Within the Frame Kathmandu – A Review

A trip that spans two weeks, takes place in a far away place, and pairs you with 9 other strangers is a tough nut to review. I got sick, my camera broke, and my trip home was an endless nightmare. None of these things had anything to do with the instructors or the workshop, but they all happened, and it can sometimes be hard to separate the workshop from the experience.

Thankfully, I think I have the perspective to do that, but I will throw a couple of “experience” issues in there that I think are helpful at the end.

First off, this is a workshop for people that both want to travel, and want to improve their photography. This is not a run and gun bus tour. The first day David told us he wanted us to be bored. Let me explain. We were going to be in Kathmandu for several days. This was to give us time to slow down. How do you get past the “Look, a Monk – click. Look, a prayer flag – click.” syndrome? You give yourself time. And time we had. There was time to wander and take it in. Time to sit and talk. Time to hang out with the monks and other people in Kathmandu. This gave us time to “take it all in”, and allow us to dig deeper for more meaningful images. In the end, I never got bored, in fact, there were places I didn’t get to, pictures I was still searching for, and areas of Kathmandu I wished I had more time to see. But I get it. Slow down and experience the place, the images will follow.

This is a photography workshop for people that want to improve their photography. Not by being told how to technically take better pictures, but by learning how to take more meaningful pictures. You should already know how to use your camera before coming on this trip. There were varying levels of technical comfort with our cameras, but learning about what f-stop to use when isn’t really the focus of this trip. I am sure that some people asked more technical questions, and that David and Jeffery would have been happy to sit and explain some of these things, but there are no sit down classroom sessions on using your camera.

About the closest we got to that was a lightroom session where David covered some of the topics from his book Vision and Voice, which is about applying your vision through post processing to the digital negative.

There was very little “classroom” to this workshop. Most of the time we got together as a group was to eat, or for image critique. This was not a “hey, cool photo” have a pat on the back session. This was about becoming better photographers, and learning to look at images critically. What is the light like? Is it hard or soft? What does that do for this image? Would a different position of the subject change how the light falls on them, and hence the emotional feel of the photograph? What lines are there? How do they lead our eyes? Would a moving of the camera position change how powerful the lines draw us in? What does color do for this image? What would it look like in black and white? There were no perfect images shown. Some images did a better job than others of telling a story, but every image provided a starting point to discussion about what worked and what didn’t and why.

The real learning was in the shooting. By ourselves, with our cameras. Some choose to shoot in small groups of 2 or 3, but most of the time we went out by ourselves. David or Jeffery were not standing there saying, “shoot that”, or “do this” with your camera. I am not saying they were not available, because several people asked them to go walk with them, and they were happy to do so. A few times I came across them while out, saw them shooting and asked them about their process, but for the most part I was on my own.

What I was trying to do while out on my own, was to be mindful of the image critiques we had just done, and what I needed to add or remove from my own images to make them better. Sometimes I went looking for lines, negative space, color contrasts, etc that had worked well for some images in the critiques. Some of the participants naturally gravitated to certain types of images, and I found that I would try to look for an “Elly” or a “Jay” image, when that wasn’t something I would normally do. I would push myself to take images I wouldn’t normally. I would push myself to look for opportunities I normally wouldn’t take. I would push myself to interact and communicate with local Nepalies instead of just a click and run. I would push myself to be mindful of the force my vision, and if my image was telling a story that made sense.

Again, that work I did, was all by myself, with my camera. Not in a classroom, not with someone looking over my shoulder. I know that at times some thought that there wasn’t enough instruction going on. For me it was just fine. Don’t get me wrong, David and Jeffery were always there, always around, and always willing to answer questions. Interestingly, when I showed up I fully intended to pair up with them and not leave their hip pocket until I had it all figured out. It’s not how it ended up happening, and I think the struggle to make images that I took on by myself on the back roads of Bhaktapur made me a better photographer.

You can call it Murphy’s law if you like. It seemed like several of the people on the trip had multiple cameras. I had one D90. It died. A mysterious partial death actually. It wouldn’t shoot at anything other than wide open. I had to shoot at f/1.8 on my 50mm, f/2.8 on my 70-200, and f/3.5 at 10mm on my 10-24mm wide angle lens. Weird. I shot for a few days like that while I tried to figure out the issue and how to get a replacement. I lucked out and found a store in a more tourist part of Kathmandu that had a European version of the D90 (only differs by power plug and lack of warrentee) that I ended up buying. I only bring this up to say that you need to be prepared yourself. David was more than willing to help me out with his contacts in the US, and another participant offered me his backup camera, but this is not a Nikon or Cannon sponsored event. There is no case of gear that you can loan out, or save your butt in a pinch. Last time I travel with only one camera body.

How about things like accommodations and food? Remember, this is Nepal. Rooms are smallish, plugs might not work, power can go out, hot water can disappear, but you probably won’t care. It’s all part of the trip, and really not that much under the control of the WTF staff. It’s all a part of traveling, the adventure, the experience, and the treasure trove of stories you will accumulate. Have you ever lost power while you were in the shower? Have you ever gone for a bus ride with a goat? Have you ever had a huge important cultural festival happen outside your hotel window? With half the hotel on your balcony? Have you experienced some of the nicest kindest people on the planet. Have you sat and had a conversation with a Tibetan monk? Have you ever eaten Buff Momo’s? I tried to eat localish food quite a bit, and enjoyed most of it, but you be wiser to pick WTF Italy if you are overly concerned about food. On the other hand, mango lasi rocks, and a tomato basil pizza I had in Kathmandu was really good. So chil out, have a local beer cup of chi, and enjoy that you are actually in Nepal.

If you want to hit and shoot as many places in Nepal as you can, this is not the trip for you. If you want to have the time to experience the place, and absorb the culture and people while taking photographs, then this is a workshop for you.

If you want someone to hold your hand and show you where to stand, what height to put your tripod, and when to press the shutter, you may be disappointed by this workshop. If you want help to understand what goes into a powerful photograph, and be given the oportunity to try to make those images yourself, then this is a workshop for you.

In any workshop, you get out what you put into it. I think that really applies to this workshop. To get the most out of this workshop, to improve your photography in a short period of time, then you really need to put in effort.  I have been to other workshops where if you get up early, get in the cars, find the location, set up your tripod with the other 25-30 people, it is hard to get a bad shot. You won’t get a great or unique shot, but artistically, it is easy to coast. Without making the effort in the Kathmandu WTF, you won’t come home with pictures you are happy with. But if you come on this trip with the desire to improve your photography, give David and Jeffery the benefit of the doubt, put in some honest critique of your work, you can’t pick a better trip.

I am very happy I went on this trip. David and Jeffery recognize that you are spending real money and want to make it a great trip for you. It is not a cheap endeavor, but considering the small participant count, and the access to the instructors, it is a great value. If you read this and think “exactly, I would love this type of opportunity to work on my photography,” then I bet you would have a great trip too.

Kathmandu Butter Candles

The light from butter candles is so amazing. I wish they were out every evening, but they only came out a few nights we were there. Women would set up tables, and cover them with unlit butter candles. People would come to the tables and pay a small fee to light them, and say a short prayer.

I found myself hanging out around these tables a lot. I would light candles sometimes, shoot sometimes, and other times just watch the people moving around and lighting candles.

The first time I saw them put out, I just started firing away. They were interesting to see, but my pictures didn’t show much interest. It wasn’t until I slowed down and was more patient did I start to see the beautiful light, and start to wait for a subject that would show off this light. Waiting for the coming together of light, subject, and moment is what I am now looking for in my images.