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Workshop Junkie

December 27th, 2009  |  Published in Featured, Shoot

If you’re a photographer, you know there are a zillion seminars and workshops out there. I’ve been to a ton of them. Workshops are fun; they get you away from your daily routine and surround you with photographers. In the past, I’ve been satisfied to learn even one new thing I could use in my business. But this past year I wanted to dramatically improve my shooting, so ‘just one new thing’ wasn’t going to cut it. I needed something more intense. These were my criteria:

1) I had to admire the instructors’ work.

2) There had to be daily shooting and critiques.

3) The workshop had to scare the pants off me.

I settled on three workshops. Two focused on documentary shooting, which I specialize in for my weddings, and the third was a radical departure from what I usually shoot. I’ll talk about that one first.

One on One with AC Ellis

Boudoir photography has been growing in popularity over the past few years and one of my favorite boudoir photographers is Cory Ann Ellis. To me, her style is characterized by a stripped-down elegance free of the frilly clichés often associated with the genre. Regardless of how much they bare, her subjects are portrayed as powerful and provocative rather than coy and flirty. She accomplishes this by making her subjects comfortable and by utilizing fantastic posing and scrumptious lighting.

Boston Intimate and Boudoir Photographer Earl Christie

Why would I want to study with someone known for boudoir when my business is weddings? Because posed photos were a weak spot for me. Despite shooting in a documentary style, at almost every wedding I also shoot posed group photos and portraits. My clients hire me for my ability to capture natural, candid moments, but I need to deliver posed portraits of the same caliber.

Boston Intimate and Boudoir Photographer Earl Christie

The rapport Cory Ann builds with her subjects is impressive. From the moment they walk in the door, she’s treating them like an old friend, taking a keen interest in their lives, asking questions about work, school or family, and all the while distracting them from the fact that they are disrobing in front of her camera. I saw how she encourages her subjects to be active in the creative process, collaborating with them about wardrobe, hair and their goals for the session. In fact, it became a three-way collaboration when I was there.

Boston Intimate and Boudoir Photographer Earl Christie

Another way Cory Ann makes her subjects comfortable is by working fast. Needing to explain things to me handicapped her, but she still moved from pose to pose quickly, never giving the person modeling a chance to get bored. Quite the opposite, in fact- every subject we worked with while I was studying with Cory Ann ended their session commenting on how much fun they had.

Cory Ann has a knack for guiding her subjects into natural looking poses. She demonstrated how sometimes the bend of limb looks normal in person but awkward in the camera frame. She also showed how a subtle shift of weight, or a shift in the hips can make a person’s line more flattering. Now, I’d probably heard or read some of these tips before, but Cory Ann’s direct illustrations made them real.

Boston Intimate and Boudoir Photographer Earl Christie

During the rush of a wedding, I don’t often have time to work with more than a bare flash or an umbrella. At my One on One session Cory Ann introduced me to a range of other lighting instruments and modifiers. She taught me how to use the light that comes from the edge of a softbox rather than pointing it straight at my subject. We worked with using shadows to reveal a subject’s form. I saw examples of hard, contrasty light and soft gentle light. She also demonstrated the strengths of different light sources: strobes that give you enormous light output, continuous lights that allow you to immediately see how your lighting looks, and natural light, which is plentiful and free!

Boston Intimate and Boudoir Photographer Earl Christie

Probably the most valuable lesson I learned from Cory Ann was how to find that sweet spot where light transitions from being bright and sparkly to dull and drab as it falls off. I knew of that sweet spot from other photographers, but she helped me actually see if for the first time.

Boston Intimate and Boudoir Photographer Earl Christie

So at One on One with AC Ellis, I learned how to interact with my subjects to increase their comfort and confidence in front of the camera, explored how to pose people to accentuate or minimize aspects of their appearance, and gained experience with a range of lights and light. There were other lessons in marketing, workflow and post processing as well, but it is the insights from the hands-on shooting that I treasure the most.

Roots Workshop

Roots is a week-long shooting workshop where participants get assignments and endure nightly critiques. A cute little compound by the sea served as home base for participants and instructors alike, but assignments took shooters all over the Cape and even to a boat offshore.

The Roots instructors were seasoned news photographers who have transitioned into the wedding industry. My team was led by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Greg Gibson, and Rachel Lacour Neisen of Lacour Photography was our team’s mentor.

The week began with a day of lectures and presentations, a fast paced shooting exercise and an evening shooting excursion at a county fair. Based on these exercises, the team leaders handed out the week’s story assignments. My assignment was a Cape Cod League baseball team.

The first lesson I learned at Roots was to expect the unexpected.

After a morning of shooting the baseball team warming up, the weather turned sour and the baseball game was cancelled. My next assignment of shooting a barbershop also didn’t pan out. I was given a third assignment– riding along in a cop car for the night shift– so I hit the sack in the late afternoon. An hour or so later I was awakened and told I had to leave in ten minutes for my new assignment: a Monster Truck Rally! Sweet!

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Roots Workshop

I drove across Cape Cod to the Monster truck rally only to learn that there was only going to be one monster truck, and it was only going to be doing its thing for a few minutes interspersed throughout the main event. But that main event was a demolition derby. Hello, new assignment!

