2012 September » You Can Sleep When You're Dead: Blog by Colleen Miniuk

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Sep 302012

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the 2012 Photographic Society of America’s International Conference in San Francisco.  With many thanks to my generous sponsor, Hunts Photo and Video (thank you Gary Farber!), I also had the honor of presenting “Visualization:  Picturing the Unique Possibilities” as the Friday evening Featured Speaker with a lively crowd of enthusiastic photographers.

While I was prepared for hours and hours of set-up for my presentation (some of you know just how anal, er, I mean, detailed-oriented I am…), thanks to the support of AV equipment gurus, Sam Berzin and Greg Edwards, my projector calibration, music sound check, and lighting scheme for the conference room worked perfectly within minutes!  With my unexpected free time, I happily snuck into a handful of presentations prior to my showtime.

Out of the jam-packed schedule of intriguing sessions, the two presenters who impressed me the most were sports photographer, Brad Mangin and Adobe software extraordinaire, Julieanne Kost.  Seems somewhat illogical for this outdoor photographer to seek out those topics, doesn’t it?  After all, I don’t spend any time photographing baseball.  And I spend maybe 33 seconds per image tops in post-processing.  (Please no snide remarks about how I probably should spend more time than that.  Look, I’m an ex-software engineer who spent ten years behind a computer. I just want to play outside now!). How did I end up in their presentations then?

I intentionally sought out Brad’s session to help give me some fresh thoughts on photographing people enjoying outdoor sports.  Baseball, hiking, biking – no matter the physical endeavor, it simply boils down to capturing people in motion and telling a compelling story with a camera.  Boy, could Brad do that well!  With boundless enthusiasm, he’d show a remarkable photo of a player making a spectacular diving catch.  After describing in detail how he had planned and captured the shot, he exclaimed, “I love good action shots.”  Then he’d display a player silhouetted against a field and with the same passion, he pronounced, “I just love silhouettes of players.”   He flashed picture after picture on the screen, and every time, his response was exactly the same.  In less time than you could spell “photography,” it was perfectly clear:  this guy loves EVERYTHING about baseball!   In addition, I’d bet my telephoto lens he knows more about the game of baseball than the many of the players do!  He knew history, procedures before, during and after the game, equipment details, upcoming important statistical milestones, you name it.  And his strong story-telling images show just how much he knows and enjoys the game – see for yourself on his website:  manginphotography.com.

UMEAC-00055 - Mushroom gills, Acadia National Park, Maine

I learned about the “Dutch Tilt,” which is a technique where you tilt your camera to the side to turn static lines into more dynamic diagonal lines, by watching movies and studying various cinematography approaches. By doing so, it’s changed how I photograph close-ups of natural subjects, like this mushroom in Acadia National Park, Maine. (Click on photo for larger view – prints available!)

Immediately following Brad’s presentation, I had just enough time to sit through a portion of Julienne’s Lightroom talk.  I unfortunately could not attend her later Photoshop session, which would have made more sense for me based on my post-processing software preferences.  But regardless, the rumor on the photography streets is that she is a good presenter.  That’s a major understatement.  Julienne’s a phenomenal presenter!  Not only was she showing beautiful imagery, she was explaining things so clearly that I could have opened Lightroom three days later and confidently made the same adjustments she had shared – without having ever used Lightroom before!  As if that weren’t enough, she would intermittently crack jokes that made me laugh out loud in my chair.  For example, in explaining how to activate the black and white feature, she said, “Use the shortcut Control-V.  You know, because Control-V stands for ‘Vlack & Vhite’.”  How could you ever forget what Control-V does now?!  If I’m ever in the market for an Adobe class, I’m definitely looking her up: www.jkost.com.

What excited me most about both of these instructors were all the new ideas I gained for my own photography even though neither of them focused on the types of subject matter I like to photograph nor approached photography as I do.   Seeking out people who aren’t like us and listening to their unique perspectives can help ensure we don’t get too stuck in our own ways.  They can help expand our horizons and push us out of that cozy comfort zone – and quickly too if they have the same contagious passion Brad and Julieanne had!

