Workshop report: The Prague Masterclass, March 2015

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At the start of March, eight enthusiastic photographers gathered in Prague for the fourth Masterclass. Four even enjoyed the previous ones enough they came back again for a second or even third round 🙂 As has become a tradition, what follows is the Masterclass Report, which is not so much a bunch of photographs of people photographing and holding cameras, but instead a showcase of the participants’ work. Read on to see the kind of images we make.

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As usual with a Masterclass, the range of participants’ objectives and skill levels was widely varied; it’s always a challenge for me to accommodate, but in a very good way because it stretches us further. We had everything from a focus on documentary/storytelling to abstract fine art to posed model/commercial portraiture. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had such a diverse group in the past. Nevertheless, the setting worked well for this – Prague is a very accommodating city both culturally and photographically. Previous workshop participants would call it a ‘target rich’ environment. And it also helps that there are almost no restrictions on photography or tripod use anywhere.

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As usual, the structure of the Masterclasses opens with a day in the classroom where participants bring their objectives and a portfolio of ten images best fitting those objectives for a group assessment and critique; it’s important to get as many points of view as possible since there is no absolute right or wrongs with photography. Each participant goes away with an initial list of things to focus on for the week, to be reviewed regularly. Symmetrically, the goal for the end of the week is to bring another fresh portfolio of ten shot during the week to the intended objectives. This makes it easy to know what to shoot since there is something to work towards, and a baseline to assess progress against.

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I touch base with each participant at least once or sometimes even twice a day; there has to be enough room for experimentation and time to explore. The feedback cycle is critical even if no final-portfolio-worthy images are made. Each participant then gets half a day of intensive one-on-one tuition with me to accelerate learning. Though we really only had two days of good weather, it didn’t stop the participants from making some excellent images – and learning that whilst there is such a thing as ideal or ‘good’ light, there isn’t really such a thing as bad light – just the wrong kind of subjects. I admit this also challenges me to find images that work under these conditions – in a good way! I also added a new twist to this Masterclass: the mystery camera came along for a ride to provide a little reminder that composition and seeing are really hardware-independent. In fact, several of the images in the final portfolio were shot with it – and made it into the set here, too.

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This has become a bit of a tradition too at the end of the workshops…

The final day was also spent in the classroom in a mirror image of the first day, reviewing portfolios – but this time, we integrate postprocessing and workflow into the discussion since both are critical parts required to create a final image. I am proud to say that during this session there were some real surprises out of left field from every single participant – the kind of images that we (myself included) would be proud to claim as our own. Well done! I’ve further curated these images into a set of 24 to go with participant thoughts on the Masterclass below; each set of images goes with each comment. I would like to close off my portion by extending a huge thank you to all of the participants for letting me share your work here, being such avid learners and great company – I hope to have the pleasure of shooting with you again!

I will be announcing the next Masterclass in a couple of days – it will be the first one to be topic-specific, and will also introduce a new location to the repertoire: Hanoi, Vietnam. Stay tuned for details! MT

For previous workshop attendees, Michael Letchford has started a very active alumni group on Facebook. You can join us here.

