Workshop Diary

A global photographer gives us a feel for the agenda and flow of a high-end workshop when he treks to China with Art Wolfe

Sunset on Huangshan. Few places on Earth are more beautiful than China’s Huangshan (Yellow Mountain).

The opportunity to study with a master photographer in the field, to see what he or she is seeing, and to travel with someone with a knowledge of the best locations and the ideal times to photograph them, are all great reasons for taking an “on-the-road” photography workshop. There’s also the camaraderie—photographers live in an isolated bubble, and sharing the road with fellow lensmen and lenswomen can be a very enjoyable experience.

As part of the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with the who’s who of photography, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss what key components make up a successful photography workshop. When it comes to outdoor photography, four of its most popular practitioners immediately come to mind: Frans Lanting, the late Galen Rowell, Jim Brandenburg and Art Wolfe.

The November 2009 issue of Outdoor Photographer featured my experience in Lanting’s workshop in Santa Cruz, Calif. In 2011, I headed to China to join Art Wolfe, his assistant photography instructor Jay Goodrich and 14 students on a two-week workshop to experience firsthand Wolfe’s approach to creating a high-end international workshop.

The rice terraces of Yuanyang near China’s border with Vietnam have the perfect “terroir” to produce some of the best rice in the country.

Day By Day
The group rendezvouses in Shanghai, where we meet Mr. Lu, our guide for the entire trip. Additionally, a local guide will join us at each location. Expert planning is essential for a successful workshop. From his years of experience, Wolfe has compiled a comprehensive list of locations and the best time of year to photograph them. With all of the logistics taken care of, our group could focus on creating strong images.

Anyone who has ever watched Wolfe’s award-winning TV series, Travels to The Edge, knows the Seattle-based photographer likes to rise and shine on shoot days long before the sun does. We signed up to experience what it’s like to be a professional outdoor photographer, and the occasional four and five o’clock wake-up calls come with the territory.

Like any other city, Shanghai comes to life with the rising sun. The beautiful morning light is something that Wolfe isn’t going to let us miss. We head to a park where the denizens are practicing tai chi. Wolfe gives us a quick pep talk on how to capture the scene without interfering and how to use shallow depth of field to eliminate distracting backgrounds. In the midst of the futuristic architecture and cityscapes of China’s most modern city, it’s great to have the opportunity to photograph an authentic tradition from the country’s ancient past.

In the late afternoon, we board an overnight train to Tunxi, the jumping-off point for Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), the mountain range that has been reproduced in Chinese paintings since antiquity and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. We use the time on the train to get to know our workshop companions—a couple from Australia, a gentleman from Canada, the rest of us from the U.S. Most have been on previous Art Wolfe workshops to destinations including Vietnam, Japan, India and the Antarctic. While for the most part the participants aren’t professionals, they’re serious about the photographs they create and the Canons and Nikons they attach to their Really Right Stuff and Kirk ballheads atop carbon-fiber tripods. Anyone not up on the latest gear will be by the end of a travel workshop like this.

A cormorant fisherman near Yangshuo. The fishermen are favorite subjects for photographers. A workshop guide can help you to be in the right place at the right time, as well as help you work with the people you’re photographing.

The next morning, on the bus to the aerial tram that will take us up Huangshan, Wolfe explains that he wants to keep the schedule on the mountain flexible to take advantage of changing weather conditions. Wolfe has been here to witness Buddha’s Light (foguang), when the clouds create a sea around the mountain’s rocky crags. Unlike most mountains where the great view is looking up, Huangshan is best appreciated looking down.

We spend the day seeking out interesting rock formations and rendezvous at a location Wolfe has selected in plenty of time to catch a dramatic sunset. He gives us a lecture on how to find natural frames such as tree branches to give depth to our two-dimensional medium.

When the sun dips behind the granite outcroppings, we head to the Xi Hai Hotel, an incredible engineering feat, given that all the building material had to be brought up by aerial tram with lots and lots of manpower. Throughout the trip, we’re put up in three- and four-star hotels, even in remote locations where rooms are relatively sparse. Wolfe makes us work hard during the day, but makes sure we have the best possible rest each night.

The wake-up call comes when it’s still dark for those who opt for a sunrise shot. Then it’s back to the hotel for breakfast and a five-mile hike up and down thousands of steps to capture more of the dramatic landscapes Huangshan has to offer. Rather than having us backtrack, Wolfe has arranged for us to take an aerial tram down the other side of the mountain.

Dinner that night is scheduled at our hotel, the Ramada Huangshan Hotel, but word has gotten out that “the famous photographer Art Wolfe” is in town and our group is invited to a banquet hosted by local government officials. This is the kind of access that a workshop with a top photographer can provide. It doesn’t hurt that Travels to The Edge is airing this particular night in China. The dinner includes numerous toasts with a local brew that was something between rubbing alcohol and moonshine. For most of us, the next morning’s four-hour bus ride to Hangzhou Airport to catch a flight to Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, is best spent sleeping.

