Golden Gate Bridge in Fog

Golden Gate Bridge in Fog

Welcome to The Accidental Photographer blog – full of tips and fun ideas to help you take great photos when you are out and about anywhere.

I’m Marsha Black, author of The Accidental Photographer, a book full of tips written for people who carry a point and shoot camera but don’t have a clue about how to get good photographs out of it.

This photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge is one good example. I took this photo when we stopped briefly at the viewpoint. I used two simple concepts, light and lines, to turn this photo from “Yeah, it’s the Golden Gate Bridge” to “WOW, It’s the Golden Gate Bridge!”. Even if you feel like you are a klutz with a camera, you, too, can learn these tips quickly and easily so you can enjoy your photos as much as I do.

Point and Shoot your Way to Perfect Photos:  There are two workshops left for this summer:  one on two Wednesday nights in July and one on a Saturday afternoon in August.   The techniques will apply to any camera you are using.  Even if you aren’t interested, please let your friends know about it. 

Please sign up early.  Thanks.  Marsha

Pleasant Hill Recreation & Park DistrictArt for Personal Enrichment

320 Civic Drive Pleasant hill CA 94523



Point & Shoot

Your Way to Perfect Photos

(1 workshop) (2 weeks)

Don’t know how you got that fantastic shot that everyone it raving about? Learn simple, easy-to-remember techniques so that you can use your camera more effectively.

Topics include how to: define your subject to tell your story; manage the available light so that it is perfect in the final photograph; use the three basic photographic composition techniques – color, pattern, and action. Bring camera; there will be an easy photo assignment. Fee includes a copy of The Accidental Photographer.

Instructor: Marsha Black

…graduate, New York Institute of Photography; author of The Accidental Photographer; educator, traveler, photographer.

4504.902 Aug. 14

. Sat., 1:30–4:30 pm

4504.903 July 14–July 21

. Wed., 6:30–8 pm

. Fee: $60 / Dist. Res. $50

. Community Ctr.: Upper Club Rm.

Got Email? For the latest District news, please add to your allowed list.

To register: use the internet, at

or call 925-676-5200 or

by fax 24 hours a day at 676-5630

The Direction of Light: The Big Sur Coastline, California’s Central Coast

Big Sur Coastline

Big Sur Coastline: Line and Light

Our Christmas gift to ourselves in 2009 was a leisurely trip up California’s Central Coastline.  The late fall and early winter months are the most beautiful along this coastline.  The light is subtle and the weather is either raw and stormy or drop-dead gorgeous.  We got lucky.  Our scheduled drive from San Simeon to Monterey, taking in the Big Sur Coastline, was scheduled for New Year’s Eve morning.  We got lucky.  We hit the drop-dead gorgeous window in the weather fronts.

We stopped at all of the famous view spots, including this one just north of the Coast Gallery, just before entering the Carmel area.  These are the moody cliffs of paintings and many photographs, with distant hills fading into the background or under the fog.  When we were there, the cliffs were also badly back-lit.  As is so often the case, we didn’t have the choice of coming back later in the afternoon, so I had to deal with the light as it was.  I aimed the light meter for the neutral greys in the center of the hills, moving the focal point over about six frames to get what I wanted.  This is the only way to deal with this kind of difficult lighting situation.  The beauty of digital is that you can delete the ones you don’t want.  I shot below the sun line, but still have a few sun spots in the frame, which I will eventually stamp out in photoshop.  The clouds cooperated by creating an angled line pointing directly at the cliffs, creating the lead line I wanted.  The natural angle of the cliffs is an angle and not a straight line, so that also worked with me.  I just had to stand in an area of the parking lot that emphasized the line and showed off the repeating pattern of the hills.   Happy shooting, folks.  May 2010 bring you many joys with your camera.

Finding the Light in Night Photography

1-Land of the AboriginalsMy husband and I were in the Australian Outback, watching a night presentation of Aboriginal cultural dances and ceremonies that began with sounds from the digeriedoo.  We were sitting up high and back a little from the presentation, which allowed me to view the whole scene and think about the light.  Flash photography here was out of the question.  Besides being ineffective because of the distance, the flash would have disturbed everyone else present.

Fortunately, the spotlight was on the presentation.  I turned off the flash, found the ISO settings – those control the light sensitivity of the digital flash card –  and set it for a high sensitivity level,  pushed my telephoto out to the maximum to get the reading and frame the shot, and went for it.

The light sensitivity reading was high enough to cause the camera to set a fast shutter speed.  That froze the action.  There was enough light on the people surrounding the presentation to give a good sense of what was going on.  The internal light meter in the camera read the light on the demonstration, so that stood out.

In order to do this, you need to find three topics in your camera manual and learn how to use them:  the icon settings – chosing one that will give you a fast shutter speed, such as sports or portrait, the telephoto controls, and the ISO controls in the menu options.  Those three options will allow you to take control of your camera.

