Allison McLean took Nevada Wier’s class last fall and sent us an account of the experience and what she learned.
Photographing on the Move, with Nevada Wier
The Art Wolfe Digital Photography Center, October 2008
by Allison McLean
INERTIA: PHOTO ENEMY #1
Thursday, October 2, 2008
I’ve just finished the first day of my first photography workshop. I’m tired and my brain is full, but I’m more excited about photography than ever, and can’t wait to see what the next three days have to hold.
The instructor, Nevada Wier, has been a travel photographer for decades, and has shot for magazines such as National Geographic, Smithsonian and Geo. She began by telling us a bit about her background – she’s self-taught in photography and learned early on to ask herself, “Why do I like that image?” She talked about how a successful photo needs any two of these four elements – Color, Light, Action, and Pattern/Composition (CLAP), then discussed several of her own shots in this context.
As I imagine is true of any pro, she has mastered all types of shots and their concomitant gear requirements, but her preference is to shoot handheld with a 20mm lens. She likes shooting this way for the “airy” look and the way a lot of context gets included, but also because “It’s hard”! As she spoke this morning, I was impressed by the various parameters she’s put on her shooting – they’re all there to keep her eye fresh and prevent her from giving in to inertia, or “Photo Enemy #1”. Here are the “personal disciplines” she mentioned:
• handheld whenever possible
• prefers 20mm lens
• crops only in camera
By shooting mostly handheld, she’s mobile and light, and because she uses a 20mm lens and crops in camera, she needs to move in very close to her subject – “so close I’m practically drooling on them.” She says, “Everything in the image matters”, and that’s why you can’t have extraneous junk in the shot but must MOVE to frame!
As we students were to discover, it’s one thing to hear about the difficulties in using these techniques and another thing entirely to actually try one’s hand at them! Our late afternoon assignment was to head to Pike Place Market and take wide-angle shots of people in their work environment. The first thing I realized was, Oh, yeah, I do have a wide-angle lens (a 24-85mm zoom) – I just never use it as a wide angle! After all, it’s much easier to get “close enough” and then just zoom, right? For shooting people, I normally keep my 70-200mm lens on and zoom away like the furtive little people-watcher I am. No such luck when you’re using the widest angle you’ve got: to make the composition look right, you’re going to have to introduce yourself to your subject and then get close and personal. Any discomfort I felt at the time is outweighed by the images I got, though, and the gift of suddenly having a fun new technique in my skill kit.
Quote of the day
“The point of this class is to utilize the whole frame.”
– Nevada Wier
While we do our best to provide high-quality educational programs at our Digital Photography Center and in the Field Seminars, we understand not everyone can attend. Betterphoto founder Jim Miotke has assembled a battery of online courses taught by exemplary photographers and digital artists such as Jim Zuckerman, Tony Sweet, William Neill, Canon Explorer of Light Lewis Kemper, and the newest Canon Explorer of Light, Jennifer Wu. They perform weekly individual student critiques of the coursework to keep you on track. Also, they run contests and other community features. If online learning appeals to you, Betterphoto is a good option.
This summer Betterphoto will hold a summit at our Digital Photography Center in Seattle July 11 followed by a shoot on the 12th. Contact Betterphoto at for more information on that event.
I was invited to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands recently. Barbara Cox, the owner of Photokunst, a photographic fine arts marketing firm, had arranged an event to support a new photography museum. While there I had the good fortune to meet Michael Adams and his wife Jeanne, the owners of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite. As you might imagine, Michael is the son of the seminal photographer. Michael spoke about nature photography and about Ansel. I was delighted to hear that Michael thought Ansel would have embraced our new digital tools just as he did the tools of his darkroom.
They are a delightful couple, well-versed in the photography of the natural world and completely gracious. They invited me to place some of my prints in their gallery, and of course I was honored to accept. Ansel Adams’ career, melding artistic pursuits with environmental messages, has been one of my lasting inspirations.
My friend Kostas Mallios loaned me a Phase One P 45+ digital back for a week, a full-frame 39 megapixel capture system I tested with a Mamiya 645 body. The resolution and dynamic range are astonishing. It’s not just that the files look creamy smooth, but the dynamic range approaches that of the human eye, far exceeding other technologies. As my friend Scott Stulberg says, it’s yummy.
Operating a digital medium format system slows you down. I felt as if I was using my old 4 x 5 view camera again. It’s a much more deliberative process, and by slowing down, the compositions are better considered with fewerof the small flaws I would catch later. With the resolution so high, I can get away with a shorter focal length lenses by cropping quite a bit without losing much in terms of resolution and nothing at all in terms of dynamic range.
My SLRs are more flexible, lighter, quicker, and offer a much wider range of lenses. The best of them surpass medium format film in my opinion. For my work, they’re indispensable. However, if I were a fine art photographer looking for the last iota of definition, the nearest approximation of perfection, I would be sorely tempted.
I forgot to mention the last, greatest, and for me only significant disadvantage. For the price of a Phase One P 45+ camera system including a couple lenses, you could buy a luxury automobile. A fast one.
