A few weeks ago my man and I visited the Lake District in the UK, as you may have seen from my previous posts, and this time I decided to do a photography workshop, my first ever! I have no formal training in photography, nor have I done any courses or joined a photography club to learn from other people. So far I have been reluctant to spend money on a course or workshop as I wasn’t sure that this was the best way to spend money on photography. You can also use the cash to travel, buy gear or buy film. I do like to learn, and I want to improve my photography, but so far learning by doing has been my strategy.
This time however I got an extra push towards a workshop. A while back someone on twitter talked about how travelling is good for your photography as new places can inspire you, but I answered that I make my best photos near my house, as I know where to go and when the light is good. Saying this I had my trip from last year to Scotland in the back of my mind. Although this is the most beautiful country I know, I was disappointed in my photos (I wrote about that here). The person on Twitter answered that I should hire someone to show me around. This planted a seed, which grew to a plan, and when I realised that Mark Littlejohn does workshops in the Lake District I didn’t take long to convince myself. I now had two good reasons:
- Learn about photography from someone I admire,
- Get to know some good spots in the Lake District from someone who knows this place very well.
So I did a one-on-one workshop with photographer Mark Littlejohn, and with this post I want to share my experiences. I want to write this for people who are considering a workshop and are wondering whether it is worth the cash. But more important, by writing this I want to keep the memory for myself alive, and imprint the things I have learned in my mind.
There is something I have to confess before getting to the workshop itself: I had a major problem with my camera. I still don’t understand how it happened, but on the morning of the workshop at the first location my camera turned out dead. As I discovered later the battery had completely drained, although I had charged it to full the night before. I was quite embarrassed showing up with a dead battery without a spare! I did bring my M2, which doesn’t require a battery, but the lack of feedback is a major drawback of film photography when you are doing a workshop. After some consideration and exploring our options, Mark offered me to use his camera, which I gratefully accepted. So apart from a workshop on framing etc, it was also an experience of using a DSLR (Nikon D800E in this case).
So here’s the big question: how was it?
Well, I liked it a lot. Mark uses long lenses to cherry pick elements from the landscape. This helps to keep images clean and uncluttered, something I want to improve in my photography. It requires that you make choices, you cannot show everything. I think this is important, and something I try to do, but specifically in a new and exciting environment my enthusiasm can get the better of me and I try to include everything. I just get greedy. I have to say that I informed Mark beforehand of what I would like to learn, so it is quite possible that a different person would experience a different workshop. Now the failing of my battery had a positive side, as I was able to use Mark’s camera I also got the opportunity to try some long focal distances. My longest lens is a 90mm, but this workshop I used a 105 and 180 lens.
Back to some practical things:
On the day of the workshop Mark picked me up around dawn, and brought me back at my apartment a good nine hours later. During these hours we visited three spots, which I have shown on the map below. As you can see we covered quite some ground, and this leads me to the first remark I want to make. Having a guide, someone who is very familiar with the area, showing me around, proved even more valuable than I anticipated. It brought me some peace of mind:
- Preparation for our holiday was more relaxed. Last year I got pretty nervous looking for good photography spots, estimating in advance how difficult the grounds would be, etc. This time I didn’t worry at all. I informed Mark of my fitness level and my preference for landscape, and let him do the thinking.
- Having a chauffeur for a day taking you to nice places without me having to think about it was very nice and comfortable. I would never have been able to visit these three spots in one day even if I was aware of the locations because I would simply be too tired. Now I was just being driven around while I could admire the landscape 🙂 .
- I got a list with other interesting locations which helped me for the remainder of our stay.
Grasmere, from White Moss Car Park
On to the photography aspect, let’s start at the first location. Around sunrise we had arrived at Grasmere, where Mark shared with me his ideas on framing and using long lenses. To me Mark is a master in creating images without distractions, and (skilfully) cherry picking is a big part of achieving this.
The truth is that the theory of how to frame well is not that new or groundbreaking. In fact I am reading Ansel Adam’s ‘Camera’ at the moment and I find some similar recommendations in that book as I talked about with Mark. Think about allowing space, checking elements in your frame and at the edges of your frame, and choosing a viewpoint that highlights the subject best. But it is really nice to discuss the theory with a real person who executes this well in a real environment. Reading about how to do this in a theoretical situation is different from making choices when you are at location.
I first want to show you a photo of Grasmere that I took with my iPhone to get a bit of context. I wasn’t at ease enough to take out the M2, so I quickly shot this one before getting hands-on with Marks Nikon D800E.
The next few images show the results I got with the 180mm lens. I found it difficult to adjust to this focal length, which resulted in some framing issues. I resorted to combining two frames for the last image, as the individual frames lacked balance. I feel as if the beautiful light was wasted on me, but remember that at that moment everything was new: Mark as a companion (I didn’t know him, and I normally have no companion at all when on photo expedition), the camera, and the landscape. And I was still taken aback by the fact that my camera didn’t respond at all! But since the light was so great, I still like the images 🙂 . I just feel that I didn’t use the full potential of the moment.
