Attending a workshop can be one of the most productive ways to push your photography to new heights. f-stop Ambassador Erin Babnik runs workshops in stunning locations that read like a bucket list of picturesque places to visit for landscape photography. We caught up with Erin to hear about her path into photography, what it takes to run these workshops, and her pick of essential gear to bring to a workshop.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how you got into photography?
Immersion in the visual arts has been the one constant in my life, including extensive formal education in various studio arts, graphic design, and in the history of art. Before I decided to pursue my photography career full-time, I was an art historian specializing in ancient Greek art. I needed to produce photographs for my dissertation and also for the classes that I was teaching while I was in graduate school, so it was then that I first began to travel widely with camera equipment. I photographed thousands of artworks inside museums and went to great lengths to photograph archaeological sites all around Europe and in the Middle East, which was expensive and time-consuming. I eventually started funding my trips and equipment upgrades by getting into stock photography and assignment work.
As I began devoting more of my time and resources to improving the quality of my photographs, it became increasingly clear to me that photography was capturing my imagination and my heart. I was still very passionate about art history, but I knew that I had found an even more inspiring calling that needed to be a larger part of my life. Craving more immersive and creative experiences, I began going on photography trips into wilderness areas, far from any of the cultural treasures that had always given me a reason to use my camera. During my college years I had drifted away from the outdoors activities that had been a great source of enjoyment for me earlier, so returning to wilderness areas with photography in mind became a major tipping point in my life. I could not get enough of it, and I finally admitted to myself that I was on course to a career change.
The idea of leaving academia was very difficult for me and only became a serious plan when I realized that I would be able to retain everything that I truly enjoyed about it. As a photographer, I would still be able to teach, to write, to lecture, to travel widely, and to draw upon my formal education in art and art history. Teaching photography workshops brings all of these interests together for me at once, which is why I have made teaching a focus of my career as a full-time landscape photographer.
Your talks and articles have made you one of the most notable voices among the current generation of landscape photographers; can you tell us a bit more about how you bring your ideas about photography to the workshop experience?
The ideas that I express in my writing and public speaking become a part of the workshop experience in a variety of ways. Most directly, they come out in the seminars that I schedule into most of my workshops to supplement the in-field instruction. Depending on the length of the workshop and the location, I include anywhere from one to four creativity seminars in addition to my usual post-processing instruction sessions. The topics vary, but they have included seminars on composition, on the history of landscape photography, on the creative process, and on portfolio development. I first started integrating these seminars into my masterclass series, and they were hugely successful, so now I have made them a regular part of my teaching programs.
The other outlet that I have for sharing these ideas is through impromptu discussions with students during the course of a workshop. Many of my workshop participants have questions about articles that I’ve written or else ask questions that relate to what I’ve written, and the resulting conversations tend to be enormously productive. I really enjoy discussing all aspects of photography and its relation to other arts, and it is always very rewarding to hear that my students have found these discussions helpful and inspirational.
Like all things in life, there must be some challenges while planning a workshop. What do you see as the biggest challenges to delivering a successful workshop?
Logistics probably present the most challenging problems to solve when planning a workshop. In order for everything to run smoothly, I have to consider a huge range of issues that all need to work together: where we go, what conditions to target, how we will get there, when and where people will eat and sleep, how much physical activity the average person can handle in an outing and how they might feel the next day, how much everyone can carry, and how to store what they cannot carry. I invest an enormous amount of time into planning a workshop in order to ensure that everyone has a great time and is able to make the most of the photographic opportunities and instruction.
You've been to some stunning places to shoot. How do you pick your locations for workshops?
Most of my workshops feature unique locations that I discovered through my own exploration, in combination with locations pioneered by some of my co-leaders, and also with a few classic areas included. I try to choose locations that are not only highly photogenic but that offer a good range of options for being creative. Even the more classic areas that I feature are of this sort, such as the Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley, an area that has been highly photographed for decades and yet provides endless opportunities for photographers to create unique and rewarding photographs. My extensive exploration of the Dolomites has turned up dozens of locations where my students can experiment with a variety of focal lengths and compositional styles all in one spot, making my Dolomites workshop series extremely popular. Not only do my workshop participants appreciate such versatile locations, but I am able to stay inspired myself by returning to these areas that always seem to have something new to offer.
For participants coming to shoot in those locations, what are your top picks of essential items that they should pack or bring ?
Because my workshops are based in wilderness areas, we are usually doing some walking or hiking to reach them. A walk might be anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours long, depending on the workshop, but regardless we are not usually right next to any vehicles or buildings and therefore need to carry whatever we will need to use while we are out in the field. A good photo backpack is therefore an absolutely essential item, and I always recommend that participants bring one that can carry more than just their camera gear and that stands up well to the elements and to whatever rocks or damp surfaces may be beneath a backpack when it is on the ground. For those workshops where we are backpacking to mountain huts or are even just doing longer day hikes, I also consider trekking poles to be essential items because they make the hiking much easier and improve balance on uneven terrain. Of course there are a lot of standard items that I recommend in addition, such as a tripod, a headlamp, and protective clothing, but the choice of a good backpack and trekking poles makes it easier to carry all of those items comfortably and safely. Aside from these essentials, I always advise my participants to bring their spirit of adventure!
Erin uses different kinds of camera bags, and ICU's for different locations. The Sukha is her go-to pack when she is traveling to the Alps, and the Ajna is her go-to pack when she is going on a single day shoot. The ICU that she uses the most is the Large Pro ICU, and the most used accessory is her Large Tripod Bag.