The day begins with a predawn breakfast surrounded by fellow photographers who are chatting quietly about lenses, plug-ins and graduated filters. You yawn and stretch, eager to greet daybreak and the magical light. It's the first day of the photographic workshop you've been looking forward to all year, and you listen while Lonnie Brock, who with Roger Devore founded The Nature Workshops, describes the area that the group will visit for the sunrise shoot.
Suddenly, you realize that all of the reasons why you decided to attend a workshop are happening right there in the cafe. You wanted to gain knowledge and technical skills to become a better photographer. You wanted to visit stunning locations with an accomplished professional who had already experienced those venues and would be a guide as much as a mentor. And, finally, you wanted to enjoy the camaraderie of others who are as passionate about photography as yourself.
Photography workshops provide all that and more. Workshops are about doing, sharing and learning. The Nature Workshops help students develop their technical knowledge, but that's not the only focus. "Our goal is for everyone to eventually become so automatic with the technical side of their photography that they can spend most of the time working on two other things that we consider key: their vision and a sense of their journey through nature," Brock explains. "Once one becomes relatively proficient with their equipment, they spend less time with the mechanical side of photography and more time with the creative side," he continues. "As the technical worries subside, there's more time to 'see' what's truly out there to photograph and enjoy. One can then spend time observing the way light affects different situations, the way wildlife will behave or the way different objects might interact. The more one can comfortably observe nature, the more likely it is to see wonderful photographic opportunities as they present themselves. The real goal of The Nature Workshops is to send participants home with an increased vitality for making images, no matter what their level of expertise."
The Nature Workshops are structured to provide substantial one-on-one instruction specific to individual needs. The groups are limited to no more than eight participants per instructor. Hands-on instruction is combined with an appreciation of the great outdoors to create a total nature photography experience."Photography is our means of getting out into nature," says Brock. "And even though we strive for the best results possible in our image making, we should also learn to enjoy the time and place, both while we're there and in our memories."
Like most workshops, emphasis is on "doing." Most days begin with a sunrise shoot, sometimes followed by a trip to a second area before breaking for lunch. On some days, the group informally reviews each other's images during the midday lull when lighting is less dramatic. Shooting resumes later in the day and usually lasts until no light is left. "Since we believe that most nature photographers learn more when making the images, we prefer to spend most of our time working in the field, over the camera, with the participants," says Brock.
That approach is highly appreciated by those who attend. Joseph Yeager of Langhorne, Pa., who joined one of The Nature Workshops, sums it up: "For learning and loving the photography experience, things don't get better than this."
The Arizona Highways Photo Workshops is another popular and highly regarded program. Cynthia Kershaw of Florence, Ala., has attended four of its workshops since 1999 and strongly recommends them to others. "You learn so much from the instructor and also from each other, especially during the critiques," says Kershaw. "I see my work through another's eyes. The workshops are so well organized, and everything is taken care of."
Robyn Noll, director of the Arizona Highways Photo Workshops, believes that the number-one way workshops help people become better photographers is by boosting their confidence. "Knowing that they understand what is needed to produce beautiful images is an invaluable step forward in becoming a better photographer," Noll says.
A typical day at an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop starts early. "Being dedicated to arriving at phenomenal locations at times when the light is optimal for great photographs means we're often up early to capture sunrise and the wonderful early-morning light that follows," Noll explains. "So we're often up in the dark, and sometimes the cold, waiting for those fleeting moments of golden light."
At midday, there's a classroom session, a field session, a critique or a siesta, depending on the particulars of the workshop. Evening shoots last several hours and take advantage of"golden hour" light. "Our professional instructors, who roam from student-to-student sharing their secrets for good composition and exposure, give students an in-depth, hands-on experience surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the West," Noll continues. "The days are long but rewarding!"
Other workshops that are worthy of investigation include the venerable Maine Photographic Workshops, the Rocky Mountain School of Photography and the Santa Fe Workshops. Each has a long and distinguished history. The Maine Photographic Workshops, for example, was founded in 1973 and currently offers 250 one-week workshops and master classes.
The International Experience
If you yearn to add the intrigue and excitement of an international journey to your workshop experience, many workshops that specialize in travel photography await you. You'll find that the essential recipe—expert instruction, beautiful locations and camaraderie—is the same as for domestic workshops, but the ingredients are more exotic.
