Attending the Art Wolfe Lake Quinault Photo Workshop (Part 2)

by Oct 7, 2019

Wednesday: Hello, my name is

The workshop unofficially started at 6PM on a Wednesday with a group dinner, where everyone introduced themselves, often with various interruptions and restarts and a lot of chatter and laughing. Art is a quick read of a room of people, and he started quietly pulling out the quiet ones and slowing down us loud types so everyone got involved in the conversation; he also figured out who he could pick on (never in a mean way) when he wanted to make a point. I quickly became Bird Boy thanks to my love of my 100mm super telephoto and fear of super wide angles (the exact thing I was there to overcome).

Art Wolfe Lake Quintalt Lodge Workshop

On the way back to my room after dinner, I took this sunset shot literally as I walked from the lodge to my room. It’s notable because it’s really the only color we saw the entire trip worth pointing a camera at. Which was okay, because we weren’t there to chase sunsets, but to go deep and detailed into intimate landscape photography.

Thursday: Here’s the plan

The days typically started around 9AM. If you’re wondering why we weren’t doing pre-dawn chases for morning light, think about where we were and what time of year it was. Libby, Art’s assistant sent out emails a bit before the retreat reminding us to bring our rain gear, because we were going to be living in a rain forest for a few days. And it’s fall in Washington, when the weather is turning and you’re very likely to have rather grey skies if not wet ones.

As it turned out, we lucked out massively. I drove into Washington in the rain, and the rain stopped about the time we headed out for our first set of shoots, and we were basically dry (a couple of minor sprinkles) the entire retreat. I then woke up Sunday morning to a steady cold rain that dampened everything as I packed my car and walked to the lodge, and I drove home in stead rain all the way to Eugene, when it finally stopped. But for the days we were in the field shooting, it was 99% dry and overcast with occasional breaks of blue sky popping through.

Basically, perfect for the kind of photography we were focusing on, and lousy if want you wanted was glowing intense sunrises or sunsets along the coast.

This retreat was about the intimate landscape, looking for structure, working on compensation. Isolating structure and texture and trying to create the small scenes that identify and bring out the details of a location — or going abstract and showing its essence of things. If you’re the kind of person who thinks all landscape is golden and blue hour kowabunga color aided by a Spinal Tap attack on the saturation knob, you’re going to hate this workshop. For me, it was the boot camp I needed to finally get my head around how to photograph this kind of detail.

We started with a couple of hours of lecture, with Art showing us photos illustrating the things he was trying to teach us and talking to us about the concepts and structures he was attempting to shovel into our brains. He gave us a few key techniques he wanted us to experiment with:

  • Compose with Opposing Angles
  • Contrast Sharp Focus and Blurred Motion
  • Compose with Shallow Depth of Field
  • Contain the Whites
  • Utilize Reflective Color
  • Shoot at Wide Angles
  • Utilize Motion Blur

After this, Art gave us all inscribed copies of his book Migrations, and then we all got into cars and drove into Upper Quinault, an area east of the lodge, where we stopped at a location for about 90 minutes to start exploring these concepts. I fully admit for the first half of that, I was totally and completely lost and every composition I tried was horrible, to the degree where I was starting to question my sanity for doing this. But Art came over and walked me through some possible compositions, and so did his assistant Bill, and we chatted about what I was seeing (or trying to) and I slowly started seeing the compositions within the chaos of a complex forest scene. There are only two images from this shoot I think are good and both happened very late in the session. There are three others I like, but they’re all clearly okay shots I could have done better versions of if I’d worked them longer and harder.

We then went to a second location, which Art got out of the car, looked around for a couple of minutes, said “Nope!” And then got us back in the cars and we drove back into the Upper Quinault to a different location, where he lined us all up and explained stitched panoramas. I took two, both of which were rather forgettable.

We then went to a third location at a waterfall where we had about 45 minutes to explore and shoot. I realized much later that this seemed a way to get us all an “easy” good shot, so even if we struggled earlier in the day, we had a decent chance to come away with something pleasing. My waterfall shot is fine, but Iv’e done better, and by then, I was tired and my knees were killing me, so I admit to getting one I knew would be fine so I could put the gear away and go sit down. I could have done better if I hadn’t been quite so tired and sore. That’s a theme we’ll be talking about in the future, he says, foreshadowing future events.

After that, we headed off to dinner and back to our rooms.

Friday: the real work begins

Friday, 9AM, we gathered, got in the cars and drove off. Along the way we stopped at a store for lunch fixings, and we ended up at the Hot Rain Forest, destination the hall of moss.

My knees were killing me, so I had decided I needed to take it easy, so I let Art know I was staying near the ranger station and explained what I was going to work on there (textures and compositions). I wasn’t going to get an iconic shot but I had a good idea what I could accomplish without the elevation changes along that trail. The rest headed off into the forest and I wandered along the areas near the station on the flats looking for interesting things. At one point, Art came back out to check up on me, and we had some really good talks on a lot of topics beyond photography, and he ended up dragging me up the entry road to show me some compositions along the road I could work on, and I got a good 30+ minutes of 1:1 time with him exploring wide angle landscapes along the road and chatting about many topics.

