2019 Summer Decay Workshop Recap

· Reading Time: 15 minutes

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Chopped and Stacked

Those of you who have followed this blog for any time at all know that I really enjoy my decay photography, especially the rusted cars that I come across in my travels.  When it came time to start thinking about topics that I could cover with workshops, it was only natural that I would choose this genre for some of the workshops that were offered.  What better place than at a rat rod builder’s shop to have these workshops?  I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and become friends with Dean Cornelius of Outlawed Restorations.  I have shot at his property many times over, and he has been gracious enough to let me host workshops there as well.  My first decay workshop was back in the Spring of this year (actually second workshop I every offered), and it gave me an opportunity to see how a workshop like this would go.  It was a resounding success with a lot of great feedback for my future workshops.  It was on this workshop that I really started to think that I had something to offer other aspiring photographers in this genre.  It was so good in fact, that I decided to put together another workshop at the same place later in the year.  I set the date for my Summer Decay Workshop shortly after wrapping up the Spring one and then it was a waiting game.  I was really expecting this one to fill up quickly and was worried that my limit of 6 participants was going to be very restrictive.  I keep it at that number just so I can keep things organized since we are working in stations and I don’t want folks tripping over each other.  I was excited and ready to have this next workshop and “do it for real” since I had the practice one out of the way.

Well, things went very slowly for this workshop and instead of thinking I would be turning participants away, I was actually worried that I wouldn’t have anyone to go on the workshop at all.  This was a odd feeling after three successful workshops I had hosted.  Had the newness worn off, had I reached the end of my exposure in the photographic community?  Was the topic not viable anymore?  I tried not to let it get me down and just kept plugging the workshop when I could.  I finally did get a participant lined up towards the end of July, just six weeks before the date of the workshop.  At least I knew the workshop was a go, and I informed her that as of that time she was the only one signed up.  I wasn’t sure if she would want to do a solo workshop or not, but she was fine with it and actually invited the learning opportunity.  While I wondered what the protocol should be for a workshop with only one attendee, I was determined to give the workshop my best regardless of having just one participant or a full group.  That is the way I like to operate.  If she was willing pay for the day, I owed her that much.

As the date got closer, I had a few photographers ask about the workshop, but they never signed up for it.  It wasn’t until the last week in August that I had another inquiry that was a bit different than most.  He was asking if he could bring medium and large format film cameras in addition to a digital.  I had never been asked that before, but the thought really intrigued me.  I’ve had an interest in those formats for a while, but have never shot either of them.  I considered it for a while before I answered him.  My answer was based on the fact that I really didn’t know that much about film photography.  However, since by and large film and digital photography are very similar, and a large part of what I would be teaching was composition and exposure considerations it should work out just fine.  He seemed happy with that answer and signed up.  I just hoped that I was right in my logic.

I now had two going on the workshop and it was feeling a bit more normal for me now.  As I was starting to put my final lesson plan together in the last week before going, I was contacted by another photographer who was asking if this would be the right workshop for him to attend.  We talked back and forth a bit and he ultimately decided to join in with the group.  That gave me a group of three.  It was my smallest workshop to date, but it was a very manageable size and I was positive that I would be able to give each participant the attention that they wanted.

I was checking the weather as we were just a few days out and despite the hurricane that had just passed through the area, there was nothing forecasted in the way of clouds for the entire day.  This was heart breaking for me.  It was going to be my second workshop done under harsh light from the exposed sun.  Fortunately, there is a little more flexibility in light like this with decay subjects as opposed to landscapes which really need clouds outside of the first and last parts of the day.  I honestly wasn’t looking forward to another brightly lit workshop, but there are no options when the participants have signed up for a particular day, and the host has to come through.  I gave some updates via email to the participants and let them know that they should be planning on a bright day with some harsh lighting and answered a few questions that had come up along the way from a couple of them just to try and get a head start on the day.

As with my other Decay Workshop, we started at 8am since this is a business and I try to be respectful of that with the workshops.  The morning light wasn’t quite as soft as I was hoping for so I knew it was going to be a bright day for the most part.  The hurricane had cleaned the air of most of the particles that would have helped diffuse the morning light I think.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was going to be what it was going to be.  I was very happy that all three of the participants arrived on time, and after getting a few of the administrative things under control, we were tripods down at 8am just as I had planned.  I really appreciate them getting there when they did because it allowed us to really get started in earnest right at the beginning of the day.

