Visionary Wild, LLC • 2200 19th St. NW, Ste 806, Washington, DC 20009

E-mail:    •    Tel: 1-202-558-9596 (9am to 5pm, EST).

Justin Black – Managing Director: 1-202-302-9030 • Email:

Sara Robb – Operations Assistant:

We look forward to hearing from you!



by John Shaw

20120120-_JBX4007-2_300How does one coordinate Lightroom used on a laptop when traveling, with a master Lightroom catalog back in the office?  I’ve written about this before, but the topic keeps coming up at workshops and on tours, so….

I have one main master Lightroom catalog for all my images, which resides on my desktop computer in my office.  That master catalog is on an internal drive (a different drive than the internal SSD drive I use for all my programs).  A backup copy of this master catalog is made to another internal drive (automatically done by Lightroom when I exit the program), and a third copy of the catalog is on a small external USB drive.  Yes, I’m a bit paranoid about loosing all that data.

I have another Lightroom catalog named Travel on my laptop.  When I’m on the road, I download images using Lightroom, in the exact same format structure I use for the image files back in my office.  As the files are downloaded, Lightroom automatically renames the files and adds my copyright information, using templates I’ve created in Lightroom.  My naming template is a YYMMDD_camera-generated-file-name-and-numberformat, so individual files appear along the lines of 150624_D4S_4752.  Nikon lets you set camera names in the menu system to a three character code, so my cameras are named D4S and D8T.  Yeah, real original thinking there.  Image files are always downloaded into a  _Photos folder (the underscore makes it the topmost folder in my laptop’s directory), into a subfolder named by month and location of shoot.  06 Namibia would by a June trip to Namibia while 09 Denali would be a September shoot in Denali.  Each day’s images are automatically sorted as Lightroom reads the file metadata, makes YYYY-MM-DD folders as needed inside the month-shoot folder (the 06 Namibia or 09 Denali folders), and puts the correct images into the correct folders (I always have my cameras set to the local time, which in turn means all images will be correctly sorted by date).  Once all these parameters are checked in Lightroom they remain as set, so the only thing I ever have to change is the name of the month-shoot folder.  I flag any images I work on in Lightroom, highlight those images, and save all metadata to file by doing Ctrl/Command + S.

While on the road I copy every day’s take to two small external USB powered hard drives, so that by the end of the trip I have three duplicate copies of all my images.  Since the files are already in the organization I use in my office, all I have to do once I get home is to copy the image files to their correct location on my master hard drives, and to add the trip catalog to my master catalog.  I open the Travel catalog on my laptop, select the folder with the trip images, and do File > Export as Catalog, saving the exported catalog on one of the small USB drives.  I make sure to include the image previews.  Since the image files on the USB drive are all current with the correct metadata saved to them, there is no reason for me to do what Lightroom calls Export negative files (“negative files” is Adobe-speak for the actual images).

Back in the office I plug this drive into a USB port on my desktop computer, and use my operating system to copy the image shoot folder, which has all the photos, over to the correct date location on my main hard drive array.  Then I open my master Lightroom catalog, and do File > Import from Another Catalog, and select the catalog on the USB drive.  When this is finished working, I disconnect the small USB drive, at which time Lightroom want to know where the files are located since the imported catalog still thinks they are back on my laptop.  I point Lightroom to the correct image folder I’ve copied over, the 06 Namibia folder or whatever it is, and I’m done.  The backup software on my desktop computer automatically kicks in, and backs up my new images.

When I’m positive that all is well with my desktop system, I remove all the photos from the Travel catalog on my laptop, so that I can reuse the catalog shell again with all my preferences still set.  I reformat the USB drives, reset the time in my cameras, and I’m good-to-go on my next adventure.

