A Weekend in Santa Barbara at Brooks Inst. of Photography

Last week, Thursday through Sunday, I attended a workshop for teachers at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA.  It was four very full days of workshops, seminars, discussions, all about photography and the teaching of it.  Most of the attendees were High School teachers, but there were several, like myself, who taught at the college level.

Of course, this was in large part a marketing effort by Brooks to encourage teachers to send their students on to them for their college education.  But that economic reality need not, and did not, detract at all from some very excellent presentations and materials.  I was primarily interested in seeing their facilities, getting to know some of the instructors there, and learning as much as possible about their methodology, i.e. how do they present their material to students.  In terms of specific topics and techniques there were only a few things that were new to me, but a couple of them would have made the trip worthwhile all by themselves.

However seeing how they present material, combining lecture, PowerPoint presentations, hands on demos — especially during demos — was truly helpful to me and those experiences will find themselves being incorporated as soon as this coming Fall semester.  I attended, in addition to the keynote address and participating in a round table discussion, workshop/seminars on portraiture (two different ones on different aspects of the topic with one very good demo by Russ McConnell using one light plus reflector), small product/item studio techniques, incorporating the concepts of design/aesthetics into the curricula (an excellent and important presentation) , beauty/portrait retouching (where I learned about contour shaping of the face using burning and dodging with subtlety using the soft light blend mode), shooting architecture at twilight, and a delightful presentation on shooting “critters” and natural macro subjects.

The most hands-on session, for me, was the twilight architecture session by Russ McConnell.  We saw a PowerPoint of examples and the rough workflow and then went out to the side of the building and set up a shot.  The point of the basic technique was to avoid the hassle of bringing a van full of lights as it was traditionally done on film, and create the shot using a single light.  (Nick Nacca in San Diego is a master at doing this for all kinds of subjects from small products to cars to architecture.)  Basically it is a case of painting with light but, unlike film, doing it on separate frames then “stacking” them in Photoshop to build the final images taking the parts you like from each of the options.  In addition it creates a much more dramatic shot.

The side of the Cota Campus building was truly ho-hum but that was part of the presentation: using this technique in turning a very common building into something a little more special. When the shooting was finished we returned and Russ then assembled the shots he took into his version of the final.

We all were encouraged to shoot too so I set up at a slightly different angle than Russ, used a 24mm TS/E lens and produced the shots below.  It is beyond boring!

This is a preliminary shot of the side entrance to the Brooks Cota Campus building in Santa Barbara.  We all went out and set up just as twilight was settling in.  THe sun was down and only reflected sky light was left.  All of the shots in this series were done with a Canon 5D Mk II and a 24mm TS/E lens set to f16.

This is a preliminary shot of the side entrance to the Brooks Cota Campus building in Santa Barbara. We all went out and set up just as twilight was settling in. THe sun was down and only reflected sky light was left. All of the shots in this series were done with a Canon 5D Mk II and a 24mm TS/E lens set to f16.

Here is an exposure for the light shining on the entrance door.

Here is an exposure for the light shining on the entrance door.

Here is one of the series of shots while painting the building.  Totally there were about 7-8 different shots where the light, a Lowel “Tota,” was carried around on a stand.  Exposures for f16 were in the full second to four second range.

In this frame, the light is directed at the plants in front of the door.  After this shot, the assistant  walked down the front of the building and stopped to hold the light at the instructor's direction.

In this frame, the light is directed at the plants in front of the door. After this shot, the assistant walked down the front of the building and stopped to hold the light at the instructor’s direction.

You can see the assistant and the light in this shot but it doesn’t matter since the only part of this frame that will be used is the leaves on the big plant by the door.  And here is my version of the final assembled shot.

Here is my final.  In addition to taking the light I wanted from each shot, I also managed to correct the main entrances flourescent light.  The instructor had the assistant pause in the doorway to add some action to the shot.

Here is my final. In addition to taking the light I wanted from each shot, I also managed to correct the main entrances flourescent light. The instructor had the assistant pause in the doorway to add some action to the shot.

I would like to have seen the light aimed upward at the tree and maybe raked back toward us behind the pillars but the concept was pretty easy to assemble.  I’ll be creating a handout on the technique for students and will include this and one other example using electronic flash instead of continuous hoy lights.

I must confess to a dire and embarassing slip of mental faculties:  I had my iPad with me for notes but completely forgot about the camera in it for shooting some of the workshops until the very last, so I only have shots from a couple of the sessions.  But here they are.  First from Tim Meyers’s portrait lighting session is the use of Kino Flow lights…

for this demo Kino Flow lights were set up in a triange that created an effect similat to a giant ring light except for the weird catch light.  Taken with my iPad.

for this demo Kino Flow lights were set up in a triange that created an effect similat to a giant ring light except for the weird catch light. Taken with my iPad.

… and here is a shot from his demonstration using a large octobox  of “Walking the Light”  as a method of controlling the character of the light.

