Photographing the garden in the March snow.     


Jo McAavany

Jo McAvany

Jo McAvany

This time last March I wrote about flowers as portraits, and discussed my indoor makeshift studio setup using modifiers like reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes to photograph potted plants.

This year I decided to put my winter boots on and wander out in the sub-zero, snow-laden garden out side my front door to see what interesting features I could discover.

As I have written before, I prefer using flash and the waning March light at 7PM was perfect for my off-camera flash equipped with a shoot-thru umbrella.

I really don’t care what time of year or the weather, I like photographing the plants and flowers in my garden. Shrubbery, weeds, and vegetation in general always make for fun subjects.

Plants are so much easier to photograph than people, plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery, and always are happy to wait for me. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

This time my goal was to photograph anything that caught my eye.

It didn’t matter how the late afternoon light was, because I had my key light with me. Relying on ambient light is so troublesome, and I knew that the only way to give my subjects “pop” and reduce deep shadows caused by sunlight was to use flash.

The slowly dimming light was perfect for my sojourn through the garden. I easily metered the ambient light, then under exposed slightly so the flash would become the main light instead of the late afternoon sun. The soft modified light from a shoot-through umbrella was even across the image with a gradual transition from highlights to mid-tones to shadows.

The snow was deep and more than once it filled my boots as I trod off the packed down path. However, there were lots to things photograph I didn’t care.

Branches and sticks poking out of the snow, shadows along the fence, a rusty old wagon wheel, the red leaves of Oregon grape, weathered boards, dead and dried out flowers, and as the sun sunk below the mountains, a light bulb hanging from the snow cover above my car.

I was enjoying myself so much that I texted my friend (Jo lives down in the valley and across the river from me) and suggested she grab her camera and join me.

We took turns holding the stand mounted flash and finally, when it was to dark to see things and we finished our photographic we went inside to load our images on my computer and warmed up with a glass of red wine as we looked over the pictures we had just taken.

As I have written before, I photograph my garden in every season.    I know there are many photographers that only take pictures of plants when they are in bloom and prefer colourful representations. However, spring, summer, fall, winter, snow, rain, sunny, or overcast, my garden is filled with ever changing subjects that always offer something new.

As always, my advise to photographers that think they must wait for inspiring weather before their next garden safari is, there’s always something to photograph no matter the weather or the season, just get up close and look for the small stuff.










A snowy walk to Chase Falls


The day was grey, flat and cold. but, I was bored with watching TV and wanted to get out and put some footprints in the snow.

I lazily thought about wandering the deep snow in my yard or just taking a drive on the slushy roads above my home. However, I hadn’t visited the nearby Chase falls since a hot day in July and I thought it would be fun to see if there was any water coming over the falls.

When I visited the falls last summer I was joined by my photographer friend, Jo McAvany. I remember Jo loudly complaining about the mosquitos on that hot dry summer day. So I called her and asked if she wanted to trudge through the two-foot deep snow up to the falls and promised the mosquitos wouldn’t be too bad this time of year.

I don’t know what kind of deal she made with her husband on his day off work, but she said, “sure I want to go”.

As I thought, the trail into the falls hadn’t been tramped down by people, and other than foot prints of a lonely racoon that I expect has a warren somewhere in the river canyon to hide in when he’s not marauding garbage cans in the tiny town of Chase, we were breaking trail.

Last July Jo complained about the mosquitos. However, this time it was me complaining that I should have worn high top boots because the snow that filled my short-topped boots left little room for my feet.

I would have liked to climb down to the falls, but the snow hid all the boulders and caution said venturing beyond the trees might end in a very cold bath.

Jo had mounted a 24-105mm on her camera and I had my trusty 24-70mm on mine. We both had put longer lenses in my backpack, but the wide-angle lenses were the most comfortable to use.

The day was mostly cloudy and flat, but every now and then things lightened up just a bit. Not enough to create shadows, but at times there were highlights on protruding rocks, tree limbs and the water.

On a bright day one always struggles with overexposure on a waterfall. I prefer a slight overcast or a foggy day, and I did get some reasonable photographs of Chase Falls this time. Bright sun, deep shadows, a scene with too much contrast or mosquitos didn’t bother me this time. But just a bit more light (and less freezing snow in my boots) would have been nice.