Using Manual Exposure

By John Shaw

20120120-_JBX4007-2_300In my photography I use Aperture Priority metering most of the time.  I take a shot, look at the histogram, and use Exposure Compensation (EC) to add or subtract light as needed.  Yes, this works great most of the time…but most of the time does not mean all of the time.  There are shooting situations where it is best to not use an autoexposure mode (aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, or program mode).  This means selecting both the shutter speed and the lens aperture; that is, using manual exposure mode.  In this mode, you have to physically set both the shutter speed and the aperture, and the camera remains at those settings — and exposes at those settings — no matter where you aim the camera.  What you set is what you get, period.  EC does nothing to change the camera’s settings.  It affects the meter readout, but it does not in any way change the shutter speed or aperture on the camera, so turn EC to zero.  In manual exposure mode, what you set is what you get.  If you want to lighten or darken the image, you have to physically change the shutter speed or the aperture or the ISO.  The camera itself does not change anything.  What you set is what you get.

This blog post comes about because of a photo trip I recently led.  We were standing on the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, preparing to photograph birds flying past.  If they birds were above us, the background was a pale milky blue sky.  If below us, the background was a dark navy blue ocean.  So what’s the right exposure?  Any autoexposure mode would be biased by which background was in the frame.  One solution would have been to work only those birds against the pale sky, or only those against the dark ocean.  But the birds were not cooperating in that manner.  They would swoop around, at one moment be above us and the next moment be below us.  When I mentioned that this situation called for a manually set exposure, to compensate for the different background tonalities, the response I got reminded me once again how many photographers have never used a camera in the manual exposure mode.

If the light remains the same, once you correctly set a manual exposure, it is correct for all subjects in that light regardless of their tonality.  OK, but how to set that exposure?  Pick something, it doesn’t matter what, in that constant light, and adjust for it’s tonality.  When you set the camera to manual exposure, an analog display will appear in the viewfinder with a “zero” point in the middle of a “plus” and “minus” line.  “Zero” is the starting point.  Change the shutter speed and/or aperture until this mark in highlighted, and you have set the camera to render whatever you aimed it at to be rendered as a medium tone.   Go to a “plus” mark, and you have added light.  Go to a “minus” mark and you have taken away light.   So, aim the camera at a single tone, and meter it and only it.  Physically change the shutter speed and/or aperture to render that area at whatever tone you want it to appear.  Here’s a quick and dirty way to think about this.  At the “zero” mark the camera will render that subject you metered as a medium tone.  At the “plus one” mark, one stop open, the metered subject will be rendered as a “light” tonality.  At the “plus two” mark, two stops open, it will be rendered as a “very light” tonality.   At the “minus one” mark, one stop down, it would be “dark” subject; at “minus two” it would be an “very dark” subject.

Suppose you meter a blue area.  Here’s what would happen as you change the shutter speed/aperture combination:

+3, whitish blue
+2, very light blue
+1, light blue
0, medium blue
-1, dark blue
-2, very dark blue
-3, blackish blue

Back to those birds….  The solution would be to pick an easy area to meter:  either the pale sky, or the dark ocean water.  Let’s use the pale sky; it was roughly “very light blue.”   Set the camera to manual exposure mode, aim it at the area of sky where the birds would be, and adjust shutter speed/aperture until the “plus two” mark was highlighted.   It doesn’t matter what combination shutter speed/aperture you use to get started.  Pick the equivalent combination that gives the shutter speed needed or the aperture needed.  Suppose you aimed your camera at that sky and the exposure combination that yielded “plus two” was 1/125 sec. at f/11.  Well, you know that 1/125 sec. is way to slow a shutter speed to freeze a bird in flight.  1/125 sec. at f/11 is exactly the same as 1/250 sec. f/8, or 1/500 sec. at f/5.6, or 1/1000 sec. at f/4, etc.  Need a faster shutter speed?  Raise the ISO one stop, and you could shoot at 1/2000 sec. at f/4 (or any equivalent combination).  Set the shutter speed/aperture combination you want to use, and fire away.  So long as those birds remain in the same light, and the light itself does not change, the exposure will be correct no matter the background.

