2.24.2012

Here's my favorite mini-workshop for people who want to improve their photography.

Lou.  Simple Light.  Simple shot.

I'm guessing you've been taking photographs for more than five years, you have some discretionary income,  you feel vaguely underwhelmed by what you've accomplished so far with your photography, and you've bought lots of different cameras, straps, lenses and software programs in an attempt to make your photography better, more exciting, and more fun.  And now you're deciding that you'll take a workshop from a "famous" photographer to goose your creative process.  Add some nitro to your mental mix....  At least that's the profile of people I see who are signing up for most workshops.  

There are two kinds of workshops.  There's the basic, "here's how to set the flash.  Here's how to take the flash off the camera.  Here's how to balance ambient light with flash. Here's how to pose your model."  Then there's the more advanced, "How to shoot hot babes the way Chuck Morgenstern does it!!!!!"  We've never seen Chuck's work outside of the workshop world but his photos look really cool, the chicks look very hot and everyone is talking about Chuck's work on the forums (Good Social Marketing, Chuck.)

You can substitute "How to use Lightroom."  "How to use your cellphone as a mediocre camera."  And, "How to use manual exposure." to the basic examples.  You can substitute, "The Existential Landscape." "Nature in all its glory." "The secret of sacred tonality."  and, "The nude revealed workshop" to the more advanced workshop category.  All promise to get you "out of your creative rut and into the creative groove...." (Which sounds remarkably alike...).

But deep down inside you probably know that the angst you feel when you look at your own images has nothing to do with needing to learn  deep secrets from one of the gurus of the industry.  It has more to do with stepping up and pointing your camera at the kinds of things you'd really like to shoot.  Face it, you and I have read just about every technical thing ever written on the web and in magazines about the "art" of making photographs.  We've read equipment reviews about stuff we're not even interested in using.  We read the fatuous and pretentious words of the "old guard" who are manning the gates of the immortal, large format, black and white landscape (preserved in amber from decades ago/largely un-impacted by digital) as they talk about laboring for hours to move their camera one inch to the right and two milimeters to the left before everything magically coalesced into perfect harmony.  We've read the words of the masters who talk about the mystery of the process.  Or the sacred printer profiling ceremonies.  And you have to admit that at some level your bullshit meter started ringing louder and louder.

We cringe at the art history-esque pronouncements of the guys doing the nude workshops because we kinda get that they're pandering to the y chromosome a bit more than the magnetic pull of some fine art longing deep in our psyches. 

But like a lot of other people you've probably plunked down the credit card and taken the plunge.  If you really need to be spoon fed Lightroom instead of reading a book or wading through the ocean of tutorials available everywhere on YouTube (or just experimenting with every control and every menu....) you are probably spending money somewhat wisely.  If you have technical questions and you learn better by watching and then doing instead of reading for most mechanical subjects then a workshop might be just what the photo doctor ordered.  But the rest of you are kicking the can of disappointment and dissonance a little further down the road while leaving an empty space in your financial statement.  

The bottom line is that you hope to learn how to become a better photographer but like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz  you've always had the power to go there all by yourself.  When you push open the curtains of the workshop gurus you often find a guy just like you whose only super power is that he's spent decades learning and practicing this stuff while you've been racking up a pension and some equity.  

And the ultimate secret is that good photography is always the intersection of two things:  (1). Spending hands on time practicing your craft.  (Read it, watch it, shoot it, iterate, try again).  And, the most important thing: (2). Put the subject matter you want to see in front of your camera.  

If you are a portrait lover (not a portrait "shooter") your images will get better and better as you take more chances and put more and more interesting people in front of your lights and your camera.  The more you photograph with people the more the technical stuff disappears and the rapport opens up.  The more you shoot the more comfortable you are in asking for what your ART needs.  But it takes balls to ask strangers to pose.  No workshop I know teaches you how to get good subjects they only teach you what to do when you've got them in the studio----and that's the easiest part.  Plus it's all subjective.

 If you love landscapes and landscape photography then your work gets better when you find a place that moves you and then you INVEST THE TIME to go back again and again, in all kinds of weather, to bore down and discover what it is about that place that interests you.  Then you shoot it.  Again and again until it's perfectly what you wanted to see on the print.  And then you find the next location of wonder and resonance.  You don't need someone holding your hand and showing you the way THEY make art.  It doesn't matter.  You know what you need to know.  You need to commit to spending the time to make it work.

I'd love to learn how to play the guitar.  But I can tell you right now that sitting down with Eric Clapton for a long weekend (which would be a hell of a lot of fun) and watching him play the guitar isn't going to improve my guitar work one iota.  The only thing that will is practice, practice, practice.

And I'd love to learn to swim as fast as Michael Phelps but I can guarantee you that I could spend the next two weekends with Michael Phelps and while I might have a blast being around a superstar swimmer I need to work with what I have in the pool.  To get better I know I need to swim lots and lots of yards.  (What brand of goggles should I buy????)

If you've got the scratch (money) to burn you should take all the workshops you want.  It will probably be fun.  But don't expect it to move the creative needle unless you're equally willing to spend the time and risk putting the right subjects in front of your own camera and taking the time to work and work and work.

Which camera should you use?  It really doesn't matter...