Tim Meyers is setting a large Octobox while fieldong questions from the participants.  Shot on an iPad.

Tim Meyers is setting a large Octobox while fieldong questions from the participants. Shot on an iPad.

“Walking the Light” was a term I had never heard before but in thinking about it, the underlying technique is a spin off from the old concepts of feathering the light, something that was mandatory before umbrellas and softboxes, but now, in the day of softboxes of all shapes and sizes, isn’t used commonly.  I was delighted to see it even though it was one of those “Duh!!!” moments for me.  I do it all the time with standard scoop reflectors but never thought of doing it with soft boxes or octoboxes or other soft light sources.  I will incorporate and demo it from now on.

Tim also showed a means of vignetting with two instruments he called a “light within a light” that was very clever but did require the equipment to do it. The result was beautiful in-camera vignetting, an effect I’ve achieved using graduated scrims over a softbox.  Very clever, but, as I said, equipment intensive.

On Saturday, the day ended with a delightful demo by Ralph Clevenger of shooting critters, especially small ones.  The first shot is him lining up for a shot of a tiny tree frog (the lighter green spot on the moss stage).

Ralph Clevenger lines up a shot of a tiny tree frog for the "Critters" demo.  THe critter wrangler int he yellow shirt had to keep a close eye on the frog as it really seemed to want to jump around.

Ralph Clevenger lines up a shot of a tiny tree frog for the “Critters” demo. THe critter wrangler int he yellow shirt had to keep a close eye on the frog as it really seemed to want to jump around.

The second shot just below is the critter wrangler keeping the frog corralled while the shot is displayed on the monitor while Ralph talks about it.

THe critter wrangler has her hands full with the little frog.  The shot Ralph just took above is showing on the monitor.

THe critter wrangler has her hands full with the little frog. The shot Ralph just took above is showing on the monitor.

We did both inside and outside examples.  It was a fun topic but of interest to me since I will be doing a macro class this fall.

I truly regret not better documenting the proceedings but the truth is I was so into the material and observing the teaching styles, taking notes, etc. I might not have done much shooting anyway.  And although I came away with a lot of ideas for upgrading the shootability of the studios and on presentation methodology, all very much worthwhile, my main gain was in seeing something that can have an effect on our whole program.

For years the traditional wisdom was that Brooks was the school for techies but Art Center (in Pasadena) was the school for creativity.  I really did not know what to expect from this seminar with that old knowledge still playing in my brain.  But thanks to hard work and hard prodding by several faculty (who just happen to be Art Center graduates), Brooks has done something terrific; they have wedded the technical side with the creative side into a very powerful whole.  Plus, they have thoroughly infused the faculty (and through them the students) with an absolute passion for excellence.  Their commitment to their work and their teaching and to passing that on to the students is obvious and palpable a few minutes into the first presentation… and it continued until the end.  It forms a core part now of their “brand.”

Now creating that brand of excellence is something we need to do at City.  We’ve talked about “branding” the program from the day Dave and I took over as lead faculty partners.  Now it is time to do it.  If the Chancellor’s last budget memo is to be believed, starting in 2014 we will be starting the long road to recovery from the losses of the budget crisis.  That means we can start to rebuild our program by offering the classes we worked so hard to create and make part of the catalog.

The space is larger for Brooks than for City, but it is far from being as nice.  Some classrooms are simply old concrete warehouse type spaces that are nearly as “live” acoustically as our gallery and are very hard to listen to an instructor talk.  Yet students were working in nearly all of the studios (and they have a LOT of them) sometimes, according to faculty would be there till 2 am working on projects.

So what became clear is that good education can be done in facilities less exciting than our own; the experience showed me that it is not just about the space – though that certainly helps and helps in the teaching ritual – it is about the ATTITUDE from the top down.  They have the advantage of internal administration that understands and supports their mission and needs, something we do not have.  They also have the advantage of offering both undergrad and grad level classes, we cannot do that either.

But that does not mean that within our constraints we cannot become a real focal point for serious photo education in the region.  It is far more a function of the passion of the faculty to make it happen and to tech in such a way that students cannot help but get it.  Each of the faculty that taught the workshops and seminars on the track I attended showed some of their own work to let us know who was standing in front of us and whether or not they could really do it.  Their work was consistently top drawer.

And they were all accomplished presenters; material was organized and flowed well, no halting presentations laced with “um…” or “like” or “y’know” to destroy the flow.  I wish all of our faculty could have experienced it.   Maybe we need to do an in-house seminar just on organizing and presenting our topics…???

Anyway, it was inspirational and stimulating.  Now to see if we can make that same quality happen consistently at City…  As a Community College compared to a school offering both graduate and undergraduate degrees, City can never truly compete with Brooks.  But there is no reason we cannot be as outstanding among our fellow colleges and earn a reputation appropriate to us that matches theirs.

All that can hold us back… is us.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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