Death Valley Food

Plus, fee-free days and Picture-Perfect Places

It’s almost here! The National Park Service’s first fee-free day of 2016 is this Monday, January 18, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Admission will be gratis to all national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, etc. For a complete list of all such dates in 2016, see the NPS article “Free Entrance Days in the National Parks.”

Speaking of national parks (when am I not?), today I published the first in a new series of articles on PhotographingNationalParks.com called “Picture-Perfect Places.” Each entry will feature a location in the national parks that’s great for photography.

These articles may be submitted by any photographer of any level—the only requirement is a love of the national parks and a desire to share some of that passion. (Have one you’d like to share? Submit it today!)

To get that ball rolling, the first Picture-Perfect Place is by me, and it’s about Mahogany Hammock in Everglades National Parka great spot to find and photograph barred owls..

Onward…

This Week’s Question

Q.  You mentioned you were going to Death Valley National Park, which I’m planning to visit in the spring. (Hoping for wildflowers!!!) I’ve heard the food available in the park is terrible. Seeing as you were just there, just curious: What’s your experience with food? Or do you not even bother with park restaurants? — S. Sullivan, Texas

A. I’ve heard that, too, from multiple sources. I can tell you that the night I arrived at the park, I had an unforgettable dinner. Unfortunately, it was unforgettable for the wrong reasons.

I definitely understand the criticisms I’ve heard of the food there, but I think the bad thoughts have more to do with prices, not necessarily the quality. It’s just not of the quality that most people would associate with that cost. For example, if my first night’s dry fried chicken had cost $8 and not $18, I would have shrugged it off more easily.

However, there is at least one notable exception: The restaurant at the Inn at Furnace Creek serves an excellent breakfast. Yes, it’s a tad pricey (about $20 per person for meal and coffee—which, actually, isn’t all that expensive at a good hotel), but the quality certainly supported the price. I particularly liked the eggs Benedict with chili-lime Hollandaise, and the apple-bacon omelet. If I remember correctly, those were listed at $17 and $14, sans coffee.

I can’t speak for lunch and dinner at the Inn, as I’m generally out shooting at those times. Breakfast—or, really, brunch—tends to be the only time I sit down and pay someone to feed me. The break gives me a chance to review notes and to make plans for the rest of the day. I also can’t speak for some of the other restaurants in the park, because I tried only those two.

(Incidentally, my favorite spot for breakfast/brunch in the park system is the restaurant at Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Great quality combined with more-than-reasonable prices. I spoke with the owner a couple of years ago, and that combination of quality and price is exactly their goal.)

By the way, that’s a great idea to visit Death Valley this spring for wildflowers. The floods the park experienced last fall were precisely the kind of weather event that usually precedes a spring bloom in the desert.

One more thing I’ll mention: The reason I was in Death Valley last month was to plan and scout a night-photography workshop that I’ll be leading with Lance Keimig from November 15-19. Lance is one of the best in the genre, so this should be a fun one! More information can be found at NationalParksAtNight.com.

 

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Traveling with a non-photographer

New year, new content, new question

Welcome to 2016!

This week’s question is a fun topic (depending on your experience and point of view): doing photography while traveling with a non-photographer, particularly a family member.

I actually dabbled in this over the holidays. My wife and daughter and I traveled up and down the east coast of the U.S. for 16 days visiting family. Along the way we made brief but enjoyable stops at the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge in Florida, and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. We also waved at Shenandoah National Park as we drove by on Route 81.

If you are interested in following these or other national parks on social media, you know how tedious finding their accounts can be. To help matters, I have compiled and published an article that lists the website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and Instagram account of every national park, plus a few other associated sites and organizations. You can see and reference this any time at this link: “National Parks Online.”

More articles and content will be coming soon. Stay tuned!

Onward…

This Week’s Question

Maurice Bathhouse, Hot Springs National Park. NPS Photo.

Maurice Bathhouse, Hot Springs National Park. NPS Photo.