Over the past forty years have visited those falls at least once in every season, and I can’t begin to count or even remember all the different cameras I have pointed at the falls and the surrounding area in that small canyon.

There has been lots of change as the canyon errodes, logs and boulders are swept over the falls and trees and foliage grow taller and denser. I am hoping to be making that short walk each season for at least ten more years.

Thoughts on upgrading to a better camera.     


In the previous era of film cameras many serious photographers would come to a point when they would consider whether to upgrade from an automated point and shoot type camera to a 35mm interchangeable lens SLR or to trade in the their well used 35mm SLR for a medium format 120mm camera, and maybe even to take the climb to a 4X5 view camera.

For film-based cameras it was all about the size of the film and bigger was better.  I recall feeling bad for those people that had friends photograph their wedding with a 35mm camera. The only way to get quality-wedding photographs was really only by photographers using larger film in their 120mm medium format cameras.  If one wanted a colourful, sharp, grain free enlargement then 120mm or larger was a must.

What do I now say to a photographer that is considering a more serious approach to photography?   I will always begin with the question, “what are your interests and what subjects do you like to photograph?”

My short answer for digicam and iPhone users is, if sports and fast action, wildlife or quality print enlargements are the goal, then, yes absolutely get a DSLR.    DSLR cameras don’t have shutter lag so sports photography is easy and action demands a camera (and quality lenses) that can adjust shutter speed and aperture. Wildlife photographers prefer a selection of telephoto lenses that can be changed at will, and obviously the best images are produced with sensors that are considerably larger than digicams and iPhones.

Digicams & iPhones are convenient for candid shots. Most of us have ’em in our pocket anyway. However, for photographers that are aware of the huge limitation of those tiny sensors and cheap little lenses the next question is, what is the best choice for a first time DSLR?

For this discussion I will put DSLR cameras in two simple categories, amateur and professional.  The difference between amateur and pro cameras has surely become hazy. If I were to offer a short comment I would say the most obvious difference is durability.  Pro cameras feel sturdy, are heavy and sealed against the elements. When dropped, they usually don’t break, and even with hard use will last a long time.  The amateur camera generally has lighter weight and smaller size.

When the first DSLRs came onto the scene there was definitely a difference in the quality of the images between entry level and professional level cameras, but that is not as distinct now. The technology for sensors and in-camera processing has rocketed.  The latest entry-level model may well have the same sensor as the previous year’s expensive pro model as the technology is transferred over.  The main difference is in the weight, substance, durability, and controls.

The new models are always being introduced, with that many previously great camera models will be reduced in price, discontinued and there are opportunities to purchase at reduced prices.  As always there will be a flurry of megapixel chasers that change their camera with every new model upgrade, making used cameras available.

Whatever the camera availability, my advice to those photographers asking the “upgrading” question is to consider what kind of photography they want to do. Talk to other photographers about the cameras that are interesting, go online and check out the many photography forums to find out what others with that same interest are using, and attend some classes.

So what are my thoughts on upgrading to a better camera? If it’s affordable, don’t hesitate, do it. Using a new camera is always fun, educational, and I believe the process of learning how to control and effectively use the unfamiliar technology a new camera offers is like a shot in the arm that gets the excitement going and ultimately helps one become a better photographer.

Volunteering your photography and using a flash           


This Christmas I volunteered to be a helper and photographer for a neighbourhood community friendship group.

Each year Dale Northcott, owner operator of Northcott’s New and Used, joins other local help organizations to put on a Christmas Meal for anyone in Kamloops that would like a big home cooked meal during Christmas.  This year Northcott asked me if I would take a few pictures of the event.

For those that might wonder about photographing a large room full of people, I’ll remind them that I use flash. I always have a flash attached to my camera when I photograph people close up, indoors or out. However, I never use the ineffective little pop-up flash that is part of the most modern digital cameras and I also don’t just slide a flash on the hotshoe.

I have never liked that bright directional light created by being inches away from the center of the lens. It is harsh and unflattering. The best would be to carry an off-camera flash mounted on a stand, but in crowded circumstances that doesn’t work very well. So the next choice is to have the flash mounted on a bracket that puts the flash up and off camera at least four or five inches.

That flash bracket is my choice. Most of the time it puts the subject’s shadow down and behind them and its slight distance from the lens makes a more flattering light. My Nikon flash comes with a frosted diffusion cup fitted over the flash head that modifies and softens the harsh, direct light of the flash.

