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UfD: Workshop Lessons

Today for our Up for Discussion post Susan Portnoy from The Insatiable Traveler recently attended a photography workshop and she has written for us what she learned at the workshop. There are some great lessons here and I think we could learn a lot from this.  

Five Essential Lessons (and One Great Tip) I learned about Photography at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops

BY SUSAN PORTNOY ON JULY 22, 2015

As a photographer always looking to hone my skills, I recently went on a unique adventure as the guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in New Mexico. I’d heard about the globally renowned workshops for years (the workshops are year round and boast an amazing roster of instructors) from photographers who were students and others who had the honor of being asked to teach.

The Santa Maria building where I stayed and where breakfast and lunch was served

The Santa Maria building where I stayed and where breakfast and lunch was served

The Santa Maria building where I stayed and where breakfast and lunch was served
The trip was a great learning experience and completely out of my comfort zone but exactly the kind of push I needed to up my game. When I told Leanne about my visit she thought you might be interested in reading about what I learned. And while it’s all a work in progress, here goes… ~ Susan Portnoy

When you first arrive at the Workshops, Reid Callanan, the company’s founder, will tell you that no matter what course you take the week is not about creating masterpieces, it’s about learning new approaches to photography, opening your mind and eye to fresh ideas and challenging your skills. It was all that and more.

My instructor was fine art photographer and Sam Abell disciple, Brett Erickson. The workshop: “Visions of the American West.

My fellow students and I (nine of us in total), quickly learned that for Brett, “visions” was the operative word. The American West was a backdrop, a muse for our creativity efforts, and we would explore these visions through black and white photography.

When our workshop began, Brett explained that his main objective was for us to “see” the world differently; to be keenly aware of the textures, shapes, and colors that make up a scene and use them to our advantage. He wanted us to discover the story within the photo, the nuances and the complexities, both literally and figuratively, in order to communicate our vision successfully. In short: to thoughtfully craft images rather than just “take” them.

Below are five lessons (and one neat trick) I learned that I believe will help me (and perhaps you) do just that:

1. Identify what you like about the subject or scene

When you come across something you want to shoot, take a moment to ask yourself what you I like about it? Brett explained, “We choose compositions because of the way they make us feel.” Meaning more often than not, it’s emotion not intellect that directs our eye.

At first I found it difficult to articulate what drew my attention beyond the surface (ie. the light is really pretty, or I love the way that looks), but the more I thought about my reaction, the better I perceived the scene. Taking the time to reflect—even for a few seconds—provided me with valuable insight on how make an image that would convey my feelings more accurately.

Take this very simple example: Minutes before I landed in New York from Santa Fe, I took a picture of the wing and the beautiful twinkling lights below (above left). Then I remembered to ask myself why I was drawn to the scene. I realized it wasn’t just the beautiful lights; I loved the idea that I was privy to an extraordinary view of the city from my own little seat in the clouds.

With that in mind, I composed the next shot to include a portion of the window frame, giving the photo a completely different feel. A person looking at the image now has more context. They become a passenger peering through the window with me which is the essence of what I wanted to communicate.

2. Instill your images with Poetry and Metaphor

What makes an image compelling? Brett says, “Poetry and metaphor.” Since that’s a tad esoteric, consider it a sense of depth and meaning that goes beyond the literal scene. What story can you tell? What observation about life, love, friendship, or society, can you work into your image that will make a viewer connect on a level that stirs the emotions? Everyday Brett challenged us to create images with poetry using metaphor. Below are a few of my attempts.

Example 1:

On our second day of the workshop, we visited El Santuario de Chimayo, a tiny Roman Catholic church built in the early 1800’s. A modern day pilgrimage site receiving over 300,000 visitors a year. Outside the sanctuary, crosses made from pieces of unfinished lumber stood bleakly in front of the iron gate that separated the sanctuary from the parking lot. Behind a row of cars, I saw this small cross with the word “Hope” and the crudely carved phrase “Dear Lord Pray for Us All.” It was a passionate plea for help that I imagined had gone unanswered for “Hope” had fallen over.

Outside the gates of El Sanctuario de Chimayo in Santa Fe

Example 2:

Religion is a big business, even in the small town that plays host to Chimayo. In this photo, I wanted to show how commercialization feeds off of religion by featuring the mural of Mary juxtaposed to the litany of signs advertising local shops and businesses.

