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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Take Better Photos: Local Pros Share Their Secrets! by Ed Stiles

If cameras were casting rods, most of us would be eating fish sticks. Except for the pros, of course. They catch a mess of photographic walleyes on every trip. How do they do it?

To find out, we asked four prominent Boundary Waters photographers to share some secrets. We talked with Craig Blacklock, Tom Kaffine, Layne Kennedy, and Deborah Sussex. If you've read the Boundary Waters Journal, or surfed canoe country web sites, you've seen their photos, which connect so viscerally, you can almost smell the pines.

We also asked them about cameras, tripods and film, as well as the techniques that separate memorable art from just snapshots. Read along as we follow their path to better photos.


''I've always used a completely manual camera,'' Tom Kaffine says. His current workhorse is a Nikon FM2. ''I like to be in full control of the focus, lighting, and so on. It goes back to my winter camping days. The manual will still work without the battery on a cold day.'' Conversely, a fully electronic camera with dead batteries is a dead camera. ''It's next to impossible these days to find an all manual camera,'' he says. ''Nikon, maybe Pentax, and I don't know who else. For me, the less electronics, the better.''

Be sure that any camera you buy has both manual and auto settings, says Layne Kennedy. ''It would be a crime to allow your camera to think for you in situations like bright snow and dark water,'' he says. ''You need to be able to adjust for those conditions to render accurate exposures. Most importantly, knowing how to expose is part of the art of photography. Placing exposure values where you want them is an important part of the creating process.''

Still, if your goal isn't art, but just good vacation shots, a high quality point-and-shoot might be a better choice. The photos on this page, for instance, were shot with a Pentax IQ Zoom 95WR. Point-and-shoots are easy to use and lighter and less expensive than professional quality single lens reflex cameras. But you lose control of your depth of field, exact focus, aperture, and shutter speed, making some shots impossible. At other times you may think the point-and-shoot is doing one thing, when its electronic brain has decided to do another.


''I never leave on any assignment without my tripod,'' Kennedy says. ''I like greater depth-of-field in my images with fine grain. To get this, you need a tripod. There are many good tripods out there, including lightweight graphite types. But they're not cheap. The biggest concern in buying a tripod is which head to get. You'll want something sturdy enough to lock in well with your biggest lens and not shake in a moderate wind.''

Tom Kaffine, on the other hand, rarely uses a tripod because his scenics often include people for perspective and he finds the tripod restrictive. ''There is no doubt that a tripod is always the way to go, but you lose spontaneity,'' he says. ''So I shoot at high speed and hope for the best.''

Sometimes a tripod isn't an option. ''If photographing things, like pictographs, from your canoe, use a short lens and get close to the subjects,'' Craig Blacklock says. ''This will cut down on camera vibration.''

On solid ground, the rule-of-thumb for hand-held shots is a shutter speed faster than the inverse of lens size. For a 50mm lens, that's 1/50th of a second. In a bobbing canoe, doubling that to 1/100th or 1/125th doesn't hurt.

At other times, a tripod is vital. ''Since much of what makes this land wonderful is the ground cover, you should be equipped to make some medium range close-ups in overcast light,'' Blacklock says. ''A tripod is a must for this in order to get adequate depth-of-field and avoid camera vibration.''


Most pros use transparency film, also known as slide film, because most magazines demand it. Tom Kaffine likes to shoot Kodachrome 64. Deb Sussex recommends Fuji Provia for people and Fuji Velvia for scenics.

On the other hand, if you don't intend to sell your photos, print film may be the better choice. Useable prints can be coaxed from seriously underexposed or overexposed negatives, whereas transparencies need next-to-perfect exposure. And if your friends want copies extra prints are easily made from negatives.

Pros use slow-speed film (ISO 100 or less) for landscapes because of its fine grain. But, if you're getting 4x6 prints from a point-and shoot camera, ISO 400 or 800 lets you shoot with available light into the evening and on shaded portages. In those cases, you use your flash to fill the shadows, rather than asking it to do the impossible like illuminating an entire corner of the Boundary Waters. Faster films also have less contrast, which can be an advantage on bright, sunny days.

If possible, shoot a few different types of film before your trip to find one you like. This also gives you practice before those critical shots of your friends and their trophy fish! Finally, take your film to a professional processing lab. You'll get better color and more consistent results.


Pros shoot lots of film and throw most of it away. Kennedy puts it this way: ''Be patient. Great images are out there, but you need to be prepared to take them. Sometimes this means investigating a subject from several angles. Do a 360 around your subject. See it from all sides. If it is calling to you, you owe it to yourself to examine it thoroughly. You'll see new things and also create fresh ways to shoot the subject. You are not wasting film, you are creating.''

Tom Kaffine concurs. ''When I come across a scene I really like, I'll take a half-dozen shots of it at different settings to insure I get what I want. Too many times I've been cheap with the number of shots I use on a scene and regretted it.''