The early work I did there was okay but unremarkable, and some of the things I was trying to do was complicated by my inability to get the tripod to do what I wanted — I really needed one that could offset the center post to get sideways or low, and so I ended up trying to “monopod” the tripod with a wide lens and a shallow depth of field and an extension tube, and I did end up with some nice compositions that simply weren’t sharp enough because I couldn’t keep the camera steady enough to keep the focus I wanted. But it was a really fascinating learning session even if I didn’t end up with the shots I was hoping for. The time I spent with Art 1:1 was a lot more productive and oriented towards the larger intimate landscape instead of the deep detail/macro type work, and includes one of my favorite shots of the trip — not actually a composition he suggested, but one I found while we were walking and talking and considering…

It is fascinating to see him size up a landscape. He’s been doing this so long he can process an area really quickly, almost unconsciously, and start seeing the possible compositions. He did that with me in a couple of locations and pointed out ideas and options, and that was something that really helped me bootstrap my own thinking and seeing in these kind of situations, and by this time, I’m actually starting to almost feel comfortable shooting this kind of image, even if the end results aren’t yet as good as I want them to be.

Once we were done at Hoh, we drove off to Ruby Beach. When we were there, I saw the elevation drop and chose to stay up near the parking lot. Again, I went off exploring my own stuff up there, and found some brand new, bright yellow-green strands of wild blackberry that I experimented with. Again, my biggest problem was getting the camera stable enough and in the right position, so I ended up monopodding the tripod again, and again — of course — I never got images with good, clean, sharp focus. After I gave up on that, I hauled out the big lens, and since I could see my trip mates down on the beach, I took some impromptu stalker group shots, and some more traditional landscape images.

After that, it was a drive back to dinner, then back to the lodge, and into the room 13 hours after we started, so I could load the images onto the computer and choose five for the morning critique by Art, while I was actively falling asleep on the laptop. I was really disappointed not getting down onto Ruby beach, but I’d pushed the legs too hard on the first day and had to rest them more on the 2nd, hoping they’d recover for day 3 and give me more mobility. Bad pacing on my part, but also learning where the limits are on the fly…

Saturday: It starts clicking, and I don’t die

Saturday morning starts around 9AM, back in the meeting room in the lodge. We all hand over thumb drives with our critique images on them. They get loaded onto Art’s computer, and then he goes over each one for the entire class.

There was literally nowhere to hide here: Art asked for and got the unprocessed raw images, and for each of the images and he would process them in front of us as he discussed what he was doing and why. It was an amazing and fascinating look into how he sees a composition and how he brings out the final image and it really was a great teaching situation. It also, not coincidentally, meant that you couldn’t process away any flaws and hide them. They were there for everyone and Art to see.

My first day images were — rough. Basically the best that could be said about them was they showed progression from the early images to the latter ones. Art said as much and I agreed, but I did feel like I was starting to figure it out and I was hopeful today’s images would be better.

Since I’ve come home and done a review of the images here in a lighting controlled room on a calibrated monitor, I’ve realized I made some poor choices for those critiqued images. Only one of the five images I offered for critique passed muster and is being published in the collection for this trip. The others I rejected, although for two, I picked an alternate image of the same composition instead. Still, there was a huge disconnect between what I thought were the good images in the hotel room and what really were the good images once I got them home and took a closer look at them. That’s an abject failure of my workflow on the road, and is something I have to sort out and fix. I’ll speak more on this later.

The room was loaded with talent. Everyone there was a really good photographer and most had been shooting over a decade, there were only 2-3 with 5 years or less experience with a camera. Many were already strong shooters of this kind of image, and it showed in their work. If I were to rank the images I submitted for critique on day one, I’d put them at the bottom. Looking at the images I’d choose to submit now, I’m still clearly somewhere down in the bottom third in terms of image quality and interestingness. But since I was using this as a boot camp to get started, it didn’t bother me much, since I was seeing progress in my work.

Critiques of 9 sets of 5 images took about two hours. After that, we grabbed our gear, got in the cars and headed north. Sol Duc is north of Forks, so with a stop to grab lunch fixings it took us about two hours to get to Sol Duc. When we got there, Art and Bill came by and let me know they intended to get me to the waterfall, and that Bill would carry my gear so I could focus on the trail. That’s what happened — I hiked a mile in with Bill in support, on an unimproved trail with about 75 feet of decline on one end and 50 feet back up on the other. I had a good set of hiking poles (which my doctor’s been yelling at me about not using) and Bill supporting, but that’s way crazier walking than I’ve done in many years, but we got to the first falls fine, where there was a bench to rest my knees, and almost no water. The rest of the group went on another half mile or so to a larger fall, but I didn’t think I should push it, so we stayed there.

