It was wonderful and memorable and challenging and and inspiring and imperfect all at the same time. It was bound to be—it was the first one. It was the inaugural Nick Kelsh Country Weekend Photography Workshop in New York’s bucolic farm country a couple of weeks ago and it’s taken this time for us all to process not just the thousands of photos, but the whole weekend experience as well. As it all continues to sink in (and, as we’re working on the next one!) I’ve been reflecting on it a lot and want to share my takeaway with you all.
We chose this part of the western Catskill Mountains as our first location because I’ve been so touched by it personally—my wife grew up there and my children spend much of their summers with relatives there—and I have found it to be an inspiring source of good photography. Very simply, I wanted to share this land that I love with other photographers. (One of our workshop attendees instantly fell in love with this country too, and bought a vacation home there that very weekend. True story.)
I want to thank the eleven powerful, smart, thoughtful, beautiful women who traveled from Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Canada, and points closer to share their willingness to learn—and teach each other—and their capacity to have fun while doing it. With varying skills and experience, each and every one of them brought a unique perspective along with their cameras. Personally, it was a thrill to meet and spend a weekend with these online friends and students I’ve known for years but never met face to face.
Because we wanted this weekend to be intimate and personal, we hosted the opening night with our traditional family-style summer dinner on the deck at my mother-in-law’s home, overlooking her beautiful view. We welcomed early arrivals to hang out by the pond and get acquainted throughout the afternoon, with a chance to sit down for some one-on-one or small group time with me.
I’ve found, through my other events over the years, that individual sessions prove to be invaluable for those who may need their camera settings explained or adjusted, so I like to offer this as a bonus session for people who want to come early to take advantage of the time before the group workshop officially starts. (Note to self—and future attendees: allow more time for travel and other delays for those who’d like this personalized camera settings checkup before diving into the weekend.)
Heading into the workshop, the weather forecast had spelled out our worst fear: constant rain all weekend. After the sunny afternoon gave us confidence (albeit shaky) to set the dinner table on the deck, the clouds grew ominous and a last minute torrential thunderstorm DID force us to make a quick move to the overhang of the back porch. Fortunately, we had some gracious helpers on hand (THANK YOU Dave, Bogdan, and my loving in-laws, Bob, and Katharine!) who scrambled to move tables and place settings just in time to keep the downpour off our barbequed chicken and Katharine’s legendary potato salad.
While we were disappointed to forego dining with a view, the upside of the weather and the less-scenic location was that everyone put their cameras down and focused on enjoying the wonderful country dinner that Anne and her sister and brother-in-law had prepared for us—followed by gorgeous, fresh fruit pies still warm from a neighboring farm wife’s oven.
But with the forecast still predicting constant threat of rain through the weekend, Anne added camera raincoats and umbrella hats to the goodie bags and we all hoped for the best. We got lucky. That full weather forecast did not materialize, for which I will be forever grateful (although then I never got a chance to capture the whole group with those lovely hats in use! : )
That not to say it wasn’t HOT—instead of all rain, we were blessed with a rare, near-record heat wave (so much for the area’s typical “warm days and delightfully cool nights” we’d all-but promised them—as Anne’s father always said, “Man plans and God laughs!) But the group played and shot through the heat and did a wonderful job of keeping a smile on their faces.
Our headquarters for the workshop was the nearby—and New York Times featured—Stony Creek Farmstead, in Walton, NY, where most of the students glamped (short for glamorous camping, I learned). It was an adventure—rustic “luxury” tents, no electricity, no cell phones—but I’ve found photographers to be a hearty stock and was impressed to hear talk among them about coming back with their families. (That said, we did manage to find a location for our next workshop that does have electricity, internet and a flight of stairs to climb to your beds, instead of a wooded hill. : ) But in all seriousness, there was nothing but praise for the Stony Creek Farmstead. It was quite amazing.
Virtually all of the food we ate for the weekend was locally fresh-picked, home grown, farm-raised, homemade, organic country cooking. It was terrific—I can say that because I had nothing to do with it. Although I did take part when we all got to create our own pizzas from the farm’s fresh-picked produce at the weekly al fresco pizza night that is a popular local tradition there.
I have taken very few great photographs on an empty stomach—food is always important at any photo event. So the fresh muffins and coffee that were put out every morning in the barn at 6AM for the gathering of the troops to go roam the fog covered hills in the early morning light was of prime importance.
