Leica Akademie in Zion
Attending the Leica Akademie is a little like joining a fraternity. A meet up with random people with only one thing in common. But after a few days the singular bond of photography transformed strangers into friends.
Deciding to Attend a Leica Akademie Workshop
I've never attended a photography workshop. I'm self-taught mainly by trial and error, reading books and magazines, and shooting with friends. Workshops are expensive. Workshops are often far away and inconvenient. Plus, photography is a solitary activity so why do it with a bunch of strangers? I had many reasons to justify my decision. Still, I wondered what I was missing. I have photographer friends who enjoy photo workshops. What could I learn from a Leica Akademie instructor? While browsing the Leica site soon after purchasing my new Leica M10, I noticed a workshop in Zion National Park in November. Zion in autumn is beautiful and is only a 4 hour drive. My excuses were running out. The cost was about $2600 but included 4 nights lodging/ meals. Finally after years of avoiding workshops, I signed up for the Leica Akademie of Landscape Photography in Zion.
In addition, the workshop offered an attractive rate for non-photographer tag alongs. Should I invite Cheryl? I had mixed feelings because past experiences of mingling photography and non-photographers. Sort of like mixing ketchup and ice-cream. I love ketchup and I love ice-cream but not together. I decided to invite Cheryl, and she said "yes".
Checking into the Workshop
The Holiday Inn Express in Springdale served as workshop headquarters and is conveniently located outside the entrance to Zion. There is a fire pit out back next to the red cliffs and so close you can almost reach out and touch them. That's where we met Mike, our instructor, sporting his cowboy hat.
Our group included a neurologist, accountant, economist, professional photographer and me. Devotion to photography and the desire to improve our work were the common threads. Even though this was a Leica workshop, the cameras were as diverse as the students. My concern of a pretentious "Leica only" group evaporated. Gear inventory included Leicas - M9, 2 M10’s, monochrome M246, film Leica M3 and SL as well as Canons, Nikons, Fujis and a classic Rolleiflex. The varied equipment guaranteed unique perspectives and the opportunity to learn a great deal from other students.
Why are we Photographers?
During the meet and greet, we shared our reasons for attending the workshop. At the meeting's end Mike asked two specific questions, "What do you do with your photographs?" and "What do you want to get out of this workshop?" Hmmm... Again, why the hell was I doing this? In an age where literally everyone has a camera in their pocket all the time...........why bother?
Each of us had different motives. For me, I like to share my photos on the internet so our travel site is photo rich. If I am honest with myself, photography is a vehicle to show others how I see the world. What do I want out of the workshop? I want to improve my craft. The answers from other students included sharing and selling photos on the internet and making prints. A couple of the students attended previous workshops with Mike. Everyone wished to learn and enjoy our time together.
Day 1, Watchman Trail
Soon after the intro session we headed out for 2 hours on iconic Watchman Trail close to the Zion entrance. This easy hike provided an opportunity for us to double check that our equipment was in good working order. Mike spent time with each of us assessing our current proficiency and reviewing our specific goals.
That evening we enjoyed our first meal together at the Switchback Grille. Good food and wine facilitated conversation. We each shared more about our goals and focus. I shared that I was not comfortable photographing people. Andrew Stuart is the group's professional photographer who earns his living capturing the life of musicians on the road. You can view his work here. Through conversation with Andrew and Mike as well as the others, I began to imagine how to capture people in interesting photographs. I made a goal of snagging at least one image with a person as the subject.
Around 8pm Andrew and I set out to capture Zion under the light of the moon and stars. He had never done this type of photography and was keen to give it a try. We drove into the park to escape the town's light. The stars were brilliant. We took a few shots by the side of the road. Then headed to the bridge. We experimented with "light painting" - using light from our phones to illuminate the trees. It was great fun and we enjoyed checking our cameras to see what it saw. Next, we headed up the road climbing the canyon walls and the moon appeared. Red Sandstone illuminated by moonlight is breathtaking. The evening air was cold but we didn't care because our night adventure was exhilarating! Our 2 hour impromptu field work was a zen like experience because time seemingly stopped. A night I will always remember.