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Gerner C.: Having participated in the Masterclass (MC) workshop in Venice end of November last year, I had my doubts should I be able to adapt and benefit from new endeavours already so soon after? I was still under impression and working on the outcome of the first MC while the chance occurred to participate in a new Masterclass in Prague. Feeling a bit odd to attend so soon again, I felt even more odd letting such a chance pass. After all it was astonishing beautiful and charming Prague that should host us and the city has been high on my priority list for quite some time. It was also a unique chance to work with Ming again and there were participants I so utterly wanted to see and to be together with. Now soon 3 weeks since the the Masterclass took place, I must say I do not regret at all. As we all did, I too bought my 10 images for a review and I must say it is quite rewarding having such qualified feedback from such outstanding photographers as I truly admit the whole group were. But just as rewarding it is to have a chance to give one’s opinion back to 70 outstanding images. It is on such rare occasions one’s fantasy starts boiling, our attention and senses are fully alerted, and we are getting new ideas and broadened and perspectives to one’s own work. I brought of course my objectives for the workshop, but they were already altered during the first days review session. There you go, the teaching starts immediately after the first imaged has been shown. OK, I brought my ideas about transcending the stocked way I have been shooting up to the MC by trying to add a twist to my work to make it more interesting to look at. Crossing the borders of my comfort zone and what have we, I learned my objectives changed a bit already during the course. I was encouraged by Ming to curate before I even took the shot and that makes a lot of sense in my case because how often haven’t I wasted data and time just to fire on some object and then hope for the best. I can’t say I fully succeeded, but I certainly went a big step in the right direction. By giving a possible shot a second thought you will also start distilling the idea about what it is you want to say with the shot. *Is it me to shoot this?* *Is the right light for the scene?* *Does it bring anything new to the table or is it just another cliche to the many already taken?* … These are questions I will ask myself in the future while running and gunning out there! Hah .. and then all my troubles bringing an inadequate tripod for my new D810 and its heavy glass was certainly a lesson I brought home too. Saying to myself and others *Oh .. I am not a tripod guy anyhow, so never mind* , well that isn’t actually the case to be honest, and Ming really was helpful to advise me what to buy while he saw me struggling and suffering with my dry spaghetti Gitzo I had brought. While I rushed to the local gear shop who advertised they had more adult stuff on stock, I was disappointed to learn that they had not! Well since not all our workshop days had strong light etc. I also faced many of my shots were shaken or robbed DR because of early auto ISO kick in. Nevertheless I got enough quality shots in order to curate for our last classroom day. I had my 10 images and I liked them. Even more did I like many of the 10’s my dear fellow participants brought! It was an amazing day with so many master shots I would have wished to have taken myself, and the good question could be *Why didn’t I*? The critique and feedback from Ming and the group were priceless and there were such a common energy present while we all took and gave, all while being taught and induced new ideas upon our efforts … it is hard to say otherwise than the harvest actually felt bigger than the seeds you sowed yourself. So also this time I am overwhelmed by the progressive process it is to pass a Masterclass. It is so rewarding and I would do it again and again so long there are Masterclasses to attend. I want to thank each one in the group for all we had together and in particular thank you Ming for being such an inspiration and source of photographic wisdom. It was unforgettable and enormously enriching. Thank you all!

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Junaid R: Curating and processing finally completed and time to share my thoughts on the Prague Masterclass! This was my second Ming workshop, the first being in Amsterdam some 18 odd months ago. That set the foundations and ‘principles’ for what makes an image and the Masterclass took this to another level. I actually came into the workshop in a bit of a ‘photographic rut’ and needing some inspiration and motivation to pick up the camera and shoot. The workshop started with us all sharing out 10 images and it was a sobering experience getting the feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Armed with this feedback we began shooting with some incredible light on the first day. The workshop challenged us to be more critical and more importantly the participants challenged each other to be better. We each also had a session with Ming to work on a certain aspect. Needing some help with experimenting my session involved us working with a tripod in the evening experimenting with the ‘Dancing House’. We spent 3 hours freezing to the bone on a bridge (with Ming you don’t get very far as he points out various things that could work…) experimenting with different angles and that was invaluable for what I wanted to achieve. Though the weather sadly didn’t hold up for the rest of the week, we were getting stronger images as we started to ‘see’ more effectively. At the final review session, the progress in the final 10 images the participants showed was outstanding – as a group we even worried Ming slightly before he started his curation 😉. But in the end Ming showed his experience and presented an incredible selection – we didn’t expect anything less from our teacher 🙂 . On top of that the group we had was fantastic and we had some good nights together. Thanks again Ming, it was great fun and onto the next workshop when and wherever that may be! And if anyone wants a look, my photographs from the workshop: https://www.flickr.com/…/125049303@…/sets/72157649274730284/