As with my last workshop here, we started with a few old trucks under a pine tree that get really contrasty really quick after the sun comes up.  At this point, everyone was shooting digital and I did most of normal introduction work as everyone was getting set up.  I covered things like how to look for these subjects since they are not the easiest to find;  How to ask for permission, and when that permission is needed.  I also covered one of my favorite topics which pertained to this setting quite well.  That was how to compose to eliminate the clutter that you will undoubtedly find when shooting decay.  We looked at things like focal length changes, position changes, and how the altitude of your camera can change the interest in a picture.  The relationship between foreground and background was covered which was important here because there were holes in the trees that let in bright sky if the camera was too low.  A simple repositioning would bring the background up and cover the holes.

It was during this time I started to go person to person and see what issues they were having and make sure that we were all up to speed.  This was where I started to cover the use of Live View as well as using the histogram to ensure proper exposure.  Fortunately, Trista and Eric were both using Canon cameras which I am much more fluid with the menus than on other makes.  We were able to get them both set up to operate pretty well in this new shooting environment.  Marty was using a brand new Olympus which he had only played with a little bit before the workshop.  He was able to find all the features that we were talking about which was very good since I wasn’t familiar at all with the Olympus bodies.  Marty was also the one that brought along a medium format and large format film bodies to work with during the day.  He continued to amaze me as he transitioned between each format seamlessly, and in some cases actually shot two formats simultaneously.  I’ve got to hand it to him, his mind works better than mind would.

This first station that I have set up, I use it for all of these purposes and I use it as a way to get to know the participants a little better.  With the initial one on one experiences, I kind of get the idea where their experience is in relation to the rest of the group.  For me, the instructor, this is a huge priority for me to figure out early on because it will set the tone for the rest of the day and ensure that everyone gets the attention that they need.  I also use this time to introduce the main concepts that I will be exposing everyone to like composition, exposure considerations, focus points, use of depth of field, overall shots, as well as isolations.  For the most part, the exposure here stays pretty uniform for the first hour or so of the day which helps as to give everyone a chance to get in the groove without pushing any envelopes.  It is a gentle start before the sun gets bright and the lighting goes to pieces.

After we had been at this first station for a bit over an hour I felt that everyone had a good foundation to move on to the next station.  This is where I start to kind of read the light a bit and try to go where I can provide the best material.  In this situation, I went to the big White Firetruck which is probably going to be going under the knife in the Fall when the new engine arrives for it.  I am very glad that it was still here because it provides a great exercise in exposure, especially in difficult lighting like we were having during the workshop.  With this truck, I am able to discuss exposure in a completely different way, and we talk about high contrast scenes, compositions that can be used in difficult lighting as well as when it might be time to switch to black and white to embrace the contrast.  Of course, I waited until everyone was thoroughly frustrated with trying to capture a correctly exposed color image before I gave them the suggestion of monochrome.  As I told them, if they can get a good exposure off of this truck in this light, they had learned something.  It really did allow us to go into detail about how to read the LCD review with the highlight blinkies and the histogram.  We went into further detail about how to get a more representative Live View and review image on the LCD through the settings in the camera.  This gave a much better relationship between the exposure that the camera was showing you compared to the RAW file that was being created.  This is because the LCD is showing a jpeg image of the RAW file with the camera settings applied to that file.

With this station, I had the opportunity to talk about light and the direction of it and how to work around it, or with it.  Trista had brought up the question initially about shooting with back lighting.  We discussed how that is very difficult for this type of subject, but talked about times when it would work to her benefit.  Sometimes it is just better to return under different light for the subject that you were wanting to capture.  Conversely, I was talking to Eric a bit later, and one of the things that he enjoys doing is shooting shadows.  He has a style worked around that and has figured out how to make it work for him.  These are the things that I really love about workshops.  I get the chance to broaden my own horizons, while helping others to fine tune their own photography.

Sadly, I have to report that we lost one of our participants while working on the White.  I never suspected that photography could be this dangerous, but it seems that Marty invaded the space of this massive rig and for whatever reason was subsequently eaten by it!

Of course, I am kidding.  I just really liked this picture of Marty taking to heart what I had been talking about earlier at the first station.  I try to get folks out of the habit of shooting from eye level all the time.  Here we have Marty not only getting low, but shooting at a really extreme angle to give a unique and different perspective.  In fact, Eric and Trista all got in some contorted shapes to get the shots that they were after at one point or another.  I am happy to report that nobody got hurt…or eaten by any of the cars that we were shooting.

