After surviving the pandemic, some rather serious surgeries, several weeks of physical therapy, and broken bones (bike crash), Kongo Monkey returns to his blog after a trip to Northern California for a photo workshop with the incomparable Joe McNally. This week-long adventure to San Francisco and the Napa Valley was the perfect get-out-of-the-treehouse romp to get the monkey back into an unZoomed world.
If you’re not familiar with Joe McNally then please take a minute and click his name to learn more about this amazing photographer. Kongo has done previous workshops with Joe in Santa Fe, New York, and San Francisco, and he never fails to inspire, instruct, and motivate. The monkey returned home recharged and vibrating with a desire to up his photography game and get organized. Exactly what he needed.
The workshop was organized and run by fancy girl street boy Productions with the super-talented Liza Politi and Ari Espay. This award-winning duo sponsor photography workshops and tutorials all over the world. If you’re thinking there may be a photo workshop in your future you need to check them out.
The workshop starts with a welcome meeting and then you’re off for the first photo shoot. We headed to Union Square in the late afternoon to catch some pre-golden hour light before meandering through Chinatown to reach our dinner spot in North Beach. San Francisco always has a lot going on and our first day was spot on.
Joe’s workshops always include frequent technique demonstrations, group reviews of your “takes,” and a daily assignment. This one also included a lot, really a lot, of wine tasting. So, if you think you could just plop your camera on a tripod, set the mode switch to AUTO, and use the remote to snap images while guzzling some of Napa Valley’s finest vintages (Kongo actually thought this might be a good idea) you were quickly disabused of that idea. There was a lot of crawling through vineyards on this trip.
During this workshop, we visited the La Crema and Ferrari-Carano vineyards in Sonoma snd Healdsburg. These stops provided scenic backdrops, opportunities to roam through the vineyards and wine cellars, and work with various types of light. In the world of photography, Joe McNally is pretty much THE master of light so following him around as he walked you through speed lights, camera settings, high-speed shutter synchronization, reflectors, and lighting challenges was exactly what Kongo was looking for.
The other cool thing about visiting the vineyards is that Liza and Ari had done perfect scouting and preparation so the winery staffs were helpful, friendly, and knowledgable. At Ferrari-Carano (one of our group opined that the place was like a television setting for The Bachelor) we had the entire winery to ourselves.
So the first day was San Francisco. Days 2-4 were in the wine country where we were based out of Napa. Days 5-6 were Sausalito and back to San Francisco.
Of course, there was more than just drinking wine. Really. We explored Napa, Sonoma, and Healdsburg with assignments to engage with people and get their photograph. This is always a challenge for Kongo. Approaching strangers with a camera always makes the monkey feel somewhat like a stalker. Others in our group were much more outgoing so Kongo would sometimes follow along and piggyback on their initial approach. Joe always wants you to get out and engage so if you are going to one of his workshops, you need to prepare yourself.
So one of Kongo’s favorite spots was shooting the Golden Gate Bridge during golden hour. We perched ourselves on the high bluffs above the bridge and waited for the sun to drop. It was classic San Francisco weather, cold wind off the ocean, a fog lingering off the coast, and perfect golden light. You can’t take just a single image.
Nitty Gritty Stuff
The workshop was seven days/six nights. Two very nice group dinners are included as well as cocktails and chips on the bus. Travel to and from the workshop is on your own but around San Francisco and Napa/Sonoma luxury buses are included as well as individual Uber rides if needed. Naturally there is some walking required and if you’re in San Francisco that means navigating the hills.
Lodging is provided. In San Francisco our hotel was The Clancy, a Marriott autograph. In Napa we were at the Archer hotel in the middle of old downtown. These are both 4-star hotels with an accommodating staff and perfectly located for the workshop. Classes were held in hotel conference rooms.
Schedules were demanding and full days of shooting are part of what this workshop is all about. We often rose at 6 am for morning demonstrations (or an optional balloon ride over the vineyards) and didn’t get back to the hotel until after 7 in the evenings.
Workshop cost was $5695 per person, not including travel to and from San Francisco. Companion fee was $3,500. Kongo opted to drive from his home near Los Angeles and with gasoline at over $6.20 per gallon and parking fees (San Francisco is $70/night | Napa was $30/night) it would have been cheaper to fly. But the monkey was really ready for a road trip so there you go. Three meals are included in the cost. Wine tasting, normally a $30++/person cost when visiting a winery is included.
One really cool aspect of the workshop was some alone time with Joe and again with Ari for a portfolio review. Having someone of their caliber look at your best efforts is both sobering and encouraging. At least the monkey didn’t dump his camera in the San Francisco Bay afterward.
We had about 20 people in this workshop, including a plus-one. With a single exception, this group is pretty much on the north side of 50 (the oldest was 80!), extremely well travelled, and had all attended previous workshops. Some of these folks are apparently workshop junkies and have been to lots and lots of Joe McNally workshops so there was a core group of attendees who already knew each other. One couple was from the UK, several hailed from the East Coast, and there was an entire rodeo lineup of good friends from Oklahoma. Amazingly, Kongo met a nice man, previously unknown, who lives only a mile or so from the monkey’s treehouse in Newbury Park, California. There were several couples.
Kongo’s BFF workshop buddy was Ashley Garrett, a super-talented professional photographer based in New Jersey. Ashley has an amazing sense of humor, a keen eye behind the lens, and has a way of quickly cutting to the chase. Every workshop needs somebody like her. She’s also a good sport, even volunteering for a boudoir photo shoot with some corks while in Napa. It’s a long story about the corks but it flowed from a workshop critique where Joe said something like, “Enough of the f***ing corks,” after one too many attendees submitted mood setting cork images as part of their daily take. Of course, that launched an avalanche of cork images, cork jokes, an original cork soundtrack, and little cork men with pins stuck in them. The monkey now has a box of a couple of hundred corks he’s mailing to Tulsa. Anyway, Ashley is Queen of Corks, as seen by the image below. Click on her name and watch an incredible Instagram post of her balloon ride with Joe McNally. (When Kongo gets the final workshop video he’ll update the blog and you can understand the cork thing …)
Is This For You?
Fancy girl street boy Productions bills this as great for amateurs to professionals. Kongo tends to agree although a lot depends on how you define an amateur. If you got your first “real” camera and took it out of the box the night prior to getting on the plane, this might not be quite right for you. You should know your way around your camera, how to shoot in MANUAL mode, have a fairly decent idea of composition techniques, and how to quickly transfer images to your computer. Of course, Joe and Ari are always available to assist (that’s what they’re there for) but you don’t want to be “that guy” who sucks up all their time. Take your lens cap off.
You need a laptop, you should be familiar with Lightroom or a similar program to move images from your camera to the computer and sort them.
People at this workshop were shooting with Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, and Fujifilm cameras so this isn’t a brand specific workshop. Joe is a Nikon Ambassador so if you’re a Nikon shooter, he can answer any question you might possibly dream up. Ari shoots with Canon. Both of them are very familiar with all the cameras you might bring along. Just don’t go out and buy a brand new camera before a workshop. Make sure you are comfortable shooting with it first.
You should be reasonably healthy. Plan on a lot of walking. And you need to be able to carry your gear, so be judicious about what you head out of the hotel with.
If you’re tired of the pandemic blues and are ready to get on with your life, this workshop is definitely for you!
Where We Shot
San Francisco, Union Square
San Francisco, Chinatown
La Crema Vineyard, Sonoma (Lighting demonstration)
Roadside pullover – Somewhere in Napa Valley
Optional Balloon Ride over Napa Valley (Kongo did not attend)
On location Napa lighting demonstrations
Downtown Old Sonoma
Marin Bluffs, overlooking Golden Gate Bridge
What To Bring
You need a camera (duh). This is not a iPhone workshop so you should have a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. Kongo did most of his shooting with a Canon 70-200 mm f4, his trusty 24-105 mm f4, and fast 50 mm f 1.2 prime lens. Of course he also packed another three or four lenses he never used, but would have needed if they weren’t in his suitcase.
You will need a tripod for some of the evening golden hour shoots.
Obviously, you should pack plenty of memory cards, spare batteries, battery chargers, and a laptop. Naturally, Kongo’s laptop kept running low on memory so that was a challenge. Try to ensure your computer is as clean as possible.
If you have flash accessories you should bring them. Joe McNally is a MASTER OF LIGHT and after watching him work magic with a speed light and a reflector you will want to immediately try it. Joe and Ari had some extra speed lights for Canon, Nikon, and Sony so you could make do if you don’t have them.
Bring Imodium and some Extra Strength Tylenol just in case.
Kongo is always in search of the perfect camera bag. He hasn’t found it yet. His walk-around bag is a canvas Domke which means he can only take a few lenses and extra batteries and cards. That ensures that he doesn’t break his back while out shooting. The monkey is not one for bulky camera backpacks, strap-on rigs to hold cameras and lenses to your body, or big heavy tripods. He occasionally uses a ND filter (but not on this trip) and pretty much always uses a lens hood to protect the front lens glass.
Kongo rates this adventure FIVE BANANAS!!
The quality of the workshop, the people, the venues, the weather, and Joe McNally lets the monkey give the week his highest rating.
Travel safe. Have fun.