Attending the Art Wolfe Lake Quinault Photo Workshop (Part 1)

by Oct 3, 2019

I have been back from my trip to the photo workshop about a week, and I’m still sorting out what I think and what I learned. My comment to Laurie when I got home was “my brain is full”, and I still feel that way to some degree. I have gone through and selected and processed the images I like from the trip, and I’m happy with the results, and in fact I ended up with more images once I did my formal evaluation than I thought I would when I ended the workshop.

That discrepancy is in fact a bad thing (but completely independent of the workshop) and I’ll talk about it in more detail later, but the results were positive. I exceeded my personal goals, I got what I needed — instruction and introduction into types of photography that I frankly had failed to figure out without help — and I finally got to explore an area of the country that was on my list to visit for years now, Olympic National Park.

The TL;DR: the workshop was incredibly well run, the instructors were awesome, the other attendees were awesome and a lot of fun to be around and work with, the locations were amazing, and I was right that my physical limitations would allow me to fully (well, almost) participate and get everything I wanted out of the workshop (barely).

Would I do it again? absolutely. Should you? Let’s talk about that a bit…

My writing about this trip and the workshop is likely going to be fairly long. I’m currently thinking it’ll end up being about three blog posts long, including a self-critique of my final selected images. That may change as I get through this, we’ll see how it works out. And to be honest, I’m still sorting some of it out in my head and writing this is part of getting those last peoples settled down and sorted out in my brain…

I’ve had that workshop on my radar for a few years but had held off because I didn’t feel I was up to it physically. This year, I felt I could handle it, and the timing worked, and so I went for it. Art doesn’t teach this every year, but does retreat/workshops in Astoria and Carmel as well that cover the same basic imaging work in those venues — as I write this, his 2020 workshop in Astoria is scheduled in August.

The Base Camp

The workshop was based at the Lake Quinault Lodge, one of the in-park hotels. Like many in-park lodges, it’s an older building, the rooms are not inexpensive, and the food is definitely expensive. I stayed in a Riverview room, one of the more expensive rooms, because it involved no stairs (I was two doors down from the official ADA compliant rooms), but I had a patio with great views of the lake itself. Of course, I spent little time in the room during daylight after the first day, but I don’t regret taking that room one bit…

Every night was a group dinner; the first night at Lake Quinault Lodge, two nights at a place down the road called the Salmon House, and once at the Kalaloch Lodge restaurant. Lunches were commonly grabbed at a market on the way to a shoot and eaten on the fly, and breakfasts were up to each person. I chose to eat them at the lodge restaurant, where I got a pretty average eggs, potatoes and bacon with coffee for about $18. The biscuits were quite good, the rest pretty average.

The dinner at the Lodge was decent but not great, and we had some — uninspired — service by the waitstaff, which was kinda disappointing because the room was half empty that night; really no excuse for it. Salmon House is about a mile down the road, a lot more casual in decor, and the food and service we’re both way better. The Kalaloch lodge meal was really damned good, especially compared to the kind of forgettable food at the Lake Quinault lodge. (Kalaloch is run by Delaware North, and Lake Quinault Lodge by ARA. Forgettable food seems to be a trademark of ARA facilities I’ve visited).

Other than the lackluster food, Lake Quinault Lodge was pretty awesome. I wish my room had had a mini-fridge (some rooms did, most didn’t) but that’s my only kvetch about the place. Overall it was a great base camp for this retreat and the views it has are pretty awesome. It’s also in the middle of nowhere, so there weren’t many alternative options for people looking for rooms at lower cost, but that’s fairly typical of any national park facility like this.

The Costs

Workshops are not cheap, and when you are talking about an industry legend like Art Wolfe, aren’t cheap outings. ON top of that, you have travel, hotels, meals and other expenses. I thought I’d show what this one cost me to give you an idea of the complete cost, not just the price of the workshop itself.

The Workshop fee was $3800 for the three full days and two half days. On top of that Art requires travel insurance, which cost me $327. I drove from Silicon Valley to Washington and back (about 15 hours each way), stopping in Eugene for the night. The Eugene hotel was about $125, and it was about 2.5 tanks of gas each way at about $50 per tank, plus another tank during the retreat since I volunteered as a carpool driver. So travel was about $500, plus another $50 in fuel during the retreat.

Four dinners ran about $45-50 each, or about $200. Breakfasts ran about $20 a day or $80. I spent about $75 on lunches across the days. When I’m on the road I tend to each fast and cheap, so the meals in transit were maybe $60.

The hotel room was the other big expense, at $1700 for the four nights. I could have taken a less expensive room and saved maybe $250, but I regret nothing. The view was amazing, and I got to sit out on the patio one afternoon and listen to a common loon calling. Totally worth it.

So the workshop cost $3800, and everything else around it added about 1300 and the room added 1700, so that’s another $3,000, so the final cost was close to $7000.

Cheaper alternatives?

That’s not a small amount of money. Could I have don less expensive alternatives? Absolutely.

