About 100 years ago, when I was in college for the first time, I somehow came across information about a photography workshop I really, really wanted to do. I was in the south and the workshop was out west, and it cost way more than the money I would earn through my summer job. I fantasized about participating, but put it off because I could not afford it. I was certain I would have another opportunity, but before I knew it the photographer who offered the workshop was gone and I was left with a lifelong regret that I didn't try harder to get into that workshop. The photographer, of course, was Ansel Adams. He was generous with his knowledge and even left his negatives to the University of Arizona for future photographers to use for learning to perfect printing.
In commercial photography there's a more competitive jockeying for position. Photographers often joke that when they hire assistants they are 'training their replacement', which can in fact be true. But in landscape and nature photography there seems to be a generosity of spirit among photographers - at least the ones I've met. (Yes, this is a generalization, but I am only speaking of my own experience.) The Summit Workshops are based on this generosity and passing of the torch, if you will. A remarkable man and photographer, Rich Clarkson, has used his leverage and connections to bring together world class photographers to teach willing students. His generosity begets generosity and the workshops provide incredible access to some of the most revered photographers in the world. But enough about the background - if you are interested in doing one of the workshops, I suggest you investigate their web site.
The Week - Intensity
I admit, I didn't know exactly what I was in for when I initially signed up for the Nature workshop at The Summit. I had attended a Creative Live class with Tom Mangelsen and he mentioned the upcoming workshop in Jackson, Wyoming. The friend who had taken me to the Creative Live class said she planned to go, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to go as well. It's always fun to attend workshops with a friend. As things worked out, though, she had to forego the workshop so I was left on my own.
I love shooting landscapes and plants, and the occasional birds, but I'm just not that great at shooting wildlife. I thought maybe I'd learn a thing or two about how to approach wildlife photography at this workshop. It was very different from what I expected.
The majority of the photographers who teach during the workshop come from a photo journalism background, as does Rich Clarkson, so there was heavy emphasis on getting the shot right in the camera. This is great practice if you've never thought of photography in this way. We started each morning before dawn, had a couple of hours to go out and shoot, then came back to our classroom to download and edit our photos within about an hour or two. We each picked three images for the afternoon critique and the rules were - no editing. You could tweak exposure and color temperature a tiny bit, and you could crop within the same aspect ratio, but severe cropping, Lightroom or Photoshop work were strictly prohibited. You could not remove anything from the photo that was originally in the image.
If you're shooting wildlife, chances are you shoot thousands of images to get one clean, sharp image. I'm accustomed to rapid editing and although finding a good photo to shoot within a short period of time was moderately stressful, it was mostly just exhilarating. Each day we were taught new techniques or given new challenges, and I was more concerned with encompassing new ideas into my workflow (such as playing with color temperature in camera) than with getting sale-worthy shots. I was disappointed not to see the amazing animals others were able to find - moose, fox, bears, etc. I might spot them, but never in a photo-worthy setting. C'est la vie. Wildlife is not predictable.
During our editing process, we were lucky to listen to lectures on a wide variety of subjects, from editing workflow to what equipment you need to really store your photos properly.
Each day, there was a brief lunch break after the morning lecture, then we gathered in the auditorium at The National Wildlife Art Museum, where our classes were held, to sit through a couple of hours of critiques. Photos were anonymous as they appeared on the screen, and remained so unless a teacher had a question for the photographer. You may have seen me mention in the past that I'm not a fan of critiques. Well, I'm not a fan of anonymous critiques by a bunch of other photographers on the internet, but critiques by experienced photographers and photo editors can be invaluable when you are learning.
There were photographers of all abilities in our class and some of the less experienced photographers may have had a harsh awakening as remarks became more pointed by the end of the week. Comments such as "Where is the picture here?" and "If I see another reflection picture I'm going to stab my eye out!" were delivered humorously, but probably cut to the quick for timid souls. But more importantly, comments about gesture, composition, exposure and subject were as valuable as a class in art history - especially for those photographers who had never looked at their images in such a critical way.
It's probably just my age, but I have some pretty strong opinions regarding what I like in my own work. There was one incident in the workshop that reinforced my instinct to trust my gut. Prior to submitting images one day I had shown one of my images to one of the teachers. He disliked it intensely. I actually really liked the image, so I went ahead and submitted it. It evoked the exact opposite reaction from another teacher, who pointed out the exact thing I liked about the image. That one comment reminded me to continue to trust my gut when it comes to my own work. After all, if a critique isn't about technical issues, it's just an opinion.
My favorite part of the workshop was the evening lectures. Each evening we were treated to two, one-hour long presentations. Each instructor gave a talk about their area of expertise and their work. We were treated to great stories, amazing photographs and genuine passion for the medium. Every single lecture was inspiring and educational. I wish I could have recorded them all to watch over and over. The participants who did not attend the evening lectures missed what I think was the meat of the program. It was the only time we got to hear, in depth, what moved these people to become who they are in the world of photography. While getting hands-on instruction from them was nice, this was worth the price of admission. From Jim Richardson's incredible story about food cultivation to Michael Forsberg's passionate study of the great plains, each lecture stood on its own as an event. (In fact, I didn't realize until he began speaking that I had watched a PBS documentary about the work Michael Forsberg is doing. It's just one example of the special contributions each of these people is making with their work. )
If you want to learn more about the amazing people who shared their stories, here are some links:
Beyond the obvious connections with the staff of The Summit, networking with the participants in the workshop was invaluable. I met so many talented and up-and-coming photographers from around the country, and found so much inspiration in their creativity, I felt positively rejuvenated by the end of the workshop. Some are passionate wildlife photographers, while others prefer human subjects. One thing that surprised me was the number of repeat students - those who were attending the workshop for the second or even the third time. I understood by the end of the week why one might return. Friendships are formed and common interests are discussed at length. It's great to find a community of like-minded people from whom one can learn new things. Some have established photo businesses and web sites while others are passionate hobbyists. Below are a few of the folks I connected with.