At the second location, Blea Tarn, we discussed light and adding space. And how you have to be patient to wait for the right light, and how that can be worth while. But this is also where it became more apparent that I am a different type of photographer than Mark.
I realised that I would have taken much more photos if I had been alone. I think this has also something to do with the fact that this area of the UK was completely new to me, and I was in awe of everything. I imagine that for Mark this is quite common ground, so only worth taking a photo of when the light is right. If the light doesn’t arrive, then you can accept that you just don’t have an image. However, for me, I was there for this couple of days only, so the threshold for taking a photo was much lower for me. It took me a while before I got comfortable enough to just take a photo if I wanted to, and not wait for the moment that Mark would find good enough. And there are some images that I am very happy with, although I can imagine they could have been better if the light was right. So I guess you have to be aware of the intention of a photo. Is it to make holiday memories, or is the intention to make only images that are good enough to be part of a professional portfolio. I have seen arguments (I didn’t discuss this with Mark, it’s just something I realised afterwards) for only taking a picture if you expect the outcome to be good enough to frame and hang on your wall. But I just love taking pictures. So when the light is not ideal, I will still take pictures just for the joy of doing so. And I use the files to play around with in Lightroom, maybe explore some different processing options. I know that it will not be part of my top ten, but I enjoy it nonetheless.
That doesn’t mean that the lesson of finding the right light is not valuable. It can help me being more aware of the potential of a photo, and make a conscious decision on taking a photo or not. And help with expectation management…
This image below is one of my favourites from this location. The light is right as to create layers, making the trees stand out. I love the little trees on the right. So it is quite funny that while I did shot a lot of frames with the 50mm, my comfort zone, the one where I used the 105mm worked out so well. I guess I was slowly adjusting…
Below some frames with the 50mm shot at different times (and different medium!) showing what a big difference a few minutes and change of light can make.
In between I managed to sneak in some shots with the M2. We climbed a little hill/elevation, and I liked the view from up there. This is another example where Mark didn’t seem to think the viewpoint or the light interesting enough, but the images are dear to me as they add a lot to showing and remembering the location. Even if it’s just the stile that cost me so much trouble to cross…
Here’s another one that I almost felt guilty taking, as we were waiting for the right light:
The Ullswater Steamer
The third location was quite relaxing and nerve-racking at the same time. We boarded the boat from Glenridding to cross Ullswater. The place is absolutely beautiful, and the landscape just unfolds itself before your eyes while you sit and relax. But then you see something nice and the boat doesn’t stop! So here I am, with a huge camera that I am not familiar with, which buttons I just don’t get immediately, with light changing faster than you can change a lens, trying to cherry pick from the shore. Although stressing and challenging, I think I did quite alright. This is more of a testament to the beautiful landscape then to my photography skills, as there is beauty in every direction and every corner, but it sure was enjoyable. However, this is where I became more aware of how I prefer my rangefinder over the DSLR. With the long lens on a moving platform I really missed the viewfinder with extra field of view, which allows faster moving to the right spot.
Anyway, here are my results from shooting the trees on the shore (including a few from my M2 on Ektar). In this situation the long lens really helps, as you cannot move closer. So here is also the moment when I start thinking about buying a longer lens for myself…
This image below is another one that I realise could have been better with different light. But I am very happy that I took it, as I still love it. This to me shows another aspect of the Lake District that I love, the sky can be grey but it’s still gorgeous!
The final set of images were taken from the same Steamer, but now directed to the south/southwest. Mark told me the name of every hill in the area, but I didn’t remember them… The long lens helps picking out details, but in this situation I can’t help but really like the wider view of my 50 on the M2. I even stitched two together…
Some final thoughts:
- We discussed framing, viewpoint and light and it was very useful and interesting. And although you cannot learn everything in a single day, it gave me some pointers for future learning and focus.
- I learned some tricks for post processing, which was very nice. I have to dive into the details to make it more my own, but it set me off in a very interesting direction. I don’t see this as a way to copy someone else’s style, but as a tool that I can use to create my own.
- I didn’t agree with everything, for example when we talked about cropping, but it is good to hear a different view and to think about it and make up your mind. Make it deliberate.
- Having to use Mark’s camera was both an opportunity as a drawback. It gave me a change to use different lenses, but having to use a camera that I was not familiar with took attention from the things I wanted to learn.
- I would do it again! I definitely think it’s worth the money, it gave me a memorable day and lovely pictures as well. And I learned a few things in the process…
I have to thank Mark for providing a very enjoyable day. My dead battery brought some extra problems (he didn’t have his camera to himself, he had to go to a lot of extra trouble to get the files to me), but he offered great service. If you want to know more about Mark and his photography have a look at his website or find him here on twitter.
Thanks for reading!