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The Workshop Experience

Whether you’re a beginning photographer or an experienced enthusiast, build a stunning nature portfolio while learning hands-on
The Workshop Experience

The exceptional sandy beaches of southern Oregon are known for their beauty and public accessibility. They also sport fantastic examples of amazing sea stacks, the haunting geological remnants of marine terraces eroded by the power of the salty Pacific Ocean. These ancient markers of time silently watch the diminishing sunlight from their view along this Bandon beach. The weather, stormy, cold and windy, delivered intense color just before the clouds opened up and poured with rain. Photo by Stephen W. Oachs.

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.

The Workshop Experience

This little cottonwood tree found its roots in the most unlikely of places—a small pothole worn by erosion in the middle of a giant sandstone formation. Contrast is obvious in this photograph, both by color and texture, at this remote location in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Photo by Stephen W. Oachs.

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.

The Workshop Experience

This spectacular waterfall is fed from springs along the Upper Sacramento River canyon. The water cascades downward about 50 feet, flowing over a moss-covered wall feeding the river below. Mossbrae Falls is remarkable in its expansive width that spreads about 150 feet. Found outside Dunsmuir, California, it’s one of the most unique scenic waterfalls in the state, providing an almost tropical atmosphere. This winter capture, with snow peeking out among the mossy ledges, supports popular descriptions such as Shangri-la, Paradise, Garden of Eden and a piece of Hawaii. Photo by Stephen W. Oachs.

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.

The Workshop Experience

Created by deep erosion of limestone rock, Johnston Canyon flows unstopped from the high mountain regions of Canada’s Banff National Park to the Bow River below. Along Johnston Creek are many beautiful waterfalls and blue-green pools, but this only represents the calm conditions of modern day. This canyon’s history is long and violent, where the water once flowed so forcefully that giant underground caverns were formed in the wake of powerful flows. This image depicts one of the mighty remnants of Johnston Creek, an enormous limestone extrusion, captured from deep within one of the very caverns this tributary created long ago and its scale conveyed by the small human figure that looks upon it in amazement. Photo by Stephen W. Oachs.

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.

The Workshop Experience

Utah’s Zion National Park is known for many beautiful locations, but, arguably, one of the most exciting and challenging is the Zion Narrows, a 16-mile slot canyon through which flows the Virgin River. The only way to walk this magnificent landscape is to hike through the river, and depending on the season, it can be bone-chillingly cold or a rather treacherous trek. After fighting the river for nine miles, the entrance was an especially beautiful site. This photograph elegantly captures the entrance of the Narrows in fall, when the river waters are energized by the oncoming rush of changing seasons. Photo by Stephen W. Oachs.

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.

The Workshop Experience

Timelessly standing as silent sentry above the eastern end of Yosemite Valley in California, this majestic granite behemoth towers over 4,737 feet above the two glacier-carved valleys surrounding it. Once considered inaccessible to humans, Half Dome, originally called “Tis-sa-ack” (Cleft Rock) by local Native Americans, is now a major hiking and photographer’s attraction. Immortalized by Ansel Adams, Half Dome continues to be a mecca for photographers. Taken from Glacier Point, 7,214 feet above sea level, this photograph captures an ethereal perspective of Half Dome. It showcases the light and elevation, revealing the rarified atmosphere that truly makes it appear as if the view is “Halfway to Heaven.” Photo by Stephen W. Oachs.

Ask Questions!
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.

The Workshop Experience

In the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park, there’s an ever-changing terrain made up of centuries of limestone and mineral formations. This almost-alien landscape is known as Mammoth Hot Springs, a geothermal phenomenon that started possibly before the dawn of man, and continues today, building, sculpting and re-sculpting as it continually spills minerals onto the earth. These formations, called terraces, are perpetually evolving, slowly encroaching and reforming its surroundings, burying whatever previously existed, with the exception of a few trees, persistent against the constant unrest of evolution, even after their lives have ended. This photograph captures the unique light and atmosphere of an early spring sunset over the hot springs, which casts an unearthly glow over the scene, as if showing it frozen in time, forgotten by time. Photo by Stephen W. Oachs.

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

Aperture Academy
Aperture Academy provides a wide variety of learning opportunities in an à la carte, hands-on format, conducting over 150 on-location workshops around the world each year. Working with thousands of photographers at every skill level, the workshops are kept to small groups, so instructors can work closely with every student, teaching each of them at their own pace, experience and skill level. Learn more about Aperture Academy at