NatGeo Santa Fe Photo Workshop: A (Updated) Review

Joe McNally at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

Kongo spent last week in Santa Fe, New Mexico attending a National Geographic Expeditions Photography Workshop.  This is a review of the workshop.  I updated this post to include a video made by the staff of our week in the Photo Workshop.

Our Instructor.  The picture above is our instructor, National Geographic photographer Joe McNally.  Joe is literally a legend in his own time.  He has shot photojournalism for New York dailies, was the last staff photographer at Life magazine, and has also shot for Sports Illustrated.  He has been shooting for National Geographic for 25 years and is the author of three books on photography.  He has been recognized with many prestigious awards.  Beyond the glitzy bio, Joe is a down-to-earth, straight talking, instructor with a gift for connecting with individual students at their level of photography.

I can’t say enough great things about Joe.  He is a wizard at decomposing a photograph, pointing out how it could be improved, and letting you know when you did well and when you failed.  We spent about four hours a day in the classroom with Joe going over techniques and critiquing photos and then spent the rest of the day in the field on photo assignment.  A lasting memory Kongo took away from the week was a quiet hour he spent with Joe while walking through a box canyon on the Ghost Ranch and just talking photography.  How cool is that?

Check out Joe’s blog here.

The rest of the staff.   Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, a first class organization led by Reid Callanan and his superb support staff, facilitated the workshop.  Two assistants, Stefan Wachs and Nick Kelley supported Joe throughout the entire week and helped the class with software issues, technical support, and logistics.

Location.  The workshop was held on the campus of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat and Conference Center located two miles from the center of Santa Fe.  It is a beautiful campus surrounded by views of the Sangre de Cristos Mountains.

Santa Fe Photographic Workshops has a beautiful campus in Santa Fe.

Logistics.  Students are responsible for their own accommodations in Santa Fe.  A shuttle bus picks up students each day from downtown Santa Fe and delivers them to the campus.  A delicious breakfast and lunch are provided on campus and several group dinners are included at local restaurants in the area.  Meals are included in the price of the workshop.  Shuttle vans are also used to transport students to and from photo locations.  Attendees can also use their own cars if they have them available.

Preparation.   Students are expected to know how to operate their camera in manual mode, know the basics of f-stops, shutter speed, and ISO settings, have a laptop to download and organize photos, and software to process photos.  The preferred software is Adobe Lightroom although other programs are acceptable.  A bibliography of suggested readings is provided to give students an overview of the Santa Fe area, New Mexico, and photography basics.  Students are required to provide their own camera equipment although Nikon equipment was available to be borrowed if you wanted to experiment with different gear.  The Santa Fe Photographic Workshop has a great little store where you can check out gear or buy accessories.  While the store is oriented toward Nikon, there’s plenty of other stuff you can spend money on and Kongo did pick up a few items there.

Students.   The maximum size of the workshop is 25.  Kongo’s class had 12 students and that was just perfect.  It allowed for a lot of one-on-one time with Joe and the staff assistants.  Our group bonded quickly and it was a fun collection of amateur photographers from all over the world.  We had a sophisticated Parisian, retired and active lawyers, business people, an expedition planner at National Geographic, an HR specialist, a school teacher, a presidential library docent, two college students majoring in photography, and an art handler from New York.  Photography skills ranged from “What does the M on this dial mean?” to advanced amateurs.  In general this was a very well traveled group, passionate about photography, and very easy to get along with.  Exactly what the monkey was hoping for.

Cost.  The 7-day workshop (Sunday evening through Saturday noon) cost is $2695 per person without hotel or travel costs.  Daily breakfast and lunch are included as well as five dinners in the evening.  Kongo drove to and from Santa Fe from San Diego and stayed a night in Tucson on the way out.  He drove straight through coming home (13 hours).  In Santa Fe, Kongo stayed at the Hyatt Place (about 5 miles from the workshop and four miles to downtown) at $99/night.  The price did not include the new tire ($340) Kongo had to get after driving over a rock while taking a scenic detour on the way to Santa Fe.  (Tip, there is no way to buy a replacement tire for a Mercedes E-class anywhere in the state of New Mexico on a Sunday.  Tires for American models are probably available and pick up truck tires are plentiful.)

