Musing September 2017

Lessons from a Workshop

The simple truth about being a photo workshop teacher is this, I usually learn more from my students than they learn from me. I have come to realize that my job is primarily to find interesting places for people to make photographs, make the place accessible as possible, and provide a safe environment for them to work, and then get out of their way. Occasionally then need a piece or two of information, some inspiration and a true and honest response to the work they create. If I know more than they do it is because of two things, I have researched the location or been there previously, and that I have made more mistakes than they have so far.

For me, a classic example of this occurred during one of the first Olson House Workshops I taught about 10 years ago. Being a large format guy, naturally, I started off my introductions to the location by saying “Of course you should always use a tripod inside the house”. One of my students immediately said “I can’t and won’t work with a tripod. I just can’t do it”. Being a know it all teacher I gently and not so gently encouraged them “for my sake use a tripod, you will figure it out and make it your friend”. And at the first crit a day or so later they showed the tripod work. And it was awful. They knew it was awful and I knew it was awful. After looking at each other for a moment they said: “do you want to see what I shot without a tripod?” Of course, I did. And it was excellent. Clearly, this person saw better, worked better using the camera off the tripod, even hand holding it at slow shutter speeds. I ate my serving of humble pie right in front of the class with whipped cream on top!

Last month I was in Rugby, North Dakota at the North Dakota Workshop. It was my 8th workshop there with my friend Dan Smith. This year I wanted to work simply and with less gear. I took my digital kit and two 5×7 pinhole cameras and a monopod and a tripod.

Dan and I always go photographing for a couple of days before the workshop begins. This gives me a chance to make my images and to explore the new locations Dan has arranged for the week. I worked with my digital Fuji, usually on my monopod, inside and out. I remembered the student who made great images without a tripod. I thought I could work with just a monopod inside these old buildings. I felt like I could hold it steady enough. When I downloaded the images from the first few days of work on to my laptop, something was very wrong. The camera placement was fine in many images, but they were not sharp. I couldn’t hold the monopod as steady as I thought I could. I learned once again that when I am working inside use the tripod! I just can’t shoot without a tripod inside.

When I was working outside, exteriors of the buildings and photographing the farmers harvesting wheat and canola I tried shooting both on the monopod and hand holding the camera. By far the better images came when I was using the monopod rather than trying to handhold the camera.

This difference is seeing and using the equipment illustrated itself to me again in several ways on this workshop. One student brought in an image of a building I didn’t recognize. It looked beautiful, balanced, and nothing like any of the buildings we were shooting. When I asked where it was he told me it was one of the out buildings at the location so and so. I simply had not seen it as elegantly as he had.

In another location a hanging blind looked like it had exploded, it looked like a skeletal rib cage. I saw it and knew the image I wanted to make and knew the blind was going to become a classic of the location. And through out the week I did see variations of this rib cage blind. But I saw several images where it was included but not the primary element of the photograph. And at least one was made by someone hand holding a camera with no tripod or monopod. A terrific image and completely unlike anything I could or would have made.

I did shoot some pinhole images on this trip and have started processing them. So far I like what I see. The wooden tripod I took with me worked great for the pinhole but didn’t really work well for the digital camera. So I am going to have to look thru my equipment storeroom and see if I can find a small tripod that will be easily portable, lightweight, and work well with my Fuji cameras. I still have my 8×10, 5×12, and 5×7 and use them frequently. But traveling with them is getting harder and harder. So the digital is going with me to more and more locations. But this trip made it abundantly clear if I am going to make my images with a digital camera I have to use either and tripod for interiors or a monopod for outside.

So lesson learned, I need a tripod even if others don’t.


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