Why Photography Workshops?

One of the many things I love to do is photography.  How many things I love to do…yeah…that’s a different story for a different day… LOL…

So I love photography!  It’s a hobby for me and what I call a “side hustle” meaning that I enjoy taking pictures on the side to make a little money to buy more camera stuff…so I can take more pictures…and then I’ll need more clients so I can buy more photography stuff…  You get the idea… Mostly I just love the challenge of taking the shot.

If push came to shove, I would say honestly landscape photography is my very favorite.  Trying to capture the beauty of nature and what I’m seeing live with my own eyes is exciting and magical to me. I love being outdoors hiking and exploring and trying to view the world a little differently than a normal average day.

Here’s the thing, to get better at anything, you need to practice and do more of it.  That often gets challenging (back to “I love many things”…).  My photography skills have grown tremendously and exponentially since I started doing photography workshops.  At the workshops I’ve taken, I have been allowed to…

  • Fully immerse myself in the moment
  • Dedicate time to practice and hone my photography skills
  • Have an expert on hand when I needed advice on where to start or how to change my composition
  • Worry only about taking photos (the instructor knows where to go to get the best shots and guides us from location to location)
  • Learn all the settings and capabilities of my camera (or should I say…it forced me to learn my camera…)

I’m not going to lie…the first several were rough.  I fought with my damn tripod (why are we using this thing?!?!), I got frustrated because I had no idea what settings to use, and I was somewhat resentful that the instructor actually MADE me use manual mode instead of the automatic settings on my camera.  Ha!  WTH?!  ;o)

I got some good pictures but it just felt like a struggle and it didn’t come natural.  I’m not a very patient person…LOL…

Neal Smith Workshop

Sunrise over Prairie City…shot from the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in April 2015 Workshop.

Milky Way Over Lake Superior

Milky Way over Lake Superior; taken in August 2015 during a Night Skies workshop.

William A. Irvin

The William A. Irvin in Duluth at night; 2015 Night Skies Workshop.


Eh…I got over it…eventually…  🙂

That’s when the magic started to happen.  It all started coming together for me.  I distinctly remember the workshop that was a true turning point for me…at least in my mind.  It was when my photo buddy, Sarah and I went to the Smoky Mountains for a workshop with Bryan Hansel in October 2015.  It doesn’t hurt that it was just an amazing trip overall.  Sarah and I traveled well together (very important when you’re driving 14+ hours…lots of “bonding” time), all the folks we met in class were awesome (not typical…there’s usually a few that just aren’t your type of folks, no harm, you just don’t connect), and it was my first time to the Smoky Mountains and I was like a kid at Disney.  I fell in love with the Smoky Mountains and I was in heaven!

The fact that I had gotten in dedicated practice time prior to this workshop definitely played into it being the turning point I’m sure.  I had taken two classes earlier in 2015: a 2-day class close to home at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge and a 3-day Night Skies workshop on the North Shore of Lake Superior. By the time we went on this trip I had struggled and fought my way through those other classes and finally knew my camera fairly well, had embraced my tripod (and gotten a much better one), and felt pretty comfortable using my camera.  For inquiring minds that need to know, at that time I was shooting a Canon Digital Rebel T4i (and looking to upgrade soon of course…).  I was still nervous as heck…what if I screw up my settings, what if the shot isn’t totally in focus, etc….but I was going in feeling more confident than previous workshops. I also had met Bryan earlier at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge workshop and liked his style.  He’s very laid back, explains the art of composition well, and I’m a fan of his images and how he composes them.

The workshop was crazy…it was amazing and exhausting…inspiring and beautiful and tiring…  We were up early each day to get into the park before sunrise.  October (fall colors) is the busiest time of the year and the Smokies just happen to be the most popular National Park. Because of this and the fact that there’s only one road into and out of the park, we stayed in the park all day moving to various locations and eating packed lunches in the park.  We stayed in the park through sunset each night, then headed back to our hotel and out to dinner (this was typically 8 or 9pm…ummm…I go to bed at 9pm usually…LOL…).  And of course, I HAD to at least dump my images off my camera and onto my laptop to ensure I didn’t royally screw something up.  We did this for 3 days straight…which about killed me.  Ha!  Did I mention, I’m usually in bed by 9pm???!!!

