Photography in Peace River Country

                                                                                               My wife and I were called away by unfortunate circumstances on a rush trip. The kind where one just points the car, accelerates to 120kpms, selects cruise, and settles in for a long, non-stop drive; in our case, 11 hours from Pritchard to Grimshaw.

In spite of the long hard hours of driving, for a photographer the changing scenery was nothing short of great. We were heading for the northern community of Grimshaw, Alberta. Although I prefer the changing mountains and exotic coast of British Columbia, Alberta is just great. To my eye Alberta seems wide, flat, and pretty much endless without many “bumps” in it’s vast landscape. I remember hearing a joke that “ya can watch your dog run away for a day”. However, my wife informed me that due to the curvature of the earth that we can actually only view 18 miles to the edge of the horizon, so I’ll change that to watching the dog run away for 18 miles.  As I was driving along, watching the western sun slowly going down, it seemed to be in much the same way as I saw it many times while sitting on a sandy pacific ocean beach, I realized that old joke could sometimes be true.

Peace River, which is the major community before Grimshaw, is different. The flat plains suddenly drops and the road leads into a lush, large river valley with lots of bridges. This was the place that would be a perfect to resume my project of photographing bridges.

After all the family welcomes, and catching up with relatives, people had to get away from the food and drink for a while. Some went skeet shooting, some to visit friends, there was last minute shopping, or in my case a cruise around Peace River. Fortunately my niece’s boyfriend, Logan, volunteered to drive me everywhere and anywhere I wanted to go. He had lived in the region all his life and he said “I’ll take you to some cool bridges”, so we bundled into his big pickup.  Those that are familiar with Albertans know that they don’t like the price of gas but won’t give up owning a big four-wheel drive pickup, which is standard operating procedure.

Photographers and non-photographers seem to deal with their worlds differently. Logan was sure all we would do is stop at some viewpoint and I would hang a little camera out the window and snap a picture, however, I loaded my 30lb camera bag containing two DSLR bodies, five lenses and two flashes into his truck. Then when we stopped I got out and told him to leave me, do the chores he had mentioned he needed to do and come back in an hour. “What? You want to be left?”  Yes, photographers and non-photographers do deal with the world differently.  I am a wanderer that has a hard time concentrating on one subject. Sure there was the bridge and I photographed that with both my 16-85mm and 18-200mm, but there was the ice on the river, some old buildings, a boy and girl sitting on a log, a guy sitting in a gazebo playing his guitar, more large chunks of ice, and lots of other stuff that beckoned to me. About 30 minutes after I was dropped off I got a call, and I told them they could find me at a snow-covered park about a mile away.  I was having fun.

Reminding me we were out to photograph the bridges of Peace River, Logan hustled me back to his truck as we headed off, and I thought about how fortunate I was to have such a patient guide. And he had his own stories about every bridge we visited. At this writing I am sure, even with his help I would need several more days to photograph all the bridges. And to do it properly, I would need to take into account that some look better with early morning fog, some with late afternoon light, some in the winter and many deserve the summer.

The next morning I sat my laptop on my in-law’s kitchen table and showed the people the images I had worked on the previous night.  I expect there is a lot more to photograph in Peace River than just bridges but that’s what I focused on this time. Next time who knows? I am easily distracted.

I will say this for those photographers that are looking for a unique experience, northern Alberta certainly has its own distinct charm, and if hospitality is important then this definitely is an area, as one old photographer friend puts it, to put on your “bucket list”.  The 11-hour drive was painful, and next time I think I’ll stop more and overnight at some scenic location. I talked to a family friend that said there’s been an increase in the wolf population in recent years and on my next trip I hope to convince him to help me find some to photograph.  I am easily distracted.

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Cleaning Photographic Sensors and Protecting Lenses

I have been talking to photographers that have new DSLRs (digital single lens reflex) cameras from Christmas, and some that have even upgraded to newer models.

