Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Essential Elements - The photo workshop experience

While chatting the other night about what you should expect from a photo workshop and what I consider essential elements, I realized that many of my answers unexpectedly were starting with the letter “E”. I decided to  expand on that idea.  

A photo workshop whether individual, small group or large is a unique opportunity to get a super concentrated dose of photo knowledge from an expert you admire. You get to eat, sleep and breathe photography for a few hours or multiple days, while someone else takes care of planning and logistics.  A perfect place to get tons of advice and constructive evaluation, inspiration, motivation, and the opportunity to share ideas and try out new techniques.

The Essential Elements


Enthusiasm is defined as a great eagerness to be involved in a particular activity that you like and enjoy or that you think is important. I love nothing more than to share my enthusiasm for photography and teaching and want my feelings to be infectious, contagious and fire up my students. Additionally, the enthusiasm from the participants is catching and we all benefit in that atmosphere.


Teaching a workshop requires a lot of energy. Physical energy, emotional energy, and mental energy. Each of these is different, but they are interrelated, and they depend on each other. 
Mental energy is essential for creativity, problem solving and decision making.
Physical energy is staying fit and healthy and able to hike, climb and keep up the pace of long days and long nights in the field.
Emotional energy feeds enthusiasm and positive thoughts. As Mira Kirshenbaum, writes
“Emotional energy is not an adrenaline filled, run-around-like-a-nut kind of energy. It's an aliveness of the mind, a happiness of the heart, and a spirit filled with hope."

I’ve been told one of the big take a ways from my classes is “DON’T BE LAZY”. It’s probably the number one roadblock to our success. 

Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” 
~ Pablo Picasso


A strong belief that something will happen 
------- it will, but it might not be what you planned; and it may even be better!

When we go to a location with a certain image in mind we will undoubtedly leave being disappointed.  The weather, the light, logistics and terrain will probably not be what you expected or pre visualized.
An unfortunate pitfall of having predetermined expectations is that we prevent ourselves from enjoying the experience altogether and we close the door on all the other possibilities
Magic happens when you least expect it, if you let it. 

I encourage students to learn how to manage their expectations and to always be open to the opportunities and possibilities presented to them. Sometimes its not even about the image, its about the moment, the connection with nature, the experience.


For me there is a big difference between exploration and scouting.  For me scouting occurs long before a workshop and I often scout locations numerous times over many years.  Different seasons, different weather, different light, working out many possibilities for creating great images to have plenty of options in case of the inevitable unexpected. Figuring out all the logistics for transportation lodging, camping and food as well as safety and communications well before the trip. Also having skillful assistants handle the logistics during the workshop allows me to concentrate 100% on teaching.
There is also “virtual scouting” involving online resources and apps like Photo Pills, Google Earth, Tide Tables, Trails maps etc.

Exploration is what happens when I am just wandering backroads and trails looking for the what lies around the next bend or over the next hill. Often miles of driving and relentless hiking with no particular reward in mind. However, these wanderings often reveal surprising and unanticipated gifts. While in the field I encourage students to explore beyond the obvious and find something that speaks to them whether a new grand view or a more intimate macro scene.


The experience should offer illumination, clarification, information, instruction and insight. A workshop should be filled to overflowing with “ A HA” moments. 


Some participants come to a class or workshop feeling frustrated and defeated and believe like they can never get it right. They put so much pressure on themselves that they become almost paralyzed. Reverting back to their comfort zones and bad habits with photography and post processing. Some even thinking they want to quit altogether.  But the fact they have invested the time to attend a workshop or class indicates the desire for understanding and proficiency.

Even the most experience photographers need encouragement to try new techniques to get out of their comfort zone and play with different approaches to the craft. They thrive in an envronment that will stretch them in new directions.
A workshop should provide a safe place to try out new tools and new ideas. To revisit the fundamentals and build from there. To inspire, motivate and educate.


There is a definite progression in becoming a skillful and capable photographer. Although some lucky ones do jump ahead It usually follows three basic stages.  
Imitation, Simulation, and Innovation.

When we first start out most of us will imitate the images that we have admired, on social media, in books and prints. We go to the iconic locations and take the same shots we have seen so many others do. Mesa Arch, Horseshoe Bend etc. When learning to play music, imitation is a necessary part of the process. As with music, we learn the scales and basic chords, we practice old favorites that thousands have played before.  We learn to reproduce these classics faithfully and accurately. We have something to compare our results to an we can make refinements and realize what works and what doesn’t as we grow. “You learn more from what you do wrong than what you do right.”
If we get stuck at this stage, Photography can become more like trophy hunting or stamp collecting. Filling portfolios with derivative and uninspiring work.

