OK, Stand Six Feet From Your Camera…

By David Skernick | January 12, 2021

I’m a nature photographer and I teach—the two are deeply intermingled in my life. When I travel through the country to take photographs for my series of “back roads” books, I create workshops along the way for my favorite students. They meet up with me for four to seven days at a pre-selected site. I get there early, secure rooms, and scout the location for light and photo opportunities. By the time the students arrive, they’re pretty much guaranteed good shots and new techniques as we spend each day on the road photographing together. They are in it for the same reason I am. Call it the rapture of the capture!!

It was perfect…and then Covid.

In mid-March, 2020, I was in Death Valley with one of my groups. We heard what was going on, but you can’t get further away from everything than Death Valley. My wife asked me to pick up a bag of dog food on my way home. That’s when I understood. I almost got into a fist fight with another guy over the last 25-pound bag of Royal Canin, Large Breed Adult Dog food. (I’m happy to say that my dog, Dudley, got his food.) Others in the group tried to buy toilet paper on their way home. You know how that went.

Before I left for Death Valley, I had about 20 in-person private lessons scheduled on my calendar. Here’s how it worked—I’d go over to a student’s house, cover the fundamentals of photography and Photoshop, then drive the student to a cool place and we’d shoot together.

When I got home from Death Valley, the emails, messages and texts poured in. “Sorry—looks like we’re out of luck…my husband doesn’t think you should come over…my mother is high risk …my daughter is high risk…if it was up to me…” and so on and so on.

I started wondering how I would pay my mortgage, then remembered that my IT guy had software that allowed him access to my computer. I called him and next thing I knew I was hooked up with RemotePC. Between that and Zoom, I could now work with at least some of my students. I could even work again with a few who had moved to different states. “It’s just like having me there next to you, except that you don’t have to give me cookies,” I’d say.

OK, mortgage paid, but my feet were itching for the road.


Earlier in the year, I’d scheduled for May 2020 in Yellowstone. Twelve people had signed up. Unfortunately, the park was closed from late March until June due to the pandemic, and there was no way I’d go in the summer. Too crowded, too hot and poor light quality.

I re-scheduled the trip for early October when things seemed to be heading in the right direction. Half the people who signed up were willing to take the risk, so off we went. The “Covid Workshop” was different from any other I’ve led over the past 40 years. I’ve always driven to the location, and my students usually flew and rented cars to get to the site. This time, four of the six participants rode up with me, two to a car—we’d all been quarantining and had been very careful. The two who flew rented a car in Jackson, Wyoming.

Usually, my students room together. Nope—not this time. Six people, six single rooms. We stayed in “nice” motels on the way up—Best Westerns. (When I’m on my own, I stay in the kind of places you probably try to avoid. The ones with the “taco beds” that fold in on you when you lie down.) The women in the group came equipped with antiseptic wipes, cleaning supplies and (I think) their own linens. I trusted the motels and found them to be clean and safe.

We stayed in Jackson for a few days and slept safely at the 49’er Inn. I’ve stayed there many times on countless group trips. The only difference this time was that was that there was no maid service; once you rented your room, no one else entered it until you checked out. If you wanted anything like more towels or fresh soap, the people at the desk were happy to give it you, as long as you were wearing a mask.

The breakfast room had a few packaged selections. Eggs, bacon and potatoes were no longer options. Similar story when we stayed in West Yellowstone at the Brandin’ Iron Inn, except that they provided a bagged breakfast if you wanted it–a bagel, yogurt, orange juice and an apple. Not too bad.

For lunches, we were in good shape. I always stock my truck with coolers full of food for lunches and snacking. Picnicking is just more fun and allows us to stay in nature and spend less time away from shooting. This time I brought extra food. We made do out of the truck or got take-out dinners and found picnic tables. Restaurants were full of maskless strangers. By the end of the trip we were all eating in my room together. We felt safe within our little band.



Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone were amazingly crowded for this time of year. The tour busses were not allowed in but that didn’t dissuade families from driving to the parks. What a shock to see so many people. Off-season apparently had been canceled due to Covid.

We all kept to ourselves for the most part, wearing our masks when near others. Little groups of people huddled together. Little nods to say hello. It’s strange when you can’t tell if people are smiling. I occasionally stole away to pet a dog. I can’t resist dogs. I got yelled at for that. “David, you can’t just walk up to people like you used to!!” “Yeah…but it was a cute dog and I miss Dudley!!”

In the field, I usually look through my students’ viewfinders and share mine. It helps me coach them to take the best rendering possible of their planned composition. On this trip I’d have to ask questions like:

“Did you avoid that dead tree?”