Outside the gates of El Sanctuario de Chimayo in Santa Fe

Example 3:

On our last day of shooting we ventured to a beautiful area with white rocks teaming with interesting shapes and textures. Brett’s assignment: use a model as a metaphor for something in nature. I was struck by the large, dark boulders that littered the white-washed wonderland. For this image my model, Diaolo, became another rock dotting the rugged landscape.

Outside the gates of El Sanctuario de Chimayo in Santa Fe

3. Slow down and explore your options

Ever see something that you like, snap a picture and then move on? Yep, me too. Next time, slow down and explore your options. In one exercise, Brett asked us to take five photos of something that made us feel. With each shot we had to move closer (or move back) and reassess the picture anew. Did the light change? Was there something new to the scene that we hadn’t noticed before? Did the intimacy of a close-up better communicate our vision or did everything fall apart? The deliberateness of the process forced us to slow down and really look at what we were shooting thus providing new opportunities for inspiration.

Example 1:

When I walked up to this area of the Chimayo sanctuary (photo on the left below), the first thing that struck me was how the telephone poles in the background echoed the cross of the sanctuary building in the foreground. But as I walked closer, I saw the way the soft curves of the archway framed the rectangle door. Then I became intrigued by the stain of the wet adobe and how its soft lines mixed with the multiple triangles surrounding the door’s frame. In the end, I felt the image to the right made a stronger statement than the wider angle that first grabbed my attention. If I hadn’t reminded myself to move in, I would have missed it entirely.

Example 2:

One afternoon, we went to Eaves Movie Ranch, a location used in countless westerns including the The Ridiculous Six, starring Adam Sandler, currently in post production. Thomas, who oversees the ranch, was one of our models and a perfect throwback to that era with his cowboy hat and garb, long hair and grizzly beard. I took him to an old barn that had amazing light to shoot a portrait. At first, I photographed him close up and straight on, but when I experimented with various angles, I liked this framing the best. Here you can see a piece of the paddock and the supply shed in the background. I found it to be more visually interesting, with its subtle layers and horizontal lines, while adding greater context to the photo.

Thomas at Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fe

4. Make the most of compositional tools.

Leading lines, diagonals, repetition, frames, patterns, layers, triads, triangles… these are compositional elements photographers use to move the viewer’s eye through the frame creating a more compelling image. And that’s what we all want, right? It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about leading lines or patterns and the like, but working with Brett in a workshop environment brought my awareness and understanding to a whole new level.

Example 1:

In this image I was drawn to the repetition. First the eye focuses on the crosses to the right that are in focus. Then the vertical columns move the eye to the back where the crosses are repeated in the door and on the column to the left of the entrance. The lines in the ceiling also lead the eye to the back where the arches are repeated in the windows and doors.

Thomas at Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fe

Example 2:

This was taken from inside the studio doorway of a rather eccentric, 70+ year old painter I met while shooting along Canyon road on our first day. I first noticed the sign on the door and I couldn’t help but think that it’s semi-schizophrenic handwriting suited the quirky artist. Outside, stood his old school bicycle, another glimpse into the man’s unique personality. I loved the combination of the two together.

From a compositional perspective, the open doorway is a strong visual element that splits the image in two, thus grabbing the viewer’s attention. The horizontal plank below the sign is like an arrow leading the eye to the right to where it finds the bike, while the vertical edge of the door echoes the wood in the fence post.

sportnoy_20150706_0126-edit

Example 3:

Two horses snuggle in another shot from Eaves Movie Ranch. Besides the obvious “adorable” factor, the image combines three triangles, two are created by each of the horses heads while together they form one large triangle, keeping the eye fixed on the center and the equine bromance.

sportnoy_20150708_0694-21

5. Wait until the next day to look at your pictures

During the workshop I was struggling. Every day we got a new assignment and every day I was convinced my work sucked. I would do my best to create wonderful images that were exploding with poetry and metaphors and nine times out of ten I wanted to throw my camera against a wall. Intellectually, I knew what I was learning was incredibly valuable. Emotionally, I hated that I wasn’t instantly fabulous. It was hard. Granted, I put enormous pressure on myself. I think most creative folks do, which means if you’re reading this, you probably know of what I speak. Here’s my advice, if you’re not happy with the way a shoot is going, stick it out, do the best you can and then leave the pictures alone. If you keep going over it in the moment you’ll just spin yourself into the depths of emotional self flagellation. When I stepped away and gave myself the opportunity to disconnect from the shoot and my frustration, I usually found that when I looked at the images again they weren’t so bad. In fact, sometimes I would surprise myself and find something I really thought was good. Perfectionism is a dangerous thing. Don’t let it get the best of you.

