National Geographic Photo Workshop – San Francisco: A Review


Kongo attended a National Geographic Photo Workshop in San Francisco last weekend.  This is a review of the workshop.

You expect the best from a National Geographic Photo Workshop and this one with legendary photographer Joe McNally was no exception.  This was an “advanced” workshop, which is an upgraded version of a similar workshop Kongo attended in New York City in October 2013.  The monkey has also done a 7-day workshop in Santa Fe.  All of the classes Kongo has attended featured Joe McNally as the resident photographer.  The monkey is an unabashed McNally groupie.


The Basics:  This workshop runs from Thursday evening to Sunday noon.  The cost is $1,595 without hotel or airfare.  If you choose to stay at the sponsored hotel (in this case the Hotel Cartwright near Union Square) the cost is $2,275 which is a good rate in San Francisco although the Cartwright is not by any means a 4-star venue.  Kongo chose to use hotel points and stay at the Marriott on Fisherman’s Wharf.  The downside here is that he had to take taxis back and forth but the upside is that it forced the monkey to get up early and he got some extra shooting time before the workshop classes began each day.  This price includes two group dinners.

The People:  Kongo’s class had 24 students from all over the United States and once couple from Canada.  Ages ranged from college students to active seniors and the monkey guesses the average age was somewhere in the mid-50s.  These are very avid photographers with skill levels from advanced amateur to professional.  In general this group was also well traveled and there was a lot of story swapping about previous expeditions, trips across Mongolia, Antartica, Africa, and other exotic destinations.  Many students had attended other National Geographic workshops or expeditions.

Joe conducting a lighting demonstration on Baker Beach just south of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Joe conducting a lighting demonstration on Baker Beach just south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Cameras:  Joe McNally is a Nikon Ambassador and shoots with Nikon.  Kongo guesses that about two thirds of the group were shooting with Nikon and the rest Canon.  (The monkey shoots a Canon).  It really doesn’t matter as Joe’s assistants in the workshop shoot with Canon and if you needed help they were always ready to lend a hand with some setting question.  Some of the people attending the class brought a LOT of gear.  Tripods, monopods, sling straps, flash equipment, different camera bodies, and whatnot.  Having been to workshops before Kongo choose to go light since he knew there was always a lot of walking and didn’t want to be lugging 50 pounds of gear about that he may or may not get around to using.  The monkey brought along his 5D MK III, a 24-105 f4, a prime 50 mm f1.2, and his wide angle 16-35 f4.  He also brought his off-camera flash but only carried it when Joe was going to do a lighting demonstration.  Of course there were a few times that the monkey wished he had his 70-200 in the bag but the monkey ALWAYS finds himself somewhere where he wishes he had another lens in the bag.  Overall, he was well satisfied with his lens package and he didn’t break his back trekking up and down San Francisco’s famous hills.

Fellow photographer Roger gets his gear ready for a beach shoot.

Shooting Locations:  If you’re going to San Francisco you want to go someplace to get some of those iconic images of this beautiful city by the bay.  We did location shots in Chinatown, around Union Square, Bakers Beach near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Ferry Building and Farmer’s Market, and Golden Gate Park.  The class voted to pass on Fisherman’s Wharf in favor of a McNally lighting demo in the Stockton Street tunnel (see this post).  Since Kongo was staying at the wharf he got several shots of the area going and coming to the workshop classes.


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Class Format:  Each day the workshop gathered in a classroom at the hotel for a lecture from Joe McNally and instructions about the day’s shooting assignment.  Joe shared his philosophy about photography and reviewed a lot of his vast portfolio with the class.  Joe is passionate about light and naturally each session covered various aspects about using natural and artificial light to create the proper image.  After shooting on location, the class returned to the classroom to select 25 images from their shoot.  Joe or one of the other instructors would then work with you to down-select your top five images.  These were then reviewed in a group format by Joe who critiqued the image, provided pointers, and discussed what was right and what was wrong with the photograph.  In Kongo’s view this was one of the best parts of the workshop and wishes that there was more of these sessions.  This being National Geographic and an “advanced” class, we were not allowed to do any editing of our images.  Everything had to come straight out of the camera as shot.  Students are required to have their own laptop and software to download their images.  Most students used Lightroom.

