I‘ve taught a lot of workshops over the past 35 years and I always hope for good weather. But how realistic is that? I’ve also spent those 35 years as an editorial shooter producing stories for many of the world’s major travel magazines and if the weather’s bad, I still have to produce. And I’ll bet many of your vacations have less than perfect weather too.
A recent workshop at Point Reyes in California, part of the annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, was one of those less than perfect days. Summer fog shrouded the coast and gloom was the order of the day. Compounding matters, the workshop was held from 10 to 4 – the least ideal time to shoot. The flat light certainly didn’t work for the expansive landscapes of this Bay Area national park.
However, instead of sinking into the gloom we embraced it.
The goal was to capture the character and atmosphere of Point Reyes in 6 hours, in the middle of the day, in bad weather. A tough challenge for any photographer but the ability to work under these conditions opens up a whole world of photographic opportunity when you may otherwise stay at home by a warm fire with a good book.
I find that when conditions are difficult I push myself harder and make better photographs in the process. If everything is easy it’s too tempting to move on too soon.
Point Reyes Station is a quiet little town on California’s Highway One. Toby’s Feed Store is iconic; a small town general store with a healthy organic attitude. On a day like this the fruit and vegetables provided the dash of color needed on a grey day. I composed the shot (next page) to include the organic produce labels and the Point Reyes sign In the back of the store, immediately identifying the location. I then waited for someone to enter the store to provide punctuation and another layer of interest.
A boy playing on hay bales at the back of the store was a bonus and reinforced the agricultural flavor of the community. I deliberately used a slow shutter speed to create a little blur giving the photograph more life and energy.
I found this old Studebaker (next page) while I was poking around on one of the side streets. Be inquisitive, walk around with your eyes open and wait for photographs to find you. This was a gift, a nod to the funky side of this West Marin town and the color certainly brightened up the day.
Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm has always been a favorite of mine and it’s currently the center of a controversial fight with the National Park Service to close it down. It’s certainly not the most attractive operation and combined with the bad weather it provided a perfect teaching environment.
The overcast light was perfect for portraits and the group of workers taking a break was the perfect subject. I loved their boots and the red handcart; all it needed were the right expressions. Making a connection is essential for all good people photography.
These guys were great. They hammed it up for the camera but I waited until there was interaction between the three of them, when the guy on the left looked over to his friends.
That was the shot.
I always try to simplify visually messy environments and this oyster farm was certainly far from pretty. I look for color, texture, details that tell the story. Search for small elements that are graphically pleasing but also say a lot about the place.
Eventually the light improved and tiny patches of blue sky penetrated the grey. The Point Reyes landscape still looked bleak but I pre-visualized how the scene in front of my eyes could be manipulated in post-production to create a dramatic effect.
This is not just Photoshop trickery. Ansel Adams was doing exactly this over 70 years ago by manipulating film development and printing. Who thinks Moonrise over Hernandez actually looked like that in reality? Ansel was the master of pre-visualization and he would have embraced the digital tools available to us now. He would also chuckle over the fuss made about HDR as if it’s cutting edge technology!
Even under the worst conditions good photographs can be made that tell the story. Just get out there, look and shoot.
New Zealand is a favorite destination of mine where the weather can be extremely unpredictable and result in spectacularly moody photographs. Next year I’m conducting a 10-day workshop with Andrea Johnson and Angelo Ioanides, photographing the best New Zealand has to offer.
Fingers crossed the weather sucks!