One thing that stood out to me most was watching the sunrise.  There is nothing that compares to watching the sun come up…and the fact that we got to see the sunrise over the mountains left me speechless (unbelievable right?!).  Even with 50+ photographers standing in the dark waiting on the sunrise…it was almost silent, the quiet was so magical and peaceful.

It was totally worth it!!!  I’ll savor this trip forever I’m sure!!


Waterfall we hiked too on Day 1; although we got #lostAF and ended up hiking 5 miles instead of like 1 to get there. Ha!


Before sunset on Day 1.


What ended up probably being my favorite shot from the trip; sunset Day 1.


Also a favorite of sunset Day 1.


A hidden troll bridge we found while hiking on Day 2.


The classic Smoky Mountains picture…Day 2.


I love stair pictures; while hiking on Day 3.


This image probably shows best just how vibrant the fall colors were while we were there; taken on Day 3 while it was overcast.


Since then, Sarah and I typically take one photography workshop a year (splitting costs is VERY helpful!).  In 2016, we went to the Badlands in December…yes, you read that right, the first weekend in December (it was cold).  We added on a couple extra days so we could go over to Custer State Park while we were out that direction.  That was a relatively cheap trip since it was off season; plus it was a great bonus that the park wasn’t busy! You can view my favorite images from that trip here:  Badlands and Black Hills.  I should mention there was a bit of a learning curve on this workshop because I upgraded cameras to the Canon EOS 7D Mark II.  I was irritated all over again because shit…they moved everything around on me.  Ha!  But I got over it quickly…

This year we went to the Grand Tetons National Park in September. That was definitely more pricey but again, worth it!  It was an interesting trip as the first several days there was a lot of haze from the forest fires going on in Montana, but it cleared up nicely by the weekend.  It gave us the opportunity to get some unique photos and I got to see my first moose and bear! Here is a link to my favorites from that trip: Grand Tetons National Park.

Some would ask…why continue taking classes?  Certainly now we know enough that we could venture out wherever we would like on our own.  However, there are things I enjoy about taking workshops — I like the camaraderie of other photogs (#photonerdsunite), I love not having to figure out where the heck to go, and there’s typically a lodging suggestion as well.  I’m sure at some point we will explore on our own when we aren’t finding a trip that we’re anxious to go on, but until then I’m happy to just pay a little $$ for someone else to have it all figured out.  🙂


Referenced links:


Bryan Hansel Workshops: https://www.bryanhansel.com/services/photography-workshops-and-photography-courses/

Smoky Mountain National Park:  https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm

Badlands National Park:  https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm

Grand Tetons National Park:  https://www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm

When Plans Changing = An Amazing Experience

The weekend of October 6-8th my husband and I were looking forward to a fun getaway camping (for the first time in our new camping gear!) and mountain biking at Whiterock Conservancy.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas…and the trip ended up getting cancelled.

I hadn’t really had a chance to consider options, except that there was also a cyclocross race that weekend and we had several friends that were racing.  My husband races on the DMOS Race Team so over the years I’ve taken many photos at races and we know a ton of friends there.

Late Thursday night….I get a cryptic Facebook message from a biking friend asking me to call her when I get the chance.  Hmmm…what’s up?  She proceeds to ask what I’m up to that Saturday, October 7th.  She was volunteering at Sarah Cooper’s Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra event and heard Sarah needed another photographer and she thought of me.

Side bar here…I’m gonna just go ahead and admit it…I’ve been sorta “fan girling” over Sarah ever since she came to speak at our Des Moines Cycle Club meeting back in March.  She’s an amazing athlete, a total badass, and an “average” Iowa mom who just happens to love biking and is kicking butt doing so.  We’re friends on Facebook and know many of the same people, but I doubt she would recognize me out and about or in a crowd.  To have the opportunity to be involved in an ultra race she’s Race Director for?  Hell yeah!

