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Trial Shots – Museum

I went back to my vantage point for the Museum scene on an evening when I thought I might observe some nice sunset light, but alas, the sky behind the cityscape was not as dramatic as I would have hoped.


A pesky layer of stratus clouds put a dull soup behind the skyline. The haloing caused by the uniform clouds highlights the deficiency of the cheap lens I used for the shot.

I was able to work on composition. I decided that in the end this is a very left-handed shot. I will also crop the top when the sky has so little interest. While I waited for the azure hour to kick in, I followed the advice given by many photographers: if the light in front of you does not satisfy, turn around.


The dying light caught the clouds as they formed an apt backdrop for the bare trees on the h


As I recomposed a bit tighter, the light shifted from gold to rose and the clouds complemented the shape of the tree even more:


It’s always nice to get a bonus. I am not a fan of gratuitous sunrise/sunset shots. They are all pretty and guaranteed to get likes on Facebook. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but when faced with gorgeous scenes, it is all too easy to take the easy shot and not work to take the best photo.

When the azure hour arrived, the stratus clouds took up enough light to gain interest. I did crop the excess sky here. I am hoping that as the sunset gets earlier, a few more lights will create more interest in the buildings on the right, which add little in this rendering. By 8 PM on a Friday night, few offices still have occupants.


Most do not appreciate the blue hour as much as the golden hour, but the intense color and muted luminousity can be appealing.

Some do not like the super saturated colors of the post-sunset hour, so I processed one view in black and white to take a look at the tonal quality of the shot.


I printed it, as that truly tests a black and white image, and was satisfied with the detail and tones. (Side note: I submitted this to my camera club and matted it improperly, jamming the crane into the top of the frame. No one in the audience could understand why the judge criticized the crane problem, as they saw the version above projected! You have to be careful from concept to final product.)

I will revisit this shot when I return from Yellowstone.




I went to Cape May Zoo to practice my wildlife skills with mixed results. The company was good – my shooting pal Duke, who was trying out his new telephoto Tamron zoom lens (150-600!) and loving it.

I decided to try out using a lens support from Desmond. It is a clever idea borrowed from our video friends, cradling the lens on one axis and allowing one the ability to move the lens about with the freedom of a monopod via a damped panning swivel, but ultimately affording the solidity of a tripod.


Unfortunately, I was not able to evaluate the new toy because I made an egregious error. When I changed my camera settings to reinstate Image Stabilization, I chose the wrong one – panning only. One expects most images to lack critical sharpness when shooting wildlife for many reasons, but very, very few on this trip were usable as a result of my error. After doing a little reading on IS, I discovered:

  1. At 1/500 or faster, you should shut it off if you have in body stabilization.
  2. With a fork, or the “loose ball” tripod arrangement used by many wildlife shooters photographing wildlife on the move, one needs to use the full 5-axis IS for best results, if one uses it at all.

On the bright side (literally), the Cape May Zoo hours of 10 to 4 are not ideal for capturing animals except in certain conditions (crisp and cloudy), and we got neither, so I didn’t miss much. Activity and light are best at sunrise and sunset, so midwinter is the best time to shoot at this venue unless you are lucky. Opportunities were few, and the crowds not conducive to concentration. The clouds finally rolled in after we had lunch and were well on our way back to Philly. I only got a handful of half decent animal shots, and my best effort was a human interest piece.

Background control proved difficult in the bright lighting conditions:



I got good separation on this bird portrait, which mitigates the bright spots in the background. I like the play of light on the head, but the shadow crease on the body would take some photoshop to remedy.


Normally, I  would try to blur a busy background like this, but shooting at a zoo does not give you many options. Actually, I kind of like the giraffe against the trees – so many people go to great lengths to shoot them against the sky that this approach stands out. The diagonal lines work for me as well. This was one of the better lighting moments – a cloud came across the scene, so there was just enough sun to define the head.


Again it is vexing not to have the ability to change position much on zoo boardwalks. When this pair had their heads raised, their necks were cut by the edge of the field. They did give me a good heads low opportunity, but even with a machine gun shutter I failed to get separation between them by a feather.


The light was so terrible and the setting so distracting that I had to crop the tails off these critters to get a shot of this tender moment.


This was the only shot of the day that satisfied me. The light was near perfect, the diagonal lines appealed to me, and I caught the interaction despite kids and parents swarming everywhere. The goat’s contented reaction to the child’s touch was what attracted me.