I can think of a number of situations where using manual exposure would be best.  Consider working a black sand beach, with waves breaking white over it.  The camera meter would read a black subject at one moment, a white subject at another.  Or imagine you’re using a zoom lens to photograph a dark buffalo standing in the snow in Yellowstone.   As you zoom the lens, the image changes from primarily snow to primarily buffalo.  Or a situation I faced back in February while photographing red-crowned cranes.  The white cranes were standing in a snow-covered field, but as they took flight the background became leafless winter trees, a dark toned area, and then to medium blue sky as the birds rose higher.  In all three situations, so long as the light remained unchanging, the solution was to meter one area, set the exposure using manual mode, and shoot away.

If you’re not familiar with the manual exposure mode, I would strongly suggest some practice.  But let me add one final statement:  with all digital cameras, you cannot evaluate exposure or color via the LCD on the back of the camera.  The histogram is your friend, whether shooting manual mode or one of the autoexposure modes.  Learn how to use manual exposure mode, and learn how to read the histograms.



You may already be aware of the prestigious Nature’s Best / Windland Smith Rice Photography Awards, featuring an exhibit of winning photographs at the Smithsonian each year. We are pleased to announce that Visionary Wild instructor Lou Coetzer has collaborated with Nature’s Best to create a new annual competition focusing entirely on subjects from the African continent. Visionary Wild founder, Justin Black, has been invited to serve on the inaugural judging panel.

Click here for details: NATURE’S BEST PHOTOGRAPHY – AFRICA

Entries will be accepted through May 3rd, 2015, in the categories listed below. Prizes include photo safaris in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa, as well as exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. Mark your calendar and spread the word!

• African Landscapes
• African Culture
• Wild Cats of Africa
• Birds of Africa
• Mammals of Africa
• Reptiles of Africa
• Africa Underwater
• Africa Up Close
• Africa Wildlife Story
• Youth Award (ages 13-18)
• Video


Choosing a Tilt-Shift Lens

By Justin Black
There is a good chance that the gear question I hear more than any other is, “If I were to buy just one tilt-shift lens, which one should I get?” Unfortunately, the question begs another: “What do you want to do with it?”  There is no “best” tilt-shift lens, and no dominant favorite among pros or regular users, but if you can define why you need one,  that should suggest which one will best serve your needs.

The Offering, Dead Vlei, Namibia – 85mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

In my experience, most people find that the longer focal lengths, like Nikon’s 85mm PC-E lens, are easiest to learn to use. The more limited telephoto depth of field makes the effect of tilting the focal plane more pronounced, so it’s easier to see clearly where the focal plane is falling sharply in the scene, and where things are out of focus. The 85mm is particularly useful for photographing compressed landscapes, isolated graphic details, and semi-macro compositions.

Kokerboom tree forest. 24mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

Kokerboom tree forest, Namibia – 24mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

For classic wide-angle “near-far” type landscapes, the 24mm is the way to go. Most folks find at first that it’s a little harder to accurately set the tilt of the focal plane with the 24mm due to the greater inherent depth of field of the lens, but it is also a little more forgiving for the same reason. Still, one of the beauties of tilt-shift lenses is that you can control sharpness throughout a scene without stopping down excessively, so it’s best to learn to position the focal plane accurately.

Nocturne, Kolmanskop, Namibia – 45mm PC-E, Nikon D800E

Nocturne, Kolmanskop, Namibia – 45mm PC-E, Nikon D800E

The 45mm is an excellent lens with a normal perspective, and I know several photographers who consider it their favorite of the three. I love it when I need it, but my image archive reveals that of all the images I’ve made with the three PC-E lenses, I’ve only used it 22% of the time. In comparison, I’ve used the 24mm 31% of the time, and the 85mm 47%.  All three lenses are optically superb and focus very close. They all are capable of tilts and swings for focal plane control, and shift, rises, and falls to control perspective, such as avoiding the converging vertical lines that you get when tilting a camera to look up at tree trucks in a forest.