So which photographers or other visual artists outside of your normal shooting domain do you like to follow and gain inspiration from for your work?  For example, if you normally like to photograph nature, do you study any food or street photographers to trigger new thoughts and influence your nature images?

Sep 132012
Walk the Line

“Walk the Line” Death Valley National Park, California (Click on photo for larger view – prints available!)

“Photographers don’t let intelligence get in the way of their work,” my husband, Craig, jokes with me often.  And every time I hear this quote from him, I think, despite being a full-time freelance photographer, he can’t possibly be referring to me!  But these were the first words out of his mouth when I revealed to him my interest in experiencing Death Valley National Parknamed the “Hottest Place on Earth” today– at the hottest time of year,  summer.

Nothing more than simple curiosity was the reason for this seemingly silly idea – though some of my friends chose to refer the notion in more drastic terms like “crazy” and “ludicrous.”  Early this year, I started reading, Death Valley and the Amargosa:  A Land of Illusion by Richard E. Lingenfelter.  In this uber-thorough and sometimes humorous historical account of the area, the author offers story after story of delusional ambitious pioneers and businessmen chasing after gold, silver, and even borax among other various interests.  Though some perished, an amazing number of robust people got along just fine during the scorching summer months in this inhospitable place in the past.  Could I?

The most extreme temperature I’ve experienced in Phoenix is 121 degrees F.  I’d argue I didn’t actually experience this sensational heat at all, opting to stay inside to sit on a mound of ice cubes while hugging an air conditioner.  Nonetheless, with this mark in mind, I arbitrarily defined the minimum temperature I wanted to feel as 122 degrees F.  Though this was 12 degrees F cooler than the hottest temperature ever recorded, I reckoned the difference was immaterial.  I mean, really, what does it matter if I pass out from heat exhaustion in six seconds versus ten?

Earlier this year, as I watched my calendar fill with assorted business commitments, I blocked out the week of August 6-10, hoping to sneak in not only some Zen-like time to do my own photography, but also a quick trip to southern California to learn how hot the hottest place in the world felt.

As August 6 approached, though, disappointment set in as the weather forecast suggested it wasn’t going to be hot enough – words I thought would never come out of my mouth. I chose to revisit the Page and the Kaibab Plateau areas instead to check a few stock shots off my “to get” list and spend additional time exploring a couple of visualized compositions I had during the Through Each Others Eyes exchange with Albertan photographers Peter Carroll and Royce Howland this past June.

The Colorado River meanders through Horseshoe Bend, near Page, Arizona

“Day’s Final Stand” Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona (Click on photo to view larger – prints available!)

As I wandered Arizona’s high desert for two days, I simply couldn’t ignore the maddening itch I had to get to Death Valley.  After spending a stormy night tossing and turning in my Tent Cot in the DeMotte Campground near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, on Wednesday morning, I rolled up to the stop sign at the T-intersection in Jacob Lake.  Turning left meant a six-hour drive to Death Valley; veering right meant a six-hour drive to catch up on sleep and work at home in Phoenix.  I brought up the current weather forecast on my iPhone: “Furnace Creek, CA on August 8:  high of 124 degrees F.”

Giddy with delight, I stuffed a scrumptious Cookie in a Cloud into my pie hole (a requisite indulgence for those traveling to and through Jacob Lake) and pushed my turn signal down with my frosting-free left hand.   You can sleep when you’re dead.


“Regeneration” Kaibab National Forest, Arizona (Click on photo to view larger – prints available!)

After driving non-stop for about five hours, I started obsessively monitoring the outside temperature display on my dash and outwardly expressing my displeasure with the “mere” 108 degree F reading in the Amargosa Valley.  Please, please get warmer, I begged the desert. (Speaking of crazy and ludicrous…)

As I made the descent into the park, the temperature responded to my plea:  115.  117.  118.  I whizzed past the entrance sign, glancing curiously at the unexpected large number of smiling people huddled around the sign for the classic “I was here” photograph.  They must just be passing through, I contemplated.  Nobody in their right mind visits Death Valley in summer.

