“Magic” was the key word echoed by students this week, whether they were focused on learning 19th Century photographic processes from our resident expert Brenton Hamilton or contemporary lighting techniques from one of the world’s most renowned magazine cover photographers, Greg Heisler

Yesterday, I walked into Greg’s Light Work workshop. The class was taking place in a cavernous barn-red boat storage facility turned high-tech studio for the summer—think Maine meets Manhattan. I sat riveted as Greg effortlessly choreographed different lighting configurations, and compared it to my own clunky bull-in-a-china shop approach. He swiftly arranged a set of Dynalites to the front, back and side of the model, even using his hands to shape highlights and shadows on the model’s face. After each image was shot, he then projected the results for students to compare. My favorite set-up was a reverse U-shaped trellis-like-structure with a top light and two side lights set against a black velveteen backdrop, all sitting behind the model, who was much closer to the camera. Front fill was used, and the effect was stunning, a soft rim light around the model’s hair and shoulders brought both drama and dimension to the portrait.

“I’m learning to trust my instincts and create light based on my individual perceptions,” said Sharona, a professional portrait photographer from Boston. ”It’s not formulaic. Greg teaches different recipes seasoned to taste.”

While Greg is known as one of the industry greats, what I found even more impressive was his genuine passion for teaching. He seemed so at ease sharing his years of knowledge and experience with photographers of all levels. I watched him give example after example of how to craft a look, while also teaching students how to employ what’s right in front of them.

“Greg’s amazing. I met him in Dubai at Gold Photo Plus. Everyone said if you want to learn lighting, this is the guy,” said TJ, a student from Chicago, who started shooting a couple of years ago, explaining that he came to Maine for Greg’s workshop to expand his lighting capabilities. “He has taught me how to motivate light and think of my environment. Now I think more cinematically and don’t just put the light on a stick and fire.”

Whether shooting low-tech with available natural light or in a studio using thousands of dollars worth of equipment, Greg encourages his workshoppers to really see and engage with what’s around them before snapping the shutter. “Motivate the practical,” is the mantra Greg often repeats. 

“Greg is a magician with lighting. He’s an intuitive lighter and an individual lighter, who totally caters to the subject rather than to his particular style,” explains Chris, Greg’s teaching assistant from Maine Media. “On top of it, he’s a really well spoken, sweet guy. I’m honored to watch his process. “

Earlier in the week, I decided to escape the humidity and duck into the cool comfort of our newly minted AltPro lab. My timing was perfect. I walked in the door just as Brenton began a Salt Printing demo. It was the first alternative processes class in the new space, and the anticipation among the group was palpable—lots of questions, note-taking and videoing Brenton’s every word and every step. Brenton stood beneath sheets of paper with hand-painted emulsions, drying on clothespins. He had a specified brush in hand and began applying a historic chemical concoction of silver nitrate. He directed the workshoppers to paint “luxurious” amounts of the emulsion onto the pieces of artistic paper pre-treated with a sodium chloride solution. He also warned them not to make puddles on the paper so that uneven emulsion thicknesses or brush strokes would distort the final image. 

I learned that each formula has its particular behavior and requires its own special brand of brushing. Ziatypes for instance are a saturate and coat technique. It’s something that needs to be learned by doing, a kinetic process where you simply have to experience and feel your way through, from the back-of-the-hand test to tell if your paper’s dry to how long to let your image develop in the sunlight. Yet that’s the fun of it all. Rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands wet, seeing the image slowly emerge when exposed to light. It’s the hands-on gratification of making something real, a tangible link to image creation that’s just different from moving Lightroom sliders back-and-forth on the computer for hours.

“I entered into photography during the digital age,” said Amy, one of the workshop participants, who owns a portrait studio in Ohio. “I think there’s a little something magical about the idea of using historic processes.”

Over the week, the students learned a total of nine different historic photo printing techniques including Cyanotype, Salted Paper, Kallitype, Albumen, Platinum Palladium, Ziatype and Gum Bichromate.

“It’s making photography magic and fun again,” said Skip, who travelled to Maine from Baltimore. “I’m excited to play.”

– Jennifer Cook, 2014 MMW+C PC Graduate in Visual Storytelling