Remember, too, that light is everything in photography and the quality of light varies, depending on time of day. ''Get up early,'' Blacklock advises. ''The best part of the day is over before breakfast!''

''Morning and late afternoon provide the nicest light,'' Kaffine adds. ''But I also like overcast days. They seem to bring out the details in rock, trees, and, especially, people.''

And don't forget artificial light. Use your flash when faces are visible. Shadows from hats, noses, and chins quickly become black blobs under high-contrast daylight. The flash will soften the shadows and add detail.

Once you have the right subject, and the right light, take a hard look through the viewfinder. ''Run your eye around the frame before pressing the shutter release,'' Sussex advises. ''Watch for distracting or unwanted elements which could change a great photo into a poor photo; tree limbs in the way, crooked horizon lines, and so on.''


Ok, now that you have a camera, film, and some technical advice it's time to compose your photos.

Artists have used the Rule-of-Thirds for centuries. This involves dividing the frame in thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and positioning your subject at one of the intersections of those lines. Rule-of-Thirds lines are drawn on the photo shown here. Notice that the person is located near the intersection of the lines and that the shoreline of the lake lies a third of the way from the top of the photo.

If you're shooting a scene place the horizon either one-third of the way down from the top or a third of the way up from the bottom. In the former case, the land will be the main subject with the sky as the backdrop; in the latter the sky will have the emphasis and the land will accent it.

The Rule-of-Thirds is not absolute. It provides a starting point, but you'll see plenty of photos where subjects are not composed this way. Sometimes the subject looks best in the middle of the frame, but more often, centered subjects appear static and boring.

Changing the point of view is another way to fight boring composition. Kneel down, climb above your subject, lie on your stomach. Do whatever it takes to get away from the eye-level view to see the photo from a different angle. Also remember to turn the frame vertically when the subject calls for it. Editor's Note: If you're shooting for publication be sure to check with your editor to see what sort of shots they are looking for, which type of film they prefer, and if they prefer horizontal or vertical shots. Most print magazine editors prefer vertical shots.

Thinking like a photojournalist helps, too. Instead of posing your friends, capture the action. Shoot on the portages when they're slipping in the mud or catch the bend of a rod as they land the big one.

''Be prepared for all conditions and be ready to shoot as quickly as you can; while protecting your gear in an environment that can also destroy your gear with one flip of the canoe or one small rainstorm,'' Layne Kennedy says. ''Pick up a couple of dry bags from a local kayak shop and put some of your gear in them. Keep your gear handy when conditions are good and off the bottom of the canoe and out of the sun.''

Editor's Note: I prefer to use a Pelican brand dry box for my camera as it is 100% waterproof, the interior is padded, it's impervious to damage, it floats, and is much quicker to get in and out of.

''This way, when a loon comes screaming by, or a moose plunks into the water, you have a chance to capture it. Trying to dig a camera bag out of a Duluth pack means you've missed it and also put your canoe partner in jeopardy of going into the drink.''

Kennedy crops ruthlessly. ''I'm a firm believer in shooting tight,'' he says. ''Eliminate unnecessary information. This takes discipline and practice. Cropping in the camera, using the right lens, and so on, can make a huge difference in communicating your message better.''

Framing your subject gives the photo depth. ''When photographing across a lake, include some foreground shoreline or trees,'' Blacklock says. ''Too many photographs of sunrises or storm clouds become generic because they only include a strip of land on the other side of the water.''

Finally, look for dramatic possibilities when the light is coming from behind your subject. This is called backlighting and has led to some terrible amateur photos; like Uncle Charlie as a black silhouette when you meant to photograph his face and the fish he was holding. In the hands of a pro, however, backlighting can work magic.

''I like to use backlighting when I shoot with my long lens,'' Kaffine says. ''I love the contrasts between light and dark; especially if there is mist or raindrops involved.''


When you shoot a photo, you use light to write on a blank sheet. Think about what your image says to the viewer. It may simply be, ''I want to record this moment.'' Or it can be, ''I want the viewer to understand what I felt when spray sparkled like diamonds above the rapids.''

When you do this, seek out your own photographic voice, Deb Sussex advises. ''Try not to repeat what everyone else shoots. Challenge yourself to seeing and shooting in your own original way. That is the art of photography!''

Additional Resources

A number of web sites offer in-depth photo instruction. Here are a couple to get you started:


Studying with a professional is one of the fastest ways to improve your abilities. Layne Kennedy ( is the founder of the Superior/Gunflint Photography workshops and offers three wilderness workshops each year. These sessions cater to those who want to capture their adventure trips in the same way a magazine photographer handles assignments.


--article courtesy of

More Boundary Waters Photographers
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Ken Harmon Lynn Rogers

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