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Ian C: Prague was fantastic, and I will be back again. Great MC, with a great bunch of guys, and some stunning images on display in everyone’s final 10. It has taken me 2 whole days to curate down to about 400 images, which considering half the time the weather was very familiar feeling (grey, flat, boring, damp and unpleasant) is something. Most of the guys only had 1 good shooting day, weather-wise, and despite this produced great images…I think if the weather had held out we would have had all 3.5>4+ s. And I know, there is no such thing as “bad light” but still, it is alot easier to find inspiration and worthy subjects when the sun is shining! Thanks again for your time and mentorship, and for going the extra mile in trying to make it a more personal experience….I know this doesn’t come easy for you, nor for me, but I think it adds a lot to the mentor/mentee relationship. it was very rewarding shooting (or at least seeing) alongside you as a fellow photographer rather than as just a paying student. Although I am not overly enthused by my own output, I know why I am not (different gear, weather, being too distracted with Gerner and Junaid…in a good way!), and I came away with a feeling of validation, which was important to me.

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Mike L: All good things must come to an end as they say, so it is with much regret that Ming’s Prague Masterclass came to a close yesterday with a very positive final review day. It was my last chance this morning to steal an hour in the rain, trying out new kit with the sole challenge of subject isolation. Not so easy when it’s pouring down! Never mind, got some good shots of wet pavements and people under brollies taking their Sunday morning strolls in empty streets. Very evocative! The Masterclass was once again very challenging, but great work and much progress came out of it. Final Day Review was very inspiring ……. Thanks go to Ming for his unending patience and encouragement and skillfull criticisms – always focussed on pushing you forward. It was a great group, comprised of many talented people. You couldn’t help but be inspired. Must try harder!

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Kevin F: The Prague Masterclass was my first workshop with Ming and won’t be my last. Ming has a direct and very intentional style of instruction that is straight to the point. His workshop is demanding and free of fluff that one might find in other venues. On our first day, during image review, Ming identified areas that we could work on to achieve our workshop objectives; mine was compositional balance and aspect ratios. Shooting with Ming in beautiful Prague helped me to see what I was missing and in the end achieve better, more balanced compositions. My fellow photographers were both an inspiration to me and a joy to socialize with. I’ve learned, improved and made new friends; exactly what I had hoped for! A great week with Ming in Prague and highly recommended.

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Patrick H: Even though I read all the enthusiastic comments that previous masterclass participants left on your website, I came to Prague unbiased and open to any outcome. In retrospect I can say that they were not at all exaggerating. I experienced a very dense week which has left some strong marks in my approach to photography.
The early discussion we had on distraction and the minimum number of elements needed for a story helped me very much to review my previous practice of framing. Your straight, clear cut and always well thought critique brought me on the track to compose much denser images. Looking back it’s amazing to see how much progress is possible in a few days with proper and instructive guidance.

