My alarm went off at 4 a.m. and I dragged myself, bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained, out of my warm bed and into the chilly darkness of pre-dawn Maine. Armed with a thermos of steaming coffee, my trusty camera and a ton of photographic equipment, I sped down coastal Route 1 in search of a masterpiece -- my masterpiece.
I was midway through my weeklong travel photography class at the Maine Photographic Workshops, and this was the morning my instructor, Bob Krist, had chosen for our lighthouse-at-sunrise shoot. I had suggested sunset would be just as dramatic, but the experienced photographers in my class of 12 sneered at my ignorance. Surely I must know that earliest morning light was the "good" light; any photographer worth her Kodachrome would happily sacrifice a few hours sleep to shoot at this most revered time of day.
I hadn't known about the good light, but by the time I completed my week in Rockport, I had that knowledge and many other insights. I learned about filters, lenses, flashes, tripods and all the other paraphernalia most amateurs would rather ignore but which the experts know makes the difference between an OK photograph and a dynamite shot. And I learned to do the mental work of composing and framing a photo that is crucial no matter how automatic the camera. Photography, I learned, was not just about taking pictures, but about taking the time to take pictures right. It was about taking risks and learning from mistakes.
"Closer, closer, closer," was Mr. Krist's constant refrain, and who was I to argue with the man who wrote photography columns for National Geographic Traveler and whose credentials read like a library list of top travel publications?
I got closer. I took more time. I got better.
And so can you. Although I make my living partly with travel photography, you don't have to be a professional to enjoy mastering the technical and creative aspects of the craft. My class was about equally divided between working photographers who wanted to expand their skills, and amateurs who simply wanted to take better vacation pictures.
The Maine Photography Workshops are among dozens of programs across the country ranging from weekend to monthlong sessions for amateurs and professionals. Most programs require a portfolio of work for admission to advance classes; beginner classes are open to everyone.
I chose the Maine workshops because I love Rockport's coastal setting and wanted to work with Bob Krist, but several other programs across the country are equally good.
Courses are a loosely structured mix of class time, shooting assignments and critiquing sessions. All the slide film shot each day is developed overnight, usually by the school, and handed out in batches the next day for critiquing. Students bring their own camera equipment and usually provide all or most of their own film. The Maine workshops, like most programs, include some processing in the cost of the course, then charge for additional developing. Expect to pay about $1,500 for a weeklong program, including the course, meals and housing. Air fare is additional.
Typically, workshops are in scenic environments where wonderful subject matter is close at hand. While the Maine school's setting on Penobscot Bay made cliff, ocean and lighthouse shots a natural, at a weeklong course in Santa Fe last summer, our dawn shoots were of beautiful old adobe churches, ancient Indian rock dwellings and the Rio Grande rapids.
Travel photography is just one of dozens of classes taught at photo workshops. At the Maine school, about 100 photo courses (as well as 100 film and video workshops) are held from June through October. While my class was off shooting harbors and lighthouses, students in the portrait photography class were focusing on faces, the documentary class was sleuthing for picture-stories and the video class was covering a children's pie-eating contest.
My classmates and I wanted to take beautiful pictures that evoked the scenes and moods around us -- and would make everyone who saw them gasp in admiration. Day by day, Mr. Krist took us closer to that goal.
We met most mornings in the three-story stone workshop headquarters, formerly Rockport's town hall. Mr. Krist usually began the class by handing out reprints of his columns that dealt with the day's focus -- filters, flashes, people shots, scenic landscapes.
Then, he either critiqued our previous day's work, projecting our efforts on a large screen, or showed his own slides from assignments all over the world, commenting on how he had overcome problem situations or achieved special effects.
Mr. Krist's pictures all looked perfect to us, but that didn't come from simply pointing and shooting, he assured us. He explained, for example, how he triumphed over the dreary flatness of a rainy day in the English countryside with a warming filter, which cast a delicious amber glow over what would otherwise have appeared a gray scene.
Mr. Krist also showed us what he considered to be his failures.
Then, armed with new insights, we went off to practice what Mr. Krist preached. The big challenge was our sunrise rendezvous at Pemaquid Lighthouse, which tested everything we'd learned in the classroom.
