One of the things I want to do for the rest of the year is to watch some instructional videos and read as much as I can about photography. I'm treating it as if I were taking formal classes. There is no set schedule, but I vowed to myself to spend at least a couple of evenings a week watching instructional videos, reading a book on photography, or even just looking on the 'net for images that inspire me. I was hoping to get a workshop or two in as well before year end. Those can be rather pricey though and I'm always worried whether I can get enough out of the typical 1-3 days to justify the expense.
Recently, I heard about Creative Live workshops from a friend. If only I'd known about this sooner! What they do is offer online workshops by some of the top names in the photography industry. The best part is that most, if not all, are free to view online. The catch is that these are live classes. You have to be able to commit to watching them during the broadcast time. I was fortunate enough to catch most of the Lighten Up and Shoot workshop that aired this past Friday through Sunday. I had to work during the day Friday so I couldn't watch the live broadcast. Luckily, there was a re-broadcast of the day's class that evening. Free is great, but if you can't be online during the broadcast times, Creative Live has an option to purchase at a discounted rate during the broadcast weekend. At the end of the class, the download price goes up. For this class, the price is now $149, which isn't bad at all for a 3-day workshop!
The workshop was taught by Mikey and Andy, the Lighten Up and Shoot guys. Their specialty is street photography and they have a great website with lots of down to earth tips and videos that cover the basic essentials. These guys are all about getting good pictures of everyday people on the street and having fun doing it. While I'm not sure if I can ever feel completely comfortable asking strangers if I can take their picture, it does seem a little less intimidating after seeing these guys work. Honestly though, I primarily tuned in to the workshop to pick up the technical details of their street optimized gear and techniques since I like to photograph models in urban locations.
For my on-location urban portraits, I've been carrying a 43" umbrella, 16" collapsible softbox, stands, and a small softbox that mounts on my hot shoe flashes. Mikey and Andy carry around a Wescott Apollo Softbox, either 28" or 50", as their key light source. They demonstrated the use of the soft boxes in studio and street scenarios and they have me really interested in this modifier. The recessed face of these softboxes will provide a lot more control over an umbrella and they set up just as easily. The Apollo softboxes expand and collapse just like a regular umbrella. I will definitely be looking at adding one of these to my lighting gear. They also demonstrated how to effectively use a grid on a hot shoe flash. I like the effect they were getting and I have already picked one up to start playing with!
I expected the workshop to focus on street shooting, but the majority of the time was actually spent in studio-like staged demonstrations. This was understandable due to the live and streamed nature of the presentation. To cover the street stuff, there were some videos shown of Mikey and Andy out on the town with their workshop students. These were taped in the evenings after the streamed workshop sessions. I think they covered street shooting as best as they could given the format of this live workshop. Nothing was shot in the studio setting that couldn't be taken to the streets. The lighting setups were minimalist and easily portable and adaptable.
Mikey and Andy have a thing they call the Genius Square for explaining the relation of the elements of a flash exposure: ISO, shutter, aperture, and the flash. Overall, I thought it was a good way to think of how these elements work together. They include a simplified way of thinking about flash power and distance to the subject that really is easier to understand than the usual inverse square rule that tends to make most people's eyes cross when they first hear it. While I like the visual representation of the Genius Square, I couldn't help but wonder if it actually makes things a little more cumbersome for understanding the difference between flash and ambient exposure than it really is in the big picture. In my mind, an exposure with or without flash is always assembled with a combination of ISO, shutter, and aperture values. The only real difference with flash is that the flash exposure is not affected by the shutter value, given that the shutter is fired at or below the camera's sync speed. All three elements still affect ambient, while aperture (preferably) and ISO affect flash exposure.
The guys have a rather non-technical, laid-back style that works for them and gets the job done. They "chimp" a lot (constantly checking the camera LCD while getting the exposure dialed in), but that is par for the course for most photographers in the digital age. I prefer to use a light meter to quickly dial in my key light where I want it to be. I'll usually chimp any fill or accent lights though. What is surprising is that Mikey and Andy did not seem to be watching the histogram at all. I wasn't sure if it was a side effect of the video stream, but a lot of their live shots appeared rather dark. I was wanting to see the histogram for some of the shots. I did ask via the live chat and a moderator informed me that Mikey and Andy don't really use the histogram much and my question didn't get forwarded to the guys. That really struck me as odd.
True to their informal style, the workshop seemed rather unstructured at times. The third day seemed to fall apart a bit and there wasn't much direction. The guys, along with some of their students, played around with some natural light and simple flash shots with a couple of models. There was a lot of experimentation and the results didn't look as good as shots taken on the earlier days. That said, I did get a lot out of most of the demonstrations, especially on the second day.
In spite of their loose style and sometimes goofy antics, the guys did communicate some good stuff. Perhaps most importantly, they have a passion for what they do and it is infectious. I was very motivated by what they had to say. So, what are my main take-aways from the workshop? First, you need to be having fun shooting people. You and your subject(s) get better shots when you are enjoying your work. Second, it doesn't take a lot of gear to get good shots. The guys showed that some amazing shots are possible with a single light and maybe a reflector. They work a lot with old, manual prime lenses (cool, as I'm a prime lens buff myself.) Finally, if you see someone that looks cool, don't be afraid to politely ask to take their picture. The worst they can do is say no. Engaging with someone is a lot more rewarding than taking a "drive-by" photograph.
Would I recommend that you buy the recorded workshop? It depends. I think it would be very helpful to newbies. Those who are interested in street shooting will benefit, but you may disappointed by the fact that very little of the presentation actually takes place in that environment. Those new to off camera flash will certainly benefit from their explanation of exposure and their lighting demonstrations. Anyone can benefit from observing how Mikey and Andy engage with people on the street and models to quickly build a rapport that helps get a great shot. If you're looking for a lot of technical detail, you'll probably be disappointed. I'd say check out the Lighten Up and Shoot website and watch some of their free videos. If you like what you see, by all means check out their full workshop. The price isn't bad at all for a 3 day workshop.