I think is important to point out the primary reason that PC-E lenses allowed me to justify parting company with the 4×5 view camera system that I used to create the bulk of my work before I went fully digital in 2010. While I use the tilt features to optimize the plane of focus for nearly every composition, it’s the shift feature that facilitates most of my landscape work. By making overlapping exposures, shifting left-to-right or up-and-down, I can create a super-high-resolution file that compares favorably with the 4×5 film I used to use. In fact, with a D800e, this approach clearly exceeds the resolution (and vastly exceeds the dynamic range) of a 600MB 16-bit drum scan from 4×5 Fuji Velvia transparency film.

For a horizontal composition, I set the camera vertically and shift the lens left to right, shooting three to five overlapping frames that get merged later in Photoshop to create a single image that equates to roughly 72 mega-pixels resolution. The long dimension of the camera sensor becomes the short dimension of the final image. Because only the lens moves and the orientation of the camera’s sensor doesn’t change between exposures, this technique avoids the perspective distortion of rotating panoramic photography and makes merging the constituent image files in Photoshop dead easy.  Shift-stitching also has the effect of making the lenses’ field of view wider, so I use the 24mm like a 16mm ultra-wide, the 45mm like a 30mm wide-angle, and the 85mm like a 50mm normal lens. All three of the images that illustrate this article were made using this shift-stitch technique, so the field of view represented by each of them is wider than a normal single frame would be (basically, about the same as two vertical frames side-by-side), and the image proportions are roughly 3:4 (which I tend to prefer), rather than the 2:3 proportions of a standard DSLR sensor.

Tilt-shift lenses are immensely powerful tools that offer a wide range of capabilities that are otherwise impossible or difficult to reproduce. They aren’t for everyone, however, so if you’re curious but aren’t sure which tilt-shift lens is for you, I recommend renting one for a few days when you have time to really put it through it’s paces. Be careful though, you might find that you need all three.

An Elegant Portfolio Website Solution

justin-demoAmateur and professional photographers alike are constantly seeking elegant solutions to display their best work online. We are excited to announce that our friends at Paupress have launched Justin, a new e-commerce enabled website solution for photographers, and indeed all visual artists. Click here to check it out. In its most basic form, Justin is a WordPress theme based on the fundamental design, architecture, and functionality of Visionary Wild founder Justin Black’s recently re-launched portfolio website, For those seeking to manage online sales and customer contacts, Justin is designed to seamlessly integrate with a powerful and easy-to-use customer relationship management and e-commerce tool created by our friends at Paupress. Users can opt for simple, portfolio-only functionality, or for full e-commerce and CRM support. The theme can be customized to suit the artist’s individual tastes and needs. If you’d like to present your best work online in an elegant, clean, and effective and professional manner, we invite you to check out the Justin theme at Paupress –

Ten Photoshop Tips

20120120-_JBX4007by John Shaw

1.  To tone down the whites in an image, select them using Color Range.  Add any adjustment layer, and change the layer blending mode to either Multiply or the slightly stronger Linear Burn.  Then drop the layer opacity to taste.

2.  When shooting frames for a panoramic, manually setting camera exposure is more precise than using an autoexposure mode.  Use the middle of the panoramic scene to set the base exposure.  If you’re shooting RAW files, you can leave white balance (WB) set to Auto.  When processing the files in Adobe Camera Raw, or Lightroom’s Develop module, select one image and drag the WB slider from the “as shot” position to a distinct number.  Now sync all the other frames to that WB.

3.  Make a preset to rename your files in Bridge or Lightroom based upon the capture date.  When you travel, reset the clock in your camera to the local time zone.  This way, all your image captures will match up with your itinerary and there will be no confusion as to location.  Just remember to reset the clock when you get home.

4.  Photoshop’s Ctrl/Command+Z undoes the last step you’ve taken.  But using it immediately a second time simply undoes the undo you just made.  To step backward more than once, use Alt/Option+Ctrl/Command+Z.

