Musings on: the benefits of a photography workshop
I thought I’d write a short piece on the single photo workshop I’ve taken part in so far. The idea of these musings is primarily to consider those things which have a significant influence on my development and ability as a photographer: I suspect that this was the most important to date. I say ‘suspect’ since I don’t think I can say anything of that sort entirely unequivocally, but I can identify several beneficial changes in my approach as a result of the workshop, so it’s certainly a strong candidate.
The workshop in question was five days on the Isle of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, led by Bruce Percy. Given the benefits of the trip to my photography, I can thoroughly recommend the investment in time and money. Even ignoring these benefits, the experience was very enjoyable. Bruce is an inspirational photographer to spend time with, as well as a thoroughly nice chap, and hence good company. Adding all that up means that the week was excellent fun if taken solely as an holiday, and very good value when considered as a whole.
The nature of the workshop
Bruce’s workshops are pretty busy, intense even; just as I hoped. This is excellent since being immersed in photography for a few days is a luxury few people can enjoy more than rarely. At that time of year, in the north of Scotland, daylight is restricted to only eight hours, and we were out on location before dawn and after dusk each day. Somehow, we also fitted in breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as around three hours of critique. Given the time of year, the critique tended to be between morning and afternoon shooting sessions, though this varies when the hours of daylight are different. Reviews of the day’s captures are a key part of Bruce’s approach to workshops since he critiques some of the images captured during the last session and constructively analyses them, including the good and the ‘less good’. I personally found this immensely useful, both the reviews of my own images and those of the other participants.
Bruce also uses these review sessions to demonstrate some of the techniques he uses in post-processing by editing the participants captures. Prior to the workshop, I’d never really considered dodging and burning; now, I do something to virtually all of my images. See my previous article on digital manipulation for a rather longer discussion on this, but suffice it to say that the critique sessions convinced me of the idea that most images benefit from some subtle, selective brightness and darkness changes after raw conversion, but usually no more than that.
There was also – and my understanding is that this is always the case – much discussion about aspect ratios throughout the workshop. I was already happy to compose with the intention of cropping from my dSLR, 3:2 frames in post-processing, but the opportunity to debate the merits of various aspect ratios with both Bruce, who has strong views on the subject, and the other attendees, was invaluable. It has made me think a great deal more about exactly how an image will look and how its dynamic can change by consciously composing in something other than 3:2. Looking back over my post-workshop images, I now have relatively few in my camera’s native ratio, and those that are I do feel ‘need’ to be that shape.
Shooting session format
Shooting sessions each day were as flexible as we, the participants, wanted them to be. Bruce moved between participants and provided assistance with composition, use of filters and the relative merits of alternative camera settings. As with any self-selecting group of people, the level of familiarity with cameras, compositional technique, and all the other things which go to make up photography, varied; but Bruce’s one-to-one guidance meant that everyone could benefit in the way they personally needed from the shooting sessions. Equally, we could all ‘do our own thing’ if we so wished.
In particular, I learnt a great deal about making simplified compositions. Since that was the primary reason I’d booked on the Harris workshop, specifically, this alone was well worth it for me. Harris is a marvellous place, but the extensive beaches can appear dauntingly empty at first. Everyone commented on this during the first dawn shoot; after a few sessions, however, we all had a much better appreciation of how to use relatively subtle features of the foreground to complement the mountainous backdrops across to the smaller islands. The two images I’d made on the island prior to the workshop starting are pleasing (see my earlier article about the making of ‘Feathered beach’), but I was ultimately better satisfied with some of the more pared down captures I made during the workshop itself, once I’d appreciated how to combine seemingly insignificant features on the beach with selective tonal modifications in post-processing to produce something which, at the very least, has shown me what can be achieved from apparent emptiness.
I also learnt how to use even, shadow-free light. I’d previously tended to assume that an image needed the drama of shadows, or the potential ‘wow’ effect of sunsets. My time on Harris illustrated superbly how colours and contrasts can often be much better captured when the light is more evenly distributed. Unfortunately for me, I also became reasonably convinced that I prefer morning light to evening light; a useful piece of learning, but not a welcome one in many ways, since I’m very much a night person. Nonetheless, it should lead to better images in the long run, if also to greater tiredness. Right now, I’m looking forward to the summer, when an horrifically early morning can easily be avoided by making it a moderately late night!
Finally – and this is a facet of the workshop I’d not anticipated fully – I gained a great deal from the discussions which result from being in the company of other photographers at various levels; not just Bruce, who is both highly knowledgeable and an excellent communicator of both technique and ideas, but the other participants. People asked many questions which I’d not have asked myself, and the experience of coming to understand someone else’s perception of a scene, their point of view on various compositions, and their general views on photographic art, was immensely useful and rewarding. The way the workshop was organised meant that we were all learning through interaction and exchange of ideas, not ‘merely’ through being taught, though clearly Bruce did teach certain techniques and approaches.
To return to my original thoughts: this was an extremely enjoyable and productive week for me and I recommend it strongly. I shall be attending another of Bruce’s workshops and fully anticipate both learning more and having a great holiday at the same time!