As I’ve made abundantly clear in earlier blog posts, 2023 started with my busiest ever workshop stretch. But I’ve finally reached enough of a lull in my schedule to start processing the fruits of all this labor—not nonstop, but maybe one or two images a day if I’m lucky. Part of me feels a little overwhelmed by how how long it could take at that rate, especially since I’m just two months into the year with many more trips ahead. But another part of me looks at the things I’ve seen and photographed and remembers how uncertain I was when I turned my stable life upside-down to start leading photo workshops. If you’d have told me that in 17 years I’d have more images than I have time to process, I’d have taken it with no questions asked, so no complaints.
To say that leading photo workshops has exceeded my expectations would be a vast understatement. I came into it with 20 years of technical communications experience (teaching a programming language, tech writing, and tech support), and thirty years as a serious amateur photographer. 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?
That said, since photo workshops weren’t really much of a thing 17 years ago, I was totally winging it when I started. Having never actually taken a photo workshop myself, I didn’t even have a template for how it should be done, so I just structured mine the way I thought I’d like a workshop to be run if I were to attend one. Since then I’ve learned so much—and of course much of what I’ve learned is stuff I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. (For example, walkie-talkies seemed like a good idea, so I invested in 15 of them and now have a box of 15 once-used walkie-talkies somewhere in my garage.)
A big unknown for me was the people part of the equation—I like people, but (perhaps you’ve noticed) people can be difficult. Would every group have a difficult person (or two, or three, or…), and how would I handle them? 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 would mean herding a group of individuals with 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—it turns out 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.
But what about basic human diversity? Surely attempting to integrate 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 generating tension, these differences have created a synergy, as it turns out most experts love sharing their knowledge and experience with those who need it.
Of course diversity encompasses more than photography skill. I’ve had workshop participants from nearly every continent (no penguins so far), and (I’m pretty sure) every state in the U.S. My workshop participants have been, in no particular order, musicians, computer professionals, artists, physicians, writers, lawyers, corporate executives, electricians, accountants, bond traders, active and retired military, other professional photographers, real estate agents, clergy, stay-at-home dads and moms, a classical composer, a Hollywood graphic artist, and a Hooters girl (a very sweet young lady who would completely dash any preconceived impression of what that might mean). In one workshop I had a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon. I’ve gotten to know a woman who biked across America, and a man who hiked the entire Pacific Crest trail. I’ve had (many) gay and lesbian couples, outspoken liberals and conservatives, a couple of people in a wheelchair, a man in the final stages of cancer, the patriarch of a family that endured one of America’s most public (and irrational) scandals, and a 9/11 survivor. So it’s not hyperbole to say that I’ve learned as much from my students as they’ve learned from me.
The common denominator connecting 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, and laughter.
Of course it hasn’t all been a Disney movie. One question that comes up from time to time is whether I’ve ever had anyone attend a workshop who I would not allow in a future workshop. For a long time my answer was an immediate and emphatic, No, everyone’s been great. About 8 years ago one person changed that answer, but fortunately that turned out to be a one-off situation that hasn’t been repeated. (And thankfully that person has not attempted to sign up for another workshop.)
The bottom line is that a successful photo workshop is more about its people than it is about the location and conditions. My job is to create an environment that fosters connection, guide them to the best photography possible, then step back and let the participants themselves enjoy each other.
About this image
Of course great locations and conditions can certainly contribute to the happiness factor, and nothing makes a group happier than photographing the spectacular sights they signed up for in the first place.
I’ve already shared a couple of northern lights images from the first of the two Iceland workshops Don Smith and I did in January. Both of those images came from the workshop’s third night of photography, which I called the most spectacular aurora display I’ve ever witnessed. But after spending more time with my images from the previous night, I’m thinking maybe that proclamation was a little too hasty. But anyway, it’s not a competition, so who cares?