Looking for Contrast

29-Death ValleyFlowersIn the spring of 2005, Death Valley National Park was experiencing an explosion of flowers.  Thanks to a very wet winter, wildflowers that had been dormant for decades were blooming.  We had scheduled our trip as a tag-on to a family visit months before, and were able to experience this natural event first-hand.

Taking photos of flowers seems like it should be easy.  After all, don’t you just drive along the road, stop when you see a pretty scene, and get out and shoot?  Well…..yes…. driving along and noticing pretty scenes is certainly what gets you there.  When flowers are this prolific, though, getting a shot that has interest and dynamic qualities takes some observation.

Look at this scene for a minute.  What do you notice?  Here’s what I saw.  The contrast of yellow flowers against the white salty field and  blue shadows on the hills certainly makes the flowers stand out.  Still, though, as a sea of flowers, they looked flat and uninteresting.  I could see a few curves in the floral landscape, but nothing strong enough to stand out.  I could tell if we drove down the road to look for angles in the pattern of flowers, I was going to lose the light and the shot.  I studied this scene for a while before I saw the one yellow flower sticking up above all the rest, standing out against the white background.  That lone flower added the dynamic quality and interest I wanted.  That was the shot that told the story of the flowers.

Making Lines and Angles happen

40a-Death Valley  FlowersBoy, did we luck out.  One spring, we were visiting family in Bakersfield and decided to make a short visit to Death Valley National Park. Fortunately, we made the arrangements three months in advance when we set the trip up. Thanks to the ensuing wet winter, we happened to hit one of the most prolific flower shows the Park had seen in years.  People were coming in droves, and by March, when we arrived, NO rooms were available inside the park.

Along with a few hundred other people that spring, my husband and I went on a wildflower search. We were doing roadside photography to get an overview of the Park, and weren’t walking on any trails for our views.

No flower shot is simple, but this one was especially challenging.  These are tiny white flowers that grow close to the ground.  We had been photographing the flowers spread across the valley in front of the hills when I spotted them.  I tried several ways to photograph them, but they were too tiny to stand out against the brown hills.  Finally, I decided to see if I could position myself close enough to create a line of flowers against the blue sky in the background.  I set the camera for landscape shots, laid down on a blanket I had spread in front of the flowers, and tipped my camera up until the hills in the background were spread along the bottom of the frame and the flowers were positioned against the blue sky.  Lines create a sense of motion, and angled lines create the strongest sense of action.  I wanted an angled line of flowers against the blue sky to bring out the delicate flowers and create a strong sense of action. 

When you are looking for strong nature shots, looks for lines and angles.  If you can’t find them, position yourself so you create them.

Nature's Lines and Angles

119-Moose creekFor years, I had dreamed of a trip to Alaska, and especially into the interior.  My husband and I had planned one a couple of times, only to be forced by circumstances to change our plans.  Finally, one year, we went.  Our journey took us to one of the lodges 90 miles into the interior of Denali National Park.  These are single-fee lodges that include all lodging, meals, and services, including guided walks. 

One day, our guides offered a walk through a valley and along a river called Moose Creek.  As we walked along this gorgeous river valley scene, I looked for ways to show it off in a photograph.  The first problem to solve was positioning the river and mountains so they looked dynamic.  The second problem was managing the light so both the detail in the river as well as in the valley would be present in the photograph.  This was the early 2000’s and digital cameras were not yet at the quality I wanted for a price I wanted to pay, so I was shooting film.  That meant I couldn’t try and check my results and then try again if I didn’t get it.  We also weren’t coming back any time soon. 

Lines and angles in a photograph give it a dynamic feel.  I positioned myself so the river created one predominate angled line, positioned against the folding angles of the mountains in the background.  I used a landscape setting, wanting the whole photograph to be in focus, but also needing a fast enough shutter speed to get some freezing of the action in the flowing river.  I trained the light meter and focus area on the green of the hills in the background, with the objective of blending the light from the sky with the light from the dark green to achieve a good average.  Halfway down on the shutter button, hold it, and reframe to get the angle I wanted.  I took several shots to ensure that I had one good one.  This was it.

Foggy Mornings 3

Dale at Snag LakeNature provides us with incredible challenges in more ways than one.  On one of several trips to Lassen National Park, my husband and I went on an overnight backpacking trip to see part of the interior of this great National Park that wasn’t accessible by car.  Snag Lake was our overnight destination.  The next morning, we grabbed our cameras and walked down to the lake to take in the view and let the crisp mountain air wake us up.  Mist was rising off the lake as the sun warmed its surface, creating a mystical morning scene. 