“What it the closest thing you want in focus…what’s the furthest?” “

“What’s your focal length?”

“Where do you think you should focus?”

“What do you think your f/stop should be?”

“Did you use your depth of field preview?”

“What’s your shutter speed gonna do to that water?”

It was so much easier when I could just look into their camera while breathing all over it.

Despite the limitations, everyone brought back great photos, great stories and, most important, no Covid! Here’s a sampling of my student’s photo captures.

Just outside of Jackson, we came across some great light and stopped to shoot. I always tell my students to let light determine the subject. Kathi seized the moment:


Kathi Mangel, Backlit Trees, Photography, 2020


After Yellowstone, we drove to the nearby Grand Tetons. There’s a backroad that used to be a secret. Near the road, bears gorge on berries before hibernation. There were nonstop cars this year—the secret’s out—but somehow Sheryl nailed the perfect pose.


Sheryl Sack, Cinnamon Bear, Photography, 2020


We came across this small herd in the back of the Grand Tetons. Jackie turned it to black and white and softened the shot in processing to match the grasses. That’s something I would never think to do. I learn so much from my students!!


Jackie Rosenthal, Pronghorn in the Grass, Photography, 2020


Up until now, Carol has always flown to trip locations. Because of Covid fears, this time she drove up and back with me. She would not have had the opportunity to make this photo in Logan Canyon, Utah, if she hadn’t been on the road.


Carol Zulman, Logan Canyon, Photography, 2020


It snowed in the mountains the night before we got there, and John accentuated the snowcapped peaks by switching to black and white.


John Nelson, Tetons, Photography, 2020


In between teaching and coaching I had time for a few shots of my own— here are some that I’m pleased with.

Yellowstone is big enough that you can always find a way to be off by yourself and discover something new.


David Skernick, Angel Terrace, Photography, 2020


This one was taken along the way in Ashton, Idaho. It was Sunday, but the deserted quality of this shot describes many of the small towns we passed through.


David Skernick, Ashton, Idaho, Photography, 2020


Finally, my personal favorite, a handheld 20-shot pano with a 500mm lens.


David Skernick, River Crossing, Photography, 2020



We always conclude with a quick group photo. I think this is the only time the group wore masks when it was just us. That’s me off to the right, extreme socially distancing!

Yellowstone 2020 Group Picture


Copyright © 2021 David Skernick
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  1. Ellen Bennett on January 12, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    Wonderful essay, David. Thank you for giving us a true glimpse into your life during Covid. The photographs—both student and teacher—tell good stories.

    • David Skernick on January 12, 2021 at 3:14 pm

      Thanks my friend! Great to share space with you!!

  2. Mary Whitesides on January 12, 2021 at 2:13 pm

    David is an amazing photographer, teacher and mentor. I have traveled with him on a couple of trips and they are iconic. I wish I lived closer but alas am over 900 miles away from him and his group. I hope to join him again soon. I love his books. This article is a great description of the Yellowstone trip. Loved reading it.

    • David Skernick on January 12, 2021 at 3:13 pm

      Thanks Mary, Trips are better with you on them!!

  3. Jeannette on January 12, 2021 at 5:29 pm

    Wow, David you’re such a great photo instructor and tour leader. Can’t wait for covid to be OVER!

  4. Barbara Balik on January 12, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    You certainly don’t need me to tell you that David Skernick is an extraordinary photographer. You can see his stunning images in this article. His eye for detail is parallel to none. You may not know that he is also an exceptional teacher. Anyone lucky enough to take part in David’s travel workshops is guaranteed to learn more about photography than ever imagined. And as an extra, come away with lifelong friends who share the same passion.

  5. Diane Waldron on January 13, 2021 at 12:15 am

    I was on the Death Valley trip David speaks of when COVID hit. The photos from there and the experience was, as is the norm for his trips, exceptional due to David’s deep knowledge of the area and meticulous scouting. ALL the photos from the Yellowstone trip are AMAZING!! So looking forward to when we can all travel and shoot together again.

    • David Skernick on January 13, 2021 at 2:00 pm

      Thanks Diane! We’ll all be on the road together soon!!

  6. Judy Nussenblatt on January 13, 2021 at 1:04 am

    There is no better way to see the USA than on a photo trip with David. His “grey roads” journeys are filled with beautiful photo ops that would be completely missed if riding the highways. Reading this essay, just makes me miss the fun adventures and wonderful people all the more.

    • David Skernick on January 13, 2021 at 2:01 pm

      Thanks Judy!! We’re just 2 shots away from the next trip!!!

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