I hope to get out for another animal shoot before I go to Yellowstone!


Time for a test shot

My camera club will be exploring night photography this fall, so I decided to get back in the swing of it.

On my morning walks around Lemon Hill, I noticed a shot of the west entrance of the PMA that I have not ever seen posted anywhere. The main entrance, with its Rocky Steps has the most shots, and the west entrance is usually photographed from across the Schuylkill, taking advantage of a nice reflection and the lights of Boathouse Row.

I have learned from shooting landscapes that the sunset light varies quite a bit in angle and quality throughout the year, as does the park foliage that frames the shot, so I am going to take advice from several landscape photographers, who extoll the merits of shooting close to home.

Colorado photographer Glenn Randall found a spot in Rocky Mountain National Park that he considers close to home. First he revisited the site to look for composition. Then he used the Photographers Ephemeris to calculate the best sun angles. Finally he hiked out to the location, three hours distant, in pitch dark, the three times it took to get the shot at sunrise in the ideal conditions that he had visualized .

If he can take that much care, I can certainly do the same to plan a shot a few hundred yards from my home. I ran up to the hill at sunset several days in a row to check for things visible at night that I cound not see during my morning  walks. Of course there were many – obnoxious street lights and little bits of light peeking through the foliage. Also, a lot of elements that were ugly or distracting in the daylight naturally “burned out” in the fading dusk and semi-dark of the city night.

Friday night, I decided to take my first test shots of the scene. I took my walking around camera with ultrazoom lens and used the $10 Tamrac portable tripod that I carry in my street bag. I knew the sunset would be crap, as the sky was dead solid overcast, but the azure hour (30 minutes after sunset) looks great in those conditions.

What do you know, another photographer approached me. He works for Channel 6; I was surprised that they bave still photographers, but they play an important role. What a great gig! He had spotted the shot as well and was scouting it. He visualized it with bare trees and winter light. I remarked that two of us were here, but I could see four or five photographers on the other side of the river shooting the Boathouse Row angle. He had been over on that side a few nights previous and met several shooters. The lights were upgraded on Boathouse Row, so everyone was getting fresh shots of the new lighting.

We had a nice chat, and I tripped the shutter of my camera every few minutes as the light changed.

When I got home, the image quality surprised me. I was only looking for compostion, exposure, and white balance tips.  I did not expect to have usable shots. Using a four year old camera with a 10x kit quality zoom on a spindly portable tripod, I did not expect much. Those asshats who insist Micro 4/3 cannot produce clean low light files be damned.

Here is my initial framing. I tried to inclued as much as possible of the scene so I could look for problems as well as pictures within the picture.


I noticed positves immediately. The white balance was spot on. Since I shoot RAW, there is no problem leaving the auto white balance on, as it does nothing but feed a color temperature into the EXIF data. I can adjust the white balance non-destructively in post. It read the largest well lit area in the picture and gave me great light on the museum. Every other light source was a different color temp, but one reason I like the azure hour is that the intense blue tends to cancel the horrible color of halide and mercury lamps.

Exposure is solid as well. I always start with aperture priority and evaluative metering on these scenes because night shooting always involves one well lit subject, and today’s metering picks that up. I adjust the exposure compensation after one shot based on the histogram, but it was not necessary in this case.

Composition? This view reveals only the tallest buildings (above Billy Penn’s hat) near the Parkway. I had originally envisioned this shot with the Comcast Tech Center finished in 2017, but I like the unfinished building and cranes, and the bare bulbs do not create as much glare as I had firest envisioned. In looking for a final shot, I decided that the tip of City Hall and the radio antenna would spoil the picture, and that a bit could be taken off the right as well. to get rid of the bare branch.


I have a while to work on a final composition, but I like the dynamics of this view. Even tighter and vertical would also work.


The after dark shot was less successful on many levels. With the cloudy sky, the color became the muddy rusty color of reflected light pollution. Even though Philly has one of the best records on light pollution of any major city, the core of a metro area of over 5 million people will not yield an attractive night sky unless the atmosphere is perfectly clear.


Ugh. Naturally the specular highlights begin to blow out, but I can take care of that with bracketing, neutral density filters and the like.

Without the blue from the azure hour, the sickly colors of the lights begin to show up. They might look cool against a deep black sky, but against the muddy brownish sky. less so.

