Death Valley with David Middleton and Brenda Berry

As you know, back in November I ventured out to Death Valley for the rare delight of a kidless adventure. It was a two-part trip of camping with friends and a photography workshop and it was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. The combination of location and people was spot on but I’ve already talked about that.

Now it’s time to talk turkey about the photography workshop with David Middleton and Brenda Berry.

First, logistics…

Workshop reviews often include the details of location… food, lodging, meeting facilities, costs, etc. But for me, those things aren’t the considerations I use in choosing a workshop. So unless something completely blew me away or was a complete fail, it really isn’t worth mentioning the nit-picky details. I’m in it for the people and that’s why I’m here to dish out my thoughts about David Middleton and Brenda Berry.

Meeting other participants is part of the fun of workshops. Turns out I had to go to Death Valley to meet Becky who lives a stone’s throw from me here in Georgia.
A workshop is a great opportunity to work on your people-in-nature photography.

As for location…

Let’s face it… it’s Death Valley. No way you you can go wrong. The diversity of landscapes will leave no photographer wanting for something to shoot. And while the location was certainly part of the draw to attend this particular workshop, the true delight in a workshop is being able to work with photographers you admire. With the right instructors, any location will can a great experience.

Brenda isn’t afraid to send willing students onto a ledge for a shot.

I’m a fairly hardcore indy traveler. I don’t go in for a lot of organized stuff. I like to explore on my own terms most of the time but one of the advantages of a workshop, aside from learning from cool photogs, is that they know the good places to go shoot. In a workshop scenario, limitations of time and participants physical abilities play into where you can go as a group.

In Death Valley, those limitations kept us to locations accessible by car which means we were in highly trafficked areas a lot of the time. These popular spots are popular for a reason… their iconic views beg to be shot. And to some extent I don’t mind taking the standard shots. Even if it means putting my tripod legs in the ruts left by the previous thousand photographers, it allows me to have my own image to use for my purposes.

Plus, you can give yourself the personal challenge of finding a unique shot hidden in the obvious one. And even if you don’t issue yourself that challenge, Brenda and David will push you if they think you’re game. Brenda was certainly not afraid to send some of us scrambling up slopes like mountain goats. Granted, that was for a sunset that never came to be but since she has no control over mother nature we’ll give her a pass on that one.

And they did allow for some downtime in between field and classroom time to go explore on our own and get off the beaten path if we felt inspired to do so. Some of us non-morning people who can’t hack pre-sunrise wake ups just took naps, though. šŸ™‚

At Zabriskie Point, the challenge is to separate yourself from the herd.
Waiting for a sunset... that never happened.  The view was really groovy though.
Waiting for a sunset… that never happened. The view was really groovy though.

Which bring us to David and Brenda…

In a well-run workshop, you get to understand the process your mentors go through and use that knowledge to improve your own technique and workflow. As with any discipline, not all masters are adept at teaching. That’s why it’s important to understand who you’ll be working with and their reputation not just as photographers but as instructors as well.

Get used to that look on David’s face. He carries that expression a lot when it comes to Brenda. It’s what makes them fun.

In this case, I’d met David before at an event and knew his style was a good fit with my personality. He’s just a lovable curmudgeon with mad talent and the type of dry sense-of-humor that makes you laugh in spite of yourself. And having seen his work and read his book about the Vermont dairy farm (check it out on ), I knew I could learn a lot from him in terms of photography and storytelling.

I was unfamiliar with Brenda but she proved to be just as much of a character as David. She has a very different photographic style than but they compliment each other well. Her contagious energy and talent are remarkable. The two make a great team in a way that only colleagues who are also friends can.

I went into this workshop intent on learning and improving but I also wanted to enjoy myself. I’m not interested in a high-pressure, boot-camp environment and David and Brenda’s approach was a nice blend of comedy and candor. Their playful banter and approachability make for a relaxed atmosphere that strips away pretense and allows participants to focus on their work.

And what makes them great instructors in addition to groovy photographers is that they paid close attention to each participants strengths, weaknesses, and habits. They made the effort to challenge each one of us in the areas we needed. In my case, I was “lovingly” commanded to stay away from my macro lens, which is my fall-back photography position. They were committed to helping me break out of that comfort zone to expand my skills. Of course, I took it out anyway because I’m not going to pass up a great shot even if I run the risk of a scolding from David Middleton.

Sometimes returning to your wheelhouse is in order. So yes, I defied the great David Middleton and used my macro lens.

Advice…

If you’re considering attending a photography workshop, it’s important to remember the purpose of it. Attending a workshop is about learning how to compose an image and using your camera to capture your vision.

Even if you’re a beginner, make sure you have a working knowledge of your equipment. This includes whatever software you use to organize and process your images. You will be frustrated if you spend the whole time just figuring out the basics of how your camera works or how to get your images onto your computer when you should be trying to grasp the concepts of composition and light. You want to use your field and critique time for what the instructors are good at… photography. So before you head out to a workshop, take whatever technical classes you need in order to maximize your workshop experience.

These two run a groovy workshop. You’ll learn a lot and have a good time doing it.

In a nutshell…

I had a great time with David and Brenda on many levels. They get high marks for personality, teaching ability, and talent. They kept the instructor to student ratio low and that allowed for everyone to get individual input in the field and in critique sessions. Their light-hearted but honest feedback helped me rediscover my photographic mojo that had gone missing.

If you like a learning environment that’s casual but challenging and run by fun-loving, genuine people, their workshops will suit you well, no matter where they’re located.

For the full set of images David and Brenda helped me finesse out of my camera in Death Valley, visit my Flickr set… Enjoy!

And to make it easy on you, here are the pertinent links:

And now for your moment of green…

So apparently David has a knack for scaring away sunsets during workshops. Brenda was beside herself that we actually got one worth shooting.

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