An Interview with Dave Berk
We sat down with local photographer, Dave Berk, on a cold December evening at Tellus 360. Dave gave us insight into what inspires him and compels him to document the world around him through photography.
How did you get into photography?
I have always taken pictures with box cameras, point and shoot, film back in the day. My sister gave me an old camera; it was an Olympus with a digital zoom type of thing. It was a 7 megapixel. I was able to practice and take pictures without having to pay for film or be embarrassed. I would get an entire box camera and I ruin the whole thing. So that was it, that was a few years ago, maybe like 4.
So prior to that you were all film?
Yeah but it really wasn't like… maybe I’d shoot a roll on vacation, christmas, like holidays. Or you had that camera sometimes that would just sit there and I forgot what was on the roll. I wasn’t an avid photographer at all.
Were you an artist in another way?
I drew as a kid, I was a doodler.
Pencils, colored pencils, pen?
What kind of things would you draw?
Doodles. Nothing you would put in a frame, nothing you were going to hang on the wall.
Was there intent behind it or just something you were doing as you were idle?
Yeah, I guess once in awhile there was some kind of intent. I got a book for a birthday once, a hardbound cover with just plain pages and I drew in that.
So someone gave you that thinking that you loved to do this? It wasn’t just “I’m on the phone drawing circles,” you were maybe more of an abstract artist?
I guess kind of. I sucked at math and we used to have the protractor and the little circle gauge and all of the little geometry templates back in the day, I’m old so there weren't apps. So you would make your own spirograph which was a toy I used to like as a kid. I would get lost and do that stuff a lot.
Did your art change? Did it become more focused? Maybe did it some more?
Nope. Saved it away and had kids, put it away.
Do you still have the sketch book?
Still have the book, probably somewhere. I think I gave it to my daughter. She is a pretty good artist. She’s good with a pen, with paint, with really everything.
When you were with paper and pen, did you have a certain style?
I drew hallways. Like Pink Floyd The Wall, remember the animation part when the face would come out of the wall? I would draw the geometry stuff. You make the 3 dimensional boxes and started making long hallways with that and then I would make the faces come out of the hall. I guess that was the first abstract thing that wasn't really drawn on a line.
Did you draw and listen to Pink Floyd at the same time?
What other music did you listen to?
I liked the classic rock kind of stuff. I did the Grateful Dead thing for quite a number of years. There was always the art stuff that went with that, that whole scene is a circus.
Yeah, all that stuff.
Then you get this camera, and you can crank through, and get instant results and there is no cost to developing. Did it unleash your creativity?
I guess, yeah. She gave it to me on a family vacation and I filled the card. I got some kind of free app and that's what I edited it with.
Do you remember where the vacation was?
We went to Jersey, just down to the Jersey Shore. I got some decent pictures of some people and that's about it. There was nothing great about it. Most of it a shot on automatic because I wasn't going to walk home without any decent pictures from vacation. I would mess around with shots and always miss stuff because it was blurry or I'd catch a beautiful background and the person in front and the aperture was complete off.
Right from the beginning you are off of auto?
No, I tried!
But you were trying (with the manual)! Most people aren't there. Most people would be, “Hey, I'm on auto and getting great pictures. This is fun.”
You know, on the Olympus, the funny thing about it is where the dial is on that camera is off. Im left handed so when I kind of move my hands around I move that dial all over the place. I'd think I was on one setting and I'd be on another setting. Actually the 3200 on the Nixon, which was the next camera I got, that one has the same problem. The dial doesn't lock, and it is really close to the hand for a lefty. You could be shooting football and before you know it you have shot 15 shots and the greatest shot is out of focus or completely dark because you turned the dial with your thumb. It's the curse of the lefty!
After that vacation you said you came home with some good photos of people, was it your family?
Yeah, I messed around. My son played rugby and my daughter played all sorts of stuff. She was in cheer leading then and then she was in lacrosse and then track. It was kind of just taking pictures along the way of all their stuff and getting better. When you reach the limitations of that camera, which was pretty quick to do because 7 megapixels you couldn't do anything with, you get a new one.
Was your current camera the next one?
No, I got the 3200 and this is the 7100.
With this one, what lenses are your go to?
I use the kit lens, the 1855, almost all the time. It's the widest lens I have so I'll use that. I got a screw on attachment to make it wider but that's horrible. You get what you pay for. Then I have the other lens, the 70-200. But unless it's sports or something else, it's not my style.
Tell me about your evolving style, from sports to street. I have seen a very sharp change in your style over time.
