Let’s begin with you. Maybe you’ve just purchased your first DSLR, or maybe Santa thought you were extra-good this year and left you the latest mirrorless camera under the tree. Or, you’re like most of us and you’ve had your camera for a while, but you’ve been using it in auto mode because all those buttons and options leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed. You may even be a “weekend warrior” with a solid grasp of your camera’s controls. Whichever scenario fits you, chances are, you’re longing for more creative control of your compositions and confident postprocessing skills. You’re itching to learn professional “insider” techniques so you can produce images that reflect the inspiration and emotion you see and feel when you look through the viewfinder.
Whether a true beginner or an advanced amateur, you’re looking to learn how to take better photos, be more creative, see new places and experience new ideas. In today’s information age, there’s certainly no shortage of books, videos and online tutorials for learning just about anything, including photography. In my experience, however, the problem for photographers is that we’re a creative bunch who learn best in action, being hands-on, creating ourselves as we grow.
This gets to the very heart of why, in 2008, I founded the Aperture Academy, to conduct on-location digital photography workshops that cater to all skill levels. Aperture Academy was born from my own early experiences as a new photographer, when I struggled to learn on my own and make sense of so much misinformation online. In those early years, I had struggled with ideas and concepts, and now I can help others with the hands-on instruction that would have greatly sped up my learning curve early on.
On-Location, Hands-On Advantages
Getting out into Mother Nature with a camera can be a very rewarding experience, but all too often it can be a frustratingly disappointing one, as well. The first thing to realize is that there’s more to nature photography than technical skills. For instance, a large part of landscape photography is dependent on understanding how to adapt to ever-changing conditions, such as light and weather, which can challenge even the most experienced photographer.
A quality photography workshop will go beyond just camera operational controls to subjects like learning how to read subtle shifts in light and color temperatures to see and capture the world in new ways.
The opportunity for high-quality imagery often comes and goes quickly, especially in situations such as standing at water’s edge or overlooking a panoramic vista. Having a professional instructor by your side, guiding and coaching your aperture and exposure, and looking over your shoulder with compositional suggestions, creates an ideal learning environment.
Recently, I was leading a workshop in the Zion Narrows in Utah. Light in the canyon is tricky to read and capture, and composition is everything when telling the story with a single image. While working with one student (who was already a competent photographer), I suggested some slight shifts in composition to help exaggerate the scale of the scene and shutter variations to ensure silky, yet textured water flow. As we worked together, her photos went from good to great. I watched as she increasingly learned to “see” her capture, and that ability was strengthened from the one-on-one experience. There’s really no more valuable way to learn for a creative person than with hands-on experience.
What to Expect: Tours vs. Workshops
If you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m a visual learner; the idea of on-location photography education sounds right for me,” then you need to next consider the wide variety of options available to you. This can be a bit overwhelming, in itself, so here are a few pointers to help you choose the right experience for you.
A photo tour usually consists of a large group guided to a location. General instruction may be given, but guests usually are left to their own devices.
Pros—A group environment is generally safe, and being with like-minded individuals can be conducive to learning a few new tips and tricks.
Cons—Large group sizes can make it difficult to work freely, as you’re often competing for compositions and jockeying for a clear view. Instructors are also shooting their own images and little focus is provided to the group.
Photography workshops usually limit the number of guests and provide two or more instructors to ensure the student-teacher ratio is low for maximizing one-on-one time together.
Pros—Instruction and learning are the priority, and workshop routes are planned around the best time of day and year for optimal conditions. Instructors are there to teach versus being distracted with their own personal photography.
Cons—Workshops are often more expensive. If you are looking to enhance your individual photography knowledge and skills, however, the extra expense should be well worth it.
Once you’ve decided on the type of experience you’d prefer, it’s time to choose an operator. There are a wide variety of tour and workshop options. I highly recommend using social media and review websites to help select the right tour or workshop for you. Student and user experiences are a very valuable tool and can give you a nice “inside look” at what you’ll be selecting.
How to Prepare: Essential Gear
To ensure you’ll get the most out of your workshop experience, here are a few key tips.
• A camera that offers you manual control of shutter and aperture is ideal. This gives you full creative control and provides a great platform for your instructor to teach by.
• Stability is everything. A strong and sturdy tripod goes a long way toward helping you achieve sharp, consistent images.
• Lens choices vary greatly between locations and workshops. Usually for landscape photography, you want to bring lenses that cover a range of 16mm to 200mm. A typical combination might look something like a 16-35mm, a 50mm prime and a 70-200mm. There are single lenses that cover a range of 18-200mm (or greater), and these can be a great “walk-around” lens for vacation, but for a workshop, I highly recommend bringing a variety of lenses to ensure the best-quality end result.
• Extra memory and batteries are a must! You want to take a lot of pictures during a workshop, and running out of memory, or batteries, is a bad idea. I suggest one extra battery and a couple extra memory cards, 16 GB or greater.
• A polarizer is a must-have filter for most landscape photography. I also highly recommend a 3-stop, soft graduated neutral-density (ND) filter. I know that’s a mouthful to say, but trust me, with proper use you’ll be amazed at how much an ND filter will improve your photography.
• A shutter release cord is a nice optional piece of gear to bring along. Having a release cord allows you to fire the shutter without touching the camera, which helps prevent the slight vibrations and soft images you can get when directly firing the camera itself. I recommend a release cord over a wireless remote, as the wireless remotes are easy to misplace or lose, and batteries can fail. However, each provides the same end result.
• A good backpack is important to keep your gear padded and safe from the elements.
• A headlamp is a valuable tool for finding your way up a path after sunset.
• Camera equipment rental is an excellent option to consider, because it allows you to fully prepare and equip for a workshop or tour with minimal cost.
• Given the wide variety of locations and conditions, my best advice is to speak with your instructors and do a gear review before the workshop.
So, you’ve chosen a workshop operator that visits a location that interests you, and you’ve acquired the proper gear to maximize your learning experience. It’s time to go! You’ve arrived on location and you’re ready to begin.
The best thing to remember—ask a lot of questions! Your learning will be maximized if your instructors understand what you know, what you don’t know and what you want to know. Don’t be shy.
Too often, I work with guests who say, “I almost didn’t sign up for this trip because I thought I didn’t know enough yet,” or “I thought I’d be the one who held up the whole group because everyone else would know so much more than me.” By the end of the trip, after so much one-on-one learning, guests realize their individual skills, or lack of, weren’t problematic in the group situation, after all, and often even helped others learn things they didn’t know they wanted to learn! Questions make for a more comfortable, enjoyable and relaxed learning experience for everyone.
For me, teaching on-location landscape workshops is very rewarding. Teaching outdoor and landscape photography puts me in my element and it’s where I thrive. I find great satisfaction when someone’s face lights up and they smile when they see a quality image appear on their camera screen. Witnessing their learning and epiphanies gives me pride in a job well done. And, for those who return to us for additional workshops, it’s exciting to see their progression and watch them grow from complete beginners to seasoned photographers who have found their own style and niche.
Stephen W. Oachs is an award-winning photographer, successful entrepreneur and technology veteran. He was recognized in 2007 as wildlife photographer of the year by the National Wildlife Federation and was awarded best nature photographer in 2008 by National Geographic. Oachs founded Aperture Academy, a unique combination of fine-art photography gallery in conjunction with classroom and workshop instruction. See more of his work at stephenoachs.com.