Category: Travel


Lehigh River with Bethlehem Steel Factory at Sunset

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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

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© 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.

 

Although those with a tendency to become addicted to social media should steer clear of them, forums give you a great opportunity to ask questions, research problems, and exchange with other photographers.

In most corners of life, small is beautiful, but when it comes to discussion groups, size has its advantages. As an Olympus shooter, I appreciate the cozy groups where I can find what I need without having to ignore Canikon-only products and solutions, but when it comes to general photographic advice, I head to the large sites. Some evolved from gear review websites, such as Steve’s Digicam Reviews or DP Review, some from an individual’s personal interests, such as Fred Miranda or Luminous Landscape, and still others were purpose-built as general forums, like Photo.net, Photo Camel and the Photography Forum.

Every venue has its strengths and weaknesses, and I use them all, but Photo.net has the best “signal to noise” ratio of all of them IMHO. A nominal membership fee (amply covered by freebies and discounts) keeps “trolls” at bay and the discourse on topic. The membership is large and distinguished – the level of images shown is the best I’ve seen, comparable to the best sharing sites, like 500px.

I asked for tips this weekend about going to Yellowstone in October, and within hours I had several excellent replies, offering experience, advice, and links to helpful resources, such as wyofoto.com and Bearman‘s, from a host of photographers, who also knew to show me their portfolios. Here’s a peek at Christopher Sperry’s work:

Lower Yellowstone Falls

And David Henderson’s:

I have booked the transportation for the trip:

Amtrak’s Cardinal. As you can see, this train takes a roundabout route to Chicago, but I chose it because it would allow me to check baggage along the entire route. It takes about the same amount of time as the alternate route through Pittsburgh by saving one layover.

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At first glance, you might say, “Wow, what fantastic scenery!” but the excitement is tempered by the fact that the majority of the time spent in West Virginia Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio will be in darkness in October. Shooting from a moving train requires a pretty fast shutter speed, so opps from the windows unfortunately will be fewer than I would like.

Some of this I will see, and much of it I will not be able to photograph:

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Photos from Amtrak and Railfan & Railroad magazine.

The good news is that I have a four hour layover in Chicago, which, if the train stays on schedule, gives me time to get a decent meal and do some shooting.The last time I visited the windy city, I had wall to wall meetings and social engagements, so I would like to get some shots this time.

The second leg of the trip will be on the Empire Builder, so called because much of its route parallels the Louis and Clark Expedition. Here, the shooting will be much better, as we will have daylight for North Dakota and almost all of Montana. The photographers below demonstrate the opportunities. (Check out Jack DeWitt’s and Tony Bynum‘s portfolios – they are stunning!)

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Empire Builder from NBC by Alex Mayes
Empire Builder from NBC Destination Travel by Alex Mayes
amtrakNorthernBorder
Northern Border Route from International Society of Train Travelers
Crossing Two Medicine Bridge by Tony Bynum
Crossing Two Medicine Bridge by Tony Bynum
Whitefish Staion by Jack DeWitt
Whitefish Staion by Jack DeWitt

I booked the famous Lodge at Whitefish Lake,with stunning views and a fireplace in every room for the Friday night. (It is remarkably reasonable in the shoulder season, in case you thought I had fallen off the cheapskate wagon.)  We plan to explore Glacier, Flathead Lake, and The National Bison Range on our way to Yellowstone. Since we have a long drive to Mammoth Hot Springs, we won’t be tempted by the Octoberfest to linger in town.

Sunset at Whitefish Lodge from Trip Advisor
Sunset at Whitefish Lodge from Trip Advisor
Marina at Dusk from Lodge website
Marina at Dusk from Lodge website

Now I just have to figure out how to spend five days in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park…….

My sister has a seasonal job in Yellowstone this summer, giving me a great opportunity to get out of the studio and shoot outdoors. I will be heading out west on Amtrak early in October, and we will drive back to the east coast.

Naturally, flying to Jackson Hole or Bozeman is expensive, as none of the local airports hosts a hub, so multiple stops and mega-bucks are required to arrive by air. I decided to use Amtrak, as I have enough miles to get the trip free. Unfortunately, direct train service to Yellowstone was cut decades ago, so my options were to go to Salt Lake City and rent a car or to go to Whitefish and have my sister meet me. I opted for Whitefish, a ski resort which lies adjacent to Glacier Nat’l Park near the Canadian border.

Empire Builder at Two Medicine Trestle by Steve Wilson

Empire Builder at Two Medicine Trestle by Steve Wilson

For a photographer, the train provides a lot of advantages over flying. For one, you can take pictures on and from the train as you travel. You can also do a lot of preparation, going over maps and sites, and talking to a whole bunch of westerners about the best places to go.

The biggest advantage, however, lies in the much more liberal baggage policies. One can check two bags and still carry on two more at no charge. That means I can easily carry as much camera gear as I like and still be able to pack less essential items like clothes and toiletries.

Even though I won’t be leaving for months, I want to be as prepared as possible.

I knew that on a three day train trip, I did not want to have to keep an obsessive eye on my gear, so I decided to get a Pelican case. Amazingly, a company had a whole bunch of them up for sale on my local craigslist in various sizes for $50 per. What a steal! I nabbed a 1620 (the 1650 does not meet carry on size requirements).

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Why, you may ask, would I buy used? a) I am frugal. b) Pristine cases call out to thieves. c) Beaten up luggage shows that you have successfully protected your gear. d) Pelican has a lifetime warranty that they actually honor. Two latches were broken, and Pelican sent me replacements with no questions asked except for “Where do you want them sent?”

My second line of preparation is choosing where to go and what to shoot. When you are away from home, every day costs money. Indeed, every hour costs money. A lot of people think that they will not plan a trip and just try to stumble upon things. I like to improvise and go off the beaten path, but you have a path to start with. I like to know what I will be doing for part of the day, and having accomplished that, I can add more. If I find something on the way to a shoot that intrigues me more, I can do it, knowing that I have simply replaced something on my itinerary. Also, I have to guarantee my sister some sights.

The ever fascinating Trey Ratliff of Stuck in Customs fame has created an app called Stuck on Earth, that assembles photos by place on your iPad. I spend a few minutes on it whenever I can, and am taking notes.

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With that outline, the advice of other photographers online and in person, and tips from people who live out west, I should be able to put together a memorable trip. I have crossed the country twice, but always in a hurry, and never with photography in mind.

I can’t wait! Anybody who has tips or tricks, please comment below.

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