Kunming is China’s gateway to Southeast Asia, and after a relaxing evening and a good night’s sleep we head to Yuanyang, a mountainous region near the Chinese border with Vietnam. The main residents here are from the Hani, Yi and Miao Chinese tribes, and their rice terraces in the surrounding hills are renowned for their beauty.

It’s great to settle in at the Yunti Hotel in the town of Xinjie, our home for the next three nights. It’s our first real opportunity to edit images, have a formal PowerPoint presentation by Wolfe and attend to the basic realities of adventure travel—the laundry. (Even here, we were given some valuable tips, with a pretrip packing list stressing the need for quick-dry fabric clothing.)

A young girl poses for a photo in Yangshuo.

In the evening, Wolfe presents his work for us to better understand his modus operandi. He graduated from the University of Washington with bachelor degrees in fine arts and art education, both, years later, playing a major role in his ability to convey information successfully in a workshop format. He considers being invited on an Everest expedition, which brought him to China for the first time, his big photographic break.

Wolfe draws upon the great painters for inspiration. Impressionists such as Monet translate photographically as long exposures to create impressionist photographs. Van Gogh inspires Wolfe to incorporate movement in certain photographs. Picasso’s Cubism, Dali Surrealism, Jackson Pollock’s controlled wildness and Mark Tobey’s Asian aesthetic also find their way into an Art Wolfe photograph. M.C. Escher’s use of positive and negative space, a balance between light and dark, helps Wolfe explain to us how to make the best use of the entire photographic frame. He also points out that these artists created bodies of work rather than just a bunch of unrelated pieces, and suggests that we think in the same way.

Wolfe concludes his presentation by projecting and discussing an abstract image of the rice terraces we will photograph in the morning. He tells us to look for the balances and the power of the line, and when we encounter people working in the paddies, to use them effectively in our compositions to give a sense of scale.

The next morning, with a box breakfast in hand, we board our bus to Duoyishu Village for sunrise. A day above the rice terraces from different viewpoints yields much stronger results armed with the previous night’s suggestions. Wolfe also advises use of a polarizer to change the reflections in the shallow water of each terrace. The digital world hasn’t eliminated the need for graduated ND filters and polarizers.

We spend the night downloading, editing, having our images critiqued, then preparing for our next stop—one that has been at the top of many of my classmates’ and my destination wish list for a long time—Guilin.

After a bus ride back to Kunming and a two-hour flight, we arrive in 2,000-year-old Guilin, located on the west bank of the Li River. Its most notable features are the unique mountain formations that dot its landscape.

Part of the lure of this area in China are the small towns and villages of Guilin, such as Fuli, surrounded on one side by the Li River and three sides by mountains, a town particularly popular with artists. In the afternoon, we explore the Li River and its tributaries by boat. We settle in at our hotel in nearby Yangshuo, and in the evening head to an outdoor arena to experience “Impression Liu Sanjie,” a musical extravaganza on the Li River codirected by Zhang Yimou (known for creating the opening ceremony production at the Beijing Olympics), Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue.

A child in a field between Guilin and Yangshuo.

After a final day exploring the Guilin area, topped off by a photo session with cormorant fishermen, we head back to the hotel, where Wolfe critiques our top selections from the entire trip. Group critiques not only give workshop participants valuable feedback from Wolfe, but also a chance to see how different imagery can be from the unique perspectives of the other students. Jay Goodrich follows Wolfe with a presentation on how to get the most out of our images using Photoshop Lightroom.

Wolfe avoids the downside of workshop participants vying for the same shot by limiting the maximum amount of students. When it comes to a photography workshop, size matters. The smaller, the better, is the rule. A good workshop gives students the room to work on their own, without all of them encircling the same subject matter.

When one has the opportunity to share the road with master photographers such as Wolfe, who are so willing to share their knowledge, acute eye and experiences, it’s vital to take them up on their suggestions.

Galen Rowell told me a story that demonstrates that while showing up is half the battle, you need to take advantage of opportunities when they arrive. In Tibet, after leading his workshop students on a long day of trekking, Rowell and his group witnessed a perfect rainbow arching down from the heavens. He asked, “Does everyone want to chase rainbows?” Too exhausted, none of his students joined him. He took off on foot down a road to line up one end of the rainbow with Lhasa’s Potala Palace, where he captured one of his most memorable shots. The obvious lesson: While a master photographer can lead a group toward great opportunities, it’s still the student who must take the drink from this fountain of knowledge.

We worked hard over those two weeks, and while the early wake-up calls were seldom appreciated, the photographic opportunities were. For many, the most important thing to take away from a workshop is to understand how thoroughly Wolfe, like other photographers at the top of their game, work a subject—how hard they push themselves, physically and mentally—and to see how they see what a lesser-trained or lesser-disciplined eye might miss.

A Chinese saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” For those seeking to improve their photography, joining a workshop with a top pro can be a great leap forward.

To learn more about Art Wolfe’s workshops, visit