Photography Jackson Hole, WY

Workshop Review by Paul Segedin

Getting to Know Your Camera: BesPhoto Workshops at Starved Rock
Posted By: Paul Segedin
Subject: Photography

Do you ever wonder what all those little buttons and dials on your new, expensive camera are for? Are you one of the few who have tried to read the manual that came with your camera and discovered that it was written by a person with less than a full command of the English language? Or are you simply interested in learning to become a better photographer?

If you answered "Yes" to any of these questions, Mike Bessler can help. The director of BesPhoto Photography, Bessler offers photography workshops at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois. Presented thrice annually (in spring, summer, and fall), the one-day workshops cater to all ranges of skill, from beginners to professional. All camera types film and digital, point-and-shoot to SLR are also welcomed.

When the last Ice Age left northern Illinois ten thousand years ago it paid some extra attention to the area around Utica. Where most of the state was scoured and planed to a pancake-like flatness, this region, located about one hundred miles southwest of Chicago, was left with a system of 18 sandstone canyons and myriad waterfalls, rivers, and streams. In stark contrast to the surrounding farmlands, Starved Rock is heavily forested with black oak, white oak, red cedar, and inhabited by a variety of wildlife including bald eagles, white-tailed deer, beavers, muskrats, and more.

These dramatic natural features make for a perfect outdoor classroom for Bessler's workshops. His extensive syllabus covers the gamut of photographic skills from understanding your equipment to composition to understanding the many controllable functions camera's offer (including shutter speed, aperture, and ISO).

The workshop begins with a brief meeting in Starved Rock State Park. The class begins with a brief introduction. Quickly we move outside, but before we start taking pictures the importance of using a tripod is discussed. Bessler carries several extra for those who don't have one, but bringing your own is recommended.

Our first assignment takes us out to LaSalle Canyon, about a two-mile drive from the park's lodge. A short hike takes us to the Illinois River where we stop for our first lesson in composition. Bessler discusses "the law of thirds," placing the primary subject in the cross-sections of the thirds grid. Also discussed are "filling the frame" and shooting moving subjects.

I've never worked with a tripod before and its utility immediately becomes apparent. By keeping the camera stationary and using the self-timer one can use longer exposures to allow more light into the camera. A cable release, Bessler explains, would be even better.

We continue hiking until we encounter a beautiful, arced wood bridge. We take time shooting the bridge from a variety of angles, before continuing to our first waterfall. Playing around with aperture settings allow the photographer to create a variety of textures from the falling water turning it seemingly into corn silk, fiber optic cable, pure mist, and crystalline water.

After a lunch break we head out to St. Louis Canyon in the park's western region. Battling mosquitoes we hike to another, taller waterfall. Along the way we stop and Bessler asks us to shoot anything we find interesting from the spot where we're standing. A rusting beer can and some wildflowers in the streambed capture my attention. We spend an hour shooting the waterfall while experimenting with ISO settings. By adjusting the ISO the same shot can be given an almost desert-like, washed out, grainy quality (at a high setting of 1600) and a much lusher, sharper quality at a lower setting of 200.

As sunset approaches we return to the main area of the park, stopping along the way to take some shots of a swampy, wooded patch that feels almost eerie with the afternoon shadows. A short walk takes us to the park's namesake, Starved Rock. Perched about 125 feet above the Illinois River, the rock provided commanding views of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam to the east and of a small island preserve for bald eagles to the northwest. The former home of a 17th-century French fort and of native American legend of a battle between the Illiniwek and Potawatomi, the peak now features a comfortable boardwalk around its perimeter and proves to be a wonderful location for our final lesson in shooting sunsets.

Again, a variety of aperture and ISO settings are experimented with. Perhaps the best lesson for shooting sunsets is simply to shoot away from the sunset (to the east). The orange and pink and purple light cast by the setting sun can provide great drama to any shot. While cloud cover reduces some of the drama of the sunset, it proves to be a moment worth waiting for as we click away.

Learning Guide Tips
The workshops is an excellent, inexpensive way to become acquainted with your camera and accessories. The tone of the class in noncompetitive and cooperative and Bessler is adept at answer technical questions in a manner beginners can follow.

Starved Rock State Park is a wonderful place to learn to shoot. Why not book a room at the stone-and-log Starved Rock Lodge and make a weekend of it!

The hiking is pretty easy. If you can climb a few flights of stairs without getting winded you'll do fine. Sandals are fine for footwear, but trails can be muddy if it has rained recently.

Don't forget to bring water, insect repellent, umbrella, tripod, and of course, your camera!

To learn more visit BesPhoto Workshops online at or phone them at 630-667-5174.

For more information about Starved Rock State Park visit their website or phone 815-667-4726.

About the Author

Paul Segedin
Paul Segedin is owner and publisher of the Learning Guide Network, Inc. His favorite activites include taking classes and writing about them.