Many night shooters simply process as black and white, which cures many ills. It’s partially a hangover from film days, when long exposures caused unwanted shifts in color balance and exposure. Black and white film proved much more forgiving.

I will shoot more test shots, of course, on clear nights and after midnight, but my preiliminary exploration shows that a good sunset and the azure hour will yield the best results with the least post.

Stay tuned, over the next year or so, I will refine this shot and move toward a final product. Please offer any feedback you think would be helpful.



Digital Wildlife Photography

John & Barbara Gerlach

© 2013 Focal Press

$34.95 hardcover unjacketed

John and Barbara Gerlach have cooked up a conversational, even folksy, introduction to the many issues photographers face when shooting wildlife.

In many ways, animal photography creates more challenges than any other specialty. Like street photography, it depends on decisive moments, but most photographers have a better idea of how people behave than how wild animals behave. Finding and approaching animals in the wild can prove difficult, and capturing the best shots requires immense patience. Like landscape photography, expense and access can mean that being able to anticipate light and position oneself for optimal composition can save you money and determine whether you will get any usable shots at all in the limited time you have in a location.

The Gerlachs bring their experience to bear on the subject with strong opinions and a thoroughness that belies the book’s brief 200 page length. They move from equipment choice to technique to artistic issues in a logical progression that reinforces with repetition all its lessons. A few people might quibble with their Canikoncentricity (he shoots Canon, she Nikon) but they base their preference solely on numbers of users, citing the ease of finding the right lenses and accessories, and most importantly, advice. They have taken over a million exposures, but they still value sharing with other photographers.

The most effective aspect of their approach lies in their advising photographers to abandon the habits of “walking around” photography in favor of a pragmatic, subject based approach. Too many shooters have become lazy, having found settings that provide decent results in a lot of situations. They are one step above “program” mode photographers, adjusting only one parameter, such as aperture or shutter speed or exposure compensation. The Gerlachs challenge the reader to expose manually, focus using the back button, adjust the ISO up when necessary, read the histogram, and, yes, use a flash sometimes.

They also spend a good bit of time in the middle of the book talking about image quality, not in the manner of gear heads who attribute IQ to shooting the most up to date camera, but as a function of proper technique. I took a seminar from Jeff Schewe in the early days of digital cameras, when 6 megapixel cameras crossed the threshold and were considered usable for photojournalism and web use. His message: if you don’t shoot on a tripod, don’t choose proper light, and don’t shoot raw, you might as well have a 3 megapixel camera. The Gerlachs show that sharpness depends more on a steady camera, intelligent focusing,  and fast shutter than on sensor resolution, and good dynamic range relies more on proper exposure than having the latest and greatest camera. Bad habits that inhibit IQ, like using a UV protection filter, not using a lens hood, or letting your lenses and sensor collect schmutz, are visited in depth.

The chapters on flash and composition are the icing on this many layered cake. They follow the general principles of photography, but focus on the particular issues that face wildlife photographers, who must frame their images for different purposes than say, street, still life, or landscape photographers. Wildlife photography is about behavior, and has more in common with cinema than painting in terms of composition. Flash not only illuminates but freezes action. And as always, they emphasize the welfare of the animals and delicate balance between their being used to humans and dependent on them or controlled by them.

For a book that was written in 2012, it remains fresh. The Gerlachs’ emphasis on technique and general principles keeps it current. They wrote the book to introduce readers to the new possibilities opened up by digital cameras, but they carefully left the nature of the improvements open ended. Photography instruction books should have top notch photographs, and the ones they include illustrate wonderfully both the best and worst outcomes of wildlife photography.

Some readers may find a lot of the material basic, and some of it out of their primary area of interest (hummingbirds? safaris?) but on the whole the book contains a treasure trove of information, at least for beginning and intermediate shooters.

I have attended a lot of seminars, and my test for books and talks consists of these questions: Did I learn something new? Was I reminded of something I had forgotten? Did I have something I always do validated? This book provided lots of yeses for all three questions, so I recommend it to anyone looking to master this difficult craft.

After a long hiatus, I plan to return to blogging. Book reviews, articles, and photographs will soon appear in this space.

I curtailed my activity in the face of a couple of events in Fall 2013. The government shutdown forced the temporary closure of Yellowstone and scuttled my trip. Then, in November, my eldest sister (not the one who works at YS) received a diagnosis of hydrocephaly (water on the brain) and faced surgery and rehab. As anyone who maintains a blog knows, any interruption can cause a long term shutdown. Momentum and discipline flee.

