The best workshops are the ones where you forget you are in one.
Last week I spent six days taking pictures with my friends. We were in New Orleans La. sharing a wonderfully old house next to the Garden District. Five of us were working on a photo essay that we agreed would be finished by Friday. Two of us were experts on photography and photo essays. They provided valuable insight by sharing stories about past projects as well as their on-going work. They provided guidance in the form of honest and fair critiques, suggestions and examples to illustrate something important. Each day we would spend three hours looking at a selection of our pictures taken the previous day and the process of photography. This was followed by 4-5 hours working on our projects (i.e. taking pictures). We shared dinners together and later either edited the day’s pictures or talked more, but usually both. By Friday we had completed five individual essays about music, work and life in New Orleans; these were given a public showing on Saturday just before William Albert Allard, highly respected long time photographer for the National Geographic magazine, gave a talk about his current book Five decades.
Technically we were 5 students in a workshop given by Ray Ketcham, editor in chief of Rear Curtain magazine. The guest instructor was Mr. Allard, but to us they’re Ray and Bill, two generous and good people. I also need to say that in addition to being one of the students, my good friend Sabrina Henry worked very hard with Ray as the organizer, problem solver and overall gracious hostess.
My fellow students Dorothy, Daniel and Jacob, I’m sure will each talk about the week on their own blogs (links are listed below). I thought I’d share a few of my own discoveries from the week.
Things I learned from Bill:
I need a different camera for street photography
– I love my 5D Mk III but its size and weight make it impractical for street work. William Allard has been doing this type of photography for 50+ years and while he does use a DSLR for some pictures, a Leica is what he uses most of the time. I’d have to sell all my Canon gear to by a Leica and one lens and that’s too big a sacrifice. Instead I’ll save and buy something like a Fujifilm X Pro 1
for street work.
Prime lenses are better – I thought zoom was where it’s at but I was wrong. A prime (35mm) is sharper, faster and lighter than a zoom. My 50mm was a good alternative but it focuses too slowly.
Always carry your camera – It is surprising how many more opportunities for great shots will appear when your camera is hanging discretely from your neck. With the DSLR and quality lens (i.e. heavy) it is too easy to draw attention to yourself. A smaller camera can be raised to your eye for the shot with ease and often without being noticed.
Watch for separation – I have to pay more attention to separation between the different panes in an image (e.g. heads overlapping with bodies), light poles sticking out of heads.
Detail in the shadows – I tend to have dark shadows, Bill always looks for detail in the shadows. The really dark areas of your pictures add to the negative space, by opening up those shadows to reveal a little detail creates positive space that can invite your viewer to explore the image a little longer. The trick is to maintain a natural lighting effect in the image (i.e. no HDR – although my friend Daniel made a good case for adding 3 stops to get closer to the film experience).
The edges are essential – Your subject is very important, the stuff happening along the edges of the picture are almost equally important. This is new to me as I tend to exclude them because of they draw attention away from from the subject. What I didn’t realize is that those little details in the background, the way someone is looking or moving can actually add context and interest to the overall image.
Don’t Fu**ing use Photoshop – while some processing is necessary on most all images, don’t even think about digitally removing or adding content to your image. Bill was very clear about this point.
Watch the Crop – even though your camera produces 21+mega pixel files, be careful with how much cropping you do. Magazines won’t be interested in heavily cropped pictures. Just how much crop is okay is your choice. I’ll just say that it feels pretty good when you get the image you want with only minimal cropping.
Photo story vs Photo essay – In a story, some pictures play supporting roles by helping to transition from one point/place to the next. Generally these “supporting” images don’t work well on their own. In an essay, each and every picture is strong and could easily be found on a client’s wall. This is one of the most important things I took away from the week.
What I liked just as much as taking pictures were the discussions on archival of digital files, lessons we can learn from painters and writers, music, working with models, privacy laws, travel, and printing just to name a few. This was not an inexpensive week but considering how much we learned, it was almost a steal, certainly it was a once in a lifetime opportunity (but then I think I said the same thing about the workshop in Montana last year). I’m not sure how Ray and Sabrina could top this one.
I’m sure as I review my notes and pictures from the past week I’ll remember more lessons; for example, initially I picked a shot of the short guy playing trumpet over this one. Bill thought it was okay but it was a bit tight around the hat and the end of the horn, and in a perfect world the lady just off centre. would not be there.
I went back to my files to reconsider my selection realized the image at the top of this post was a better choice. It wasn’t important to show him playing the horn, instead his interaction with his bandmate was a more powerful message since it conveyed how happy they were on that day. It’s a simple change but I think effective. Bill liked my choice as well. My photo friends tell me not all workshops work this way and in fact this is something we talked about on our last night together. It probably has a lot to do with Ray’s approach and Sabrina’s organization. If you are interested in taking your photography to the next level, I encourage to get in touch with Ray.
Here are the links to some terrific photographers and friends: