Photo by Ryan Engstrom | Split Rock Lighthouse, February 2011
Students can’t get enough of legendary photography workshop
Usually students will do anything to get out of retaking a class but there’s one class at Dakota County Technical College that 28 students chose to take over and over again. “It amazes me every time,” said Darrell Tangen, instructor in the Photography program at DCTC. “Apparently students talk, they have a good experience, they brag about it and eventually everybody hears about it.”
It’s the North Shore Photography Workshop. Students face the unpredictable elements of the Minnesota North Shore – 50 below wind chills, steady downpours, heavy fog – to take the elective course not just once, but as many as seven times. The workshop draws students from the Nursing Assistant program, Electrical Lineworkers, and Transportation Careers. For some, it’s the first course they take at DCTC and, after the workshop, they decide to come back for a full program. Something keeps them coming back.
The North Shore Photography Workshop premiered in 1999 out of Tangen’s love for the North Shore and opportunities for great photographic inspiration. The workshop came about from a desire to share his passion with others who want their passion for photography to grow. “I help the students see things creatively, compositionally, and artistically,” Tangen said.
Tangen offers one workshop during each semester to get a flavor of three different seasons: winter, summer, and fall. Even though students learn basic photography techniques, each workshop has a unique theme.
Students go to one of Minnesota’s best known landmarks for the workshop in February, the Split Rock Lighthouse. The 1910 lighthouse soars above a 130-foot cliff, where photographers can capture spectacular images of landscape and water.
The 640-acre historic Gooseberry Falls State Park is the target for Tangen’s June workshop. It’s the perfect time of year to photograph wildflowers in macro, specifically the blossoming, blue Lupinus polyphyllus (North Shore lupine species). It’s a great place for hiking and, of course, they can’t leave Gooseberry Falls State Park without taking photos of the five waterfalls, Gooseberry River and gorge, and Agate Beach.
Maple, poplar, birch, and tamarack trees flaunt their fall colors in September. Tangen takes advantage of the bright spectrum and brings students on his fall workshop to Shroeder, Minn., an unincorporated community just 53 miles northeast of Two Harbors.
The workshops take photography from classroom theory to in-the-field practice. The weekend starts Thursday night with a quick meeting to set the tone then they jump right into photography at the crack of dawn the next day. Tangen starts the students off with two-hour slideshow demos, followed by two hours of hands-on photography. Students can see the possibilities and immediately apply them, over and over again. Tangen calls it “instantaneous learning and instantaneous feedback.” Each block of instruction is specific to the location, the season, and the technique that Tangen wants his students to focus on. “I tell them, ‘Here’s the waterfall that you’ll go to, here are some of the things you can do to take a better photograph,” Tangen explains. “I’ll show them fifty variations of what they can do and how to do it so the students can call it their own.”
“I tell them, ‘Here’s the waterfall that you’ll go to, here are some of the things you can do to take a better photograph. I’ll show them fifty variations of what they can do and how to do it so the students can call it their own.” -Tangen
Some of the basic techniques Tangen incorporates into every workshop include:
- depth of field: learning how much sharpness to use and setting the camera to create the right amount in your image
- tack-sharp photos (perfectly sharp):, learning good camera technique and using a tripod correctly
- color and white balance: analyzing your surroundings to know what color of light is occurring (whether it’s snowy, rainy, sunny, or overcast), learning how to judge that light and adjust the camera so it captures that light perfectly
- motion; learning how to capture movement; water, animals, or snow
- lighting; using a flashlight in the photograph or the full moon
- time exposure and long shutter speeds; learning how to create star trails
At the end of the day, he brings in a local photographer, such as Jim Brandenburg or John Gregor, to share inside secrets about the North Shore and how to make a living at photography. “Bringing in photographers help the students realize that there’s a market for their photos and a techniques that can make their images interesting,” said Tangen.
Students are immediately hooked. “They can’t stop,” said Tangen. “They will go until they drop.” They shoot well into the night and still get up at four the next morning, drive three miles, get on the beach, and stand in the brisk morning to capture the sunrise. Tangen said, “It’s optional because class doesn’t start until eight, but not one student misses it.”
By Saturday, students are already showing more creativity and exploration with their photography. Tangen presents one hour for every three hours of photography because the students need less instruction by that time. At the end of the second day, they have logged 24 hours of photography.
The last day is a culmination of everything they learned, put into a 5-hour slideshow. Each student puts their 10 best images on display in front of the other 14 students. They spend five minutes critiquing each photo, “Everybody chimes in, ooo-ing and ahh-ing,” Tangen said. They share tips, suggestions, and ask questions of each other. I like that! This needs to be changed. How did you do that? What did you use? I didn’t see that! “I think that’s why they come back because next time they want to do what someone else did,” he said.
Ryan Engstrom, 37, graduate of the Graphic Design and Electronic Publishing programs, said he looked forward to the critique. “Darrell [Tangen] pushed the boundaries, in a good way. He pointed out things that you never realized were rules,” he said. “It was also great to see everyone’s best work from the whole weekend.”
Tangen’s goal is not to make nature photographers out of his students. The techniques they learn on the workshop helps them improve in all types of photography, even in weddings and portraits. “The students become intimate with their camera so that when they come back from that trip, they are so good that they can shoot anything,” he said. “The biggest benefit for the students is that they become masters of their tools and that will carry them throughout their careers.”
“The biggest benefit for the students is that they become masters of their tools and that will carry them throughout their careers.” -Tangen.
