Kongo is back from a fabulous Photo Workshop with National Geographic in Oaxaca, Mexico to capture the Day of the Dead celebrations. This is a review of that workshop and National Geographic workshops in general. Previously the monkey has attended NatGeo workshops in Santa Fe, New York, and San Francisco.
The workshop was held in Oaxaca, Mexico from October 29 through November 4. The format included daily classroom sessions that critiqued the results of shooting assignments, workflow methodology, photography techniques, and the National Geographic “way of doing things.” The rest of the time was spent in the field shooting parades, cemeteries, village markets, a cattle market, archeological sites, and inside private homes. The venue provided incredible photo opportunities in this colorful part of Mexico.
Matt Moyer was the National Geographic photographer leading this workshop. Matt was simply fantastic. Not only does he have an incredible body of work, he has a relaxed teaching style that is both encouraging and challenging. In the field he found a way to spend time with everyone and help them along and he has a unique talent for approaching each participant at their own photography level and helping them up their game. His insights into the use of natural lighting, composition, and working a scene were spot on. Kongo hoped to get inspired on this trip and Matt certainly helped make that happen.
Assisting Matt in running the workshop was Marcela Taboada, a professional photographer based in Oaxaca. Marcela was instrumental in setting the local scene, choosing when and where to go shooting, and providing essential background information about the various locales the workshop visited. An impressive photographer in her own right, Marcela was a great complement to Matt in presenting a great technical overview of the challenges of shooting in the region.
Workshop participants stayed at the Parador de Alcala, a boutique hotel in the heart of the historic center of Oaxaca. Classroom time was at the Beiber Jimenez Museum, which was a short walk from the hotel. Vans were used to transport participants to the various shooting sites.
Breakfast at the hotel was included in the workshop price as well as a few group dinners at the beginning and end of the workshop.
Outside of the workshop, Kongo and others in the group often rose before sunrise to get pictures of the town or stayed out late shooting the street activities associated with the Dia de Muertos celebrations.
Kongo spent long, full days here. Getting up before dawn, shooting all day, and racking and stacking photos until about midnight each night.
This was an interesting mix of people. There were 20 of us from all over the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UK. Ages ran from early 30s to one venerable trooper who had to be pushing 80. There were several physicians, some people in television production, retired educators, a clutch of retirees, and one eclectic woman who simply said she “divorced well.”
Photography skill sets ranged from advanced to novice and everywhere in between.
Kongo flew to Oaxaca from LAX with a short layover in Mexico City. Most everyone connected through MEX and the airport transfers were simple and hassle free. The monkey flew AeroMexico and had good flights. Others were on Delta or United.
From the airport it’s $200 (MX) to or from the hotel. That’s about $10.50 US. The exchange rate was roughly 20 Pesos to 1 USD.
Parador de Alcalá is the perfect spot to be based for Day of the Dead activities. Several parades and processions travelled down the pedestrian street in front of the hotel every afternoon and evening as they made their way from Santa Domingo Plaza (about three blocks away) to the Zocalo (another three blocks away). Traffic in central Oaxaca during festivities is like rush hour in New York City. It’s faster to walk than ride but everything is a close walk.
The food is great at the hotel, service was superb, and Kongo’s room had a balcony overlooking the street. There’s a rooftop pool with a great view. And there is free WiFi — a happy spot for Kongo.
This is a “boutique” hotel with only about 20 or so rooms. Kongo is sure he got one of the best rooms as there are only three with a balcony overlooking the street. If you’re going to book here, be sure to ask for a balcony room.
Your hotel room is included in the workshop price but Kongo paid extra for a single supplement.
Given the nature of this workshop, this is all about street photography. Let’s face it, all the action is on the street so if taking pictures of people on the street isn’t your thing this is not the right workshop for you.
People in Oaxaca get dressed up and apply “dead makeup” just to go outside during the week of celebrations. They WANT you to take their picture and will pose for you if you smile and hold up your camera. Taking photos of children (they’re just soo soo cute as skeletons) is not a problem. Parents will encourage their children to pose for you. A few street children will ask for a “propina” or tip to have their picture taken. Kongo avoided these and there weren’t very many of them.
Cemeteries are another spot for some fantastic photography. At first, many of us were a bit uneasy photographing people at the cemeteries. We thought that we were intruding on a private space. Actually, the people were quite welcoming and there was not a problem shooting families remembering their loved ones. Frequently they would invite you to join them and tell stories about their departed relatives. Kongo avoided using his flash but there were lots of flashes going off around him so that would probably have been okay too.
If you’re shooting Day of the Dead you’ve got to be on your game for low light photography. Use the fastest lens you have (Kongo frequently used his 50 mm f 1.2 prime lens). Big telephotos are going to be hard to auto focus in the low light. Shooting street parades Kongo frequently used his 24-104 mm f 4 and lived with the occasional blurry image. Crank up your ISO and open up your shutter. Practice holding your camera steady at shutter speeds as low as 1/15 of a second. Shoot in manual mode so you can be sure to get the shutter to click when you want it to and be prepared to manually focus your lens.
Classroom sessions build the foundation for successful shooting experiences on National Geographic workshops. There were a couple of participants who skipped the classroom because they didn’t what their images critiqued. Huh? Kongo just didn’t get that attitude since having the opportunity of a real, live National Geographic photographer look at your work and make suggestions is one of the reasons you should sign up for one of these workshops.
Each day students were required to submit three photos from their previous day’s shooting for critique. Kongo was shooting about 1,000 frames a day so culling it down to three was quite a challenge. This was hard but it really forced you to critically examine your work.
Matt and Marcela gave presentations on their body of work which provided useful insights into how they approached photography, how they developed their own individual style, and how they met specific challenges in the field. One session spent about three hours going through Lightroom workflow techniques which Kongo frankly thought went over the heads of many in the workshop, particularly those who hadn’t used Lightroom before. The monkey has been using Lightroom for about five years and still considers himself a novice so he found many of the suggestions helpful.
So was there anything negative?
There were some negative things about this workshop, at least in this monkey’s opinion.
For one thing, the classroom logistics were inadequate for this size group. We were scrunched into to a room that wasn’t air conditioned on small tables that forced people to sit really really close to each other. After lunch, when the lights went down and the heat went up from all the computers and people in the room it was sleepy time. The projector used to show images wasn’t bright enough or sharp enough and presentations were shown on a white wall with a texture that prevented the best viewing.
The schedule was frequently changed with little or no notice. The monkey gets that these types of workshops are dynamic and flexibility is a requirement. Still, changes to the schedule could have been communicated better so that you were sure to show up with the right lenses and clothes for the location.
The class size was just too large in Kongo’s opinion. The monkey would happily have paid more money (and suspects most participants would too) for a more intimate group. This would have eased classroom shortcomings, afforded more one-on-one time with Matt and Marcela, and make getting around easier.
So what about traveling in Mexico?
Is it safe? Absolutely. Kongo roamed alone all over central Oaxaca at night and never felt he was someplace he shouldn’t be. People are friendly and welcoming. Normal precautions appropriate for anyplace where there are large crowds should be taken but other than that, Oaxaca is definitely safe for visitors.
Can you drink the water? Yes, as long as it is bottled. Even in the hotel Kongo brushed his teeth with bottled water that was provided in the room. A few class participants experienced Montezuma’s revenge. The monkey never had this problem but he didn’t eat off the street, used antiseptic wipes to clean his hands frequently, and drank bottled water and beer.
Do you need to change your money? Absolutely! This is not a border town and pesos are the way to go. This is pretty much a cash economy and many of the stores don’t take credit cards. If you’re planning to do some shopping you will need pesos. Kongo changed $200 USD prior to arriving in Mexico, did not buy any souvenirs, and still came back with $500 pesos.
Do people speak English? Some do. Most speak a little. Kongo’s restaurant Spanish with a few extra phrases from his high school Spanish served him well. (Dos mas cervesas por favor!) Those who spoke better Spanish interacted more but Kongo didn’t feel lost at all without being fluent. People always like it when you try to speak their language.
What about the earthquake? Kongo didn’t see any impact at all from the recent earthquakes in Oaxaca and Mexico City.
What to do before traveling?
National Geographic does a good job in telling you how to prepare for a workshop like this. First and foremost: Know your camera! You really need to be comfortable shooting in manual mode. It’s never a good idea to buy a new camera just before a trip like this but there are always a few who can’t resist doing it. They end up not knowing enough about the basics of their tool to get the most out of the workshop. Really.
This is not a workshop about how to operate your camera. You’re expected to know that before you arrive. While the instructors are available to give you some quick tips about modes and settings, you should have enough understanding about how your camera works to get by. You should also know your basic way around Lightroom. This is the preferred software for processing your images. It’s not rocket science but it does take some time playing with it to be able to quickly upload your photos and export them for the critiques. Don’t wait until the first day of the Workshop to download Lightroom! (Yes, some people were doing this.)
Buy travel insurance. You never know what is going to happen from the time you sign up and put your money down until you head to the airport.
Research the area and the history of the Day of the Dead festivities. Kongo found this essential in understanding what he was looking at, how to get the most out of it, and what type of shooting conditions to expect. He spent a lot of time looking at images from previous Oaxaca Dia de Muertos celebrations to get a feel for the types of photo opportunities he would see in Mexico.
What Gear to you Need to Bring?
Kongo brought his Canon 5d Mark III. He toyed with the idea of also packing his 7D but is glad he didn’t as it would have just sat in his suitcase. For lenses he used his 50 mm f12, a 70-200 mm f4, and his 24-105 mm f4 — all the monkey’s lenses are L-type EF. He brought three extra batteries, three extra 64GB flash cards, battery charger, wireless remote trigger, card reader, tripod (for those before dawn shoots), his Macbook Pro, two external hard drives, a loupe, and his flash that he sometimes used as an external light source.
This is pretty much the standard kit the monkey brings on all his trips and it suited him well in Mexico.
You could get by with less but you must bring a laptop and be able to upload and transfer images with it.
Is this workshop for you?
National Geographic always puts on a terrific workshop. Yes, it costs more than other workshops but you let’s face it: this is National Geographic and you get what you pay for. Having the opportunity to spend a week with a photographer the caliber of Matt Moyer makes it more than worthwhile. You can look at other photo workshops on YouTube that host Oaxaca Day of the Dead sessions (Kongo looked at a bunch of them) but none of these approach the depth and breadth of was National Geographic offers you.
If you’re serious about your photography, want to up your game, and get access to the best shooting opportunities then this workshop is for you!
Of course, to get the most out of a workshop like this requires a commitment on your part that goes beyond putting down your credit card. Your are expected to participate. Some in our group complained that there wasn’t enough shopping. Seriously? Perhaps they should have signed up for a shopping tour. Others wanted more culinary opportunities. Okay, come early and sign up for a culinary tour of Oaxaca. There’s plenty to eat here. Others thought they would learn how to operate their camera. We’ve already covered that but you don’t have to travel to Mexico for a week to learn how turn the dial from A to M and shoot in manual mode.
The workshop requires a lot of walking on cobblestone streets and through dark graveyards at night. Footing can be tricky sometimes but if you have reasonably good balance and stamina you can make it just fine.
The days are long and you’re expected to put in some time outside the classroom and field time working through your images. If you’re expecting a drinking junket your photography will show the results.
If you are looking for a serious, no-nonsense photography experience with a world class photographer that is going to inspire you and help you take your photography to the next level then this is definitely for you!
These workshops fill up fast so if you’re going to go, you should sign up for 2018 now. Here’s a link to the 2018 Oaxaca Day of the Dead Workshop soon. While not yet offered, here’s a link to the site: http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/oaxaca-photo-day-of-the-dead/detail
There were several other photo workshops going on in Oaxaca at the same time as ours. Gringos with big DSLRs were all over the place. Oaxaca is really becoming a popular destination at this time of year so plan early. There are only so many hotels in the central zone and that’s definitely where you want to be. If you do sign up for another photo tour other than NatGeo, be sure it includes some travel out to the villages and markets surrounding Oaxaca.
How much is this going to cost me?
Including the workshop price, additional single supplement, travel insurance, and airfare, this cost Kongo a bit less than $5,000. Kongo did fly first class so he could have saved about $1,000 had he flown economy. The monkey also got a $500 discount for having attended three previous workshops.
Travel safe. Have fun!