(One of the best received guest posts we’ve published is Dan Glass’ essay on the Standing Stone Trail. We are pleased to welcome him back to A Taste For the Woods for our series on better photography for everyday outdoorspeople. As usual Dan took the job and ran with it. I suggest sitting down with coffee and spending time with this essay. Dan’s given us a lot to think about here. All the photos are Dan’s, which I’ve selected from his website.)
A very wise man (that would be me) once said that it’s impossible to take a bad picture of Ricketts’ Glen, and that’s still true. You really have to have a fly move in front of the camera, swerve quickly so you lose focus, or catch some nasty reflection on the water to ruin a shot of Pennsylvania’s much-visited waterfall capital. Nevertheless, it should be said that it’s hard to get out of the normal distribution when it comes to taking a picture of Ricketts’ Glen.
For those people not initiated into statistics, I’ll be brief. If you take 100 things, 68 of them will be sitting dead red in the center with little or no difference better or worse than the others. Another 13.5 will be sitting either just above or just below “average,” so now 95 of those things are accounted for. What this means is that 2.5 of them are excellent, and another 2.5 of them… not so much. So if we apply this to Ricketts’ Glen, should you take 100 photos of Harrison Wright (from 100 different photographers), one of the best waterfalls going at Ricketts’ Glen (or B. Reynolds or Ganoga or any other falls on any given day), you will have a beautiful waterfall presented to you in pretty much the same way over and over. We can do this head on… the waterfall from left to right with the water crashing 30 feet to the earth. We can do this from the stairs… as the water is viewed as it crashes to the pitch pool beneath. We can walk across the stream and stop at various locations… from the right… from the left… whatever. We can take it home and Photoshop it to give us the full effect. We can get all artsy and focus on a rock in the foreground with the background just out of focus. We can make it seem like we’re in the Lord of the Rings as we’re wandering through the forest to come upon it. We can take the picture looking down over the top. We can do it in winter, summer, spring, and fall. We can permanently superimpose some cute gal or hunky dude or couple about to get married in the foreground. We can accidentally capture images of people walking down beside it. We can tap our toes as we wait for the 98 other photographers there on any given weekend to get out of our way, and we can hurriedly snap the picture to get it over with and capture our Kodak Picture Moment for the rest of eternity because that’s what we need to do. Let’s be honest; it’s all been done before, every picture, every angle, every way. But you see… that’s not a bad thing.
Generally speaking in advice to the amateur photographer, it all comes down to a few things:
1) How do the elements affect your picture?
2) What are you going to do with your picture?
3) What are you really hoping to get a picture of?
4) What do you want in your picture?
5) What don’t you want in your picture? As a guy who has taken way too many pictures and placed them on this website http://www.adanglassworld.org/Coppermine/ and written about the adventures that made them up here http://rightandprivilegeofeveryfreeamerican.blogspot.com/ , I know a thing or 2 about a thing or 2 when it comes to taking a million pictures for posterity, so I’ll try to give you some non-technical advice about cameras and photography for the non-professional (i.e. your camera is point and click with maybe a few more features).
1) The elements do affect your picture. If you take the picture at night, you need to know how the flash being on or off shoots the scene. If you’re outdoorsy and you’re hiking in waterfalls, you need to get yourself a good waterproof camera. I have a Olympus Coolpix. It’s been good to me in that it still works after going in the water when I was at Sullivan Run in northern Pennsylvania and Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica. I like knowing that I won’t lose all of my pictures if it falls to the bottom of the creek. It’s also crushproof and freeze proof to a certain degree. I like that, too. Having lost a camera lens to it falling in the dust at Zion National Park and another lens to someone who knocked it over… durability is a plus. My waterproof was a $200+ camera, and it’s only 5x (my non-waterproof Kodak, which was the same price, is 10x), so it’s an investment, but so is a GoPro if you want to strap one to your helmet and take gnarly video of yourself doing things (and let’s be honest; I do, but I don’t have about $400 sitting around to buy one).
All the same, I use my Droid phone to take a lot of pictures as well. It’s on me, and it allows me to get all egotistical when I post pictures of awesome places to Facebook. It seems that camera quality for the Average Joe and Jane can be reduced to cellphones since they do that posting thing AND they are immediately available to look at or share with others if you’re hanging out AND they are much better quality than cheap, throw-in with the package cameras used to be. I like that, too. That said, I’m easy to please.
2) Knowing what you want out of your pictures goes a couple ways:
A) Are you going to submit your picture to a contest? Shoot in high resolution. Learn how your picture creates images. Play with photo processing software. Learn how you can manipulate things to make them look real or artsy by experimenting with the camera’s settings. Then ask yourself a question: “How do I compare to the other people shooting the same places?” Don’t get down on yourself because they’re better than you, but do practice, practice, practice! That means hike all over the place and take a million pictures. The good thing is that you don’t have to pay to develop the film. Everything is digital now. You might only get a few great images, but you got great images. Flex your mad art muscle. You rock!
