In March I spent 5 days with Bruce Percy on Skye. 6 months on, what's changed?
When I returned from my workshop with Bruce, I felt inspired to write a review. But I didn't for two reasons:
1. most obviously, I didn't have a website to publish a review to! 2. it would be easy to talk about the workshop, what it was like, how much I enjoyed it, but if 6 months later I've learned nothing then what's the point? I wanted to see if it actually helped me, or was just an expensive if very enjoyable week away with the camera.
Ok, there's probably a third reason - on my return life caught up with me and brought me back to earth with a bump! As the event started to fade into a memory, a review seemed increasingly less relevant.
However reflecting on my photographic journey this year, and with my small part of the internet to use as a soapbox, I thought I would share my thoughts on Bruce's workshop.
The Workshop Itself
Bruce runs workshops in a variety of locations. I chose to go to Skye as it's somewhere close to my heart and though I spent many summers at my grandparents there that was before my love for photography developed so I hadn't visited many of the the famous parts of Skye.
We were to meet at the Glenview Hotel near Staffin on the Monday, departing the following Saturday. I actually took the opportunity to extend my trip to get more photography done, spending a night near Fort William and then Elgol on Skye itself. I had intended to go to Applecross but a landslide required a change in plans!
There were 4 of us in the group which I felt was a good number - enough to have some interesting debates without getting lost in the crowd. Whilst out shooting the small group allowed Bruce to spend good quality time with each of us.
As you would expect we visited many of the classic Skye locations and a few less well known - the Storr, the Quiraing, Elgol, the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle, the Cuillins at Sligachan, Duntulm Castle and Staffin Bay.
The day would start with a sunrise shoot which meant a 5am start, and no faffing so that we would get out the door and on location promptly. We'd spend a few hours on location and then return for breakfast.
The middle of the day was occupied with some very useful presentations by Bruce which got some interesting discussions going and also with critiques of our images which I found thoroughly rewarding.
In the early evening we would go for a sunset shoot, again spending several hours on location before going back for dinner (which was awesome!), a couple of beers and a well earned early-ish night.
Due to horrendous weather (it literally sounded like the roof of the hotel was going to be lifted off most nights!) our time out shooting was restricted. We had to cancel a couple of sunrise shoots because of the driving wind and rain. I felt really sorry for Bruce having to rejig the schedule constantly in reaction to the conditions, but he did a great job and it felt like we were still spending the time well.
Whilst It was disappointing that we didn't experience better weather to capture "classic Skye", the point of the workshop for me wasn't to go and capture "my best image ever" (though the image at the top of this post was shot at Elgol during the workshop and remains one of my favourites).
Rather it was about immersing myself in photography and learning, and the poor weather gave us a lesson in itself - there is no bad weather for photography (that is unless the roof is about to blow off!).
I could write an awful lot about how much I enjoyed the workshop, the great hospitality and food at the Glenview, my companions on the course, the glove incident, Pico the rubber chicken, and of course Bruce himself. But I won't because I don't want his head to get any bigger (that's a joke - his humour is actually very self deprecating!).
Joking aside, I won't because I don't just want to write about how I had a great time away but about how it's helped me. If you did have any concerns about the workshop itself and spending that long with Bruce, seriously don't give it a second thought and just go - I can guarantee that you will have a great and very rewarding time!
So What Have I Learned?
The answers are far too numerous to recall in full. I could write a big long list talking about balance, simplifying compositions, aspect ratios, focusing technique, bad weather is good weather, etc, etc but I'm not sure that serves much of a purpose. Indeed, many of these things are in books and on Bruce's site (and his eBooks which are excellent btw).
Instead here are some of the significant changes I've noticed in my photographs and how I photograph since the workshop:
- my compositions are stronger, better thought out, more purposeful and yes, simpler and better balanced. Before my images were trying to cram as much in as possible, and whilst I was aware of compositional tools such as leading lines, etc my use of them could be rather sloppy, forced or cliché.
- I'm shooting with fixed focal lengths rather than zooms, and am able to visualise shots much better. That means that when I'm on location, I can picture where I want to be, I can frame a shot in my head, and select the lens I want without having to get the camera out. This works 99% of the time. Before I would get to location, pull my camera out and zoom until it seemed to work right - completely ignoring the fact that "how much stuff you get" is only one aspect of focal length.
- I'm using Bruce's favoured 4:5 aspect ratio which is giving me much tighter, more pleasing compositions that I find easier to spot and work with. Before I kind of thought that you should stick to the "purity" of the camera's ratio of 3:2 and if I used other aspect ratios it was a rather random choice. Perhaps the key point here isn't that I'm using 4:5 for more shots, but rather that I'm consciously thinking about the preferred aspect ratio for an image during and after the shot.