For the next 90 minutes or so, I scoped out and experimented with compositions, with Bill offering suggestions and advice (“that’s a distinctive looking tree. Is there a composition for it? (hint: no)”). he would point out things he saw, and we did a bunch of talking. It started out full overcast with that softbox type sky, but part way through the sun broke through and we started getting light beams and dapple sun in places and things got really interesting.

Sol Duc River, Art Wolfe Lake Quintalt Lodge Workshop

Then at one point Bill said “look behind you” and I turned around and saw the sun lighting up a branch of fall yellow leaves, and a bunch of things in my head went “click” and the things Art and Bill had been talking about started falling in place. And after that, I started seeing rather than looking, and my images got a lot better, fast, and I got a lot happier, fast. I did some much better shooting the second half of that stop. Soon enough, I suggested to Bill we head back, because I knew I’d be slow on the trail and didn’t want to hold up the team. We needed to be back at the car at 4; I made it at ten before, and honestly, the last 1/8 mile or so wasn’t fun.

But I actually did it, with Art and Bill’s help. There’s no way I would have tried that trail without support and encouragement, and no way I would have gotten out okay without Bill’s help and his carrying my gear and good attitude — his take, as I was struggling up a series of steps close to the lot, soaked with sweat and puffing my lungs out, was that this was a nice, easy walk for him. I don’t think he was even breathing hard. But we did it, and I got some really nice images out of it.

Around four, as we got everyone back and ready to go, we loaded up and headed out to our second shoot. That was near La Push at Rialto Beach, which is a location loaded with driftwood and possibilities. It took about an hour to get there, so it was headed towards evening, but we did about a 90 minute session with people exploring the wood and sand and looking for interesting things. I found myself focussing on textures and trying some things. The knees were tired and sore but still willing to work with me, but when I reviewed the images later, I realized I was cutting corners and getting slopping technically — a number of images I had hopes for I blew focus on. Another data point to learn from in improving my in field processes.

Still, I got some nice images, and then declared victory and went back to the car, stowed my gear, and sat waiting for everyone. Once we were all rounded up, we drove off for dinner, didn’t arrive until about 8PM, and I didn’t get back to teh room until almost 10:30 — and still needed to load images, make selects and prep for the sunday 2nd critique. So about 15 hours later, I finally crash get some sleep to be ready for the next morning and the final critiques.

Sunday: The end of the Beginning

I woke up Sunday morning to a chill, steady rain. The rain that thankfully held off across the entire workshop was back, reminding us it was fall. I got up, packed up the good, stuffed it into the car, and headed off for breakfast and to check out. Around nine again, it was off to the meeting room to get the images critiqued. I was a lot happier with the quality.

Art really liked one image; it was actually one I liked a lot but Bill wasn’t so sure about when I was taking it, but I think it came out the way I wanted. A couple of others were okay, and he dinged me on two where he showed where I’d just missed focus, which annoyed me because I should have caught that before hitting the shutter (and didn’t), and should have caught it in review while prepping what to submit (and didn’t), and I wasn’t happy that I let it slip through. Some of it was fatigue, but that’s a fact of life on these trips and I have to improve my work processes to deal with it and not let this sloppiness happen.

And after those critiques, we broke up. Hung around and talked for a while, then I got in the car, turned on the windshield wipers and pointed myself south. Somewhere a bit north of Eugene the weather broke up. I had dinner with an old friend in Eugene Sunday night, had to call it early because I was falling asleep, and got a long sleep in before waking up for the 10 hour drive home Monday. That was uneventful, and Tuesday morning I logged into work and started digging through the inbox to get caught up again.

For me, Sunday was the end of the workshop but the beginning of why I went. I’d had that mental breakthrough I was searching for, I was starting to see compositions in the chaos of woodland photography, and I turned out some images I really like. Once I got home and started working on the images here in controlled lighting on a good monitor, I actually realized I had more good images than I expected, which was a pleasant surprise.

So I got everything I wanted out of the workshop and more. I met some really great people. I got to spend time listening to and talking with Art Wolfe, long an idol photographer I’ve looked up to. I learned some fun new Lightroom tricks that I’m stealing and used for my own processing for this trip. And I got to explore some iconic Northwest locations, even if I had to make some compromises in exploring them to keep my knees from exploding.

On the negative side, I found some serious flaws in how I handle images on the road that led to some poor choices I really regret in the critiques. I had some gear issues that I need to evaluate and deal with. I found out the hard way that when I get fatigued, I get sloppy (which is not unique to me), but worse, I handled that sloppiness poorly. I have to teach myself to slow down, be more careful and precise, and work through the sloppiness. Instead, when my knees hurt I’d go sit down and rest a bit and then move to a new composition. The biggest flaw I see in half a dozen of my images was that I clearly went and sat down, and then moved on to something new rather than going back and continuing to grind to the best possible composition. I gave up too easily, and I needed to shoot fewer compositions and work those compositions longer and with more care.

All part of the learning process.

In the next and final session, I’ll talk about some of these learned lessons and decisions I’ve made to improve myself in the future, and then I’ll show off the images based on my final selections, and do some critiques on what I was trying to accomplish and where it worked (and didn’t).