The Outdoor Classroom

I spent all of Mother’s Day studying exposure & camera lenses. I remembered my friend explaining to me that I took great pictures, but I needed a better lens on my camera. I was sure this would be a show-stopper and not a single star would appear through the aperture, but I was dedicated to trying anyway.  I visited my mom’s farm and watched my stepdad build a deck, my sister & stepsister sunbathed in the 96-degree weather. Every page I read taught me something new about improving my pictures, and each thing I learned I tested out immediately, aimed at bushes, fences, flowers, or clouds. The wind blew and for once it did not smell like chickens. This is my kind of classroom. I made dinner for my family and waited for them to go to bed. It was a thankfully clear night so the lessons could continue. I set out my quilt in the backyard and went back to class.

Without a tripod, star pictures become nearly impossible. When you leave the shutter open for 20 seconds, all movement of light gets captured. The first few shots I took with the camera in my hands, knowing full well it wouldn’t work. I was still only honing in on my perfect settings. I had the shutter speed down pat but my f-stop was set too high, and only one star would show up. I tested setting it as low as possible, which on my camera is F/4, and bang: there were more stars on the screen than I could see with my naked eyes. But they had trails behind them from where my arm had slipped. This time I set the camera on the uneven ground, and it improved, but not enough. I grabbed a stack of books and aimed at the droopy tree in mom’s backyard. The glow of our distant neighbors backlit the foliage. I looked away while the shutter was open, and knew nothing of the shooting star that passed behind the tree until the next day when I flipped through. It may have been an airplane, but I like to think it wasn’t.

I dropped out of college well over a year ago, and today I’m watching all of my friends in my year graduate. I was positive that I’d be sad or embarrassed when this time finally rolled around, but I’m not. Any space can be a classroom, any person you meet can be a teacher, and any hour can be a time to learn. Without the school system in my way, I’m free to study the things I’m interested in learning, rather than the useless liberal arts requirements. I’m spending my money on camera gear, art supplies, and music promotion instead of $20k a year on an unwanted education in a disinteresting field. I’ve found ways to promote my work, get paid to do what I love, and travel as much as I can. I have talented friends who share their knowledge and experiences for free, and I do the same for them. The world is an amazing place to learn, and more amazing when you trailblaze it yourself.

Morrow Mountain State Park, NC

Near Albermarle, NC is a magical little woodland known as Morrow Mountain. These pictures say the rest.

Mean Mug
Tiny Ecosystems

Fort Worden, WA

Years ago I made a friend named Nathan who grew up in Washington, spent three years in North Carolina, my home state, and moved back after graduation. He’s been telling me to come visit him for years, and I finally took him up on the offer. He used to spend time at Fort Worden as a child with his grandfather and hadn’t been back since he was very young. He decided I was the perfect person to show around for the first time in 11 years. I caught a couple glimpses of him reminiscing, but the most striking was at the cannon bay overlooking the Puget Sound.

The day went by, and the sun was setting, and the pink hue was just barely starting to kiss the tips of the Cascades in the distance. I switched to my zoom lens and set up camp to photograph the whole thing.

Cascade & Fade

This was one of those not-so-rare moments in a photographer’s career where they have to select between 2 amazing things going on at once. Shortly after I took my first photo of the pink Cascades, Nathan whispered: “Ally, you have to look over here.”

I shouted back “Hang on! Pink mountains!!”

“Shhhhh, just look.” and so, quietly, I turned my attention to the meadow he was pointing at. There were about seven mule deer grazing in the field.


I had to choose between putting my regular lens back on and photographing the deer or keeping the zoom lens aimed at the mountains. I only had a five minute window to catch the color shift but had no idea how long the deer would be there for, and due to their position, there was no way I could capture both in the same image without walking through the herd and possibly scaring them away, and even then there was a hill blocking my view of the mountains on the other side.

I decided my first photo of the mountains was going to have to be good enough. I don’t have much experience in animal photography and I’m always looking for a new opportunity to improve my craft. And lucky for me, I caught one looking me dead in the eyes (or in the lens I suppose).



In person, I could almost see its eyelashes batting as if to say “Ok, I’ll pose for a picture, but please leave us alone when you’re done.”

By the time I finished with the deer, the mountains had faded out, but the sky was still bright pink. We’d been following this eagle all day long, we hadn’t seen it, but we could hear it clear as day. I was hoping to catch a picture of it but didn’t have high expectations

Two men on bikes passed us and saw my camera. “If you go down that hill there, you can see the clouds doing some really cool stuff. Photographer to photographer, you have to check that out.” and led us down the hill. I ran a little further past the fences to try and catch some better angles while Nathan stayed back and talked to our new friends. Then I heard it. The unmistakable call of a Bald Eagle. He flew directly into view with the cloudy sunset backdrop and snap…

Bald Eagle over the Puget Sound

He was mine.

I started to giggle uncontrollably, took a few more pictures, and ran back to the group. Nathan started to ask what I was laughing about down there and I showed him the picture. His jaw dropped.

I don’t claim to be an experienced photographer, I’ve only been working with this camera for 3 years, but our new friend had been working for about 30 and told me I should be proud of my work. That was a touching moment in my career, and at that point, I decided I was going to try to continue photographing this amazing world we’re lucky enough to live in for the rest of my life.

Too often we limit ourselves to just one thing that we can do with the rest of our lives, select a career when you’re 14, go to college, and then do that one thing for our own personal eternities. I always felt boxed in by this concept, and for the past 8 years, I’ve been trying to find some way to focus on the things I’m good at without losing my freedom. This was the very first step in finding my way.

If you’re interested in seeing more of my work, my online photography portfolio is available Here.

This story is also available on Bivy.