Workshop review – Lake District with Stewart Smith

In March of 2013 on a family climbing holiday in France a photographer friend of mine introduced me to Lightroom.  I mention this because for me this was something of a turning point, but not necessarily in the way you might think.  As I watched avidly while he tweaked that day’s photos, what occurred to me was that editing software such as this must make photography accessible to a huge number of people.  While it will never make a bad photograph awesome, it does make mediocre photographs somewhat less mediocre – and it went a long way to explaining the madly saturated colours I was seeing on sites such as 500px and Flickr!

This got me thinking about what I was really trying to do with my photography and led to the realisation that what really made the difference in a photograph was not the number of pixels, the saturation, the amount of noise or even the sharpness of the focus – but the composition.  I realised that if I wanted to stand out as a photographer, to make beautiful images, I needed to work on composition.  At the same time I found myself making more images of the landscape, of the flowers and trees and of the sky and yet these were not working out like I’d hoped.  Until then I had been mainly photographing rock climbers and I’d become pretty good at this, able to anticipate when a movement would be made that created a good shape or a sense of movement, or when to zoom in on the face to capture the exertion or concentration.  By comparison my landscapes appeared flat and boring, not at all doing justice to the scene I was seeing.

So, in August of 2013 I set out on a grey, damp morning with Stuart Smith ( a Lake District based landscape photographer, with the intention of learning the art of composing landscapes.  I identified Stuart from some basic online searching.  First off I tried the back pages of the magazines where various workshop companies plied their wares but I couldn’t find anything in the location I wanted at the time I needed. I chose to go with Stuart based on a few things, firstly on the portfolio of images on his website – they represented the kind of thing I wanted to aim at and I found them to be visually inspiring.  Secondly I found several articles Stuart had written for various magazines that were of a ‘how to’ nature and they were really well structured and not at all patronising – I felt this spoke to a genuine desire to help people learn and the ability to communicate.  Thirdly, in his replies to my initial enquiry Stuart was friendly and helpful and I felt we had a good (albeit electronic) rapport.

I also think that 1:1 workshops are superb value if you get a good one.  I imagine Stuart has raised his prices now (I hope so!) but I got half a day’s coaching for just £70 which is an absolute bargain.

I had a wonderful time walking around Buttermere with Stuart, he taught me about leading lines, looking for curves and shapes in the scene, balancing the sky, mid-ground and foreground in the composition by placing the camera at different heights and a whole host of other things about composition that I am still using across all areas of my photography (not just landscapes). I don’t think I’ll ever really be a landscape photographer, I’m not good enough at early starts, but Stuart’s imparted wisdom has stayed with me. It was all totally practical, usable and easy to put into practice.  The day we had was grey and dull which wasn’t great but with Stuart’s help I did come away with some images that although not stunning in themselves, felt like the start of something great!

Buttermere Lone Tree – taken on workshop

All in all this was a great first workshop and one I have since recommended to friends.  Below are some comments from my friend Jeremy Lucas who went on a 1:1 with Stuart this year based on my recommendation.

“I wanted to find out more about depth of field v diffraction and the use of higher f numbers. He [Stuart Smith] explained it all very clearly and constantly gave me tips on using graduated and polarising filters, composition at each site we went to and separation on the image to make it more interesting and balanced.”

Jeremy Lucas – workshop particpant 2015

Jeremy Lucas
Image by Jeremy Lucas


Top Workshop Tip No.1

If you are looking to fit some photography learning into a pre-planned trip such as a family holiday, it’s worth looking for a 1:1 session so that you can have it exactly when it works for you.

Top Workshop Tip No.2

Check out a photographers website, blog and social media feeds but also look for magazine articles before you book with them. Look for someone who not only has a great portfolio, but who’s style appeals to you and who has evidence of a genuine appetite for teaching.

Top Workshop Tip No.3

Chat to the photographer by email or on the phone before booking, see if you can establish a reasonable rapport – if you don’t click or they don’t engage, look for someone else.

Workshop Recommendation

Lake District 1:1 with Stuart Smith – highly recommended!

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking ****
Pre-event communications ***
Personalisation and 1:1 attention *****
Information and Learning ****
Approachability *****
Location ****
Cost *****
Image review and feedback **
Post-event feedback and follow-up *

The importance of learning

As you get better at photography, it’s tempting to think you don’t need to go on courses or workshops any more.  You’ve mastered your camera controls, you’re happy with your work – so what is there left to learn?


