Behind the Scenes at a Kevin Michael Schmitz Photography Workshop

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This is one in a series of articles excerpted from Resource Magazine. The issue can be purchased here.

The value of in-person education can’t be underestimated. With the abundance of virtual educational resources available for today’s photographer, it’s easy to lose sight of this, consequently never leaving the house and missing out on some exceptional and very different educational opportunities. While the benefits of online education are many — affordable, self-paced and viewed in the comfort of your own home — in-person workshops offer benefits impossible to replicate with e-learning.

Definitely an investment (but one that pays huge dividends), workshops offer hands-on experience and the opportunity to work one-on-one with instructors, gear, models, stylists, and other industry experts. Add to that the networking done with other students (who are all emerging artists and business people themselves), real-time Q&As with workshop leaders, live critiques and, in many cases, mentor relationships that last well beyond the workshop, and you’ve got a very special experience.

For our premiere workshop review, I headed off to Los Angeles to meet up with fashion and celebrity photographer Kevin Michael Schmitz and his students at The LA Fashion magazine’s office for Day 1 of his two-day High Fashion Photography Workshop. In addition to his busy schedule of commercial work, Kevin teaches his Photography Workshop Series in major cities around the country. Ranging in focus from fashion, lifestyle, and advertising to wedding photography, Kevin’s workshops have been garnering rave reviews from his many repeat students, and I wanted to see what all the buzz was about.

Communication prior to the workshop was excellent. Attendees were given a voice in the casting of models via emailed comp cards, and call sheets were sent detailing the schedule, guest speakers, and creative team for both days. This simple act of sending out call sheets (the industry-standard document creative-team members rely on for shoot scheduling and personnel details) laid the groundwork, teaching the uninitiated how to properly communicate with other creatives and setting the tone for what was to be a high-caliber, professional experience.

One of the first things that struck me was Kevin’s easygoing, approachable demeanor. There were no handlers, just Kevin greeting students as they arrived. He likes to keep his workshops intimate, capping the number of attendees at 15. This assures the individual attention and time Kevin wants every student to have with him.

Image @ Kevin Michael Schmitz
Image @ Kevin Michael Schmitz

Day 1 began with introductions and an overview of the workshop and continued with classroom-based instruction covering Kevin’s lighting styles, a hands-on overview of lighting equipment and tools, post-processing, and the all-important but often-missing nuts and bolts of running and marketing a photography business. That last part isn’t considered the sexy stuff by many — that is, until they realize how essential it is to the success of their businesses. Then it becomes very sexy. Guest speaker Crystal Wright, a fashion industry guru, former photography agent, and the author of Packaging Your Portfolio, provided insider advice on what it takes to create a winning portfolio, using student websites as case studies.

In addition to the wealth of information provided, Kevin also gives students a digital goodie bag of seriously useful assets and tools, starting with a list of 35,000 of the top decision makers to market to. The list includes art producers, creative directors, photo editors, ad agencies, in-house design firms, department stores, magazines, in-house corporate communication directors, and publishing, music production, and entertainment executives. This alone is worth the price of admission, but Kevin doesn’t stop there: he also provides copies of actual bids, pull letters (used to facilitate loaner wardrobe), model releases, a PDF of his retouching and sharpening process, and his Photoshop sharpening action, which rocks.

Image © Kevin Michael Schmitz
Image © Kevin Michael Schmitz

Kevin leaves no stone unturned, throwing open the doors to his business and detailing the bidding process, marketing strategies, lighting techniques, and his signature post-processing style — all invaluable information for anyone learning the ropes. There are so many questions in so many areas when you’re starting out that it’s hard to know where to turn. Kevin is happy to address every question with patience and expertise.

After Day 1, it was clear that Kevin is the real deal and that he sees himself as a partner in the success of his students’ careers. His approach is definitely along the “teach a man to fish” ideology, explaining the hows and whys behind business, technical, and creative decisions, rather than just teaching a slew of canned techniques. Knowing the reasons behind those choices arms students with the knowledge they need to work with purpose and direction, applying their new skills when and where they need them.

The second day of the workshop, I joined Kevin and his students cliffside in beautiful Palos Verdes, CA for a full day of location shooting. Students were paired into teams and tasked with setting up the lights and equipment for each of the day’s planned sets. Once the shooting started, students were able to see firsthand how Kevin creates his dramatic signature look, balances ambient and artificial light, creates lighting patterns, and uses light modifiers like beauty dishes, grids, gels, scrims, and fog machines to craft the perfect light and drama. Students get hands-on shooting experience, as the focus of each Photography Workshop Series event is for people to leave with a solid, tangible body of work for their portfolios. Throughout the day, Kevin taught, helped with technical advice, and coached students on the subtleties of directing models and achieving the dramatic fashion poses he’s known for.

Image © Raoul Beltrame
Image © Raoul Beltrame

Each of the models was extremely professional, accommodating, and full of energy, giving students their all for the entire day. If left unmanaged, the shooting portion of workshops can easily become dominated by strong personalities monopolizing valuable time with models and equipment, but time constraints were laid out the day before and adhered to the day of the shoot. Under Kevin’s watchful eye, every student got ample time to work with the multiple models and lighting setups. “My workshops center around giving students an unforgettable experience, with a single focus on arming them with the tools and team necessary to develop their own photographic vision and create an exceptional and cohesive portfolio,” Kevin says when describing his goal. “What I can teach students in one weekend took me years to learn.”

The one caveat — and this has nothing to do with this workshop — is that, as with anything in life, you get back only as much as you put in. Attending a workshop is only the first small part of the equation. To incorporate new techniques and truly maximize your investment, you need to repeatedly practice what you’ve learned. That’s when the real payoffs begin.

The next in Kevin’s workshop series will be held in Los Angeles on June 28 and 29. For additional information and enrollment, visit www.photographyworkshopseries.com

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