The Tale of the Photography Workshop (or, Why I am Up in This Tree)

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2007

I spent the first week of October at a digital photography workshop near Eagle Bay, NY in the Adirondack Mountains. It was taught by an R.I.T. photo prof. and his photographer wife, two great and greatly talented people. It was a wonderful opportunity.

Covewood Main Lodge

As the teacher explained, the average digital camera has been configured to take pictures of smilin’ white folks at a picnic. It’s turned on and shot in the camera’s pre-set JPEG mode, auto-exposed and auto-focused by a tiny Japanese man (let’s call him “Yoshihiko”) who lives inside the camera. If you ask him to, the Yoshihiko in many cameras will take weather conditions into consideration: choose “sunshine” or “cloudy” or “incandescent lightbulb” (most often seen as tiny representative icons). He will – if asked – acknowledge the camera operator’s directive to shoot an “action shot” or in “macro (closeup) mode” – although the average digital camera user doesn’t want to be bothered with such variables and generally lets Yoshihiko just do his thing on full AUTO. Ditto the use of AutoFocus. Connect a wire between camera and computer, and the resultant image can then be attached to an email and sent to Cousin Minnie who didn’t make it to the picnic so she can laugh at everyone in the photo. All of this works and makes many, many people happy.

Part of Covewood’s Dock on Big Moose Lake

I know some basics about photography, i.e. the fundamentals of exposure (Northern, ass, celluloid and image sensor). I understand the focal length/depth of field relationship. Many people have told me I have “a good eye.” There was a time some years ago when I knew how to choose my film camera’s exposure settings by looking at the available light in any given situation.

I confess that although I often manually focus, and I do usually control the shutter speed, I just as often let Yoshihiko do his thing. He is a pretty smart guy, after all. I use a tripod on occasion, almost always for indoor shots that require a long exposure because of low light levels. I have a “nice” tripod bought at the “nice” mall camera store, but not a particularly clever one capable of getting close to the ground.

Last week, all of this was about to change…

I arrived at the workshop, and the first thing I learned was that my “nice” tripod should probably go to the scrap-pile. I was loaned an older good one that had twice the weight and flexibility of my own. On the first day (when we were just turned loose to take shots around the beautiful old Adirondack great camp), I decided to do my usual thing sans tripod on the excuse that it would be my benchmark: the “old” way of doing things, to be compared to what I would be doing by week’s end. (Everyone else headed out with cameras mounted securely to their three-legged devices).

On Tuesday morning, armed with loaned Bogen tripod, I set out with ten others for a creek some miles away. We got there by car, then began walking up the creek, along the creek, and IN the creek. (This was a bit unsettling to me because I was using Husband’s camera, borrowed for the week because my own had gotten doused by a small container of soapy water and drowned Japanese beetles and was at Pentax Repair). The place was pretty: rocky with small waterfalls and the beautiful reds, yellows, greens and oranges of Adirondack autumn. Of course, the rocks were also slippery and the embankments steep, so I was clinging to camera and tripod with more than the normal paranoia. Yoshihiko stayed back at the lodge.

The previous evening, we had been lectured on using histograms to judge proper exposure (new to me; I had heard of histograms but had no knowledge of the why and how), and we were expected to manually focus and expose (full manual exposure being another thing I had not done previously with my digital camera). The Pentax manual packed in my bag turned out to be the camera software manual, not the actual camera instructions, adding another straw to the camel’s back.

Before shooting, and as the light conditions changed, we needed to “custom white balance” our cameras with a white card instead of choosing “shade” or “cloudy” automatic settings (another procedure I knew the value of but not the mechanics…). To sum up, the game was to climb around the creek looking for a good subject, set up and level the tripod in the desired location (balancing its legs on slippery rocks, in water and mud), figure out all the camera settings, check white balance, be sure you were focused, fire the shutter, then check to see that the histogram was appropriately placed. My brain was on overload, and being the owner of ONE drowned Pentax, I was really nervous watching water flow between my feet.

 Tuesday’s Best Shot

The other half of my workshop time – because for me, it did take almost half of my time and energy during the week – was computer technology. A new-to-me notebook computer, never-used camera software, a key drive that refused to save my files, a network configuration that wouldn’t accept the lodge’s wireless network when I tried to download a photo file converter (somehow the notebook wanted to talk to my office…), the unfamiliar organizing part of Adobe Photoshop Elements, and a program for converting RAW files to DNGs all fought me tooth and nail. It was embarrassing and totally stressful to be so mind-boggled by these things, and I had to use them. My teachers were incredibly patient as we spent the evening hours struggling with this stuff.

By Wednesday I was taking some decent photos. I spent an hour in one part of another leaf-strewn stream, and I am fairly pleased with the pictures. Technically I was making some progress, and although I was still nervously hanging onto the camera and tripod for fear of another water disaster, I was handling the custom white balancing, manually setting exposures and checking histograms, and generally enjoying myself.

On Thursday we traveled up Big Moose Lake by boat and then hiked and photographed everything Nature had to offer along the trail to Russian Lake. By late afternoon I reached the lean-to at the trail’s end, and then took some shots across and into the lake. I was about finished, and stood camera and tripod near the shore, watching another photographer work on a shot of some pine needles floating on the water. A fly landed on her subject, and I suggested that I go find a branch to chase it so she could take her shot. I turned my back on the camera for less than a minute… and during that minute, the one minute of the entire week that I was not carefully clinging to either camera or tripod, the leg of the tripod facing the water telescoped slowly into itself… and with a splash, my husband’s camera fell to it’s watery grave.