Somewhere along the way we begin to put our own spin on compositions, maybe echoing the iconic shots and being informed by others work but adding a level of creativity and freshness by trying different angles, slightly different positions and more creative post processing skills.

This is where we truly create, transform, update and advance our craft. Where we uncover unique and unexplored locations, develop original and advanced techniques both in the field and in processing and presentation.  Creativity is thinking of something new, Innovation is the implementation of something new. 
Now we can make exceptional, distinctive images and develop techniques that others want to imitate.

Guy Tal recently cited Jerry Uelsmann who summed it up perfectly. “Constant creativity and innovation are essential to combat visual mediocrity. The photographic educator should appeal to the students of serious photography to challenge continually both their medium and themselves.” 


We have to get up early, we will miss meals, we will be tired and exhausted. We have to get really uncomfortable, too cold, too hot or too wet.  It’s easy to give up or not even get out there. This is where being with a group or just another photographer can help. Motivation to get up and out.  I don’t think anyone has ever said I wish I didn’t get up early today!

If that lens is not giving you the desired result, change it. If you need a filter, use it. If you have to wrangle your tripod, climb to a higher viewpoint or refine an image for hours….do it. Check your histogram, check your focus, check your settings. Take the time to ask yourself “how can I make this image better”. You’ll only regret what you didn’t do.


Not so much new acquisitions of equipment, although that is usually inevitable.  It’s knowing the equipment you have.  Every dial every setting understanding its capabilities and using them to their fullest to create the image and the mood you want. 
I suggest keeping a copy the camera manual in the bathroom, you might read it. (RTDM google it!). As instructors we need to become familiar with all the camera models to help students navigate their menus and set preferences and controls. 
Figure out the sweet spot on all your lenses. Which one has the best bokeh, which one makes the perfect sunstar. 
Have a camera bag/pack that’s comfortable and holds all you gear and is weather proof and easily accessible.
Have plenty of batteries fully charged and ready to go.
Remember, your shirt is not a lens cleaning cloth, have plenty of microfiber cloths on hand and use them.


As workshop leaders we have an obligation to educate our students about the ethics of being a good steward of the land and a good leader .

1.     Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
2.     Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
3.     Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
4.     Use discretion if sharing locations.
5.     Know and follow rules and regulations.
6.     Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
7.     Actively promote and educate others about these principles 

Guidelines for workshop leaders and photography educators…
  • Lead by example. Acting ethically, and explaining those ethical choices, is even more important when in front of a group. 
  • Keep group sizes small. Actively minimize your group’s impact on the places you visit and actively work to protect the experiences of those around you. It is your responsibility to make sure that your group is not disruptive to others.
  • Carefully consider the ramifications of taking a group to sensitive locations before doing so.
  • Follow rules and regulations, including permit requirements.
  • Consider showing examples of things that might make a good photograph but that should not be photographed if it requires damaging or threatening natural features (i.e., teach your students that it’s OK to walk away from a potentially good photo in some circumstances).

I will also add, be considerate of others in the field. Whether it be other photographers, other groups or tourists and visitors. Be friendly, polite and courteous. Be a good example of respectful behavior towards others. 


Never stop trying to improve, grow, and learn to be a better instructor. Take your own advice, learn from others, attend symposiums, try different approaches, experiment with new techniques, stay up to date and informed. Don’t fall back on old methods and outdated ideas. Keep in fresh and new. Stay up to date with image processing software and all the tools and techniques that are constantly being updated and improved. 
Play active role in image critiques and classroom sessions.  Learning how to analyze and critique others images will only help to critique your own. We will not all agree all the time but a robust discussion and dialog is essential to learning how to see and articulate.
Get certified in latest CPR techniques, Wilderness first aid and/or First responder. Learn the knowledge and skills and have the ability to make sound decisions in emergency situations. Learn how to treat common injuries in the back country. “When an emergency occurs in the wild, the goal must be to provide the greatest good for the greatest number in the shortest time and do no harm in the process.”

Enjoyment/ Experience

More than anything else we must have a good time.  It might not always be comfortable, easy or undemanding…… but above all else it will be fun. Enjoy the people, enjoy the place, enjoy the experience.

2020 Upcoming workshops


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