I’m like that sounds fun and so I proceed to message Sarah and get the skinny on the event and what she’s looking for.  I laughed out loud because one of the first things she mentioned was something about not really having a budget…which to me was a foregone conclusion.  Yes, I take pictures as a “side hustle” to earn money to buy more camera equipment.  However, I’m also a volunteer photographer at cycling events (mostly because my hubby started racing), at my church and at the Animal Rescue League.  I knew that if I did this gig, it would totally be volunteering of my time and talent. And, hello, it’s SARAH COOPER…I’m totally in!

We chat about conditions (it’s been raining…a lot…) and where she would like to put me on the course (I have NO IDEA what the route is).  I grew up in rural Eastern Iowa, so I’m not concerned…gravel roads are my old stomping grounds.  She mentioned something about near Orient (there’s actually a town called Orient, Iowa?? Who knew…LOL…) and that she would call me or text when she had an idea when the first riders would be coming past.  We knew it would be around 1-2pm so that was perfect as I could then still take pictures of my cyclocross buddies in the morning.

On Saturday as I’m heading out to Orient from Des Moines, it is torrential rain.  I’m feeling a little nervous about the possibility of shooting pictures all day in the rain (not exceptionally fun), but I have all my rain gear and you just never know about Iowa weather.  It stops raining for the most part by the time I get to Orient.  I haven’t heard from Sarah, but I’m referring to the Cue Cards for the race and driving around north of town trying to figure out which direction they’ll be coming from.  I land at the corner of Pinewood & 290th.  290th is a Level B Road…which is currently looking like a muddy nightmare.


“Wow…sucks to be you” is what I’m thinking of the bikers that will have to deal with that.  LOL… However, I also know that anyone who signs up for a Sarah Cooper race…and a 150- or 200-mile gravel race…is a little bit of a different breed to begin with.  I say that lovingly…I had several friends doing the race.  Ha!

Scott comes by and promptly gets his truck stuck going the other direction on the Level B road…


Sarah and Steve come over to save his butt and we chat for awhile.  I make sure to document that adventure…pretty sure Scott’s never going to live that down!!!


About the same time, we see the first racer coming up the road!!  Wahoo!!!  Now the fun begins…


Amazingly, the day went fast.  I texted with my friend Holly off and on most of the day – she was on the other side of Orient seeing them before they went through town. The riders came through mostly one at a time…sometimes in pairs.  All of them were awesome and smiling through the mud.  I was wishing I had a shot of whiskey to offer them rather than just a camera and a smile.

People might ask…why? Why did you do it…spend all day in the middle of freaking nowhere taking pictures mostly of people you don’t know when you’re not getting paid to do it?  I got paid in spades…  I got to meet amazing people, determined to finish something they started.  I was given the chance to chat with them a bit, find out where they’re from, what brought them to this backroad in the middle of nowhere, take their pictures looking like a total badass, and give them a smile and cheer them on toward the finish.  I got the chance to make a difference…if only for a moment…in their long mentally and physically exhausting journey. Maybe it didn’t mean anything to some of them, but I know it mattered to at least a few.  And if I ever decide to do a gravel race myself, I got a lot of tips and information…first and foremost, carry a spatula (best suggestion ever from Mr. Bike Iowa for getting the mud off!).

Not to mention…the photographer in me was super excited about some of the photos I got telling the story of the day.







I ended up being out there until about 8pm…waiting for 3 more folks that my friend Kyle had said were not too far behind him.  I got to see the sunset over the Iowa farmland, which to me is always beautiful…


Most of all, I got to be a part of an adventure that I’ll never forget!!  All because my plans changed unexpectedly…

How cool is that?!?!?



To view/download all my pictures of the Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra follow this link: https://carolynmarsh.smugmug.com/Spotted-Horse-Gravel-Ultra/

For more photo albums and race reports from the Spotted Horse see this link:  https://spottedhorsecycling.com/photos/