The Top 10 Things I Learned in the New Orleans Workshop by Simon Jacobs

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Simon: I recently took part in Eric’s workshop in New Orleans and during one of our daily critique sessions Eric asked if I’d like to write a post about the top 5 things I learnt.  After taking the time to reflect on the week I really struggled to cut it down to 5 and decided to share the top 10 – sorry Eric!

Before I get into what I learnt about photography I want to share a couple of other things I learned from this trip:

Buy experiences, not gear – Before booking a place on the New Orleans workshop I was debating between upgrading to the iPhone 6s or attending the workshop – I chose the workshop and  I have no regrets.  My iPhone 5 will last me at least another year and now I have some incredible memories from New Orleans that will long outlast any smartphone!
Travel light – I’m not quite down to Eric’s level on minimalist packing but I did manage to travel without checking any bags. I felt much freer travelling with so little baggage.  If that weren’t enough it also meant I got to New Orleans on time.  Long story short, had I had to wait on a checked bag in Chicago I would have missed my connecting flight to New Orleans and lost a day of my trip!

Anyway back to photography.  The workshop was an incredible experience and the location only made it better.  If you’ve never been to New Orleans, I highly recommend it.  The city is beautiful, the people friendly and the food is every bit as amazing as it’s said to be.  This was my first time visiting a new city primarily as a photographer and it was a totally new experience.  Exploring the city as a photographer I found I paid more attention to what I saw, explored parts of the city I otherwise wouldn’t have seen and met more of the local people than I typically would whilst travelling.  At the same time, sharing this experience with a group of passionate photographers under the instruction of Eric had a huge impact on my photography and has given me a ton of ideas to explore.
Here are the top 10 things I took away from the workshop:

1) You can learn from teaching.  Despite being pretty new to street photography and very much a beginner I was surprised how much I was able to help my shooting partner, Chris. Sharing what I’d learnt from Eric’s previous workshop with another person helped to reinforce the concepts in my head and watching Chris put it into practice helped me to see how I could improve my own approach to shooting.

2) Use flash when shooting in colour to really bring out the colours – even during the day. It also helps avoid flat photos when placing your subjects in the shade.  You can see in the photo below how much the flash makes the red in her hair really pop.  The colours wouldn’t have been as rich without the flash.
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3) Don’t be afraid of shooting in strong light. Exposing for the highlights can give you a really dramatic contrast in light by making the shadows very dark. (Set exposure to -1.3 to -2.5 depending on the strength of the light and don’t use flash).

One of my favourite photos from the trip is the one below of a guy in a New Orleans cap.  You can see the contact sheet below. I started out with a wider shot and gradually got closer – I liked how the shadow the brim of the guy’s cap cast across his eyes gave the photo an element of mystery and wanted to focus on this.  Once I’d gotten closer I tried different angles until his face was mostly in shadow.

Using the Ricoh GR Eric lent me allowed me to get closer and shoot from a higher angle than would have been possible with my bulky Canon DSLR:

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Another benefit of exposing for the highlights is that it can remove clutter from the background when it’s in the shade.

Neil kindly modeled for us to demonstrate this in practice – you can barely make out the shop front behind him:
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4) Don’t rush when you don’t have to.  Once someone has agreed to let you take their photo it’s easy to feel pressured to hurry up and “let them go”, this can prevent your subjects from relaxing and come across in the final photos.  During the workshop I started to notice many of Chris’ subjects seemed in no rush, even after he’d finished shooting them.

I started consciously trying to take more photos to increase my chances of getting a ‘keeper’.  If I found myself feeling like I was taking too many shots I rationalised this by telling myself if someone was willing to take time out of their day to let me shoot them,  I owed it to them to do my best to get a good shot.  I ended up setting a new personal record with a particularly accommodating subject – 81 shots – and that was with 5 other people from the workshop shooting him at the same time!

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5) Work with your subjects to get natural looking shots.  The best shots I got were of people doing some kind of action or gesture spontaneously, without looking like they were posing for a photo.  Some subjects were surprisingly comfortable in front of a camera and required little direction, others were less comfortable and needed a little help to relax.

Talking to my subjects helped to distract them, in some cases I would focus on talking and take breaks from shooting periodically in order to build up more of a conversation.  The later shots tended to be the better ones. In one situation I had a subject who was initially a little apprehensive then ended up being a little too comfortable with the camera and was posing too much.  By talking to him and getting him into conversation, I was able to get him out of his chair and in front of a cleaner background; it also helped to get a more natural looking shot of him among the more posed shots.

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With some less confident subjects it helped to give positive feedback while shooting to boost their confidence and make them feel less awkward.

6) Focus on one thing at a time.  There were so many things I wanted to work on from layering and capturing more of the environment, to candid shots and working with dramatic light.  When I decided to solely focus on shooting with dramatic light I really started to feel like I was making progress with something.  This technique helped me to get two of my favorite shots for the week (shown under points 3 and 9).

7) Aim to take extraordinary photos of ordinary people rather than ordinary photos of extraordinary people.  When you have an extraordinary subject it’s easy to rely on the subject to make the photo – always ask yourself, what am I adding to the photo?

8) Don’t feel bad when you don’t see anything to shoot.  I found that having a project to work on and a creative constraint was great to bring focus to my shooting, but the knock-on effect was that I was shooting less and sometimes felt like I wasn’t taking enough pictures.

I’ve since learnt that it’s better to see two very good subjects in a day and really work the scene rather than shooting 20 somewhat interesting subjects.  On one afternoon I only shot two people but ended up shooting 114 shots between them.  In both cases I felt as though I’d done a good job of exploring the scene – shooting different angles, trying different compositions, applying different approaches to the light.  Had I shot 20 people that day I might have been less inclined to work the scene in as much detail.

9) Taking a break can energize you.  After shooting people for 4 days I was starting to tire a little and my shooting was slowing down.  We were in the Treme and since there were very few people around we decided to do some urban exploration in the neighborhood which turned out to be great fun.  It’s not the kind of thing I usually shoot but afterwards I felt rejuvenated and ended up shooting what turned out to be my favorite shot for the week.

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10) Get regular feedback.  The workshop routine of selecting our best 3 photos overnight and sharing them with each other at the start of each day was great for ensuring we were continually working on improving our technique.  

Getting objective feedback from other people helped me to detach myself from the photos and see how I could have made them better.  Whether it was eliminating an element from the background, slightly adjusting the composition or being more conscious of where the light was falling it was a constant reminder of things to be aware of.

Now I’m back in London and can’t wait to get out shooting again, putting these points into action.  I have to say a big thanks to Eric and Neil for putting on a great workshop – and also Chris for being an awesome shooting partner for the week!

By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher