Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

August 2007

Tip of the Month

Frankly assess your skills before deciding upon a workshop

Until last month, it had been four years since I last taught our Advanced Complete Digital Nature Photography Course, which deals primarily with mastering electronic flash. The last time I taught the course everyone was shooting film, and making exposures and understanding flash was a matter of knowing your equipment, learning techniques, and having faith in the fact that what you were doing actually would work. This year, we did the course again, and with digital much of the 'faith' involved in flash photography was eliminated because students could see their results, and fine-tune, and thus speed up their learning curve.

The feedback from the course was excellent, and everyone felt that they had reached a new level of photography, and they were extremely excited about this. The images the students made, in a 25 subject weeklong shooting assignment, as well as the other subjects we had available -- an Asiatic flying fox (bat), leaf-tailed gecko, two species of rattlesnake, a copperhead, several turtle species, wild flying squirrels and raccoons, clearly illustrated that the students learned an enormous amount, and could apply what they learned. In that way, the course was a tremendous success and everyone was happy.

However, my tip is that if you are considering any course, you should honestly, frankly, and realistically assess your own skill levels and what you hope to accomplish by taking a particular course. It is a waste of your time, and a drag on the rest of a class if a student signs up for a class that they are not at a level of skill, or interested in the subject matter that is being taught. We've seen this happen repeatedly on our Advanced Flash Course, where students had an extremely limited knowledge or experience in exposing for ambient light -- (hint: shooting on A or P and not understanding exposure is of little help if you want to do quality flash work), and this has proven just as true with digital as it had when we shot film.

Likewise, we often offer Intermediate or Advanced Photoshop Courses, and we often find that several, if not all, of the students should have taken the Beginning Photoshop Course instead, where we assume nothing, start with the basics, and progress to intermediate level skills and techniques. However, on an intermediate course one would assume that students know the basics of Photoshop and know the basic tools, and have some understanding of selections or layers (all of which are spelled out in the brochure!), and that the students are ready to take that knowledge a step further, in a truly intermediate or advanced fashion.

As photography teachers/instructors who sincerely want our students to learn everything we can teach them, it is frustrating when a class is held back by students who over-estimate their abilities. With Photoshop, we always suggest that unless someone thinks they're an expert at Photoshop, they should take the Beginning course, because most everyone learns a great deal and, more importantly, they learn to do things right. With our Advanced C NPC we would like to have everyone take our Complete Nature Photo Course first, but we realize that this would be unfair to experienced photographers, professionals, and quick learners who can be exposed to new techniques and learn them immediately, so we're at a dilemma here.

In writing this, I certainly do not wish to drive away business but I also want to deliver a quality product, and I'm sure most if not all fellow workshop leaders or instructors feel exactly the same way. A personal example may illustrate my point. On the last full day of our Advanced course, one of the students joked that I shouldn't put on our website that 4 of the 10 students skipped the morning session because I was delivering a 'final exam,' a written test where the students answer questions based upon actual shooting situations, and explore various ways to solve real-life photo problems. The exam isn't graded, so I never know how well, or how badly, a student does, but we cover the problems orally and everyone loves the exercise -- which takes a morning. In fact, for 50% the students who took this last test, it was the highlight of their entire week as they finally 'put it all together' and knew that they knew it. Nonetheless, as an instructor, I was disappointed and depressed that some students were either afraid to take this test or were diverted to other interests during that time frame.

As you consider a course, honestly assess your skills, or your ability to learn. Don't place yourself in an awkward situation because of ego or an inflated opinion of your abilities for you will find it uncomfortable and it will be a disservice to the other members of your class. If you have questions, drill the instructor beforehand so that you know what's being covered, and hopefully that instructor will be more interested in providing honest answers than in filling a class. That's how we operate, and we hope most of our peers do, too.


Our Past Photo Tips of the Month:


CS3 Upgrade
Framing with a Telephoto Against a Desert Sunrise

Adobe Photoshop LIGHTROOM
Workflow and Workload - You Can Keep Ahead
Bring along a Point N Shoot

Backing Up Your Digital Files - you'll need more than you think
Action Wildlife Photography Camera Settings
maximizing depth of field digitally
Capture 1's Most Useful Features
DIGITAL Photographing scenes with extreme exposure values
Effective Cloning in Adobe CS2

Watch Your Backgrounds - The potential of composites or shooting in RAW format
DIGITAL -Shoot for the Future
DIGITAL-Shoot for the Future, Part II
The Helicon Focus Filter Revisited



The Songs of Insects - a super book on katydids, cicadas, and grasshoppers
A Great Insect Field Guide 
Action Wildlife Photography Camera Settings
The Pond-A Must-See shooting Location in southern Arizona
Don't take in baby wild animals
Seize the Moment!
Take a Workshop First
  Luck, what is it?
At the Pulse of Life by Fritz Polking
Carry-on Luggage for small commuter flights


New Lens Covers for Long Lenses
The Best All-Around Lens
Keep Your Head Up
Save Your Equipment from Crashing!
The L-Bracket, the ultimate camera bumper
Visual Echos Tele-Flash for the 580EX Flash
Testing your Flash's Aim
The Ultimate Flash Bracket
Using TTL flash with Hummingbirds
Specular highlights and the flashing frog

Geared Focusing Rail for Macro Work
Shooting in Inclement Weather
Low level tripod work
Sighting in a very, very long lens
Padding Your WimberleyTripod Head
Using The Wimberley Gimbal head with a camera body

Wimberley 400 and 600mm IS plate
How do we protect our gear from dust, and carry our gear when on safari
How do you shoot the Moon?

If you see it, it's too late -- a lesson in anticipation
Protecting your long lens from SAND, the pleasures of beach photography
Maximum Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance - they're not the same thing!
A great depth of field guide
Carry Your Gear!
Custom Function 4-1 for Nikon and Canon shooters
Sigma's 120-300 f2.8 APO zoom telephoto lens


A Car Tip that could Save Your Life
A Great Website for Information - the Singapore Nature Photography Society
Airline Carry-On Luggage -Let your concerns be heard!

Ask Questions Before You Go
Liquids in your Levels - TSA Warnings!

Disconnect -- travel precautions
Photograph America Newsletter
Obey the Rules
Wildlife Portraiture
Drying out boots with newspaper
Removing Cactus Spines

The Ti Chi Stalk
Photographing Critically Endangered Sites
The Sibley Bird Guides



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Or FAX us at: (717) 543-6423.