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Pismo Beach Workshop: From the Technical to the Visual

February 14, 2010

Climbers bouldering along the shoreline in Newport Beach.

I’ve been teaching for several years now. I taught sporadically before that, but a few years ago I began to be asked to teach at several of the best photography schools/workshops that exist in the United States.

I had been around in the area for an extended time, had met many of those in charge of the schools and also suggested I would be interested in teaching.

Looking back at my photography life, there were key players in my development, no pun intended, and I thought it would be great to teach, and perhaps be one of these people to a younger, up and coming photographer.

I normally teach two different kinds of students, perhaps three. I teach fellow professionals, which is probably what I do the least, just because the class strategy is not what I’m most interested in, and the classes tend to be about the business of photography, which is hugely important, but perhaps not the most thrilling of topics. And for me, business is so personal it is difficult to make statements that would apply to every person in the class. Even if the entire class was about running a portrait business, there are so manys of going about that it is really about giving the basics and then forcing the students to figure out WHO they really want to be. Glamor Shots? Factory? Boutique? Working under another studio? So many options.

I also teach beginner level photographers. And finally, I probably teach more advanced amateurs or “weekend warriors” than any other group.

I love teaching beginning level students because they are total sponges when it comes to information, and in most cases, improve rather quickly, which is great fun for them and me. And the AA crowd, advanced amateur, is also fun because they typically have ideas as to the photographer they want to be, and I can help fine tune their path.

I’ve noticed a few things over the years.

First, the cameras today are far more complicated than ever before. Yes they have automatic features, but in most cases, the sheer numbers of buttons, drop down menus, etc, are enough to stump the best Jeopardy contestant. Not to mention lenses like 18-200 zooms with moving apertures and camera bodies with lens magnifications. YIKES. For most of my students, this is, and rightly so, very confusing.

And what I’ve found is that these cameras, although they are incredible tools, sometimes act as a near complete barrier to the learning process. I think this comes from the advertising(and our assigned hope to it), but also the belief that we want these machine to make us into photographers. “If I just let the machine do what it does, I know I’ll improve.” Wishful thinking, but far from the truth. The brain and eyes of the student are what matter and the development of these critical organs takes…….takes……the dreaded “T” word…..TIME, something in horrendously short supply these days.

I’ve seen a lot of students spend far, far, far too much time staring at these magical machines while they try to work in the field. For that matter, I’ve seen far too many professionals doing the exact same thing. Ever seen an sporting event? Ever seen the cameras pan by the sidelines and all you see are row upon row of photographers staring at their preview screens? That is just what I’m talking about.

Climber reaching for the next hold, the moment they must rely on their footwork and make the gamble they can stick the next move.

There is a question I hear a lot, or a series of questions I should say. They go something like this.

STUDENT: “Hey, what did you shoot that with?”
ME: “Hasselblad and 80mm.”

…a few slides pass by….

STUDENT: “Hey, what did you shoot that with?”
ME: “Hasselblad and 80mm.”

…a few slides pass by…

STUDENT: “Hey, what did you shoot that with?”
ME: “Hasselblad and 80mm.”

(You could insert “Leica and 35mm” as well.)

Okay, you get my point.

I get the “How did you do that?” question a lot. In the general scheme of questions, it’s a good question. But you see, I’ve been at this a long time, and I learned very early on, the machine in my hand, while important, is not what I need to be thinking about. In fact, any second I’m thinking about my camera is a second I’m not thinking about what I need to be thinking about to make great images.

So, what that tells me is, I’ve got to know my gear, inside and out, front to back, top to bottom, and need to be so familiar with it that I don’t ever have to think about it.

Look at the history of photography. Many of the greats used the exact same camera for their entire career. This is the polar opposite of what we are doing today. In fact, spoke with someone the other day, someone who reads this blog, who said that he was on his fifth camera in seven years, or maybe it was seventh camera in five years. Hey, and I’m guilty as well. Over the first ten years of my career I used about three different cameras. The past ten years I’ve used DOZENS. But I realized that was not a great way for me to progress as a photographer. I needed to settle down, realize it wasn’t the gear but rather what I was trying to show.

I also keep hearing a statement which I feel was more accurate in pre-digital photography, which is, “It’s not the gear, it’s the photographer.” Well, yes and no. Using a Hasselblad, 80mm and Tri-x will give you a certain look, so will using a Canon 5D Mark II. They are not the same look, and to get them to look the same, which I’m not sure why you would want to do, will take considerable time, time you could be in the field working. Your gear choice is a critical part of finding your style and finding the image you think you want to make.

Climber catches his shoes which were being thrown up to him by his climbing partner.

So here comes Pismo Beach, and a perfect opportunity for you to figure this out, answer these questions, and most importantly a chance to make new work.

The images in this post are here for specific reasons. As you can see by the captions they were not made in Pismo Beach, they were made here in Newport where I live. I made these pictures because I gave myself a “Pismo” assignment, or what I thought would be the exact type of situation we will be in Pismo. There comes a time when the lights come on, the projector shuts down, the door is flung open and we run from the classroom unleashing our knowledge upon the world. So one afternoon last week, I went out on a self-assignment.

