4623 Miles There and Back Again: The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops with Michael Clark and a Classic Summer Road Trip

I needed to travel to New Mexico to participate in a week long workshop at The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. And, what is better than a road trip?

Sunrise - Route 66 - Near Glenrio, NM

There were many beautiful sites on my travels west, but on the way there, I drove like I had a place to be. A whole lot of "windshield time" as a midwesterner friend of mine likes to say and just a few days to get there. That first sunrise in New Mexico, featured above, was when it all slowed down as I knew I would make my destination on time. From then on, every dirt road into the distance was calling me, each morning was a sunrise that Mother Nature cooked up just for me.

Sunrise View - Sangre de Cristo Mountains

However, as much as I enjoyed the road trip, The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops was the destination and the reason for heading west. The Siena School helped with tuition, my amazing wife took care of the little ones and I made the most of the workshop and the road trip that bookended Santa Fe.

For five days, Michael Clark was my instructor. He is one of the best adventure photographers in the world. He is wildly interesting and he put together a great and well organized learning experience. He makes pictures like this using cutting edge lighting techniques:

Check out his website for more amazing images.

At the workshop, appropriately named "Cutting Edge Lighting Techniques" Michael would present a technique, we would practice in real world conditions and then he would critique our work. The delivery was familiar, as that is how I run my own photography classes at Siena. However, it was high pressure (or at least I put pressure on myself), the class was filled with working professionals and each day we all felt a bit in over our heads. But the opportunity was priceless and would not have wanted it any other way.

I have been a working professional photographer, both full and part-time, for fifteen years and have taught in and out of school for much of that time. I have a sound base in photography and have studied the craft. Yet I learned, how little I know. Working and learning from the world's best was eye opening and reinvigorating for how I want to approach my future photographic endeavors. The experience will greatly impact how I am able to teach going forward and enrich my students with cutting edge techniques that few photographers are actively using.

Below are images and concepts that were covered during the workshop. The first day was a brain melting conversation about the science behind the technology we were going to use, Michael's background and portfolio, logistics and some basic hands on learning. For the rest of the week, we photographed on location at a former state prison, worked outside at BMX and Motorcross tracks and photographed in the studio. Throughout, there were demonstrations, discussions, and critiques that surrounded our photographic activities.

On day two, we started with some basic portraiture, to ensure we knew how to fire the lights. Just as I do with my students at Siena, we were paired off for a practice session. These two portraits were in my morning critique the next day and helped Michael gauge my base level skills with lighting. The technique involved is called feathering and you can see how the same modifier, in this case, a large octabox, can produce different images. This was also the day that Michael demonstrated complex use of flags, v-flats and quality of light, that he directly learned from Albert Watson, one of the world’s premier portraits photographers.
The first challenge was freezing motion and creating a "Light Trap" with two light sources while a motocross professional zipped past at high speed. One light source was the sun and the other a battery powered flash. We won't go into the weeds of the technology, but I was shooting, with flash, at 1/8000th of a second and capturing a rider that was passing by me at 50mph. That shouldn't be possible with a portable strobe while completing against the sun.

Following the track day, we went to "The Old Main." It is no longer an active prison and is most famous for a terrible riot that occurred in 1980. For you movie buffs, it also hosted an Adam Sandler movie called "The Longest Yard." At the end of this day, a fellow workshop participant commented on how hard it was to work in that environment. Michael responded, "Yesterday, you got in the water for the first time and today we threw you off the deck of the Titanic...and told you to swim." It was a challenging environment, and at times, it seemed impossible but this was a special day of learning and creating. Ultimately, this day produced some of my favorite images from the week.

Luis - "The Old Main" - Natural Lighting

We took a quick tour of the facility, were paired off with an athlete and given free rein to work where and how we wished. I first worked with Luis, a former MMA fighter. The prison was massive, so the independence was freeing and daunting at the same time. Luis had a fantastic look and the space matched him well. In between shots, he was affable and easy going, but as soon as the camera fired up, he became the warrior that you see in the image set below.

The first shoot with Luis worked well and the images were flowing. And maybe some overconfidence crept in on my part. All that confidence disappeared during the next shoot. Building out the "light trap" in the old cell block and matching the flash with the ambient light was a challenge. It took an hour to get a usable photo and Michael's knowledge was key. He was able to walk me through how my thought process was not suitable for how the technology worked. Once the lighting was locked in, the images followed. Having a world class athlete in Isaac, a martial arts expert and Hollywood stuntman meant that once the technical aspects were solved, he was able to do what only he could do.

As the week progressed, we gained confidence in our new skills and equipment. We went back on location to a local BMX track on Day 4. By this time, the technology was starting to make sense. However, the speed of the sport was still a challenge. We were also given the opportunity to create a portrait on the location of one of the athletes, which is one of my favorite images.

The final day we were in the studio. I worked with a professional fitness model. Directing models is not my forte but the week pushed me to keep expanding what is possible. It took a number of attempts and several rounds of feedback for the model positioning, but this image has the "it" factor. The technique we were using allowed every detail to be frozen, right to the edge of the hair. Each day was a long day but I wanted more. It was a bit of a gut punch on Friday when the workshop was over. I came out of the week feeling I had more to learn than when I arrived.

The road trip, and Northern New Mexico in particular, was stunning. I was up with the sun each day to soak up the world through which I was transitioning.

Pecos, New Mexico
10 Miles from Taos.
View from my campsite of the approaching storm - El Prado, NM
"Selfie" - Sunrise at Ghost Ranch

The return trip was a sprint across Colorado and Kansas. The turn east into the flatlands was one long, straight ribbon of tarmac until I reached Missouri. I turned southeast towards the Ozarks, going a few hours out of my way to relax within the comfort of the mountains. I reached my destination a couple of hours before sunset and took a nap. When I awoke, the place was clearing out. I had it to myself. I sat and watched the falls, waded in the water and took a few photographs. It was serene and all those miles burned to get there was worth it.

Rocky Falls, MO

I drove deep into the night after leaving Rocky Falls. In this age of GPS, I navigated the ink-black roads by a compass pointing northeast and each crossroads was a decision of general hope. I had no cell phone connection for hours, and no map for that part of the country. It reminded me of the road trip ways from my youth. The next evening I stopped in Kenova, WV at Griffith & Feil Drugs, a pharmacy and soda fountain right out of the 1940's, for the best malt shake I've ever had (since I was last there in 2010) and watched the world go slowly by in an idyllic small town on the Ohio River.

My last stop of note was Ohiopyle on the final day of my trip and I took in the sunrise at the waterfall in this beautiful western Pennsylvania town. Just as at Rocky Falls a couple of days before, I enjoyed the space without interruption and could soak up the beauty and power of the falling water before heading home to my wife and the boys.

The workshop was five days long and I have a year's worth of content to share out with my high school students and photographic problems to work through. We have used High Speed Sync (HSS) at Siena and now we will push that to another level and explore Hi-Sync (HS) which creates possibilities beyond what has been traditionally possible. We will be feathering and flagging in search of the iconic look of Dan Winters and Albert Watson while benefitting from our new second studio space in the lobby of the Teatro that will allow our student dancers and athletes more room to move.

Thanks again for The Siena School for helping fund the trip, for Michael Clark's kindness and knowledge and, most of all, my amazing wife (and grandparents) for taking care of the youngest boys while I was gone.

To the adventure and learning and creating to come,

Kristian Whipple