Individual Instruction Results

· Reading Time: 16 minutes

Monday, October 26, 2020

This is not something that I would normally get into here in the blogs, but I felt that I needed to make an exception here.  You might recall that I had a recent 1-on-1 field instruction session with Jon Wheeler at Stone Mountain here in NC.  Of course, you are welcome to read the entry that describes my day there with him from my point of view, along with the images that I captured on this particular trek.  It would seem that with all of the pictures that I got that day that I spent a lot of time out there for my own purposes.  That is not the case at all, and in fact, most of those images were captured while I was demonstrating some concepts that I wanted to get across.  The day was all Jon’s and that was my focus almost entirely.  To put it into perspective, I wanted to talk a little bit about how the day progressed from the instructional standpoint so that others might have a better idea of how one of these one on one sessions might go.  I also wanted a chance to share some of his images which I think are really good.

During my time teaching photography, I have noticed that I have had all kinds of photographers show up to learn.  I’ve had the absolute beginner who has not held a camera more than a few weeks and I’ve had the photographers that I think are probably better than I am, but they lack the confidence to know that.  There have been a bunch that fall in-between those extremes as well.  I can say with a fair amount of confidence that all of these photographers have benefited to one degree or another from having spent time with me.  At least that is my understanding after asking questions during and after the time in the field.  I have always tried to get an idea how things have gone for the participants and what I can do to improve.  That gives me a pretty good understanding of their experience I think.

Jon probably fell in the upper echelon of this range and I really think that he is quite accomplished as a photographer already.  In fact, when looking at his portfolio on Instagram, I started to really wonder what it was that I could realistically help him with.  This might be my own insecurities talking, but I really felt that he was as good, if not already better than I was.  I just kept saying that he sees something in my work that he wants to learn and that was all I needed to put on my game face and do what I love doing…teaching and spreading the joy of photography to others.  In order to get a grasp on what it was that I would be covering with him I requested about five or six points that he was wanting to cover during our session.  This is something that I always try to do whether it be a workshop or an individual instruction session.  That way I come prepared with what I will be covering and I don’t waste my time, or the participant’s time figuring it out in the field.

Jon’s list was very concise and included Shooting Grand Landscapes, Waterfall and Stream Compositions, Use of a Wide Angle Lens, Sunrise/Sunset, Intimate Landscapes, and abstracts with movement.  He was also interested in monochrome presentations.  It was a lot to cover, but he had a good grasp on most of this already so I was just supplementing what he already knew.  I had plenty of time to cover this as well since I had to take a rain check on the Spring Landscape Workshop when COVID-19 hit and everything shut down.  In order to be fair, I promised a full day session for him since he signed up for a full day workshop.  We were going to have as many as 13 hours to cover these topics and any others that he felt that he wanted to dive into.

He was gracious enough to allow me to share some of his images from the day and he sent me around a dozen or so to look at.  They all turned out quite well I think and I have picked some to showcase here that I found particularly well put together.  As you have read in my original blog from the day, we started out the day with some great fog down at the base of the mountain.  We spent a lot of time here talking about chasing the light and finding scenes to put underneath the existing sky.  This was where I did a bit of a demonstration of my workflow and how I looked for my compositions.  We largely shot the same compositions and they turned out very similar I think so in the interest of not trying to make this a competition or to point out the differences in the images, I won’t share any of those.  This was the basic learning phase where we were getting to know each other.  It was after we left here that Jon started to really pursue his own ideas and that is what I want to highlight here in this blog entry.

Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Wheeler

One of the things that he wanted to work on was isolations within the landscape, and had been interested in using depth of field to his advantage.  These are both very difficult areas of landscape photography because it forces us to see differently than we are used to.  Our first real opportunity came just at the trailhead as we were getting ready to hike down to Widow’s Creek Falls.  It was Jon that pointed out the scene that he wanted to capture which made me very happy.  I can point out scenes all day long, but it would be my vision that I would be teaching and that isn’t fair at all.  I loved that Jon was confident enough in what he liked to speak up and direct me to what grabbed his imagination.  That made the capture part much easier because he already had the connection to the scene and I could start to ask him what he liked and didn’t like about the scene.  That is the most important part of the whole process in my mind.  For me to pick the scenes, we are focusing on what I like, and it may not be the same thing that the participant might like.  This is probably the biggest difference in my workshops compared to my individual instruction sessions.  With the workshops, I kind of have to direct a whole group so we focus on the scenes that I like primarily in the interest of time and organization.  With the individual instruction, I am much more free to be able to react to the participant’s needs as the time progresses.