It doesn’t matter if the students are first-timers or seasoned photographers, they all build their portfolios during the workshop. According to Tangen, the North Shore Workshop students take some of the best photography in their lives within only three days of the workshop. “I teach the students to apply good photographic techniques and processes to achieve some great photo images that I call ‘wall hangers,’” said Tangen. His overarching goal is for his students to capture an image that will inspire a viewer, whether it’s selling a photograph or decorating someone’s house.
With 15 students going to the same places at the same times, do you think they get the exact same pictures? Tangen said that never happens. “We can stand side-by-side and there’s enough variation in our settings, our equipment, and the choices we make that our shots will come back different than anyone else’s,” said Tangen.
For the students who come back time and time again, Tangen came up with specific challenges for them. He knows they will push themselves harder and better understand what he’s teaching when they come back for another North Shore Workshop. He gives them two challenges, one of which has to be included in their “10 best.”
A challenge could be anything from a black and white (capture an image that looks best with no color), a panoramic (at least three times wider than tall), or an image with all motion. “I get them looking at things that the average eye would normally pass by because there’s nothing interesting,” said Tangen. “That forces them to look at their surroundings and get creative.”
Tangen isn’t the only one teaching during the weekend, the students draw from each other’s experiences as well. Tangen explained that one person will see something amazing and all of a sudden 14 others will be taking a photo of the same flower because they all want a piece of the action. “The students cooperate with each other. They share, they have a passion, and that just spreads,” he said.
The students learn together, shoot together, and spend their free time together. Many of the them choose to camp together, which gives them an opportunity to sit around a campfire in the evenings, build camaraderie, and hang out with other people who share the same passion. “Everybody’s talking and eating and thinking photography all day long,” said Tangen.
Ben Colvin, 24, of Lakeville, Minn., is a 2011 graduate of the Photographic Imaging Technology program and three-time North Shore Workshop attendee. He summed up the workshop in one word: phenomenal. It wasn’t the camaraderie between the other photographers that first attracted him to the workshop, but that’s what kept him returning. “I realized it’s the camaraderie that helps you grow as a photographer,” he said. “I learned so much from everyone sharing what to do, what not to do, what works, and what doesn’t work.”
Some of Colvin’s strongest friendships today all started at the North Shore Workshop, so much that one student was the best man in his wedding. “You have that initial bond of photography and then you discover other things that you have in common with each other,” said Colvin.
“You have that initial bond of photography and then you discover other things that you have in common with each other.” -Colvin.
It isn’t just the students who gain friends from the workshop; Tangen began friendships at the very first North Shore Workshop 12 years ago. “Half of my friends came out of the North Shore Workshops because we all have the same passion,” he said. “I don’t know how it happens in just three days, but it’s amazing how similar interests and passions have a lifelong impact.”
Their stories may not be so funny and they may not be so unique, but they definitely have stories. One year, the group fought with armyworms, which are green, forest caterpillars that move by the thousands, defoliating trees along the way. For photography students, landscape photos of trees without leaves don’t fare well but they didn’t break stride. “The only saving grace is that the armyworms don’t come next to the water,” said Tangen. “There’s a couple hundred feet from the water that they don’t seem to like.”
Tangen also remembers the worst weather they ever had on a workshop was in June 2010. It rained 60 hours straight. That weekend was Engstrom’s first workshop. He wasn’t a photography student and didn’t have a camera. He just needed one more credit to fulfill his program requirements. After the first couple hours of shooting, he was seeing things for the first time and getting great results that he couldn’t be stopped. And he didn’t – he attended the workshop four more times. “The environment kept me coming back,” he said.
“The landscape, the photography, the people, all those elements together is what made it really fun,” said Engstrom. “If you took one of those away, it just wouldn’t be the same.”
“The landscape, the photography, the people, all those elements together is what made it really fun. If you took one of those away, it just wouldn’t be the same.” -Engstrom
Tangen brings his wife, Gayle, on every North Shore Workshop. Without fail, they run into a student from a past workshop, who is back again to take photos on their own. “It must’ve meant something to them,” he said.“There’s nothing better than knowing that the workshop changed their views, probably for the rest of their lives.”
Interested in the class?
The key is to sign up the same day the course opens. On more than one occasion, the workshop has filled up within the first two days. Tangen decided against taking a larger group because part of the success is that he brings only 15 students. “I can provide a better experience overall, more one-on-one with every person so they can all come home with good photographs and a good experience,” he said.
If you decide to join sign up, take some advice from Tangen and a couple seasoned North Shore Workshoppers:
- Have an understanding of your camera
- Don’t go with expectations
- Be ready to get dirty (if you aren’t getting dirty, you aren’t trying hard enough!)
- Don’t take the class if you’re not passionate about photography
- Be prepared for the unexpected
For students who have taken the North Shore Workshop at least once and are looking for a new experience, Tangen plans to offer into an intermediate course in the near future. “I want to give people who are coming back another good experience,” he said. “I want something a little more intense, with longer hikes, and different surroundings than the North Shore Workshop.” He is considering the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, home to 57 waterfalls and 60,000 acres of towering maple trees. Tangen has also scoped out Bayfield, Wis., gateway to the Apostle Islands, and Sault Sainte Marie, one of the snowiest places in Michigan.
Tangen hopes to continue the photography workshops for the rest of his life. He said, “If you have a curiosity, a drive, a motivation, or just love Minnesota scenery, the North Shore Workshop is the class for you.”