The last couple of years have given me a fair share of photographic adventure. I finally made it to Yellowstone in 2014, I returned last year, and I will head out there again next month. As an added treat, my good friend and photo buddy Duke will be along.

Yellowstone presented many photographic challenges . The range of natural features calls for a lot of technical chops, and the size of the park requires a measure of time management and light evaluation. Reading up prepared me, but not enough. Rangers, park employees, and other photographers turned out to have invaluable tips and information. I have heard the excellent Chris Nicholson speak a couple of times on various aspects of National Park photography, and I highly recommend his website and book (

Although I have become comfortable with landscape photography over the past few years, Yellowstone’s unique variety of thermal features and its distinctly western topography call for lots of problem solving. The Yellowstone Foundation selected one of my pictures of the canyon’s Lower Falls as one the top 100 photographs in their Yellowstone Forever contest last year, which validated all the hard work. (A slideshow is here: )

My wildlife photography lags way behind. Capturing animals requires a combination of knowledge (what behaviors should I expect?), skill (the array of choices for settings is staggering), and patience, as well as timing and speed. I missed myriad shots because I did not have my camera prepared when opportunities arose. When I was ready to fire, the moment had sometimes passed or worse lay a half hour in the future. At the decisive point, I had to be ready to steady my camera, pan, or move. My yield was poor by any standard, just a handful of usable shots a day. It gave me some comfort to read that the best wildlife photogs consider a yield of 30% sharp and framed, 3% up to high standards all around, and 1% keepers to represent an excellent output.

I am renting a more suitable lens (the expensive but excellent Olympus 300mm f/4 with dual stabilization) and will be practicing closer to home. I don’t expect to get the sorts of yields that people who spend a hundred days a year do routinely. As Samuel Beckett said, “Ever try. Ever fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I fly to YS on September 18. Expect a daily post when I get there, and a few in advance as I prepare.

Lehigh River with Bethlehem Steel Factory at Sunset


The Invision conference in Bethlehem has evolved into that rarest of opportunities for photographers –  a confab combining inspiring presentations by photographers, well curated exhibitions of work, and a chance to interact with local photographers in a friendly, unpressured way. It started four years ago as special event sponsored by ArtsQuest, a local group that sponsors several festivals, notably MusicQuest, and hundreds of events across the arts from film to music to pottery, catering to all ages and interests. The festival largely took place at the SteelStacks, ArtsQuest’s marvelous facility on the grounds of the abandoned Bethlehem Steel factory. Olympus, in an encouraging move, has taken on co-sponsorship of the festival, which takes place just a few miles from their US headquarters.

I had a Sunday obligation, so I arrived in the Lehigh Valley, a quick drive from Philadelphia, on Friday. The weekend kicked off with a reception at the Banana Factory, a combination galley and arts workspace in South Bethlehem. Winning work from the student and Pennsylvania photographer contests occupied galleries and hallways, and artist in residence Gene Richards’ photos were displayed in marvelous 20×30 black and white prints in an exhibition. One room was dedicated to Olympus Visionaries and Trailblazers, and I saw local portrait Victor Rodriquez, who will be appearing at my club next year. The Santa Bannon gallery, located in the same building, hosted talks by several of her photographers.

I had always wanted to meet Richards. I used to sell Aperture books to bookstores, so I spent a lot of time during the early nineties introducing book buyers to challenging work like Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue and Americans We.  Richards was cordial and available at the reception, and I was able to introduce myself as someone who peddled his work, which delighted him.

The publishing model for expensive books has changed over the past few years, with online sales producing a huge differential between what a bricks and mortar retailer can charge and what a consumer pays online. Contrary to what the talking heads will tell you, the lower prices have not created greater sales, as many illustrated books must be seen and handled to be fully appreciated. Richards and his engaging wife and creative partner, Janine Altongy, have used a crowd-sourcing strategy for his latest works, which include books and some short videos.

Having talked about his books for years, I was anxious to hear what he had to say. His talk the next day did not disappoint. Full of warmth and zeal, illustrated by striking photos and short form videos, the low key photographer’s presentation created a high profile impression. His experiences with African villagers, drug addicts, mental patients produced photographs with an unmediated, intimate viewpoint that illuminates not just their plight but their manifest virtues. Right after I got home from Bethlehem, I read a shallow editorial that dismissed most documentary photography as “white guy photography,” incapable of rising above its makers’ privilege and inherently condescending. While purporting to deride projects that lack context or social value, such an article serves little purpose, somewhat like attacking photos of children and cats because they exploit sentimentality and cuteness without being artful or advancing a cause. Turn the page, buddy. Five minutes with Eugene Richards will convince anyone that probing communities and people under stress is a situation where “privilege” vanishes. The currency becomes not status or cash but rather conviction and trust. Creating moving photographs in those places and times requires perseverance, empathy, vision – humanity.

