I attended Nature Visions Photo Expo for the first time earlier this month. I became aware of it when Thomas Heaton posted that he would be presenting at the conference. I have followed Thomas on his YouTube channel for several years and was intrigued by the opportunity of seeing him present live and meeting him face to face.
In reviewing the conference web site I learned that Nature Visions started in 2002 when six camera clubs in Northern Virginia got together to to create an event to show case the work of their members and create an event for learning and sharing techniques and passions around nature photography. Over the years the conference has had many notable keynote speakers including: Bobby Harrison, Frans Lanting, Marc Muenc, Art Wolfe, Seth Resnick, Bryan Peterson, Rick Sammon, and this year, Thomas Heaton.
As I read I got more an more excited about the conference. It was nearly in my back yard, just four and half hours drive and it was exceptionally affordable. A three day conference pass was just $160. Additional classes and workshops could be added for $20-$40 each. In the world of photo conferences, this one is a bargain.
So I bought my tickets, booked a hotel and started planning my trip and building my conference agenda.
The opening keynote delivered by Thomas Heaton on Friday Nov 2, 2018 was well attended with 500-600 folks filling the seats in beautiful Merchant Hall of the Hylton Performing Arts Center on the campus of George Mason University. The session ran from 9:00a to 4:00p with a lunch break. Hats off to Thomas for keeping the audience engaged all day.
In addition to sharing his landscape photography adventures, Thomas walked the audience through his personal journey from university through lean times as an event A/V tech and cameraman through wedding photographer to full-time landscape photographer.
I found his piece on tips for starting and growing a YouTube channel to be quite helpful (hit of what may lie in the future). Other attendees were expressed less favorable views of the YouTube section.
The second day kicked off with Steve Gettle speaking on “The Art of Visual Language”. Steve’s session was a good refresher on the fundamentals of composition, use of lines, shapes, color, and patterns. He got a laugh and acknowledgment form the audience on his point about the need to balance the Yin and Yang of photography. That of the gear “geek” and going deep on all of the capabilities of your gear and the “artist” with the creative vision.
The key takeaway for me was the difference between the subject of an image and the subject matter of the image. This concept is clear in Steve’s image to the left of the skull and wildflowers. The subject matter is the skull and wildflowers, while the subject is death and life.
After a short break it was Thomas Heaton’s time to return to the stage and speak on, “Self-doubt and Being Your Own Worst Critic”. Unfortunately, Thomas’ marathon session the day before combined with a cough he picked up on his travels left him speechless. He had lost his voice and was unable to speak. He could have easily thrown in the towel and told the event organizers who could not present. Thomas took a different approach. He assembled a few slides with text to convey a few key points and to setup a couple of videos. The videos had not be shown or published. The first was an in-process cut of an upcoming YouTube video (linked here). The second, was a special treat for followers of his YouTube channel. Back in spring/summer of 2016 Thomas reported he was making a TV pilot. Since that episode, we heard nothing about the project. Well it was fitting given the title of the planned session that Thomas shared that the pilot had not been picked up and that he had not shared or posted it as he felt that would be an admission of failure. The second video he shared was the full-length TV pilot. I hope that he does not give up on the TV program. I believe there is an audience for it. It had a slightly different feel from his YouTube channel. A bit more structured, a bit less on the photographic details, with a twist of Bear Grylls.
Day 2 continued with a session with Denise Ippolito, “Art of Bird Photography”. Denise drew on here years of experience in the field creating artful images of birds to provide attendees with a solid primer on the subject. The key nugget I took away was to “be picky about your backgrounds”. Find an area or perch the bird(s) you are shooting will likely visit and position yourself such that you have a clean, uncluttered background and wait. Wait for the birds to come to you. This can be seen in an image of Denise’s she took of Gambel's Quail at Bosque Del Apache NWR.
I took in a second session with Denise later in the day, “Creative Effects (both in-camera and in post processing)” where she walked participants through her creative process from initial capture in the field through step by step post processing in Photoshop. Although her creative vision is quite different from my own, I found the session helpful and I walked away with a couple of new post processing techniques I can use to help bring my vision to life. Check out here online Fine Art Gallery for some examples of her work.
The day wrapped up with a keynote by Cole Thompson, “Why Black and White?”. Cole shared his creative journey through a series of beautiful B&W images and the stories behind them. At several points throughout his presentation he foreshadowed what he would discuss in his class the following day, “Finding and Following Your Vision”, which I had luckily signed up for as well. More on that later.
I was particularly looking forward to Sunday morning. I was scheduled to have my first portfolio review with none other them Thomas Heaton. Thankfully, Thomas’ voice had returned sufficiently for our one on one session.
Although he was not at his best coming off a day of laryngitis, he was the thoughtful and easy going person I have come to know form his YouTube channel. His feedback and assessment of my portfolio went about as I had expected to, with some
helpful guidance and appreciation of my work. I will write a separate blog post on the process of creating my portfolio for
presentation and lessons learned for next time.
After leaving Thomas, I took a stroll around the vendor expo checking out new kit from Nikon, Tamron, and Sigma. I was fortunate to visit the Nikon table when no one else was around, which meant I got to spend some time getting to know the new Nikon Z7 full-frame mirrorless camera and the new AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens. Look for a first impressions blog post on both early next month.
My last session of the day was ironic, given the activities and sessions through out the rest of the conference, but it was also the perfect session to end the weekend. It was Cole Thompson’s, “Finding and Following Your Vision”. In this session Cole Shared the 11 steps he used in finding his vision. They are as follows:
Separate my work into two piles
Things I really loved
Popularity does not equal best
Study the images you love and see what you learn
Commit to never produce work that I don’t love.
Practice photographic celibacy - don’t look at work of other photographer
Simplify my process
Ignore other people’s advice
Change mindset from photographer to artist
Question my motives
Be honest on why you create
Art is selfish and lonely pursuit
Stop comparing my work to others
Don’t beat yourself with “why didn’t think of that?”
Art is not a competition
Stop caring what others think of my work
Praise can be more harmful than criticism
I did things that inspired me
Read the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
How can you stand to not know your vision
Read the Day Books of Edward Weston
Listen to the Beatles
Defined success for myself
It took Cole “two gut wrenching years” to discover he had a vision all along. Everyone has a vision. You just have to strip your self down and be brutally honest with yourself and then commit to it. Once you remove all of the vision blocker, it has come into focus. Vision is not a look, a style, a technique, or genre. It is your artistic interpretation of the world you see. I say the session was ironic, because the rest of the conference was pretty much all the things Cole said not to do. This is also why it was the perfect session to end on for me.
So after spending three days in Manassas, VA and several hundred dollars the question is, was it worth it? The answer is easy, YES! The conference offers many opportunities for photographers of all skill levels and is remarkably affordable. One of the best parts of the weekend is meeting other photographers and making new friends. I have to give a big shout out to the West Shore Camera Club for inviting me along on group dinners both nights. A special thank you to president, Dennis Baker, for the invite, and to VP, Joe Farrell, for superb door to door service. I hope to see you all there next year!