Is great photography only possible with a DSLR camera and a set of top-of-the-range lenses? Of course not. Whether you take photos on a smartphone, a compact camera, a mirrorless or a single-lens reflex camera, your choice of tool is in many ways unimportant. As long as you know how to master it, your camera is simply the device that will capture your vision of the world. Your most important asset in photography is your eye, and how you choose to translate what you see into a still photograph. I recently gave a series of workshops to a group of budding photographers on the beautiful Red Sea coast in Egypt, to help them develop their potential as image-makers.
All photos © El Gouna workshop students
Greenest town in Egypt
El Gouna is an upmarket resort town, sprawled lazily on the Red Sea coast, a few hours’ drive south of Cairo. Built over 30 years ago, it attracts visitors from all over the world for its diving and watersport opportunities, but El Gouna is more than just a holiday hangout. A fully-functioning town with a population of 20,000, a university campus and a hospital, it is allegedly the most environmentally friendly town in Egypt (and the proud recipient of a UN global green town award). I was sent there last summer for the annual Sandbox music festival on a magazine photographer assignment and was delighted to be invited back – this time to teach.
The workshops were kindly hosted by Norshek, a producer of sumptuous natural health and beauty products, at their gorgeous store in the marina. Some workshop participants were ‘Gounies‘ with a professional interest in photography; from a nature enthusiast who is currently on a mission to photograph all the region’s different wild bird species for a community database, to an underwater dive videographer. Other students had come from Cairo, including a newly-qualified dentist, who’d travelled down for the workshop the day after his final exam. During the sessions, we examined the art of great image-making as well as photographic technique, and captured a rich set of pictures of El Gouna in the process.
Making a splash – and melting in the heat
There was a broad range of ages, equipment and skill level among the participants, from advanced photographers to enthusiastic beginners, and a number were working only with their smartphone cameras. I found the mix refreshing; it kept us focused on the real essence of photography – the importance of SEEING – and added richness to our exchanges.
Each morning, we sank into fat floor cushions in Norshek’s spacious lounge area and discussed a photographic theme (e.g. street photography; travel & landscape photography; sport & action photography). Examining images by prominent photographers in that field, we discussed how principles of composition, colour and light could be explored in subsequent practical work on the theme.
Whether during short exercises to master a particular technique, or out on practical assignments, everyone worked in their own way, to make their own unique pictures. After each task, we got together to review each other’s images, which was an eye-opening, exciting process. However straightforward the exercise, every student came out with quite different interpretations each time – as you can see here in two photographs of a milk splash.
The Red Sea setting for these workshops was unlike any other I have taught in before (for example, my food photography masterclass in Russia or teaching Marketing Masters students how to work with photography at the University of Monaco) – mainly due to the air temperature. Working outdoors in 45° heat is no joke. Fortunately Norshek’s store was air-conditioned, but practical assignments could only be handled in short spurts, and street photography isn’t the same when anyone who has the choice stays indoors. So we sought out shade, and captured El Gouna’s sleepy, sweltering peace on backstreets and at buildings like the striking, half-built music hall.
People photography on a phone
The first workshop was dedicated exclusively to smartphone photography. Anyone who thinks you can’t take great pictures on a phone, can think again. Phone lenses and sensors might not be able to compete with those of a DSLR, but smartphones increasingly have powerful cameras nonetheless – and a phone camera is always in your pocket.
Yet while most of our phones are filled with hundreds of images, each one preserving a memory of a person or a moment, how many of those are great pictures in their own right? Technique is certainly important, and there are many ways in which we can improve our phone photography (from controlling exposure and the focus point, to softing the phone’s flash). But before the taking of a photo comes an idea – and this is especially true when it comes to portraits. Questions like Who? Where? and How? come way before pressing the magic button.
That afternoon, everyone made portraits with their smartphones. Using different sources of lighting (all natural, available or affordable), we got our creative juices flowing. The lovely Farida was a great model; a swing, fishing net and magnifying glass became impromptu props; a lump of crystal, mirrors, a fine white curtain and even a waste paper basket were transformed into diffusers or reflectors of light, and the group got some really wonderful results.
El Gouna’s marina and downtown streets might be deserted in the heat of the day, but when the wind gets up, kitesurfers emerge from every nook and cranny of the town and flood to nearby beaches. On our last workshop day, there was a stiff breeze, creating a perfect opportunity to put some action photography into practice.
After a briefing by Nasty of Nasty Adventures (kiting, diving and sailing adventures in the Red Sea), who explained how kitesurfers move, how to predict their jumps, where it was safe to be – and where it wasn’t -, we got going. Makani Beach Club gave us a warm welcome, and the use of a rather lovely open-fronted working space above the sea for displaying and reviewing the pictures. Gnarly.
Ten out of ten
I’d like to express my gratitude to Norshek and Chris for hosting us, and to Farida, talented photographer in her own right, for helping set up the logistics of the workshops, for modelling, and for her creative input throughout. Tony, Mahmoud, Alia, Selim, Aly, Nadia, Georgina, Christina and Gorana: your hard work, ideas and enthusiasm were inspiring! I hope your adventures in photography continue to evolve and bring you joy.
Everyone has at least one picture displayed on this post: I am delighted to be able to show your work here on my website. Last but not least, apart from his photography, I’m sure we will all miss 10-year-old Selim’s incisive criticism on our work (anyone who was honoured with his rare “10 out of 10” in a review session will know what I mean).
All photos © El Gouna workshop students