That was just what happened as we were walking through the parking lot.  He spotted some vegetation on the embankment that caught his eye with the delicate dew on the seed pods.  Hey, I’m not a plant expert, so I just describe them as I see them.  Anyway, this was not a scene that I would have necessarily picked out because I don’t really see in this fashion, but he saw something there that he liked and that was good.  We surveyed the area and found the right focal point and then picked the right area to set up the camera.  From here I just asked him a lot of questions to get him thinking about how to compose the image to capture what he truly loved here.  Once he had the composition that he liked, we fine tuned a few things to really put the balance into the frame, and then we talked about depth of field.  This was a great learning opportunity for that odd time in landscape photography when you actually don’t want a broad depth of field.  We were actually working on two of his points with this one simple image, maybe 100 feet from the cars.

He shot several images of this scene and this was his favorite one.  As I mentioned, this is not my style of image, but I really like this one.  The colors scream Fall, the dew helps bring the attention right to those primary focal points and the limited depth of field makes sure that you are concentrating on just that.  The rest of the image just becomes color and texture to frame the main subject.  For an area of landscape photography that Jon felt he needed to be challenged on, he did amazingly well here and has created an image that I would be proud to have shot.  The best part about it was he had spotted the subject on his own and I was just there to help him achieve his vision.  This is really my main goal in these sessions.

When we were done here, we proceeded down the road looking for other little out of the way isolations along Bullhead Creek.  I had one in mind, but again, Jon pointed out a small section that caught his eye.  It was not one that I had shot before, but I was happy to go over and help him though some compositions if he could find specific aspects that he liked.  Once again, he knew what he liked here and we worked on how to capture his points of interest.  There was more work with limited depth of field and I demonstrated the use of a wide angle lens to really emphasize the focal point of a scene in the foreground.  For an area that I hadn’t ever paid any particular attention to, we ended up staying here for about an hour or more before heading down to the waterfall.  Jon was well on his way to figuring out the intimate landscape after the last two locations that he had shot.  He was falling into a groove and getting great images.  I had also figured out the one little tidbit that I could teach him that might have the most importance of all the lessons I was going to talk about.

He was very well versed with how to use his camera, and how to expose an image correctly.  His compositions were even very strong.  I was only able to offer small bits of advice along the way, but the one thing that I really felt that I could offer him was how to dance with the camera.  Yep, I put on some music and we did the tripod three-step.  It was glorious, a site fit for a ballroom.  Of course, I am kidding….to a point.  I was noticing that Jon, like so many other photographers was viewing his tripod as an anchor.  Once he placed it on the ground, that was it, he was locked into that position.  It is a common thread among tripod photographers and fortunately, he was very good at finding that initial place to put the tripod.  It was at this point in the day I really started to make him think about all the different movements that he could do with the camera on the tripod whether it be altitude, distance, or position left to right.  These were the tools that were hopefully going to take him to that next step in his own photography and make him even better than he already was.

Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Wheeler

When we got to Widow’s Creek Falls I knew that we would have the opportunity to do some waterfall photography, but more importantly, it would be a great opportunity to work on moving water abstracts which had been in his list of topics that he wanted to cover.  This is one of those great waterfalls that has so many different personalities and so many areas of interest.  He did do an overall composition that I thought was very well thought out, but at a difficult angle. I’m not sure how it turned out, but I remember thinking that it looked very good on the back of the camera.  From there, he started to work the isolations and I think he found his love for this waterfall in the details.  That was where he wanted to spend most of him time.  He sent me one of the images that he liked from this one which I really loved.

We had spent some time talking about converting to black and white when color doesn’t really play a part in the composition.  This intimate and somewhat abstract capture of the base of the falls was one of those situations we had discussed.  He had taken the advice and made the conversion which was something else that he had been interested in doing more with.  I think that this image works so well as a black and white presentation and the composition is very well balanced.  We had talked at length about doing these moving water abstracts that you really need to have a visual anchor in the midst of all of that movement.  He has two main areas that are nice an sharp and they are perfectly placed at opposing corners within the frame.  Balanced!

We didn’t stay at the waterfall as long as I had figured, but that was fine.  Jon was getting some great images and was really working well at this point.  It was getting to be time for a quick lunch break before heading up to the top of the mountain to see some grand landscapes which had also been on his list.  That is probably the best part about Stone Mountain from an educational standpoint.  I can find examples of every type of landscape composition  within the park.  There might be a little bit of a hike to get there, but this park has it all, and I really love using it for workshops and these individual instruction sessions.  We had spent the morning in the “lowlands” as I call them down at the base of the mountain where the waterfalls and intimate compositions are mostly found.  Once we got a bit of hiking behind us we were going to be at the top of the mountain overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.

Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Wheeler

It was that hike that was the hardest part of the day.  There was a lot of climbing to do, and with that being in the second part of the day, we were both tired and our bags were getting really heavy at this point.  We did make it, and I was so glad that we did because the colors on the trees were really amazing.  What I love about this landscape is that you are shooting from a granite bald without your typical foreground interests.  This is one of those times when you have to think outside of the box to really make a compelling composition and that was just what we talked about doing.  This was a great chance to talk about wide angle compositions focusing on the small textures on the granite surface, and you might remember that I pulled out my 14mm lens for this demonstration.  Jon jumped right on it and started working with several different elements up here for his foregrounds.

As with the foggy beginning, I didn’t want to include a lot of the same images that we shared, but Jon was definitely in his element up here.  This is the type of landscape that he is most familiar with and he was very comfortable coming up with compositions.  That was why I kind of left him to his own devices for the most part and worked on some compositions for myself.  He would occasionally ask some questions that I would help him figure out.  We were still looking at camera movement to get the scene organized correctly as the main learning point.  The exposures up here were quite a bit more difficult than what we had dealt with earlier in the day so that also provided some more areas to instruct.  With it being close to mid day with the clouds parting, there was a bit of harsh light in certain directions and we had to let the light guide our compositions which was a great chance to learn more about reading the light and chasing that light.

The longer we were on top of Wolf Rock, the more Jon found to be interested about.  He really started to connect with the unique landscape that Stone Mountain offers and that made me quite happy.  I’m always nervous about picking locations for workshops and such because not everyone is drawn to the same locations that I am.  It was really seeming that I had come through with a great location for him and he was just firing off composition after composition taking it all in.  He was even going for the very difficult compositions which I really enjoyed seeing.

Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Wheeler

One of those compositions was of a tree that I had shot many years ago before the surrounding brush had obscured my composition.  Like me, he was drawn to the interesting textures of the trunk of the tree and wanted to try a shot or two of it.  His instincts paid off and he started off with a very intimate composition of the tree which I had not really considered in the past.  It worked amazingly well and it was true to his vision of the scene, and not mine.  The only input that I had here was in the depth of field and it turned into another learning point on how limited depth of field in landscape can help bring the attention right to the main subject.  The trunk just jumps out of the frame here and has a certain presence that just can’t be denied.  I’m so happy that he wanted to give this one a try as it turned out just perfect.  It was one of the last images that was shot during the day.  He picked up a few more images on the way down the mountain in blue hour, but I’m thinking that the lighting wasn’t quite enough to make those images pop.  He hasn’t sent me any of those to look at yet.

We had started the day at 7am when the gates opened, and here we were leaving at around 7:30 in the evening.  That is a long day in anyone’s book, but I had made good on my promise to treat this like the workshop that he had been forced to miss out on.  It was a bargain since he had paid for a workshop which is designed to spread out the cost among the different participants.  It did get me thinking about things when it comes to my one on one instruction sessions though.  I can now see the benefit to having a full day session where we cover a lot of topics that just can’t be done in an hour or two.  With a cost of $75/hour that bill would have come to just shy of $1000 which is way more than I would feel comfortable collecting.  I started to think about an all day price cap but wasn’t really sure what would be a fair cost for that.  Of course, I asked Jon what he thought the day would have been worth.  He gave it some thought and got back to me later on and said that he felt that a good and fair price for what he had received would be between $500 and $600 which I think is reasonable.  It is always a good plan to get that feedback from my participants to make sure that I am offering value for the cost.  I will work this out on a case by case basis for what the client is wanting, but I now have an answer if somebody wants a full or half day session with me.

I’m really glad that I got the chance to make the workshop up to Jon, and I really appreciate his willingness to work with me as we tried to navigate the pandemic.  As it turned out, I think that he benefited much more from the one on one session than he would have from the workshop.  Looking at it as a direct comparison has really opened my eyes as to what is possible with these Individual Instruction Sessions.  I hope that they start to take off in the future because the ones that I have done have all went so well.  They are just so much more efficient than a comparable workshop I think, and the flexibility that they provide is a huge benefit.

I hope that you have enjoyed this slightly different account of a trek, and I hope that you enjoyed Jon’s images as much as I do.  He is an excellent photographer, and I hope that I have given him a few extra tools to help him get even better.  If one of these sessions appeals to you, I am happy to talk about options with you and to work out a time and place to start honing your skills.  Just shoot me an email at [email protected] to get things rolling, or to ask any questions.

Until next time…