Photography Club spring break trip to Dry Tortugas

By Abby Wargo


Over spring break, the Washington College Photography Club took a trip to Dry Tortugas, Florida to practice their skills in a real-world setting.

Dry Tortugas is an island grouping at the end of the Florida Keys. Dry Tortugas National Park contains Fort Jefferson, a 19th– century military fort, and visitors can swim, snorkel, and camp.

Five members of the Photography Club, led by club advisor and Director of Digital Media Services Brian Palmer, rented a van and drove down to Florida to camp for three days and two nights in Dry Tortugas. They had to schedule the trip a year in advance to reserve a campground.

The islands are only accessible by ferry, and it takes around two hours to travel out from the mainland. The ferry leaves in the afternoon, so campers are left on their own until morning. Only 10 people are permitted to camp per night.

Palmer described Dry Tortugas as a unique place.

“It’s one of the most biodiverse reef systems in the continental U.S., but because it is protected as a national park but at the same time it’s a little bit further away from the continental U.S., there’s sort of less [human] impact,” Palmer said.

The club’s focus on the trip was to hone their underwater, architectural, and astronomy photographic skills — three things Dry Tortugas has in short order.

“We want to do some things were we kind of place [the camera] on the bottom, in the coral, and swim away and let the fish all come and get some really cool stuff, and then we’ll be swimming and shooting with regular DSLRs,” Palmer said.

Prior to this trip, the Photography Club experimented with underwater photography in the campus pool. The opportunity to shoot underwater wildlife is a new one.

“The wildlife in the pool is not so great,” Palmer said.

Fort Jefferson is the country’s largest masonry structure, but it was never fully completed. In its many iterations it was a military base, a prison, and a quarantine facility, but now it is a tourist spot.

“From an architectural standpoint, that will be kind of nice to be using that as part of the workshop and doing architectural photography,” Palmer said.

The opportunities for astronomy photography are also unique in Dry Tortugas.

“The beauty of doing astro photography here is a couple things, one, there’s not big cities nearby…there’s not a lot of [civilization,] so that’s a great thing. Another nice thing is you’ve got not just shooting the sky itself, but it’s nice to include foreground objects in your astro photography,” Palmer said. “With this, we can include elements the fort and things like that as par to the foreground and then the nice bright sky — bright in the sense that it’s dark enough that you can do these really long exposures and gather a lot more light without having the exposure become over exposed from light pollution, so you’re going to see more stars and less general glow from lights that you don’t realize [are from light pollution].”

Dry Tortugas is also a key location for migratory birds, providing Photo Club members with opportunities for bird watching and photography.

The trip to Dry Tortugas allows student photographers to immerse themselves in the learning process, since there is only so much variety on-campus practice can offer.

“There, it’s not just about bringing things in, it’s about using the ability to capture nature and what’s there, and ideally with an understanding about what you’re seeing biologically, appreciating that aspect of it, and realizing when you’re trying to capture it all that the significance of what you’re seeing,” Palmer said.

“It’s almost like a scavenger hunt,” he said.

The different types of photography students experimented with on the trip will provide them with a myriad of different photos for potential portfolios of their work.

“From a portfolio standpoint, we want students to come away with a rich portfolio with a variety of the type of photography they’ve done and things that show their ability to produce really rich imagery, but then tying that to the academic side, it’s nice to be able to say they have an awareness of what they’re seeing,” Palmer said.

This is Photography Club’s first trip to Dry Tortugas, but since 2010 the club has taken three trips to the Southwest United States.

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