If my memory didn't cheat me, I cried and shed tears three times after I came to this country, the United States. One and half years ago, when my close friends told me that I shouldn't waste my time to do photography any more as my Canon 7D shots look exactly the same as those taken by iPhone or pocket digital camera, I cried heavily for the 1st time. Then the graduation of Ph.D. after 4.5-year research study made me cry again. And finally the moment Cliff Mautner hugged me and called me "Qing, My Brother", I just couldn't hold my tears. I cried because these are exactly what I cared most, the artistic vision, professional knowledge base and the social network. I ever felt so empty when I had none of these. I believe that's how people define another as "loser".
Yes, you are reading a review about Cliff Mautner's Lighting and Skillset Bootcamp that I took in October, 2012. But before I began the normal tedious review process that I am almost never good at, I'd like to share with you a little of my own stories. If you had no interest at all, please directly jump into the next paragraph with BOLD characters at the beginning. I had no photography basics at all when I picked up my 1st DSLR-Canon 7D, which means I started at ground zero. I never shot a film camera before, and I still probably can't do it even right now. I actually hate photography as it made everything I knew so "FAKE". You can imagine how shock I was when I opened my older sister's wedding album but all I saw was an unknown hollywood-look girl dancing with a strange gentleman. I lost my familiarity of my dear sister in photography, and I had no idea why people still loved it. My life trail turned an abrupt 180 degree after my stepping into Jay Maisel's gallery by accident. His vivid and realistic record of colors, moments and gestures gave me a heavy blow right on my head. Suddenly I realized what a real photographer should look like, and how beautiful and fragrant the essence of photography should be. I began to take a deep look into it, and studied it like another scientific subject in my own "engineering" way. That's how "Silentwings Photography" project came out. It's pure experimental, and I was not sure how long it could last. I knew I had no experience, no skill set and no production techniques, nobody would like to be my model and samples. So for almost half year, I "imagined" that trees, stones, rivers and animals were my subjects, and I went to any events that could allow me to take images of people there. Day after day, night after night, I gradually found my images could only satisfy me two weeks, then one week, then 3 days, then one day, then never. The reason behind this is that I realized I always missed something, something like water or oxygen that had the magic to give life to any still image. When I bumped into Cliff Mautner's works and seminars, I learnt what I had been looking for was light! What is light, how can I see the light, and take it further how can I capture the light even if I can see it? These questions grew stronger and stronger in my head as time went by, and pushed myself into a crazy situation. I need to see the light, I told myself. Until today, I believe at least 90% of photographers are almost blind. They can't or don't really see the light, as you can tell from simply taking a glimpse of their works. Seeing the light is the real gem that sets you apart from the rest 90% immediately. It works just like "perfect pitch" in music industry. And you know owning a good sense of "pitch" or "light" won't make you a good photographer, you also need to capture it in a certain "elegant" way to create "art"! Seeing the light is not easy, though it looks like so, nor is capturing it! That's why I kept struggling with it until today. I remember the day when I first saw the light around me, I was so excited that I might had the potential to break the cold wall in front of me and drive me towards a ridiculously higher level. However, after shooting a couple of weddings and portraits, my passion extinguished! I lost my sense of light right in front of it. I reminded myself, I did see it, I did! But why my images showed no light in it! That means no texture, no dimension and no real unforgettable moments and moods there. I failed from the second that I clicked the shutter! I tell myself, I have to learn the art of maneuvering the light, I have to, at any price! And I found Cliff Mautner held a workshop entitled as "Lighting and Skillset", I know I might have found a path to reach there.
Seeing the light and bring out the necessary skills to capture it, that's exactly the essence of doing any kinds of photography. Cliff knew it extremely well like no one else (now he admitted that his beloved fiancee can do the same, which also gave me the confidence to learn and master it) after his 30-year photography experience. If you have read my 2nd paragraph above (if you haven't, never mind), and desire to know if it's worth to spend probably over $2,000 ($1,800 tuition plus your potential cost of lodge, gas and food, etc.) in this workshop, my answer is ABSOLUTELY YES! With this amount of money, you might be able to fly to Vegas and spend a week there gambling and watching shows, or purchase a brand new 70-200 f/2.8 lens to arm your photography business, or you might bring your lover a gift that might save your marriage or relationship. I don't care these at all, my goal is simple, and forgive me to repeat again, seeing the light and capturing the light, that's it! Camera is only a dark box to let the light in, it never did the real job, but you did! That's how Cliff impressed me at the first beginning. Put your camera away, take off your sun glasses, and ask yourself, do u REALLY see the light? If you have no idea at all but really want to be able to do so, then you are qualified for this workshop, and your expectation will be fulfilled. Though Cliff is named as "one of the top 10 wedding photographers in the world" by American Photo magazine in 2008, he never took it seriously as he said no real help was from it for his passion of photography or business. He might care his lovely daughters, or his 50 weddings every year, but fame like this on him, I don't think so either. However, I can convincingly tell you that Cliff cared a lot about this workshop. I was so tired at the 1st day and felt asleep so deeply that couldn't hear my alarm clock in the next morning. Cliff called me and woke me up! Yes, he called me in person, telling me don't worry and take my time to come here. All of them will wait for me! That's how I came to thank god right after i jumped off my bed, though the first word I spilled out might be "SHIT!" instinctively. Cliff is such a wonderful and humble instructor that cared each student in his workshop, never tried of repeating his core concepts of lighting and skills if any of us got lost. I showed him a dozen times my back LCD screen and asked if I got the "right" light under "right" exposure. He never kicked me off to the road side or let me judge by myself. All I need is to catch him and ASK! Like lots of previous workshop reviews have mentioned, Cliff treated himself as an open book to us, or for me a dictionary, whenever you didn't understand or got confused, looked it up and you might get the answer in no time. I love the way Cliff taught students, especially for such a tricky subject like light. All details or subtleties matter a lot, you need to pay special attention to what he said or what he did, as in next second you would try for yourself and that's how you are going to build your sense of light and skill sets so quickly and efficiently.
