Developing your skills as a photographer is a never ending journey.  Ensuring that you provide yourself with tools of growth is essential in such a dynamic field.  Those tools can come in various forms but like many crafts, it is often learned best from mentors.  While I hope to one day establish myself as a mentor for others, there are a few people that I have met over the past few years who I will always see as my mentors and myself as their apprentice.


Richard Bernabe is one of those people.  I met him in Switzerland when he was gracious enough to hold a weekend workshop for the few of us English-speakers who signed up!  Workshops are often a hit-or-miss type of experience, and it is difficult to really know what to expect or how much you will get out of them.  Unlike most of my endeavors, I did not do much research before signing up for my first workshop with Richard.  I really admired the images he produced and was thrilled that someone was going to host a photography workshop in English!  Luckily, my workshop experience was great.  Afterwards, I could not stop talking about everything I had learned and all I hoped to do in the near future.  As my husband likes to say, I had the “talkies.”  That workshop was one of the experiences that catapulted me into the photography world and helped me conquer a learning curve that I kept stumbling with by myself.  So when the opportunity presented itself to work with Richard again at a workshop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in April, I couldn’t turn it down.

I strongly feel that certain workshops are worth the effort and price.  Richard isn’t just a great photographer; he really is a great teacher of the art of lighting, composition, mechanics, you name it. Within a few short hours of the workshop beginning, you are guaranteed to have learned something – more than likely, many things – like the term “crepuscular rays” or the basic physics of polarization :-).   Those years of experience and time in the field have culminated into a vast amount of knowledge that he can verbalize into understandable English for the rest of us.  This is not a workshop where you are taken to a location, told to focus your camera here, put it on the following settings, press the shutter button, and then go home with the same 10 great images as everyone else.  This type of workshop is showing you how to choose a scene, feel the emotion, develop a composition to convey that sentiment, and the entire thought process to go along with it.  Richard will share with you his locations for some favorite images but also gives you the tools to develop your own.   With that said, it should be noted that this is not a 101 course on how to use your camera or photography software.  Naturally, if you have never bracketed, used a polarizing filter, or tried focus stacking in Photoshop, Richard will be more than happy to guide you along.  However, you should have a general understanding of your camera, aperture priority mode, ISO, and a few other basics.  Regardless, if you have a question, Richard will take the time to answer it.

Richard Bernabe at workAnother huge benefit is that Richard knew the location and drove on those windy mountain roads as if he has live in the park his whole life.  He knew plenty of locations for all the types of weather conditions.  Combing all that knowledge of photography, meteorology, lighting, and the location means that the workshop schedule remained flexible the entire time so the group was able to get setup in the prime spot to capture an amazing image on the best day for that locatoin.  For those days filled with clouds and overcast conditions, he had plenty of waterfall, stream, and wildflower locations to utilize that diffused light.  Dynamic situations for amazing sunsets or sunrises, Richard had great places already identified and knew how and when you needed to arrive to claim your spot in order to press the shutter button during those golden moments.  The familiarity of the park really allowed the group to efficiently navigate and maximize the time behind the lens.

With that being said, understand that the workshop at times felt like a half marathon (alright, maybe just a few moments) because you are up early for sunrise and out past sunset.  That does not mean you do not have afternoon breaks to grab a quick nap or a day to sleep-in because the forecast isn’t looking promising, but you paid money to learn photography so expect to spend most of your time doing just that.

No matter how much money you spend on equipment, a good photographer knows that he or she must think for the camera.  A well-chosen workshop will be a great chance to connect with people who share your passion and hear their background stories of how they have come to love photography.  Attendance is an investment in yourself and contributes to your development as a photographer.  In short, it is money well spent.

Can’t make a workshop right now, downloadable eBooks are the next best thing!

Here are some of my tips for making the most out of your experience:

  • Make sure you do some personal research on the location before you go and review a map.  Learn the main tourist destinations, read about some of the history, the varieties of plants and animals.  Learning national parks is like painting, you need a good base layer and then you need to paint many coats on top of that base while you are visiting.
  • Carry a map and a small notebook with you at all times.  By the end of the trip, the days and locations tend to blur together, so keep small notes about the locations you visited and the main things that you learned for each.
  •  Bring your camera manual with you if you can.  I used to be in the camp that I can always use the internet to look up any problems I had with the camera or using it; however, I learned that isn’t always the case.  This past workshop I had an error message start flashing on my display in the middle of the day.  There was very limited internet access in the park and having the manual in my backpack allowed me to fix my problem within 10 minutes without anyone even noticing that I had an issue (at least I hope no one noticed).
  •  Wear appropriate attire for your trip.  Be sure you know if you will need hiking boots and trekking poles or simply comfortable shoes and a backpack with all your gear.  Also, be sure to ask if there is specific camera equipment that you should bring or rent (e.g. zoom lenses for shooting wildlife, types of filters, etc.).
  • Stake out a few restaurants that are close to your hotel and keep a few food items with you in the hotel.  The shoots are early and/or late.  Many of the more remote places near your destination may not open early or stay open late.  Knowing the restaurant opening and closing times will be a time-saver and keeping some items (granola bars, fruit, nuts, etc.) on hand will be an easy way to fill a grumbling stomach when nothing is open.
  • Ask questions and push yourself to be more outgoing than usual.  You have a short amount of time to absorb as much as you can; do not worry about being shy.  Your instructor is there to help you understand and everyone else is there to learn, so use that time appropriately!
  • Be punctual.  There is a lot of things planned for the trip and it normally starts with coordinating 10 people from point A to point B before the sun comes up, and the sun doesn’t hit the snooze button.  You don’t want to be the person that made everyone late for the sunrise shoot.
  • Go outside of your comfort zone.  Try some new techniques, even if it means doing some fun yoga poses in the river water.  This is the time to learn so don’t be afraid to do something out of your normal routine.  It may be the push you need to get to that next level.
  • Patience is key!  You wait for the sun to come up, you wait for better light, you wait for a cloud to pass to diffuse light, you wait for a person in your group to get out of your frame, and you wait for the sun to set.  In those moments, stop and admire the location, take in the beauty, and take a moment to breathe it all in.  And if that isn’t enough to do, then write in that little notebook until you can press the shutter button.

    Happy Learning!