Wild in Arizona: Photographing Arizona’s Wildflowers
A Guide to When, Where & How
by Paul Gill & Colleen Miniuk-Sperry
From time to time, we will review products, books, photo gear and, well, whatever else catches our fancy. You may even see food reviews or hiking gear creeping into this category! We want everyone to be aware that we don’t hold ourselves out as experts at anything. Our opinions are just that: opinions. Always go test things out for yourself. Our Real Life Reviews are meant as one possible reaction to a product, service or event, and we encourage you to post your own thoughts on our reviews. Remember, though, that your opinion will have more value if you actually have some experience with the product, service or event in question! Finally, we don’t receive any monetary benefit to reviewing products as we feel this allows us to put to words what we truly feel.
And with that, we’ll turn to our very first Real Life Review. Colleen Miniuk-Sperry has sent us her new book, co-published with Paul Gill, and entitled, Wild in Arizona: Photographing Arizona’s Wildflowers. We found Colleen and Paul’s guide book easy to understand, extremely well-organized and deftly attuned to the photographer’s needs. It’s overall a great addition to guide books on wildflowers. Read on for the nitty gritty details of our review.
Overall, Wild in Arizona is bright, clean and well laid out. The pages are crammed full of information, yet the information is organized in a thoughtful way that does not leave the reader either overwhelmed at the volume or frustrated and unable to find key content. Colleen writes in a clear yet engaging style that conveys the necessary information without putting the reader to sleep. This book is also notable in what is missing: spelling mistakes, grammatical missteps and generally poor sentence construction are common in some photography books (we admit to some guilt here) yet blessedly absent here.
The photographs are primarily by Paul although Colleen offers a strong counter-point with her fine eye for detail. The photographs are luscious, artistic and yet descriptive of the subject matter. No blown out highlights on petals or lumpy, cluttered backgrounds in this wildflower guide! There is variety in the selected images from macro detail to wide-angle context lending a richer experience of the subject matter for the reader. Taking such care to make the images both artistic and illustrative makes this book a pleasure to view as well as read, and this is one of the strengths of this guide that set it apart (and above) other flower guide books.
Another consideration for the photographer is whether the book is actually useful in the field, and the size of this book ensures that this is the case. Yay! No hauling around a giant, paper atlas! Not so small as to force a constriction of content, but not so large that the photographer is compelled to leave it at home gathering dust on the coffee table, this medium-sized, sturdy little guide will fit in the glove compartment of a car or in a photographer’s daypack which guarantees it will be taken along for the ride. The other benefit of the book being of useful size is that you get to supplement generic road maps with Paul and Colleen’s specially coded, detailed maps of specific areas.
Organizational Structure and Layout
The authors take care of ‘housekeeping matters’ such as indices of locations, the colour-coded ‘Featured Flowers’ and photography tips at the outset of the book. In fact, there is a great deal of useful information jammed in the front of the book in a fairly small section. The organized and savvy reader will no doubt bookmark sections of importance such as the overall map of Arizona with all locations marked by page number. Given that there is so much helpful information in the front end of the book, the only thing that would have made this section a bit more user-friendly would be a colour code on the pages to help the user find key pages, or a notch out of the edges in the page (similar to how encyclopedias and dictionaries are organized). This may have been prohibitively expensive to print so, as fellow photographers, we understand if this was just not feasible.
Other introductory matters, such as ‘How to Use This Book’ and basic information on Arizona’s wildflower seasons and predicting wildflower blooms provide very helpful background information at the beginning of the book. And of course no major photography guide is complete without some effort toward helping photographers understand their craft better. The authors explain exposure basics in classical terminology but in a way that is better than the average photography book. Vocabulary such as “stops” and “open up” are defined which is helpful to the novice photographer who may not be familiar with the mechanics of exposure. The charts on pages 19-21 are useful to explain the relationships of such things as ISO/film speed and light sensitivity, shutter speed and rendering motion and aperture and depth of field.
