“The clouds you don’t see are as important as those you do.” This was one of the many maxims gifted to us by our leader Charlie Waite during our two-day photo tour in Dorset, England.
As with most of Charlie’s comments, I didn’t appreciate his words at first. Their full meaning wasn’t evident in the hearing but in the doing, in the hands-on practice of making a photograph with a master photographer by your side. That combination of coaching and application, I found, was the real benefit of a photography tour.
I was one of nine photographers on the tour in southern England. The draw, to me, wasn’t the Dorset scenery so much as the chance to learn from someone at the top of his game. Charlie Waite is one of the world’s top landscape photographers. From the moment I first saw some of Charlie’s photos, I’ve been impressed by the purity of his images and his ability to capture the heart of a scene without extraneous elements.
On the first of two days together, we gathered outside of Shaftesbury, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) west of Salisbury. I was the only American in our group, the rest of the participants hailing from all over the U.K. After orientation, during which it was emphasized that we should be intentional with our images, we headed to the Sturminster Newton Mill, a centuries-old building of worn brick adjacent to a millpond filled with lily pads. There, we learned about the importance of incorporating visually compelling elements in the foreground, mid-range, and background of your composition. Soon, we were all positioning our tripods (because on a photo tour, or at least on this one, everyone shoots with a tripod) and trying to capture the optimal image of the scene.
From there, after grabbing a quick lunch, we headed into a rather nondescript forest. What could be visually interesting amid all these trees? I wondered. We found out soon enough, as Charlie explained techniques new to most of us, including Intentional Camera Movement shots and multiple exposures. It proved that even the most banal of settings can produce compelling images.
We wrapped up the day on a hillside overlooking a horseshoe of deciduous trees curved around a field of wheat. The point of this lesson was understanding light better. Charlie’s earlier comment about clouds now made perfect sense as we waited for those behind us to shadow the green and yellow fields before us. This was not the first time on the tour that I thought I should have understood that lesson before. But maybe I had. Maybe I just never put it into practice as intentionally as I did there. In this respect, the name of the tour — Light and Land — is appropriate: you learn to understand both the light and the object it illuminates in new ways by taking your time and by paying closer attention to everything.
Later, over dinner, the group shared their experiences from the day. But we also shared something more — a sense of being in this adventure together. For almost every person, the greatest value of the tour had been learning from each other, as well as from Charlie. I hadn’t expected this. Benefitting from Charlie’s expertise, yes. But connecting around our shared passion for photography — I hadn’t considered how powerful that would be.
The next morning, we arrived at another grand vista out in the Dorset countryside. I confessed to Charlie that the sweep of the scene before us intimidated me. “How do you know where to start?” I asked. Charlie took out a framing device and held it up to focus my attention on a particular section of the landscape, a quilt of green, yellow, and brown that rolled toward the horizon. “Note the triangles and the texture?” he asked. “See how this light on the wheat field offsets the darker green here?” I could see it now, but I never would have noticed it on my own.
Later, we visited two different tree tunnels and the ruins of an old church where a Springer Spaniel decided I was a good mark for an endless game of fetch. In each situation, Charlie pointed out what to look for, but he never did the work for us or told us specifically what to shoot. Instead, he helped us see the possibilities ourselves.
In conversations with the other participants that day, I discovered that we all agreed on the following.
First, we valued the camaraderie and the learning that comes from rubbing shoulders with fellow photographers. Few of the people on this tour regularly had the opportunity to share an experience such as this with others who are as passionate about photography as they are.
Second, we appreciated Charlie. Our leader was polite and thoughtful, but he also still bore that childlike enthusiasm for a great shot. He routinely praised various participants’ efforts, and even when an image needed work, he’d point out the good aspects of it. Such encouragement from someone of Charlie’s reputation meant a great deal to all of us.
Finally, we were grateful for both the places Charlie took us and the element of time he taught us to appreciate. Most of us would never have found these scenes on our own, but it was the time that mattered to so many of us. Slowing down forced us to move beyond our initial reactions of a place and see it in a variety of ways. That extended time, like our insights on light and learning how to see, was one of the greatest — and most unexpected — gifts of this tour.
I originally embarked on this experience because I’d worked with Charlie’s team on his U.S.A. Landscape Photographer of the Year contest in the States. When Charlie suggested I join him on one of his tours to better understand his work, I jumped at the chance. I don’t think I would have signed up on my own, because I figured the time and cost wouldn’t be worth it. My, how wrong I was. I quickly learned that on a photo tour like this, you gain a level of understanding you simply can’t acquire any other way.
If you are considering an experience such as this and, like me, have never signed up for one before, here’s a summary of why I believe they’re worth it:
- You learn new techniques and discover aspects of your camera you didn’t even know about.
- You gain a hands-on understanding of filters and lenses that is difficult to acquire on your own. For example, I’ve had a polarizer for years but never appreciated its many uses until this tour.
- You try new approaches, and you realize how many bad habits you’ve developed since you started.
- You venture to places you wouldn’t find on your own and expand your sense of possibility. For example, after visiting that forest and learning new techniques there, I can now think of many other places I’d like to visit that I would never have considered photogenic before.
- You learn how to read the sky but also to use any and all available light, which presents opportunities to shoot at all hours — even during the middle of the day.
- You understand the value in sweating the small stuff — or, at least paying attention to it. For example, Charlie got us to focus on the small issues, such as how a particular element might better be left out of the frame and how to incorporate movement into the foreground. These are the sorts of techniques you can only learn by being onsite with an instructor by your side — right there, right then.
- You learn to take your time. Being with others forces you to wait. In our case, the van would never leave until Charlie felt everyone had captured all that we could from a scene. On my own, I would have given up sooner and missed many important opportunities.
- You realize that it’s about quality, not quantity. Ansel Adams is said to have noted he is happy if he gets 12 really great shots a year. In our Instagram-fueled world, where we feel we have to be churning out beautiful images daily, it’s always helpful to be reminded of the difference between a good shot and a great one.
So, if you want to get more great shots yourself, consider a photo tour. You’ll learn in a completely different way than you could on your own, and you might just come away with a fresh approach to thinking about photography and life.
After all, the clouds you don’t see are as important as those you do.