(The Trick) Try shooting black and white in camera.

When I first read Brett’s description of the class, he explained that monochromatic images would play a big part in our workshop and it was part of the reason I signed up. I love the look and feel of black and white photos but I’ve never felt particularly at ease creating them. Like most people, I shoot in color and then convert in post-production using Lightroom and Nik filters. More often than not, I’m not sure whether the conversion will look right until it’s done. It’s always been a bit of a crap shoot for me.

Brett wanted us to be able to see the world in black and white, to instinctively know how various colors would look in grey-scale so that we could be deliberate in the creation of our black and white images. His trick to train the eye: shoot black and white in camera.

By setting my Canon 1-DX to monochrome and then changing the “image quality” to capture both a RAW file and a jpeg (Nikon users don’t need to add the jpeg), I could see a black and white jpeg on my LCD screen in real time, while simultaneously capturing a RAW color file for use later while editing. (You’ll want those color channels available so that you can tweak tonalities.)

I have a ways to go, but I’m slowly understanding how colors will convert so that I’ll be able to spot compelling contrasts from the get-go. Eventually I’ll be able to see the world in black and white without having to look at it on my LCD. At least that’s the plan.

If you have any questions or comments about the photos or the workshops, please ask in the comments below and I will be happy to answer. If you’ve been to SFPW or other workshop, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Susan will be responding to comments, so please if you have questions please ask. I would also like to thank Susan for writing this for us, don’t forget to take a look at her site, The Insatiable Traveler.

64 Comments
  1. Susan Portnoy #

    Thanks for sharing Leanne. I hope it is helpful to your readers. Happy to answer any questions they may have here. 🙂

    July 24, 2015
    • My pleasure Susan, I am sure many of them will find it very useful. 🙂

      July 24, 2015
  2. Great introduction and some brilliant tips here, very useful! Thanks Susan for sharing your tips and lovely photos! 🙂

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      You’re most welcome. I’m glad you found it interesting and I really appreciate the kind words about the photos.

      July 24, 2015
  3. somdattadeb #

    I was always wondering why the photo I have taken is not exactly reflecting the way I have seen or more precisely not reflecting my feelings. the mood is missing. I thought that is the difference between human eye and camera. Now I understand the reason. your photos of the wing open my eyes.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      It’s interesting isn’t it. It’s still a work in progress for me but I feel much more grounded since the workshop.

      July 24, 2015
  4. Loads of fantastic tips here which even I, as a total amateur photographer, can apply. Thanks, Susan and Leanne!

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Hi Laura!
      I’m glad you found it helpful!

      July 24, 2015
  5. Really interesting post. I have found that giving myself time before looking back on my work is a good way to really appreciate what I have taken. Sometimes I will process them straight away but the majority of the photos are edited days or even years later. I see more in them at a later date. It is also a lot of fun to rediscover photos again and look at them with fresh and more experienced eyes.
    I just adore your horse shot. The composition is superb.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      I’m an immediate gratification kind of gal, but so often it’s not what I need. I have to sit back and take more time. Thank you very much regarding the horse shot!

      July 24, 2015
  6. This is an excellent post, enjoyed reading it. It is interesting how many similar problems I encounter in the field of photography. When you think of it, really just some basic things. Most importantly, stop and think what you see and what you want to capture. Ah, still such a long way to go…

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      It’s always a work in progress, but taking the time to really create the image is my new mantra. I thought I was doing it before…somewhat… but I realize that I wasn’t overall. I was moving too fast. I’m so glad you liked the post.

      July 24, 2015
  7. I never ever thought of shooting in B&W, but I can imagine it helps to get a better result, even in colour when you shoot in RAW. Surely something I will try on my next dayhikes. Thanks for sharing.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Me either! It was such a great trick to learn. I still haven’t turned it back to color on my camera, and it’s been almost two weeks since my return.

      July 24, 2015
  8. Wonderful work, beautiful

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Thank you very much!

      July 24, 2015
  9. brilliant tipps and great photos, thank you!

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Thank you and I’m so glad you found them useful. 🙂

      July 24, 2015
  10. You are really quite generous with your tips and advice from faraway places that you have gone yourself to learn, and that is appreciated. As well as your own site, your willingness to turn viewers’ heads to others’ work (James) is kind and no less helpful. I’ll keep in mind the idea of “visions” when I’m out there. Thanks!

