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.










Leading another class on photography         

The first class I ever taught on photography was sometime back in 1976. I think.

I had just moved from Los Angeles to Kamloops, British Columbia and a coordinator from the local Parks and Recreation Association asked me if I would teach a class for beginning photographers.

He had talked to some friends and found out that I had worked as a photographer for the Los Angeles office of Education and also spent time teaching grade school age children in private schools, so he thought I would be a perfect fit in their community education program.

I always liked sharing my knowledge of photography with those that, like me, were excited about this exciting medium and always enjoyed hanging out with other photographers. I had trained to teach grade school, but I wasn’t sure about adults.

Well, here I am all these years later. Gosh, 1976 seems so darned long ago. And I have shared my knowledge with so many people. I taught classes all over the province and was even employed as a college photography instructor for many, many years. So when a friend’s mother; who works for the Ashcroft community association asked me get up early on a Sunday morning and travel two hours to teach a photo class to fifteen eager photographers, lazy as I am, I couldn’t say no.

I designed the sessions I lead for busy adult beginning photographers that have lots of other stuff on their plate. I break my presentations into four separate headings that allow me to add information as I go along. I begin with Modes and give participants my opinion as to why they should only use and how to use, Shutter priority, Aperture priority and Manual modes. The terminology varies with different manufactures, but the discussion is the same. I can then easily plug in all sorts of tips and directions regarding their camera menus without loosing track of our exploration of Modes.

Naturally my next heading is Understanding Exposure, how could it not be after examining their camera’s Modes. Then as they scribble notes on the handouts I have given them I turn on my projector and begin my talk about Depth of Field.

Depth of field is, “that area in front of and behind the subject that is acceptably sharp”. Treating DOF as a main topic helps to show learners how the Aperture and Shutterspeed have a use other than just choosing a way to make sure their image isn’t under or over exposed.

Finally, and my favourite discussion of the day, I present Composition. The word composition gets thrown around a lot. I’ll read forums where members might say something like, “great capture, good composition,” or sometimes, something as meaningless as “I love your composition”.

I know they don’t actually mean composition as a photographic technique. I think it’s become an alternative word that means, “Picture”. They want a more modern word, and I suppose using the word “composition” instead of “picture” has sadly and ignorantly become that word.

Photographic composition is defined as, “the selection and arrangement of subjects within the picture area.” And my discussion is about using composition and compositional guidelines to enhance a photograph’s impact.

Those four topics allow me to interject all sorts of information about using their cameras and I can sum every thing up as I finish discussing Composition.

I always hope that those in attendance take the time to reread the handouts I gave them, browse their notes, practice their photography when they leave the same way one would when learning a musical instrument and when the opportunity arises, take another class on photography.

In my opinion the learning never should end.

An early morning photo challenge                                         

My friend, neighbour, and photo pal Jo decided to give herself an early morning photo challenge. That meant after feeding her kids, 6 dogs, making sure her 13 year old son is ready for school and greeting her tired husband after his long night shift, she quickly sneaks out with her camera to create artistic images out of normally uninspiring objects she finds close to her rural home.

I first knew Jo was taking this challenge on when she texted me a picture of deer chomping on her neighbour’s bushes one morning. She casually added a close-up of snow that had drifted around a small tree trunk. I was thrilled with how she captured the play of light and shadow on something most photographers would walk past.

The mundane, normal features people ignore along the snow laden winter neighbourhood street as they dash from their warm homes, coffee in hand to jump in their cold cars, and join the morning battalion on the icy highway, are Jo’s chosen subjects.

I wonder what people think as they look out their windows at Jo all bundled up, holding her camera in gloved hands as she wanders the vacant streets. I can imagine her dodging oncoming cars as they slip along the icy snow packed street.

What those drivers are thinking when they see her standing calf deep in the snow, photographing a tree branch.

I’ll add this first quote by the iconic American photographer Annie Leibovitz, “The camera makes you forget you’re there. It’s not like you are hiding but you forget, you are just looking so much.”

I like her words, and I am pretty sure that most serious photographers get lost in the moment when they look into a scene searching to create interest out of some normally unremarkable object.

Of all the photography challenges people post on the many social media sites I think I like this one the most. It is hard for us to find interest in the world we walk by everyday. And forcing oneself to be creative with some unremarkable subject is a struggle, let alone wandering around on a cold February morning just after sun up.

I asked Jo why she likes to meander around with her camera in the early morning. She wasn’t sure, and at first only said, “because its peaceful”. However, I think there is more to that kind of challenge than searching for a peaceful moment. I know her enough to say that she is demanding in her photography, and is always exploring alternatives.

Photography is such an exciting medium that lets us examine the world around us in our own personal way. This kind of photographer’s challenge does just that.

I’ll end this with a couple quotes by Depression era photojournalist Dorothea Lange who wrote, “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.” And she also wrote “To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false.”

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.

Photographing the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train 

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how much I like Christmas lights.

Well, the Christmas holiday season isn’t over yet and to prove it I got a chance to set my tripod up on the cold, winter’s river beach a few minutes down the hill from my home to photograph Canadian Pacific Railroad’s Holiday Train.

CP Rail’s website says, “The CP Holiday Train program launched in 1999 and has since raised more than $13 million and four million pounds of food for communities along CP’s routes in Canada and the United States…. The holiday season is the best time of the year, and we look forward to bringing together thousands of Canadians and Americans this season for this incredibly important cause and a great time.”

As I have in past years, I positioned myself on the beach across the river so I could get a wide shot of the brightly lighted train passing on the opposite side with the dark hills and forest behind.

I arrived an hour in advance while there was still plenty of light and made a few test shots. The schedule put the train at our location a bit after 4PM, just as the sun was going down. The time was about right for my preference of shooting just while there is still that cool, blue light illuminating the sky and I have enough light in my photograph to define the train from its surroundings.

I set my camera at ISO 3200. That allowed me to keep my aperture at f/5.6 for plenty of depth-of -field. I was a bit under exposed, but a stop or two really didn’t bother that kind of low light image. After all, the train’s lights were very bright.

As with past years there was a strong, cold wind blowing down river. In past years it was colder and I had bundled in the car drinking hot chocolate till the train arrived, but this year was warmer and I just stood there enjoying watching my neighbours children running around on the beach. When the train finally arrived the three year old boy and I both yelled, “The Christmas Train” I am sure his mother, shivering in the cold wind, just shook her head thinking, “Boys”.

A young fellow purchased a 1980s film camera from my shop today and we talked for some time about how interesting prints made from film are. He was really thrilled to begin capturing the world around him with film.

As I selected the images that I had edited and worked over using several computer programs for this article I thought of that young photographer and the journey he is beginning with film.

I am sure he will have fun, but the photographs I made of the Holiday train would have been beyond the ability of most popular films he will find at local outlets, and I had the unfair advantage of computer programs with which I could squeeze every bit of data there was in the digital file I made.

Photographing the Holiday train was fun and I am always surprised that there aren’t carloads of photographers joining me on the beach when the train comes by.











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?