok Tower Gardens. I kind of regret not having more pictures of the gardens themselves – it was very nice, but it was also very warm (limited me-compatibility) and sunny (limited photo-compatibility).

We were also very lucky to have Tatjana AndrΓ© with us, thanks to Angela and Jim – she modeled for us under the heat with a lot of patience and grace, and was generally speaking amazing πŸ™‚ It was the first time ever that I worked with a model, and it was a very interesting experience, although not necessarily one that I would repeat any time soon. I do have a hard time taking pictures of people in general, and I have an ever harder time editing/processing pictures of people in general – and that’s something that came very clear during this session and its edition. It didn’t help that I made Bad Choices with camera settings, and that my pictures were often either unfocused or annoyingly noisy, and it didn’t help that my focal length was not nearly long enough. Despite all the awkwardness, I did get a few decent shots.

And that album is here: Tatjana.

In the evening, we had pizza in the hotel lobby, and some toy photography shenanigans happened, lit with a mix of lume cubes and cellphone lamps πŸ™‚

Later, we went for drinks to Lafayette’s – there was a cool band, Ancient Sun, and I enjoyed that a lot. I don’t know much about saxophones, but I particularly enjoyed the saxophonist’s performance πŸ™‚ And I may have ended on the dance floor for a couple of songs – proof that my ankle was definitely getting better (A couple of songs was all that was reasonable, though!) And at the same time, there was more toy photography shenanigans happening πŸ˜‰

Unfortunately, I had to bail pretty fast, because for all the fun that it was, it was also very loud. But as I walked back to the hotel, I felt an amount of joy I have only rarely experienced in the past few years. I think it was a mix of “everything is going great despite my initial fears”, “I’m learning a ton of stuff and I’m super motivated right now”, “I like literally everyone I talked with” and “I’m actually glad I bailed and kept the good memories instead of pushing through and ending up in a worse mood”. I arrived at the hotel, dropped a few lines of apologies on Facebook (which has been our major communication channel during the meet-up), and spent an hour or so editing some pictures from Boston. Someone nudged me to come back down in the lobby, which was much quieter, and after asking myself whether I was okay to do that and whether I wanted to do that, I spent a bit of time in the lobby, chatting and laughing, before eventually going to bed.

Sunday – last day! And after…

My Sunday was pretty quiet. I went to breakfast quite early, because I wanted the opportunity to see everyone who’d be there and to hopefully say goodbye to everyone – I don’t think I managed, but I still saw a lot of people. It was a bit sad, of course, but I think there’s still some certainty that we’ll see each other again, at least on the Hunt, and hopefully in a future meet-up.

I had arranged a ride to the airport with Gary and Wade, who had planes around the same time as mine (thanks Gary πŸ™‚ ), which made me somewhat nervous (timing-wise) about joining other people’s activities (on top of being somewhat weary in general), so I stayed in the hotel lobby in the morning with my laptop, and continued my photo processing.

I posted my last “25th Scavenger Hunt” post from the airport in Orlando, which I thought was quite fun.

The whole thing ended three weeks ago, but there’s still pictures and memories trickling on the Facebook group, which makes the whole experience last just a little bit longer – which is amazing.

Since the meet-up, I’ve done the Spiderman thing, I started learning how to use GIMP for real (I’m watching videos and everything!), and I do have a concept for a couple of images that I want to make – and I typically don’t have images in my head before I start shooting, so I’m super curious about how this is going to turn out.

And, hopefully, for the next Scavenger meet-up, I’ll be less nervous beforehand πŸ˜‰

Spiderman visited ZΓΌrich!

One of the direct consequences of my Scavenger trip to Orlando (more about that later) is that I got weirdly motivated to start learning “proper” photo editing/processing. And hence, here comes my first attempt at that – and a bit of write-up, both to not forget what I did, and to share with whoever may find it useful.

I started with a picture of Spiderman taken during the workshop:

The picture itself is a Spiderman action figure, held with a piece of 8-gauge wire to some box in the room, and lit with a Lume cube (I’m DEFINITELY getting a couple of these) held in the hand that was not holding the camera. This is already processed a tiny bit in Darktable – levels, (debatable) white balance, that sort of things. I exported in TIFF to not start compressing before I had to, but I’m not sure this was absolutely necessary.

Then I looked into my archives for places where I could put Spiderman, and I ran into this older picture, snagged with my phone a while ago to show snow falling quite late in the year:

Now that I had something that I thought could work, time to start GIMP and work on it! The first step was getting a cleaner image of Spiderman, removing the background. I first cropped the image to only contain the part I was interested in, added a layer mask to my image, and worked with the paintbrush tool (with finer and finer brushes) to remove all the stuff that was Not Spiderman. I left the bit of wire that held the figure on the waist, I figured it was not that visible and could be confused with a belt, or something. In order to keep the layer and the mask (if I wanted to go back to the picture), I created a new layer from the “visible content”, and that’s what I copy in the other image. (I have no idea if that’s the “canonical” way of doing things, but it worked that way for me πŸ˜‰ ).

Then I pasted and scaled/positioned the figure in the image, doing my best to match the lights in both images.

I did make a mistake there: I realized that my clipping was not great (there was still a lot of stuff around the legs, in particular), but instead of correcting it in the initial image, I started correcting it in the composite. Retrospectively, it doesn’t make much sense; I’ll blame jet lag.

I blurred the background so that it would look better (especially since Spidey’s legs DO have focus blur) – I’m not sure if it was blurred enough, it’s tough to tell. I also re-added a couple of brighter spots in the image to better match the light on Spiderman, which I think kind of helped, but that I might have over done it a bit. I also added a bit light below my pasted Spiderman. I also tried my best to better match the color temperature of both images – I think it’s okay.

Finally, Spiderman cannot be complete without a couple of spider webs – especially since his hands are very much in position! These ones were paths, stroked in grey and edited with a large white brush to make them a little bit less uniform. I tried playing with the gradient tool (which seemed…. made for the task), but failed at it. Then, I decreased the opacity of the “web” layer, and added a bit of blur to it. The spider webs are in my opinion definitely the weakest part of the image, and I kind of believe that making them better would require better drawing skills than mine πŸ˜‰

Still, for a first attempt at this sort of things, I’m super pleased with the result πŸ™‚