Briefly speaking, the 2.5-day bootcamp was separated into 3 main topics, natural lighting, flash lighting and post-production. Yes, no business was specialized in this workshop, as the title indicates. Cliff would like to share with you some of his "limited" business knowledge and details, if you ASK. But basically you primary goal is to learn these two crucial "lighting" techniques. You will have some time to shoot a couple of professional "brides & grooms", who you might have already seen in some of Cliff's images and video tutorials. I recognized the girls appearing in Cliff's latest Nikon D800 Campaign immediately (as you may see them in my images below) so you know you are shooting "real" professionals, no kidding. The workshop started with a short welcome reception on Monday night, when you can meet some other students in this workshop as well as Cliff and his lovely studio manager Noelle. We discussed some random photography questions like styles, inspirations, workshop agenda, gears and accessories, etc. The next morning began with a knowledge-base seminar by Cliff, who introduced his style and works, and of course HIS WAY of using the light. You may know Cliff always tried to emphasize that all he taught was HIS WAY, not the right way. But anyway, if you never liked HIS WAY or cared HIS WAY, why you bothered to spend $2,000 to come here. I came here because I thought my image sucked and I needed to learn how I can incorporate HIS WAY into my way to enhance my style. Cliff is well known for his unique way of shooting in noon and afternoon harsh light, which is always a big challenge for any on-location portrait or wedding photographers. He saw beauty of this light, he was the magician who can show you step by step of turning this ugly harsh light into the beautiful natural light that you will never hate shooting into it again and again. I asked Cliff what he should do if the weather was not good at all, how he would survive in a real wedding like this. He smiled, and that's why we needed to spend another day to learn how to use a single off-camera flash to either assist or replace the natural light for creating texture, dimension and mood. How to use Manual off-camaera flash in the right way is a big treasure that you need to dig deep into. Just be prepared to accept the new concepts and spend a lot more time after the bootcamp in practice. The last half day was to watch the short yet quite efficient post-production workflow operated by his pretty stdio manager Noelle, who combined Lightroom and Photoshop techniques to bring out the unique taste of Cliff's work! If you ever wonder how much post-production Noelle ever did on the Raw files, I could tell that's quite minimal, simple characteristic tone adjustments plus dodging and burning. If you don't believe, register his bootcamp and see for yourself!
Lastly, I have to mention that you have the precious opportunities (at least for me as I never went to big photography event like WPPI or anything like this) to have dinner with Cliff Mautner and other new friends that hold such great passion in photography. As I said above, Cliff is an open "dictionary", you really need some time to dig more out of it. In dinner time, you have another chance to know more about his photography as well as his life if you treat him as an idol in your heart (Yes, I am such a guy that regards Cliff as my sacred lighting mentor). Fortunately, Cliff is not Warren Buffett, you don't have to spare millions of dollars to have dinner or lunch with him. From this perspective, $2,000 might be a steal for you. If you want to hold your budget but are so eager to meet Cliff and have dinner with him, let me share a secret with you. Ever once in a while he will visit a Japanese sushi restaurant named "Mikado" in Haddonfield, and if you can show some tips to the boss or waiter there who would love to call you once they saw Cliff came, you got the deal! If not, what are you waiting for? Go to his website and give Cliff or Noelle a call to register the next bootcamp!
Yes, I repeat again, I love the bootcamp and I ABSOLUTELY recommend it. The last tip I want to give you is that getting your questions ready before you go, breaking your own hard ice will help you own more from this bootcamp than ever before, some of which might never be taught by yourself or anywhere else.
P.S. There is an Eddie Adams' quote in Cliff's seminar slides saying "if it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rpis out your heart, that's a good picture". Cliff brought me all of these feelings through his artistic creations and I am so honored to follow him and keeping learning from him. Thank you Cliff, for bringing me a new pair of eyes to see the world differently in beautiful light anywhere, for teaching me the necessary skills for capturing the light beams concisely and elegantly, and for treating me as a big family member like your younger little brother. I really appreciate it and will never forget!