The photo workshop experience

I recently returned from spending a weekend with 11 other photography nerds -- a "Waterfalls Boot Camp" workshop in the West Virginia highlands led by Joe Rossbach.  Although we certainly photographed waterfalls (as you can see from the image below), we also shot at a number of other cool locations.  We also spent time learning more about Joe's post processing workflow and techniques.

Elakala Falls, Blackwater Falls State Park, WV

I had time on the long drive home to reflect on why I value photography workshops.  For me, a workshop is successful if it introduces me to a new place, teaches me new techniques, and allows me to meet new people who share my passion for photography.  This workshop was a winner on all three counts.  I had never been to the highlands of West Virginia before -- but I will certainly go again.  Given the title of the workshop I thought I might learn some new things about waterfall photography, but the real technical benefit for me was learning about Joe's exposure blending techniques.  The image below is a "classroom exercise" in applying his techniques to blend two different exposures of the same scene.

Evening light at Lindy Point, Blackwater Falls State Park, WV

Finally, it was just a great group of people to spend a couple of loooong days with.

The "firing line" -- early morning shoot at Spruce Knob Lake, WV

The "firing line" -- early morning shoot at Spruce Knob Lake, WV

Of course, the instructor is the key to the success of a workshop.  Joe Rossbach has shot and led workshops in this area many times, and he was able to adjust the schedule each day to take advantage of weather that ranged from (boring) clear blue skies to thunderstorms.   He delivered a quality workshop experience for a group that varied in both photographic expertise and physical ability. He is definitely on my list of instructors for future workshops! 

Morning reflections, Spruce Knob Lake, WV

The lure of abandoned places

After seeing Bodie, I was hooked -- I needed to find more opportunities to photograph places where civilization has been abandoned to the elements.  In the summer of 2012 we took a workshop with Tony Sweet that provided a chance to shoot inside Eastern State Penitentiary, an abandoned prison in Philadelphia, plus an early morning "bonus shoot" at another Philadelphia location.

The bonus location turned out to be a place known locally as the "Graffiti Underground," a pier jutting out into the Delaware River that had been used to transfer coal from trains to ships.  This site had been abandoned and subsequently appropriated by graffiti artists, paintball players -- and photographers.

Underneath the coal pier

The early morning light, reflected off of the water on all sides, brought an ethereal beauty to the heavily tagged and paint-splattered concrete pillars.  This gallery contains a few of my favorite images from that morning.

Eastern State Penitentiary, hospital wing corridor

I could have spent the entire morning at the Coal Pier, but the main event of the workshop lay ahead.  Eastern State Penitentiary, in urban Philadelphia, was established in 1820 as the world's first true penitentiary -- designed to inspire regret or penitence in criminals rather than solely for inflicting punishment.  It was used continuously, first as a penitentiary and then as a more conventional prison, until it was abandoned in 1971.  Notable inmates included "Slick Willie" Sutton and Al Capone.  It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and was opened to the public for tours in 1994.

Our photography workshop gave us access to parts of the  decaying building -- including the hospital wing -- that are off-limits to most visitors.  The photography was challenging because the original philosophy of the penitentiary included bringing natural light from windows and skylights into the cell blocks and individual cells.  The broad dynamic range of light, from deep shadows to direct sunlight, provided an opportunity to work on HDR (high dynamic range) photographic and processing techniques.  My favorite images from Eastern State Penitentiary are in this gallery.

Blame it on Watkins Glen

April 29, 2010:  the day I decided I needed a new camera.

We were giving visiting west coast relatives a tour of our area, with an obligatory stop at Watkins Glen State Park to see the gorge and waterfalls that are iconic features of the Finger Lakes.  My camera at the time was a Nikon Coolpix P5700, a glorified digital point-and-shoot with some DSLR-like features.  As I tried to take pictures of the water flowing through the Glen I became increasingly frustrated -- I could envision the image, but I could not make the camera capture it.

I had been researching cameras, intending to upgrade to a DSLR before a planned trip to Glacier National Park later in the year, but my frustration in Watkins Glen was the last straw -- I ordered a new Nikon D90 the next week.

Of course, a new camera by itself was not the whole answer.  The images I wanted to capture were long exposures of moving water, which required a few additional items:  tripod, ball head, remote release, and various neutral density filters (think sunglasses for the camera lens, reducing the amount of light that reaches the sensor).  By the time we went to Glacier I was sufficiently equipped to try my hand at "slowing down the water."

Avalanche Creek, Glacier NP

The image at the left, from the Glacier trip, was literally my very first effort to put the new equipment to work.  Although there are things that I would do differently now, I still like this one a lot.  However, this image must have been beginner's luck.  I obviously underestimated the height and steepness of this particular learning curve, and it was a long time before I was able to make the camera output approach my vision with any consistency.  I have collected some of my favorite waterfall pictures in this gallery -- judge for yourself if I'm making progress.