Q.  Next year my lovely wife and I want to visit some parks. I have to deal with the fact that I like to photograph, while my wife does not but has some (not borderless) patience. Do you have some tips, a thinking direction how to solve this problem? — Stefan de Jong, Netherlands

A. Yeah, this is a pretty common issue, regardless of the gender of whomever is the photographer and whomever is the mildly interested significant other.

In general, I don’t do photo travel with anyone who isn’t a photographer. I have found that no matter how much the person loves or likes me, or how interested she or he is in my work or friendship, the photographer’s process is just too tedious to hold a non-photographer’s attention. These people mean well. “Oh, it will be so intriguing to see how you work!” And they genuinely believe that. The problem is, they’re wrong. It’s not interesting to watch us work, particularly at those times when we might spend a few hours just sitting there waiting for the light to move.

But avoiding layperson companionship isn’t always possible, especially if the trip is not solely for photography, but is rather primarily a family or friendly vacation. In those cases, how we squeeze in some productive photo opportunities is a great question.

Also, it’s one that affects every level of serious photographer. Right before the holidays I attended a presentation by National Geographic photographer Lester Picker, and even he (a Nat Geo photographer!!!) talked about having to deal with this. His solution is to dedicate one or two whole days of the itinerary to photography, days during which his family knows they’re on their own. Then he can focus on all the intricacies of carrying out a successful shoot without boring anyone.

I can suggest two other strategies that I find effective:

1) Half of my photography is done at a time of day  when normal people aren’t functioning much anyway—i.e., very early morning. So I can almost always get out alone before sunrise, shoot for a few hours, then meet others for a late breakfast. (Admittedly, that strategy doesn’t usually work well at the end of the day.)

2) Go someplace that is interesting to the non-photographer, too, so that he or she also has something to do.

For example, I have a friend who likes to write poetry in a journal while sitting in nature; he and I could probably travel together effectively. I have another friend who likes hiking, even alone; we, also, could likely travel well together. My wife likes rustic lodges and drinking wine by a fireplace, so she would probably be content at Grand Teton’s Jackson Lake Lodge while I shot Willow Flats, or at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn while I shot the surrounding geysers and hot springs.

And some of the national parks have a lot of activities with wide appeal. For example, a non-photographer companion might enjoy relaxing in the bathhouses at Hot Springs National Park, or taking a scenic train ride in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, or attending a history-themed ranger program at pretty much any national park—all while you’re out shooting for a few hours.

 

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Breaking into magazines

Happy Holidays; getting published …

Winter storm at Taggart Lake, Grand Teton National Park

Winter storm at Taggart Lake, Grand Teton National Park

First of all, Happy Holidays!

I’m traveling for the final two weeks of 2015. I’ll be spending about 15 straight days within a few hours’ drive from any of five national parks, and won’t be able to visit even one!

Alas, the time with my family is more than worth the trade, especially getting to see my 33-month-old daughter enjoying the first Christmas she actually “gets.” She’s loving every minute of her extended holiday.

I wish the same to you and yours.

Onward…

This Week’s Question

Q.  I have only been into photography a little over a year but have produced some really good stuff. People are always telling me that I should submit them for contests, or hang them in a gallery, or they could be postcards or calendars. So my question is, How does one get their photos out there to be published in a magazine? I can’t seem to be able to find the answer and since you have, I thought I would try asking. — Greg L., Houston

A. The best route is often to package something a magazine will value for its readership—i.e., a story.

As a former magazine editor, I can tell you this: The currency of magazine freelancers is ideas. The more ideas you can provide to your magazine clients, the “richer” you will be in terms of opportunities to be published. If you can generate a story idea based around your photography, that can be your best ticket to being published, especially with a publication you don’t have an established relationship with.

I’d suggest identifying your absolute strongest area of photography, looking at your best work in that area, and trying to conceive and then build a story around it. It could be an idea for a strong text-based feature, or a concept for a photo essay. Research the magazines that cover that topic, and study what sort of articles they run. Those are the kinds of ideas to pitch to them; they won’t stray far from their model, because they know what their readers want to see and read. (If you don’t write, then you could find a writer to work with you, and pitch stories as a team.)

Once you put together a professional pitch, be ready to have it ignored or rejected many times. Honestly, don’t take it personally, and don’t let it temper your ambition. Just keep re-sending it to other publications, perhaps tweaking it to suit each title’s editorial angle or niche.

