A photo safari in Baltimore sets up the shot

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; 12:25 PM

David Muse pointed out the girl in the bikini for all the right reasons - not to ogle but to illustrate a precept of good camera work.

"That tells a story," photography teacher Muse explained, "about how it's so hot in Baltimore, she's walking around the city in a bathing suit."

For three hours on a sweltering summer Saturday, the founder of Baltimore Photo Safari focused our lenses on the mini-vignettes staged along the Inner Harbor. A bride en route to her nuptials. The comings and goings of boats. The World Trade Center's reflection in the dark blue water. A Baywatch babe in the city. Equally important, he taught us how and when to snap, and what the ISO setting really does.

"The goal is to get you to realize that you can take more control of your camera," he said. "You will see different results. You might not always love them, but as you practice, you will become more pleased with your photos."

As any amateur knows, there's always room for improvement. Sure, you can aim and fire at your subject, hoping that at least one of your 217 photos of the Taj Mahal at dusk is a keeper. Or you can enlist the help of a pro and shoot images that are frame-worthy not by luck but thanks to sheer skill.

"I'm a picture nut, but I have no direction," admitted Marylander Carolyn Curro, who attended the class with her Nikon-toting friend Sherry Rhodes.

For those interested in travel photography, workshops abound, in some of the world's most photogenic destinations. For instance, ShawGuides, an online compendium of learning vacations, lists courses in Crete, Santa Fe, London, Provence, Mongolia and other National Geographic centerfolds. Closer to home, Washington Photo Safari holds shorter classes in our overexposed front yard, including the national monuments, the National Zoo and the White House. Muse's company concentrates on Baltimore (Inner Harbor, by day or night; Fell's Point, etc.), with occasional forays into such picturesque spots as Cape May, N.J., Chincoteague, Va., and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Dover, Del. For the photographer with beginner goals - i.e., wanting to understand her flash better and learn how to stop chopping off her subjects' feet - a half-day course was an ideal introduction.

Our group rendezvoused outside the Maryland Science Center for a quick briefing by Muse, who was dressed in urban safari attire: hiking boots, brown pants, checked shirt, blue cap. He showed us a series of photos, using the USS Constellation and his children as models, that highlighted various lessons: study the scene before shooting, don't overcrowd the image, and zoom in on details.

"It should be clear to everyone what you took the picture of," he said. "Decide what you want the photo to be of and eliminate everything else. Keep the compositions simple, or as simple as possible."

After covering the basics and offering some one-on-one instruction on our individual cameras, Muse led us down to the harbor for some practice shots. At the water's edge, we stood before an unobstructed view of the World Trade Center and the city skyline. He suggested the best aperture for this scene (f/8), which he called "not optimum, because of the haze in the sky."

Unfortunately, with my point-and-shoot, I couldn't manipulate the amount of incoming light, so I simply took a photo of the building, trying to capture the full height as well as the mirror image on the water's surface. I also kept in mind Muse's advice to scan the scene to see what other elements I could incorporate into the frame. Some ducks were floating into view, so I waited for their arrival. I brushed the sweat from my brow, took a sip of water, asked Muse a question and . . . missed them.

Moving on, we stopped across from the colorfully tiled National Aquarium, with the iconic Domino sugar sign faint in the background. I regarded the setting, was not inspired, and turned my lens on a weathered dinghy tied up along the wall. "I'm glad you shot that," said Muse. "I don't know if that's bird doo or paint, but it's interesting."

The class was nearing the halfway mark, and we were steps away from an air-conditioned break in a shopping mall. Rhodes, however, could not wait, and she disappeared inside the visitors center. We found her in the darkened theater, watching a film about Baltimore. She'd decided to hang up her camera.

Now just three, we planted ourselves at a bend in the harbor, a high-volume intersection of boat traffic. Water taxis loaded with passengers maneuvered around harbor cruises, private vessels and a pirate ship that pelted landlubbers with water. Muse set us up for a shot of an incoming water taxi, its bright blue sign visible as it turned toward the shore. "This is a good shot of the water taxi. The sun is behind us. Use f/5.6, f/4. Blur out the background," he instructed.

Curro nailed it, but I was slow on the snap, capturing the tail end of the boat and only half the lettering. Muse looked at our images, approving of Curro's.

"Just seeing your pictures on the wall is a real ego-booster," Muse said, responding to Curro's wish to display some of her art. "Frame something of yours and have it matted."

We walked a few more feet to close in on the Power Plant facility and its assemblage of neon signs, a picture worth taking after the sun's descent. Muse, who planted future shots in our heads, explained different approaches to the scene: a close-up of the Hard Rock Cafe guitar logo, a wide-angle shot of the historic industrial structure, an upside-down view of the neon reflected in the harbor. "There's almost no limit to what you can shoot here," he remarked.

Before switching off my camera for the day, I took some pictures of the dragon boats drifting by the aquarium, sea monsters with a nautical bent. I attempted a shot of the Domino sign with a water taxi in the foreground. And I snapped a stealth photo of a woman on a bench, her magenta shirt outshining the sun. In my head, I put her on a dragon boat, bobbing quietly along the waves, her blouse adding another streak to the sunset. If I ever captured that shot, it would be an image worth framing and hanging on my wall.

Epilogue: As part of the course, Muse will critique three photos. In his review of my trio, he commended my exposure and choice of aperture and shutter speed, though I can't take credit for either (auto deserves the pat on the back). I also received praise for my "choice of subjects." Muse highlighted some weaknesses, too: In my image of the World Trade Center, I'd tilted the horizon "so it appears the water is draining off the right side." Sorry, fish. I also nicked off the top of the building. Pardon, WTC. He reminded me to keep the composition simple (I should have panned over to avoid that stray piece of pier) and not place the subject in the dead center of the frame. The offense: It's "visually boring." I also needed to give my subjects more space. However, of my photo of the dragon boats, Muse said I showed the viewer that "these boats are available near the National Aquarium." In other words, I'd told a story about Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

For more info on Baltimore Photo Safari: www.baltimorephotosafari.com. The three-hour Baltimore class costs $79.

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