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Roots Workshop

I’d never been to a demo derby, so it was all new to me. There was a lot of action, smoke, and excitement. I thought I did a great job shooting. But during that night’s review session, my team leader Greg Gibson pointed out that I had a boatload of images but not enough content. I did have great shots of crumpled cars, but I had no story. I needed shots conveying the personalities of the drivers or the crowd. I had loads of medium shots and was lacking in imagery establishing the setting and texture of the event.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Roots Workshop

I had no worry about getting interesting detail shots and establishing images, I do that all the time at weddings. It was capturing the personalities that concerned me. I’m not exactly what you’d call a car guy. I’ll happily rebuild a computer, but I’ve never so much as changed the oil in my car.

The next day I showed up before most of the drivers. After poking around a while, I started asking them about their cars. I confessed to the guys (and gals) that last night had been my first demolition derby, and honestly told how cool I thought it was. Soon they were introducing me to their wives, girlfriends and other drivers.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Roots Workshop

They showed me where their grandkids had helped paint the cars. They made predictions about which cars they thought had the best chances that night. I became part of the gang for one night.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Roots Workshop

At a wedding, I have a built-in level of access; the couple has hired me to be there. Since the Roots Workshop, I’ve worked harder at connecting with everyone around me at a wedding. The more my subjects let their guard down, the more natural my images become.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Roots Workshop

At Roots, when possible, your team leader or mentor will meet up with you at your assignment to check out the images you have already shot, explain parts of the story you might be missing, and suggest different approaches you might not have considered. I found this to be an extremely valuable part of my Roots experience.

The week culminated in a night filled with presentations of each participant’s assignment. Participants had a chance to share what their obstacles were and we celebrated each other’s breakthroughs. Here is my final presentation from Roots: http://vimeo.com/5912283

Mountain Workshops

Western Kentucky University’s Mountain Workshop was the scariest of the workshops I attended this year, in part because the goal at the Mountain Workshops is to train people to be straight-up journalists; it is not geared towards wedding photographers at all.

Perhaps the scariest thing about the Mountain Workshops is that you’re only allowed to take 600 frames over the course of 4 to 5 days of shooting. 600 frames! That might sound like a lot to some folks, but in the course of shooting a wedding I can take 5000+ frames over the course of eight hours. I easily blow through 1000 frames at a portrait shoot.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Mountain Workshops

Story assignments were pulled from a hat the first night. This time I was to shoot the coach of the local girls high school basketball team. The first night I shot 40 frames at basketball practice and thought I did okay considering how terrified I was of pushing the shutter.

Like Roots, a Mountain Workshop day ends with each team getting together so that the team leader can review their work. The team leaders also had a daily opportunity to critique a handful of those images in front of everyone attending the workshop. My team leader, Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Cheryl Diaz Meyer, presented a half dozen images demonstrating pitfalls to avoid while shooting. Five of them were mine. Gulp!

When sizing up a shoot Cheryl wants you to “find the subject of the situation and nail it, then look for other details to add to it in the frame” and to “crop out anything that is extraneous.” She doesn’t want you to use a wide angle to show overviews, but rather to direct the viewer’s focus by taking advantage of how a wide angle make close objects much larger in the frame than distant objects.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Mountain Workshops

Not all of Cheryl’s advice was so cut and dry, though. She tells students to try to “actively dream as you shoot. Dream about what the picture could be. Think of the possibilities that might happen.”

In my wedding work, I try to be discrete and not interrupt the scene that unfolds in front of me. At the workshop, I was shooting the coach during class, at home, at practice, and I was concerned about disrupting things, so I often found myself hanging back and shooting with a longer lens.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Mountain Workshops

I can still hear Cheryl’s refrain “Earl, you’re killing me!” as she pulled apart my work, pointing out how I was not getting close enough into the action and not nailing moments between the coach and the kids. Cheryl wanted the subject’s face to be large in the frame for impact. She suggested that I should tell my subject that I would be going in very close and then I should actually do it.

The next morning, I tried out her suggestion. Right before class I let the coach know that I’d be shooting really close that day. As soon as the students filed in and he began to address them from the front of the classroom, I began shooting a few inches from his face. The kids got a kick out of it and it was established that I pretty much had carte blanche to shoot from anywhere in the room.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Mountain Workshops

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Mountain Workshops

Having the freedom to be at the front of the class and to move up and down the rows of desks enabled me to get interactions between the coach and his students. At basketball practice, I had been getting the backs of peoples heads from my vantage point near the sidelines. After following Cheryl’s advice, when the team ran their drills, I followed, running up and down the middle of the court. I was able to get clear shots of faces from a vantage point within the action rather than outside of it.

Boston Wedding Photographer Earl Christie at Mountain Worpshops

By the end of the workshop, it was taking me fewer frames to work out a shot, and the results had more impact. In fact, I ended up with 12 frames to spare.

This was my final story from Mountain Workshops: http://stories.mountainworkshops.org/workshop/2009/slideshow/1273/earl-christie-hoopster-force/

Looking back at all three workshops, I see a common lesson and it wasn’t about focal length or angle or light. What makes a great photo has less to do with the nuts and bolts of photographic technique and it has everything to do with access. To really tell a story, your subjects need to be comfortable with you, to like you, and to trust you. Once people know that you’re on their side, you can stick a camera an inch away from their face, shoot them in their underwear, climb under the hood with them, and run up to them when they win… or lose.

~Earl

About Earl Christie

Earl Christie has written 40 post in this blog.

Earl is a Boston wedding photographer who finds love and magic and wonder in everything he shoots.

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