For a great guide to publications that work with freelancers, check out the books Writers Market and Photographer’s Market. (The latter also has chapters and articles about getting photos published.)

If you’d prefer to just show your photos to an art director and try to get assignments, generally the best practice is to work regionally. Towns, counties and states often have magazines open to working with new talent. Send an email or a letter, or perhaps a professionally printed card, then follow up with a call and see if they’ll have a look at your work. Have a professional-looking website—they’ll likely just ask to see that rather than a physical portfolio.

I hope that helps. Good luck with your venture.

 

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Close to the road in Yellowstone

Easy-to-access spots in perhaps the best national park for photography

Good morning. And good news! I’ve just confirmed that I will be speaking at the “Out of Chicago” photography conference in New York City next October. I’ll pass along the details and a link as soon as they’re announced.

Also, please be advised that today is the last day I can take orders for a signed copy of my book to arrive before Christmas. Everything will be shipping first thing tomorrow morning, so if you’d like to order a signed Photographing National Parks as a gift, please do so today at the following link:

PhotographingNationalParks.com/purchase-a-signed-copy

I’m happy to inscribe anything you’d like—just mention it in the payment notes, and I’ll write it in the book!

And of course, if you need an unsigned copy at any point, you may order one at Amazon or via other online and brick-and-mortar booksellers.

Onward…

This Week’s Question

Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone

Q. We are planning on going to Yellowstone in September. I am walking-limited. One mile is pushing it. What do you recommend as “must do” away-from-the-road trails for me? Also, I watched a presentation you gave on YouTube—where is the secret spot that your brother told you about where you took the beautiful picture from above of the colorful spring/pond?Laura Engshun

A. Your question is a tough one. Must-see’s at Yellowstone? There’s a ton! With your one-mile limit in mind, I can say that you can still walk around a good number of the geothermal features, and they’re all the ones I would suggest to any photographer. In particular, I recommend the Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Upper Geyser Basin and the Fountain Paint Pot area. As a bonus, all of those have boardwalks, which makes for pretty easy walking.

For landscapes, I highly recommend the Lamar Valley, the drive through Dunraven Pass, the views of Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (particularly from Artist Point), and the Hayden Valley. Plenty of wildlife to see along the way, particularly bison. The Pelican Creek Trail is nice, as are the Wraith Falls Trail and Trout Lake Trail.

I can say this for Yellowstone: As great as it is to get into the backcountry, there is so much to see within a short hike from the road. It’s a huge park with a lot of visual variety. Even without long hikes, you can spend a lot of time there without running out of photography subjects and inspiration. If I were you, I would go to a visitor center and talk to a ranger for a few minutes—explain your situation, and ask his or her advice about even more photographic places that are easy to hike to.

The spot my brother showed me is at Grand Prismatic. (The presentation Laura refers to is “Photographing National Parks,” which I delivered at the B&H Event Space in 2014.) The location is amazing, but impossible to photograph as a whole from ground level (though you can do plenty of other work).

For the spot my brother brought me to: If you park near Tire Pool, take the path across the bridge and keep heading toward Fairy Falls Trail. In about a quarter-mile or so, you pass between Grand Prismatic on your right and a high hill to your left. You have to climb to the top of that hill, through trees and over logs, and there is no trail or path. Of course, you’d have to decide if your limitation allows for that. I can tell you this, though: If you can get up there, the view is spectacular.

Please let me know how the trip goes!

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Shooting outside the box

The less-photographed parks, books for the holidays, et al.

I just returned from a few days planning a workshop and photographing the southeast section of Death Valley National Park. I had a great time working in such a harsh but beautiful place, and aside from a few rather cold nights of camping, I still kinda miss being there!

Want to visit Death Valley for free? Or any other park? If planning a photography trip to a national park next year, you might be interested in the fee-free days, which the National Park Service just announced last week. There are 16 of them in 2016, including a stretch of nine for National Park Week and four to celebrate the NPS’s 100th birthday. You can find more info here: “Free Entrance Days in the National Parks.”