It was pitch black when we spread out on the rocky ledges between the lighthouse and the sea, setting up our tripods with the aid of flashlights. As the sun rose over the Atlantic, casting the ocean, rocks, lighthouse and all of us in an orange glow, we zoomed in on sea and landscapes, as well as on each other. Mr. Krist roved among the class, suggesting different angles, experimental exposures, and, as the sun grew brighter, some dabbling with his beloved filters.
While our classes and fieldwork were the cornerstones of our workshop, our experience was enhanced by the time we shared with students and instructors in other classes. There were plenty of occasions for such interactions.
Everyone in all the classes took their meals together at the Homestead, a 19th-century farmhouse a short walk from the workshop headquarters. Sitting at long picnic tables, professionals and amateurs mixed easily. We relished the chance to get to know some of the distinguished instructors and to hear what other students were doing in their classes.
One of the day's highlights was the evening slide show, which featured the works of two or three instructors. The slide shows not only showed that our instructors knew whereof they taught, but also gave students a chance to see the full range of the photographic craft, from the intensely creative to the crassly commercial. At the end of the week it was the students' turn to shine. After a farewell banquet of lobster, we all gathered for a slide show featuring the best work of each class.
TAKING A PHOTO WORKSHOP
The Maine Photographic Workshops run through Oct. 15.
Bob Krist's one-week travel photography course, A Sense of Place, is Aug. 7-13. Tuition is $595 plus a lab fee of $85 that includes some processing. "Campus" housing, including meals at the Homestead, costs $355 to $480 double occupancy for six nights, depending on the facility, ($490 to $625 single).
Rockport also has several motels and bed and breakfast inns within a 20-minute walk of the workshops. The school can provide a list of B&Bs; and motels. Students who live off campus are encouraged to eat meals with the group at the Homestead. The price is $200 for the week.
Rockport is about a two-hour drive north from Portland, Maine. For more information about the Maine Photographic Workshops, write the school at 2 Central St., Rockport, Maine 04856; (207) 236-8581.
Dozens of photo workshops lasting a few hours to several months are listed in guides to learning vacations and in the classified pages of photography magazines. Plan on spending $1,000 to $1,500, plus air fare, for a week's course. Here are some top programs:
* Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, P.O. Box 9916, Santa Fe, N.M. 87504; (505) 983-1400. Run by Reid Callanan, former managing director of the Maine Photographic Workshops, this seven-week program runs June 19 through Aug. 6 and brings in top photojournalists and landscape photographers as well as commercial and fashion professionals. Set outside Santa Fe, the school is heavy on fieldwork; nightly lecture-slide shows by instructors are excellent. Students stay on campus in dorms or at the nearby Pecos Trail Inn.
* University of California Extension -- Santa Cruz, c/o Arts and Humanities Dept. 740 Front St., Suite 155, Santa Cruz, Calif. 95060; (408) 427-6620. Founded in 1973 and influenced by Ansel Adams and other prominent West Coast landscape photographers, the school runs more than 40 one-day to one-week workshops, plus two to three photo tours annually. Courses for all skill levels, with lots of fieldwork as well as structured classes.
* Anderson Ranch Arts Center, P.O. Box 5598, Snowmass Village, Colo. 81615; (303) 923-3181. This popular mountain resort is the base for one- and two-week workshops (May through September) in landscape, documentary and fine art photography, with field trips to Southwest wilderness areas.
* Cape May Photo Workshops, 1511 New York Ave., Cape May, N.J. 08204; (609) 884-7117. The school offers weekend and one-week workshops through July 31 for beginner to professional photographers.
* Lisl Dennis' Travel Photography Workshops in Santa Fe, P.O. Box 2847, Santa Fe. N.M. 87504; (505) 982-4979. Since 1980 this well-established travel photographer has taught one-week workshops focusing on landscapes, people and travel adventure. Courses are held July 8-14, Sept. 17-22 and Sept. 26-Oct. 1, and include fieldwork around Santa Fe and Taos.
* Palm Beach Photographic Workshops, 2310 E. Silver Palm Road, Boca Raton, Fla. 33432; (407) 391-7557. From January through April this respected program runs 150 one-day to one-week workshops for photographers of all skill levels, with plenty of fieldwork in the Everglades and other Florida nature sites.