Day 2, Big Bend and the Temple of Sinawava
Out by 6:30am since we needed to take the park shuttle into the Canyon due to limited automobile access. We fueled up with an early breakfast and arrived in plenty of time to board the first shuttle which departs at 7am. Early morning light is often friendly light for photographers.
We savored the sacred cliffs at Big Bend in near silence for well over an hour since we were the only people there. This is where the Virgin River exits the Narrows Canyon and bends around a massive rock with iconic Angel's Landing perched on the summit at 5990 ft. We meandered around the river valley as the morning light illuminated the tops of the cliffs. Magnificent beauty surrounded us. And the best light was yet to come.
Mike shared a few places where the light is just right. The bright yellow leaves were especially vivid with the dark cliff walls as the background. There was also the contrast of silhouetting tree branch chaos against the warm colors of the leaves and cliffs. And, of course, the view down the river with the brilliant crimson cliff walls with the vibrant colors of autumn lining the river banks was just incredible.
Next we visited the Temple of Sinawava which is the last canyon shuttle stop. Walk the paved trail or wander along the water's edge along the sand and rocks along the stunning Virgin River. The yellow leaves of the cottonwoods and poplar trees were on fire this time of year. The ruby cliffs and the brilliant blue sky made for wonderful contrasting colors.
The Sinawava trail hike is a 2 mile round trip, easy and mostly flat. The Narrows begin at the turn around. The canyon's cliffs rise straight up with no shoreline on many portions of the river. In order to continue, waders and wetsuits are necessary so you can walk as little or as much of the 11 mile river walk.. I noticed a young girl playing on the rocks and recalled Mike and Andrew discussing the magic of seizing the moment with people as the focal point. I captured the girl wandering from rock to rock and recalled the joy I felt doing similar activity as a child.
At both stops the group dispersed in an attempt to find the right light. Each hoping their inner voice would reveal where to place the camera and what to point it at. It's a really simple concept. As Ansel Adams states, "a good photograph is knowing where to stand." Simple, yet, and so hard. Mike suggested I watch the edges of the photo when I photograph. It's relatively easy for the center of the photo to be interesting. It takes concentration to remember that unwanted objects in the photo's edges distract the viewer. Conversely, deliberately adding elements to the edge of the photo can also provide context or contrast to your subject. I started paying attention to the edges.
The way back took much longer than anticipated since the light created different angles and different views so our cameras were fully active until my battery died. Fortunately, Mike had extra batteries!
Back at the hotel, our homework was to examine our work from the day. Managing work flow involved reviewing and ranking the day's 300 images. Choose the best and let the rest go. Here is a sampling of my best work on day 2.
We enjoyed dinner at Oscars Cafe and reflected on our day in the field as well as planned for the next day. We left dinner full of anticipation.
Day 3, The Road to the East
In the morning we headed east and drove through the 1 mile long Mt. Carmel tunnel. We headed up the canyon into a long tunnel chiseled through the red rocks. The tunnel is narrow and dark but there are 3 holes cut through the rock to provide light along the way. There is no stopping or pedestrians allowed in the tunnel so look quickly as you drive by the portals.
We stopped at the first exit after the tunnel. There is a short trail at the canyon overlook underneath the bridge that exits the tunnel. The light wasn't optimal so we continued along Mt. Carmel road to a wide turnout and the morning light was just right. Mike showed us how the long shadows of early light highlighted the rock's lines and curves. We dispersed with a pre-assigned rendezvous time of 2 hours.
Inspiration coupled with a sense of urgency took over as we realized the moon, high in the blue sky, would soon set behind the horizon of wavy rock sprouting solitary banzai pines. We were surrounded by a surreal landscape and shadows. We, photographers, felt our insignificance amidst this beauty and did our best to capture what we could. The 2 hours passed in 10 minutes. The images captured here were more abstract than those of the previous day. The elegance and symmetry in the wavy, swirly, twisty distressed rocks, trees and shadows provided each photographer with ample opportunity to play with composition. We re-covened and shared our pleasure and excitement because we realized the uniqueness of the geography. Anticipation filled us as we proceeded to our next stop down the road.
