Starting with Where I Live: Deco District in September and her recent article about local mass transit, Dr. Betty Dabney is becoming a regular contributor to the Rivard Report. She is retired from the faculties of Texas A&M’s School of Rural Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Public Health.  She has also worked for the Maryland Department of the Environment, for Fortune 50 companies, and has been an independent consultant in environmental health. We’re now seeing yet another side to this returned San Antonian; the photographer. Her pictures of the San Antonio Botanical Gardens grace our homepage this week. You can see more of her work at the Q&A below the slideshow.)

The Rivard Report is always looking for local photographers to feature on our homepage gallery – it’s easy and we pay. Interested professionals and hobbyists with a compelling visual story to share are encouraged to contact Managing Editor Iris Dimmick,

(Created with flickr slideshow).

Rivard Report: How long have you been serious about photography?

Betty Dabney: I started out as a painter in childhood, and if you know art you can tell that still informs my work in a major way. I’ve loved taking pictures all my life, but became really serious about it during a trip to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in 2001.  I was using a simple Olympus 2.1 Megapixel point-and-shoot then, but it took some amazing pictures.  “La Señora del Muro” (The Woman of the Wall) was the first image that made me realize I could be a good photographer. My images have won awards in juried shows, have been in shops and galleries, and my proudest achievement was having one in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

La Señora del Muro. Photo by Betty Dabney.
La Señora del Muro. Photo by Betty Dabney.

RR: What is the ethos of your photography?

BD: It’s all about beauty.  I want it to help people appreciate beauty all around them, in whatever their environment might be.  I strive to make an image more “real” than reality itself, to capture the essence of a subject.  I also like to do extreme close-ups to show that beauty can be found in the smallest things.  The image of the bearded iris illustrates this.

Of course the meaning of art is in the eye of the beholder, but when people see my work I want them to say, “Wow! I love that!”

RR: Do you alter your images in Photoshop?

BD: I do whatever the image calls for.  Sometimes, as in “La Señora”, the image needs nothing more, not even cropping.  I usually crop to optimize the composition and often tweak the brightness and contrast to make an image stand out.  I do use Photoshop sometimes, as well as several plug-ins.  One of my favorites is Topaz Lab’s Clean 3.  It has an adjustable “Cartooning” feature that removes some of the detail and makes the image look more like a painting. Again, depending on the image, I may convert it to black-and-white.  I don’t use exclusively color or black-and-white like some photographers; it’s all about how the image speaks to me.

Sometimes I remove extraneous structure in Photoshop if it does not contribute to the composition.  I like to say I don’t do anything with digital photography that Ansel Adams wouldn’t do.  Most people don’t know he used every trick in the darkroom!  I like to think that if you had been standing right next to Adams – taking your photograph at the same moment – your image would not look like his. Instead, it would reflect your own artistic vision.

Artistic vision may take a long time to develop.  It’s what enables you to say as soon as you see an image, “Oh, that’s an Ansel Adams!”  Or, “That’s a Betty Dabney!”

RR: Would you like to share any wisdom with budding photographers?

BD: First and foremost, it’s all about the light. Photography means “writing with light.”  Many photographers, including myself, like to shoot in the early morning or late afternoon.  The light is soft and at an angle then.  This is called “The Golden Hour” of photography.  Think about how the subject is interacting with the light.  That’s the most important rule.

Secondly, think about composition, contrast and color – “The Three C’s”).  For my compositions, everything that needs to be there should be there – if it doesn’t contribute to the image, then it’s not.  I pare the image down to its bare essentials without a lot of distractions.  That’s why I like to take close-ups; they force the viewer to focus on the subject to the exclusion of everything else.

Third, use the “Rule of Thirds”.  Divide the image into a tic-tac-toe 3×3 grid and put the center of interest at the intersection of the imaginary lines in the upper or lower right, or upper or lower left.  Don’t make the image in the dead center – boring!  Make the viewer’s eye track to the image, using all the other visual elements in the picture. First you have to understand the rules in order to know how to break them!

When I first started using digital cameras, I was very careless about taking pictures.  I thought I could fix them later on the computer.  Then I learned you have to start with the best material to wind up with the best image.  So I went through a phase where I worked very slowly and deliberately.  Now, with practice, I have learned how to be “in the zone”, to see the world with my photographer’s eye, and I work very quickly without a tripod, moving around the subject to capture different angles.

Don’t worry about having the fanciest camera.  If your work is good, it will transcend your equipment.  Even now I use a Nikon D40X single-lens reflex that is several years old.  Not state-of-the-art at all, but I like the way it fits my hand.

I don’t do studio work.  All my images are taken “as they are” in the real world.  Sometimes this makes it very difficult to achieve a good composition.  That’s part of the challenge and the fun of photography.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at