Those that are now out and about doing photography and tromping around in the already dry and dusty backwoods and fields nearby are wondering what they can do about the small black specks that are showing up in their pictures.  Those tiny specks mean there is dust on the camera sensor and it needs to be removed. My quick statement is don’t get upset, you don’t have to send the camera to the manufacturer’s repair centre. Dust is no big deal.

There has been lots of confusion, fear, and misinformation about removing specks of dust from DSLR cameras. I even had a fellow tell me that removing the dust would void a camera’s warrantee. Well, yes, that is so if he did anything to damage his camera’s sensor, but in most cases cleaning the sensor is pretty easy, takes only a few minutes, and since one rarely needs to come in contact with the sensor there isn’t much chance of damage.

Even those cameras equipped with vibrating sensors that are intended to remove dust from the visible shooting area could still have dust accumulate in the chamber behind the lens mount and it takes almost no effort every now and then to just blow them out with a large blower.

Many photographers (and I was among that group) thought it was OK to go on using old blower brushes, that have been languishing in the bottom of our camera bag for the past several years, which are designed to get dust off a film camera’s reflex mirror. However, what we discovered is that we were blowing years worth of old dried up bits and particles from a deteriorating blower onto our sensors. My advice is to discard them. Modern blowers like the Gittos Rocket Blower are inexpensive, work great, and are a good addition to everyone’s camera gear.

As I just wrote, it is easy. I give my camera a quick once over before every important photography event.  My personal method is to remove the lens, and turn the shutter dial to the lowest speed until the word “bulb” appears. Then hold the shutter release so the shutter will open showing the sensor. I hold the camera mount side down and using my large rocket blower, blow into the opening in every direction. Then replace the lens that I have also gone over, blowing off dirt and dust with the blower. Next, go outside aim at the blue sky and make an exposure. (I put the lens on manual so it doesn’t hunt for something to focus on.)  Then I check that exposure on my computer, and if there is still dust visible, I do everything again.  Please note that many cameras have a cleaning feature that will lock the shutter open. Check the camera’s manual to use that. I guess I am just lazy; selecting “bulb” is quick and easy.

There are special brushes and procedures for cleaning sensors that have particles that are stuck. I have two brushes from However, during the years I have been using digital cameras I have rarely needed to use them. For those that do worry about continually doing photography in dusty locations and want the latest cleaning technology check out VisibleDust’s website.

There also are photographers looking for accessories like protective filters and lens hoods.  Protective filters have come a long way. At one-time photographers attached UV (ultra violet), or skylight (or haze filters) onto our lenses to not only prevent scratches on the front glass, but to change the way the light affected the film. There were several levels of UV and skylight filters depending on how much one wanted to reduce the blue light of early spring or high mountain locations. Today’s digital cameras and post-production programs easily correct the colour balance of different lighting conditions, so photographers really don’t have as much requirement for the colour correcting filters that were a must when using film.  I think those old filters aren’t used so much as filters as they are for protection of expensive lenses from damage.

Depending on where one receives advice they may be told not to put them on lenses because they aren’t up to the “quality of our lens glass”.  I recall the quote that has been around for as long as I have been making pictures, “Don’t put a ten dollar filter on a thousand dollar lens”.  That sounds like good advice, however, it usually comes from those who have a lot more money to spend on new lenses than I do.  However, I keep protective UV, skylight (or haze), or clear “filters” on all my lenses as I have seen too many photographers walk into my shop with scratched lenses that they cannot afford to replace.

As I write about these things, I urge readers to consider providing additional protection (other than a padded case) for lenses. For that, another useful apparatus to protect lenses is a lens hood.  The lens hood not only takes the front impact of a dropped lens, it blocks the glare from the sun and other reflective objects.  I recommend using a lens hood because of that light-blocking feature.  Light coming from the side, above or below can either cause a flare, or actually reduce contrast in pictures. Some lenses come with lens hoods, and that’s great because it means they are fitted so they don’t vignette (darken) the corners of wide-angle lenses.  Most lens manufacturers have lens hoods that are optionally available for an additional cost, but also there are non-specific, inexpensive, rubber hoods that fit the front of the lens filter threads. The rubber type folds back out of the way when it is packed away in a tight fitting camera bag.

