Two weeks ago Laurie and I headed out to Lee Vining for a week where we participated in one of Michael Frye‘s fall foliage workshops. this one has been on my ToDo list for a couple of years, and we finally had the time to make it happen.

Was it worth it? Oh, baby….

Sunrise at South Tufas, Mono Lake, Mono County, California

That’s mono lake’s South Tufas at dawn. As is typical of a landscape shot, what you don’t see here is a pre-dawn alarm, a drive in the dark, a long hike in 40 degree dark along an unpaved path, and a couple of hours of fairly bland light which sandwiched a few moments of stunning dawn color. Another thing you don’t see here are two of my workshop compatriots, who got cloned out of this shot…

So, why a workshop? And if you’ve never taken a workshop and are curious, what are they like?

This was my first organized workshop; from research and talking to others, Michael’s format is fairly typical. The workshop started after lunch on Wednesday and concluded around lunchtime on Saturday, giving you three full days of shooting and instruction over four days.

The first day started with introductions and some basic discussion and instruction, and then everyone headed out for an afternoon shoot. As the light faded we then shifted back to Mono Lake to try for a sunset.

The next morning the alarm went off around 5AM, everyone gathered by 6AM, and off we headed to the South Tufas on Mono Lake. Not mentioned in the bit above was that on the hike down to the Tufas, I caught a rock in the trail and launched myself and my gear headfirst into a creosote bush. I was not hurt beyond a few scratches, and neither was my gear. The bush, well, not so lucky.

I did get some nice shots down there, fortunately. By about 9AM we were back at the cars and the day was headed into mid-day and everyone broke for breakfast. During the middle of the day, we gathered for discussion and instruction and Michael  and his assistant (Mike Osborne, a long-time ranger at Yosemite and photographer) went over some of the standard photography basics but then shifted more towards composition and content techniques and did so through showing some of their own images.

As we headed into the afternoon, we headed out for a second shooting session, followed by another chase for interesting sunsets. After dinner, there was an optional session where you could bring in your laptop and images that you were shooting. I took advantage of that the first night, and was able to sit down with Michael and talk at some length about some of the images, especially ones I thought had potential but wasn’t sure how I wanted to process them. That session ended about 9PM for me, because we were up at 5AM again the next morning.

Both of the full days were like that — 12-14 hour days that were split between two shooting periods and a more relaxed conversation/instruction. Saturday was a final morning shoot chasing the sunrise with the workshop closing out by noon.

The cost for this was $685 a person, plus hotel, travel and meals. There were twelve of us in the workshop. Michael was accompanied by one co-instructor with Michael’s wife Claudia managing logistics. I’d say everyone in the group was fairly advanced and mostly self-sufficient, although the two instructors were careful to make sure they checked in with everyone and made sure things were going okay.

All in all, a very intense few days. Based on my movement tracker a full day was good about about 3 miles of hiking a day (at 8,000 feet). With my knee and weight I did somewhat less — I had let Michael know I was going to have to pace myself and would hang back if I felt a hike was beyond me and entertain myself, which I did in a couple of instances. As it happened, my knee finally made it clear it had had enough so Laurie and I pulled out and skipped the Friday sunset and the Saturday dawn shoots, and instead when we got up Saturday did a scouting visit to Merced NWR on the way home — where we found about 1,100 Sandhill Cranes and a few nice flocks of Greater White-Fronted geese. No Ross’s or Snow geese yet, but I just saw my first report of them being heard flying overhead from the Sacramento area, so they’re on the way…

Fall Aspens on the June Lake Loop, Mono County, California

Mono Lake, Mono County, California.

Fall Color and Aspens in Lee Vining Canyon, Mono County, California.

A scarred aspen trunk, possibly by a bear, framed by the golden leaves of aspens in fall. eLee Vining Canyon, Mono County, California.

Mono Lake, Mono County, California.

Fall Sunrise at Convict Lake, Mono County, California

Should you take a workshop?

So, should you take a workshop? I think it’s critical to know what the Workshop offers and that it’s aligned with what you want to get out of it. To me, most workshops can be defined in one of two ways:

  1. You are joining the workshop because the leaders are going to guide you around and make sure you find the right places to take photos at the right time — especially in an area you don’t know well (or at all). There may be some instruction involved, but really, this is about being guided to the right locations.
  2. You are joining the workshop to be taught some aspect of photography. It may be taught in some beautiful and scenic location, but the focus is more on teaching — and you get some nice photos as well.

This workshop had some instructional aspects, but was really about the locations and the shooting. Laurie’s been to Mono Lake a number of times but despite being a California native who visited Yosemite regularly as a kid (I’m old enough to remember the firewall and to have played golf on the Ahwanee’s golf course. And if you’re thinking to yourself “there’s no golf course at the Ahwahnee!”, well, exactly… kid) I never made it up to Tioga pass or over the hill until a couple of years ago. For me, a workshop like this was going to be a boot camp to learning that area quickly.