I always test my location and try for a balanced light. Fortunately, in this location I was able to adjust the room lights to get plenty of ambient light bouncing off the walls and the ceiling so I wouldn’t get that “deer-in-the-headlights” effect.

I think sometimes photos are of the organizers and volunteers get overlooked, and those were the people I approached as soon as I got to the hall. I am not one of those that nervously says, “Hi my name is so and so, can I please take your picture”?  I walk right up to the person and start talking as if we’ve always been friends. I rarely have to ask questions, because my new friends usually tell me about themselves, their organization and how important the event is. Then all I have to say is, “I gotta get a picture of you, hey grab that bowl or how about you wash some dishes…this is going to be a great picture.” And in this case I also said, “ I’ll be giving the pictures to Dale Northcott so you can get one.”

There was another photographer that knew many of the people sitting down to eat and I let him take their pictures. As I was about to leave he commented that one person asked him to delete their picture. I said, “and of course you did”, and he smiled and said, “yes I did”.

It was a fun event to attend, I liked taking pictures of the volunteers and organizers, and I got in great conversations with people that finished eating. My favourite comment was “did you get enough to eat” and “can I get you more”?

I know there are those that seem to believe their cameras are too valuable to be used for free, and the photographs they make are also too valuable to be given away. In the forty plus years I earned a living in this exciting medium of photography, I have never been one of those people.

My best wishes to readers on this festive season. And I hope everyone has a Happy New Year.

How about Christmas cards?


I like all the festive celebration and excitement of Christmas, and truly enjoy all the colourful decorations, the lights and listening to Christmas music for a whole month.  Yes, I do like Christmas music.  I have also written about Xmas cards before.

All year long the photography social media sites on the Internet that I belong to have been filled with photos made by members, but images posted on the Internet quickly become faded memories and are easily forgotten when an hour later someone else posts theirs.

I like photographic prints. Prints have a life, whether framed and hung on a wall in our home, taped on the refrigerator, or thumbtacked in an open space in the workroom. To me a print of any size has more importance and life than a digital image on my computer or iPhone screen.

Christmas is a great time for photographers, and besides than just having fun taking pictures of anything and everything they now an opportunity to give friends and family their photographs.

I suppose that could mean a big framed photograph, but what I am writing about today is Christmas cards. Cards are easier and less expensive than framed prints, and any card of a photographer’s work is more personal as a gift than an email or little picture tagged to a text message.

I don’t want to believe that any photographer would ever be satisfied with mass produced generic Christmas cards. Personally, I want people enjoy my photography, even if it’s only as a 5×7 card.   A card to someone I care about is so much better than having my pictures left languishing as image files deep in some computer hard-drive that hasn’t been backed up.

Right now I am going through my many files from this year’s photographs selecting those I want for Christmas cards. I’ll print up different subjects and place all sorts of greetings on them. It is rare that I give the same picture to more than one person. And not all the cards say Merry Christmas. Although I like “Merry Christmas” what wording goes on a card doesn’t really matter to me. Happy Holidays, Seasons greetings, Have fun, A good New Year, and anything else I think fits a particular picture. It’s about the card, never the words.

I have written before that I always produce a new monthly calendar. My wife and I used to alternate our months.   Doing a calendar is a neat way to personally enjoy my photography, but cards are a lot more fun because they are for others to enjoy. I also make cards for all occasions, like birthday’s, Valentine’s, Mother’s day, etc., My family has come to expect me to share my photography. Sometimes it’s only a picture of something we’ve done, but if it’s a special occasion they always will get a card. Even when would I go to my granddaughter’s school Christmas concert, I always took their pictures, made a card and send it to them through the mail.

For those photographers that don’t have their own printer, it’s as easy as having a 4×5 print made at a local lab. Then get some construction paper, glue a picture on it, fold the paper, write something like Merry Christmas inside and give it away. And don’t make all the cards the same.

What would be the fun in that?

Photos in the alleyways.  



This past week my friend Jo McAvany asked me if I would be willing to help her with using off-camera flash in daylight. I like controlled studio lighting, but I’ll admit that balancing flash lighting in the bright daylight is much more fun.