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Thank you very much. I’m very glad you like the post.

      July 24, 2015
  11. Number 5 is soooooo true. I can’t tell you how many times I almost deleted great work just because I was tired from the photographic day.When you are tired you are cranky!!! Thanks for this post!

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Yeah.. it’s amazing how difficult we can make things on ourselves. Glad you enjoyed it.

      July 24, 2015
  12. A great post, and thanks for sharing. I learned a lot from this as a beginner.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      That’s great. Couldn’t get a nicer compliment. Have a great day.

      July 24, 2015
  13. fantastic Susan, Many thanks

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Thank YOU.. So glad you found it useful. 🙂

      July 24, 2015
  14. lensaddiction #

    Thankyou Leanne for posting this and Thankyou Susan for an excellent article! The picture of the cowboy in his natty pin stripe pants is FANTASTIC – blown away by that image and I can see increasing levels of sophistication in your other images.

    I hadnt heard about this Santa Fe workshop place but it sounds amazing.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Thank you very much. I was pretty excited about that shot too. Thomas was perfect. It was as if he stepped out of a time machine. It really helped to make the shot. The workshop was amazing. It was hard but the kind of hard that makes you strive. It’s not always the most comfortable in the moment (don’t get me wrong either, I had a lot of fun moments too) but I knew all along that I was learning something. Something important that would help me. Now I just need to keep what I learned in my head. You should check the workshops out. There are so many classes. There’s something for everyone.

      July 24, 2015
      • lensaddiction #

        Yeah it’s kinda along expensive way from New Zealand sadly!

        July 24, 2015
      • Susan Portnoy #

        LOL.. Yep.. I guess it would be. 🙂

        July 24, 2015
  15. Hey Leanne .. Susan had dropped off my reader – no idea why. So thank you so much I missed this post. Some great ideas … wish I could take my time when taking photos! Like the idea of shooting in black and white too. Wonder if I ever will 😀

    July 24, 2015
    • Glad to help you reconnect Julie.

      July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Hey Julie.. am I back on your reader? I wonder what happened? Glad we could connect. Try shooting in black and white.. It’s an easy setting switch and is a lot of fun experiment with.

      July 24, 2015
  16. Susan, thanks for sharing this information. And your photos were just beautiful.

    I took Brett’s class last summer and your words “During the workshop I was struggling. Every day we got a new assignment and every day I was convinced my work sucked.” described the way my week went, too. On Wednesday morning, I was ready to come home. But then, on Wednesday night I made some of the best images I’ve ever made. It was nice to know that, while I am alone in my struggle, others have the same sort of thing going on.

    Brett and I had a long conversation on the phone the other night, and he mentioned your blog, which I immediately started following. I look forward to seeing more of your New Mexico work.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Hey Melinda! Thanks for weighing in. It’s funny, I was speaking to Reid and he said that Wednesday seems to be a day of change for most students. While it’s emotionally trying, it says a lot about the workshops that the instructors can push and inspire at the same time and have us walk away happy we went through it in the end.

      Brett was a saint. Every morning I would come in and say how frustrated I was and he’d look at me with this calm smile, like were chatting about the weather and say, “That’s ok, you’re supposed to be.” Normally, that would have made me crazy, but oddly it made me feel so much better. I wasn’t unique in my struggle, I was actually on track.

      I have a few more images from Santa Fe, but I “shot thin” as Brett would say. The work was very different from what I normally shoot and I like that. He really did make me see differently. Now it’s my job to keep it up.

      How has it gone for you a year later?

      P.S…I want to shoot some rodeos. I have a mind to show up on Brett’s doorstep and force him to take me. LOL

      P.P.S…Thanks for following my blog. I really appreciate it.

      July 24, 2015
      • The thing is, Brett would be completely fine with your showing up on his doorstep!

        I’ve had a good year since Brett’s class. I’ve done a post-a-day blog since 2009, and the quality of the images took a step up after the class. I’ve been in some shows and so forth. But mostly, I’m learning who I am as a photographer. (I came late to this particular dance, and have some catching up to do.)

        I went back to Santa Fe in March, and took a class with Sam Abell, which was an amazing experience. I’m grateful that both Sam and Brett are so willing to share what they know.

        I wrote about my experience in Brett’s class, though not as eloquently as you did – http://melindagreenharvey.com/a-turn-for-the-better/. It was a profound week.

