Coping with COVID: Group Photo Gatherings During a Pandemic

Milky Way over Mt. Rainier  Just before Sunrise from the August Outing © Dan Clements
Milky Way over Mt. Rainier Just before Sunrise from the August Outing © Dan Clements

Photos and story by Dan Clements

While the COVID-19 pandemic has upended most people’s lives, it has especially impacted travel and gatherings of groups. Camera clubs had to switch to zoom meetings. Meetup groups canceled events. Opportunities to go out and shoot with a bunch of fellow photographers were virtually nonexistent. This is the story of how one nature photography club learned to live with COVID: what has changed, what has worked, and how we have managed successful group gatherings over the summer. It appears that we will be dealing with the pandemic well into 2021, so this is also a road map of how we will proceed in the coming months.

Background

By way of background, Northwest Nature and Wildlife Photography (NNWP) has 2,100+ members and is based in the Mukilteo area north of Seattle. You may recall that this is the same area that recorded the first COVID case in the United States on January 24th, the first recorded death on February 29th, and was the disease’s epicenter in the US until mid-March, when cases began spiking in New York.

Washington State was hit very early. We are fortunate to have a fairly robust public health system, and political leadership that acted quickly to address the issue. On March 23rd the Governor issued a state-wide stay-at-home order, with exemptions for essential services and outdoor exercise. So how did this impact NNWP meetings and field trips?

Monthly Meetings

Our January and February monthly meetings were held as normal, but our March and April gatherings were cancelled. During April, plans were made to hold monthly meetings “virtually,” and we have been successfully meeting via a Zoom business account since May. What has helped these virtual meetings be successful? Here is a quick check list.

  • Passwords. Require passwords for entry into the virtual meeting. Lack of passwords caused many of the “bombing” issues discussed by friends and the media.
  • Facilitator. It is critical that the meeting facilitator, or whoever is the Zoom or Microsoft Team administrator, know how operate controls such as participant muting, screen sharing, handling questions, etc.
  • Crowd Control. With scores of attendees, our practice is to mute all participants, with the exception of key staff and presenters. This eliminates background distractions such as dogs barking, TV’s, vehicle traffic, and other noises. Questions and comments are submitted via chat room.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice! We have been doing two to three practice runs with our presenters prior to the meeting. Our speakers have all had a great deal of public speaking experience, but very little virtual presentation experience. Trial runs have enabled us to resolve connectivity issues, audio feedback problems, the timing of pauses for questions, and have given presenters the confidence to know things work.
  • The Unexpected Will Happen. In spite of all our advanced preparation, unexpected events have happened. Participants who are listening via cell phone have unmuted themselves, and it has taken a few seconds to see who the culprit is before they could be silenced. Participants sometimes forget they are on video. One gentleman scratched himself in an interesting part of his anatomy in front of an audience of over 100. Be prepared!
Photographers Waiting for the Right Conditions at Mt. Rainier at the August Outing © Dan Clements
Waiting for the Right Conditions at Mt. Rainier at the August Outing © Dan Clements

Travel & Group Photo Shoots

Travel and group photo shoots are a regular part of NNWP activities. Needless to say, international travel quickly ground to a halt, and US travelers are currently persona non grata on most of the planet. An October trip to Mongolia to photograph Kazak eagle hunters has been put on hold. Local travel, however, is a different matter.

For the past few years, during the summer months, we have held group photo shoots, primarily centered around Milky Way and night photography. These outings offer members a way to learn about and improve their night photography skills. They typically run for three days and two nights.

We normally review planning software like PhotoPills and Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D. Camera settings for Milky Way and star trails are discussed. Participants have a chance to explore different types of equipment, including intervalometers, lens warmers, and tripods. We wrap up with a discussion of post processing techniques and software, including Photoshop, Starry Landscape Stacker, Sequator, and StarStax.

In late May, Washington’s governor began relaxing travel restrictions and by early June it appeared our state was getting a reasonable handle in the COVID outbreak. Along the way a set of best practices began to emerge. We decided to move forward with night photo shoots in July and August, with July’s event being a tightly limited trial run of six.

Both outings were safe and successful: great photos, healthy photographers, enjoyable outings in some of the most beautiful scenery in North America. Here are some key take-aways from our experience.

  • Transportation. Carpooling was not allowed. Family members could travel together, but no other shared transportation was permitted. We also wanted to keep drive times to the photo locations under three hours so participants could make the round trip with a single tank of fuel.
  • Location. We carefully picked locations where photographers could position themselves at least ten feet away from each other. Other considerations were adequate parking, and the ability to socially distance from other photographers or visitors. The July site was Washington Pass Overlook in the North Cascades; August’s was Sunrise at 6,500’ on Mt Rainier.
  • Lodging. In recommending lodging, we contacted the motels to ask what they were doing to meet state COVID guidelines, then compared this with the actual recommendations drafted by the CDC and Washington State. Both properties we selected checked out. I had also stayed at both motels several times previously and was familiar with their ownership and operations.
  • Meals. We had no indoor dining or group meals. On the July trip participants brought their own food, with some purchasing sandwiches prepared outdoors from a local store. For the August shoot, rooms were equipped with small kitchens, so participants again brought their own food.
  • Masks. All participants had masks and were good about wearing them when in close proximity to one another. During the night photo shoots, most photographers did not wear masks. We were separated, in outdoor areas exposed to the elements, with steady breezes blowing.
  • Changes from previous Group Photo Shoots. In order to accommodate social distancing and other safety recommendations, the format of this year’s event changed considerably.
  • The PhotoPills, Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D, and camera settings discussion was not held in a group setting. It was switched to one on one via Zoom, with “how to” articles appearing in our quarterly magazine.
    • The on-site equipment exchange and discussion did not take place this year. We wanted to avoid multiple people handling the equipment.
    • The group post-processing and photo critique did not take place. Indoor group gatherings of more than five individuals are mostly prohibited in Washington state. This morphed into one-on-one sessions via Zoom or email for those wanting to participate.
    • We did not get together for meals.
Astro Photography at Washington Pass Overlook during the July Outing  © Dan Clements
Astro Photography at Washington Pass Overlook during the July Outing © Dan Clements

In Summary

In the Puget Sound area, we are fortunate to have nature in our backyards. Everything from glaciated peaks 14,410’ high, to orcas frolicking in the Salish Sea is nearby. This accessibility, along with a government leadership and public support that quickly addressed the COVID pandemic, has allowed Northwest Nature and Wildlife Photographers to continue our regular meetings and local outdoor photo shoots on a modified basis.

We have had to change our protocols to meet new safety requirements, but it has certainly been worth the effort. Although it is notoriously difficult to predict the future, it does appear likely that many COVID-19 precautions will be in place well into 2021.

It is refreshing to know we can continue meeting and photographing together in this pandemic-altered landscape.

Photo of Donna BrokDan Clements is an adventurer who has a deep appreciation and respect for the world’s natural wonders and life in its many varied forms. He has climbed, skied, sailed, SCUBA dived, and traveled throughout the world: visiting over 75 countries. After a successful 30 year career in public finance, he is working to help develop a greater appreciation of our natural environments through photography, publishing, and travel.

When he is not photographing he enjoys back country skiing, distance running, mountain biking, and opera. Everett, Washington is his base, and where he and his wife raised two sons.