5.  When preparing an image for printing, as the final step add a 3 pixel black hairline around the perimeter to define the edge.  Three easy ways to do this:

  • Select the entire image, Ctrl/Command+A.  Then do Edit > Stroke, and set pixels to 3, the color to black, and the location to Inside.
  • With the image layer unlocked, add a Layer Style, Layer > Layer Style > Stroke (or click on the fx icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette).  Set pixels to 3, Position to Inside, and color to black.
  • Increase the canvas size, Image > Canvas Size.  Select pixels for the unit of measurement, 3 for the number of pixels, black for the color, check the Relative box, and make sure the middle square is the anchor position

6.  Opening several similar images as layers in Photoshop (from either Bridge or Lightroom) aligns the outer dimensions of the images.  To align the contents, select all the layers, and then do Edit > Auto-Align Layers.

7.  Make a brush to add your name and copyright to images.  Make a new white document no larger than 2500 pixels long dimension.  Add the copyright symbol and your name.  Then do Edit > Define Brush Preset.  For a signature brush, write your name on white paper using a black marker, photograph it (jpeg, small, fine), and size the image to no larger than 2500 pixels.  Using Image > Adjustments > Levels clip the image to pure white and pure black.  Save as a brush, Edit > Define Brush Preset.  If you use either of these brushes on a new layer, you can add Layer Styles (drop shadow, etc.) to that layer.

8.  Caps Lock toggles the cursor display — for example, from standard to precise.

9.  Use the often overlooked Image Processor (from Bridge: Tools > Photoshop > Image Processor) to quickly create new file types.  Select the images, choose an output location, select the file type you want, specify the quality and size, and click Run.

10.  When making selections, remember that the “marching ants” only show pixels that are at least 50% selected.  Outside of the “ants” are pixels that are also selected, just at a lesser amount.

These tips originally appeared as part of an article John wrote for Photoshop World magazineJohn co-leads our Vision Workshops series with Jack Dykinga and Justin Black, and in 2014 will lead trips to New Zealand, Iceland, and Patagonia for Visionary Wild.

Click here to learn more about John Shaw

John Shaw’s website is

Tools and Techniques for Creating Fine Prints

Our friends at Hunt’s Photo Video and Ilford are sponsoring a free webinar on fine print making,

Join the Live Video Broadcast on March 29, 2013 at 1:00pm EDT

What are the aspects and qualities that make for a Gallery-Quality Fine Art Print? Exacting color, smooth tonal transitions, a well-balanced contrast range and the best paper choice for the image all come together to make a print worthy of hanging in most any venue or location. Color workflow, soft-proofing and what fine edits to make will all go a long way towards making your results both accurate and repeatable. In this presentation, we’ll explore the process, tools and techniques from edit to output that allow you to produce a print both you and your collectors will be proud of.

Eleven False Statements

by John Shaw

Editor’s note: There’s a lot of photo-mythology floating around out there. Visionary Wild instructor John Shaw puts a few of his favorite myths to rest.

1.  Images for the web should be sized at 72 dpi.  First of all, “dpi” refers to dots per inch, and computer screens have pixels, not “dots.”  But “72 ppi” is also false.  Pixels dimensions are the only criteria for computer images.  1200 pixels are 1200 pixels, whether they be 1/inch or 1200/inch.  You still have 1200 pixels.  Say you have an image that’s 1000 x 500 pixels at 72 ppi.  How many total pixels is that?  1000 x 500 = 500,000.   Resize to 1000 x 500 pixels at 300 ppi.  How many total pixels is that?  1000 x 500 = 500,000.  Exactly the same.  If you’re resizing web images to 72 ppi, you’re simple adding a useless step to your workflow.

2.  Mac monitors use 72 ppi while Windows ones are 96 ppi.  Sorry, this is a myth.  If it were true, a monitor would have to change resolution depending on whether it was connected to a Mac or a PC.  Want to know roughly what the resolution of your monitor is in ppi?  Measure the horizontal width of the screen and divide this into the horizontal pixel dimension at the monitor’s native resolution.  My laptop’s screen is 1920 pixels wide, and measures about 13.5 inches horizontally.  1920/13.5 = about 142 ppi.