Signed books for the holidays

Lastly, with the holidays here, you might be interested in giving a photographer the gift of national-park secrets. If you’d like to order a signed copy of Photographing National Parks, please do so by Thursday, December 17, to give me time to get it in the mail before leaving town for Christmas. I’m happy to inscribe anything you’d like—just mention it in the payment notes, and I’ll write it in the book!

Onward…

This Week’s Question

Congaree National Park

Q. I feel like everyone shoots the same parks: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Acadia, etc., and I want to think outside the box. Which parks should I consider?Garry B., Utah

A.You could go far, you could go new, or you could go obscure.

The parks that take the most time to travel to are also usually the least visited, and subsequently the least photographed. Think National Park of American Samoa, or Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic. Both are beautiful but relatively unphotographed.

The second option is to think new. The newest parks generally have not yet developed a reputation as a major tourist stop nor as a major photography destination. In this category, think Pinnacles in California, which was named a national park only in 2013, or Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, named in 2004.

Along the same lines, you could get a jump on lands that might be named the next national park, photographing one (or more) before most other photographers are even aware of them. Colorado National Monument, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho, and the proposed Katahdin Woods and Waters National Park (currently private but accessible land in northern Maine), are the ones that seem to have the best chance of being named the 60th, 61st and 62nd national parks (though not necessarily in that order) in coming years.

Finally, you could look for parks that despite having low visitation numbers, are still relatively accessible. (i.e., the aforementioned Gates of the Arctic is less visited precisely because of how much work is involved in getting there—and staying there.) Among the least-visited yet very accessible parks:

  • North Cascades in Washington has relatively few visitors and little name recognition, but also has beautiful mountain scenery and is only a 2-hour drive from Seattle.
  • Great Basin in Nevada has an incredibly varied landscape and is only 4 to 4.5 hours from Salt Lake City or Las Vegas.
  • Congaree in South Carolina (pictured above) boasts a dynamic and sometimes primeval swamp-like environment, and is only half an hour from the capital city of Columbia.

All of them (plus more) are great photography destinations where you can easily spend a day without encountering even one other tripod.

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Where and what did I shoot?

The best tool for geotagging images

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing for a quick trip (three and a half days) to Death Valley National Park. Leaving tomorrow morning!

The purpose of the trip is, primarily, to meet with night photographer Lance Keimig so we can work on planning our Night Photography Adventure Workshop in Death Valley, scheduled for November 15-19, 2016. Incidentally, I’m about halfway through reading Lance’s excellent book Night Photography and Light Painting—Finding Your Way In The Dark, which is one of the go-to tomes on the subject.

Though the trip will be relatively short, I’m looking forward to a little time photographing and exploring the largest national park in the contiguous United States. Photographing in such a large park—with many distant and diverse locations—is a perfect segue into this week’s question, which is about geotagging images.

Onward…

This Week’s Question

Photo courtesy AMOD Technology

Photo courtesy AMOD Technology

Q. I saw you at a lecture in New York City, and you mentioned that the only geotracking device you really like is the AMOD AGL3080 (I wrote it down!). I was just curious why you prefer that to others.Scott H., New Jersey

A. A geotracker is one of my primary “secondary” gear items that I bring on shoots to the national parks. In the film days I was very lazy about taking notes while shooting, and subsequently spent hours upon hours at home trying to figure out where and what I’d photographed.

These days I use a geotracker and dump the tracklog data into Lightroom, then with the click of a button can see in Google Maps where an image was photographed. If I need more information, I can copy and paste the GPS coordinates into Google Earth. More time saved in post-production means more time back in the field—or with my family!

I went through trying and researching many models and styles of geotrackers before settling on the AMOD.

The reason I like this model is that it comes the closest to meeting all the standards I believe are necessary for the ideal tracker device:

  • It has good enough battery life to last more than one day, so in the morning I can turn it on, clip it to my bag or belt, and forget it till bedtime.
  • It’s plug-and-play on the computer. In other words, no third-party software is necessary to retrieve the data—the device just shows up as another hard drive.
  • It has enough memory to use it for weeks on end.
  • It operates independently of a camera, so I can use the data from this one device to tag images from every body I use on a trip (including a phone or iPad), while also not draining camera batteries.

