Intrepid adventurer Rachel Jones Ross is most in her element amid heaps of puffy snow, blooming frost flowers, skies full of stars, and methane bubbles in ice. After embarking on a psychology career, Ross fell under the spell of capturing the cosmos in awe-inspiring nocturnal landscapes that coax a delicate inner light from the cold, dark Canadian winter. She now leads photography workshops that help attendees to hone their technical skills and empower their creativity.
We caught up with Ross by email as she was planning for a new edition of her B&H-sponsored Alpha Female Retreat in the Canadian Rockies, from January 16 – 21, 2021.
JILL WATERMAN: Your bio mentions that you call the Canadian Rockies home. Are you a native of this region?
RACHEL JONES ROSS: I was born in Northern Alberta, and I’ve lived in Calgary for the past 14 years.
JW: What do you find to be the biggest advantage to living in this place?
RJR: The biggest advantage of living in Calgary is the easy access to Banff and Jasper National Parks. It is only an hour and 15-minute drive from my front door to world-class locations for photography.
Above photograph: Fire & Ice; Bow Lake, Alberta
Photographs © Rachel Jones Ross
JW: When and why did you first start making pictures? Have you always gravitated primarily to landscapes?
RJR: I’ve always had a camera in my hand. I fell in love with the technical side of photography about four years ago, when I photographed the stars for the first time. It was winter, and my first astro photo was the tail end of the Milky Way. I was completely mesmerized. I felt like someone had pulled back a curtain and allowed me to peer into the universe! I was hooked after that; I spent any and all of my free time photographing the night sky. And that gradually evolved into more and more landscape photography.
JW: Is winter your favorite season for photography? If so, what aspects of winter make it most appealing for pictures?
RJR: Winter is absolutely my favorite time of year for photography. I try not to travel during the winter months because I want to spend the winter months in the Rockies. Winter is magical. Every day the landscape changes and unfolds with frost flowers, puffy snow, and lines and textures in the ice. And the light is amazing. We get some of the most intense and fiery skies here in the winter months.
JW: What do you see as the biggest challenges to photographing winter landscapes?
RJR: Certainly, the biggest challenge for landscape photographers in the winter months is the cold. When it gets really cold, equipment doesn’t like to work, tripods freeze solid, batteries die much quicker, and the cold can be miserable to work in if you are not prepared for it. I’ve learned how to dress for the winter temperatures and, as long as I’m warm, I can enjoy the outdoors. If I have good warm layers, warm gloves, a face mask and chemical warmers in my boots and gloves I can stay outside all day or all night.
JW: Your background includes a career and/or studies in psychology. Did you also study photography in school or are you self-taught in this subject?
RJR: I am a largely self-taught in photography. I have had the pleasure of working with some amazingly talented photographers, however, and I’ve learned a lot from shooting with others. Regardless of whether I’m working with a seasoned professional or students on my own workshops, I am always learning something new, as everyone views and experiences the landscape in different ways.
JW: Did you have any early influences or role models in photography?
RJR: One of my biggest influences in landscape photography is Marc Adamus. I love his approach to working with light and composition. He is also a true adventurer. He is always looking for new locations to photograph; he will look at a topographical map of an area that hasn’t been explored, helicopter in, and hike until he finds what he is looking for. I admire his tenacity, passion, and willingness to be uncomfortable to create his art.
JW: When did you first start teaching workshops?
RJR: I first started teaching workshops about five years ago. I started teaching night photography part time, and gradually expanded into teaching full time in both landscape and astrophotography.
JW: Your January 2019 workshop was branded as an “Alpha Female Retreat,” which will be repeated in January 2021. What are the advantages to holding a workshop specifically for women, over workshops with both male and female attendees?
RJR: I think there are many advantages to having a ladies-only photography workshop. First, and speaking from personal experience, it can be intimidating as a woman to participate in workshops with men. I recently participated in a workshop in the Yukon and I was the only woman among the six participants. I was full of anxiety leading up to it, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to keep up to the guys. I know I’m strong and capable. But, somehow, I didn’t think I was as strong, or as capable as a man. I trained before the trip. I hiked with a weighted pack, and saw a sports therapist for an old injury. To my surprise, I found that I was often first in line behind our guide. I know I’m not the only woman to have these fears. Having a ladies-only workshop can help to alleviate these kinds of concerns for some women.
Second, there are far fewer women in landscape and astrophotography than there are men. Ladies workshops provide opportunities for women to connect and collaborate with other like-minded women and build community.
JW: Have you held Ladies Retreats in the past or was the 2019 workshop your first endeavor?
RJR: The 2019 retreat was my first endeavor with a ladies-only workshop. I have worked with lots of women one-on-one, often because they worry about not being able to keep up when participating in a group setting.
JW: Does your teaching style differ in a ladies’ retreat? If so, how?