It was not, however, enough to keep us going until lunch. After our sunrise shoot, we returned to the farm for the traditional full-fledged country breakfast of eggs and pancakes and country sausage—all of it grown and created on the farm. Truly amazing.
Many thanks to Stony Creek’s Kate and Dan Marsiglio, for doing such a great job hosting our first workshop. Our guests enjoyed the farmstead experience and raved about Kate’s food, friendliness, and the good old-fashioned country hospitality.
Based on the information gathered in my pre-workshop consultations with the attendees, two of the things they’re consistently most frustrated by are focusing on annoyingly squirmy objects (read “kids” here) and composition. Fortunately, I was able to arrange for two young, relatively photogenic boys to be on hand to dive for line drives and fly off of the dock at the pond as we practiced using different automatic focusing functions. The results were almost across the board amazing; it was impressive to be sure. Many participants were thrilled to shoot consistently sharp, in focus action shots for the first time ever.
To address composition, as we photographed barns, sunflowers, kids in costumes, closeups of flowers, a covered bridge, or the county fair, I stressed the importance of treating everything in the frame as a graphic element.
I wanted the attendees to see the whole picture—like the weekend’s spectacular cloud formations—and use them in their photographs. When you’re shooting a glorious, blooming sunflower it can be easy to overlook the fact that there’s an equally glorious cloud bank and beautiful contrasting blue sky in the background begging to be included.
A classic old car parked in front of an equally rustic barn offered an especially interesting exercise in composition. What’s most important about this picture? What is it you want to say? Why were you drawn to this subject in the first place? These are the questions you have to ask yourself every time you shoot a photograph. It was satisfying for me to watch these students consider their options with cameras in hands and begin to stretch their compositional thinking. And satisfying for them to see their results.
We took advantage of an annual local institution—The Delaware Country Fair—opening the weekend of our workshop—which provided a classic agricultural Americana scene, with lots of rural photo ops. A Sunday morning trip to document farm families prepping for the fair week ahead and the day’s livestock shows gave us the chance to experiment with many different photography styles and techniques.
Photographing strangers offers a chance to potentially push yourself a little out of your comfort zone and when the students saw the varied success of their fair photos, some of them realized it was their timidity that kept them from being as satisfied with their shots as those who were bolder and shot more aggressively. This is a personal boundary, for sure, but always an interesting one to explore.
Anne was one of these farm kids showing cows many years ago and her family has a lifelong relationship with this local Fair. So we were pleased that the group ended up with an amazing collection of hundreds of beautiful images that they generously shared with the Fair board—who was thrilled to have them for future fair publicity.
We also spent time in one of farm country’s great natural light spaces…the barn. The light coming in the doors and windows of these large open spaces rivals the light in the finest big city photo studios. We discussed photographing still-lifes and practiced in this space with flowers. I also demonstrated artificial lighting with a soft-box and bounced speed lights and reflectors, and the group played with both natural and artificial portrait lighting. Students unanimously expressed a desire to have more of this type of instruction, so I’ll definitely be expanding this component of the workshop in our next one.
As you’ll notice in all these photographs we moved in a lot of directions and tried to touch a lot of bases—perhaps too many, in retrospect. For our next workshop we certainly won’t eliminate traveling to nearby vistas and landmarks—especially considering the fall foliage theme—but we’ll scale back and make it more streamlined. Based on feedback from the group, we’ll add into our schedule more formal instruction before and after the shoots. It’s a tough call to decide when to mobilize a dozen people for a photo shoot and when it might be better to stay in one spot—closer to our computers, the projector, and my beloved Lightroom program.
I had said before the workshop that we’d concentrate on shooting over the weekend, with the major photo review/editing session to be held via webinar after the workshop. However, most of the students did bring their laptops so appreciated spontaneous review and editing sessions that happened, appropriately enough, right in the barn!
Below you’ll see some of the quick edits I did right on the spot to demonstrate what can be done to enhance photographs in Lightroom.
After an amazing weekend of photo exploration/learning/bonding—not to mention, a good dose of country/farm living, we wrapped up with a group dinner at an incredible nearby restaurant which combines locally grown ingredients into creative international dishes. It was great to relax and enjoy each other’s company—with lots of laughs. And then hard to say goodbye.
The group was given the next two weeks for post-processing. They pored through their thousands of photographs, culling out the rejects to select and edit the ones that represented their greatest success, or told their personal weekend photo-story or mini-stories, and then uploaded them for my review, critique and editing lessons with the group in our wrap up review session via webinar. We spent almost three hours in this session, evaluating and editing a representative selection of photos from each of them. (I actually put images in this post before I received the greatest hits from all so, trust me, I’ll be sharing more spectacular photos from all the other participants in the future.)