118.  119.  120.  I continued towards Furnace Creek, where my gauge registered 121 degrees F.  Desperate to see the reading increase one final degree, I decided to visit Badwater Basin, home of the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.  Near the turnoff to Artist Palette, “122 degrees F” appeared on the dash at 4:23 pm.

Hooting and hollering, I pulled into the parking lot at Badwater, put on my hat, and grabbed my water bottle to enjoy the moment.  The instant I stepped out of my car, the unrelenting sun seared my sunscreen-lathered face.  After a few seconds, a light breeze stung my entire body, feeling as if I had just sat too close to a fire while blowing on the burning embers.  Within five minutes, I had sucked every drop of water out of my 25-ounce Camelbak container.

Surprise!  It’s excruciatingly f$%^king hot in Death Valley in August!

And surprise!  The park is packed with people!

Wait, what?!

I confidently intended to share this memorable experience pushing the tolerance limits of my existence with just the sun, sand, and snakes but not surrounded by other idiots tourists!   Not just one.  Not just a handful.  But more visitors than I’ve EVER seen at this park in all of my past outings during December, January, or February combined.  Obviously, they didn’t get the memo:  it’s hell on Earth here in August!

Tourists on Badwater Salt Flats

Tourists at Badwater Salt Flats on August 8 at 4 pm.

Slightly confused, I refilled my water bottle and then moseyed about 400 yards onto the salt flats to make a couple self-portraits as proof of my endeavors.  Within a few crunchy steps, I started cursing the camera and tripod manufacturers for making their products metal and black. After a ten-minute sweat-inducing stint, much of which I spent wondering if I’d spontaneously combust, I rolled my scorching camera-carrying tripod in my hiking skort to avoid burning my hands and headed back to the car to fuel up on Gatorade and air conditioning.  Giggling, I quickly concluded that the upper tolerance limit of my existence with the sun and sand (no snakes thankfully!) maxed out at a sad 15 minutes.  No way would I have ever made it as a successful gold miner here!

As I drove back towards the Furnace Creek area, thoughts of finding a place to rest my head that evening at a higher and significantly cooler elevation crossed my mind.  The thought of getting a $200-plus hotel room, however, did not.  When I saw the entrance to the Texas Springs campground, I resolved that anything other than sleeping under the stars would be cheating this experience.  Sleeping under a cluster of shade trees, however, was not.

I chose my campsite and shook my head at the four other tents already set up for the night.   OK, seriously.  Who in the hell camps in Death Valley in summer (besides slightly insane people like me)?!

While watching the merciless sun thankfully drop behind the Panamint Mountains, I choked down a few bites of leftover cold green curry chicken and rice for dinner and quickly cleared my sleeping area in the back of my 4Runner in between sips of hot water.  I’m normally a cold sleeper who likes to snuggle under a mound of soft blankets. But in this heat, I had to drape a sopping wet towel over me to try to keep from overheating.

“Cracking Up” Death Valley National Park, California (Click on photo to view larger – prints available!)

Beads of sweat dripped from one leg to the other as I tossed and turned fitfully all night, causing momentary panic and somewhat irrational thoughts of scorpions landing on me (thanks to my friend and fellow photographer, Guy Tal, for that fear). Each time the fiery breeze kicked up, I closed my eyes and prayed someone would turn the hairdryer off the high-heat setting while I rested in this sizzling oven.  In between panics and prayers, I dipped my dried out towel into my ice-filled cooler and repositioned the dripping make-shift blanket on top of my frying body.  I slept for maybe three hours.  I sweat profusely for eight.

About an hour before sunrise, in an unusual moment of clarity for me – I’m no morning person – I decided I needed to pack up and start my journey home before the sun broke the horizon to avoid melting into a puddle of sweat.  At 5:30 am, the temperature gauge in my car already displayed 102 degrees F.  By 6:45 am, when I finished photographing a patch of cracked mud that resembled my dried out hands, it registered 110 degrees F.