RJR: When I was teaching psychology courses to college students, I had to find ways to teach to a very diverse group of students; in any given classroom, I would have students ranging from 18 to 60 years old, and coming from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds. I had to adapt my teaching style to accommodate a wide range of learning styles. I use the same approach when teaching photography. Generally, I find that women are less likely to ask questions in a group.
JW: Do the learning outcomes differ in a ladies’ retreat from the other types of workshops you teach?
RJR: The learning outcomes for photography are the same regardless of the type of class it is. I work with each student at the level they are at, and help them to work toward their goals. With women, I also want to mentor them in how to overcome the particular challenges that women face in photography.
JW: Are there any disadvantages to a female-only workshop?
RJR: Good question. I think the diversity of mixed classes can be and is often amazing. Some people will thrive in a mixed class. Having a female-only class is just a different kind of environment, and some people might thrive better in a single-female only environment.
JW: Do your background and studies in psychology come in handy when teaching a photography workshop? If so, please elaborate.
RJR: My academic background absolutely comes in handy when teaching photography. The teaching experience has been invaluable; I can always find different ways to illustrate technical concepts for different learning styles. My studies in psychology also play a big role in what I do now. People take workshops for many different reasons. I think the goal is always to develop their skills in photography. But people also take workshops for self-improvement, self-empowerment, to have adventures, and to connect with other people with similar interests. My psychology background has given me the tools to help me identify people’s needs, and to help them to work toward their goals.
JW: Based on your experiences in leading workshops, is there any one creative attribute or technical skill you find students need the most help with? Do you find this to be different between women and men?
RJR: I think one thing that students (both men and women) struggle with the most is composition. It’s something that takes time to see, and to understand how to use different lenses for different purposes. For example, students often think the function of a wide-angle lens is simply to fit more of a scene in a frame. But the unique characteristic of wide-angle lenses is the distortion built into them; it makes objects closer to the lens appear larger, which is ideal for creating compelling foregrounds with small details. I spend a lot of time working through compositions with students on location and showing them how to make small adjustments that make big improvements in their imagery.
JW: What is the primary benefit and/or skill set that you try to impart to your workshop attendees?
RJR: My primary focus is to help students understand technical aspects of photography such as camera settings and lens choices, so that they can make informed decisions about how to shoot a scene, and ultimately be able to execute their own vision for their art.
JW: You shoot with Sony gear, do you have a favorite camera or lens to work with, or a favorite combination of the two?
RJR: Oh! That’s a TOUGH question! I shoot primarily with the Sony a7R III. I love the resolution. This camera is my go-to for detailed work on a tripod. For example, I use it any time I’m focus-stacking, exposure-blending, or working on a pano. And most of the time on a tripod I’m using my wide-angle Sony 12-24 mm f/4 lens, or a Sony 16-35 mm f/2.8. But I also shoot with the Sony a9 for anything handheld. At 20 frames per second of silent shooting, it’s just so fast, and the autofocus tracking is so amazing. As for a favorite lens, that really varies. I like to keep my Sony 70-200 mm f/2.8 on the A9. That way it’s always ready if I see wildlife, or atmosphere moving across the mountain peaks.
Timeless; The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
JW: Are there any specific camera settings or modes that you gravitate to, or is this totally dependent on the situation you’re photographing?
RJR: My camera settings are totally dependent on the situation, and the ambient light.
JW: Are there any camera settings or modes that you prefer not to use, or you would not go beyond?
RJR: I typically only shoot in manual mode; I can’t think of a time when I’ve shot in aperture priority or shutter priority. But most of my work is on a SLIK Pro 724 Carbon Fiber tripod and SLIK SBH-200 DQ Ball Head with Quick Release, especially at night. In terms of settings, I don’t think there are settings that I haven’t used or tried. Some people avoid high ISO, but I’ve used ISO as high as 12,800 for night shooting. There are lots of ways to manage noise reduction at high ISO, so I push that pretty high at times.
JW: Are there any particularly helpful camera/photo/digital accessories or tools that you use when shooting, or working in post?
RJR: Absolutely! My favorite accessory that I don’t leave home without is the Luxli Viola. It’s a small, portable light that I use primarily for night photography. It has 100 different brightness settings and adjustable color temperature. And all of that can be controlled from an app on my phone. I also have a Vello Shutterboss intervalometer that I use for self-portraits and time lapse.
JW: Post-processing and compositing images play an essential part in your process. With this in mind, how would you describe your photographic vision?
RJR: I always approach photographing any landscape with processing in mind. My photographic vision is methodical. I look at the parts of the scene that make up the whole. I try to think through how I can best capture each element of the scene in camera (e.g., focus-stacking, exposure-blending, or using shallow depth of field to isolate a subject). Then I think through how I will bring those elements together in post.
For more B&H content featuring Rachel Jones Ross, watch her video 5 Tips for Magical Night Photos, listen to her recent episode of the B&H Photography Podcast, and read her five-part series 100 Nights of Photography Under the Stars on the Explora blog.