After seeing each other’s photographs, the group was eager to continue sharing even more photos with me and each other. We have a private Facebook group for this workshop and I suspect the sharing, communication, inspiration and support of this group will continue to grow online—not to mention, in personal visits and future photo-tours some are already envisioning. It’s gratifying to have brought together such a wonderful group of women to share our mutual passion for photography.
We packed a lot into our workshop, and doing our first full weekend program was quite an experience. We all learned a lot—not just about photography, but also about what works well for this kind of program and what could make it stronger. I want to thank our first attendees for their willingness to jump on board with something new; their enthusiasm, flexibility, patience and good humor through a memorable three days; and for honestly sharing their heartfelt suggestions. I’ve received tons of positive feedback, but there was obvious room for improvement, too, so our next workshoppers will surely benefit from this initial experience and the feedback from our unforgettable beta group.
Our fall workshop is coming up at the end of September, which, statistically, is the peak autumn foliage in the Catskills. It should be stunningly beautiful. (It’s the same weekend Anne and I chose to get married in the area 15 years ago just for that reason.) We’re going to keep it more centralized, as it’s located in an incredibly beautiful hilltop retreat property, with glorious Catskill mountain and valley views within walking distance, but we will still, of course, also do some traveling to nearby sites and vantage points. This time, though, we’ll have the advantage of a more convenient central gathering place with everyone staying in one spot—plus internet and electricity, of course—which will facilitate formal instruction and group photo reviews after.
The value of these weekends is finding out what’s possible. It’s being challenged and inspired to tap into the inner photographer that so many of you know is there. You can’t grow as a photographer in a vacuum—spending days with other photographers like yourself and a teacher with 45 years of experience is a sure way to give yourself the gift that will give you satisfaction for the rest of your life. Spending dawn to well-past-dusk with a group of people sharing a passion is quite a bonding experience.
I honestly think that lifelong friendships were forged on this weekend. I know they were for Anne and me. As I mentioned above, we are excited to have one couple who attended (with kids close in age to our youngest) as new country neighbors now, delighted for a visit tomorrow with the family of another attendee/now-friend, and sincerely looking forward to spending more time some day with each and every one of this wonderful group.
So, if you’ve always wanted to take your photos to the next level and this kind of immersive experience sounds like something you’d like to do, why not consider joining us for our upcoming FALL FOLIAGE PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP: “AUTUMN IN THE CATSKILLS”. There are still spots available and we’re offering a special discount plus bonuses this weekend through Labor Day!
I’m proud to say that one of our August attendees went home and signed right up to come back for our Fall event, and others have expressed interest in doing it again too. That speaks volumes.
And nothing warmed my heart more than receiving this email:
“Nick Kelsh, speaking totally from the heart, the weekend was really perfect for me… exactly what I needed and what I expected. I was honored to be there, and would love to do it again. Thank you so much for taking the time to top off our weekend with all that discussion and analysis in the post-workshop webinar session. It was the perfect way to review all the great times we had and the things we learned, along with tons of editing advice. It was fabulous, you are fabulous, Anne is fabulous. Thank you so much for everything. I am aching to do it all again. And I hope you (and ALL my new photographer-friends!) will come to Boston one of these days soon. I want more!!!”
It means so much to me to hear the impact my programs have on your photographs and your lives. It’s why I do what I do.
This was a big step for me—we’ve been wanting to do a weekend workshop for a long time—and I believe it’s just the beginning of a great new program for How to Photograph Your Life. I’ve done many events of various kinds around the country over the years and was excited that so many of you have expressed interest in a full weekend workshop.
I love that this kind of immersive experience creates a tremendous opportunity to help people at a deeper and more personal level with time for them to focus on becoming the photographers they want to be. And nothing beats the chance to work with you in person, check your camera settings with my own eyes and hands, and help you with your photographs as you take them. The experience of our first summer workshop has really inspired us to expand this program and make these events the best they can be.
I can’t wait to meet our fall group (there’s still room to join us)!
Stay in Focus.
p.s. Please help us shape these events by letting us know what YOU think. If this experience sounds like something you’d enjoy, want to join us live on location somewhere? Would you travel some place new—or put in a plug for your own city! What would you like to experience in this kind of workshop? We’d love to hear from as many as possible as we fine-tune our upcoming event and think ahead to other possibilities. So if you have any ideas, fire away.