Advanced Flash Workshop with Joe McNally
I felt like I've been fumbling around as a photographer, trying to decide what to be when I grew up. When I looked at my work, it was all over the place. A bit of travel, some HDR, a few portraits, and I thought I'd try concert photography for a while. While I've enjoyed all of it, I thought it was time to pick a niche and concentrate my efforts.
The thing I needed most was a guide. Someone to show me the ropes. There are plenty of wonderful photographers who share their knowledge. Lots of good work and information out there, but much of it seemed contradictory. I needed to narrow the field and listen to one voice. I decided that voice beings to Joe McNally.
Joe does a number of workshops and training, but I decided to jump into his annual workshop in St. Lucia. Beautiful place. Expensive as hell, too. That also meant it would be a relatively small class with more attention for the students. RC Concepcion was his guest instructor, which appealed to the nagging side of me that didn't want to completely give up on HDR. Between these two guys, I had a great deal of information and experience as a resource.
Jade Mountain and Anse Chastanet
Did I mention this place is expensive? There are two resorts on this property. Jade Mountain is the uber-luxurious resort on the top of the mountain. A bit down the hill is Anse Chastanet. I drooled over photos of the rooms in Jade Mountain. Open walls with views of the Piton mountains, infinity pools, a butler for each room, etc. No wonder it's at the peak of the mountain.
My accommodations at Anse Chastanet were pretty nice, though. The bed was comfortable and I woke up to the view of the Pitons shown at the top of this post every morning. Waking up with the sun is perfect. There was only one downside of having an open wall. Every morning, a blackbird would fly into my bathroom and scream at itself in the mirror. I'm not sure if it was mad or turned on, but the bird could not resist its reflection.
While the room at Anse Chastanet was fine, the exterior just didn't have any attraction. After the day's class, I'd wander up the steps to Jade Mountain every night with my tripod and see how the better half lives.
It's All About The Workshop
The workshop runs Monday through Friday. Every day has roughly the same format. We meet in a classroom (with the blessing of WiFi and air conditioning) at 9:00 am. Each class starts with a critique of student photos. To get us started on the first day, Joe asked that we each bring a few photos so he can get a sense of where we are as photographers.
Well, that sounded disconcerting.
In truth, Joe is very sensitive to his students when giving a critique. I'd go so far as to say that it's an uplifting experience. He doesn't criticize your mistakes, but rather discusses why some elements work in photos and why others don't. Joe offers positive reinforcement when you succeed and he gives helpful advice when you could have done something a different to make the photo better.
This is one of the reasons why I enjoy workshops with people like Joe. It's a safe place to make mistakes. Nobody will give you a hard time. Instead, you get support and advice to do better after you leave the workshop.
After the critique, class begins in earnest. Joe started showing some of his work and explaining the thoughts behind the photos. He covers technical elements, but the more useful part is listening to him discuss all of the other elements that go into creating a photo. It's a combination of creativity, tenacity, experience and occasionally some fortuitous circumstances (though usually not).
After breaking for lunch, we met at our first location on the beach. My brain just froze. We had lovely models, an exotic location, and I couldn't think of a composition that I truly liked.
The shots were there. My classmates came away with some stunning images. The kind that seemed very obvious after you've watched someone else do it. My own efforts weren't off to a grand beginning, though.
Fortunately for me, things got better as the week progressed.
Portraits in St. Lucia
Every day brought something new. Different material in the classroom, then different subjects and locations to practice what we learned. I had a blast. As each day passed, my confidence grew. The initial fumble on my first day of shooting was useful, especially with Joe's critique.
One one of my shots, I tried to bring in the Dive Master with the model and setup a little story. It didn't work. The model was lovely, the Dive Master was interesting in his own way, but the story I hoped just never really came out. It was all fine technically, but it just wasn't a good photo.
Joe did a fine job of telling me what worked and what didn't. He liked that I was thinking to bring in the Dive Master and use elements of the scene, but also said that sometimes you just have to realize that something isn't working and that's part of photography. His final summary of that shot was memorable.
“This side good. That side bad!”
I'm OK because I knew it didn't work. After Joe's discussion, I then knew why it didn't work. Making mistakes and learning from them sometimes leaves more of a lasting impact. It was that mistake and subsequent critique that gave me confidence to do better next time.
We did a little bit of everything during the week. Lovely models in a high-end resort. Great firemen in Sourfriere. Mountain bikers whizzing through the jungle. A folk singer with an incredible soul and sense of humor. It's a shame that it had to come to an end.
Through it all, we had great instruction and insight from Joe, his assistant Michael Cali, and RC. They were right there with us on every shoot. We had space to work and yet they were close to help us when we needed an idea.
Joe Knows Posing
There are a lot of photographers who don't want to be on the other side of the camera. Insecurities get to everyone now and then, Yet sometimes you just need to test something before you ask your model to step forward. Joe will jump in to help you without hesitation.
It's not only helpful, but sometimes he's a bit comical while being a stunt model. You get the sense that the little boy inside never left, which makes the time at his workshop all the more fun.
Fire On The Beach
Friday night is when Joe pulls out everyone's favorite scene. Flambeau lights on the beach. All the elements were there. A glorious sunset, bottles topped off with fire, a tiki stand, a lovely model and…rain. Lots and lots of rain.
In truth, I'm actually digging the rain now. At the time we were shooting, it was the last thing I wanted. This scene was staged for us, yet it still seemed a bit tense during the shoot. The sun is sinking fast, the rain is trying to put out the fire and we're shooting at very slow shutter speeds. I can't wait to try it again.
Goodbye, St. Lucia
I'm surprised that I didn't really take that many photos while I was in St. Lucia, particularly at a photography workshop. Coming home with a few photos was a nice treat, but my goal was to learn how to be a better portrait photographer when I came home. My experience was an absolute success.
That doesn't mean that I came home as a master, but Joe's lessons cleared up my direction and helped me determine my next steps. I also left with an embarrassing amount of knowledge to use later. This was the perfect place and workshop to start growing up as a photographer.
The people I met in St. Lucia were wonderful. Delie, Herma, Arielle, Henry and others made great subjects. I hope to see them again someday.
Many thanks to Joe McNally, RC Concepcion and Michael Cali for great instruction and a week of fun company.