One of the things I love about living in this part of Sussex is there is so much amazing stuff right on your doorstep and one of my favourite places is West Dean College. Calling it a college instantly gives the wrong idea of what it’s like. It’s more like a country house hotel or a stately home. The main building is an historic mansion which is full of incredible works of art and outside the grounds are made up of acres of formal gardens and parkland.
The college was founded by Edward James a collector of surrealist art and a close friend of Salavador Dali. Students come to West Dean to immerse themselves in creative learning whether that be doing a two year degree in furniture making or a day’s course in painting.
Last weekend was my second time at West Dean. Four years ago I did a 3 day course in photojournalism and this time I went back to study natural light portrait photography with the same tutor, Andrew Hasson, a press photographer.
As luck would have it I was also able to purchase my new (and long-awaited) 24-70mm f/2.8 lens last week and so I got to road test that a the same time. There were three of us on the course, a really lovely number which meant we got to know each other well and steer the teaching slightly towards what we individually wanted to learn. We actually finished off on the last hour yesterday with Andrew showing us his collection of photos of Glastonbury… Nothing to do with portrait photography, but very inspiring and really interesting!
So what did I learn? Well having attended Andrew’s course in 2012 I knew what I would get from him and I particularly admire his speedy and clean approach to taking portraits. His day job means he has to be able to go in and compose a great and compelling picture fast and he also has to get most of them right in camera so they can go back to the picture desk while he’s on the road. That’s not to say he doesn’t ever edit photos, given the opportunity there is editing he will carry out in Lightroom on every picture and subtle tweaks he will make on most, but the point is what’s shot has to be pretty good to begin with.
When I did Andrew’s course four years ago I was in the midst of that stage of learning photography where you believe you need every gadget and tool going and you drown your images in Photoshop Actions when you process them. I’ve come back round to doing things simply now, so it’s inspiring to see great stuff composed in camera.
Our course focused on learning to recognise light sources and use them creatively and with the minimum of fuss. We had a model for one morning, but for the rest of the time just practiced on each other.
I always find shooting with another photographer fascinating. You can be inches away from each other looking at the same subject and get totally different photos and so part of the collaborative learning experience is that moment where you see someone else’s photo and think why didn’t I shoot wider or why didn’t I move slightly to the left.
I learned a lot over the three days, but I actually think its almost more important to learn a few things well. For me the key lessons were to completely prepare before you even ask the person you want to be photographed to step into the frame. You do this by setting exposure manually using the palm of your hand and by knowing exactly how and where you want the person to be photographed. I also learned that seemingly uninspiring backgrounds can still produce compelling images and that you can produce really dynamic images indoors using just natural light and the contrast between ambient light in the foreground and the light (or lack of it) behind.
The surprising thing for me is that having gone into the course loving the even saturated light of the outdoors, I have come away most excited about shooting indoors. Of course they’ll probably be a slight period of adjustment as I realise that I don’t actually live in West Dean House with armour and gold framed portraits on the wall, but I see so much potential for telling stories and lighting photos interestingly inside now and I’m really looking forward to putting it into practice in the future…
Thank you to David & Kathy for their company this weekend and to Andrew for another brilliant course.
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