* Full disclosure: Put on the thick skin before reading this column. Insecure photographers, be aware.

All right, let’s start with some perspective. Those that have attended a HSW photography workshop know that when it comes to photographic education, compared to other workshop companies out there, all of our workshops start where their “advanced” workshops end.

Why? It’s simple. Nearly all of these companies don’t provide an educational workshop in so much as they are just giving a photo tour of the sights. We’ve seen it at nearly all our workshops, where another workshop company has all their participants lined up or grouped together, with the “instructor” telling them the camera exposure and focal length to use.


Professional photographer Evan Meyer shared with me the above photo recently, exclaiming that “It’s Fall in Aspen”, with all the photographers lined up to capture the same exact photo. There’s originality for you.

And everyone comes back with a trophy print or “wall hanger” that allows them to show off what they “learned” during the workshop. But what did they learn? Where to stand and what direction to point the camera? That everyone else in the workshop has that same photo?

What is going on with photographers these days that are willing to settle with a splashy photo as merits of their photographic ability? There is no truth to the photographic merit when the entire photo was handed to you; it is a complete falsehood.

The evolution of digital cameras that are smart and can produce really good images is a startling change from the days of film and darkrooms.

“However, this revolution comes with huge responsibility. Just because you can buy it, doesn’t mean you have the right to use it. When film was the main medium to create and produce … the process to get to the point of making a film was a long road. There was no HOV lane; you could not circumnavigate the traffic (aka the education coupled with the experience) to get to your creation goal.”

We realized that while our workshops are highly educational in both technique and approach, we could take it a step further. That is how our “Advanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking” 2-Day Workshop in Yosemite, Oct. 26-27 came about.

(Time out for a shameless workshop plug: With a limited enrollment of only five students — and only two seats lefts — to guarantee intimate and private instruction, this new curriculum for the Advanced Photography Workshop takes the entire approach and mindset we apply in our regular workshops, and pushes in far ahead to a level of education that no other company is offering. We understood that it was more than just giving you the “How” … but also giving you the “Why”.)


 Shane Hurlbut, ASC, one of the top cinematographers in the country, wrote that above quote about “circumnavigating the traffic”. Shane has lensed some of the most visually dynamic films in recent time, including Act of Valor, Crazy/Beautiful, and The Greatest Game Ever Played. Shane recently penned an opinion piece titled “The Responsibility of Being a Filmmaker”, where he shares a very powerful viewpoint:

When I went to Emerson College, I was banging the equipment room doors down to get my hands on those cameras, those lights, the tools, thirsting for the HOW and to get out there and make movies. My professors quickly snapped me out of this trance with one bit of advice and this is where I circle back to the Drumline scene. If you do not have the honor and discipline to learn your craft, then you have no business working in it. PERIOD! Creating without the education or understanding of the fundamentals is just NOISE. We have plenty of this noise. Transporting an audience to a place where they laugh, cry, are on the edge of their seat, evoking emotions, comes from the WHY, not the HOW. If you feel like I am beating a drum, I am. My suggestion to all of you is to continue to educate yourself. Apply to a film school or film extension program or a high value course.

 Just as during one of our workshops when we tell a student, who says they can “fix it post” instead of getting it right in camera, good enough … isn’t.

Learning to get it right in camera makes you a stronger, smarter and better photographer. Educated in the process. Fixing it in post or using lots of technical steps just means you are a great computer artist.

There’s nothing wrong with creating photo magic in the computer, as this was preceded by the darkroom magic. But as Shane noted above, you had to have the education coupled with the experience to understand that darkroom magic.

It’s far to easy to just be given the step-by-step tools, or with a Photoshop preset or action, to create the magic.

But in that entire process, from looking through the viewfinder at the start until you clicked that keystroke that started that action … did you ever ask “why”? Chances are, no.

Quick litmus test: When sharing your photos, do you explain the photographic process as how it was shot and how you “made” the photo from a technical standpoint, filled with bit-depth, software, and number of frames in the HDR … or do you share what you saw, why you were drawn to the photo, what elements are the power behind the image, and what you hope the impact will have on others?

Yeah, I don’t see that often, either.


And just as we demand that our students go beyond “good enough”, we also challenge all of you to demand more of your workshop experience.

Trust us, just because a workshop is led by a famous photographer, that doesn’t mean you are going to learn anything. If what you are signing up for is the ability to say you took a workshop with a famous photographer, then go for it.

Not to discredit the greats, as there are several incredibly talented and legendary photographers out there who do actually provide academic instruction. But we have heard our share of horror stories …

Where the famous photographer/instructor was off shooting their own pictures, leaving the participants on their own.

Or, in a workshop to Patagonia, students that didn’t opt to pay extra for a horse were left behind to walk up the mountain and catch up with the instructor, on horse-back, of course.

We have seen it in action on several of our own HSW workshop, notably an Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley workshop a few years back, where a notable photographer/blogger was leading his group at Mono Lake … by assembly-lining his participants through a photo spot, yelling out the exposure, direction to point the camera, focal length to set their zoom, and a reminder to keep the camera on Program mode, mixed in with admonishments to “Hurry up … we’ve got a long line behind you waiting to take the same picture. Just click the shutter and move on.”

Seriously. Our students were stunned.

There is a fine line between workshop students and workshop participants. Demand that your workshop experience is that of a student.


 Here’s something that I would bet the other workshop companies out there don’t consider: we think of the dedication you make to the workshop experience not only is a time and mental dedication, but also a financial dedication.

A dedication in that you could have chosen to use that workshop tuition to go toward a new camera or lens, but instead invested it into a workshop.

And that is key … your course tuition is an investment into the education you receive.

It has to be. I can’t stress enough how much we want to make sure that each student feels that their workshop tuition paid off for them.

That they walk away from the workshop saying, “Wow, this was, by far, the best period of instruction I have ever received!”

That’s not a superfluous exclamation we just made up. It’s real feedback.

When we say demand more, include that financial commitment as an investment. Make sure that your workshop experience is not just “good enough” … led by a famous name that will get you trophy photos, but one that matches your investment in time, dedication and money.

Shane Hurlbut says, “Find a burning desire inside you to have the honor and discipline to be a creator of content that you want to put your name on and be proud of the final product.


Photographer Alan Steadman recently shared:

There’s a saying that goes “content is king.” This is true just as much in photography as anywhere else. I don’t care how good your technical abilities or theoretical knowledge are, if you don’t get out there and use those skills and that knowledge to explore the world around you, it won’t matter. That’s because photography isn’t a skill so much as an art, and art is more about truth than anything else. It’s about providing insight or making people think differently than they normally would. Exposing a point of view one may never have otherwise contemplated. The ability to capture that, to me, is what makes a good photographer.

That’s why we created our “Advanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking” 2-Day Workshop in Yosemite … to provide that goal and direction. We want to challenge you as a photographer, just as we want you to challenge us as your instructors. Demand that we give you that best photographic education possible, and we will stand up and meet that challenge.

Don’t settle for anything less. You owe it to yourself and your craft.


Michael A. Mariant is the founder and Director of Workshop Operations for High Sierra Workshops. Michael leads several workshops and courses with HSW, includingAdvanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking in Yosemite“, “Yosemite in Winter”, “Yosemite in Spring”, “Death Valley”, “Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley” and the highly-acclaimed and immensely popularUltimate Travel Photography Workshop”.