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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Going on a workshop

I originally wrote about going on workshops in July 2010 for my Photo Writing. Since then I have run over 30 workshops that have been more than a day in duration as well as a number of smaller single day workshops and seen numerous students on a private basis. What I wrote in July 2010 still holds, if not being even more relevant today. 

10 years ago most middle income families didn’t own an SLR. Certainly there were video cameras and point and shoot cameras in their masses. However, SLR cameras tended to be the realm of the enthusiast. Then came the boom in digital photography and there was an attendant explosion in the numbers of digital SLRs that hit the market...and were gobbled up as if the camera buying public were an insatiable beast. A number of commentators are now saying that DSLRs have reached their saturation point. If you look at the prospected financials of the likes of Nikon this would suggest that this is true.

Part of the allure of digital photography is the immediacy of the image capture process: Point, shoot and see. No more the waiting for weeks to not only finish the film but then to have it processed at a lab before being able to see the final results. There are a number of consequences of this boom in amateur photography, one of which is the proliferation of workshops that are now available.
With all the choices out there, what does the budding workshop goer look for in a workshop. Here’s a basic list that might come in handy when choosing a workshop to go to:

·  Is it a workshop or a photo tour? This is critical in knowing what to expect from a workshop. There are plenty of outfits that claim to be running workshops, but in fact are leading a photographic tour. The difference is immense. A workshop involves a very large learning aspect, usually under the guidance of a professional photographer or instructor. Some workshops have a strong classroom based element while others take place predominantly in the field. Either way, are you being taken to a location to take photos, or are you also receiving instruction at the same time.

·  Are you going somewhere? What better than to go to an exotic location and learn how to take photographs at the same time? Be aware though that sometimes workshops based in a single location are more valuable from a learning point of view than workshops that require travel (it’s pretty difficult to teach while jolting around in the back of a Landrover for 5 hours a day). That said, travel workshops have a unique feeling to them as a workshop group become friends and fellow travellers at the same time.

·  Who is your instructor? This links in directly to the first point. A lot of photographic tours are led by prominent professional photographers. This doesn’t mean though that the photographer, as amazing as they may be, is any good as a teacher. You pay a premium to join a workshop or a photographic tour. Decide whether simply joining a photographer on a tour so that they can pay for their shoot is worthwhile or whether you actually want to get valuable one on one interaction with the photographer, which leads us to:

·  How many other photographers will there be? This is critical for someone wanting to obtain valuable learning from an instructor. A good instructor can really only handle 6-10 students while maintaining a high level of interaction. More than this and personal attention starts to fade. I personally do not take more than 10 students unless I absolutely have to (special request for instance). Ideally I would take less but sadly economy of numbers does rear its ugly head and it’s the actual students who benefit by making the course less expensive for all.

·  So how good is the instructor anyway? A recent article I read recommended that the workshop goer only uses a well-known photographer/instructor. I certainly agree with trying to avoid fly-by-nighters, but well-known is relative. A photographer may be well known in one country but completely unheard of in another. A good gauge is to look at how long the instructor has been teaching workshops for and also what their website looks like. Is the website full of awe-inspiring images, or is there also a good deal of instructional material? My preference would be to go with the photographer who also disseminates information through their websites. The former may just be another top-photographer struggling through the recession by piggybacking his/her shoots on a workshop, and for that matter:

·  Does the instructor take their own photographs? I’ve come across some internet chatter on this before. Some feel that the instructor should not even have a camera as it is the students that come first, while others feel that the instructor is a photographer and should be allowed to practice the art. My feeling is somewhere between the two. Photography to me is like breathing. So this is an admission that I do take photographs on workshops. However, the students’ images and their learning experience do come first. Quite frankly, if the instructor never picks up a camera they are going to get awfully bored. In my experience, when the light is right, the students disappear in every which direction to capitalise on it. I’ve tried the no-camera approach and not only found myself bothering the students (after-all, it’s only the rare student who needs to have their hand held the whole way), but was actually chastised by some of them as they wanted to see how I worked, resulting in my adjusting the workshop so that my images became teaching tools.

·  Is there feedback? Feedback sessions are possibly the most important aspect of the workshop and surprisingly are often overlooked by some operators. Here is the opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes. In all the workshops I run, critique sessions are built in so that students are able to learn from mistakes and apply what they have learnt the next day.

·  Who is the workshop for? This is actually quite important. Not all workshops are equal. Some workshops cover a very specific area of expertise (Macro-lighting, Landscape Composition) while others are broad in their scope. Check to see who the workshop is intended for. Advanced photographers may be disappointed going on a workshop intended to teach the basics while beginner photographers may be completely overwhelmed in a workshop geared toward intermediate and advanced photographers.

At the end of the day one of the greatest advantages of going on a workshop is the artistic stimulation that you will receive. Whether there is a competitive air among the students or not (and sometimes there is a slight undercurrent) the ideas that bounce back and forth through discussion and viewing each other’s work is incredibly stimulating. I have seen some students do a complete u-turn in their thinking purely from seeing other people’s work. There is also more energy put into finding and creating the images. It’s as if the artistic part of the brain decides, “Now I am going to work”. For me though, the simple fact that you are surrounding yourself with other photographers, talking, thinking and doing photography can only improve your skills and photographic mindset. For that reason, the instructor, if they are passionate about their work (the kind you want as an instructor), will get as much out of the workshop as the students will.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thanda Photography workshop - A start to 2012

Thanda time once more. Make that insect season actually. January's moist-oven heat, means that the insect world comes alive...that and every heat loving animal as well (read snakes). For some of the students this wasn't exactly fantastic as a drive through the bush meant tearing through innumerable Bark Spider and Garden Orb-Web Spider webs that were strewn across every open patch of bushveld available. But it made for some great shots of terrifyingly large spiders that look like Shelob from the Lord of the Rings.