Before you go, set goals — and make sure they’re aligned with the workshop

I had a number of reasons to pick this workshop from this instructor.

  1. I hadn’t spent any significant time in the Eastern Sierra or around Mono Lake and I wanted to have someone show me around and help me get a feel for the place in a compressed period of time, because I simply haven’t had the time to go off and explore on my own in that areas — and because the fall foliage season is short, hiring someone to guide me was a good value both for learning the area and maximizing the chances of getting good images out of the trip.
  2. One of my biggest weaknesses in my skill set has been shooting landscapes in the medium telephoto — roughly the 70-200mm range where you get away from broad epic wide angle images and more into the intimate landscapes of trying to isolate and show off features of the landscape rather than the broad swaths of an area. Frankly, I suck at it, but Michael’s preferred shooting is in that range and he would be a great teacher for me to bootstrap off of.
  3. I almost never shoot in a group. I tend to shoot solo, or with Laurie. So the workshop puts me into a context where I’m around other photographers and having to work with (and sometimes around) them.
  4. Did I mention I don’t shoot well in locations I don’t know well? If I am new to a location, I tend to struggle getting good shots; I either have to explore and discover, or when I can, visit a place to scout and then go back later to shoot when I’ve had time to think over that area. But with these workshops, we’re dropped into a location and given an hour or maybe two to shoot, which means I had to show up, scope it out, and get the shots — forcing me into a shooting system far outside my normal preferences.
  5. The workshop/group setup is cheaper. Based on the people I’ve talked to about possibly hiring them for a day or two of one-on-one instruction/guiding, the going rate among photographers I’d what to hire seems to be around $600 a day (and yes, my next step is likely to do this, hopefully next spring). By going with the workshop I got a longer time and a more varied set of locations, but less hands-on with the instructors; for me, well worth it for this one.
  6. A final aspect of this workshop: pushing my physical limits, because if I  had to describe the single biggest weakness in my photography today, it’s my weight and my health — it limits what I can do and how I can do it in many significant ways — so going out on workshops like this is a way to reinforce that and see where my limits are as a way to push me to keep motivated to fixing that. This became a much bigger priority after my recent visit to the emergency room, too.

So this workshop was ultimately about pushing myself so far out of my comfort zone that it hurt, and then making myself come to grips with everything and still figure out how to make image that didn’t embarrass myself, since I knew I was going to blog about this and didn’t want to talk about a photo workshop without showing off any photos. No pressure…

I did a lot of research, talking to people and thinking before choosing this workshop with this leader at this time and location. I think everyone considering a workshop needs to understand why they’re spending the money and what they want to get out of it before taking the leap. I knew that the setup for this workshop aligned with my goals because I did the research and I’d talked to Michael on and off over the last couple of years – but if you’re thinking about taking a workshop from someone you don’t know well you need to ask questions about the format and intent. If they’re unwilling to spend the time answering those questions, don’t sign up for their workshop. Chances are that kind of bad attitude will appear during the workshop as well.

There are other aspects you should consider before paying for a workshop: are the instructors insured and trained and do they really know the material and area they’re leading you into? Do they have the proper permits (this is especially important if they’re teaching inside a National Park, because there are a lot of unapproved rogue workshops where the instructors don’t follow the permit process — and the rangers are increasingly cracking down on this and you might find yourself kicked out of the park or fined or arrested for violating park rules. ASK FOR PERMITS AND PROOF OF INSURANCE, and if the workshop leads don’t email you a copy right away, run like hell.

Another thing to keep in mind is how much (or if) the instructors are going to shoot during the workshop. I don’t think there’s any one right answer here, but I do think the workshop leads need to keep the needs and goals of the attendees as the top priority over their own shooting. When I was down in Morro Bay last January for the Bird Festival I spent some time with some of the folks who organize different events down there, and we had a long talk about one specific person that was invited down there to run some workshops and spent so much time on his own images he left a very sour taste in the mouths of both the people who paid to go out and shoot with him and the organizers — who needless to say will never invite that person back for any event anywhere in the region again. Unfortunately, that fit in 100% with what I’d heard about that instructor from other sources, which is why they’re on my list of people I’ll never take a workshop from (and no, I won’t name the name, since I don’t have direct experience with them here. but over a coffee, you’re welcome to ask).