I recommend that readers purchase lens hoods, filters, and blowers. The protection from dust, scratches or even broken lenses is worth the investment.

Some thoughts on Post-Production and photography

During the time period of film photography people rarely commented on the fact that professional images were manipulated or retouched.  Photographers used oils, dyes, special pencils, small paintbrushes, and airbrushes.  These tools were used to open eyes that were closed, to whiten discoloured teeth, to improve hair and clothing colours, to remove and replace backgrounds, and to turn black and white images into colour photographs. To increase the contrast one could select special filters, paper, or chemicals. However, in all my years of using film to make photographs I do not recall anyone being critical of that post-processing by saying that the work done by photographers to original images, after shutter release and processing negatives, removed that image from the realm of photography.

I bring this up because last week a friend stopped by and told me that after showing some of his work to a local camera club, that he was criticized soundly because he advised members that when he made the original exposures he always kept in mind how he would finish the photos using PhotoShop. He said that he always “tweaked” his studio photography and was surprised that it bothered some people.  Personally, I think it is that “tweaking” that help make his images so good, and they are very good photographs in my opinion.

Since the introduction of digital many photography contests and exhibitions exclude images that have been post-processed. I do understand that those organizations want to show the photographer’s talents at capturing an image and not retouching skills. However, it must be very hard to apply that restriction when many of the latest cameras can post-process (reprocess might be a better word) the original images in-camera using computer software supplied by the manufacturer.

There are those that consider themselves purists and loudly denounce programs like PhotoShop, although I don’t know what a purist really is in this technological time, because most images are no longer made on light sensitized material and are now computer generated image data files.

Photojournalists are expected to capture the truth about some event or subject and should not be altering the original image in any way.  But artists?  The work in question was studio photographs of custom motorcycles, which in my view easily fits in the realm of photographic fine art, and, certainly, not photojournalism. I suppose it depends upon whom the photograph is for and who the viewing audience will be.

I do not usually work as a photojournalist, and those that do get my respect when they are able to pull interesting photographs out of what are sometimes are pretty crappy conditions for a photographer.  In my opinion, those photographers that don’t work for magazines or newspapers should include post-processing as part of photographic methodology. It’s all about making the best possible photograph for others to see.

My portrait clients expect that I will post-process, and I usually tell them I intend to. I try to light in a way that not only looks good at the moment the shutter clicks, but makes it easy for me to enhance in post-production. I employ not only PhotoShop, but I also use other programs made by and And personally, I would never let anyone see images of mine that were not post-processed, because I know I can improve and enhance them in post-production.

My point is that photographers have been retouching their photographs for years, perhaps since photographers started making pictures for the pleasure of others. Now it is just easier than ever before, and so is taking a photograph for that matter.  There may be instances where the way an image is produced should be limited to how the camera’s sensor captured it, but I think something must be left to the photographer’s vision, and producing that vision might need a little help from post-production programs like PhotoShop. There is nothing like a well-executed photograph hanging on a wall for the enjoyment of all to see.