No, I had a lot of opportunities through #lancastergram. just through putting stuff online. The very first time i shot anything for somebody, my son was playing football and it was his senior year. I rented a lens, a big 70-200 like a 2.8, and it was FOX Friday Night Lights so the news cameras were down there and I walked on the field with them and kneeled down next to the guys with my monopod and my little Nikon and this huge lens, and I shot with them all night! They are very cool guys and they were like “Oh, put a setting here. Do this, do that,” and they asked,” who are you shooting for?” And I was like, “I’m not supposed to be here! I’m sitting here with you guys so I will stay out of your way. I appreciate any help.” They were really cool guys.
I shot all of it and at the end I met a woman from Lititz Daily News and she asked me who I shot for and I didn't really answer the question. I ended up shooting for her for like a year. She would say, “Hey, do you have any time to do this or do that?” She was starting a paper, an online media thing, and starting out all by herself. I had nothing to do and was shooting those things anyway so I shot a lot of Friday night football that year, parade, stuff around town, and people. I just kind of learned to shoot through YouTube...through necessity.
When did you start getting on social media?
Pretty much right away.
So when you were taking pictures of your kids in sports, you were posting that to social media?
I never really put my kids on that a whole lot.
But you were on it and maybe putting some photography on?
Yeah. I was a flip phone guy. I got a smartphone probably 3 years ago. I had six of the same old T-Mobile little square things, they didn't even sell them anymore and they were getting rid of them. I got the rest of them and kept them in a sock drawer so if they broke, I would just switch the card over. I was not a tech guy at all!
Then I got a smart phone and started doing that. I had to do that too, everyone else was looking at their phones so I started doing the same thing.
You can't fight it anymore, so join them!
Yeah! 3 years ago!
What was your first impression of a smart phone?
Yeah, it was an old T-Mobile. My first cell phone was a bag phone with a cord and everything.
Do you do much photography from a phone?
No, I can't even take a picture. I have a hard time taking a photo of a business card! I want to be smooth and go “Click,” and I'll walk away and never be able to read it. I have never posted a picture I have taken with a cell phone.
Back to when you were walking on the field, all these other guys, I'm guessing, had a lot better equipment than you did at the time except for the lens you were renting.
Yeah, it says rental on the side!
Did it bother you at all? Were you intimidated by equipment? Do you feel that equipment matters?
No! I think you start out thinking that equipment is going to matter, like If I can have that and if I can have this. But equipment matters when you want to do something special. You want to have that super low ISO or you want to be able to shoot that event and fire off pictures that fast at rapid succession and then I guess hard work always comes into play.
Taking a normal picture, if you learn the settings, I think you can take a pretty good snap with a point and shoot. If you know what you are doing.
That being said, is there any equipment that you have your eye on?
(Laughs) Yeah, I mean eventually, I say I won't, but I will give into a full frame. A bigger camera. I always want a wider lens but I also what a 24-70 with a 2.8. it's a nice lens and who doesn't want that 70-200 with a 2.8. That's on everybody’s wish list!
So tell me about your style. What is your passion right now to go out and capture? What are some things you would like to shoot that aren't there?
I like the night stuff now.
You have almost become a brand now with the night!
That's funny because people I started following on Instagram started writing these deep things and all this kind of stuff. I have always been a guy that likes quotes and I like when smart people say smart stuff. I like that.
I saw people doing that all the time and I was like, “I’m not going to do that on Instagram.” Mainly because my thumbs, I cant text. I don't text very well, I don't do that. I'll talk to my phone, I just learned how to do that. I just started making little things. If I did macro I would put, “Get small.” If it was night stuff i would put, “night mission,” because that was always something we said in college if we were going to go out and do something dumb! We were on a night mission! If the night mission lasted until the morning and the sun came up then you were on dawn patrol.
You have been doing a crazy amount of night missions and you have become the “Night Mission” guy. A lot of this is solo right?
That takes a special person and a dedication to their art to get up and go out and do that. I’m amazed at the amount of night missions you are on.
I set on a journey about a couple years ago with this thing and just walking the streets, Back and forth. I pretty much have walked most of the city here and there while taking pictures.
The night mission stuff, I imagine if you went through the whole feed. you would see the night mission come along with daylight savings. It's probably going to coincide with that because when I have free time to go is when I go. If I have a pocket of two hours here, I'll probably grab the camera, and if it's dark I learned how to shoot out of necessity. Then when you start looking at what other people can do at night, you have a thousand options on the same corner.