Before heading home, I peered across the street at the packed parking lot for the Zabriskie Point overlook.  No fewer than 50 people climbed the paved path and lined the stone walls to celebrate the sunrise and the spectacular scenery.  Many had wide-brimmed hats on and water bottles in tow.

At that moment, it occurred to me that perhaps these people had received the memo that it was hell on Earth here after all.   They just didn’t care.  They decided to experience this remarkable park in August anyhow in spite of – or in bizarre cases like mine, because of – the ridiculous heat.

I then considered the various excuses I had made in the past that had kept me from visiting this barren park in summer – too hot, too dry, too far, too this, too that.  While I was busy coming up with reasons why I should not go, a whole bunch of people were not thinking about whether they should or should not go, they were already there.

Though I wouldn’t necessarily suggest we all jump on a bus and head to Death Valley the next time the temperature exceeds 122 degrees F (although if it ever breaks 130 degrees F, I’m totally there!), I would recommend spending a few minutes contemplating the barriers we place on ourselves that prevent us from doing the things we want to do and achieve – whether it be traveling, photography, careers, or life in general.  So what if it’s too hot?  So what if it’s too far?  Throwing roadblocks into our own path all but guarantees we’ll miss out on some incredible life experiences.

Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

So what silly idea will you follow next?  Remember, whether you’re a photographer or not, don’t ever let “intelligence” get in your way!

The Outdoor Writers Association of America awarded this blog entry Second Place in the “Outdoor Fun & Adventure” category in the 2013 Excellence in Craft awards.

Sky Pools

“Sky Pools” Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona (Click on photo to view larger – prints available!)

Sep 052012

One of the most enjoyable and valuable educational aspects of the Arizona Highways Photography Workshops (AHPW) – of which I’m honored to lead a number of each year – is the post-workshop critiques.  Though we conduct image review sessions during the workshop, a post-workshop critique allows participants additional time to edit and process their photographs before submitting to their instructors for additional feedback after the class concludes.

Whether we complete these productive reviews during or after the workshop, we analyze the positive aspects of each student’s images and constructively outline ideas for how to potentially improve them from a technical and artistic perspective.  Kind of like this:

What the Duck

“What The Duck” comic strip copyright and courtesy of the author and artist Aaron Johnson at http://www.whattheduck.net.

All choking and joking aside, the point of the evaluation is to go beyond answering the simple question: “Do you like this picture?”  The true value of the exercise comes in when we define in-depth we WHY like and don’t like an image, which generates new ideas to sharpen our skills and polish our individual styles from our different answers.

Earlier this week, I completed the post-workshop critique for the recent Women’s Photography Retreat at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Although I’ve shared image-specific comments for 45 images, I thought I’d share a summary of the three main take-away’s from this particular critique session:

The Totem Poles and Yei Bi Chei at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

Example:  Tilting my camera down emphasizes the sandy landscape and allows the sky to become a less dominating backdrop. By composing so that the line of bushes and the patterns from the wind-blown sand lead my audience into the frame, it helps guide the eye through the landscape towards my primary subject: the side-lit Totem Poles at Monument Valley. Do you agree?  How would you critique this image?  (Prints available! Click on photo for a direct link).

  1. “Half and half” works well in coffee, but not always in landscape images. Unless you aim for symmetry among the various elements within your frame (e.g. a reflection of mountain in a lake), placing the horizon line in the middle of your frame will only serve to divide your viewers’ attention.  Should they look at the land or the sky?  Make it clear:  If the sky is more interesting, tilt your camera up and place the horizon line at the bottom

    third of the Rule of Thirds tic-tac-toe grid.  If the land is what caught your eye, then tilt your camera down so the horizon is at least at the top third of the grid.