I try and go on at least one, preferably more, workshops or courses on photography each year. I tend to choose locations that are interesting, then look at who’s doing what there and really try and pick someone whose work is not like mine at all to go and learn from.  This does several things;

  • If I’ve booked a day course, it allows me to carve out a whole day just for photography.  I can’t be side-tracked into random household tasks or persuaded to go visit someone or help with something – I’m expected at the course and that’s that!
  • Regardless of the weather I’ll still be going – so I’ve ended up out in conditions I never would have chosen and as a result I’ve learnt a lot about how to find great images regardless of fog, grey skies, damp or even ridiculously bright sunshine.
  • There’s always something to learn from someone else – you might not agree with how they do things, but I figure it’s better to be informed about the alternatives to your own way of working. Sometimes your way won’t work and it’s helpful to have other options up your sleeve.
  • Local photographers know their home turf in a way that no amount of Google Earth research can replicate. If you’re visiting a new area, get someone to guide you for a day and you’ll be set with places to visit for the future.
  • The photographers I’ve met on workshops, pros and amateurs alike are usually top people who are fun to be with.  Ok so you get the odd ‘character’ but that could happen anywhere! Photography is normally quite a solitary pursuit – at least for me and I like it that way – but sometimes it’s good to get out there and enjoy the fact there are a bunch of other people who love this game as much as I do.

I have this theory though, which is that as it gets harder to make money as a professional photographer (great article on Myths of Becoming a Pro from more photographers are turning to running workshops as an income stream. This leads to great choice for consumers like me, but being an awesome photographer is not the same thing as being a good teacher or a good workshop leader. Being able to communicate about photography, being able to share knowledge and inspire creativity are not skills that always accompany a highly developed photographic talent.

So if you’re looking for a course or workshop be sure to ask around for recommendations. Don’t rely on testimonials on the photographer’s website, they will only post the good stuff there (although if there are not testimonials at all that might be a bad sign!). Similarly reviews online can be misleading as we are a nation of complainers and usually you’ll find many more reviews that are negative than that are positive and that may not be a fair assessment. For example I’ve seen reviews that complain about the weather (hardly the workshop’s fault!), that the course was too technical (should really have checked this before signing up!) etc etc.

Ask people you trust for their recommendations and always be sure to contact the photographer beforehand to check that the content, level, pace and locations are what you want. If they send you a pre-course questionnaire fill it out honestly and provide as much information as you can about what you’re looking to learn, improve or photograph and be honest about your abilities (both photographically and physically) otherwise you’ll be hampering the photographer from the start. If you have questions during the workshop then ask them. If you’re not comfortable asking questions in a group situation then it may be worth considering booking a 1:1 session rather than a group workshop – I’ve done both and found them equally rewarding!


Over the new few weeks I’ll be blogging about the courses and workshops I’ve done over the last couple of years with a few recommendations. Stay tuned!

3 Top Photography Podcasts

When I first started getting seriously interested in photography I pretty much consumed all the podcasts that the ‘tinterweb’ had to offer, but over time I realised that many of them are rather like many monthly/weekly magazines – the same articles just keep coming up and once you’ve heard it once it’s not as exciting the second and third time around.  Similarly, now that I’m pretty settled with my camera, lenses, tripod and what not and am not looking to change the set up much (beyond the ongoing internal debate over a new wide angle lens), I don’t need the heavily gear focused podcasts that were engrossing in the early days.  It’s not that there isn’t a place for these but they can be dipped into once every few months or so for the latest update rather than being compulsive regular listening.

So – below are my current favourite ‘must listen’ podcasts and their links so that you can check them out too!

1. Lenswork

I actually just received my first print copy of Lenswork magazine, having taken out the subscription based on the awesome quality of the podcast.  At around 5 minutes long and approximately weekly, each podcast is delivered by Brooks Jensen the editor of Lenswork publishing. Focusing on the method and process of photography as an art form, or even as a way of life, recent topics have included ‘when is a project done?’ ‘composition as the strongest way of telling’ and ‘reviewing archive images for gems’.  Brooks has a totally relaxing and yet engaging delivery as well as a clearly superb knowledge of photography as an art form and as a philosophy and this makes it my go-to podcast for inspiration and advice.  For what it’s worth the magazine is also fantastic but I’ll save that for another time!