I did not return to Watkins Glen again until last October, when I spent a couple of hours early one morning walking the Glen in relative solitude and looking at it, for the first time, through photographer's eyes.  Although my primary objective was to scout for future photography trips, I stopped to shoot in three locations.  I didn't think I had captured much of value, but I kept returning to one image (below).  After some post-processing work it has become one of my top 5 favorite images of 2013.

Carnevale in Venice

Recent news about Mardi Gras celebrations led me to look back in my photo library for images from our visit to Venice during Carnevale in 2012.  We used an international conference in Rome as an excuse to take a few days to see Venice for the first time, not realizing that our visit coincided with the last week of Carnevale!

Grand Canal at sunset

The crowds were unbelievable!  Of course, one of the main attractions was the people in elaborate costumes -- generally surrounded by photographers.  The image below shows the "Queen of Hearts" on the move across Piazza San Marco, stalked by photographers.  We joined the party, and I was able to get several good images of elaborate costumes that are posted in this gallery.

The "Queen of Hearts"

Even diners in the restaurants lining Piazza San Marco got into the act...

Dressed for dinner did the locals.  We found a local family taking pictures along the Grand Canal, and they graciously allowed me to photograph their children in costume.

All in the family

All in the family

And, if you forgot a costume you could always visit one of the shops, perhaps for something like this:

Costume shop

Costume shop

To beat the Carnevale crowds in Venice, we took a vaporetto to Burano, one of the "suburban" islands in the lagoon that is known for lace-making and its colorful houses.

Reflections of Burano

Reflections of Burano

Unplanned visit to a ghost town

November 2011:  We were in Reno, combining work-related travel and a family visit.  I had the bright idea to drive down to Mono Lake to shoot the tufa formations in the dawn light.  We left our hotel at "zero-dark-thirty" and headed down US395, but it soon became apparent that we were going to be too late for sunrise.  When we arrived the tufa formations were bathed in harsh morning light against a cloudless blue sky -- not exactly optimal for landscape photography.  The image below is indicative of the conditions and only partly rescued by conversion to B&W.

Mono Lake_2011-11-14_9249.jpg

On the way to Mono Lake I had seen the turnoff to Bodie.  I remembered reading that that Bodie is a ghost town -- an abandoned gold-mining town located above 8,000 ft elevation near the Nevada border.  Founded in the late 1800s as a "company town" for the Standard Mine, Bodie was abandoned when the mine closed in the 1940s.  It is now kept in a state of "arrested decay" as a California State Historic Park.

We decided to check it out on our way back to Reno -- a detour along 10 miles of winding mountain road, the last 3 miles of which are rutted gravel (no doubt voiding our rental car contract).  The view of Bodie on approach is pretty desolate:  the dark brown of unpainted wooden buildings and rusty corrugated metal sheets against the lighter brown of the treeless eastern Sierra landscape.

Approaching Bodie900.jpg

It was a cold November Monday, and there were fewer than 20 people there when we arrived.  The light was even less forgiving than at Mono Lake, but I nevertheless was able to find a number of exterior and interior subjects to shoot.  The exterior shots were garish unless converted to some sort of monochrome, and many of the interior scenes, sometimes shot through window glass, required HDR processing of multiple images to capture the wide dynamic range from deep shadows to brilliant light streaming through windows.  My favorite images from this trip to Bodie can be found in this gallery.


Three balloons over Reno640.jpg

In September 2010 I visited son Matt and daughter-in-law Jen in Reno, NV on the way to a work-related meeting in Las Vegas.  My visit coincided with the Great Reno Balloon Race, and a search on the web for images from prior years turned up pictures of a pre-dawn ascent of a group of illuminated balloons called the "Dawn Patrol."  I had to see it – and shoot it – for myself!  I dragged my dubious hosts out in chilly pre-dawn darkness, and we managed to find a good location (cleverly marked by lots of tripods!) to photograph the Dawn Patrol ascent.  This image and the ones in the Balloon Race gallery are the result of those efforts.

I have been working with some of these images on the computer for more than three years, but in putting together this web gallery I took a fresh look at everything and identified a couple of "keepers" that I'd overlooked before.

I guess a bit of "photo library bloat" can be a good thing.

Tentative steps...

On the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park

Just what the world needs:  another blog!

This website and blog are a new venture – a way to share my images and my random reflections on photography.  We'll see how that works out...

This image and the first gallery are from three glorious days in Glacier National Park in July, 2010 with our son Dru and daughter-in-law Shannon.  With a new camera, new lenses, and new tripod it's a wonder that anything worth keeping and sharing came out of it!