The other talk I attended was Chase Jarvis. I have become a big fan of his pet project, CreativeLive, a free stream of webinars and demonstrations he founded in Seattle. Jarvis makes an interesting contrast with Richards. Jarvis exudes a high energy persona, and he revels in having built a successful commercial photography business and having access to big names in entertainment. He strikes me as more a director than a pure artist; he knows instinctively how to assemble talent and get results, but I doubt anyone will mount a retrospective of his photography in 50 years. He started by reading a short bio of Ansel Adams, who surprisingly practiced the same sort of active photographic life – playing at parties, assembling talent, distributing his work widely for cheap – even though we know him now primarily as an artist. Jarvis’ diverse projects involve photographing movers and shakers in Seattle, assembling musicians and poets for dinners, and of course CreativeLive. Like Richards, he was very generous with his time. His ability to catalyze artists and promote photography among arts is unmatched. His social commitment was very different from Richards but equally valuable.

Next year, I will stay the whole weekend. As an Olympus shooter, I enjoyed seeing the new gear and speaking to the techs, the marketing people, and of course, the top pros who use Oly. The folks I stayed with bed and breakfast were marvelous hosts, and I find a Bethlehem a congenial and photogenic venue – more shots below.

Change and no change

Change and no change in the historic district north of the river.

Bethlehem mixes a beautiful setting with a fading industrial economy

South Bethlehem blends a lovely setting with hard edged modern infrastructure.

The fading sun gives color to fading industry

 Dizzying and rusty stacks
A closer look reveals an intricate system more beautiful as it becomes less useful.
The geometry of industry provides opportunity for silhouettes

The geometry of factories provided opportunity for silhouettes

Expo Floor (image courtesy PDN PhotoPlus Expo)

I made my annual trek to that dismal tinkertoy creation Javits Center for the biggest annual gathering of photographers and suppliers on the East Coast, PhotoPlus Expo.

The trade show portion is not quite as big as it used to be, probably due to the recent spike in lodging costs in Manhattan and airfare costs in general. However, the number of photographers and their enthusiasm has not diminished. PhotoPlus allows you the rare opportunity to handle all the merchandise, see all the software demonstrated, and check out the newest publications and services, with people on hand who can comprehensively answer questions and gather feedback. Some of the most personal gear decisions, such as what bag to carry and which tripod is right for your purpose, can best be made by actually trying out all the options in person, and no bricks and mortar camera store stocks everything. Innovators can get your attention without having to compete with all the white noise on the internet and the biases of retailers heavily invested in the status quo, figuratively and literally.

I visited Olympus immediately to put my hands on the new EM1. The mood in the booth was electric; Olympus took the risk of announcing the camera in advance of the show, and it paid off, as uniformly positive reviews pushed traffic to the booth. I overheard one woman saying “I didn’t feel like my Canon M was up to shooting that assignment in Paris, but I would have taken this one in a heartbeat.” I met the head of the Olympus Visionary program, and she introduced me to my “local” visionary, Victor Rodriguez, who will be presenting to our camera club later in the year, I hope. (I also ran into visionary David Wells, whom I met in Amherst last year, at SNYC.)  I did handle the EM1, a very pocketbook-endangering experience. The camera balances solidly in the hand, and the new pro lens (12-40mm f/2.8, to be joined by a 40-150 f/2.8 next year) has that wonderful machined feel as well. I am no fan of electronic viewfinders, but the Epson unit on the EM-1 is acceptable for most uses.

I also stopped by c’t digital photography, who publish the best technically oriented photo magazine out there and the comprehensive and attractive Rocky Nook books. The folks from Santa Barbara were, as usual, friendly and engaging. I also stopped by Focal Press to catch up with Sloane Stinson and thank them for their generous club programs. I looked at the books on display that I had not noticed on the

In the past few years, ink jet printing has progressed to the point where gallery class printing is available to photographers who print themselves. To that end, I approached several vendors including Moab, Hahnemühle, Red River, and Carson, who all agreed to contribute sample papers if I created a printing education program for our local clubs. Epson said their local dealer network would likely be interested in helping us run it.