The stuff you are pulling out is just amazing. This is where I think your inner artist is really getting to express himself. What do you find frustrating about photography in this area, if anything?
I don't have enough time to do a lot of the other stuff that people do. Like they say we are going to go to this city and shoot. I want to drop everything that I am doing and take the day off and go, that's the frustration.
Do you find Lancaster is limiting as far was what photos you can take?
I walk to same box here in town, I've done it a hundred times. The first photo walk I went on they walked the same box. I walked this a thousand time. I take pictures of the same street and the same stuff just at different angles and it looks different. Or you learn a new trick! It's kind of like a backyard to practice in. This building (Tellus 360) is a great place to come and practice when it starts to rain!
They have recently remodeled, quite a backdrop?
(Laughs) I posted that the other day, the light bulb with that row and the exit light over there! But on like a Sunday, there are a lot of guys that play around here and kick around on a Sunday and they set up right over there and play. It is kind of lit like it is right now and you can sit right there at that table with a 50 and practice all afternoon and they can care less. You get some good ones and you post it. That's another opportunity that I have had. I got to shoot The Roots and Blues festival.
Was that connection made through your Lititz work?
Just people talking through the internet saying, “Hey, I know a guy that's got a camera and he might be able to do that.” I got to shoot in the Trust building for 2 days like right up front, I got the press pass. It was super cool. I got to meet the artists and that was great!
Do you see this getting more formal for you in that way? Maybe eventually taking over the day job?
I doubt it. It might be something that I retire with and make a couple bucks here and there. It's not really a drive, I want to keep it right where it is. Its an awesome way to avoid boredom and stress. So if I start to tip it too much in the other way it and it gets out of balance, I can see where that can turn into some stress.
And ruin your hobby.
Do you find that photography has changed the way you live at all?
Probably, yeah. For those people who know me real well, I probably won't have sat down at this table with you or anybody else four or five years ago. Because I would work, didn't have a hobby, kept my head down, did a lot of stuff, watched tv, and then would roll into the next day. Now, I haven't turned the television set on in three years, it drives my family nuts. Well a little bit, they kind of watch their own shows and they are all into their netflix then I’m in the same room just doing something different. I could care less about it anymore.
Does you family mind the amount of time that gets pulled into this?
No! I constantly apologize to my wife, and she is happy. She is awesome, she is happy at what I'm doing. She is probably annoyed that I stick a camera in everyone's face at home from time to time, “Don’t post that!”
But with this photography, their life had been documented pretty well.
Yeah, yeah! The family album has gotten pretty big lately.
So tell me about your work flow process. You take the shot, I am assuming you are on raw, bring them home, what are your next steps?
I shoot on RAW, then I go home. Light room and I'll pretty much just load it up go through and sift through and import. I’m a horrible filer, I don't file anything. Everything is the same serial number it comes in.
Do you use tags as you are pulling them in?
Nope, I won't even do that because I will use a lot. If I'm just out here by date and I'll remember the stories. Like, Chad’s bike ride is a file there. The front of it is a little picture of all you guys in front of the bike path. I don't even know if I posted it, I might not have. I know what that is, and I'm like, “Okay, I remember that night we went here and went there. Its got the santa claus, the dirty santa looking shots and the roburrito shot!”
Who was the name of the other photographer we were with?
Jackie got that great photo of Santa smoking that cigarette. Some people were like, “Ugh, you shouldn't post this!”
No man! That's a greeting card, that's a poster! That would sell on a college campus in a heartbeat! That's gold!
Do you ever try to make statements in your photography that way? Push the envelope, show some grit.
I did for a little. I saw a couple guys that I was following with street photography and I got this idea that I was going to do some sort of documentary. I like Binn’s park a lot and everyone talk about how Lancaster is great and the revival of the city is awesome in so many ways, but then you go to Binn’s park and it is such a tremendous waste of space. So for a bit there I was going to take a picture of the underside of Lancaster.
I never did it because I felt it was sort of a crush to the revival that was sort of already happening in a sense. Its intrusive, it feels weird to me! If i'm not going to go full board why am I going to take this homeless guy’s picture in my half-assed attempt. I never really went that far with it.
Where do you see your photography in the future? What styles are you looking to try or hone in on? Do you see yourself doing any printed work?
If someone wanted to give me gallery space to show some stuff off, sure! I'd do that, I've done that. People contact you saying they want to buy a print here or there. Going back to the Grateful Dead thing, they always used to allow fans to tape their shows and people would say, “Why would you do that?” I remember Jerry Garcia saying, “I made it, I'm already done with it. You can have it!” I sort of have the same kind of thing.
