Vineyard photographer Alison Shaw tells how it’s done


“Photographing Martha’s Vineyard: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them,” by Alison Shaw, Countryman Press, 2011. 112 pp., $16.95.

Alison Shaw showing you how to photograph the Vineyard is sort of like Fred Astaire showing you how to waltz.

In her first self-authored book, “Photographing Martha’s Vineyard: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them,” Ms. Shaw, who has earned her well-established reputation as one of the Island’s premier fine art photographers, gives readers an all-inclusive what, where, why, and how of using the Vineyard as inspiration for creating memorable images.

Ms. Shaw, who summered on the Island as a child, then moved here year-round in 1975, knows it intimately. Her descriptions of the towns and harbors, Bend in the Road Beach, East Beach, Lagoon Park, Quansoo Preserve, is like reading about long-time friends, and learning to see them from the inside out. As if someone were whispering in your ear, she provides background information, nuggets of history, and details that serve photographers as well as engaging any reader. “Including a moon in your photo can be akin to adding an exclamation point at the end of a sentence,” she writes.

She explains what visual phenomenon a cold front creates, how to adjust your shutter speed to capture moving water, what lens to use when photographing the Campground cottages (she reminds photographers to take time to socialize there), and where early morning light is best. Along with providing directions, and explaining how to get around, there’s a map of the Island in the front of the softbound book showing the 50 numbered locations that she refers to in the text.

The photographer takes readers from Emily Post House Garden in Edgartown to Mytoi on Chappaquiddick, from East Chop Lighthouse in Oak Bluffs to William Street Historic District in Vineyard Haven, from Cedar Tree Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in West Tisbury to Quitsa Pond in Chilmark, from Philbin Beach in Aquinnah, to the traditional Vineyard events: fireworks, fishing derby, Ag Fair, Grand Illumination Night.

With an accessible, animated yet low-key delivery, she shares her personal experiences, resume, and anecdotes, and reminds readers to always be prepared and present, camera at the ready.

“Unless you are there — standing bleary-eyed by the side of Seaview Avenue, gazing out over Nantucket Sound, clutching your travel mug of java while steadying yourself with your tripod — you will not have a chance to photograph the fast-moving crescendo of the high clouds catching fire with an orange magenta glow, rimmed with a purple-blue, as the sun reaches the point right below the horizon.”

Ms. Shaw’s own vast experience includes holding photography workshops in this country and abroad, working as a photo journalist, owning and operating, with her partner Sue Dawson, a photography gallery, and creating the photographs for books that include “Schooner,” “Morning Glory Farm,” “Raising the Salad Bar,” “Stone by Design,” and “The Photographer’s Guide to Martha’s Vineyard.”

She seems very comfortable providing practical information that is easily applicable, and delivers it in an organized yet entertaining manner. Maintaining a conversational tone, she covers equipment, accessories, technical tips on settings, filters, and tripod set ups — even the Island’s challenges and hazards that include salt spray and ticks. She explains how to work with sunsets, encourages risk-taking, and gives a Cliffs Notes lesson in composition.

Ms. Shaw advises photographers to first scout locations by looking around without the camera gear, “really looking,” and not settling for the first subject, but “holding out for the best. ”

And about the Vineyard, she writes: “It doesn’t leave you in awe. Everywhere you look is certainly not a ‘postcard.’ It’s a quieter beauty, a little more mundane, and sometimes you need to poke around a little to find it.”

It seems no surprise that Alison Shaw’s writing talents are as precise, well articulated, and effective as the dazzling photographs that accompany them. Her writing exceeds the subject matter, brining something to this book that goes beyond the particular. It becomes a sort of life-lessons primer that in its larger context offers a formula for thinking creatively and living fully. And for those who don’t take pictures, but who appreciate an insider’s knowledge of the Island along with stunning Island images, this book is a wonderful resource.