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...


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is the workshop I needed to get over going to workshops..

  3. Yup. There is no magic formula, no magic camera or lens. It is simply time, practice, repetition, reflection...constantly, always.

    I play guitar as well, and I've spent a lot of time studying all the great rock guitarists. They have have a single thing in common: it's all they do. It's the first thing they do when they get up in the morning (ok well maybe the 2nd)and it's the last thing they do before they go to bed at night (again, maybe the 2nd last thing). Same goes for all the great writers etc. It applies to everything. My father is a plumber. It's all he does, and he's really good at it. My uncle is a carpenter, and after a day of work guess what he does...he works in his home shop in his garage, working with wood, for his own enjoyment.

    Two of my biggest problems as a photographer: for me it's a hobby and life's repsonsibilities often pull me away from time with the camera...and I haven't really figured out what it is I want to shoot.

    Thank you Kirk, your recent posts have made me realize that. I've got the gear, I've become fairly competent at post production software. I just don't know what it is I like to shoot.

  4. Although your post doesn't mention Pintrest, it reminds of what I don't like about Pintrest. If I am a fan of a photographer's work, why do I need to see what HIS influences are? Why not just examine my own influences? Exactly what am I supposed to gain by sitting around looking at the images that inspire some other guy... Total nonsense.

  5. Kirk - another great post and very good reminder for me to get off my duff and stop complaining about not shooting enough. Thanks.

  6. right on!
    luckily for the guys who organize workshops there is an endless supply out there of people with more money than common sense, who, having just invested tons of $$ on the latest and greatest kit, are now faced with the dilemma of what to do with all such great gear ...

    they have not yet invented the camera that takes wonderful images by itself, so for many people it is indeed a wonderful shortcut into the mutual admiration society; they spend a weekend with like minded people and at the end contemplate the masterpieces they shot.

    then next weekend they are back to taking pictures of the cat and debating endlessly on how many megapixels the new xyz1001 has!

  7. I am trying to find words that make me out to be witty and possibly wise! Alas the only words I can come up with about your posting is yes, yes and just in case that isn't clear enough, yes!

  8. I agree that more gear, workshops, etc., will not necessarily make one a better photographer (unless, perhaps, you are focused on a specific, particular factor of the photographic process about which you need to gain knowledge). But I think the pursuit of your ART should be fun (to the extent possible), and sometimes playing around with new and different stuff, which you probably don't need, is just fun. But maybe that's merely a luxury those of us that do not make a living with the camera can afford to indulge.


  9. I think this is true about a lot of paid education. What you get out of it it proportionate to the time you spend on your own, working on real problems. When I came out of engineering at university I wasn't an engineer ready to apply a predefined solution to problems. There was no substitute for spending time working on the job...actually 'doing' engineering.

  10. Kirk,
    I think you should add carpentry to your resume because you keep hitting the nail on the head this week! The last several post here have been absolutely wondereful. I now have two projects in mind with which to go out and practice.

    Thank you for the encouragement.

  11. Your two points are perfect. Point No. 1, Practice, was enforced once more for me yesterday. I'd been sitting on a rock next to a creek crossing in the Auburn State Recreation Area(near Auburn, CA), and was in a perfect position, the camera on my lap, to catch a great low-angle from-the-hip shot of a mountain biker splashing through the water. The camera (my new Lumix GH2) was already on, and I pressed the shutter release at the perfect moment. But as I walked up the hill from the creek, I found the image had not been captured. I realized that the camera had gone into its "sleep" mode while i'd been cooling my heels on that rock, and it takes two shutter presses to wake it up. As I trudged up out of that canyon I kept repeating the mantra, "Practice is making mistakes so that they don't happen when it matters".
    Point No. 2, get good subject matter in front of the camera, seems so obvious, but it took a workshop to reinforce that idea. One of the benefits of landscape/wildlife workshops is that the leaders know of and take you to the best venues in their realm. I've only taken one workshop - it was given by Galen Rowell's protege's at the gallery in Bishop, CA. The most important thing learned there was that you need to know the good places and get your butt there for the good light, which can mean heading out before sunup, or delaying supper time. The enthusiasm I gained from the satisfying images brought back from the workshop encouraged me to get out much more often; thus more practice. My satisfaction with my work has risen at least an order of magnitude since then, and it all comes down to employing your two points.

    Thanks once again for clearly stating what really counts.

  12. Very well written Kirk. Did you attend a creative writing seminar? Kidding buddy. As an aside, although I agree with you, there is no dollar value you can attach to the connections, new friendships, and actual hands-on experience that you get by plunking down your credit card, packing your gear, and going to a workshop in some very cool place with a bunch of photographers of varying backgrounds. It's a lot of fun and can't help but change you. So I think there's a lot of merit in photography workshops and gleaning what you can from those who have the knowledge & experience that you don't...and you come home with pictures. What's a picture worth? I have never taught a workshop, but I am a photography teacher. It's not about being a showboat, it's about nurturing creativity.