2. Tips From The Top Floor

Chris Marquardt’s podcast has been running for 10 years according to a recent episode – which is pretty impressive!  A good mixture of technical tips, current events in Chris’ life as a pro-photographer (including reflections on creating books, travel and business)as well as interviews and special guests this is a really cool podcast that’s a bit like a chat with a expert friend and which covers useful technical aspects of photography in a practical and accessible way – ‘news you can use’ if you like.  However, unlike some other technical podcasts it’s not at all lecturing and it’s all delivered with great humour and an understanding that there are many ways to photograph just about anything. I love hearing about what Chris has been up to and am determined one day to attend one of his workshops as he seems like such a fun guy to be around.

3. The Candid Frame

Ibarionex Perello’s interview based podcast is now on episode 285 and has recently joined the TWIP (This Week in Photo) network, which I hope won’t change it too much.  The challenge with an interview based podcast, is that it’s only as interesting as its guests and while there have been a few that I’ve found hard to listen to, the majority have been really interesting and provide deep insights into the photographers, their personal stories, motivations, processes and messages. Ibarionex is a consummate professional interviewer and although I’ve been looking for it (because it’s something that bugs me about chat shows and interview programmes generally), I’ve yet to find his questions formulaic or repetitive.  My only gripe is that the interviewees tend to be street or documentary photographers and neither of those are strong interests for me as areas of photography – however I can’t complain really because there are tons of people who focus on street or documentary and the insights offered are by no means less interesting as a result of this focus.

So if you’re looking for a photography podcast for your daily commute, give these a go and let me know what you think.  I’m still looking for more great podcasts so post your recommendations too!

Capturing the essence of kids – as a parent!

Tips on photographing your own kids for parents

A couple of weekends back we were due to meet some old university friends and their kids for a picnic.  Given that they live in Thailand and we only see them once a year, this is a big deal for us. My friend and I have had discussions in the past about the challenges of photographing kids, after I sent them a canvas print of images I took at last year’s visit.  The discussion was around how the images I had selected were not those that she would have selected or even taken – but she liked them. I suspected at the time that this was because these were her kids and my way of seeing them was rather different to her own.  My theory was that when you see someone every day you perhaps don’t notice the small facial expressions and mannerisms that are defining in the eyes of a relative stranger.

However, reviewing the images from this year’s session, which also include my own son – a subject that I do see everyday, I came to doubt my theory.  I don’t photograph my son as often as some of my friends photograph their kids – a fact I often feel a bit guilty about.  I think this is because I don’t like taking photos as records of events – I somehow feel that photographing a birthday, or a family day out somehow removes me from it.  It makes me feel distant and separate and so I’ve usually opted to leave the camera at home for such things, take a few phone snaps to send to absent grandparents, and focused on creating the memories rather than the j-pegs.

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When I do photograph my son it’s about creating the image, not recording the moment.  It’s about capturing him, his personality, his expressions his appearance which are beautiful in themselves not just because he’s my son.  I know that there is inevitably some bias here and clearly he is also used to being photographed and so is a good model – but, I take that approach with any child I photograph.  Whether its for my 50 faces project, for the parents or like this occasion an infrequent visit what I look for are the small things – the interactions, quirks and unconscious things that make children who they are. As parents I think the temptation is to record events and always go for the smiley shot – when the reality it most kids don’t look like that most of the time and by the time they’re 6 their camera smile often takes on a rather forced, maniacal look which is not terribly endearing!

So – my first tip on photographing kids is “don’t pose them” – just let them get on with being kids and watch for the money shots.  You can organise them into groups, set up some situations or events but don’t worry about getting them to smile for the camera, or stand a certain way – let them do what they want and the shots will be more natural and more insightful.  In particular in groups it’s a nightmare trying to get everyone facing the camera, smiling and not blinking at once – so don’t bother.  Just let them have fun with each other and go with that.

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My second tip is “give it time“.  When shooting for myself, I’m actually waiting for the moment when they forget I’m there and go back to doing whatever they want.  They’ll normally do some posing for me, particularly if they between 5 and 10 years old, but those shots are more for them than for me.  The ones I want are the ones where they’ve got bored and wandered off and are doing their own thing – that’s when you get the real essence of kids.

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I guess a final point, and something I repeatedly have to remind myself of – is not to be afraid of photographing your own kids.  As someone who’s ‘into’ photography I sometimes feel the pressure of always making every shot a masterpiece and imagining that every shot will be critiqued and may not stand up – but honestly that’s bollocks!  It’s so much fun photographing your kids and although so many shots will be a failure due to their erratic and pacey movements or not having time to get the settings just right, every now and then you’ll get something that’s great – and it will make you smile for years to come – something that I’m not sure other photographic subjects do quite so reliably.