A private photography workshop for a single client. A chance to see the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Winter. Another check-in with the Panasonic 20-60mm zoom lens.


A client of many years got in touch with me last year to ask about getting a camera. She's an art director with decades of design and art direction experience but a relative newbie when it comes to taking her own photographs. We talked for a while and it became clear to both of us that she has a passion for landscape photography (actually lives far to the West of Austin on a picturesque ranch) but also wanted a camera that would fill in for routine and quick photo jobs around a corporate office as well as being able to handle some very informal video interviews. 

With all those things in mind my recommendation (six months ago, or longer) was one of my favorite, inexpensive cameras, the Panasonic S5. I also suggested that she buy it with the "kit" lens because I have found the 20-60mm Lumix zoom lens to be very, very good. Far better than what one normally associates with "kit" lens. She bought the camera, the lens and also the 24mm f1.8 Lumix lens because she thought she might want a faster lens in the same focal range that she already likes. She took my advice and also got a second battery to go with the camera. 

If one is coming to an interchangeable digital camera directly from an old film SLR in 2023 it is understandable that the complexity of the menus in a new digital camera and the sheer range of controls and customizations can be daunting; even overwhelming. My client watched some videos about the camera on YouTube, took a stab at reading the manual and also did a number of adventures around the ranch to get a feel for the camera but there were still a lot of things that perplexed. And some fundamental idea about digital that we pick up over time but are not always obvious. 

So right after the holidays she got in touch and asked if I would do a private, half day workshop to help her better understand her camera. Since she is smart, curious and delightful I was happy to carve out the time from my busy schedule of drinking coffee, swimming and strolling around with eccentric camera and lens combinations. 

Yesterday I pulled out my Lumix S5 and my 20-60mm zoom lens, tossed a couple extra batteries and a Rocket bulb blower into an old, worn Domke bag and met my client at the front gate of Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. A favorite haunt also of highly competent photographer and VSL reader, Frank. Here's the info about the Wildflower Center. 

With a cup of coffee in hand we settled into the on site coffee shop to go over basics, theories of use for landscapes, and basic digital camera use. We'd both been on a number of shoots together over the years. She was the lead creative person on several annual reports we did for the corporate client she works for, and as recently as last Summer she hired me to photograph the co-CEOs of the same company. I knew she had the creative vision she'd need to get good photographs and she trusted my knowledge about the technology and how to leverage it in the service of making good photographs. 

One thing that impressed me was her desire to learn how to work with the camera in fully manual settings.  She really wanted to understand and master the exposure triangle and like most people who are new to working with a manual camera her biggest question was: how do you establish a baseline for the settings? How do you know which to set first and what the optimum settings for good photographs really are?

My take on all things exposure is that unless you shoot only fast moving sports the single most impactful setting you can make is your choice of aperture. We did the usual march through the apertures on the lens to show directly the affects changing from wide open to stopped down have on depth of field. And distributed sharpness. Then we discussed shutter speed as it relates to being able effectively hand hold one's camera and also (but very importantly) the impact of shutter speed settings on subjects that move. 

Once we've figured out those two settings we can select an ISO that gives the correct exposure for a given scene. With a current, full frame camera like the S5 one can more or less confidently set the ISO in a range between 100 and 3200 and not suffer from much image degradation at all. 

Then we drilled down to understand what to do if you set the aperture you want but the scene in front of you lacks enough light to set the shutter speed you want and stay at a workable ISO. That brought us into the real of slower shutter speeds and the ability to keep the ISO low for lower noise and better color. I was impressed when she pulled a very competent tripod out of her vehicle. 

After a couple hours of menu diving, theory and demonstrations we did a long walk around the gardens. She was able to shoot a bunch of shots and work with me to fine tune her applications of what we went over. By the end she was able to master the manual settings she had been intimidated by earlier. 

It was really fun for me to work one to one with an aspiring photographer instead of having to do a workshop in a group situation. In groups there is always someone who has a hard time understanding basics bookended by an impatient prodigy who already knows it all. With a single person and a well known camera you can tailor your teaching to exactly what your "student" wants and needs to learn and you can do it even better if you own and use the same camera. 

She asked me why I default to the S5 from time to time when I have other more expensive options at hand. I had to admit that the S5 is every bit the image maker my other cameras are but it also combines long battery life, cheaper to buy batteries (great for travel), the ability to charge over USB, and it's lighter and smaller than my other full frame, interchangeable lens cameras. I also mentioned to her that the S5 was the only camera I took with me on my last travel adventure and that it worked out swell. 

Finally, if the S5 is lost or stolen it would be much easier to replace. 

The client was thrilled with the workshop and really did master manual exposure in one long session. I saw the proof in her subsequent photos. I headed for home feeling happy and somewhat proud for helping to launch someone on a fun photography adventure. I'm sure this won't be our only workshop together. We could spend a day talking about style, and ways to go through the process of shooting. 

But for now I think she'll advance quickly if she takes my advice and keeps the camera with her always and shoots on a daily basis. The feedback loop with a good digital camera is priceless for accelerated learning. 

And that's what I did on Monday.

tons of families with small children at the Center yesterday. It was gorgeous, warm 
day in January. That's for sure.