A Week Without Photoshop: Would You Survive?

Travel editor Russ Johnson spends a week without Photoshop. Is he up to the challenge? Are you? Here are the rules … and the beautiful results.

I spent a week without Photoshop, Instagram … not even a mobile phone cam. And for a travel photographer like me, that is like purgatory. Are you up for the challenge of living a week without Photoshop and other tools?

Now, I admit addiction to Photoshop’s “content aware tool.” It will magically erase power poles and tourists in biker shorts. As much as I gripe about High Dynamic Range (HDR) and its ability to turn normal landscapes into surreal scenes from “Lord of the Rings,” I do use it when nature doesn’t oblige me with the right light.

So I set out to see if I could survive five days without these digital wonders. All I’d use is my natural ability — and my camera.

I am at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport for a Master Class with Joe Baraban, a veritable Jedi Knight of photography. He is schooled in the ancient ways. There was a time when a photographer made sure that everything was right before he or she clicked the shutter release, back when what you shot was what you got.

Rockport Maine Harbor

Harbor: Rockport, Maine Photo: (c) 2012 Russell Johnson

Rockport, Maine oozes quaintness with its tiny harbor. No wonder it crawls with photographers and video makers. Maine Media Workshops is best known for its photo workshops but also teaches a wide range of subjects —  including computer animation, film making and book design. Returning to campus late at night you might even see a parking lot lit up with giant movie lights.

Baraban is an A-list advertising shooter turned teacher. Look him up online and you’ll probably recognize some classic magazine ads. I signed up for his advanced workshop called Stretching Your Frame of Mind.

As a guy who has shot every travel photo cliché in the book, I felt the need for new eyes. Gear-wise, I typically travel light with one camera and one lens. And more often than not, people show up at these workshops festooned with multiple cameras and lenses that look like elephant guns.

Photo equipment marketers long ago nailed the mindset of people who think that that next new shiny piece of gear will be their tipping point to master photographer. I mean, I once took a gardening class and found out that gardeners collect fertilizers for the same reason. It’s human nature. But I digress.

Baraban told me he believes that simple is best. He looked at my camera, a Panasonic GH2, a camera I also use for video. “Too many buttons,” he pronounced.

I admit some buttons are in the wrong place and that I often hit them by mistake sending the camera off cloud-cuckoo land. At any rate, here is my story of my week without Photoshop and other bells and whistles. Rules and all.


Joe sets out the rules at our first meeting: We are to shoot before breakfast and in the evening during what photographers call “golden hour” when the sun bathes the coast of Maine in warm glow. Five shots a day for critique.

And, quelle horreur, no Photoshop. Not even cropping!

And then there is Wednesday morning. I don’t want to talk about Wednesday morning.

As a filmmaker who once used real film and spent thousands of dollars in stock for even a short project, I learned the discipline of carefully setting up shots before I pushed the button.

How lazy I have become in this shoot-’til-you-drop digital age.

Although I usually use a tripod for video, I rarely use one for still photography. With a fast lens, sensitive camera and a jiggle reduction switch, I don’t need it anymore. Or do I?  Joe says that aside from keep a camera steady, using a tripod disciplines you to analyze sixteen points of every scene to make sure that UFOs don’t appear and palm trees don’t sprout from heads. Joe, who was originally a painter, says that painting is about adding to a canvas while photography is about subtracting, making sure that what remains is important and well-placed and that there are no distractions.

Lobster boats and traps

Lobster Boats Photo: (c)2012 Russell Johnson

We are learning how to scout a location before we shoot using web sites and smart phone apps to determine the angle of the sun at any particular time so we can estimate when and where it will rise and where shadows will fall. Good photographers plan ahead, before the magic moment the photo is taken. Some of Baraban’s advertising shoots, in places like the Sahara Desert, required elaborate scouting, the hiring of crews and camels and precision timing as the window of best light sometimes only lasts a few minutes. “Follow the light” is his motto. Miss it, get something wrong, and you might have to return the next day. On a big advertising shoot, that means big bucks. Of course, now you can buy an exotic background from a stock photo web site, paste in a few beasts from the digital camel lot and add virtual lights. But it is not the real thing, when that aha moment send chills up your spine.

The alarm rings at three. Haven’t slept very much, mostly because I was anticipating the alarm going off at three. We gather in a parking lot. Our mission is to drive out to a lighthouse and light that lighthouse. When the glow of the sunrise illuminates the landscape, we will paint the lighthouse and an Old Salt out of central casting standing next it with fake sunshine supplied by a couple of  battery-operated xenon lights.

But it is pouring rain. Our perfect storm? Back to bed?

Joe checks the weather map on his iPhone.

“It’s not raining south of here. Lets go!”

We pile into three vans and drive for 40 minutes, finally arriving at our destination in a pounding rain.

“Well, let’s at least get a look at the place,” says Joe.

I reach in the back of the van and pull out a small plastic bag containing a rain slicker I had purchased in China from one of those street vendors who always appear when it starts to rain. I unzip it. Eeeuw.  It lets out a smell of plastic and something reminiscent of spoiled fish. I shake it vigorously and reluctantly put it on.

We walk toward the lighthouse. An intern from the school shoots a group photo and we scamper back to our vans and wait. One group gives up and leaves.

Maine Lighthouse Photo Shoot

But Joe is game to do something. We gather our gear and walk back to the lighthouse. The rain has lightened up a bit. We pose our Old Salt and shine a light on his face while we take turns shooting and holding umbrellas. It isn’t the pretty, golden light we came here for, but it makes our Old Salt look even saltier.

It is Friday morning, the day of the lobster feast and the big show in the barn where all of the classes make their final presentations. The show can be highly competitive, each group showing its best stuff.

We huddle to make our choices.

Joe approaches me.

“You know your lighthouse shot?  Pretty good, but there’s no light in the lighthouse. How good are you with Photoshop?,”  he asks.

Old Salt, MainePhoto with top of lighthouse pasted from another shot: (c) 2012 Russell Johnson

You can find a collection of Russ Johnson Photographs at

My favorite “Golden Hour” chart (bookmarked on my smartphone):  golden-hour.com

Maine Media Workshops
Workshops range from $375 for a 2 day class to $1095 for a week long Master Workshop.
Also offers travel destination workshops ranging from Death Valley in Winter to the Streets of Mumbai.

Meal plan $255  (the food is very good).
On campus lodging, including the meal plan:
Single: $940
Couple (queen-sized bed): $1280
There are more deluxe accommodations available off campus.

Maine Media Workshops also has a supurb gallery and bookstore above the Rockport harbor.

Rockport Maine Region