PS I am afraid to try a P 65. A man can only take so much temptation.
For the first time in years, I will be in Seattle for several months in a row. I intend to use that time to finish projects started and abandoned over the years. I’m also going to offer a single Creative Session to be held in the classroom at my gallery in Seattle.
I’ve created a comprehensive curriculum to illustrate how I approach photography and to try to convey how others can use the lessons I’ve learned in their own work. In this Creative Session, we will spend three full days covering my curriculum. In addition, members from the Travels to the Edge crew will talk about our workflow on the road, and experts will show how editing programs can add the finishing touches to imagery.
This intensive session will run from May 1 through May 3, 2009. I will hold a reception at my home for all participants the evening before we begin. The course fee is $995, and we have limited the number of attendees to 50.
This will be the only Creative Session for 2009 in the United States. I look forward to seeing you there.
The best way to learn photography, or lease the quickest, is in the field one-on-one with an instructor. This May I will conduct four Travels to the Edge Field Seminars in Yosemite, Acadia, and Zion National Parks as well as the Big Sur Coast. Each group is limited to 10 participants.
I will work one-on-one with each individual as well as the group as a whole. Two members from the Travels to the Edge crew will accompany us to provide assistance and to provide technical instruction in workflow and other issues faced while shooting away from the comforts of civilization. However, we will not be roughing it. I have reserved space in the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and at comfortable inns at the other locations.
My goal is no less than to change the way you see.
For details, check out the Education page on our website. Take your own Travels to the Edge.
I have only recently taken the time to explore the resources available on the Web. I did so partly get ideas for my new website and partly to learn what other photographers are doing and the techniques they’re applying, as well as their responses to the rapidly changing business environment. In that exploration I have uncovered some real gems.
I am immediately attracted to any website that makes teaching its mission. My very incomplete list includes:
Luminous landscape is probably the most comprehensive website devoted to the kind of photography I love. Although much of it concerns the latest equipment, the point of view is that of a landscape and travel photographer. The breadth and depth of information available on this website is breathtaking.
If anyone is considering going pro or is already a professional, there is no more valuable perspective on photography in the marketplace than this website hosted by Rob Haggart, the former director of photography for Men’s Journal and outside magazine. In addition to his blog, he lists important contacts such as photography consultants, agents, agencies, and website design professionals. He also lists his favorite wildlife photographers (thanks for including me, Rob) and photography books.
Chase Jarvis is a Seattle-based studio photographer who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time outside the studio either photographing or creating interesting videos. If you want to learn about the life of a professional studio photographer, can’t beat this one. Chase is afflicted by too much energy and we all benefit.
Joe was one of the icons of American photography, and he approaches his art with irreverent seriousness. He is clearly obsessed with getting the best possible shot and he shows us how he works toward that goal through trial and error and error until he nails it. Check out his blog and his Youtube posts. His book, The Moment It Clicks, present similar material in a more organized way but with his signature self-deprecating good humor.
I’m sure there are many, many more. When I find other sites I like, I will let you know.
I love to teach. For 30 years I taught workshops and field seminars, written books on photographic technique, and tried to show how I work in the field with each episode of Travels to the Edge. Teaching is part of the mission of both this blog and the Art Wolfe website itself. I intend to introduce some new, special, and exclusive learning opportunities to be held both in the field and in our classroom. Stay tuned.
I am often asked about the equipment I use, specifically cameras. I like to travel as light as possible. In recent years I’ve shot with the highest resolution pro digital camera offered by Canon: a 1DS, 1DS Mk 2, and now 1DS Mk 3, a 21-megapixel brick of technology. The pro body is almost impervious to rain, snow, and dust, which is why I prefer it to the cheaper 5D Mk2, despite its HD video and low noise capabilities.
I limit myself to a few lenses most of the time, all Canon. More than half of my images are shot with either the 16-35f 2.8 Mk2 or the 70-200 f4, which is just as sharp as the much heavier and more expensive 2.8 version. If I need a more powerful telephoto, I reach for the 400 DO; if I know I’ll be shooting a lot of wildlife, the 500 f4 comes along. That’s it for 90% of my work.
I still need the usual complement of small, rugged La Cie drives and a Lenovo laptop optimized for photographers (review to follow). A few flashes and reflectors make their way into the kit as well.
Cameras are just tools, though. Cartier Bresson shot The Decisive Moment with a Leica rangefinder and a 50mm lens. It is the eye that matters, and the will to get off the couch and shoot.
I drove to the Skagit River flats last weekend. The area had flooded and I heard that the bald eagles were congregating in trees on high ground. It was a grey day, drizzly and dark. The reports were true. We found 15 eagles in a tree, and as soon as we stepped out of the car, we saw why. Voles swam in the flooded fields, scurried under the car, hid in the tall grass. A few drowned voles lay on their sides in the water. It was a buffet for eagles, and they acted showed no interest in further dining. I never touched a camera. Exposing for the black backlit eagles would have pegged the histogram to the right, blowing out the sky. Without light, natural or artificial, there is no shot. Sometimes the experience is enough.