I no longer take the seminars offered by PDN at the Expo. Now that ample instruction is available via Lynda, Kelby and Creative Live for a cost ranging from free to reasonable, I find it silly to spend for two hours as much as I would spend for a downloaded three day course from CL or three months of Kelby or Lynda. The PDN seminars are not intimate enough to earn the premium. There was even a free alternative just down the street.

Interactive Shoot-NYC Demo Area

Interactive Shoot-NYC Demo Area

Intimate seminars

Intimate seminars (photos courtesy Broncolor Shoot-NYC)

That was Shoot-NYC, two free days of seminars and demos sponsored by Hasselblad and Broncolor. It’s not for everyone – the emphasis fell on studio, location, and corporate photography. and its promotion of a very expensive camera and high end studio lighting gear was unabashed. The purpose is to introduce emerging photographers to their gear and to solid studio and business practices. Serious professionals know that it is the archer not the arrows that matters, but HasselBron realizes that your job is easier if you have a reliable bow on your shoulder and straight arrows in your quiver. Photography is problem-solving, and the more you can concentrate on solving photographic quandaries, not dealing with technical shortcomings, the better.

The Shoot-NYC seminars feature dynamic presenters, and the converted warehouse building and its cramped rooms, is more intimate that what you find at a Javits seminar. With only two classrooms and a small trade floor sandwiched in between, you get to spend a lot of time with the teachers and seasoned pros. The gear is pretty intimidating, but it is nice to see what is available and what it is capable of producing. I left with loads of ideas.

I had a great two days in New York with minimal damage to my wallet, though the knock-on effect of my visit to the Olympus booth has yet to materialize.

© 2010 Rocky Nook

240 pages

ISBN: 978-1-933952-56-7

Price: $39.95 (French flapped paperback)

I obtained this book in advance of a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Having never shot wildlife before, I was looking for some guidance.

The author is clear in his foreword that this book emerges from his experiences as a professional photographer and workshop guide in the Serengeti region of East Africa. The book is obviously of greatest utility to those who are planning a trip to that region, as much of the text details the natural features and wildlife there, but nearly a quarter of the book deals with general concepts of wildlife photography that apply to a wide variety of situations outside of East Africa. The part of the book that deals specifically with the Serengeti is useful as well. By following the author’s careful planning and execution of a successful safari shoot, one can develop one’s own method of researching the venue and local wildlife, as well as the practical matters, such as transportation, permissions, time of day, and applicable regulations.

The section on equipment, as with all books of this sort, is the weakest. With quickly advancing camera technology, the specific gear cited is soon outdated. Skrzypczak usefully ties specific recommendations to general principles (range of focal lengths, dynamic range, speed, depth of field, noise), but he often indulges in unsubstantiated generalities – was the 2007 generation of APS-C digital cameras really considered by anyone to be equivalent to 4.5×6 cm roll film? – and sometimes is downright wrong, as when he says that vibration reduction in lenses “increases the brightness of the lens by up to four additional f-stops.” On the plus side, he does alert the potential wildlife shooter that the enterprise costs big money, and that a lower budget means making hard choices, as does the need to travel light.

The sections on technique and composition are where the book really shines. Skrzypczak’s explanation of the use of the various autofocus options is the best I have ever encountered, and he includes a helpful graphic with each photograph in the book indicating which AF choice is best for each situation.  Similarly, each of his excellent technical and composition suggestions is put into practice in the chapters of the book which narrate his photography during each of the seasons of the year. The importance of learning the behavior of the wildlife also moves into the foreground, as that knowledge contributes both to the opportunities afforded to get the best shots and the safety of the photographer and the animals themselves. Also, as I always say, photography is problem solving, and seeing how he copes with tricky situations makes the reader a nimbler shooter. Protect highlights or let them go? Subject close up or in context? Background sharp or blurred? Preserve textures or edges? Shoot fast or wait?  One learns how to make all these choices instinctively, which becomes valuable when opportunities are fleeting and time tight.

The prose is clumsy and wooden in spots, but generally serviceable. The book was originally published in Germany, so I suspect that either the author or an editor translated it. The excellent photographs and the marvelous balance of informative text and images make the safari chapters the sort of narrative that one can dip into for a page or just an image at a time, if one likes, or read all the way through for a thorough idea of how an expert shoots wildlife.