We chatted in the car about this unique and vast landscape. Shared a little about what we each chose to capture. How do you describe this area? Perhaps a moonscape, if there were trees on the moon. We walked down a wash looking for beauty. There were some trees that had not yet lost their autumn leaves. The color of the stone and the fallen autumn leaves were indistinguishable in places. Here is a sampling of the images from Day 3.
Day 4, Kolob Terrace Road
Field work was in the Kolob Canyons which is located in the northwest corner of the park. Take Interstate 15 and exit 40 which is 40 miles north of Zion Canyon. This area is much less travelled than our previous excursions. Be aware that private ranches are also part of the neighborhood. Signs are posted!
The narrow parallel box canyons of Kolob Canyons form at the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, with majestic peaks and 2,000 foot red Navajo sandstone cliff walls. We focused on desert sage fields in a forest of dead juniper trees. We speculated as to the source of their demise . Was it fire? Was it insects? We didn't know.
The challenge was to find inspiration.
I found inspiration in: backlit cactus in the midst of the layered rocks, a single white aspen hiding in black basalt, aspen groves, layered hills, and a cattle guard on the road.
Here is a sample of Day 4.
The assignment was to select, share and discuss 3 photos with the group. Only 3, from 4 days of shooting at one of the world's most beautiful locations. For me, this meant reviewing 1,000 photos and choosing only 3. This is challenging. But it is a necessary workshop component. The selection process is often difficult for photographers. Separating the great from the good requires a critical eye and patience.
My 3 photos represented the diversity of Zion. And each accented a different feeling or a different type of photography.
I lead off with the photo at the top of this article. This photo more than any other represents "Zion" to me. The huge brilliant cliffs that dwarf the colorful trees on the canyon floor. The critique was encouraging and helpful. The well framed colors reflect what we remembered of that morning. Then we discussed if I could I have improved the photo. Perhaps moving up the hill to change the foreground?
My second photo choice was an attempt to apply something I learned during the workshop since including strangers in my photos is out of my comfort zone. I applied what I learned from our discussion the first night - a young this girl playing on the rocks at the entry to the Narrows. I was struck by the colorful clothing set amongst the vibrant sandstone cliff walls. I also found inspiration in the contrast of the immense canyon and a small child. Lastly, her playful attention applied to walking on the rocks in the river reminded me of my childhood.
Feedback was useful and positive. The group liked the framing, timing and composition. They asked how many photos I took of her. Only 3 because the moment was fleeting. I saw what might happen as she walked to the edge and I was ready. I waited for her light step to convey a feeling of action. We discussed if this was really a "landscape" photo since this class was for landscape photography. The consensus was yes, this was a landscape photo that happened to include a girl that made the photo more interesting.
My third and final photo was an abstract. Walking along Zion's surreal landscape, I was overwhelmed by it's unnatural and disorienting beauty. My intention was to capture the feeling of disorientation. I chose this photo because the direction and orientation of the stone seems to change the more you stare at it. What is curving up versus and what is curving down is fluid.
3 final photos
The critique was instructive. The others had seen these same forms and tried to capture this type of effect. But they thought this image really captured it well. One suggestion I found helpful was to pay attention to the borders of the image. The question was asked if the little piece of vegetation creeping in to the image at the upper right enhances or detracts from the impression I was hoping to create. I decided it would be a better image without.
Rick's Closing Perspective
I came to the Leica Akademie not knowing what to expect but was hoping to improve my craft and share full days photographing natural beauty with new friends. All my hopes were exceeded.
What did I learn? Photography is like life.
A great photo tells a story about a subject and context. Which is to say, photography is about framing and perspective. Ansel Adams said, "A good photograph is knowing where to stand." By simply moving the camera a little to the left or right, or forward or backward, you modify the perspective. Choosing a 24mm or a 90mm lens changes the framing. A photographer makes simple choices. When these choices coalesce, the result is magical.
