5 Crucial Lessons Learned at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops

Santa Fe Photographic Workshops-Santa Maria bldg
The Santa Maria building where I stayed and where breakfast and lunch were served

When you first arrive at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, Reid Callanan, the company’s founder, will tell you no matter what course you take the week is not about creating masterpieces, it’s about learning new approaches to photography, opening your mind and eye to fresh ideas, and challenging your skills.

It was all that and more.

My instructor was a fine art photographer and Sam Abell disciple, Brett Erickson. The Santa Fé workshop:  “Visions of the American West”.

My fellow students and I (nine of us in total), quickly learned that for Brett, “visions” was the operative word. The American West was a backdrop, a muse for our creative efforts, and we would explore these visions with black and white photography.

When the workshop began, Brett explained that his main objective was for us to see the world differently; to be keenly aware of the textures, shapes, and colors that make up a scene and use them to our advantage. He wanted us to discover the story within the photo, the nuances, and the complexities, both literally and figuratively, in order to communicate our vision successfully. In short: to thoughtfully craft images rather than just “take” them.

Below are five lessons (and one neat trick) I learned that I believe will help me (and perhaps you) do just that:

1. Identify What You Like About the Subject or Scene

When you come across something you want to shoot, take a moment to ask yourself what you like about it? Brett explained, “We choose compositions because of the way they make us feel.” Meaning more often than not, it’s emotion, not intellect that directs our eye.

At first, I found it difficult to articulate what drew my attention beyond the surface (ie. the light is really pretty or I love the way that looks), but the more I thought about my reaction, the better I perceived the scene. Taking the time to reflect—even for a few seconds—provided me with valuable insight on how to make an image that would convey my feelings more accurately.

A Simple Example

Take this very simple example: Minutes before I landed in New York from Santa Fe, I took a picture of the wing and the beautiful twinkling lights below (above left). Then I remembered to ask myself why I was drawn to the scene. I realized it wasn’t just the beautiful lights; I loved the idea that I was privy to an extraordinary view of the city from my own little seat in the clouds.

With that in mind, I composed the next shot to include some the window frame, giving the photo a completely different feel. A person looking at the image now has more context. They become a passenger peering through the window with me which is the essence of what I wanted to communicate.

2. Instill Your Images with Poetry and Metaphor

What makes an image compelling? Brett says, “poetry and metaphor.” Since that’s a tad esoteric, consider it a sense of depth and meaning that goes beyond the literal scene. What story can you tell? What observation about life, love, friendship or society can you work into your image that will make a viewer connect on a level that stirs the emotions?

Every day Brett challenged us to create images with poetry using metaphor. Below are a few of my attempts.

Example 1:

On our second day of the workshop, we visited El Santuario de Chimayo, a tiny Roman Catholic church built in the early 1800s. A modern-day pilgrimage site receiving over 300,000 visitors a year.

Outside the sanctuary, crosses made from pieces of unfinished lumber stood bleakly in front of the iron gate that separated the sanctuary from the parking lot.  Behind a row of cars, I saw this small cross with the word  “Hope” and the crudely carved phrase “Dear Lord Pray for Us All.” In my image, it was a passionate plea for help that I imagined had gone unanswered for “Hope” had fallen over.

Outside the gates of El Sanctuario de Chimayo in Santa Fe

Example 2:

Religion is a big business, even in the small town that plays host to Chimayo. In this photo, I wanted to show how commercialization feeds off of religion by featuring the mural of Mary juxtaposed to the litany of signs advertising local shops and businesses.

Signs at Chimayo in Santa Fe

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Example 3:

On our last day of shooting, we ventured to a beautiful area with white rocks teaming with interesting shapes and textures. Brett’s assignment: use a model as a metaphor for something in nature. I was struck by the large, dark boulders that littered the white-washed wonderland. For this image, my model, Diaolo, became another rock dotting the rugged landscape.

Diaolo in Santa Fe
Diaolo in Santa Fe

3. Slow Down and Explore Your Options

Ever see something that you like, snap a picture and then move on? Yep, me too. Next time, slow down and explore your options.

In one exercise, Brett asked us to take five photos of something that made us feel. With each shot, we had to move closer (or move back) and reassess the picture anew. Did the light change? Was there something new to the scene that we hadn’t noticed before? Did the intimacy of a close-up better communicate our vision or did everything fall apart? The deliberateness of the process forced us to slow down and really look at what we were shooting thus providing new opportunities for inspiration.

Example 1

When I walked up to this area of the Chimayo sanctuary (photo on the left below), the first thing that struck me was how the telephone poles in the background echoed the cross of the sanctuary building in the foreground. But as I walked closer, I saw the way the soft curves of the archway framed the rectangle door. Then I became intrigued by the stain of the wet adobe and how its soft lines mixed with the multiple triangles surrounding the door’s frame.