Paul and Colleen are also intrepid in tackling other basic considerations such as white balance, using the histogram for exposure and RAW vs jpeg settings. In our experience, not all photography instructors understand how to successfully explain using the histogram on digital SLRs to read exposure so it was a treat to see this concept properly explained. As well, we were cheered to read that Paul and Colleen, who are professional shooters, do not look down on the lowly jpeg as an ‘inferior’ camera setting used only be beginners who aren’t skilled enough to know better. We use RAW or jpeg as the situation demands, and we commend the authors for explaining what each setting is useful for and leaving it up to the shooter to evaluate his or her own preferences and skills.
Outdoor enthusiasts are always at the mercy of the weather, and Paul and Colleen take care to note the effects of weather on the wildflowers. This is extremely useful information to visitors who may not be aware of how weather-dependent certain blooms are. On page 24, the authors also describe useful gear to have in the event of wind or rain.
Before we get to the meat of the book, the field location section, Paul and Colleen take the time to educate the reader about the necessity for taking care of the photographer’s personal safety and the protection of fragile habitats. This is great! Photographers are uniquely placed to set an example through their actions in how to visit natural areas without destroying the fragile places that they come to photograph. Not all photographers care about or subscribe to the philosophy of reducing human impact on natural environments, so when we find this practice in a photographer’s product, we yell a gusty three cheers. A consideration for future editions might be to work into each location a small quote or informational tidbit about environmental concerns unique to a particular location or plant species. We know we, as visitors to the area, would find the information added to our understanding of the wider issues facing wildflowers in the area and enrich our appreciation for the subjects we are photographing.
In the location description section, the amount of information provided is fantastic and very well organized. Sidebars provide a snapshot of bloom time, ideal time of day, vehicle requirements for access and if the walking component is easy or more involved. On some pages, a particular flower is highlighted with further information and even a fun fact. Directions to locations and a handy map with locations of wildflower blooms marked by special icons complete the ‘quick information’ aspects of these pages. Further details are provided in the write-up accompanying each location with information about the location, compositional tips and permit information.
To break up the book, Photo Tips are scattered throughout the guide and are a useful way to educate at opportune locations. Finally, the Bloom Calendar is an excellent resource closing the book. Not only are the optimal months noted, but the Calendar aids in identification with icons that describe the plant in question as a wildflower, cactus, tree or shrub. An index completes the book, and pages with images of featured flowers are marked in bold to further aid navigation in the guide.
A Philosophical Difference?
The only criticism we had with this book is that at times it seemed to take its ‘guiding’ focus too seriously. In the location sections, not only are vantage points and lookouts described but fairly detailed instructions on how to make a particular kind of image are also included. No doubt many photographers will find these tips useful, but we can’t help but wonder if the final result may be to limit the creativity of the photographer. At worst, beginners especially may think that there is a ‘right way’ to photograph the plants or at best be disinclined to seek out their own creative response to the subject matter. As photography instructors, we teach photography as a craft and an art form. Just as a watercolour painter does not tell her students where to set up their easels during their en plein air session, we try to avoid prescribing a specific way of seeing a subject. While it is easier to have an answer provided, and no doubt there is huge demand for this kind of information, we feel photography will continue to fail as a serious art form when prescriptive recipes or a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach is taken by photography guides and instructors.
Wild in Arizona is one of the best photography guide books we’ve seen published in a long while. The guide is loaded with facts and information yet still so well organized that navigating this informative book is a dream. The images and writing are strong and showcase the beauty of the area. We appreciate the time taken by Paul and Colleen to consider the protection of the natural environment and the safety of photographers relying on the information in the book. As consumers, we would have liked to see that the book was printed with recycled paper or with paper harvested in a certified-sustainable way, but we do take note that the book was printed in the United States and not outsourced to a cheaper location (with at times questionable practices). All in all, Paul and Colleen deserve a huge pat on the back! Wild in Arizona will make a fine addition to any photographer’s library.