Nikon School: Student Days

I am a Nikon School graduate.  I spent Saturday and Sunday in back-to-back one-day seminars, starting with Introduction to Digital SLR Photography and wrapping up with Next Steps in Digital Photography: Streamlined Workflow Techniques.

These unique weekend seminars are now in the midst of their 2007-2008 schedule, begun in October 2007 and continuing to June 1, 2008.

Who Are Nikon School Students?
  

The Saturday DSLR Introduction Class

The introductory class is designed for beginners and digital beginner-intermediates such as myself.  At one point it was emphasized that you can make digital photographs without ever using a computer or having your own color printer.  For those who want to understand what deeper involvement entails, there was an introduction to basic photo editing software and some of the thrills that a computer-based digital workflow makes possible.  This is useful as something to grow into if you’re not there yet (or your current computer doesn’t have the muscle that is required).

If you are considering a digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) camera, the Saturday introduction seminar is a great choice.  I sat next to some people who were looking for understanding before upgrading from digital point-and-shoot to DSLR.

If you have begun using your first Nikon DSLR and you want an in-person, all-day intensive on what it is all about and how to grow with it, the Introduction Course is definitely for you.  New DSLR users will value the run-through of features and settings beyond the basic point-and-shoot automation.  Settings and their effects are illustrated using live demonstrations of Nikon cameras, capturing the camera’s video output connection on the big screen. 

Although bringing your camera is not required, many of us brought ours as a way to follow along with our particular model and to have a hands-on sense of the menus and feature controls.  For this level, it is important to already have a novice understanding of your digital camera’s operation at the point-and-shoot level.  Although you can get assistance from the more-experienced attendees, it is better to take advantage of free getting-started training offered by dealers, provided with your camera, and available on-line from the manufacturer.  There are also good books and DVDs available for DSLRs and I had already accumulated some favorites for my Nikon D80.

The introductory course will work for users of non-Nikon DSLR brands, but it will take more effort to translate the details from the Nikon examples to their counterparts for your camera.

I was surprised to learn that there were many of the roughly 250 people there who were in this course for the third or fourth time.  The consistent comment from experienced DSLR owners was their finding something new each time (and digital photography technology is advancing very rapidly).

By the way, this course fills up.  There was a waiting list and walk-ins "on standby" for the January 12 Seattle class.
  

The Sunday DSLR Workflow Class

The second day, on streamlined workflow, digs deeper into the digital darkroom/photo-finishing end of the digital photography process. There are also demonstrations of what is possible with deeper understanding of lighting (looking at white balance and the use of multiple flash units, for example).  

There were fewer people in this class (somewhere around 150 based on all of us fitting in one side room for the luncheon), with a majority having been in the previous day’s class as well.  Walk-ins were being admitted, although I would reserve early.  Also, arrive early to have better up-front seating.

I already use Capture NX, the Nikon photo editor package, and wanted very much to understand what the various settings and controls actually do for me.  The features were all mysteries for me even though I’d finally found a book on the software the week before.  The in-person, on-screen demonstrations were eye opening, and I immediately raised my proficiency. 

If you are not a Nikon DSLR user, and you don’t use a serious package like Capture NX or the advanced Adobe products, there is still value in this session as a survey and as a way of deciding how to go further on the workflow side. 

I think the greatest value of the second class is when you have worked with a DSLR enough to begin to notice workflow issues, problems of getting prints that match what you see on your display (or vice versa), and yearning for better quality pictures both technically and creatively.

It looks like one strategy for those not quite ready for this level would be to take the Introduction now and take the workflow class a year later.  Because of changes and the value of having a refresher, it might be very valuable to repeat the Introduction when the second class is taken.

Preliminaries

This was my first Nikon School event.  As a 9-month Nikon DSLR owner I had heard of it although I wasn’t very curious.  I expected that Nikon programs would be seriously professional and seriously expensive.  I found out I was mistaken about the expensive part.  Also, the delivery is very professional, but the content is designed for all levels of amateur who are keen about improving their photography.

As a registered owner, I received a December e-mail indicating that Nikon School was coming to Seattle.  I visited the web site immediately.  The description of these one-day classes was detailed enough for me to see that both covered topics that I had been bumping up against as I sought to have more mastery of my camera and of the software for managing and manipulating my digital photos.  I also realized that these were very affordable compared to smaller, hands-on and in-person courses and the occasional Nikon photo safari.  I signed up immediately.

I received the announcement because I had registered my Nikon D80 with Nikon shortly after I purchased it.  Nikon maintains a database of owners and their camera serial numbers, of possible value if a camera is lost and ends up at a Nikon dealer or service location.  You can also record a profile of all Nikon equipment and software that you own in order to receive information about updates (yes, to your camera software too) and new offerings.  This is one of the few cases where I registered a product on-line and felt that there was something in it for me.

Nikon also makes a great deal of information about creative digital photography available on-line.  We were provided notepads at the class, and the first two sheets were pre-printed with Nikon contact information, Nikon online resources, and a brief Frequently Asked Questions on file formats, Capture NX, white balance, and wireless flash.  Here are resources for everyone:
  

  • http://NikonUSA.com about overall products and a portal to other sites.  There are digital tech support and on-line knowledge base about Nikon equipment and software.  This is where you will find free software downloads that work with Nikon digital cameras.  It is valuable to visit this site from time to time because of the rapid evolution of the software and information about particular digital products.
         