B) Are you going to let a little kid learn to shoot images? Let him or her shoot a million pictures! Besides, it’s digital, and you don’t have to pay to develop it, so just let your kid shoot away. Kids only get better with practice.
C) Are you just going to capture the moment for posterity? Then practice ahead of time and scope out some good ideas while you’re there. Shoot from every angle. Get artsy! Get creative! Make your family pose at every waterfall! It’s your shot. Take your pictures your way.
3) If all you want is the image, you don’t have to beat the normal distribution. If you want “oohs,” “aahs,” and “likes,” then you need something original at a unique place, and you need it in a unique way (like a baby buffalo being born at Custer State Park in South Dakota – been there, done that!).
I have to be honest; I used to like my Ricketts’ Glen pictures (I had a huge photo collage of them on my wall), and then I saw stuff by some of the photographers on the Facebook group pages. I could name their names, but I won’t (to spare the feelings of the others). I will say that there are only a handful of people whose stuff I regularly “like” from Ricketts’ Glen (they are the pantheon, and I should say that if I didn’t take pictures of my own to put on my walls, I might even consider buying theirs!). Nevertheless, compared to their stuff, I should say that I don’t adore my own pictures in that same “ooh aah” way. That’s not me being self-hating, but it does say how much that upper 2.5% can really stand out (even compared to my “highly-respectable” outlier stuff). What it does attest to is that the big problem with a place like Ricketts’ Glen is that the 99 pictures that your photo is up against on Facebook is now 999 (if your purpose is to be “liked” on Facebook). In this, it’s like the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. What this means is that everyone feels he or she has to get the shot and show it off. Nevertheless, if all you want is the image, then you have the picture proof that you were there, and that’s great. I learned this when I went in the Air Force (and onto England). I knew I needed picture proof to show I had been there, done that, so I took pictures of anything I could think of. I continued this when I returned to America and began travelling. During that time, I missed several shots on my 1998 and 2000 cross country trips, so it would be 2 years later in each case until I went back to retake pictures of odds and ends. I also lost pictures because my film was exposed (yeah, I’m so glad we don’t use film anymore for so many reasons). I took a lot of practice stuff in black and white that just didn’t work (and cost a lot to develop), but I practiced, practiced, practiced. Now, my wife lets me display some of my better work in the house. I like that. I really like her. Someday, I want to let her add more of my stuff to the house!
4) Do you want your family in the picture? Do you want a close-up picture of a critter? Do you want to sneak back and find the place that the Hopi Indians came out of the Earth for the first time way back when or permanently prove the existence of some mysterious UFO at Area 51? If you do, you need lots of practice, practice, practice, or you might miss it because you’re fooling around with the settings in the dark or in bad light or too far away to be seen clearly! It’s digital, so get a big SD card and shoot all of the video and images you can manage from all of the different angles that you can (think cubism like M.C. Escher). And bring some extra batteries. Cameras go through them quickly. I recommend rechargeable batteries.
5) Knowing the limits of what you want in your pictures is a good thing. What I don’t want in my pictures is maddening hordes. I like places to myself. Yes, the outdoors are for everyone, but sometimes, everyone is a little much when you want to not be rushed by tapping toes waiting to get the next image without red jackets or white t-shirts filling the area around waterfalls and you happen to be there taking your dream shot at the exact moment they feel entitled to theirs. Thus, you probably want early morning… on a weekday… not in the summer… at a place that isn’t a state park… If you want waterfall pictures, you probably also want to be there after a rainstorm. Fall is not a good season unless you want colorful leaves, and then you probably want to be there by about October 10th because any later (at least in the north), and you’ve got some skeletal trees. I don’t want them unless they’re covered with ice, but that’s just me. I also don’t want graffiti on rocks, so I’m officially done with places like St. Peter’s Village.
So if I were asked to give last minute recommendations, I would say to think about the following things that apply to being an expert, amateur photographer who can captivate the average Joe or Jane with your images (at least enough to find a new hiking buddy):
1) Know how much time you need to hike in and out to get all the pictures that you want. Plan to scope it out so that you know how the light comes through the trees and into the area. Ask others. That’s why you’re on this site, right?
2) Know how much gear you reasonably want to trek in with you. If you’re thinking about a tripod, it comes in and out. Ricketts’ Glen is a 7 mile hike that goes up and down a pretty big Pennsylvania mountain. Like the Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared” to lug your stuff around.
3) Know the conditions of the trail. Sometimes, you’re walking in water. Sometimes, like at Glen Onoko, you’re in the water, climbing over fallen trees, and pulling yourself up by roots while scaling rocks. Be careful with that camera. It contains photos for posterity and it cost you some serious bank. You really don’t want to do anything to break it.
4) Don’t forget to see the world of waterfalls without your camera. If you have company, don’t forget that they came with to enjoy the waterfalls with you, or you might find that your next trip is a solo outing.
5) Know if you’re going to be a nature photographer or a people photographer. There is a difference. I’m a nature guy myself. I don’t find many people who can pose well – except my wife. I like her. I hope she lets me take pictures of her at cool nature spots for many years to come!
6) Practice, practice, practice!
7) Have fun!