I found the climbers, just a pair of kids bouldering and I knew I had my subjects. I approached, asked it I could shoot, they asked about my “old camera,” and we got to know each other in that way that people who just met but might not ever see each other again can often do. The light wasn’t great. I knew what I wanted. I wanted a small “picture package” that would sum up what they guys were doing. I wanted a man vs nature look and feel, and also wanted a sense of tension. I explained to them that I used to climb a lot, and that I still get sweaty palms when I watched other people climbing. I found climbing intense because I’m not comfortable with open heights, so even when I watch OTHER people climb I still feel that unease.

I knew IMMEDIATELY that most important shot for me was the hand on the rock with the entire face up above. I knew it before I even put the camera in my hand. It was a given. I also knew I could shoot it straight on because the light was coming from the side, which with film is a piece of cake. With digital I would have had to expose differently because I don’t like digital in side lighting situations. HOW DID I KNOW THIS? Trial and error folks.

In my opinion, light, timing and composition are the three most important parts of photography. So when I go in the field, I’m watching the world around me through the filter of those three things. If I’m thinking about anything else, especially what camera do I want to shoot this with, what is my lens magnification or how do I find my exposure compensation, I’m not really seeing with the clarity I need.

I had my Leica and 50mm, so I didn’t really have any gear choices, I just game myself that and said, “Okay, if you can’t make pictures with this, you are just not very good.”

I took a meter reading and started to shoot. I didn’t look at my camera, I didn’t look at the images I just shot. I just looked and worked, looked and worked. I knew that shooting the “reach” shot was a 50-50 thing because of how backlit the climber was, but I was only concerned with getting an image of the hand off the rock. I shot one frame and knew I got it.

I figured, at some point, one of these kids would make it to the top, which was probably about 40 feet up, and when you are climbing, or bouldering, without ropes, that is a good distance. Again, my palms were sweating.

So I looked up, took another meter reading and memorized what the settings would be when the got go to the top, so if I was shooting something else when he finally made it, I could quickly move to my “top of the climb” settings.

He made it, I made the switch, and then got lucky as his climbing partner began to try and toss his shoes up to him. I made two frames, but this one was the best. And in terms of exposure, I took the meter reading based on the idea that the climber’s face would be in shadow because he would be looking down. If I had just pointed the camera, the meter would have hit that sky and the kid would have been totally black. But, I also wanted those clouds, rare here in the Newport. So, I cheated my exposure a little bit toward the highlight.

If you are reading this and saying, “Holy cow, I have no idea what he is saying,” hey, don’t sweat it. THAT is what this workshop is all about.

The idea is to get beyond this technical stuff and go out, have fun and make your pictures.

If it makes you feel any better, I still make my share of mistakes. That is just part of being human. And some of those mistakes turned out to be good images.

This photography business can open so many wonderful doors and windows into other places or spaces, and even into the world you are most familiar with, if we just get past our gear and start really seeing.


12 Comments leave one →
  1. Brooksley Williams permalink
    February 14, 2010 8:35 pm

    This “sponge” just may get to Pismo after all… got a tentative “yes” from the hubby!

  2. vegasshooter permalink
    February 15, 2010 6:51 am

    I like the first shot. Very Cool!

  3. February 16, 2010 7:08 am

    Wish I could join you. Artistically I’m a little lost these days. What do you do when you can’t find your way? How do you break through a block?

  4. February 16, 2010 4:45 pm

    Well, in the past, I’ve taken workshops, gone to galleries, purchased a book or two, and other times I’ve stopped thinking so much, taken one camera and one lens and started a new project. I’ve also started new projects with techniques and subject matter that were a real stretch for me. I have three new projects right now, all of which are completely different, so they challenge me in different ways, forces me to learn to see again and again.

  5. February 16, 2010 8:39 pm

    Hey Dan! Got a call from Tony from Guatamala a few weeks ago asking if I was going to WPPI. This post reminded me of his questions of “What aperature? What shutter speed?” Great guy but he had the same problems with the barriers – camera complexity. I always felt that you gave me new ideas about how to use those complexities and how to go about being a photographer, not a snapshot artist. Thanks!

    When are you going to be in my neck of the woods again?!?


  6. February 16, 2010 9:39 pm

    Oh man that is fantastic. Tony is a high energy guy, glad to hear he is still in the photography world.
    Not sure about your neck of the woods. I’m busy out here, and traveling much in the next few months. Thanks for readin!

  7. February 17, 2010 12:10 am

    Good one Dan. You can see the forest for the trees.

  8. Missy permalink
    February 17, 2010 7:58 am

    Gorgeous pics.

    So excited (and jealous) that Brooksley may get to take your class.

    • February 17, 2010 5:53 pm

      Yes, that would be fantastic. I think she would enjoy it as well as get a lot out of it.

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