Don’t be afraid to ask the workshop leaders what their philosophy is about this. Don’t be afraid to ask for references for students from previous workshops, and when you talk to those references, ask them about it. If you go into a workshop expecting the leader to work with you on your images and the leader instead spends the workshop bent over his own camera, you’re not going to be happy — and you’re the one who put out all that money to fund his trip to take his images on your dime. Know what you’re getting into before you put down the money, and if you think the leader is spending too much of your paid-for time on their own work, make sure they know it.

With this workshop, both Michael and his associate did some shooting, but both were very careful to interact with everyone and made sure everyone was settled in and shooting and had no questions before they did so. One the first shoot on Wednesday, it turned out Laurie had an equipment problem (because I assumed this plate would work with that tripod because Arca-Swiss is compatible, right?) and Michael spent a chunk of time with her trying to fix it before calling me over to see what I could figure out — and with the help of my handy multi-tool, we got it resolved. (but kids, always test EVERYTHING before a major shoot, because it’s that small assumed detail that will make you look like a doofus).

Then when I went back to my own shooting, there I was in a location I didn’t know using a brand new lens I’ve never really shot with, looking at compositions in a range I almost never shoot and rarely like my results, in a group of people who were already down and shooting and getting results — at 8000 feet and walking around trying to catch my breath. And trying to actually get images I didn’t actively hate. To say I felt at that moment like an absolute idiot is an understatement.

But I kept at it, and I started getting myself dialed in with the lens. Oz, Mike’s associate, wandered by and we had a fairly extended conversation about composition in medium telephoto and he looked at some of the things I was trying and made suggestions on what was working and what didn’t, and the compositions started happening, or at least not sucking. And I started out that session feeling like I shouldn’t be allowed to ever touch a camera again, and came out of it with this:

Which may not be the best image in the world, but it’s one I’m really proud of, if only because it doesn’t look like very other Aspen-fall-foliage image in the universe. And throughout the rest of the workshop, I shot about 75% with that 55-200 lens in the focal range I didn’t get, and only let myself shoot really wide about 25% of the time, and by the end of the workshop I clearly wasn’t a master of that type of image, but I no longer felt defeated by it, and in all of the ways I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I’d found ways to to grow my comfort zone around most of these challenges.

I ended up with 22 shots I thought were pretty good. Of those, eight of the images I liked enough to place in my “real” portfolio. Even though I missed a couple of shooting sessions because of the knee, I’m really happy with the shooting I did and my ability to push into some of the technical areas I had been struggling with. I was able to spend some very useful time with both Michael and his associate and the suggestions and feedback they gave really helped me focus on the things I was trying to accomplish. The group as a whole rocked — lots of fun people who were really sharp photographers, and from what I could tell, everyone was having a lot of fun (and everyone hated 5AM alarms as much as I did, but it’s the only way to get it done…)

If there was one change to the workshop format I might suggest, it’s that it would have been nice to be able to spend some time looking at and talking about each other’s photos, if people wanted to share. There is a flickr group for the workshop where we can share images with each other, but that lacks the easy conversation that being in the same room can create. That said, this isn’t as simple as it may sound, because not everyone processes images in the field (Laurie doesn’t), and not everyone’s going to be comfortable sharing works in progress, so I understand why it’s set up this way — and not everyone is as comfortable with critiques as I am, and I understand that hesitation.

So for me, the workshop met all my goals and beat all my expectations. I knew going in there was a chance I’d have to pull back or pull out because of my health and knees, and in reality, I covered a lot more distance at 8,000 feet than I thought I could do, and felt pretty good until the knee gave out. That gives me a sense that I can push my exercise harder than I have, at least once I get the next round of cortisone this week. Mike and his team were awesome, and I can recommend his workshops without limitation. Mono Lake and the Lee Vining area are a fascinating area and the fall foliage is stunning; next trip will have to include Bodie and Manzanar, too, and maybe Devil’s Postpile.

Thinking of taking a workshop? Go for it — but do some research and make sure you hire the right leaders and that the schedule and goals of the workshop align with yours. The leader will make or break your enjoyment and success at creating interesting images, so it’s crucial you are comfortable that they can make the workshop a success for you.

What’s next for me? I’m headed into the winter refuge season, and my focus is going to be shooting in the central valley until spring. I’ve been looking at headed up into the Klamath to explore that region, although right now, I’m thinking that’s after the first of the year if it happens this year — with the drought, and the avian botulism problems at Tule Lake, it’s hard to judge how successful a trip that would be right now. I want to go down to Piedras Blancas in January for the elephant seals (but no Bird Festival this year), and then maybe in dogwood season I’ll see if I can find a couple of days for some private instruction, and I have a couple of photographers I’d like to hire for that if I can.

So I plan on keeping busy. And I know at some point I’ll be going back into the mix with another workshop, but first, I need to get some more weight off and get in better shape for my to really be able take advantage of that format and not be the old slow guy of the group….