3.  You should set Adobe RGB in your camera if you’re shooting RAW files.  While this might affect the image displayed on the camera’s LCD, it does not directly affect a RAW file.  After all, if Adobe RGB were actually applied, the file would no longer be RAW data.

4.  For the best RAW file results, set a specific white balance in the camera.  Don’t use Auto White Balance.  RAW files have no white balance.  Just as I said above, if a white balance were applied the file would no longer be RAW.  A specific white balance is only set when the file is processed into a standard graphic file format such as .psd or .tiff or .jpeg; that is, when it is no longer a RAW file.

5.  This RAW image is how it appears right out of the camera.  Not true.  A RAW image has to be rendered in some way before you can even see it.   Exactly how it is rendered depends on the default settings of the RAW conversion software you use.

6.  You can evaluate exposure by looking at the image on the camera’s LCD.  You can adjust the LCD’s brightness on almost all DSLRs, so exactly which level of brightness would be “correct?”  Sorry, not true at all.  For that matter, the camera LCD most certainly is not a color corrected and calibrated monitor.  You can evaluate composition; you cannot evaluate color or exposure.  You definitely should use the histograms for exposure information.

7.  Always use a UV filter to protect your lens.  From what?  Dirt and fingerprints?  Then you must take the filter off for every shot, otherwise you’re shooting through a dirty, fingerprinted filter.  Use one for “protection” only if you can state from what it is you’re protecting the lens.  Salt spray?  Yes, this might be an answer, but I live about 100 miles from the ocean and on the other side of a mountain range, and if there is salt spray here, protecting my lens will be the least of my worries.

8.  12 frames/second is better than 10/frames per second.  In what way?  Neither one guarantees you’ve caught the peak moment.  Consider this:  let’s assume a shutter speed of 1/1000 second.  12 frames/second captures 12/1000 of the action, and misses 988/1000 of it.  Holding down the shutter button at the highest frame rate yields lots of images, but not necessarily the one you wanted.

9.  Always underexpose a half-stop to richen the colors.  Intentional underexposure with digital cameras is one of the worst things you can do.  It simply adds noise.

10.  Professional photographers get all their equipment free from the camera manufacturers.  Boy, do I ever wish this were true, but it isn’t.   For that matter, I wish it were true for cars and houses also.

11.  All information on photography forums is true.  You might remember back when there was an actual discussion about using Scotch® tape to clean camera sensors.  I’m fairly sure someone fell for this, and actually tried it.  We all know that it’s not Scotch® tape you should use, but duct tape, right?  (Well, I read about using duct tape on the Internet, so it must be true.)

CLICK HERE to check out John Shaw’s blog.

Photographing with Purpose

The November 2011 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine features an article by Justin Black about ways to add greater meaning and purpose to your photography. You can read the full text and see the accompanying photos here:

Photographing with Purpose by Justin Black

Snow-covered bristlecone snag in the Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, White Mountains, California

Visionary Wild instructor Chris Linder releases new book: Science on Ice!

“Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised,” wrote Apsley Cherry-Garrard of his time with the 1910 Scott expedition to the South Pole. And that’s how most of us still imagine polar expeditions: stolid men with ice riming their beards drawing sledges and risking death for scientific knowledge. But polar science has changed drastically over the past century—as Chris Linder shows us, brilliantly, with Science on Ice.

An oceanographer, award-winning photographer, and instructor for Visionary Wild photo workshops, Linder chronicles four polar expeditions in this richly illustrated volume: to a teeming colony of Adélie penguins, through the icy waters of the Bering Sea in spring, beneath the pack ice of the eastern Arctic Ocean, and over the lake-studded surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Each trip finds Linder teamed up with a prominent science journalist, and together their words and pictures reveal the day-to-day details of how science actually gets done at the poles. Breathtaking images of the stark polar landscape alternate with gritty, close-up shots of scientists working in the field, braving physical danger and brutal conditions, and working with remarkable technology designed to survive the poles—like robotic vehicles that chart undersea mountain ranges—as they gather crucial information about our planet’s distant past, and the risks that climate change poses for its future. 

