NatGeo Photo Workshop NYC: A Review


Last Thursday through Sunday Kongo attended a National Geographic Photo Workshop in New York City with Joe McNally as the featured photographer.  This is the second NatGeo workshop the monkey has attended and Kongo gives it a big FIVE BANANA rating.  Read on for details!

The whole point of a photo workshop is to learn something to further your craft, shoot a lot of photos, and get feedback on your work.  Joe McNally and the support staff exceeded all of these expectations and more. Way more.  Besides  these basics, the workshop staff infused the attendees with a renewed sense of energy and purpose about their individual journeys in photography.

The format of the class is that you meet in a  classroom with Joe McNally who shares his photo philosophy, passion, and techniques for making images and then immediately go out to a great location to put what you just learned about to work.  The aim here is to take attendees beyond just taking snapshots by focusing on composition, lighting, and treatment of subject.  Then you come back to the class, download your take and select several of your best efforts, and offer them up for critique.

The critiques are one of Kongo’s favorite parts.  You’re not going to hear the usual “that’s nice” comments that you may be used to getting from your spouse or good friends.  You’re going to hear things like, “you pulled the focus from the wrong place,” “this isn’t working,” “you need to get closer,” and “don’t cut off your subject’s hands…”  The immediate feedback is really important to understand how to improve your techniques.

The critique for this Kongo image was basically:  Powerful leading lines and good use of shutter speed to blur the water but all of these leading lines (the water, the shadow, the curb and the far wall) all converge on a single point where there is NOTHING THERE. Hmmm. Then the ah-ha moment. This image really begs for something in the lower right quadrant at the point where the lines converge. A person would make a lot of sense here and Kongo should have been more patient and waited for someone to wander into the photo or better yet, he should have snagged someone and asked them to pause there for a moment. Get it?
This study of fire escapes earned Kongo the comment:  "Interesting architectural perspective."  Hmm.  A person or object on one of those lower platforms would spice this up.  Otherwise, as one of the staff said:  "Good photo for a hotel room..."
This study of fire escapes in Little Italy earned Kongo the comment: “Interesting architectural perspective.” Hmm.  That’s kind of like your boss saying that you “have potential” in your annual review.  (A polite way of telling you that you’re not there yet.)  A person or object on one of those lower platforms would spice this up. Otherwise, as one of the staff said: “Good photo for a hotel room…”

One thing Joe McNally says is that to take interesting photos you have to go to interesting locations.  The workshop certainly aced that requirement.  We shot all over the city:  Battery Park City, Ground Zero, Little Italy, Chinatown, Central Park, 5th Avenue and Midtown, the Top of the Rock, South Street Seaport, and along the Highline on the West Side north of Greenwich Village.

Besides the critiques and photo shoots, there were technical sessions that honed critical photography skills.  Joe McNally gave a super seminar on lighting while we stood under a overhang on the Highline and Joe worked with a model.  (First image in this post). He hooked the camera up to a computer so we could see the shots as he took them.  Joe started off with no light, moved up to the built in flash, then migrated to multiple remote flashes, bounce sheets, umbrellas, and so forth.  It was great to see how the images he created improved with each new step until we finally had a super photograph.

Of course, delving into lighting means an investment in equipment and you are often going to need a helper to hold the remote flashes just where you want them or to angle the reflectors just so.  But watching the results evolve was a powerful lesson in how to take advantage of these techniques.  So, of course, Kongo left the workshop and immediately went by B&H Photo and added a new Speedlite and diffuser to his camera bag!

Another great session the staff presented was all about how to properly pan your camera to get a sharp subject with a blurry background that suggests speed and motion in a still photograph.  To make the points, the staff formed us in a circle facing outward and then raced around the outside of the group while we tried to pan and get images.  Mind you this was a HOT day in Lower Manhattan and the good staff just kept running and running until we got it right.  The monkey has tried to take these types of photos before but never had much luck.  And we did learn that a lot of a successful pan is luck, but knowing the proper techniques greatly improves your odds.  It’s all about fixing your focal point in advance and adjusting ISO, shutter speed, and aperture for the scene and moving the camera at the same speed as your subject.  Go try it!

Staff photographer Aaron races around our group while twirling a colorful umbrella.
Staff photographer Aaron races around our group while twirling a colorful umbrella.
Workshop coordinator Liza races around flapping a colorful scarf.
Workshop coordinator Liza races around flapping a colorful scarf.

Logistics:  Headquarters for the workshop was at the Poet’s House in Battery Park City.  This is a great venue and also happens to be a national literary center and poetry library that houses more than 50,000 volumes of poetry.  It is the premier independent poetry library in the United States and is free and open to the public.

The Workshop meals include a kickoff group dinner, a final night dinner, and a Sunday brunch on the final day.

Lodging is on your own and many participants stayed at a Marriott Hotel near Poet’s House in Lower Manhattan.  Kongo stayed at his favorite NYC hotel, the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Station and rode the subway to and from the workshop.

The workshop went from 8:30 each morning until well into the evening depending upon schedules.  At the end of each day this was one very tired monkey!

Cost for the 4-day workshop is $1,395 and does not include hotel or travel costs.  Two dinners and a brunch are included.  Learn more details about the photo workshop here.

The workshops are limited to 25 attendees and that’s what Kongo’s group had.  This  group  included an eclectic mix of photographers from all over the United States, Canada, and Sweden.  Nearly half of the group lived within driving distance of New York City.  One of the great benefits of these workshops is that you get to meet passionate photographers from all over,

This is a fairly intense workshop in that you are mentally challenged and physically pushed.  There is a LOT of walking involved as you explore the city.  You travel from spot to spot on the NYC subway system and don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of subway transit.  The staff brackets the group in the front and back to make sure nobody gets lost, they show you how to purchase your subway cards if you don’t know how, and will text or call you if you’re not where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be.  Watching Liza Politi (our workshop coordinator) shepherd 25 gawking photo shooters around NYC and in and out of subways is worth the price of the workshop alone!

Of course, the best part of the workshop is being able to spend a few days with Joe McNally.  Joe is an internationally acclaimed photographer who has shot for National Geographic for more than 25 years and has had several cover stories.  He was also the last staff photographer at Life Magazine, and has worked for Sports Illustrated and is the author of several books on photography.  He is a living legend.  Looking at Joe’s work, listening to his stories, and watching him in action is pure pleasure for anyone who loves photography.  Learn more about Joe and check out his blog here.

Kongo highly recommends these workshops.  They’re not cheap but the monkey’s philosophy is pretty much “you get what you pay for” and these opportunities to take your photography to the next level is worth it.

A video of this NYC Photo workshop can be found here.

Kongo’s review of the previous NatGeo Workshop he attended in Santa Fe this past July can be found here.

Travel safe.  Have fun.

8 thoughts on “NatGeo Photo Workshop NYC: A Review

  1. Great write-up. I also appreciate you posting your photos and the comments you received from the workshop. Critiques are a great way to see how others view your image and that can be very different from what your vision was when you tripped the shutter.

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