  2. Let there be light…oh, and a strong subject too!  Is there anything better than sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon and recordings the rays of the setting sun break through the clouds, turning the landscape and sky into a fiery mix of orange, pink, and purple? (In more technical terms, we call this “super yummy light.”)  YES!  That same spectacular show by Mother Nature happening over a well-thought-out composition!  Good light alone is often not enough to make a great image.  Similarly, a strong center of interest without interesting light may lack shape, contrast, and mood.   To capture the best subject in the best light, visualize strong compositions first in the field, then return to work the scene when the light is just right.
  3. As “all roads lead to Rome,” all lines should lead to somewhere important.  Lines can direct your viewer to through your image, but the payoff at the end of the line shouldn’t be a one-way ticket out of your frame.  To keep the viewer’s interest, ensure the visual path doesn’t extend beyond the edge of your frame and leverage diagonal, converging, S-curve and other style lines to pull your viewer not just into your frame, but also somewhere interesting.

If you’re a past student of AHPW – not just of this specific workshop, but any of them – you have the ability to view my image-specific comments by logging into the Arizona Highways Photo Workshops Smugmug site with the password you received during your workshops and selecting the “Women’s Photo Retreat” folder.  You also have the ability to leave comments as well, so hop on the site and let’s here you’re thoughts!

If you aren’t a past student of AHPW, there’s no need for you to feel left out.  If you’d like input on one or more of your images, stop by my page and submit your shots at GuruShots at www.gurushots.com/colleen-miniuk-sperry.

In closing, I’d like to thank the ladies who submitted their beautiful photographs for critique:  Denise, Deanna, Christy, Amy, Julie, Tamara, Sue, Pearl, and Jeanne.  As Abigail Adams once said, “Learning is not achieved by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”  May we all embrace learning like these and all of the women who attended the Women’s Photo Retreat have.

AHPW Women's Photo Retreat:  Silly Group Photo

The attendees of the AHPW Women’s Photo Retreat having a “Zen” moment during our Group Photo.  I’m not sleeping, I’m merely practicing “Corpse Pose.”

Sep 042012

Hi Everyone!

Whelp, it’s official.  I’ve entered the blogging world.  It’s about time I caught up with the rest of the world, right?!  Truth be told, I have wanted to start a blog for some time.  I simply couldn’t come up with a fitting title…until about a month ago!

I was reading Tina Seelig’s book, inGenius, where she mentioned she asks her students to introduce themselves in her creativity courses at Stanford University using a unique six-word memoir.  Though I didn’t have the chance to take a class from her when I attended Stanford my freshman year in college, I wondered if I could apply this intriguing concept today to my own life.

As a photographer, I try to fill the frame with a visual story as every “picture is worth a thousand words.”  As an author, I often must adhere to specific word counts for articles and books.  But trying to come up with a six-word introduction that adequately captured my entire life seemed daunting!

In Seelig’s book, she also recounts a situation where someone dared world-famous author Ernest Hemingway to sum up his memoir in a mere six words.  He reportedly wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

After a few minutes of pondering my own short story, I decided on –  probably not surprisingly for those who know me – “You can sleep when you’re dead.”  Yep, that’s right.  Not only do I try to live my life according to this motto, but I also I fully believe we ALL can sleep when we’re dead and should make the most of our time on this Earth.

Voila!  The blog name was born!

As the header above suggests, I’ve started this blog to share my adventures and learning’s in photography, the outdoors, and life in hopes it inspires you to get outside to experience the beauty of the world, record photographs you’re proud of, and have some silly fun along the way.  Through sharing my successes and failures (and I have a lot of those!), I hope it helps encourage you to follow your own passion and give you confidence that you can do ANYTHING you put your mind to, whether that be in photography, your job, hobbies, relationships, or life in general.  It might take a lot of work and a lot of time, but in the end, you’ll live a much more fulfilled life.

I also hope this is an interactive community where you’re sharing your comments and ideas as well.  So don’t be shy – feel free to chime in via the comments below.  In fact, why don’t you start off by introducing yourself with your own six-word memoir?  I can’t wait to hear what you come up with!