  13. I've taken a couple of workshops in the past several years: with Steven Johnson in Death Valley, and with a couple of staff photographers for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in a small town in Wisconsin. Both, I thought, were valuable and provided information and opportunities that could not easily have been obtained from books or practice.

    * Knowing where the most interesting places are, and when to be there.

    * Arranging access to places we wouldn't have known about, or couldn't have accessed readily on our own.

    * Doing some useful teaching. If you spent a workshop weekend with Eric Clapton or Michael Phelps, you wouldn't just be watching. They could be teaching you some new licks or pointing out your technical flaws.

    * Connecting with other photographers who are students in the workshop, whom you might otherwise not have met.

    * Seeing how other people - both instructor and students - do things. We each have a unique vision, and should work to hone that vision; but becoming aware of new approaches can enrich our vision and our practice.

    * Getting the enthusiasm that comes from doing good things with others. Photography, like life in general, is not always a solitary activity. We benefit from the right mix of solitude and collaboration.

  14. I would add one thing to your mini-workshop. A group of photographers to meet with that would give each other honest feedback.

  15. John, I think we went over that in the blog just before this one. But absolutely. No more, "Great Caputre!!!!"
    More, "What if you.....?"

  16. Another great post from Mr No bullshit! Thanks Kirk!

  17. I understand your point of view, and I suppose for expository reasons you present it as if there was a unique choice to be made - forget workshops and get out and photograph more if you really want to improve your photography. However, a great deal can be learned in any field from good teachers, especially in the early stages.

    But I don't see why you are so sarcastic about workshops on photographing the nude. Why are 'art-historyesque pronouncements' so suspect in your book? On what do you base your assertion that the instructor is disguising his (it must be a 'his') lust behind self-serving verbiage? That is an unworthy slur. Everyone knows that the nude has been the subject of centuries of much great art in the West, and has been written about extensively by art historians. Even if the impulse to depict the nude is at some level hormonal, it does not logically follow that one cannot talk about nude photography dispassionately and intelligently in art-historical or socio-historical terms, even during workshops..

  18. Okay. My approach is to just find people who represent my ideal of beautiful, ask them to pose and then shoot what it is I want to shoot. Why the need for all the hand holding and the seeming need for people to justify shooting nudes with an art history manifesto? Just book the session and shoot your art.

    And while my "all or nothing" stance is nothing but expository I did exclude people who need technical help in the early stages.

    My concern (and it's a concern shared by academia) is that weekend teacher, by dint of the short time they have to spend with students, accelerate the process by making their own perspectives a guideline for the learning process. Not all students outside the rigors of academia are trained to separate example from influence and it can take years to shake influence...

    To each their own.

  19. Kirk, this is a great post, thanks very much! While i've never taken a workshop I really enjoyed your two paragraphs 'if you're a portrait lover..' and 'if you're a landscape shooter..'. I think this is great advice any aspiring shooter should hear, and actually helped me a lot.

    Most of my photography lately has been travel shots as i've been lucky to work in europe for long periods lately. But when I'm home in New Zealand I really cannot think of what to shoot or be motivated to go exploring like I do in Europe. I realise better now that i'm not going to 'find' landscape shots, I have to plan a location and really spend time working it over a long period.

    And regarding portraits - I am really a lover of portraits, but never a shooter. I would love to get into it, but how exactly do you personally go about finding subjects? Other than starting with people I know, I can't imagine approaching people in the street, especially since i don't have a portrait portfolio as evidence it is something i am competent at! I would love any anecdotes or other reading you suggest! Thanks :)

  20. Start with your good looking nephews, neices, brothers, sisters, in-laws and outlaws and work your way out in concentric circles. Your sister's good looking friends, your brother's wife's good looking friends. Print you work. Walk up to strangers and tell them about your project. Ask them to be in your project. Make it without risk for them to participate. No "meet me at the graveyard in your underwear at midnight..." until you know and trust each other well enough. Build from there.

  21. Jeremy, being a teacher is a whole different thing. You are building and building on people's abilities and knowledge not dropping in for a photo binge!

  22. You hit the nail on the head. I love reading your work, and every so often it gives me that kink in the *pants* that I need.

  23. i've recently figured the same thing. get out, take photo's, take chances and not let fear demotivate. 1 book inspired me to shoot manual, (Understanding exposure by bryan peterson) and off i went.

  24. I googled Chuck Morgenstern but I couldn't find him. Can you help me because I'd love to do a workshop with him!

    Ok, don't worry, I was only kidding. ;)

    Seriously, I loved this article a lot. It's all true.

  25. Great post. was the portrait at the top all natural light?

  26. I tell my students this all the time. People love to debate camera brands and technical jargon. snore. This article is brilliant. Thanks for your clever and witty expression of what I have always believed.


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