Dana, who just moved to Toronto.
Colin, whose only wildlife for the week was a local squirrel.
Carolyn, who is beginning her journey as a photojournalist with excellent mentors on her side.
Stephanie, who gets to shoot pics of wild animals every day as the Houston Zoo photographer!
Jennifer, who shoots loving portraits of humans and wildlife.
Jennifer, who has a great start on her journey as a wildlife photographer.
Howard, who towered over us all at 6'7" and with his magnificent bird photography. . .
And so many other wonderful people and talented photographers. There was much passion for photography in the room and many great storytellers and aspiring storytellers. The people I've listed above are actively selling their work, but there were many more who were working for specific causes in their local areas. Yes, I've listed mostly women above, but the class was about half male/half female. The ages ranged from high school to retired. There was a healthy mix of techno-phobes and those embraced the latest technology.
Should you go?
I consider every workshop an investment in my skills as a photographer, and I am satisfied if I learn one new thing from each workshop. This particular workshop may or may not be for everyone. Here are some considerations if you are thinking about signing up:
1. Cost. If you aren't serious about improving your photography, save your money. You will get the most out of the workshop if you participate fully and already have basic command of your camera. There were beginners there, but I think one should save the basics for a different type of workshop.
2. Do you shoot Nikon? The workshop is supported by Nikon Professional Services, who are present and generously lend out gear, from cameras to lenses, for participants to use during the week. People shooting other brands are welcome and can also borrow the Nikon equipment, but you have a real advantage if you shoot Nikon and already know Nikon products. There were many Canon shooters present at my workshop and I did not get the impression they felt discriminated against. By and large, most of the photographers know enough about cameras other than Nikon to help with technical issues.
3. Are you ready to have your images publicly critiqued? Some photographers did not submit images. Personally, I wanted to take advantage of every aspect of the workshop and would not have missed the critiques for anything.
4. Do you need to sleep, or eat? Once again, let me emphasize that this is an intense workshop. You can bow out of anything, but since I'm not likely to get another opportunity to do this, I wanted to be present for everything offered. You can sleep later.
5. Do you love wildlife and landscapes? This workshop is best enjoyed if you already love shooting images of wildlife and landscapes. There were several portrait photographers there who loved this workshop for the opportunity it presented for them to shoot something different. You should be prepared to get up before dawn, walk through the woods, and haul your equipment around.
The Photos I Submitted and Behind the Scenes
I already mentioned that I didn't get any iconic wildlife photos. I did the best I could with the time and locations I had. I played by the rules and did not crop or edit the images as they came out of my camera.
Below are the images I submitted for critique all week. The one I was least happy with was the fly fisherman, but we had run out of time to shoot and I really wanted to submit three photos that day. It was also the only image that got lukewarm feedback from the critics. At least I knew it, going in. I made a few errors, embarrassed myself, didn't create a great body of work, but most importantly, I learned a lot. Below are the images I submitted and some background.
On Day 1, I accidentally submitted a moonset image I had exported for posting to Facebook with my copyright on it. It was an embarrassing moment, as they specifically asked us not to put a copyright image on it. D'oh!
The image with the yellow reflections was shot shortly after I had dropped my 24-70mm lens and broken the hood. I couldn't use that perfect landscape lens until I could get it fixed, so I pulled out my trusty 105mm macro lens and when I turned around I saw the reflection. I was stressed and worried about my other lens, but I was transported by the beauty of the place and the contrast of the gnarly trees and the golden reflections. I think it was one of my best images of the week.
The image below that, of the thistle in the moonlight, was inspired by Dave Black's light painting lecture. It was my first attempt at light painting and I really fell in love with the concept.
The image of the backside of the thistle was the one I liked, but one instructor didn't. I set my white balance to 4400 to create cooler, blue light and I used my macro lens. It was freezing cold that morning and there was a strong breeze. I tried some sunrise shots of the Teton mountains, but one of my classmates unwittingly moved into the middle of my photo composition and I could never get his attention to ask him to move out of the way. Time was running out, so I went back to what I know - flowers.
The image of the blurred aspen reflection was created in frustration after a morning of chasing critters and getting no shots. I didn't want to do a straight reflection at this location because everyone does that, so I moved my camera to blur the reflection. I liked the result.
The backlit image of the yellow aspen leaves was taken in my light painting class. The leaves were actually taped to the top of a cowboy boot and I lit them from behind with a small pen light during a long exposure. It was a fun learning experience and I liked the result.
On the final day I was deeply disappointed in what I had to choose from, so I selected these bird images. Unfortunately, I submitted the wrong magpie image - I had a glorious image of it flying upward with wings open. I don't know how I clicked on the wrong version, but that's the kind of thing that happens when you have a limited time to select and submit. The critics didn't like the 'gesture' of the bird - well, of course not! Me either. But we learn from our mistakes and that's what the week was all about for me - learning.