A good place to begin your search for a pleasurable expedition is at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre. It produces 150 workshops each year, including eight to international destinations. A recent 11-day excursion to Papua, New Guinea, featured Jim Zuckerman, one of the world's best-known nature photographers, as the group leader. Zuckerman has been an instructor for the Centre for the past 10 years and has been guiding travel workshops for the last five years. The group was limited to 12 participants and was accompanied by Zuckerman, another staff member and Executive Director Fatima NeJame.
NeJame told us that by working with an established organization, participants can be assured that they'll visit the best spots—places that have already been researched by experienced guides—and not just tourist attractions. Travel workshops provide the opportunity to see the real country, including out-of-the-way places foreigners normally never go.
Judith Feinman, an aspiring portrait photographer from Baldwin Harbour, N.Y., went on the New Guinea trip and she agrees. Besides the expert instruction, the number-one benefit she received from the experience was"access to places I'd never have access to by myself."
NeJame explains. From the practical point of view, attending a travel workshop instead of going it alone means freedom from worrying about the details. That's especially important when visiting remote areas in countries like New Guinea. "It's turnkey travel," "Everything is done for you; all the arrangements are made. We even handle visa requirements and keep a photocopy of guests' passports. Guests concentrate on photography, and they're guaranteed the best photographic opportunities."
Another benefit of traveling with a seasoned guide—someone who has visited the venue previously—is the certainty of being in the right place at the right time to enjoy the best photographic lighting. "You can be sure that the expedition will be organized around good light," says Zuckerman. And because the entire group is made up of highly motivated photographers, it's possible to stop and shoot at anytime something photographically interesting is encountered. "People on photo tours are willing to do whatever is necessary to get images," Zuckerman adds. "Skip meals, if necessary, rise early every day—basically whatever it takes."
Meals are rarely skipped, of course. In fact, participants in the Palm Beach Photographic Centre workshops enjoy first-class accommodations and take all meals together so they can ruminate over their experiences and strengthen the spirit of camaraderie."Everyone shares their images every day, including work done by the instructor," says NeJame. "Everyone discusses what worked and what didn't. It brings on amazing improvement. People become better photographers in a hurry."
Once you've made the decision to attend an international workshop, follow this advice from the pros; some of this advice can be applied to domestic workshops as well. First, thoroughly understand how your camera operates. "Don't come to a workshop not knowing what a button does," Zuckerman suggests.
Know your other equipment, too. Bring the owner's manual along; instructors are photography experts, but can't possibly know the intimate details of every camera model. And when you're in the jungles of New Guinea, for example, there's no tech support hotline to call for help.
Pack very light. Transportation often is via small planes that enforce strict weight limits. Check the local weather several times before departure and pack accordingly. Choose durable garments that can be worn more than one day. Bring more equipment than clothing. Don't underestimate the number of shots you'll take. NeJame recommends that for a one-week trip you should carry at least 6 GB worth of memory cards, extra batteries and two devices to back up images on a daily basis.
Jim Zuckerman points out that after the New Guinea excursion, several people vowed they'd never take a notebook computer on a workshop again. While it may be convenient to have a computer at hand, Zuckerman instead recommends bringing a portable hard drive that can download and archive images directly from the camera or memory card. In fact, he says, "Bring two—one for backup. Don't be burdened by extra weight or the problem of lugging something as vulnerable as a laptop computer along."
How To Choose
If you're looking for expert instruction in a beautiful and photogenic location while enjoying the camaraderie of others who are just as passionate about photography as you are, you should attend a workshop soon. But how do you choose the right one? There are some obvious considerations, cost being a prominent one. A two-week international travel workshop can cost more than $7,000 while a local workshop can cost as little as $200 per day.
Another clear deciding factor is the workshop destination. Once you've narrowed the field to a handful of candidates, you should base your decision on the instructor. Participants, sponsors and group leaders unanimously agree that the most important factor to consider is the instructor. Ask the workshops for permission to contact previous students for recommendations. Was the group leader a good a teacher? Was he or she approachable and willing to share information? Choose the instructor carefully and the workshop will be an experience you'll savor for a lifetime.