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The ides of March

I have never been very positive about March. It is a transition period, or month for that matter, and we are now in the middle, well in “the ides of March”, and I suppose I am not that good waiting for change. I would like to go out and search for some subject that demands to be photographed, but I can’t rouse any creativity as I stand staring out the window at the melting snow.  Charles Dickens in “Great Expectations” aptly described my feeling when he wrote, “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” This foreboding for March began when as a child I read “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville. I do remember that until my teacher made us delve into the imagery of the novel, line by line, I had just enjoyed it as another adventure story. “Beware of the ides of March,” said the soothsayer, and poor ole Captain Ahab gets himself pinned to a whale and dies in the end. Even at that young age I wondered, why March? Then to my dismay came the same words when I read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and there is was again, he was told to beware of the ides of March. Today I know that the “ides of March” is just a way of saying March 15 in Roman times, but I have been frustrated by March for a long time, and I want it to be over soon because I hate waiting for the unknown.  To make things worse there is, “In like a lion and out like a lamb.” Does it never end, these disturbing warnings of March? I just want to wander around in a photogenic landscape taking pictures. I don’t care if there is lots of snow, or lots of grass; I just want one or the other. Last week I was hired to do a staff photograph by a local organization. Gazing from the office window I saw a large lawn, but as I turned to the woman organizing things she said sadly, “ It looks really nice, but it’ll be too cold for people at ten in the morning, and it’ll be muddy. We’ll have to move things around and use the cafeteria”. I knew that would mean the 22 people, my lighting, and I would be jammed tight in that space, and I’d be spending time after the photo session “PhotoShopping” stuff out. With a snow-covered lawn I’d have made them bundle up, or on a wet spring day they could have worn raincoats, and I would have photographed them under either of those conditions with success. I just shook my head and thought about poor Caesar and poor Ahab. March doesn’t work for me either. I like the topography created by snow and I like trudging through it with my camera and I always find something to photograph. Spring works for me also, I don’t mind rain and mud is just a minor irritant and I like nothing more then photographing fog moving across a rain soaked ridge. Yet March doesn’t give much, it just makes one wait. The host of the British public television program “Making Things Grow,” Thalassa Cruso, once quipped, “March is a month of considerable frustration – it is so near spring, and yet across a great deal of the country the weather is still so violent and changeable that outdoor activity in our yards seems light years away.”
 And prolific writer Ogden Nash said “Indoors or out, no one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes, the wind will presently disappear, the taxes last us all the year.” March, in my opinion, is not a month that photographers embrace. Well, maybe a foray or two to photograph some hungry coyote, or deer, wandering the countryside, and some birds that hung about through the winter are seen looking for any morsels they can find, but even for those subjects one has to hunt in an uninspiring landscape. I suppose we could put our heads down and get up earlier because of the time change (one more problem with this month), in anticipation of a better season and friendlier months, and just march onward, awaiting a time to do photography again.

If it gets us out with a camera its good or a 52-week photography challenge.


As I perused different photography forums and different photographer’s facebook pages the past couple months I have been noticing the popularity of starting a 52-week photography challenge. For example, on forum member Sambr posted “Okay folks we are starting a new challenge on this forum, it will be a daily or weekly event to suite your schedule. I really hope we get lots of participation from the membership at large. This will be solely for personal development and growth of your photographic skills and technique. All submissions must be shot on the day or week and can be of anything you want animals, people, and landscape, whatever you decide. Members can comment on your photos – it will be up to you if you want to take their comments or advice.”  That’s a great idea. Anything to get us out there making photographs is good.  Some have even suggested a 365-day challenge. I suppose that’s good also, only I expect many will just revert to a point and shoot at anything just to fulfil the obligation to post a picture. I would prefer that those taking up the challenge do so to help their photography grow in some way and select a subject with some thought as to creating an interesting image.

One photograph a day or one photograph a week might not always fit one’s personal style either. Especially if the photographer’s intention is to show something he or she thinks might be interesting.

Anything that gets us out with a camera in our hand is good. If anyone agrees with that then the challenge could instead be a 12-month challenge. I have written before that my wife and I (for years now) each have to produce a picture for our monthly calendar. I suppose that would be more like a six month challenge since we alternate months; January was my month then February my wife’s and March mine and so on.  I must admit that I am really late this month. I have been trying to get together with two other photographers to photograph some large river otters that seem to be hanging out in the Thompson River east of Kamloops Lake. We tried this week with out success, but got some pretty good images of the Bighorn sheep along the foothills instead. And I will have to be satisfied with sheep picture for this month to fill the empty space in our home that should at this moment have a calendar hanging in it.