In the end, I felt the image to the right made a stronger statement than the wider angle that first grabbed my attention. If I hadn’t reminded myself to move in, I would have missed it entirely.

Example 2:

One afternoon, we went to Eaves Movie Ranch, a location used in countless westerns including The Ridiculous Six, starring Adam Sandler, currently in post-production. Thomas who oversees the ranch was one of our models and a perfect throwback to the genre with his cowboy hat and garb, long hair, and grizzly beard. 

I took him to an old barn that had amazing light to shoot a portrait. At first, I photographed him close up and straight on, but when I experimented with various angles, I liked this framing the best. Here you can see a piece of the paddock and the supply shed in the background. I found it to be more visually interesting, with its subtle layers and horizontal lines, while adding greater context to the photo.

Thomas at Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fe

Thomas at Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fé

4. Make the most of composition tools.

Leading lines, diagonals, repetition, frames, patterns, layers, triads, triangles… these are elements photographers use to move the viewer’s eye through the frame creating a more compelling image. And that’s what we all want, right? It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about leading lines or patterns and the like, but working with Brett in a workshop environment brought my awareness and understanding to a whole new level.

Example 1:

In this image, I was drawn to the repetition. First, the eye focuses on the crosses to the right which is in focus. Then the vertical columns move the eye to the back where the crosses are repeated in the door and on the column to the left of the entrance. The lines in the ceiling also lead the eye to the back where the arches are repeated in the windows and doors.

Chimayo in Santa Fe

Example 2:

This was taken from inside the studio doorway of a rather eccentric, 70+-year-old painter I met while shooting along Canyon road on our first day. I first noticed the sign on the door and I couldn’t help but think that it’s semi-schizophrenic handwriting suited the quirky artist. Outside, stood his old school bicycle, another glimpse into the man’s unique personality.  I loved the combination of the two together.

From a composition perspective, the open doorway is a strong visual element that splits the image in two, thus grabbing the viewer’s attention. The horizontal plank below the sign is like an arrow leading the eye to the right to where it finds the bike, while the vertical edge of the door echoes the wood in the fence post.

Example 3:

Two horses snuggle in another shot from Eaves Movie Ranch. Besides the obvious “adorable” factor, the image combines three triangles, two are created by each of the horses’ heads while together they form one large triangle, keeping the eye fixed on the center and the equine bromance.

Two horses cuddle in Santa Fe, New Mexico

5. Wait Until the Next Day to Look at Your Pictures

During the workshop, I was struggling. Every day we there was a new assignment and every day I was convinced my work sucked. I did my best to create wonderful images that were exploding with poetry and metaphors, but nine times out of ten I wanted to throw my camera against a wall. Intellectually I knew what I was learning was incredibly valuable. Emotionally I hated that I wasn’t instantly fabulous. It was hard.

Ok, I put enormous pressure on myself. I think most creative folks do, which means if you’re reading this you probably know of what I speak.

Here’s my advice, if you’re not happy with the way a shoot is going to stick it out, do the best you can and then leave the pictures alone. If you keep going over it you’ll spin yourself into the depths of emotional self-flagellation.

When I stepped away and gave myself the opportunity to disconnect from the shoot and my frustration, I usually found that the images again weren’t so bad. In fact, sometimes I would surprise myself and find something I really thought was good. Perfectionism is a dangerous thing. Don’t let it get the best of you.

(A Trick) Try Shooting Black and White in Camera

When I first read Brett’s description of the class, he explained that monochromatic images would play a big part in our workshop and it was part of the reason I signed up. I love the look and feel of black and white photos but I’ve never felt particularly at ease creating them. Like most people, I shoot in color and then convert in post-production using Lightroom and Nik filters. More often than not, I’m not sure whether the conversion will look right until it’s done. It’s always been a bit of a crap shoot for me.

Brett wanted us to be able to see the world in black and white, to instinctively know how various colors would look in grey-scale so that we could be deliberate in the creation of our black and white images. His trick to train the eye: shoot black and white in camera

By setting my Canon 1-DX to monochrome and then changing the “image quality” to capture both a RAW file and a jpeg (Nikon users don’t need to add the jpeg), I could see a black and white jpeg on my LCD screen in real time, while simultaneously capturing a RAW color file for use later while editing. (You’ll want those color channels available so that you can tweak tonalities.)

I have a ways to go but I’m slowly understanding how colors will convert so that I’ll be able to spot compelling contrasts from the get-go. Eventually, I’ll be able to see the world in black and white without having to look at it on my LCD. At least that’s the plan.

If you have any questions or comments about the photos or the workshops, please ask in the comments below and I will be happy to answer. If you’ve been to SFPW or another workshop, I’d love to hear about your experience.

