New Zealand South Island Masterclass Workshop Report 2017

It has been more than two months now since my South Island New Zealand masterclass workshop and I have been a little remiss in writing up my trip report. Extensive travels and life have conspired against me and it has taken far longer than I would have liked to complete the report (I still have only processed a couple of images from the workshop and I am heading overseas again in just two weeks – Up to Svalbard for my Polar Bear summer expedition).Rather than give a day-by-day account of the trip this time (as I have done in the past) I felt it better to instead talk a bit about a typical day and what it is that we do other than take photographs during this sort of masterclass workshop. Whilst the physical act of photography is at the core of this workshop it is important impart that there is a lot more going on that just the act of setting up a tripod and pressing the shutter in great locations and beautiful light. In fact, I believe that some of the best learning that comes from these workshops actually happens away from the camera during meal time discussions.

A typical day on my New Zealand masterclass workshop usually kicks off extremely early with a pre-sunrise call to action to try and capture some of the best light of the day. Typically, in my experience sunrise is my preferred time to photograph and I find (at least for my own style of photography) that the conditions are usually at their optimum just before the sun rises. Depending on the location we may have some driving and or/walking to arrive at our sunrise session. Typically we have chosen to stay close by to minimise early morning travel and maximise photography time. We also use helicopters extensively in New Zealand to access back country areas and high mountain areas that would otherwise take many hours (if not days) of hiking to reach. On mornings where we are using helicopters we often run two choppers so that we can move our small group of eight (including myself and my co-leader) simultaneously into position. This way we all arrive at the same time and all experience the best light and conditions. There is a fantastic benefit of helicopters (outside of saving hours of hiking) and that is we can land just about anywhere in the high country and this provides incredibly unique opportunities. A key feature of this trip is to experience and photograph some of the most spectacular landscape that is all but inaccessible without helicopters. In addition, it provides an opportunity to photograph landscape that is not only rarely photographed, but also rarely visited. Iconic easy to reach locations can be fun, but it’s equally important to have opportunities in new areas that few others will ever experience.

Depending on the conditions we experience on our early morning shooting session we may be out for anywhere from a couple of hours too a session that might run close into lunchtime. We work with the weather and light we experience and if conditions are ideal we do not shut down until we have made the best of the them.Whilst we are photographing myself and Phillip (my co-leader) like to work with each of the participants on an individual basis as required. We help with everything from basic camera settings to filters, composition, focal length choice etc… Often, we wont even set up our own cameras until such time as everyone is well and truly up and running with many photographs ‘in the can’.

With the morning session complete we wrap for a hot cooked breakfast or brunch with coffee and tea at one of New Zealand’s many great cafe’s. This is a time for us to not only enjoy some great food after a solid mornings work, but also to reflect on our mornings photography, discuss the conditions and location and reflect on what we felt worked and perhaps did not work for each of us. Typically there is quite a bit of ‘gear-talk’, but importantly there is also a lot of discussion about composition and the art of seeing photographs beyond the obvious. Depending on where we are located at a given point in time in the South Island we may have some down time after breakfast / brunch to either download and work on our photographs or we may have some transit time to our next location.  The key to our daily program is to try and maximise our photography in as many great locations as possible so in some areas we spend multiple days whilst in others we may only have one day before moving on.

After lunch (and a lot more photography talk!) we have an afternoons photography session. Our afternoon session locations are always chosen based on prevailing weather, conditions and light. Since our aim is to be photographing in the best light of the day in the best locations we are constantly assessing the weather and light and making location choices to maximise our opportunities. Local knowledge is absolutely critical to the success of this approach. Much like Iceland, the South Island of New Zealand is a land of micro climates and local knowledge goes a long way to being able to take advantage of prevailing weather and light. On this particular masterclass we made a decision at one point to head up to location in Lindas pass where we new we could capture some stunning landscape in afternoon breaking light; whilst it was raining either side of the pass. This proved a very fruitful decision and some stunning images were captured by all.

If weather and light permit we will stay out in the field (although we often move locations) right through until sunset and last light. We don’t rush from location to location, but rather try and maximise the opportunities in a given location before we move on to a new area. If we are working with aerial photography from helicopters over the mountains and glaciers of the Southern Alps we will wait until we feel the light is at its absolute optimum before spending time with the doors off over some of the most spectacular scenery in the southern hemisphere. We work with experienced pilots with whom we have built a relationship over many years so that we can position our helicopters exactly where we want to capture stunning landscapes in superb light.  Everyone gets a doors off position to photograph whilst Philip and I direct the pilot on where and how we want the helicopter positioned. These sort of high mountain photographs cannot be achieved any other way.

With our afternoon and evening photography session complete its time for some more wonderful New Zealand food at one of the many fantastic restaurants around the island. We work hard on these masterclass workshops so the meals and quality of food is really important to us. We play as hard as we work! Our dinner conversations can revolve around everything from the days photography to discussions on composition, the art of seeing, post production and more. The key take away for me is that these sort of discussions almost always serve to educate and I never stop learning myself from those around me.

For those that wish there is evening time post dinner to edit and process images from the days photography before a good nights sleep and onto another busy packed day.

The workshops are always jam packed with photography and provide an outstanding vehicle for sharing and learning. Our workshop this year was blessed with great weather and some superb light and it was an absolute pleasure to share it with all of those who participated.

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