The result is a combination travel book and paean to the hard work and dedication that underlies our knowledge of life on earth. Science on Icetakes readers to the farthest reaches of our planet; science has rarely been more exciting—or inspiring.

Chris Linder will join Justin Black to lead Visionary Wild’s 2012 Iceland Photo Expedition, August 12-18.

Review of Science on Ice:

Science on Ice gives the reader a glimpse into the challenges of conducting field research in the extreme and isolated environments of the Arctic and Antarctic. I came away with a new appreciation of both the risks and adventures scientists experience, the creativity and adaptability they must possess to work in difficult conditions, and most of all, the fact that they are normal human beings with a strong sense of curiosity that fuels their work. This book will help us understand these distant reaches of our world, and] it has enormous potential to spark the minds of future would-be scientists.”—Amy Gulick, photographer and author ofSalmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest

Photo Salon: The Value of Critique

by Justin Black


The lone-wolf photographer is a concept with which we are all familiar. Many of us like to think of ourselves as self-reliant and passionately free-spirited, driven only by an innate creative vision. In my experience, however, most of the people I know who have mastered anything haven’t done it on their own. They’ve done it through interaction with others.

One of the most important experiences in my formative years was in George Washington University’s small but excellent photography program, founded by a landscape photographer named Jerry Lake. Professor Lake treated his students like family and regularly joined us on weekend photography outings, an act of “above and beyond” generosity to be sure. Back in the studio, students and professors alike would regularly pin up prints in a common area and critique each others’ work. The atmosphere was open and supportive, and everyone felt free to share their work and honest opinions. We all benefitted tremendously from the process of peer review and constructive critique.

One of the many prints that benefitted from critique by my peers in the GWU Photo Dept. "Dawn at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia." © 1994 Justin Black


In the early days of my photography career, I began to miss the honest and constructive feedback of other photographers, so a friend invited me to participate in Photo Salon, an informal group of serious photographers who met each month at a photo studio outside Washington, DC. Work prints were spread across a huge table, everyone would circle around, look them over, ask questions, share impressions, and offer suggestions.  Each of us would have the opportunity to say a little bit about what we were working on and what challenges we faced as we developed our body of work. There was a documentary photographer following the stories of cancer patients, a portraitist doing a book project on transvestites, a fellow who created beautiful abstracts in abandoned industrial sites, and my landscapes among several others. With so many different genres coming together in one place, we each left our comfort zone and benefitted from the insights of professional peers who were all sophisticated visual communicators despite coming from differing interests and backgrounds.

These experiences taught me the art of constructive critique that I regularly apply to this day as a workshop instructor, and they drove home the tremendous value of gathering with other serious photographers in a spirit of camaraderie to discuss aesthetics, themes, techniques, ethics, potential outlets and markets, and myriad other topics. As much as I value creative independence and cherish solitude when I can find it, it seems to me that engaging with a community of passionate and insightful peers is one of the most personally and artistically rewarding activities any photographer can undertake. It is with this knowledge that I look forward eagerly to every workshop critique session and the happy déjà vu experienced every time a participant tells me that they learned far more from the critiques than they ever imagined possible. I have indeed been there before.

On Assignment: The Dragon Run

by Justin Black


The Dragon rippled as I slid the kayak out into the swamp’s caramel-brown water. The still quiet of pre-dawn was broken only by the song of a prothonotary warbler, a croaking bullfrog, the sudden splash of a jumping sunfish. Gliding along on the glassy surface past lush swamp plants – arrow arum, water lilies, swamp rose, the lovely purple poker-like blooms of pickerelweed – and under the spreading branches of bald cypress, their conical “knees” emerging from the water in rows like the Dragon’s teeth, I felt completely removed from the Tidewater Virginia farmland that encircled me beyond the forest. Entering this place was like time-travel.

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