In the spirit of offering a balanced opinion, I admit that one feature the AMOD doesn’t have is the ability to save the tracklog as a GPX file, which is a standard format and the only one that Lightroom can read. (Alternatively, I suppose that could be a Lightroom complaint instead—that the software can’t read the AMOD’s NMEA format, which is also an industry standard.) Still, other geotrackers I’ve tried are missing the more important features; this device is as close to ideal as I’ve found.

For more information about the AGL3080, see the GMOD website.

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On- and off-roading

Two wheels or four in our national parks?

Welcome to the second installment of the Photographing National Parks Newsletter. This week’s question is about what kind of car to drive when shooting a park. As much as I advocate getting off the road and onto the trail, at most of our parks a motor vehicle is the first line of travel, so the question can be an important one to consider.

Also of interest

Before we get to driving, I’d like to mention that I’ve recently been booked to speak at two events in 2016:

Both are great events that I’m excited to be part of. If you are attending either, please be sure to say hello!

Shooting starfish

Lastly, a new article has been posted to the website: Top 5 National Parks for Photographing Tide Pools.

Onward…

This Week’s Question

Backroad to Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, © 2012 Chris Nicholson

Q: In your book you touch on locomotion, but I was curious if you tend to err on the side of renting or if you own a vehicle that you use for a lot of your travels. Perhaps you can offer some advice as to what sort of vehicle would be best suited to photography and getting around on some more off-the-beaten-path areas?Michael Hitchner, Washington

A: What vehicle I use for traveling depends a lot on the particular park. It also depends on how far the park is from where I live—i.e., when shooting Acadia, Shenandoah or the Smokies, I always drive, because it takes me less than a day, and then I have my own car with me.

For years I drove a Jeep Wrangler, which was great for pretty much any driving situation I came across in a park, whether on pavement or primitive road. These days I’m driving a Lexus SUV. It’s not a Jeep, but it did surprisingly well when my GPS got me lost on old, muddy logging roads at the edge of Congaree National Park last spring.

The short answer is that I use the appropriate wheels for where I’m driving. For example, in Acadia or the Everglades, there’s no need for 4WD or ground clearance, so even a sedan is fine for getting around to trails heads, etc. I would argue the same for nearly all of Yellowstone, but Grand Teton has a few primitive roads I wouldn’t want to bring something less than a Jeep or sturdy pickup truck on. Canyonlands can be partially driven by sedan, but the best parts of the park need 4WD and ground clearance; same for Capitol Reef, and you could argue that for Death Valley too. And Wrangell-St. Elias demands 4WD—it would be foolhardy to drive into the park with a sedan.

Of course, 4WD vehicles cost more to rent, and to fuel, so that may play into the equation as well.

I suppose it’s analogous to camera gear. You buy/rent/bring what you need, and probably nothing more. No sense hauling a 600mm f/4 into Mt. Rainier if you’re just shooting summer wildflowers; likewise, no sense paying money to rent a 4WD just to drive the paved loop road in Hot Springs National Park.

Another point to consider is whether the car has locking trunk space. That’s pretty crucial if you want the option to to leave some gear behind while hiking. Another thing I liked about my old Jeep is that from the outside, you wouldn’t know it had any trunk space at all, but I could fit all my camera into it. Locked, hidden and completely inconspicuous. 

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Getting things rolling

Welcome!

Welcome to the first edition (finally!) of the Photographing National Parks weekly Q&A newsletter.

It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of work since my Photographing National Parks book was released on August 1. I was thrilled when National Parks Traveler ran a nice review, I had a fantastic time as a speaker at the PhotoPlus Expo in NYC, and I’ve been excited to be working with four great photographer friends and partners to launch the National Parks at Night workshop program.

Also of interest

Now that I’ve gotten through the whirlwind of the book release, I’ve finally had a chance to start posting some articles on the PNP website.

The first article is the first of an indefinite series of Top 5 lists of national parks that are the best for various photography subjects. The inaugural list, I’m excited to announce, is the “Top 5 National Parks for Photographing Mountains.” (Hint: No. 1 was formed with the help of Ansel Adams.)

