One bad apple
Believe it or not, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is whether I’ve ever had anyone attend a workshop who I would not allow in a future workshop. My answer has always been an immediate and emphatic, No. That changed in a recent workshop, which got me thinking that a successful photo workshop is as much about the people as it is about the location and conditions. And while one bad apple can indeed spoil the whole bunch, it won’t if I do my job.
In the (unnamed) workshop in question, it soon became clear to everyone that my problem participant (who I’ll call PP) was just an unhappy person who wasn’t going to be satisfied no matter what I did. When PP’s complaints started, my first reaction was that I needed to fix something I must be doing wrong, but when I started getting complaints about PP from other workshop participants, my focus had to change—it’s one thing to have an isolated disgruntled customer, but when that customer affects the experience of the entire group, my priority has to be the group.
A successful photo workshop requires flexibility. Certainly in the timing and location of the shoots (which vary with conditions), but also flexibility of standard operating procedure as circumstances dictate. For example, over the years I’ve observed that much of the group connection happens in the vehicles, on the way to and from a shoot, and I’ve found that nothing enhances group chemistry better than getting everyone to ride with different people each day. But after watching participants pretty much trample each other to avoid riding with PP, I relaxed my switch vehicles “rule.” It seemed PP had found a comfort zone with two other participants who seemed satisfied with the arrangement, and I was quite content to not disturb that.
On the other hand, I can’t allow someone’s unhappiness to affect my role as a teacher and leader. I’ve learned that it’s never productive to take these things personally—I’m sure this person was struggling with things far more important than photography, and I just happened to get caught in the crossfire. Looking at it that way, I was actually able to feel compassion for my antagonist, and continue giving her the assistance she needed. We achieved a civil detente during our shooting and training time that allowed PP to get questions answered, and the rest of the group to shoot and learn without distraction.
It didn’t hurt that the rest of the group was relaxed and positive (as most groups are). We ended up with lots of truly special photography, many memorable moments, and tons of laughs—great images were made, new friendships formed, and old friendships recharged. (That several from this group are already signed up for future workshops is an endorsement that speaks even more clearly than the “Thanks for a great workshop” kudos I always appreciate.)
The big picture
One bad customer experience notwithstanding, to say that leading photo workshops has exceeded my expectations would be a vast understatement. I came into it with nearly 20 years of technical communications experience (training programmers, tech writing, tech support), and thirty years of photography experience. And as a California native who grew up camping, backpacking, and (later) photographing all of my initial workshop locations (Yosemite, Eastern Sierra, Death Valley), I was intimately familiar with my subjects. Piece of cake, right?
The big unknown for me was the people—I like people, but would every group feature a PP (or two)? (I also underestimated the business side of things, but that’s a different story that at least has a happy ending.) I mean, no longer would I be lecturing programmers and IT geeks in an air conditioned training room, delivering a canned presentation I’d offered countless times before. Leading photo workshops meant herding a group of individuals possessing a broad range of fitness, skill, equipment, expectations, and needs, through remote areas in extreme, unpredictable conditions. What could possibly go wrong?
It turns out, not too much. First, I’ve always felt that my best photography memories often come in the most extreme conditions. And guess what—most other photographers feel the same way, and will gladly endure extreme conditions in exchange for great photography. They’ll also forgive difficult conditions that prevent potentially great photography: a downpour that makes photography impossible, clear skies that bathe beautiful scenery in harsh light, clouds that block a much anticipated moonrise, and so on. The key for dealing with difficult conditions is to always have a backup plan (or two).
But what about simple human diversity? Surely combining a bunch of people with so many differences would be a recipe for disaster. Concerned about mixing struggling beginners with impatient experts, I originally toyed with the idea of minimum equipment and experience requirements. What a mistake that would have been. While most of my workshops include photography skills ranging from enthusiastic beginner to experienced pro or semi-pro, rather than create tension, these differences create a synergy as the experts love sharing their knowledge and experience with anyone who will listen.
Of course diversity encompasses more than photography skill. I’ve had workshop participants from every continent except Antarctica, and (I’m pretty sure) every state in the U.S. I’ve had doctors, lawyers, programmers, accountants, veterinarians, athletes, dentists, clergy, CEOs, writers, actors, musicians, stay-at-home moms, stay-at-home dads, and on and on. In one workshop I had a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon. I’ve had a woman who biked across America, and a man who hiked the entire Pacific Crest trail. I’ve had gays and lesbians, outspoken liberals and conservatives, a woman in a wheelchair, a man in the final stages of cancer, and a 9/11 survivor.
The common denominator transcending all this disparity? A passion for photography that unites strangers long enough to overcome superficial differences and appreciate deeper similarities: a love of family, friendship, nature, sharing, laughter.
Going with the flow (about this image)
I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves. Clearly that’s not true, as people love to point out all my flowing water, lightning, and star trail images. But adding motion to a static landscape does introduce a new layer of complication. How we deal with that motion is equal parts aesthetic instinct to convey the illusion of motion in a compelling fashion, and the technical skill to simultaneously expose properly and freeze the motion at the right time, or blur it the desired amount.
When dealing with surf I usually start with finding the right composition. When I’m satisfied with my composition, I move on to my depth of field decisions (f-stop and focus point), then meter the scene. Only when my composition and exposure are ready and waiting atop my tripod, do I start think about clicking my shutter.
Rather than one or two clicks and done, when I really like my composition I sometimes (often) click several dozen times before recomposing, varying the wave action and shutter speed with each click. (Since my exposure is set, changing my shutter speed requires a compensating ISO and/or f-stop adjustment.) Despite the fixed composition, this approach uses the motion of the waves to make each frame different from the others, often significantly different.
Following each click, I evaluate the image on my LCD for small composition and exposure refinements, and to better understand my camera’s translation of the waves’ motion. It’s not long before I have an idea of what type of wave to look for, when to time my click, and the shutter speed that creates the effect I want.
On Maui’s Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach (near Hana) a couple of weeks ago, I used a rock protruding from the black sand to anchor my foreground. I chose a vertical composition to give the rock more of my foreground than a horizontal frame would have, and to allow me to include more of the sky, which I thought had appealing clouds.
Most of the waves petered out far short of the rock, but I soon realized that the waves that worked best were those that came far enough up the beach reach or even encircle the rock. I also decided that the waves that advanced farthest created their nicest effect on their way back out. With these insights in place, there was nothing more to do watch, wait, and click. Every once in a while a wave would slide just far enough up the beach to tickle my (bare) toes and I’d click a couple of times.
Perhaps mesmerized by the rhythm of the surf, I completely misjudged the incoming wave captured here. While no earlier wave had even reached my ankles, this one soaked me well above my knees and drenched most of my shorts. By the time I realized I was going to get wet it was too late to retreat, so I just rode it out, managing this click as the wave washed back out to sea (without me or my camera, thank-you-very-much).
(And I wish I could take creative credit for the wave exploding against the rocks in the background, but that was just fortunate timing.)
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