Workshops teach you how to take your best shot Photo Finishing School

June 12, 1994|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Special to The Sun

My alarm went off at 4 a.m. and I dragged myself, bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained, out of my warm bed and into the chilly darkness of pre-dawn Maine. Armed with a thermos of steaming coffee, my trusty camera and a ton of photographic equipment, I sped down coastal Route 1 in search of a masterpiece -- my masterpiece.

I was midway through my weeklong travel photography class at the Maine Photographic Workshops, and this was the morning my instructor, Bob Krist, had chosen for our lighthouse-at-sunrise shoot. I had suggested sunset would be just as dramatic, but the experienced photographers in my class of 12 sneered at my ignorance. Surely I must know that earliest morning light was the "good" light; any photographer worth her Kodachrome would happily sacrifice a few hours sleep to shoot at this most revered time of day.

I hadn't known about the good light, but by the time I completed my week in Rockport, I had that knowledge and many other insights. I learned about filters, lenses, flashes, tripods and all the other paraphernalia most amateurs would rather ignore but which the experts know makes the difference between an OK photograph and a dynamite shot. And I learned to do the mental work of composing and framing a photo that is crucial no matter how automatic the camera. Photography, I learned, was not just about taking pictures, but about taking the time to take pictures right. It was about taking risks and learning from mistakes.

"Closer, closer, closer," was Mr. Krist's constant refrain, and who was I to argue with the man who wrote photography columns for National Geographic Traveler and whose credentials read like a library list of top travel publications?

I got closer. I took more time. I got better.

And so can you. Although I make my living partly with travel photography, you don't have to be a professional to enjoy mastering the technical and creative aspects of the craft. My class was about equally divided between working photographers who wanted to expand their skills, and amateurs who simply wanted to take better vacation pictures.

The Maine Photography Workshops are among dozens of programs across the country ranging from weekend to monthlong sessions for amateurs and professionals. Most programs require a portfolio of work for admission to advance classes; beginner classes are open to everyone.

I chose the Maine workshops because I love Rockport's coastal setting and wanted to work with Bob Krist, but several other programs across the country are equally good.

Courses are a loosely structured mix of class time, shooting assignments and critiquing sessions. All the slide film shot each day is developed overnight, usually by the school, and handed out in batches the next day for critiquing. Students bring their own camera equipment and usually provide all or most of their own film. The Maine workshops, like most programs, include some processing in the cost of the course, then charge for additional developing. Expect to pay about $1,500 for a weeklong program, including the course, meals and housing. Air fare is additional.

Typically, workshops are in scenic environments where wonderful subject matter is close at hand. While the Maine school's setting on Penobscot Bay made cliff, ocean and lighthouse shots a natural, at a weeklong course in Santa Fe last summer, our dawn shoots were of beautiful old adobe churches, ancient Indian rock dwellings and the Rio Grande rapids.

Travel photography is just one of dozens of classes taught at photo workshops. At the Maine school, about 100 photo courses (as well as 100 film and video workshops) are held from June through October. While my class was off shooting harbors and lighthouses, students in the portrait photography class were focusing on faces, the documentary class was sleuthing for picture-stories and the video class was covering a children's pie-eating contest.

My classmates and I wanted to take beautiful pictures that evoked the scenes and moods around us -- and would make everyone who saw them gasp in admiration. Day by day, Mr. Krist took us closer to that goal.

We met most mornings in the three-story stone workshop headquarters, formerly Rockport's town hall. Mr. Krist usually began the class by handing out reprints of his columns that dealt with the day's focus -- filters, flashes, people shots, scenic landscapes.

Then, he either critiqued our previous day's work, projecting our efforts on a large screen, or showed his own slides from assignments all over the world, commenting on how he had overcome problem situations or achieved special effects.

Mr. Krist's pictures all looked perfect to us, but that didn't come from simply pointing and shooting, he assured us. He explained, for example, how he triumphed over the dreary flatness of a rainy day in the English countryside with a warming filter, which cast a delicious amber glow over what would otherwise have appeared a gray scene.

Mr. Krist also showed us what he considered to be his failures.

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