Our Photography Workshops

Backlit grass

Backlit grass

The woods are an absolutely beautiful place.  Despite my photo course lasting almost 3 years, I took most of the photos for the assignments there, and it struck me quite early on that the woods would make a wonderful location for photography workshops.  Regardless of the weather, there are opportunities to learn the basics of photography and in the summer, the opportunity to look at macro and insect photography too.  It seemed the ideal opportunity to fuse my interest in nature and conservation with my passion for photography and to use the teaching experience I had built up over the years working at the University, albeit in a very different subject area.

This last weekend we had a fantastic day with our introductory workshop.  It is a bit different to many other workshops in that we don’t start with technical elements of photography at all.  There is no mention, during the morning, of exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings, white balance and so on.

Oak leaf on table

Oak leaf on table

None at all.  The reasons for this are two-fold;  first of all, people tell me that as soon as you mention technical stuff they glaze over and then forget everything else they have been told during the day;  second, I think there is very little point in attending to the technical elements of photography if you aren’t taking the “right” picture in the first place.

So, I divide the day into two parts:  taking the right picture (artistic) and taking the picture right (technical).  Starting with the artistic elements seems to me to bring about improvements very quickly for the students.  It helps with confidence, which is a major factor limiting what people can achieve.  Once you see improvements, you are much more likely to believe you can learn, and therefore grasp the technical elements too.  It also helps you take a good photo no matter what type of camera you have.  There are lots of cameras about, and most of them are extremely competent, and therefore about 95% of the time, it is the photographer, not the camera, who is responsible for a good, or not-so-good photo (obviously in some highly technical areas, such as birds, wildlife, insects, you need the right kind of kit).

Oak leaves on metal

Oak leaves on metal

We run through the “rule of thirds” – what is is, and how it can help with composition.  We look at leading lines/visual pathways, diagonals, symmetry and balance, lighting (direction and quality), and textures and patterns.  It is amazing what a small amount of attention to composition can do to photography, and how much confidence this gives people.  What is most exciting is that people try something different, something they would never have tried before.  It also gives people a toolbox to use in future to think about why a picture did, or didn’t, work.

In the afternoon, we move on to exposure and that magic button, the exposure compensation button (the button that has +/- on it, but that seems to be so rarely used).  Learning how to use the camera to check exposure, and then how to correct it, really opens the mind to possibilities and puts you in control of the camera in a very creative way.  We also look at those old chestnuts, aperture (depth of field) and shutter speed (control of movement), and briefly a bit about ISO.

It isn’t a complete photography course, but it DOES get people off the creative modes and intelligent auto settings, and taking control, and thus taking unique, special and individual images.  Some of the pictures the students take constantly surprise me.

Through the photographer's eye

Through the photographer’s eye

The macro workshop is a bit different, in that we require people to be already competent in elements of composition, exposure compensation, control of aperture and shutter speed,and therefore we deal with technical elements first, and how these relate to macro.  You really have to deal with this first.  We then use the afternoon, particularly the late afternoon when the light is lovely, to learn fieldcraft – how to approach insects and  make opportunities for macro photography out in the wild (as opposed to in the studio).  Hopefully, there are opportunities to make macro images that are not strict technical records, but bring out something of the beautiful, the unexpected, the surprises inherent in nature.  That stir the emotions, that make you gasp, make you think, draw you in to a new and different world.

Why do I do these workshops?  The answer is to help people to be creative.  Photographs have two purposes:  to make a technical record of an object or location, person or place and second, to convey a feeling, emotion, sensory experience, memory…in short, to put the viewer into the eye and mind of the photographer.  Both have their place, but the images that stand out for me are those that do the latter.  All too often people tell me about, or show me, photos of places they have visited that disappoint.  That don’t really do justice to the place they have been and the things that they have seen.  The aim of the workshops is to show them how to recognise what they are really looking at, and what they are feeling, and what is drawing their attention and then take quite different pictures.  They may not show the whole of a stately home, or a person, or a landscape.  What I hope they will do is get images that actually induce the feeling they had when they were in that place, picturing that thing.  And then to move on beyond satisfying themselves, and making images that evoke emotions in somebody who has been there and seen that, to taking images that can truly guide the viewer to experience the same emotions, the same experience as the photographer had when the image was taken.  Or even to a new place, a new experience, that is unique to the viewer, but is still guided by the photographer and the images that they have created.

Clearly this can’t all be done in a day.  But I do try and start people along this path.  It is very easy to find stuff that is written about technical elements of photography – it is all over the place, on web, in camera clubs, in books, in magazines – but much harder to get those creative light bulbs illuminated, and bring out the artist lurking behind the viewfinder of the camera.  We do charge a small £20 fee for the day-long workshops, which goes towards the maintenance costs of the woods (for sustainable wood fuel cutting, maintenance of paths and meadows and ponds, insurance for the public to visit and so on).

If you’d like to come along, see www.alvecotewood.co.uk – or the link on this blog.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

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