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5 Essential Lessons (and 1 Great Tip) I learned about Photography at the Santa Fé Photographic Workshops (1)

39 thoughts on “5 Crucial Lessons Learned at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops

  1. Kiki says:

    Hello Susan, Iove how you share your experience! Out of all your photo examples, I found #3, the cowboy most intriguing, especially the sharpness of the main subject – I was wondering if you were using a tripod for that shot?

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi again! I love that photo too. I didn’t use a tripod for that. I braced myself in my stance and before I snapped the shutter I inhaled, breathed out half way, then held it again when I took the shot. The lens was a f2.8 so it does well in low light.

      • Kiki says:

        Thanks for the info! I’m really surprised that ALL of the man is focus at f2.8 – I guess I’ll have to practice that as my pictures on a low f-stop don’t usually turn out with the whole of a subject so sharp.

      • Susan Portnoy says:

        The lens wasn’t focused at f2.8 the lens was a f2.8 –it’ max aperture. I think I was at 5.6 for that.. would have to look. I also was standing a good distance from him using my 70-200mm to shoot it.

  2. Erin E. says:

    Love love love that right picture of the door in your example 3! I’m new to the “fancy camera” world of photography and these tips are extremely helpful, especially number 1. So many times I point and shoot because I like something in the general vicinity of the shoot, and then I’m disappointed with the photo doesn’t convey what I felt at the time. Slooowwwwing down is something I’m going to need to work on!

  3. Smiling in Sonoma says:

    Loved this post! Very inspiring photos and the descriptions were great on how you got to it and what you wanted to convey. I think you hit the mark on each one. Can’t wait to get out and take some more photos after reading all these fabulous tips! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Susie Wellendorf says:

    Beautiful work and thanks for sharing the highlights of what you learned. I can especially relate to the slow down part. It’s amazing how much better a shot you get if you really spend time exploring a subject. I always end up liking my work several dozen shots later. The part about asking yourself how you’re connecting with the photo also is a gem I’ll be using on my next trip. 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      HI Susie.. thank you very much. Yep.. slowing down is a big one and being deliberate about examining all the options (backing up, moving in) to really see what you can craft. It’s not quite natural to me yet but I have it in my head so I hope it will become more second nature.

      Do you have a next trip planned yet?

      • Susie Wellendorf says:

        We’re heading to Colorado and then Santa Fe. I’m ready to get out of this Tulsa heat! If you have any Sante Fe tips or must-dos, please share. In September, we head to NYC. 🙂

      • Susan Portnoy says:

        To be honest, I really didn’t do anything but be at the workshop. I really need to go back to Santa Fe to actually see it from a traveler’s perspective. LOL.. Great about NYC!

  5. Brett L. Erickson says:

    Reblogged this on Photography of the American West and commented:
    One of my participants at the Santa Fe Workshops was journalist and traveler Susan Portnoy, who was a lot of fun to work with during our week together. She’s done a wonderful job distilling some key points of my approach to a photographic life on her blog, The Insatiable Traveler, as well as a similar post on Leanne Cole’s blog in Australia. I’m overjoyed Susan came away from the course with a sense of growth and newfound sight (as well as some sweet images!).

      • Brett L. Erickson says:

        We talked about you last night, in fact, and Irina said the spare bedroom’s yours. 😉

        I’m shooting two next weekend, so get your plane ticket–there’s a spot in the truck for you. Bring your boots.

  6. The Snap Shot Siren says:

    Normally I skim through most blogs, especially photographer blogs just to view the photos(normally wouldn’t admit that) but I couldn’t stop reading this post from start to finish! Those are very valuable lessons you leaned during the workshop and I’m so grateful you shared them. Your photos came out beautiful. I’m going to challenge myself this weekend with those tricks. Also, I really love how he pointed out the fact that we don’t just take a photograph because it looks nice to us necessarily, we do it because of how it makes us feel. Iv never thought of it like that and it’s so true. Thank you for your post, enjoyed it fully.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Amanda.. I couldn’t ask for a nicer compliment. The fact that you were able to connect with the story is so important to me!!
      Brett’s articulation of the feeling we get from a scene, even if we can’t consciously put our finger on it is so important. He wanted to teach us to tap into those feelings and become more aware of their origins. It’s not easy but once you move the needle just a smidgen, you immediately realize the potential for your photography.

      If you do try the tricks this weekend, please come back and let me know how it went. OK?

  7. Jesús Rosas says:

    Great shots and very useful advice. I like in particular the “Instill your images with Poetry and Metaphor” advice. I’m aware that pictures with stories have a more profound impact than those that don’t. I’ve been trying lately to make us of that advice with my photography. Thank you for sharing what you learned at the Santa Fe Workshops.

    Also just as an aside note, you mentioned that this post also appeared on Leanne Cole Photography. If you wanted your post to be more easily found in Google and other search engines results, it is better to have a different version of a post than having an exact duplicate. These search engines usually don’t like duplicate content. But that’s another topic. Thanks again for sharing.

I would love to hear from you! What did you think of the post?