SUMMIT PUSH: Making Outdoor Photography Work

Photo workshops can make instant winners of beginners.

by Leslie Anthony

In a day and age when practically everyone holds a legitimate photographic tool and processing lab in their hand, it’s often hard to remember that the mere act of photographing does not a photographer make. That’s why workshops like this September’s Whistler Outdoor Photography Summit will continue to be sought out by those even remotely serious about the craft—and hangers-on like myself who prefer to write about it.

Building on the popularity and success of three years of similarly themed programs, this year’s affair took place in conjunction with the Whistler Arts Council’s Out of Bounds Backcountry Photo Contest, a premier exhibition with a $1,000 cash prize—the kind of photographic critical mass/gravitas for which Whistler has become famous.

Over the past twenty-five years Whistler has grown from just another mountain resort to an epicentre of outdoor action and adventure photography. With both snowsports and mountain biking, the “Whistler area”—a globally accepted euphemism for the Sea-to-Sky corridor linking North Vancouver to Pemberton—now features the highest concentration of pro athletes and pro photographers anywhere. “Photography and the outdoor activities that we love [here] go hand and hand, just like athletes and the equipment they use on the mountain,” says Summit founder and director Blake Jorgenson, who launched the workshop idea solo four years ago from a hotel basement. “Documenting and sharing adventures with others inspires us to be out in the mountains even more.”

article continues below

The Summit featured two concurrent workshops: one, for those interested in general outdoor photography, included light action, landscape, journalism, and lifestyle shoots with models; the other focused on action, lifestyle, and working with professional athletes. Both comprised three days with all-star instructors like Jorgenson, Paul Morrison, Eric Berger, Jordan Manley, and Scott Serfas who worked one-on-one with participants on their process regardless of ability, and participated in six lectures/presentations over three evenings. For the first time these evening sessions were also open to the public—as much to benefit participants and audience members as to encourage the heavy-hitting instructors to share their best images and the stories behind them. ““[It’s] a great opportunity [for participants] to learn a lot in a short period of time by working with fellow attendees and some of the top pros in the action-sports world,” notes Morrison, who was brought on board by Jorgenson in year two. “The concept of a ‘Summit’ is to get more people involved at all levels. Hopefully this allows the workshops and evening talks to continue to grow and evolve into the future.”

To immerse participants in the process of exploring and documenting the outdoors in the most captivating ways possible, image editing, reviewing, processing, and software instruction in a classroom setting were wrapped around daily field excursions where participants learned to direct and communicate with their subjects under all conditions. This year that included some of the worst weather a Sea-to-Sky autumn has to offer—cold, drenching rain, obdurate skies, and heavy fog. Rather than presenting participants with only maximum adversity (e.g., keeping gear dry-ish, avoiding lens-change fog, hypothermia) and a steep learning curve, however, conditions also brought opportunity in the form of elements that can enhance action or landscapes: even lighting; moody vistas; falling, flying and spraying water. A growing understanding—in some cases mastery—of which was evident in the final night’s slide show/critique session, a personal highlight for Morrison. “Seeing the excellent—sometimes, superb—quality of images submitted for critiquing was very inspiring and rewarding.”

“It’s amazing to see how participants evolve during the course of the workshops and how the calibre of photography improves from year to year,” adds Berger. “The entire experience evolves every year and this time around I think we really stepped things up on all levels.”

The instructors were clearly stoked, but what about participants? “There are incredibly talented people in Whistler, and people come from all over world to participate in programs [like this],” says local realtor Sharon Audley, who took the course as a home vacation along with a nephew. “I’ve always enjoyed photography and it was a chance to understand what today’s cameras are capable of as well as bringing out the creative side. It was intense going from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and shooting in bad weather was something I’d never done. But I learned more than I expected to from the experience. It was awesome to see my nephew so inspired as well—the evening speakers opened his eyes to a new lifestyle.”

While the likes of Instagram, Hipstamatic, Snapseed and Camera Plus are certainly fun and convenient, they’re a lot more fun when you understand the elements you’re working with, and to achieve that, you can do no better than to learn from the best with a DSLR camera and a set of lenses that require some kind of dialogue between yourself, the subject, and the process. Call it a summit of sorts.