Where we went.  After morning classroom sessions, the class headed out to various locations with a specific photo assignment.  We went to Canyon Road, the Plaza in Santa Fe, Eaves Movie Ranch where we worked with real models, Abiquiu (Georgia O’Keeffe), and the Santa Fe Rail Yards.

What we learned.   Where to begin?  At the initial dinner Joe McNally promised us that after this workshop we would never look at photography the same way again.  He was right about that.  In this monkey’s opinion he learned several valuable lessons:

Think before you shoot.  Before Santa Fe Kongo would routinely rip off a bunch of photos without really thinking about them figuring he could crop and post process his way to a decent photograph.  Joe wouldn’t let us crop or do anything other than very minor post-processing.  It forced us to think about what we were doing before we clicked the shutter button.  We began to seriously consider backgrounds, distractions, lighting, geometry, and the story.

Dead Trees.  One comment Joe made during a critique was, “this is a nice dead tree photo.”  The point here is that while the photo was put together and exposed properly it was, well, a dead tree.  There was really nothing in the photo that drew you in, made you want to bond with the dead tree, or anything else.  It was just a nice, technically accurate record of a dead tree.  Now certainly a properly approached dead tree can be artistic but mostly not.  As Joe said often, “this photo is on the way to Toledo…” meaning that it wouldn’t make the cut in a magazine or anywhere else.  If you are a dead tree lover then go for it, but most of us wanted to be something other than just a “dead tree shooter.”

People.  People make photos interesting.  Geometric lines can work sometimes, and colorful landscapes are nice, but more often than not these alone end up on the bus to Toledo.  It’s people that inspire us, interest us, and draw us into the eye of the photographer.  If we think back to all of the iconic photographs that we remember I would bet that they almost always have people in them.  Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy in Dallas, Neil Armstrong on the moon, that blue-eyed Afghan woman on the cover of National Geographic, Freedom marches in the 60s, Kent State, and so on.  You get the idea.  Not that some non-people photographs aren’t great.  It’s just that if you can add a person to your photograph you add an entirely different dimension.  Kongo has taken hundreds (probably thousands) of pictures of bridges, cathedrals, and other landmarks.  He used to try to get them without people.  Not anymore.

Learning to approach people was another lesson we learned at the workshop.  Some of us were apprehensive about asking a stranger to take their photograph.  It’s something you have to work on but more often than not Kongo discovered that most people don’t object and in fact, feel flattered to participate in your creation.

Lighting.  We talked a lot about lighting and Joe gave us some lessons on using flashes and reflectors to soften and bounce light in certain situations.  Kongo has added these things to his “must have” list.  He never realized how you can take a much better picture in harsh mid-afternoon sun with a diffuser or a well placed flash to take out the shadows.  Early mornings and late afternoons are best.  The diffused light gives everything a soft glow but cloudy days can be great too…just don’t shoot a lot of sky because it’s going to blow out the photograph with too much brightness.

Telling a Story.  We talked about the difference between taking a snapshot and making a picture.  Snapshots are what we mostly do.  Snapshots are quick shots of some famous landmark or the obligatory photo of a loved one in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Telling a story with a single photograph is a whole other thing and much more difficult to do.  Kongo now endeavors to tell stories but don’t judge him to harshly yet.  It’s an evolving talent.

Recommendations:  If you haven’t done one of these, put in on your bucket list.  Kongo would go back in a monkey’s heartbeat and is already perusing catalogs for future expeditions.  Kongo gives the National Geographic Workshop and the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops his highest rating:  5 of 5 bananas!

Travel safe.  Have fun.




24 thoughts on “NatGeo Santa Fe Photo Workshop: A (Updated) Review

    1. It’s not cheap but, for me at least, it was totally worth it. Like I told my financial planner, “I don’t want to die rich…I plan to spend all my money before I go!”

  1. We use one of Joe’s books in HS to inspire us
    Wow. I would have loved to be in your class

    I think i try to not have a dead tree blog but will god more mindful
    Thanks for the review Kongo

  2. A good friend of mine, Ira Block, leads NG photo expeditions to some very interesting places like Bhutan. Maybe next time?

  3. Great write up Kongo. I am sure your photography will be elevated to the next level by taking this class. Joe McNally is considered the best by no accident. I am a little disappointed thought that you did not include a photo of Joe with the monkey 😉

    1. I am sure you have plenty of persuasive powers, Connie, after all, you’re the crafty one! It’s really great to get away and immerse yourself in something you truly enjoy.

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