She texted me saying she had asked her friend Heather to be our subject. My question was “where do you want to do this”. I think I held my breath at that moment hoping she wouldn’t suggest wandering around in the woods to photograph our young model. If she had I probably would have feigned an attack of the flu or something just to get out of spending a boring day doing what every beginning photographer seems to be doing now days. However, Jo said, “I’d like to go downtown.”   My response was, “Great lets pose your friend in the alleys”.

I am not sure if it was because of the shopkeepers or random artists, but the alleyways in downtown Kamloops are damn colourful. There are murals, wildly painted back entrances and large brightly coloured signs that fill complete walls. One might expect to find trash, discarded store goods and rusting garbage bins. But nope, it was as if someone had said, “Hey, there might be a photographer or two that want photograph our alleys so lets make ‘em nice.”

We went from coloured wall to coloured wall, posing our ever-patient subject in doorways, against brightly decorated enclosures and behind fenced walkways. I think this was Heather’s first time posing for photographers, or at least having two cameras pointed at her. And yes, she had to endure my constant discourse about balancing light, shadows, exposure and off-camera flash.

Sunday was a good choice. Other than the cold breezy November day, it was quite pleasant. Well, except when the wind caught the umbrella that was attached to the flash and stand and sent everything crashing to the ground.

There was no traffic zooming down the ally and other than some fellows sitting out of the wind behind a building and a street cleaning machine quickly scrubbing by, we had the alley to ourselves.

The three of us ambled up and down the alleys. There were so many places that demanded Heather to pose for us in front of. We even tried adding her into one of the large murals that looked like a walkway into an Italian villa. There was a small green door that someone had painted, and both Jo and Heather agreed that it would be like Alice in Wonderland if Heather reached down for the doorknob. We could have spent the day wandering the alleys photographing Heather, but eventually the cold crept in and we decided it was time to finish photo session talking and warming up at a coffee shop.

We had a good day. We discovered a new place where we can do photography and we all worked together to produce some interesting photographs.  Heather is leaving town for a job in the fast paced coastal city of Vancouver, and our photos will surely give her some great memories of the city she has been living in for some time now.

I think Jo and I might invite a few photographers and models to join us another time to do a bit more exploring around the back alleys.






Photographing a late summer garden.   


I woke up to a wet day.

There was a light shower overnight, not the strong rain everything is dying for here in the southern part of British Columbia, but it did dampen things down the most since those rainy weeks last June. However, any rain is good and if I had better hearing I surely would have heard happy sounds coming from the garden outside my door.

The drizzle ended and as I lazily finished my morning coffee, like any serious photographer, I knew there was an opportunity waiting.

Many photographers that are excited with all the brilliant colours of spring ignore the dry plants at the end of summer. Sure the reds, blues, purples, bright yellows and greens have mostly gone, but there is still an abundance of colours if one just takes a moment to look.

I like photographing the garden. As that well-worn quote attributed to Mark Twain goes, “ I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like”, I admit that I have no memory for plant names, but I like all the flowers, trees and bushes one finds in a garden.

With me, it’s not really the colour as much as it is the shapes. My approach to a spring, summer, fall and winter garden is much the same. I search for the shapes, differing tones and, of course, the light.

My favourite accessory for rainy days is my ring-flash. As I would with any portrait, person or plant, I always use flash. I usually operate my flash off-camera using light stands and light modifiers. Sometimes just holding my flash at arms length works at the end of the day. But after a rain I like the sparkling direct light a ring flash produces.

The ring flash is a flash that fits around the front of a lens instead of on the camera. I prefer keeping the flash at some distance by employing longer focal length macro lenses. My macro lens, a true macro, is a 200mm. That lens keeps me out of the garden ensuring that I don’t step on other plants.

I photographing the garden, spring, summer, fall and winter, calming. Maybe that’s because I am looking into and at the small details of a landscape ignoring the world around me

When my wife and I photographed the garden together her final images were about space, design and how all the bushes and flowers fit together and how the colours interacted. Linda’s visuals discussed the landscape rather than individual flowers. Mine are more intimate. As I wrote, I am always, “looking into…at the details” when I wander our garden.

As with any portrait, I am rarely satisfied with natural light and almost always add light from a flash. And during those hours of low light as the storm slowly drifts away adding a bit of light to makes a normally flat subject come to life.

That garden just outside my door is always waiting. I never ignore it and am always looking to see what it offers.

I found this quote by the famous Canadian nature photographer and writer Freeman Patterson, “Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, you intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”