I know I personally could fill the weekly challenge with miscellaneous images, but I like those that have challenged themselves with a theme. I read one that will be choosing “shadows”. I like that because I think it will force that photographer to be creative in his approach, selection and final production.

My personal goal for this year is to photograph a different bridge every month. Those that read my last article know that I began (late I now) with the Pritchard Bridge that crosses the Thompson River not far from my home. The project shouldn’t be hard for me to get going because there are lots of bridges only short drives away and at first seems too easy.

My wife doesn’t think too much of my project. She thinks it pretty boring. Ok, I must aspire to produce photographs of the bridges that go beyond just documenting some structure crossing water and I will be forced like the “shadow” photographer, to be creative in my approach, selection and final production.

My first photograph was the Pritchard Bridge and I made the picture with a wide-angle lens from one end while standing in the sand just left of where the pillars came out of the sand. I like the shot, but if I am to make this real challenge my next bridge needs to be photographed from a different angle and I need a less leisurely execution.

Those taking up the daily, weekly or monthly photography challenge should as Sambr says “… for personal development and growth of your photographic skills and technique.” Choose a theme or subject. Or just photograph any subject because you really like to use your camera. I know we are already into March, but who cares, there aren’t any rules.

Looking into the Landscape

Landscape photographer Elliot Porter once said, “Sometimes you can tell a large story with a tiny subject”.

On the weekend I bundled up against the damp, windy cold and headed down to the frozen shore along the South Thompson River not far from my home. My intention was to photograph the Pritchard Bridge that spanned the river and I had hoped to see large chunks of ice jammed against the pillars.

I like photographing architecture, and any kind of structure, whether it is buildings, fences, and yes, bridges, is just plain fun for me. I look for how the light plays on stone, wood, metal, glass, and any other building material and how it creates shadows and features, like ice, that interact with the structure. However, to my disappointment, the large chunks of ice I had noticed a few days earlier were gone. The strong wind that constantly blew along the river valley must have cleared all the ice from around the bridge pillars.

I wandered along under the bridge looking for interesting angles. I had mounted my camera with a 16-85mm lens thinking that its wide view would give me an interesting perspective.  My intention was to photograph the bridge in a fashion that would look good when converted to black and white. I looked for shadows and highlights that would create enough contrast to give depth and dimensionality to black and white images. Much of the time I see black and white images that have been changed to monotone without regard to the tonality of the subject. All I see are flat tones of black and white with no relationship to the actual colour quality of the full colour original. There are several programs that convert image files to black and white while keeping that tonality, PhotoShop among them, but my preference because of the control and finality is Silver Efex Pro from

I walked along the shore and crossed under the bridge looking for creative opportunities and trying to find interesting perspectives of the bridge.  Eventually, however, what caught my eye were features protruding from the sand like posts and branches, and I began looking down and along the shore instead of up and that’s when I really started to take pictures that were working for me. There were shells, small bits of water worn wood, a half-buried rusty oil drum, fish skeletons and much more, like an overturned shoe in the sand. I changed lenses to an 18-200mm to have more focal length and a narrower view for ground level shots of posts and other revealed objects sticking up from the sand.

The light was perfect and its low angle created intriguing shadows that added definition to each of the subjects I selected as I walked along the sandy beach. Each small object, in Eliot Porter’s words, had its own “story” and I tried to show something in each that was more than just a snap shot of an object on the beach.

Often we forget that there is more in the landscape than majestic peaks and expanses of fields. I began by ignoring the “tiny subjects” thinking only the bridge would be worth photographing. If this was a garden, then I would immediately contemplate close-up photography and grab my macro lens, but it took me a while to realise how much more there was to photograph on that frozen river beach.  Soon, I will be walking through the sand with my camera again, this time keeping my eye on the ground, and I will be dressed even warmer.