Have you tried a photographic workshop lately? There’s nothing quite like it for sparking fresh enthusiasm and getting the creativity moving again. Books, magazines, blogs, podcasts and seminars are good, even excellent, but a practical, hands-on workshop is better. The group dynamic makes learning more fun, while the hands-on element, with live feedback and support, makes it more effective. As a bonus, workshops also remind me of tips and techniques I already know (or think I know) but keep on forgetting to apply in the field.
“I exposed for her face”, said Esther Beaton on her travel photography workshop in Sydney. “Did your spot meter?” I asked brightly. “No, I just increased my exposure by two thirds of a stop.” Of course. I knew that. I just didn’t think of it at the time.
More recently, in Rajasthan, I struggled with the exposure for a tailor sitting a shaft of light in an otherwise gloomy shop. As I gave up, defeated by the blown highlights on my subject’s forehead, the workshop leader Matt Brandon told me to go back and try again, exposing for the highlights this time. Of course. So the shadows go really dark, even black in this case; that makes a more dramatic image if the subject is properly exposed. I knew that — why didn’t I think of it then?
Slow down, pay attention, think about the moment and the image you want to make — that was one of the core lessons I learned during a two week photo tour and workshop in Rajasthan. That, and the need for much more conscious practice, so I don’t overlook key elements (like a distracting background or that lamp-post behind my subject’s head) or let technical issues distract me at the critical moment.
Rajasthan also marked a breakthrough for me: I started photographing people as well as places. I don’t mean crowd scenes where no one is singled out, but actual up front and personal, “may I take your photo?” people shots. That has been a glaring gap in my travel photography for far too long. Standing back and sniping from a distance with a long lens feels uncomfortably like stalking, while the idea of getting closer and asking permission is intimidating. It’s easier to wimp out altogether and move on to the next photo-opportunity especially if, like me, you have no confidence in your ability to take good people photographs…
That’s one of the best things about a good photography workshop: to make the most of it, you have to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. The group energy helps too — not just safety in numbers, but also extra support and encouragement as we are all there to learn together. That certainly made it easier for me to take a deep breath and start engaging with the people I wanted to photograph in Rajasthan. And so I discovered that photographing strangers can be a fun and rewarding experience, if you are genuinely interested and willing to spend a little time. The courtesy, patience and humour of the people who let me photograph them is one of my treasured memories from that trip.
Daily photo assignments helped to focus our efforts as we explored a wealth of new places and photo opportunities. The discipline of concentrating on, say, negative space, leading lines, graphic elements or frames had a remarkable impact on our work over the fortnight. In fact I’m going to set myself regular photo assignments from now on — I can’t think of a better way to keep progressing between workshops, projects and trips.
Another key lesson from the Rajasthan workshop was that sometimes you have to stop fussing about the photos and just enjoy the experience. Wandering around a small village near Pushkar, I found that carefully composed and posed photographs wouldn’t work — everyone was curious about these foreigners with cameras, school was out and children were crowding into every shot. So I just relaxed and went with the flow, first with the schoolboy who wanted me to photograph all his friends and relatives, then with the gentlemen who met me in the street and invited me to join them for a cup of chai. I stopped worrying about getting the perfect photo and collected memories instead. Though some of the photos came out surprisingly well, reminding me you have to “be there” — paying attention and experiencing the moment — to make good photographs.
That is equally true at home, of course. My latest workshop experience was a highly enjoyable weekend of street photography with Belinda Pratten in Newtown, NSW, an excellent location for photographing local ambience and characters. Not even rain could dampen our enthusiasm — all those reflections and umbrellas added interest to our photographs. We had the best time and brought home some more key lessons: (a) try and anticipate the shot you want, then keep working until you get it or something even better; and (b) you have to step out of your comfort zone if you really want to get the shot.
So what were these workshops?
Esther Beaton’s one day travel photography workshop in Sydney is part of Photo Riesel’s workshop program. Full details are available here: http://www.fotoriesel.net.au/events-a-workshops/event-list. I did this about a year ago and enjoyed it very much; now I would like to do her “beyond landscape photography” workshop on the HawkesburyRiver.
Matt Brandon’s 2013 Rajasthan photo trek and workshop was outstanding in every way — highly recommended! For more information about Matt, his work and future workshops, see his website www.thedigitaltrekker.com.
Finally, Belinda Pratten’s Newtown street photography workshop was organised through PhotoAccess. I heard about if via their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/photoaccess. (PhotoAccess also has a varied program of photographic courses; see their website www.photoaccess.org.au for further details.)
Andrée Lawrey | June 2013