On a sobering note, the current poaching crisis is affecting all of the reserves in the Zululand region. Every reserve is on high alert with Thanda as well as its neighbours now posting 24 hour patrols to protect the rhino population. Rhino deaths increased last year from 323 last year to 448 in 2011, with Kwazulu-Natal Province being the hardest hit (you can visit Stop Rhino Poaching for more information or to make a donation to save the rhino). Already, there have been 19 confirmed rhino death's in 2012, and we're only 13days in. This is shocking news for a species that might not live to see the next century, and is an appalling indictment on humankind's avarice. Thanda has also lost one of their male lions, 'Spot', to poaching since the last workshop. So it was with some sadness that I watched the now depleted South Pride on my first day back on the reserve.

On photographic matters: a number of the students struggled with low light photography this last week. Although I know that I harp on about ultimate image quality regularly, it must be said that there is a time and place for upping the ISO. Modern DSLRs are extraordinarily good at shooting in low light. The above image of a lioness and the lower image of two buffalo sparring were both taken at high ISO (1600 on a D700). Yes, the image quality is compromised, but not so much that the images cannot be blown up to as large as A3. Good post-production technique will mean that either of these images could be used as a double truck (double page spread) in a magazine. In landscape photography there is reason to shoot at the base ISO so that better detail can be retained in the shadows. For wildlife and sport photography, although the image would benefit from low ISO shooting, the reality is that getting the image is better than not getting the image at all. So be brave and crank up that ISO. Just remember that it's not the highest ISO possible that you use, but the lowest permissible ISO that you use (i.e. in the example's here the lowest permissible ISO to obtain a shutter speed that would negate camera shake and unintentional blur was 1600 ISO). 

Thanks to the students at Thanda for yet another wonderful week in the bush. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Enter 2012 and Previsualisation in Life

The end of 2011 turned into quite a busy month, hence the dearth of blog posts over the festive season. 2012 has also started off at a sprint, along with some of the complications of a New Year. Admin first then. If you are reading this and have subscribed to the Photo Writing Newsletter, but have not received your edition this month, please check your spam settings (particularly for Hotmail users) and white-list the Limephoto email address.

I'll also be posting the editorial of the Photo Writing on the blog hence forth...although for the news sections and technique piece a subscription to Photo Writing is still necessary (pdf file emailed at the beginning of each month).

Okay, admin over. Read on for the editorial from the January 2012 Photo Writing.

Previsualisation in Life

Being the father of two daughters means that I get to read a lot of storybooks with inspirational life-lesson messages that we hope our children will cling to someday. The irony of course is that the messages are maybe more relevant to the adult reader than the child listener. So with that in mind I have the moral of two stories that might make for a decent New Year’s message and motivation to draw up those resolutions once more. Yes, they are applicable to photographers.

The first is of the small train, Thomas, from ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ as he chants to himself, “I think I can, I think I can” while climbing a steep hill with a long and heavy load of carriages ahead of him as he assists Gordon, a large steam train that has given up. The second is a small picture book entitled, “Believe It, Because It Can Be”. Both stories rotate around something I’ve waxed lyrical on before…previsualisation.

The concept of previsualistion comes firmly from traditional ideas of art, whereas post-visualists are more concerned with the unique opportunities presented by the photographic medium in capturing slices of unmediated time on film (or sensor). At any rate, previsualisation requires seeing the image in the mind’s eye before the shutter is tripped, so that the previsualised image can guide the creation of the actual image. It is one of the hardest things for fine art photographers to learn.
Previsualisation stretches beyond picture-taking though. Enter Thomas the Tank Engine struggling up the hill. You need to see your success so that it can be achieved. No this isn’t a zen kind piece, it’s a realization that photographers need to set themselves goals that they can see in their mind’s eye. You want to be that great photographer one day? Then see it, believe it, and work towards it with every scrap of skill and talent that you may possess. Too many would be photographers are put off at the first hurdle. Often that hurdle is only a small one, like not getting the gig you wanted. So what? Try again. There are plenty of jobs out there and a lot of photographers vying for them. If you don’t get this one and give up, then how are you going to get the next one. Be motivated to learn from people as to why you didn’t get the job. It’ll help the next time round.

Having a vision of where you want to be is a little like running a race. Without knowing more or less where the finishing line is, a runner can’t exactly compete against other runners. Admittedly the world of professional photography is a little less linear than a straight 400m sprint race. It has a couple twists, some odd multiple options and a crazy ‘run three races at a time’ mentality. In a recent series of articles that David Noton has written about going pro he finds that there is no single way to succeed in the photographic profession. I disagree. One of the over-riding similarities between photographers that have made it in the photographic world is the commonality of wanting to make it. There is a hunger that those who drop out simply don’t have. I suspect that without visualizing your ‘place’ that you want to be in, it is very hard to develop that ‘hunger’ to succeed.

The idea of pre-visualisation in life doesn’t only extend to aspiring professional photographers though. Enthusiasts make up the greatest number in the photographic population. Again, if there is a commonality amongst this throng it is the desire to be better. So set a goal. Visualise the end. Perhaps it’s an exhibition. Maybe it’s to be a finalist in a major international photographic salon. Possibly it’s to sell an art print, or better yet, produce a book. Regardless of the end result, previsualisng that end is an important part of being able to reach that end. That’s what New Year’s resolutions are all about. The problem is that most New Year’s resolutions are vaguely structured. It’s just a hint of an idea of what to do. To get it right you need to feel, taste the end. Know that you can do it, and then follow that knowledge and use it as your ambition or your drive. So as we enter another year, don’t make resolutions that are mere wisps of a desire. Create a dream and follow it rigorously. Then the dream will become reality. Good luck and happy shooting for 2012!