You know how it is, you take a picture and in that workflow you go in that library and you start tinkering with it, and you tinker with it some more, and more. I just hooked up a 32” flat screen to my computer so my screen is huge and now I look at it and I think, “I can take that out. I can do this, I can do that.” Once I post it, I’m kind of done with it.
What kind of things do you like to do with your photos in lightroom? Do you have any must haves or first tries?
I don't have any. I haven't yet learned when people tag these different kind of topaz labs or these different kind of filter presets. I don't have any. I don’t know how to use them, I haven't ordered them, I haven't really looked at it. The only thing that I am using in there is basic sliders and that's it.
Do you feel like that is something you want to learn more of or will you be happy just getting it right with the camera?
I want to try. The people that I have read about or seen their videos online learn to get it right in the camera. Which seems to make sense to me. If you can get it right in the camera there is a lot less processing time and a lot less phony pictures. I over process a lot of them any way, I like that look. I like the super dark clouds if it is nature stuff, I like that!
You said you went out earlier tonight, where did you cover? Did you try to get here early to do that?
Yeah because the sun started coming through the clouds and I figured I could get to it. I usually park up around Orange and Duke so I shot down and went up to the top of the garage. They built that fence so you have to walk up to the 7th floor spiral to get no fence in front of you. The sun was breaking through the sky over Firestone tire, everyone kind of shoots that. The sun was coming through the clouds so you got some nice rays shooting that way.
So it sounds like you are always evaluating a day!
I got a shot of the GREIST building and the Trust building and that Hager Mall building walking through that parking lot. I don't know why but I never looked at it that way before. I mean, how many time have you walked through that parking lot! I took the shot of blue sky and big white puffy clouds right behind the GREIST building. I set up a tripod in the middle there, no one is there, and how often does that happen. On New Years Day!
How rewarding is it to take that home and start processing the photos?
Philadelphia, that trip. That little night mission going there, I could not wait to get home because I had left the group and went to Camden myself. I was not leaving until I got the shot of the Philadelphia skyline from the Camden side. So I drove to Camden on the waterfront quickly ran out and set up. Ripped off a couple different shots threw stuff in the trunk and then beat it out of Jersey and had to pay the toll to escape! I could not wait to get home!
You could see what you got already on that little thing.
Yeah but my eyes suck. I could see it but the night stuff for me is so dependent on that line being crisp. If you are off a little bit you just bleed, you can sort of fix it a little but. Those things bleed especially in the water, it's just no good. I can’t tell sometimes, that's why I need that big screen reader!
Are you PC or Mac?
After lightroom, how are you getting stuff on instagram?
I export to an external hard drive to a waiting file, for the most part. There can be 10-12 photos in that waiting file and they have all been converted into a .jpeg. They are in their final state but they are ready for the internet.
So you have that patience! You can have 10-12 photos just sit there?
Yeah, they sit there and then, wow this is going to sound meticulous. I won't name any of the photos. On a Sunday, I'll load DropBox with 5-6 pictures, whatever I really feel like that day, I'll wake up and it is raining, I might post something relative to that mood. If I am feeling something else, I might post something to that mood.
So you have 5 waiting for you, what happens to the other 5?
They sit and wait. Some of them will be sitting in that queue forever because I keep on passing them over.
You kind of wish there was a way you can have them out there without consuming, let's say, prime real estate.
Yeah, I have that. I have posted that a couple of times, I have posted b-sides! People like that night mission thing, let them like b-sides too! I think everybody should post their b-sides on there. What did you look at that you thought sucked (But other people liked), I will never understand.
Where are your b-sides?
On “Stuff Dave Saw” on Facebook, on that little site. Sometimes I’ll do that and I’ll flick them into the public area.
What kind of stuff do you want to shoot tonight?
I was thinking since we are down here, I have never shot the South Queen Street side of the convention center. It’ll be like lines, the way I kind of have it in my head and the traffic will all be taillights. Red Lights leading up to the center statue and the tree with the convention center on the side. I have never shot that. So, I was thinking that and something will pop in my head after that.
Can you give us 5 words someone would use to describe you?
(Laughs) Oh my gosh. I’m pretty easy going, I’m probably going to take the middle of the road. I’ll be up front and tell you what I think, I’m not much concerned with whether you like what I say, It's honest, you can take that to the bank, you won't have to second guess that. Patient.