North Shore Photography Workshop

Plucky photographers wrest amazing photos from soggy grip of rain and wind

(Back row left to right) Gayle Tangen, John Other Medicine Jr., Ryan Engstrom, Chris Hayes, Tom Lukken, Nicole Casey, Darrell Tangen (Front row left to right): Tucker Tangen, Alicia Witherill, Heidi Bailly, Susan Raway, Melinda Voss, Ben Colvin (Not pictured) Ambria Kuchinka, Dan Wirig

The weather forecast for Gooseberry Falls State Park looked dodgy for June 10 through June 13, 2010, the dates for the North Shore Photography Workshop, an annual field trip offered by Darrell Tangen, an instructor in the Photography program at Dakota County Technical College. Soaking rains, blustery winds and numbing cold were set to present stern challenges for the photographers and their digital equipment.

Augmented by lectures, discussions and slide shows bursting with tips on metering difficult scenes and effective use of equipment along with advice for shooting waterfalls, landscapes, sunrises, wildflowers and close-ups—the latter known as macro photography, the three-day workshop was an in-the-field shootout designed to propel an intermediate photographer up the spectrum in creative, artistic and technical proficiency. The workshop concluded with a slide show and detailed critique of each student’s 10 best digital photos, a peak learning session that veterans of the workshop format praise as a highlight of the North Shore Photography experience.

Assisted by his wife, Gayle, and Tucker, the couple’s golden retriever, Darrell Tangen met with a dozen students at a Gooseberry Falls State Park picnic shelter at 8 p.m. Thursday evening to spell out the workshop’s itinerary, which included a 5 a.m. sunrise shot at Agate Beach on Lake Superior the next morning.

“The latest forecast looked rainy, breezy and chilly for the shoot,” said Tangen, “and we didn’t have much hope that the sun would break through the clouds. We were right about the weather, but as it turned out the tough conditions produced some of the best photos of the workshop.”

The rain continued into the afternoon, threatening to upend the planned shooting of Gooseberry Falls itself, which was set to cover the Upper, Middle and Lower falls, all gushing at top capacity due to the steady precipitation. Outfitted in rain gear and protecting expensive digital cameras and lenses with umbrellas and oversize plastic baggies, the photographers set out from their base camp at the Lakeview Shelter for the park’s visitor center and the uneven, now rain-slicked rocks that shape the Gooseberry River. Grappling with tricky meter readings and slowing down their shutter speeds, the students set up their tripods and shot in the rain, striving to compose photos that would instantaneously convey the personality of the falls using six must-know rules:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Rule of Thirds
  3. Lines
  4. Balance
  5. Framing
  6. Avoiding Mergers

“The experienced photographers in our program know that they have to ‘take a trip’ around the frame in every shot they compose to make sure they have considered all the rules,” Tangen said. “Once they know the rules and understand them, they can use them creatively—or even break them—in concert with technical know-how. That’s when ordinary photographs start to become fine art.”

Thanks to a June nor’easter, the waves were crashing big on Lake Superior’s rocky shoreline. Tangen pointed out to the group that the rare storm would cause breakers to explode on the boulders at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, which was a few miles north of Gooseberry. After a huge potluck lunch plus an in-depth look at the workshop’s theme, BIS, or Background, Interest, Strong Subject, everyone donned rain gear to protect their persons and their equipment and set out for the third shoot of the day.

The next day, Saturday, began with an ideal, overcast sky, a break from the rain, and an after-breakfast visit to a lupine field in full bloom alongside Minnesota State Highway 61. With massive, spiked blossoms ranging from white to pink to deep purple, lupine are the signature color guard of the North Shore—and they usually wait until late June to open. Early lupine and other wildflowers offered the photographers numerous opportunities to strengthen their macro skills, which revolve around defining the perfect depth of field while getting as close to your subject as your lens will allow.

“One of the photos assigned for the top 10 was a shot of a wildflower blossom completely filling the frame,” Tangen said. “Cloudy weather and flower petals covered with rain droplets promised some tremendous photos. We shot in aperture priority and our job was to find f-stops that blurred out a carefully selected background while keeping as much of the subject as possible in sharp focus.”

The next shoot of the day involved more macro, this time aimed at wildflowers and ferns back at Gooseberry Falls, which was packing even more water than on Friday. The weather stayed overcast, but without rain, providing excellent conditions except for the occasional breeze that would jostle the subject and disrupt the shot. A lot more people were at the park, which added to the challenge of nailing all aspects of the BIS theme during the composition process.

“You need to control your background so that you don’t distract from your subject, which needs to stand out so that the viewer has no doubt what it is,” Tangen said. “The other key to successful photography is making sure your shots contain something of interest. You can take technically sound photographs, but if they aren’t interesting, they won’t sell.”

Saturday ended with a late-afternoon hike to Split Rock Falls, a scenic hot spot set back from Hwy. 61 on the Split Rock River. Once again ongoing rainfall had upped the water flow, making the falls larger and more striking than usual. The increase water volume also presented composition challenges, forcing students to be adventuresome in selecting locations to set up their equipment.

Sunday called for another crack at a sunrise shot, which meant arriving on the big-rock beaches of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park at 4 a.m. A weird fog rolled in— even if the sun didn’t—and provided the chance to take some unusual and mysterious shots of the historic lighthouse. The workshop concluded with Tangen presenting and critiquing each student’s 10 best photos via a slide show that lasted from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Besides the wildflower macro shot, the students were asked to include one cropped panoramic shot, which typically features a 1:3 ratio, or three times wider than high (or vice versa). Panoramic shots are emerging as top sellers in the world of commercial photography.

“Our North Shore Workshops provide one college credit and are designed to raise our students to the professional level,” Tangen said. “Even if they don’t consider themselves nature photographers, they will find their photography improving dramatically as they master the problems and obstacles that arise when shooting natural subjects. We hold long-weekend workshops in summer, fall and winter, often camping at Split Rock, Gooseberry Falls or Temperance River state parks. We are considering new areas for future workshops.”

For more information about the North Shore Photography Workshops, contact Darrell Tangen at 651-423-8584. To learn more about opportunities in visual communications and photography at DCTC,  visit the following program pages:

North Shore Photography Workshop Gallery

(all photographs courtesy of Darrell Tangen and the workshop students)

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