        July 24, 2015
      • Susan Portnoy #

        Thank you for attaching your blog post. I think it’s quite eloquent and I am intrigued with just how similar our experiences were.

        July 24, 2015
  17. Sounds like Susan had a great time but frustrating :-D. Amazing photos, especially the barn photo was great. Thanks for sharing Leanne.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Sometimes being pushed to find ones next level of progress can be frustrating.. at least it was for me..:)) It was definitely worth the struggle.

      July 24, 2015
      • That is true 🙂 learning something new will always push your work forward. Sad thing is that learning is not always easy.

        July 24, 2015
      • Susan Portnoy #

        I hate that about learning. Lol

        July 25, 2015
  18. Indeed, thank you very much sharing your experience and samples with us. It takes time to write a quality post like yours.

    When I read your article at some point my screen scrolled to the cowboy shot, showing only the upper part of the image, waist up. I thought what an amazing shot, a portrait without a face. Then I saw the whole picture. Just as you say in lesson #3, take your time and explore.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Hi! Thank you very much. I am so glad you enjoyed the post. It was difficult to phrase what is essentially an esoteric and personal journey as a photographer. I am so glad you like the cowboy shot. I’ll have more from that day in a future post on my blog. 🙂

      July 24, 2015
  19. Thanks Sue (and Leanne) – #5 is a big one for me…I always “sit” on my images for a day or so before processing.

    July 24, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Interestingly, it didn’t used to be but boy-oh-boy..it’s a must from this point going forward.

      July 24, 2015
  20. Wow Leanne – this is a great post – thank you! Each point is spot on and for myself “slowing down” is one of my problems. I recently shot a jazz concert (with a press pass – thus I could be all over the place) – I found myself shooting like a crazy person – because I just got too caught up with all that was happening. When I looked at my shots – and I did get some images that I was happy with – but I did not accopmplish what I had wanted to. When I compared my shots to a different concert (within the same festival) – my shots where I was strapped to my chair (could not go about freely) – while limited to a certain angle – I captured the concert as I had wanted to. Excellent post and fabulous shots!

    July 25, 2015
  21. What an amazing artist …. Susan, her images tell stories. Absolutist beautiful. Thanks for sharing her art and knowledge.

    July 25, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      You are very kind. I am so glad you liked the photos. I hope the lessons are helpful. 🙂

      July 26, 2015
      • Susan, thank you for coming back to me … you are so much more advanced as photographer – but there is always some tips that I can relate too. I only work with an amazing compact Canon. Your work is outstanding.

        July 26, 2015
  22. Leanne thank you getting Susan to do the post and to Susan for translating the ideas of the workshop so well. The B&W tip alone would be fantastic. I struggle with seeing B&W so before I head out on a shoot tomorrow to a historic site I’ll change my camera settings. Thanks again.

    July 25, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      Isn’t it a great trick? It makes all the difference in the world. If you try it, please let me know how it goes.

      July 26, 2015
      • Susan, it worked well. The challenge is seeing the B&W image on the small screen when it is bright out as it was today. Even with that challenge it was worth doing it as it helped me see more of the contrast created in b&w. I’ll try to publish one of two images from my trip to the Fort Ross Festival. Here is link to the Festival announcement. http://www.fortross.org/events.htm
        Thanks again for your suggestions.

        July 26, 2015
      • Susan Portnoy #

        Good to know Allen. As it so happens, it was pretty cloudy most of my time in SF so didn’t get a sense of the difficulty in the sun. I’m glad that you did see some benefit. I really enjoyed shooting in black and white and will continue to do so on a regular basis. Looking forward to seeing the shot.

        July 26, 2015
  23. Will definitely try changing my settings in camera to mono and seeing the results.

    July 26, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      It’s such an easy thing to train the eye. Let me know how it works for you.

      July 26, 2015
  24. Thank you Leanne and Susan – some great learnings which will be very useful for me. I suspect going through the wirkshop really anchors these, but it’s nice to be given this shortcut.

    July 27, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      That’s very very true. It’s hard to instill the kind of depth a 5 day intensive workshop offers but at least these are a start. 🙂 Glad you found the piece useful. 🙂

      July 27, 2015
  25. Great advice! Thanks for sharing!

    July 28, 2015
    • Susan Portnoy #

      My pleasure. I am glad you found it worthwhile.

      July 28, 2015

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