After everyone had mastered the art of the most difficult exposure of the day, we decided to break for lunch.  Everyone had put in a lot of work all morning long and were due a break.  It was getting hot under the relentless sun and I was getting a little tired as well.  Not being one to eat lunch, I took that opportunity to address some questions that had come up during the first half of the day.  Eric came prepared for this with notes that he had written about questions that he had come up with.  I truly think that Q&A sessions like this during a workshop are as beneficial as the practical portions of the day, and I invite this exchange on all of my workshops.  I might not always have the answer, but I can help find the answer, or point in the right direction.

With lunch done, we were back in full swing, but instead of having the cameras back out right at the harshest lighting of the day, we opted to do a bit of a post processing demonstration.  I had done that for the first time at the last decay workshop and it was a hit.  It was brought up in the feedback session from my Summer Landscape Workshop that it would have been beneficial to have one there as well.  Since it seems to be something that works and is wanted, I have incorporated it once again in this workshop and will try to have this session in all of my workshops as we go from here.  I would like to have a bit better equipment to do this on since I am using a rather slow laptop with a small highly reflective screen.  It is very hard to do editing in any way in bad lighting with a screen that is pulling all the glare and reflections from everything around.  I just don’t have the funds available to upgrade to a better demonstration machine for no more often than I use it.  The Lightroom demo went for a bit over an hour and I didn’t cover all that I really wanted to because it was just too hard to see what I was doing.  I at least showed what was possible with the program, and that was my main goal.  I will work on getting that to be a better presentation as I definitely see the benefit to having it in these workshops, especially when the sun is too bright to shoot in the middle of the day.

After I had gotten extremely frustrated using that laptop, we concluded with that part and it was time to get back to shooting.  We went to the next station which was over in the far side of the property where there was a row of cars and trucks that provided plenty of potential.  The light was starting to soften a little bit as the sun was dropping behind the trees, but there were still highlights that had to be dealt with.  We talked a little bit about lighting modifiers and ways of blocking the sun when shooting intimates.  We also talked about how to use the sun to show off the textures of the rust when it was side lit.  We really got into telling the story of vehicles here because the two trucks shows in the picture above both had a lot of story to tell if you knew how to look at them.

By this point though, the workshop was winding down and I actually realized something.  This was the first workshop that I have hosted where I finished with the same number of participants that I started with.  All of my others had lost a few along the way.  Don’t worry, we didn’t lose anyone, they just had to break away early for personal reasons.  It was actually 5pm and I still had everyone with me and they were all still enjoying themselves, but getting very tired from the sun and heat.  I was too, and my voice was pretty much gone as expected.  I would have been happy going longer than 5, but I picked up on the fact that everyone was ready to go when they started to put their gear away.  I didn’t argue the point because home sounded like a good place to be.  I wanted a shower and some dinner after this very eventful day.

Something else that I realized during this workshop was that I had not once brought my camera out to take any pictures.  I brought out bits of it to demonstrate some equipment that I used, but not once did I turn it on.  The picture that opened this entry was one that I shot last Fall.  All of my other workshops, I had come back with a picture or two of my own, but this one was vastly different than the other ones.  I had been so fully engaged with the group thanks to their questions and involvement that I never even thought about any photos for myself.  In fact, I had to make it a point to snap a few pictures with my phone to document the day and their hard work.  Even without any pictures taken for myself, this was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had as a photographer.  It was a wonderful day, and based on the preliminary feedback from Marty, Trista, and Eric, they had enjoyed and benefited from it as well.  I never go out on these workshops for self gain, and I always put everything I have into facilitating learning for the participants.  This workshop was a total success in that regard, and I hope to repeat that experience in the coming workshops!

In closing, I would like to thank Dean Cornelius for the use of his property once again for a very unique learning opportunity shooting decay.  Without his willingness to help, there is no way that I know of to get so much exposure in a single day in such a compact location.  I also have to thank my participants Eric, Marty, and Trista for attending this workshop and being so willing to learn about decay photography.  You guys made this workshop a success, and I was lucky to have been able to be a part of it.  Thank you all!


Upcoming Workshop Dates:

Fall Foliage Workshop: October 25, 2019, at Stone Mountain State Park, NC  (Tickets Still Available)

Winter Waterfall Workshop: December 7, 2019, at Hanging Rock State Park, NC  (Just Announced)