Learning from the Semi-Pros: REI’s Nature Photography Class

My father was, among other things, a forensics photographer. In our first house, the mud room was transformed into a black and white darkroom. When we moved, when I was in the second grade, the darkroom was transitioned to a spacious room in the basement, off the laundry room. The wonderful thing about childhood is that our experiences are so insular that they never seem odd until shown in contrast to others. That we had photos of dead bodies (some fresh, some… not so fresh), cadavers with funny word bubbles, and old school crime scene shots in frames in our basement seemed quirky to me, but in the way that any “dad joke” is quirky. “‘I didn’t put lasagna on this plate,’ the autopsy surgeon said.” Daaaad! I thank him for my fearlessness of both life and death, which I consider to be perhaps my rarest and most useful skill. I also thank him for my love of photography and the way I look at the world. He was a detective and worked undercover also, and taught me from an early age to watch my surroundings and keep my eye out for treasures. When I walk in the woods, I do so as a child might—eyes bouncing between trail and sky, scanning the path for curios, and ultimately covered in mud. Thanks, Dad.

I have the eye, so to speak, but I’d lost the technical skill.

I took a Nature Photography class this weekend through REI. The first lesson was on changing our perception in search of a more interesting angle, which made me realize where my gaze typically lands. Not on the 4′-6′ adult window, but 3 inches off the ground, or 15 feet in the air. It was a rare, beautiful day of 79º and sunny. I was raised in photography, but haven’t had a real camera, with a detachable lens and adjustable aperture and ISO, etc., since before digital photography. I had bought myself a great gift in January of a new Nikon but was having a lot of frustrating stumbling as I took pictures for articles, blog posts, or of bands I saw. I know that’s the fate of the photographer, to take 100 shots so that five of them are good, but I’m used to knowing where to start, and having most of my photos be at least almost there, and a few that are real gems. I signed up for the class to re-introduct the camera to me. I have the eye, so to speak, but I’d lost the technical skill.

The class was a massive success. At $65 for six hours, it was a true bargain. Bill, the instructor, was knowledgable, helpful, and entertaining. I went in there feeling a bit cautious, unsure of what to expect, but left feeling like I have a new grasp on this tool in which I invested, and that I can go out into the world and yield it, rather than flutter around and hope for the best. We stood in streams, hiked along trails, stopped by a rusted out car and an old oil rig (hard to avoid on a Western Pennsylvania hiking trail—”We were once the Saudi Arabia,” Peter, another REI employee said dreamily as we stood looking at this rusted hunk of steel). We practiced with distance, focus, lighting, depth, and motion: all things important to nature and travel photography, and photography in general. Everything started coming back to me, and having someone walk me through it again was so much more helpful than watching a DVD or reading a manual.

REI Nature Photo class

just a couple’a dudes fishing by a drainage pipe. NBD.

REI Nature Photo class

I like to think this was the relic of a drag race 50 years ago, but no one knows how this car got here.

REI Nature Photo class

obligatory “people staring at stuff” photo, to let you know I know a person.

budding tree in front of oil rig

budding tree in front of oil rig

REI Nature Photo class

Pittsburgh is the most monochrome place I’ve ever lived, by far. So these little springtime pops of color carry the weight of hope for brighter days.

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