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Emil V: I’ve stumbled upon Ming’s website a few years ago coming from the DPReview lens forum. I was at that time interested in the Zeiss ZF 21∕2.8 lens and someone pointed at his review of this lens. His site was new to me, so being a gearhead myself , I also read his Camerapedia pages and skimmed through his whole site then concentrating mainly on his gear reviews. It did not take long to notice that he had plenty of perfectly composed images, pictures of real artistic merit, which was actually a welcome surprise. A lot of guys talk about gear and photography on the web, but their artistic output is well, even mildly spoken: dubious. I have been and I am still am subscriber to manuals∕gear review pages and have spent many many hours on the web beachcombing for worthwhile content on photography. Months and months passed, Ming started his Master Classes and I’ve seen from him a steady flow of perfectly composed photographs, which had a slightly unnatural, darkish, but very pleasing coloration. I immersed more and more into his writings and his photography already then
started have an impact on my shooting. In the meantime I saw Ming’s free Havana tuition video and also bought his three discounted tuition videos. When he announced his Prague Master Class, I knew the time
has come. True, I got some nudging from my wife, who is also an eager photographer. Prague had a special significance for us: our photographic fever started exactly there 12 years earlier.
Prague started and ended in a „classroom”, by Ming analyzing and commenting first the 10 best images we bought with us, and at the end, the 10 best images we made during the course. In the meantime, every morning and noon we had the opportunity to seek his opinion on the images we made that day or the previous afternoon. Also all of us had a half day with him personally, when we would go out shooting side by side.
It is also important to mention, that on the very first day, Ming also asked everyone, what was our aim with the course. I happened to mention that my photography usually has a human focus, humans are part of my compositions. This at the time seemed to me just a casual sentence I said then to explain what I was generally shooting, but by the end of the course I had to realize that this sentence does have a much deeper philosophical meaning. I have come back to this thought ever since.
Let me try to explain. Ming is photographing compositions: buildings, objects, street scenes, where – occasionally – humans are also included but mostly as requisites for a perfection seeking composition. I think that Ming is the best out here with his compositional skills and capabilities, I’ve seen practically numberless compositions from numberless authors, but he is tops in this genre, if not the best, then

certainly one of the very best. (And more importantly from your aspect, he is able to pass on to you much of this. It’s only up to you how much you utilize). So yes, composition is the alpha and omega of photography. So if you can develop good∕better∕perfect composition into your everyday language in photography, then you can get very very far. By the end of the course I have seen quite a few excellent images from other participants that I would happily hang on my wall or call my own. (Primarily Patrick’s
image of a statue of a man hanging outside a window.)
Regarding photography I have come from a different school. Having been a journalist for 35 years I knew many great photo journalists and have seen even more great news photographs. This genre is primarily about human drama, the word drama used in a very broad context here. (By drama I do not only mean strong human emotions, but a smile, a grin, a facial expression, a human gesture that communicates outside the image). To humans humans are the most important subjects. We would look with interest at
another human being rather than on a composition of objects. We resonate better to other humans. Having been practically immersed into such photographs more than half my life, no wonder they had great influence on me and no wonder I tend to put humans in the focus of my photography. Humans that are not just esthetic compositional elements in a picture but humans that do somehow communicate outside the plain of the image.
I have mentioned some of this to Ming, definitely not with such clarity as I myself have not put these things into their proper place at the time. Then I felt that human „drama” portrayed on an image easily overwrites compositional principles and it is the „drama” that talks to us, that really hooks us to the image. (Ming said something like we cannot expect much drama on the streets of Prague anyway and human drama – well composed – will have greater photographical value. In this he is definitely right. (Still, that very day the two of us have stumbled upon a drug addict, a woman, sitting in the staircase of the parking lot to Prague’s Wilson Railway Station. She was sitting silently on the filthy stairs stinking of urine, and held an injection needle that Ming later said she would use to inject heroin into her arm. The woman looked at me as we bypassed her on the way up. I still cannot forget her hopeless dark brown eyes. So there’s human drama for you even on the streets of Prague, something we did not photograph for ethical reasons.)
So what did Prague bring for me? The most important part is something seemingly very simple: the understanding that one needs to compose carefully. Very carefully. An amateur beginner would say sure, what’s the big deal? One needs to be at a high level to grasp the real difficulty of this simple sentence. Because in Ming’s terms this means practically pixel level perfection. Coming home from Prague I skimmed through several years of my images only to realize how sloppy I was before, how many good
chances have I missed, by not taking better care. I just did not know before. The other lesson was how to balance a composition, what to watch for in an image.
I think I have gone home from Prague with a highly useful set of tools, but I will need much more practice to become fluent in their use. I know I will never achieve Ming’s levels of perfection, as neither I have the patience nor his abilities, but for my purposes I will be very satisfied. Also it is important that we know, what we do and what we do not want. No, I will not be chasing the ideal of perfect compositions of objects, but I will definitely use the skills learned for the human aspects of my photography.