As my husband walked down to the lake, I took a few steps back and surveyed the image in front of me.  He had stopped by one of the trees to get a wide angle view of the lake.  I told him to stay put, and took my reading off the mist rising against the mountains, hoping to get enough detail of the lake to show the mist as well as silhouette the darker parts of the scene.  My strategy was to blend the exposure readings of the mountains in the background with the light from the rising mist.  I had learned how to do this in an introductory class I took from the shop that sold me the camera, and this was one of my first practice shots. I wanted my husband in the shot.  I felt his presence would add interest and character and deminsion the lake itself.

The strategies worked, but I didn’t find out how well until I got home and had the film developed.  This trip was in 1983, long before digital cameras were even in the development process.  I still have the enlargement of this print on my wall. 

Remember, no matter how simple or complex the camera, it is just a light box.  The lens lets the light from the scene into the box and records it on the light sensitive mechanism in the camera.  In 1983, the light sensitive mechanism was film.  Today, for most people who grab a camera, it is an electronic chip or disk.    It doesn’t really matter which you use.  The basic principles of light management are the same.

Foggy Days 2

GG bridge in the fogMy husband and I were visiting the landmark Golden Gate bridge one day, in preparation for a visit from our family.  Typical San Francisco summer, I thought.  Wind, fog and cold.  San Francisco in the summer is almost always foggy.  The heat in the large agricultural valley running down the middle of the State pulls the fog in from the ocean.  Nowhere is the fog more visible in San Francisco than as it comes through the Golden Gate, obliterating the Bridge, freezing tourists, and frustrating anyone with a camera.  If you are only in San Francisco for a short time, and this is Your Day to Visit the Bridge, how do you get a decent shot in all this gloom?

Still, we were here, and I wasn’t going home without a few shots.  As we walked on the over look above Fort Mason, approaching the Bridge, I began to see the photograph emerge.  I used my telephoto to focus and take the light reading on the brown buildings at the Fort, and then, holding the shutter button half way down, reframed to include part of the bridge and the water.  The fog is there, in all its glory, creeping through the Gate and into the Bay.  The mood is somber, but the detail shows up and it tells at least one story of the weather in San Francisco.

The key to this problem is taking the exposure reading deliberately on a medium dark neutral element of the photograph.  This technique evens out the light reading for the camera, and will show detail in the structures in the image.  If I had wanted the Bridge and Fort to silhouette, I would have left the camera on a wide angle and shot.  The camera would have picked up the ambient light, and the Bridge and Fort would have been in shadow. 

Decide what you want before you shoot, and then control your camera.

Foggy Days in San Francisco

SF photographing fogSan Francisco in the summer means fog, most of the time.  The heat from the famous California agricultural valley pulls the fog in from the ocean.  In addition to freezing the tourists, it wrecks havoc with photographing one of the most famous San Francisco sites – the Golden Gate Bridge.  After all, the Bridge spans the gap between the northern Marin penninsula and the San Francisco penninsula, the Gate where the Bay enters the ocean.  The fog arrives here first!

The fog comes in many forms and sweeps across the Bridge in many patterns.  On this particular day, we were approaching San Francisco from the Marin overlooks along the Bay shore and could see the fog creeping northward.  The north tower was till in sunlight.  I wanted the color of the bridge and the Marin Headlands, and so I used the telephoto lens to frame down and pointed my little focusing and light meter square at the brown hills, held the shutter button half way down to hold the reading, and then recomposed the shot.  The results showed the fog moving northward, but retained the color of the Bridge and the headlands, and also picked up some of the sunlight illuminating the fog and turning it into a rosy glow.

The important part of this is determing what you want the final shot to look like.  If I had wanted the bridge and headlands to be dark, I would have pointed the metering poing at the fog itself.  The fog would have provided a white background against a dark Bridge and hill outline.

Hands Still Tell the Story

sutter fort CA handsWe had a field assignment in the photography workshop at Sutter’s Fort one very sunny day one spring.  The assignment was to tell the story of the people who lived and passed through this California Gold Rush provision stop on the way to the gold fields from San Francisco during the 1850’s.  Our objective was to show the detail of the activities as well as the scenes and environment.  Living history docents were there to make our job easy.  Or was it?

A group of women were in the shade catching up on their knitting, an important task when stores weren’t available to provide warm socks.  Full length shots didn’t get the detail of their handiwork.  After several attempts to show the “whole person,”  I decided to use the telephoto to frame the hands at work.  The exercise taught me a valuable lesson that I have practiced many times since when trying to photograph what people were doing.  The craft itself is a big part of the story.  I also made sure she was in even light.  The light created some texture and deminsional shadows, but theydon’t distract or cover her work.

This workshop took place many years ago, before the invention of digital cameras.  All of our work was with slide film, so we could show it in the workshop.  Slide film is quite sensitive to exposure errors and therefore a very unforgiving teacher, and we couldn’t evaluate our results until we got the film back.  Today, I might crop this further, to remove the neck and hat strings and just show the hands.  However, I didn’t do that for this commentary because I wanted to demonstrate that many interpretations are possible.