On Friday, I drove the soggy camera to Old Forge and FedEx-ed it to Pentax Repair before joining the others for lunch and a shoot of Ferd’s Bog. I was an observer.

On Saturday, the workshop over, I drove to Brown’s Tract Pond where we had scattered my parents’ ashes eight years ago. There were no campers or boaters anywhere near the lake; only a lone photographer (not from the workshop) stood on the shore where I had planned to launch my kayak.

I paddled to the island and climbed onto the flat rocks on its southern shore. For an hour I was alone with my memories. I sang “Scarlet Ribbons” for my father and then “Feels Like Home to Me” for my mother, and gradually the ache of loss – loss of camera, loss of childhood times, loss of beloved parents, loss of control, loss of sanity – lessened; lessened but was not ready to leave me.

Back in the kayak, I circled the island. An otter slipped silently from the rocks on the far side and disappeared into the water. A breeze was picking up and gray clouds were now blowing across the sky. Returning to the deserted shore, I put the kayak on the car and turned back onto the dirt road past the now closed State campground where I stopped to briefly visit our family’s favorite campsite; then went on to Raquette Lake where I paused to pay my respects to the faded old general store where generations of campers with canoes have gotten their supplies. It was the last weekend of the “summer” season.

I drove the remaining two and a half hours north in silence.

At home, my husband greeted me warmly. The house was clean and he was preparing a wonderful dinner featuring quinoa-stuffed squash. I opened the notebook and began a slideshow of the week’s photos, pouring out stories as he poured a fine bottle of shiraz.

After dinner the slideshow resumed… to the point of a photo taken at 4:38 PM on Thursday, and I said, “At that point, during the one instant of the entire week when I wasn’t clinging worriedly to either the tripod or the camera strap, one leg of the tripod telescoped in, and your camera fell in the lake.”

Just Before the Dive

It is quiet and peaceful up here in the tree. I am watching the leaves change color and fall, and I am contemplating Fate.

Photoshopping

Yesterday on FaceBook I saw a photo of a huge full moon rising on an ocean horizon. The shore in the foreground is rocky and moonlit in places. It had some 89,000 “Likes”. To my pleasant surprise, there were MANY comments calling it what it is, including mine: “Go outdoors. Look at the moon. Look at the ocean. Look at a tree. Photoshop is fun, but reality can be quite beautiful. This photo is so over-edited that it’s ugly, in my opinion.”

In previous times, the camera was never a liar. It could force us to look at realities we might otherwise avoid. Film was primarily a truth-teller, even though we burned and dodged in the darkroom.

Photoshop is a great tool. It’s fun to use, it can “rescue” a less than perfect shot (sometimes). I use it – along with every other serious photog – on almost every picture I take, but this world is becoming more and more dystopic, and people are getting further and further removed from Nature. We need to see the natural world as it is, not as one more thing for man or photog to manipulate.

This is Where it All Began

Sunday, October 29th, 2006


Opening

An artists’ reception was held yesterday for exhibitors at the Frederic Remington Museum’s Amateurs Only! Juried Art Exhibition 2006. Only a few years ago I might have considered such an event with disinterest, and in fact even yesterday I went there with an attitude somewhat prejudicial toward the combination of “amateurs” and “art,” but I had to go (in fact, couldn’t wait to go) because this year I am one of those amateurs.

To my profound delight, the two of my photos selected for inclusion among the thirty-six now hanging in The Richard E. Winter Gallery are in great company. The Remington defined “amateur” as someone not making his/her living selling art, and apparently that includes some remarkable artists. I am proud to be a part of this great exhibition and (in the style of a theatre program) thank Bob, Kelly, John, Terry (of Fisher Design in Potsdam), and all of the others who have encouraged and helped me reach this milestone.

Photographs: American Wreckage (above); Web Designer (below).

The museum’s website may be viewed at: www.fredericremington.org

Enough of Mickey, Already!

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2006

Imgp6348 (2) 33pct

Sometimes you might be lucky enough to “get the picture” in the field; sometimes you might have to bring the subject to the studio and work at setting up a shot.

This fall there was a stretch of time when the milkweed pods began to open and the weather favored the transport of their seeds on dry, silky bits of plant-fluff. Rain would end Wind’s opportunity, and so time to photograph these ephemeral fliers was also passing. I carefully gathered up a vase-full of stalks and seed pods – several already open and beginning to spew their contents – and brought it into the house. My plan was to keep them dry and then take them back outside for photographs when I had the time.

Yesterday I glanced at my “bouquet” on the window sill near my desk. The pods are empty! No, the seeds aren’t littering my floor… they were all eaten by the mice.

Criminal Intent

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 03, 2006

This morning I awoke and looked out the window at a pretty amazing pink and orange sunrise sky, said “Wow!” and then “Damn” because you have to be an earlier bird than I to get the photographic worm. It then occurred to me that being a photographer is a bit like being a criminal: you need motive (the love of taking a good picture), weapon (decent camera), and opportunity (created by Wizards who get their asses out of bed early).