I have loved photography since high school and am incredibly grateful that 8 years ago my passion became my career. The funny thing about being a professional photographer is that you end up spending less time behind your camera than you did when you were a hobbyist because your business ends up taking up the majority of your time and energy.

camera and photo supplies of sara mcconnell photography

Last year I committed to a monthly model call in order to carve out time in my schedule for professional development, experimenting with different lighting and poses, and also for creative fulfilment. I have endless ideas for photos yet they are the first thing that gets cut from my to-do list when the demands of family life and my business take over. Giving myself permission to re-focus my energy on the creative side of my business was not only incredibly rewarding but I was suddenly inspired with new session ideas and plans for different types of sessions both outdoors and in my studio.

image of a photographer book by sara mcconnell photography

The result of my year-long creative challenge was that creativity became a part of my daily life again and I was able to make time in my busy schedule to experiment and “play”. It also meant that after two years of excuses, I found myself in New York City last month for a weekend workshop with the amazing Rachel Neville Photography.

I grew up in the country and love to hike, camp, and spend time outdoors, which is why my love of New York city is a bit baffling to me.  I am definitely not someone who enjoys spending time in the city but for some reason I’m drawn to New York and it’s somewhere I’ve been several times and keep wanting to go back to.  

photo of a dog sitting against someone's lap
Ella the studio dog

I have admired Rachel Neville’s work for a few years and on a “maybe one day someday” bucket list put one of her workshops.  But for some reason travelling to New York to take a workshop that would be incredibly creatively fulfilling and 100% for me, seemed unnecessarily selfish.  If a friend told me they planned to take a similar trip I would be endlessly encouraging and supportive but why couldn’t I approach my own dream with the same enthusiasm?

In a moment of strength, which I initially saw as weakness, I signed up for one of her two-day dance photography workshops.  Dance? I know. I am not a dancer. I was not a dancer as a child. I was a competitive dressage rider, which is often described as equine ballet, and so my love of movement and art is definitely not coming from out of left field.  But my love of ballet is definitely something that surprises people!

photo set up

In February I travelled to New York on my own for the workshop and the experience was transformative.  

I flew into Newark and then traversed Manhatten by train and subway to my hotel in Long Island. After a long day of travel, I was happy to settle into my room and prepare for the first day of the workshop. It was strangely unsettling to be on my own: as much as I long for solitary time, I’m not used to the quiet of being in a space by myself, especially so far away from home. Aside from the Uncommon Creative Conference last September, this is the first time I’ve travelled on my own.

I was up at 5 am on Saturday and decided to head into the city to spend some time in Central Park before the workshop. It was amazing to walk through the park and enjoy the chirping birds and early morning sunshine.

picture of sara mcconnell in central park New York

We got right down to business after arriving at Rachel’s studio. The group of workshop attendees was diverse but all experienced photographers, which mean we jumped right into learning about the business of dane photography and how the genre of photography could be incorporated into our current businesses. Prior to the workshop we had all answered questionnaires and submitted portfolio images and I was immediately impressed that Rachel had individualized feedback for each of us based on what she’d learned as part of the registration process. She is a wonderful combination of funny, engaged, and demanding: throughout the weekend she pushed all of us outside of our comfort zones and helped us to formulate a plan for “what’s next” once we left the workshop.

photo supplies

We spent the second half of the day working with dancers. We each had multiple opportunities to work with the dancer of our choice to create images that fit our style and vision. We worked in teams to adjust lighting, re-adjust lighting, adjust lighting some more, and then work through each pose with both the dancer and Rachel’s feedback. By the end of the first day I had over 6 pages of typed notes and was brimming with ideas. While this workshop was initially meant to be for creative fulfilment after the first day I realized how excited I was by the possibility of incorporating everything I had learned into my business. I love working with teenagers and athletes and the skills I acquired will allow me to offer the kind of creative sessions that I have previously only dreamt about.

dance photos at Rachel Neville Photography workshop

I didn’t leave Rachel’s studio until 6 pm on Saturday and after grabbing food at a nearby grocery store headed back to the hotel to process everything I had learned. One of the things that is most challenging about creativity is that when I’m at home, I’m constantly having to ‘turn it off’ to attend to the needs of my business and my family. Having 72 hours set aside to do nothing but focus on the art that I love meant that once I started thinking and dreaming, it was hard to stop! While what I learned means incredible things for my dance and athlete sessions, it also resulted in new inspiration and ideas for my family and maternity sessions in studio. The wonderful thing about improving your studio lighting skills is that they can be used across all genres of photography. I’m going to need another two years of model calls just to work through all the ideas I’ve had!

dancer posing at Rachel Neville Photography workshop

After an overview of editing and retouching on Sunday morning we jumped right back into shooting. As the weekend progressed Rachel stepped back and let us take more control over each of our ‘mini sessions’ with the dancers, stepping in to re-direct or offer feedback, but giving us the opportunity to put into practice what we had learned. As much as we’d all love to have her standing beside us at every session, we all needed that gentle push to start going through our workflow in our own way.

dancer posing at Rachel Neville Photography workshop

I have taken many workshops over the years and learned from at least two dozen incredibly talented photographers. Rachel is an excellent teacher and mentor who has the ability to work through material efficiently without rushing you and to tailor her teaching to each person’s unique needs. Not only did I have the opportunity to work one-on-one with her several times but I also had the benefit of watching her work with the other photographers one-one-one, which meant the learning was non-stop even when I wasn’t behind the camera.

dancer with stretching legs wearing ballet slippers

At the end of the day on Sunday our last challenge was a speed round. We each had five minutes, one light, the dancer of our choice, and complete control to create one pose without any input from Rachel. It was incredible to see the progression in creativity and speed from our first attempt on Saturday, where we each needed 20 minutes to successfully work through one pose and set-up, to our ability to do the same workflow in less than 5 minutes just over 24 hours later.

dancer wearing blue outfit stretched with arms in the air at Rachel Neville Photography workshop

Thank you to Rachel, her incredible team, and the dancers who worked so hard to ensure we had the best possible learning experience!

If you know a ballet dancer (10 and up) in the Ottawa area, please let me them know that I’ll be looking for several dancers for creative sessions in 2019. They can sign up to receive all the details here.