I would warn the casual wildlife photographer away, but there is no such thing. This sort of shooting requires serious preparation and substantial financial investment in travel, guides, and gear, either through purchases or rentals. Anyone ready to take on a serious wildlife excursion would definitely benefit from this resource.



My sister called me from Yellowstone the day before I was to board the train to tell me that the government shutdown meant that the park would be closed to visitors, effectively scuttling my trip. I have always thought that puerile Tea Party nonsense was damaging to the country as a whole, but this time it was personal.

I was attending the New Atlantic Booksellers fall trade show when I got the call, so I had to quickly cancel all my hotel reservations, my lens rental, and of course the train. One bag had been checked ahead on Amtrak. They had already sent it on an earlier train – no one said they would do that – and they were totally incapable of locating the bag. The baggage department did not know which train was carrying it, when it would arrive in Chicago, or when it would make its way to Whitefish. A rude fellow in Philly answered my query about which train by saying “It’s gone!” and hanging up. Chicago said they would track it down and call me back. They didn’t. A guy on the Amtrak customer service phone tried to help but admitted that they had no system beyond the tags for tracking bags. When I questioned that from a security standpoint, he called it a “side issue.” It finally ended up all the way out in Whitefish, Montana. The attendant there said he would check it back to Philly on the next train, but that was a week ago. It’s a three day ride. (Update: the day after I posted this, I got a call from Amtrak saying my bag was in Philly. They treated it as lost luggage, so injury was not added to insult by being charged shipping fees.)

My friend Duke had his trip to Acadia National Park snafued as well, so he took the time off to go to upstate NY for some waterfall shooting. He had for several years spent the first week in October taking a photo seminar in the Adirondacks, so he thought it would be a good substitute. After three days of dealing with hotels, luggage bozos, and other issues, I decided to join him in Ithaca for two days.

The weather predictions were suspect, but the two days served up perfect conditions for fall shooting – not cold, not too warm, not sunny, but not dark overcast either. Very little wind blew, and the only moisture came from the rock walls around us. Life gave us sour citrus, so we crushed and sweetened.

I arrived in Ithaca around lunchtime Thursday to find Duke snoozing in his car in the parking lot at Buttermilk Falls. Duke’s back gives him problems, so we parked a car at each end of the gorge so that the walk would be downhill.  It’s also the most efficient way to cover a narrow ravine, since you don’t double back over the same ground.

By nature a portrait photographer, I just love looking through a lens at the world. My cousin Jack is an accomplished nature shooter, so I always felt I could never produce work like his and didn’t try. Yellowstone would have been my first serious wildlife shoot, and I was looking forward to spending a week doing nothing but honing my skills.

Duke shoots nature and macro. Some architecture. Never people if he can help it. He claims not to even like people very much, belied by his friendly manner and his ability to attract loquacious strangers rivaling mine. I have learned a great deal from him about shooting nature; we go out to Longwood Gardens about once a month and capture the flora close up.

Last week was the first time, however, that I had spent serious time photographing waterfalls. I grew up in a swampy area so flat that you could not find a spot that you could place a marble and it would move. The local river flowed so slowly that it was called the Tar. Aside from a trip to the Delaware Water Gap a few years ago, where our camera club spent an hour or two shooting Childs Park and Dingmans Falls, I hadn’t spent much time on it. I had only recently ditched my journalist’s tripod and grip head for some serious landscape gear – an ash wood Berlebach with a 55mm ball head.

It always pays to shoot with someone who knows what they are doing, not so that you can ask incessant questions or get free lessons, but so you can observe. So much of photography is about pace, about knowing how to evaluate a scene, and knowing when to cut bait. Our actual methods differ. I bracket, and he does not. He uses neutral density filters, while I polarize. He chimps, but I just check every once in a while to make sure nothing is wonky. We worked our way methodically down Buttermilk Creek, using the afternoon to carefully frame and capture the variety of falls there.

Buttermilk Falls State Park, Ithaca NY
Duke hard at work.
Duke hard at work.

The next day, we used Google Maps, the Photographers Ephemeris, and the Cornell website to chart an excursion to the lower Cascadilla Gorge, which runs spectacularly through the campus, dropping 400 feet in less than a mile. We positioned our cars, and when we walked to the gate to enter the gorge, we found out that access was prohibited because of falling debris hazards from a construction project. The Cornell website had not a word about this. We went back to the bottom and shot the falls at the bottom of the cascade, but they were not spectacular.