At the Photographer's discretion
- Where you stand
- Direction of the camera
- Focus (both subject and depth of field)
Aren't these the same choices we make in life? Living well is often a matter of focus, framing and perspective. A simple experience like morning coffee or walking on the beach may be enjoyable. Sometimes including a friend or loved one in this action makes it better. Including others in an experience is like "zooming out" in a photograph. You can enhance the quality of the experience by including others. But if you include too many people that walk on the beach or the cup of coffee might not be as enjoyable. The noise of the scene drowns out the enjoyment of the experience.
Pay attention to the edges of the photo. The center is easy since we have an idea of what we want to photograph. But it is the edges that really make the difference. I improved my abstract photo of the wavy rocks by excluding the scrap of vegetation. Putting thought into what to include and what to discard makes a big difference. And isn't the same in life? Aren't there people that creep onto the edges that we would be better off without? And likewise, doesn't investing a little extra effort to include friends make life richer? Adjusting our camera's perspective to intentionally include something is like putting forth effort to see an old friend. Photo's, like life, improve by paying attention to the edges.
Throughout the week Mike often re- focused the group's attention to, "How can this photo be improved?" Continuous improvement is also an essential part of a life lived well. It's easy to be complacent or lazy..............in life or in photography. Repeating the question, "Can this be improved?" almost always makes things better. It was a helpful reminder to me to have Mike ask this simple question about my photos. I will try and keep this thought with me every time I push the shutter.
In closing, I found great value in the workshop as well as making new photography friends. I enjoyed learning and improving my craft. I savored the field work. Out of the 1000 images - Here are my favorites.
Perspective from a Leica Akademie Tag Along
I felt fortunate to tag along with 6 serious photographers - 2 professionals (including instructor) and 4 dedicated amateurs. They spent around 10 hours each day stalking the light around Zion National Park and hoping to capture the ephemeral moment when it all comes together. When the group wasn't “out in the field," they discussed gear and process.
Should a non-photographer tag along on a photo workshop?
- No, if you aren’t comfortable being “not part of the group.”
- No, if you need conversation. From sun up to sun down, the participants had no time or desire for mindless conversation other than during the 30 minute lunch break. During field work, they tended to talk little and only about the work at hand.
- No, if you have a problem with being in one area for hours at a time. I was initially shocked when we arrived at a destination and learned we would remain there for 2 to 4 hours. Yikes! How many pictures can 1 person take? Lots. Turns out each participant averaged about 300 shots each day.
- Yes, provided you are capable of entertaining yourself from sun up to sun down. Fortunately, photographers tend to gather in either beautiful or interesting places. Zion is both so I was content to tag along and hike in the general area. We brought our own vehicle so I left the scene when I needed a change of scenery.
- Yes, if you like the area where the group is going.
I was welcome to join the participants in every activity. I chose to attend some field work locations. I also joined the group each night for dinner and was entertained to learn about why these people chose to spend 5 days together.
On the last day, each participant as well as the instructor shared 3 images taken during the workshop. It was humbling to watch the trepidation that seasoned photographers experienced when having their work critiqued. Turns out their anxiety was uncalled for as everyone was supportive and kind. To me, the group’s range and creativity was impressive and instructive since no one sees the world the same.
I enjoyed being a a photo workshop tag along and even picked up a few tips on taking a better photo.
A Little History on the Road Trip
There is nothing quite like the anticipation and sense of adventure heading out on a road trip. However, sitting in a car for hours can be boring. We listen to podcasts on our travel days. The History on Fire podcast on the Conquest of Mexico by Cortez by Daniele Bolelli, a history professor and animated story teller is one of our favorites. His version of the Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica (Aztecs) is not for the faint of heart. How could Hernando Cortez with only few hundred men take down the Aztec empire? Bolelli draws on primary sources like Hernan Cortéz and Bernal Diaz. To learn more about the Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest, check out the History on Fire podcast.