viennabelle: (Harem Girl)
[personal profile] viennabelle
On the side, I've enjoyed photography for a long time--though my work in this hobby has largely been focused on events--mostly political appearances and a few weddings. Through sheer necessity (and work), I've learned to take informal portraits--to the point where I've been paid for some photos and my candids have been featured on major campaign websites. However, outside that box, I feel that I lack photographic skills. This year, I got a new camera--and I really wanted to broaden my capabilities. I started listening to podcasts and quickly found that my favorite was Photography Tips from the Top Floor by Chris Marquardt. Ironically, this podcast is mostly only in audio, but Chris' clear way of explaining the more complicated aspects of photography transcends the media: he breaks down complicated theory into understandable points. So, when I learned that he was going to run a workshop right here in Washington, DC--I jumped at the chance to learn from him first-hand. That's what I did this weekend.

We started Saturday by traveling to downtown Washington. When we arrived, teams of two were assigned and we were turned loose to take pictures. Our first assignment was to photograph the Capitol building and to take a portrait of our partners. I lucked out--I ended up with the most amazing photographer as my partner, Bob K. It was humid, overcast yet unusually bright out. The result initially led to bland photos--but as we would learn the next day, these conditions can lead to the most serendipitous photographs. Right then, all we wanted to do was take pictures!
I've been to the Capitol on various photography classes many times, but this time was the first time I actually felt inspired. A component was feeling increasingly confident and willing to step outside my comfortable boundaries. Another element was the support coming from the other classmates and Chris, our instructor. The last thing was becoming sensitive to the environment. I'm not a photographer that warms up very easily to architectural photography. It's just not my thing. However, Chris said something that clicked in my mind--about taking a situation and assessing it for the areas where we have strengths. So, Saturday, the environment of the Capitol really struck me: that it wasn't just a bunch of stones, but a place where a long distance charity bike ride was ending. That it was the place where foreign people discovered their own unique cultural identities in the face of one of the most iconic American symbols. That there were lovers who met there. That there were memorials and throngs of joggers and pet walkers. Things that really brought a whole lot more meaning from the environment that I could channel into my photography. Increasingly, I got better and better photos. 

Then the skies opened up and it rained insanely hard. We ran to the closest cover, which was a niche underneath the Capitol with a perfect view of the Mall. There, I got the most evocative photo of the whole day.

When the downpour subsided, we moved to Union Station to eat lunch and dry out. Then we set to photographing the station itself. Experience gave me advantage: I'd shot there before and knew the corners offered an amazing perspective (especially with the wide angle lens I'd rented for the class). But that is the image that is commonly shown. How could I transform the location into something totally different that related to my own vision? Ironically, it was when I heard a fellow student complain about the light that I noticed that light was not the predominant characteristic of Union Station. What overwhelmed me were the people rushing around--to make trains, to get to appointments--to get somewhere else. So, I started thinking about what this meant to me--and I found myself reflecting on how to show movement. I decided to experiment with panning shots, which I've never really tried before. I lowered the ISO setting on my camera to low (iirc, 200) and manually set the exposure time. As I started, Chris came over--gave tips (not from the top floor, but from the first floor of Union Station, mwahahaha!) and coached me through the effort. Results were mixed: what was bad was awful, what was good was transcendentally artistic. Having a few work out left me very pleased.

Our final stop was the US Botanical Gardens. By the time we got there, I was really feeling the dampness--and the gardens were more humid than outdoors. Nevertheless, I wasn't hot, so we went up to the catwalk. Bob noted a key point which I hadn't thought of--that a big problem about greenhouses in summer is that everything was so very green. A side of me thought getting through the greenness and finding differentiation would be worthwhile--except I was getting mentally numb from so concentrating on photos all day long. Yet, I still didn't want to only leave with the generic closeup photo of a flower that is almost ubiquitous at local photography competitions. So, I decided to throw my hand at floral abstraction. A quick iPhone search came up with getting the processing done in-camera specific to my model of Nikon: however, without a tripod, that approach was a complete failure. Ironically, it was a photo exhibit in the Botanical Gardens that finally inspired me--though the inspiration was more a feeling than a technical approach--so it's really hard to put into words. I was inspired by color, symmetry and asymmetry.  I went back to some plants that really impressed me--an orchid and a bottle brush flower--and started shooting again. It brought a happy conclusion to a revelatory day of taking pictures.

Day two came and we focused on post processing, possibly thanks to Chris' partnership with a former student who owns a computer training facility in Alexandria (I hope this means more local workshops). A year ago, I purchased Lightroom, but since I've been using it, I really feel that I've been hacking every effort. So, I only do the simplest things--and try to get as much as possible correct in the camera (even going to the point of manually setting up white balance in-camera). I knew there were ways to batch process--but I really wanted to learn how to manage the workflow. This day was perfect for that. We had a full review of the entire program with lots of advice on how to streamline the process and get things done. I also learned a whole bunch of new tricks and capabilities that I never knew existed (my favorite was pulling out sky color and reflections in an overcast environment).

So, I learned a whole lot! I am very pleased with the pictures I took. Chris is a truly gifted teacher--patient, knowledgeable, organized and sensitive to his students needs. I don't think anyone felt left out or lost. The classmates were amazing--I connected with them on so many subtle levels that my experience was all the richer. It's left me more motivated than ever for the river cruise Rick and I hope to take next year on the Amazon and for future Chris Marquardt workshops (yes, I think I'll be a repeat customer)!

By the way, final photos from the class (from all the students) can be viewed here.
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March 2013

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