- my images are becoming more "intimate". Whilst I might in the past shoot details, many of my landscapes were rather all inclusive! I didn't put much thought into what I needed to include and what I needed to remove. I would see a pretty scene in front of me and shoot it as it was, perhaps zooming in if I wanted it a big bigger! Now I'm thinking about what it is that attracts me to a scene, what the interesting parts of it are, what's not so interesting, looking for objects that are curious or provide contrast, I'm thinking, thinking, thinking. My pictures are becoming less about wide vistas, but of pictures within them that I can see and compose more thoughtfully.
- I'm making bolder decisions in the darkroom, or rather in Lightroom. Having put more thought into my images during the shot, I'm clearer on what the image is during post-processing. I'm no longer just chucking a Lightroom template on an image "cos it makes it look good". I'm trying to draw attention to the important parts of the image, reduce attention to the less desirable parts, and in general be a little less precious about "how it looked", preferring to convey "how it felt". An obvious example of this is that I now have more images that are blue. These are usually shot during twilight. I can use white balance in PP to neutralise the whites and make the image look more like daylight, but that's not how it felt. The darkness was creeping in around me, the heat had gone out of the day, it felt "blue".
- I'm more self-aware and following more of a process. Previously I would work somewhat haphazrdly. Now I'm working with purpose, thinking about tweaks and adjustments, becoming aware of when I've worked a scene enough, managing my moods and my energy levels.
- I'm working a scene more. No longer do I take one shot (actually I used to take about 10 of pretty much the same shot!) and move on. I now look for something that attracts me, then work on compositions of it, moving slightly, an foot or even just an inch to the side, up and down. Sometimes I can spend half an hour or more in one general area trying to perfect my shot. Other times my self-awareness kicks in and I realise I'm trying to create something that isn't there and I move on.
- I'm developing a style. My images always felt like a random collection of pictures, but now they seem to be better connected. I wouldn't dare suggest I've developed a "Bruce Percy style", but if I was tending in any direction it would be that. The rather obvious conclusion would be that you should pick a workshop run by a photographer who's work you like! Anyway, rather than trying to draw parallels what's more important is that I now know what attracts me, what I'm looking to photograph and how I'm looking to photograph it. My friends and family can now say "that's one of Dunc's pictures" in a way that they couldn't before.
Again, I could go on for a long time (or rather, a longer time!) about these - there are many more I could list, including improvements to my method of focusing and almost total use of LiveView and live histogram in the field.
Of course, I can't attribute all of these changes to the workshop alone. I read a lot, I'm practicing a lot and I'm reviewing a lot. But these are all things that Bruce talked about on the workshop and things that he talks about on his blog and in his eBooks and they are all things that over the last 6 months have sunk in.
Personally I feel that Bruce's workshop has helped immensely. Not everything I learned there was new, indeed much of the above can be found in books. But the way he talks about it and the way he approaches his photography really helped to bed these ideas in, and even now I still hear Bruce's voice in my head (god help me!).
The other thing to say about that workshop is that spending that good quality time away immersed in photography was really rewarding and set a fire burning within me. I have a much greater sense of passion and purpose having experienced "being a photographer" for the week.
I am now shooting much more regularly (several times a week rather than several times a month), yet I have captured fewer frames than in 2011 with a much (much!) higher keeper rate. Looking at my Lightroom catalog, I have 377 3-star images from a catalog of 45k (!) going back to 2007. 174 of those were shot this year, and that's ignoring the fact that my standards for a 3 in 2011 are much lower than in 2012! Reflecting on my prior work, it didn't have the same intensity that my current work does.
So even if all of these improvements aren't directly attributable to the workshop, it's proved to be a great catalyst.
If it's not obvious by now the workshop was a massively positive experience to me and I would go as far as to say it was a seminal moment in my development as a photographer. So thank you Bruce!
I would say that workshops are as close to a "shortcut" in photography as you are ever likely to see. The rapid progress you make during and more importantly afterwards is hundreds of times more valuable than a new piece of gear or idly reading a dozen books. So if you get the chance, go on one. And if you can, make sure it's with Bruce Percy - I'll see you there!
I've created a book with my images from Skye shot during the workshop and a subsequent trip in May. You can find details about it on the Prints page.
You can find Bruce Percy, his workshops, his eBooks and his amazing artwork at: http://www.brucepercy.co.uk/
If you find yourself on Skye, I highly recommend the Glenview Hotel. Simon and Kirsty will offer you a very warm welcome, and Simon's cooking is out of this world! http://glenviewskye.co.uk/