Joe reviews our Chinatown assignment before turning us loose.
Joe reviews our Chinatown assignment before turning us loose.

Demos.  A highlight of the workshop were the lighting demonstrations Joe gave on location where he put all of his classroom talk into action.  It was fascinating to see how you take a “snapshot” and build it into something magical with an off camera flash and an inexpensive light shaper.  Joe conducted lighting demonstrations on the beach, in the Stockton Street tunnel and in Golden Gate Park.  (See Kongo’s previous post about these demos).  If you thought you were an “ambient light shooter” Kongo can pretty much guarantee that after watching Joe in action that you’re going to be heading to the Adorama or B&H photo websites to start stocking up on some lighting essentials.  Kongo is now dreaming about C-stands and soft boxes while Mrs. Kongo softly mutters, “But you said you already had everything you needed …”

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Nits.  The workshop included two group dinners.  Granted, finding a great meal in an intimate spot with unique character for a couple of dozen famished photographers over a weekend in San Francisco is a challenge, but in Kongo’s opinion the dinner venues were not up to San Francisco’s famous culinary cuisine.  (Sorry, Liza)  Kongo rates the included dinners only so-so.  They were crowded, noisy, service was sketchy, and the food was somewhere south of special.  Having said that, Kongo is a notoriously picky eater (the brussels sprouts that came around at the first dinner put the monkey off) and he will more than likely remember the wine over the entree.  Mrs. Kongo met the monkey when he got off the plane coming home and they dined at Ruth’s Chris where the monkey devoured a signature filet, had a Grey Goose martini with blue-cheese olives followed up with a great cabernet.  OK, Kongo gets that a chain such as Ruth’s isn’t unique either but the food and view of the San Diego waterfront topped the meals in San Francisco.  Anyway, don’t let Kongo’s food comments scare you off…if you love brussels sprouts, pan-Asian something or other, or fried chicken and greens then this may be exactly your cup of tea!

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Is this workshop for you?  National Geographic bills this as an “advanced” workshop.  If you know your camera well, shoot in manual or Av (anything but Auto), know a bit about composition, lighting, and f-stops, and are passionate about photography then this workshop is definitely for you.  We were expected to take criticism gracefully (“come on guys, this is the ADVANCED class”) know how to quickly set up our shots and how to download and select our images without help.  If you’re still figuring out what the M setting on your camera is all about or that built in flash keeps popping up unexpectedly when you’re taking pictures, then Kongo recommends that you take one of the other NatGeo workshops before signing up for the advanced class.  Nobody likes to spend a lot of money to attend a workshop and end up not understanding what everyone is talking about.  Don’t show up with a brand new camera or computer software.  This workshop should be a place where you are fine tuning your skills, not learning the basics.


Workshop Support.  Joe is ably assisted by Fancy Girl Street Boy Productions out of New York City.  Our superb workshop coordinator was Liza Politi who kept us on schedule and moving.  Ari Espay (the Street Boy) was fantastic and always seemed to pop up out of nowhere just when you needed some help.  Tricia Cronin of San Francisco provided local flavor and expertise and was an excellent mentor and coach throughout the workshop.  She also doubles as “talent” when Joe needs someone special.  You can learn more about Joe McNally at his website here and discover other National Geographic photography opportunities at their website.

Travel Safe.  Have fun.


7 thoughts on “National Geographic Photo Workshop – San Francisco: A Review

  1. Rich and I went to National Geographic Photo Seminar in Toronto in March. It was very interesting, although it was a day of talks with no actual photo-taking element. That said, we definitely learned a lot.

    As it turned out, the most important take-home massage turned out to be the old adage ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’. Rich had to constantly remind himself of this while photographing our resent trip to South America with his iPhone, after his SLR was stolen less than a week into our vacation.

    1. Jaspa, I certainly agree with that old adage. So sorry to learn of having the DSLR stolen. What a bummer! Even when you’re extra careful you stuff can be gone in a flash.

      1. And we were being very careful up until that point, Kongo. Then we let our guard down for a few moments in a cafe….