Cascadilla Gorge, Cornell University
Cascadilla Gorge, Cornell University

We took off for Watkins Glen without eating lunch, and time lost in Ithaca was time well used there. The canyons of the west are enormous and brightly colored, but eastern glens have their own charms. One still gets to marvel at what a stream can cut out of its way over time. The relative scale is the same, but the balance between intimacy and grandeur in the gorge at Watkins Glen transcends mere size. Flora and fauna are an afterthought in the great canyons of the west, but they coexist in the more modest confines of this ravine. The color palette is cooler, and the detail crisper.

Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen Ravine
Falls at Watkins Glen
Falls at Watkins Glen

Sadly, because of the paucity of hotel rooms in the area during leaf peeping season, I had to bolt before sunset in order to make it back to Philly by bedtime.

It wasn’t Yellowstone, but with great company, good scenery, and new challenges in photography, this Finger Lakes falls outing suited me just fine.


© 2012 Rocky Nook

240 pages

ISBN: 978-1-937538-07-1

Price: $59.95 Hardover (laminated paper over boards)

Those of us who did not attend photography school or spend our twenties assisting in studios often have gaps in our shooting repertoire. Photography is problem-solving, and we have more than adequate analytical skills, but education still counts. I have seen too many cocky photographers get tied in knots when they take on a shoot that requires special skills. Also, many part time photographers lack the organizational and legal smarts to make their operations efficient and profitable.

Most educators know that learning a trade requires three elements: being told what to do, watching someone do it, and doing it yourself. To that end, photographers have sought out webinars and DVDs, where one can watch someone plan, shoot, and process, live seminars and classes, which allow one to perform the tasks and ask questions, and books, which lay out all the details and act as a reference.

Someone recently said that revenue from photography education now exceeds that from the sale of images. Whether or not that is true, there is certainly a lot of instruction going on, and anywhere there is money, there are problems. Many webinars and seminars are thinly disguised advertisements for products at their worst, and even when the class is useful, it is often limited by the sponsorships and allegiances of the instructor. Others have the faults of the worst sort of inspirational presentations – lots of teary stories and self-help nonsense. There are fantastic offerings available from creativelive and others, but they are habit-forming, time-consuming, tough to retain, and still are no substitute for hands on training.

Dennis Savini’s Masterclass is a nice counterpoint to the blizzard of instruction that targets rising professional photographers. A typical Rocky Nook production, it combines an attractive layout with well thought out, organized text. Gorgeously printed on substantial paper, it is bound to lay flat, as instructional books should.  Copiously illustrated with wonderful examples of studio work, it shows the best work possible in a variety of situations.

While this is a great book for studio photographers who want to broaden their skills, it is not for neophytes. The first quarter of the book, an introduction to general issues in studio photography, is much more suggestive than directive. Rather than give copious detail about issues like the physical plant, gear, legal issues, and marketing, it simply outlines the issues and choices you have to make. If you want detailed information on modifiers, cameras, lights, decoration, advertising, social media, etc., look elsewhere.

The meat of the book consists of a comprehensive catalog of product and corporate shots. Each shot is accompanied by technical details, and throughout the presentation, short articles with general lighting principles and shooting tips supplement the pieces covering the individual set ups. Post production and shooting steps are illustrated on those shots that rely heavily on special effects.

One weakness of the book is the short shrift given to portrait shooting, which seems like an afterthought at the end of the book.

The photos in the book were shot largely with medium and large format cameras, and the photographs produced, will in most cases be out the reach of most photographers. However, I learned how to be a better landscape photographer from studying Ansel Adams, even though I will never haul a view camera into the wilderness. The techniques and principles are clearly laid out in this volume and many of the set ups within the capabilities of most shooters. If one seriously wants to expand studio skills, the book could be useful.

That being said, it’s definitely a masterclass – amateurs or new studio photographers will likely find this volume intimidating, if inspiring, but in the end not as useful as other books aimed squarely at them by authors like Kelby and Evening. The introductory material lacks cohesion. For this group, the book does not justify the price.

For established or master photographers, however, it serves as an excellent reference book on handling tricky or specialized shooting situations. The setups show great variety, and the photography great craft and finesse, well explained and illustrated. This book would have been best presented with an expanded number of case studies and a less dismissive approach to portraiture.

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