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Igor S. sends his apologies as he has just had a new arrival in the family and is understandably busy – congratulations, Igor!

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Turn the mood and style up to 11: the Hanoi Cinematic Masterclass in association with Zeiss (21-26 July and 28 July-2 August inclusive) is now open for registration – click here to book and for more information.

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Comments

  1. SO inspirational. Beautiful images, everyone. To those considering a MC in your future: DO IT. Not a second of regret for this former participant!

  2. snappycow says:

    On one hand, I’d very much love to attend one of these Masterclasses one day.

    On the other hand, I do not have even 10 photos of which I am proud of to bring to the table.

    But I just bought some of Ming’s video classes last week, so hopefully I can improve up to that point where I can say I am proud of my photos 🙂

  3. Jorge Balarin says:

    Guau, some really good photos. I like specially the one of the white arcs, the colour sorbets, the man hanging from a pole, and the tree with a church reflected on a window.

  4. Wow, congratulations to all of the participants! What an amazing set of images!

  5. …PS… Actually, one with you and Wesley combined over a weekend would be perfect — something focused on working toward printing specifically, as well as the ‘seeing’ side, and ‘shot discipline’ and so on. The full gamut, if I can borrow the analogy!

    KL 2015?

  6. I can sympathise readily with the image of participants viewing a large Ultraprint for the first time, especially “Mr Levi’s” incredulity. They are something to behold.

    Ah, one day diaries, locations and the stars will coincide and I can join one of these workshops should you continue them.

  7. John Weeks says:

    Awesome images…my bucket list.
    When is your exhibit in Chicago?

  8. lensaddiction says:

    Sad to see no women present. I would love to attend a Ming workshop but it would need to be a bit closer to home to be affordable, travel wise

    • I seem to scare them off for some reason 😛

      Would love to offer landscape in NZ, but few people can afford to travel that far…

      • lensaddiction says:

        Doesn’t have to be NZ for me, plenty of options in pacific beyond Us. Btw trey Ratliff seems to mange with his workshops, they are very $$$, I can’t afford to go to them either and they are 5 hrs drive away for me

  9. I visited Prague in January and although took some pictures I was ultimately happy with (https://www.flickr.com/photos/henryjk/sets/72157648857585274/), it’s quite another thing seeing these pictures in some of the same locations. What strikes me is the confidence in the frames and the eye for detail in seeking them out. Congratulations to all involved.

  10. Dear readers

    Would Autumn In Rome have any interest? Sounds exotic to me.

  11. I just hope my images speak much eloquently than my pen (well keyboard…) did for the report! Mental Note: next time use a thesaurus and find alternatives for “great” (but it was!)!

    Patrick, Kevin, Igor…you guys need to put your work on Flickr or join Michael’s FB group! I want some of those images on my virtual wall of inspiration! Patrick’s hanging man and swans and penguins, Kevins’s trippy reflection of St Nicholas’ and Igor’s ladies of Prague and drinking straws…grea….I mean wonderful!

  12. Wonderful images from all! Congrats! Really enjoyed the write ups as well. – Eric

  13. When you’ve offering a Hamburg 2015 masterclass? Hamburg is the No, 1 City in Germany!

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  5. […] will be the seventh masterclasses respectively following Havana, San Francisco, Venice, Prague and Hanoi; clicking on those links will take you to the previous reports and participant thoughts. […]

  6. […] will be the sixth and seventh masterclasses respectively following Havana, San Francisco, Venice, Prague and Hanoi; clicking on those links will take you to the previous reports and participant thoughts. […]

  7. […] will be the fifth masterclass following Havana, San Francisco, Venice and Prague. Each masterclass has been fully subscribed and every time it gets even better; clicking on those […]

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