My original plan for 2019 was to take a photo workshop in the fall. My tentative plan was to hire William Neill for a couple of days of 1:1 work in Yosemite, since I really love his work and it synced up with the kind of work I’ve been trying to get my head around. A two day, 1:1 private session with him would have cost, including travel and lodging and meals, maybe 40% of what this trip cost. But the more I thought about doing that, the more I felt it wasn’t the right thing at the right time for me this year.

One reason I’d been hesitating to sort this up was that I’d be treading familiar ground — Yosemite — and one thing I knew I needed to push myself on was learning how to start taking good pictures in a new location faster. I have a tendency to need time in a place to start to understand how to photograph it, and that can be a problem as you travel, especially when that familiarization can take days, not hours. Putting myself into a situation where I had to read locations quickly seemed to be part of what I needed, so I found myself considering options in locations I didn’t know.

I also had come to the conclusion I needed a more intensive and instructional format — basically a boot camp situation — where a couple of days with Neill 1:1 seemed more like a supplemental outing, not that first intensive introduction.

So, when I noticed Art was teaching this it felt like a no-brainer to me. I knew it was going to push me in a bunch of directions, but I felt I was ready for the challenges I’d run into doing it.

Having come back from the trip, I think I was correct, although I sometimes came closer to my limits than I expected and I honestly reacted more poorly at those limits than I liked at times — but that’s something to learn from and work on for next time.

And having done this, I now feel that spending a couple of days with Neill, maybe during dogwood season in 2019 if I can swing it. If not, maybe a fall trip, but I do think that’s the next workshop on my agenda.

Should you workshop? Should you take this workshop?

I always hesitate when someone asks me if they should take a workshop, and I know I’ll get asked by someone if they should take this one. The answer is complex and requires some thought and discussion to sort out which options make sense.

For me, this was what I wanted. It was an instructional retreat, very hands on, a really good teacher/student ratio, with lots of teaching, photography, critique and feedback. It was about a style of photography I wanted to get instruction on, in a part of the country I love and wanted to learn, by a lead photographer I’ve long respected and studied.

So basically, everything lined up for me. Will it line up for you? I think those items I just listed are a good starting point to consider.

Is something like this even the kind of workshop you want? Are you really looking for a tour that will get you to iconic locations? Or guide you through a specific region? Not all workshops are teaching workshops. If you’re considering a workshop, do you know what type it really is? You need to do your research. I would, for instance, be pissed if I took a workshop expecting to get up for brilliant sunrise shots only to find out I was going to spend three days in a forest photographing ferns. But then, if that happened, it is my fault, not the workshops, because I’d have clearly not done my research or asked the basic questions before plonking down my money.

The key is understanding what you want to get out of it and making sure what’s offered matches up. I’ve heard many horror stories from workshop leaders about problem clients, because they picked a workshop out of a Google search and signed up without knowing the photographer or what was intended, simply because it was the location they wanted to visit. You really, really don’t want to be that person, or in a workshop with them.

The Workshop

That may seem expensive (well, it IS expensive), but my view is how often are you going to get that much dedicated time by someone like Art Wolfe working with you? My take is that no, it’s not cheap, but it was a very good value. Wolfe and his team definitely put in the work and time to make it worth it for me and the other participants.

The workshop retreat consisted of Art as lead instructor, and his two assistants Libby (who’s worked with him 11 years) and Bill (who’s worked with him for a number of years as well). There were a total of nine participants sharing these three teachers, eight of us officially in the class, and one person that I believe Art invited to sit in while they were up at Katmai at the Bear workshops; this ninth person was a photographer and guide up there who was in process of driving his van back from Anchorage to his home in Denver (I’m really jealous) with his three huskies.

One thing I’ll note is that at no point in this workshop did Art or any of the instructors bring out a camera and shoot. Their time was 100% oriented towards instruction and assisting. In my discussions with workshop attendees this is an incredibly rare thing; most of the time the instructors will bring their cameras and use them at least part of the time once the students are settled in and shooting. These three never stopped wandering around and talking and being helpful. Once I realized that I was really impressed by it, so I want to call that out.

The group at this retreat was a very interesting and talented bunch of photographers. Many were quite experienced, a couple were newer to taking images, but all had great attitudes and were fun to be around, and when things happened (like a broken tripod) we all dug into our spares bag and worked to make sure everything worked for everyone. This very much isn’t the experience at every workshop, but it sure was fun to be in a group that was interested in working together to make it work for everyone.

The retreat involves three full days of work and two half days: we started at Dinner Wednesday night sitting down and getting to know each other. Wednesday started with a morning of lecture by Art and discussion, and an afternoon session near the lodge in Upper Quinault at three locations. Friday was a full day of shooting at Hot Rainforest and Ruby Beach. Saturday started with the first critique, followed by a full day of shooting at Sol Doc, followed by Rialto beach. And finally, Sunday was a morning of critique to end the workshop.

That means we had 2-3 shooting hours in each of four iconic locations within Olympic National Park, plus some initial time in the Upper Quinault area where Art and his team helped us explore the techniques he’d discussed in the lecture — it was effectively the training area so we had time to get our heads around what he’d taught and give us some comfort zone with this before going to the better locations. It also gave Art and his team a chance to size up the attendees and see who needed help at what and start doing some in the field instruction.

In Part 2, I’ll go in-depth into the workshop itself.