On our first night the group was completely shutout by an overcast sky. It didn’t help that later that night I got a text from an Icelandic friend congratulating me on getting the northern lights on the workshop’s first night, and I had to reply that unlike his vantage point in Reykjavik, we had wall-to-wall clouds up on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
While the aurora forecast was also good for our second night, the clouds persisted all day. But with clearing forecast that night, we ate dinner at a restaurant just a few minutes from Kirkjufell, then kept an eye on the sky. While waiting for the clouds to part after dinner, we got to watch Iceland’s handball team compete in the handball equivalent of the World Cup. I played a little handball in high school, this is a completely different sport (something like a soccer/basketball hybrid) that is clearly a huge deal in Iceland because half the town was crowded into this little pizza place to watch it. (It’s really a lot of fun to watch and many of us in the group got into it enough that we watched Iceland’s remaining tournament games as well.) But anyway…
The sky was just starting to clear when the game ended; by the time our bus parked at Kirkjufell the lights were dancing in all directions and we raced to the view as fast as our crampons would take us. Since this was most of the group’s first northern lights experience, I spent a few minutes getting people situated with exposure and focus. It was nice that we were the only ones out there (when we started), so everyone was free to spread out and make their own compositions.
Looking up at the variety of colors and ever-shifting forms felt like standing inside a celestial lava lamp. I started with my Sony a1 and Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens, but the lights covered so much sky that I soon switched to my Sony a7R V, which I’d pre-loaded with my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens.
I moved around based on where the display was best at the moment, most of the time trying to align the aurora with Kirkjufell, but at one point I dropped down to the bottom of the slope and shot in the other direction to capture fanning shafts in the sky above Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall). When a magnificent arcing beam stretched across the northern sky, starting in the northeast and continuing out toward the western horizon, I was extremely grateful to have a wide enough focal length to capture the entire arc with Kirkjufell.
Though the temperature was about 10 degrees, with a 20+ MPH wind (and gusts closer to 40 MPH), I hardly noticed the cold. And I suspect no one else did either, because I didn’t hear a single complaint.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
I am currently on the Big Sur Workshop with Don and a wonderful group of people from all over the USA. As you say, it is the people that make the experience almost as much as the photography and the locations. This was abundantly clear to me after essentially getting skunked out during the winter workshop with Rachel Jones Ross in the Canadian Rockies last month. It was a wonderful group of people from both the USA and Europe but, alas, the weather was not in our favor. We got snowed out or completely clouded over for the bulk of the workshop. One night morning we drove out to a location hoping for a hole in the clouds only to stay in the van and not even bother to get out into the cold! Nevertheless, we all had a great time and will cherish the few shoots that were successful (the methane bubble image that I posted on your Facebook Group is one of those for me) and it gave us a bunch of time to sit with Rachel and talk about and practice image editing.
I really want to return to Yosemite with you (hopefully for some snow in December?) since I love that area and the Fall Yosemite workshop that I did with you was my first workshop quite shortly after I bought my camera.
Be well and I look forward to sharing additional experiences and learning with you, Mark
Mark D. Leibowitz
Thanks, Mark. Yeah, stuff like that happens in a workshop. I’ve never been completely shut out, but I know my groups have some disappointments when conditions didn’t cooperate. I’ve found that as long as I’m prepared and do my best to get the most out of whatever happens, people understand. Rachel is great, so I know she did absolutely the best that was possible for you.
You bet Gary. Rachel was working really really hard to get us as much as possible.
I loved reading this Gary. You are a terrific writer, and I love reliving my happy Iceland memories. Cathy
Sent from my iPhone
Thanks so much, Cathy. Many happy memories indeed. 😊
Gary, you have brought back so many epic memories of our Iceland workshop and our epic auroras! Thanks for sharing! Having attended 6 of your workshops, I have found that all you have said about the people is utterly true: Everyone shares a great love of photography, is on a quest to capture great shots, and has the desire to learn and improve. Thanks for helping me, also, to foster these desires. –Wow! I had no idea it was only about 10 degrees! Our aurora display was so alluring that I didn’t even notice the cold!
Yes, it was truly special—it doesn’t get any better than great photography with great people.
And yeah, that I think was the coldest night of the entire 3 weeks I was in Iceland. The wind was worst at the top, near the bridge, but down lower toward the fall it was better.