I have a lot more to post in the coming weeks and months, especially as the centennial of the National Park Service approaches in 2016.

Onward…

This Week’s Question

Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway

Q: We want to take a road trip that would encompass a few national parks, as opposed to going to just one park for a week. Do you have any suggestions? Area of the country doesn’t matter.S.B., Vermont

A: Absolutely. It’s a great idea, and I can suggest a few road trips based on national parks.

A north-to-south road trip through California could bring you through several parks, including Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Redwood and Lassen Volcanic.

A similar trip can be made from the Grand Canyon north into the loop of Utah’s five parks (including Zion, Arches and Bryce Canyon). This is probably a trip best avoided in summer (you don’t mention when you’re traveling), as all of those locations can get quite hot. Still, for bang-for-the-buck per mile, this itinerary is hard to beat.

Another choice in a more temperate summer climate: Drive a loop through the parks of the northwest U.S. These include some of the real gems of the park system for landscape photography — Crater Lake, Olympic, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

Lest we forget, there are some great parks on the east coast, too. A nice trip could bring you to Acadia, Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Congaree and Everglades. (Also, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains are connected by the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a great drive—about 700 total miles with not one traffic light!)

Have a great time. Please write back to report on what you decided to do and how the trip went.

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Signed Copies Available

Photographing National Parks coverGood morning, afternoon or evening, depending on what part of world you’re reading this in.

The official release date of Aug. 1 almost here! But people have asked how they can obtain a signed copy—so I’m sending this pre-release newsletter to let everyone know how:

If you would like to pre-purchase a signed copy of Photographing National Parks, please visit:

www.PhotographingNationalParks.com/purchase-a-signed-copy

The signed books will be shipped within a few business days of the Aug. 1 release. (Alternatively, if you’re not concerned about your copy being signed, the book will soon be on Amazon, et al.) If you’d like to know a little more about the book beforehand, you can see a review of it on National Parks Traveler.

Should you have any questions, please let me know. And thank you for your interest in Photographing National Parks! There will be lots more to come on the website in the coming months, so please stay tuned.

Book Launch Event

If you live in the New York City area (or would like to travel here), I invite you to attend a Photographing National Parks book launch event hosted by the B&H Event Space.

I will be doing a 90-minute presentation about national park photography, followed by a Q&A and then a book signing. The event is free to attend, but reservations are recommended. You can learn more at the B&H Event Space website.

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What This is All About

This is a quick intro to what the PNP Weekly Q&A Newsletter will be all about. Essentially, you ask questions, and I answer them. Because of the nature of the Photographing National Parks book and website, I assume most of the questions will be about photographing national parks. But I’m willing to answer anything I’m knowledgeable about; if you ask me something I don’t have expertise in, I’ll find someone who does, and perhaps he or she can will be kind enough to answer for me.

I’ll be getting this newsletter going with a few questions that people have emailed to me since news of my book went public last year. But after that, it all depends on the readers to help me keep this going. Please feel free to send me any questions you think I might have the answer to. I’m happy to discuss the national parks, photography gear, post-production techniques, image management on the road, etc.

The Question

Acadia National Park GullQ: What format will the newsletter take?Joe Smith, Springfield

A: Well, I’ll start with some kind of introduction, like I just did above. What the intro will be will depend largely upon what’s going on with my book, this website or the photography world in general. For instance, I might mention if someone notable reviewed the book, or if I’m releasing a new national park eGuide, or if a new version of Adobe Lightroom is hitting the market. Also, with the centennial celebration of the National Park Service slated to last all of 2016, I’m sure I’ll be mentioning that a bit, as well.

Then I’ll list a question that someone sent me, and I’ll take a crack at answering it in a thoughtful and reliable way. I’ll also include a photograph to illustrate some point or theme to the question and/or answer; for example, with this post I included a photo of a gull in Acadia National Park, because … I don’t know, because we’re getting ready to fly with this newsletter thing.

Then I’ll include a gentle reminder about all the ways you can keep tabs on me and my book…

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