  • http://NikonNet.com online "community" with brief articles, access to educational materials (including some inexpensive DVDs), and Nikon’s PictureTown free photo-sharing site (no, they don’t seem to be clear on what they want to call it yet).  There is more here than meets the eye: Follow the Learn, Inspire, and Share links for more extensive content.
      
  • http://NikonWorld.com on inspired photography with on-line versions of print articles, reviews, interviews, slide shows, and videos.  This is a slick site providing coverage from the print edition and with archives that should not be overlooked.
      
  • http://Flickr.com/nikon is more like a community.  The moderated group is tied to the Nikon School and the Nikon Digital Learning Center, providing additional resources for learning and practice along with 10,000 contributed photos by members of the group.  There is a forum for questions and discussion.  There are assignments and critiques available, although I haven’t spotted any specific assignments.  There are other Flickr photography groups and you can selectively explore Flickr for photos that were created using particular equipment.  Check out the resources on the bottom of the the Flickr.com/nikon page for other groups of interest to Nikon-owning enthusiasts.  I’ve joined the Nikon group and the Learn the D80 group.  If you are interested in lighting (and there’s no way not to be at some point), I also recommend David Hobby’s 20,000-member Strobist group.
       
  • http://CaptureNX.com is devoted to the CaptureNX editor product, a commercial offering with 30-day trial downloads.  In addition to promoting CaptureNX, the site provides tutorials and support information that are valuable for those using the product.  This is another site to revisit from time to time to learn about changes and download updated manuals and other materials.  I acquired CaptureNX 1.1 (1.3 is now current) on the trial, opting to purchase it because it already provided far more than I knew how to use and was also very economical in comparison with market-leader products like Adobe PhotoShop.  Although Capture NX will edit JPEG and TIFF files from any camera or scanner, its support for Raw files is limited to and optimized for the Nikon Electronic File (NEF) version.  A key feature of CaptureNX is that it is completely non-destructive (like some of my audio and video software too).  The edits do not touch the original digital-image file.  At the same time, if you add metadata about the image, that is incorporated in the digital-image file, to be carried with it and all of its derivatives except as you change it for those.  These are both critical features for my personal workflow.

Preparation

Immediately after registration, I received an e-mail with links to Working Notes for Nikon School of Photography.  The Notes are PDF files that provide coverage of the topics:
  

  • Working Notes: Introduction to Digital SLR Photography, 17 page PDF file, provided to registrants in the Introduction class.  I downloaded this material immediately, but I didn’t print it out until a week before the class.  But I hadn’t read it by the time I walked into the class.  I didn’t realize there were some suggested exercises; I have started on them now.  This is great material and it is not a script, even though it covers the same topics as the class.  I made my notes on the backs of the printed pages, roughly in the same place as the topic being covered.  It is clear on reviewing them together that the working notes are complementary and work best as a guide and supplement to the actual presentation.  The PDF has links to web sites for the resources mentioned in the notes.
      
  • Working Notes: Next Steps in Digital Photography–Streamlined Workflow Techniques, 23 page PDF file, provided to registrants in the Workflow class.  I left my copy at home, so I used the notebook provided at the class.  Reviewing the working notes afterwards, I confirmed the complementary nature and usefulness of this material as well.  The Ten Steps to Digital Happiness are killer, and the material builds and deepens from that one-page summary.

I also took along my two favorite Nikon photography books.  These provided reading material during the bus ride to the class each day:
  

  • David D. Busch: Nikon D80 Digital Field Guide.  Wiley (Hoboken NJ, 2007), ISBN 978-0-470-12051-4 pbk.  My favorite on the camera itself.  It ties the camera feature to illustrated picture shooting situations and suggests practice exercises.
      
  • Ben Long: Real World Nikon Capture NX.  Peachpit Press (Berkeley CA: 2007), ISBN 978-0-321-48999-9 pbk.  I had just found this book, which covers version 1.1.  It acknowledges the technical review by Bill Durrence, one of our instructors, and Bill autographed that page for me.  I had just read the color management section when I walked into the second day’s coverage of end-to-end subject-to-camera-to-printer color control.

At the Class

Early Arrival

The weekend bus schedule had me arriving well ahead of the 9:30am start time.  The doors into the hotel ballroom of the class opened before 9:15 and it was valuable to be in line earlier than that.  I maintained the same schedule the next day just to obtain comparable up-front seating.

Outside the classroom, two local Nikon representatives had set up tables with some of the latest equipment for students to examine.  The representatives answered technical questions and there was a crowd around the tables before all sessions and during all breaks.  Free copies of the Fall 2007 issue of Nikon World were also provided.  There were no sales made outside the room and there was no selling of equipment, software, or accessories in the classes.
  

Facilities

Arrival was also the first example of the high level of service provided by the Marriott Hotel.  A hotel representative was outside the meeting at start-up and all breaks each day, providing tickets to the parking garage for a class-special $4 daily rate.  

The luncheons, included in the tuition fees, were extraordinary.  One attendee that I had been sitting with was a complete vegan and she returned her Caesar salad because of the cheese.  The servers politely returned with a plain version and later brought a plate of lightly-steamed vegetables in place of the chicken main entree.  The service was extraordinary on both days, the menu was varied each day, and the desserts were memorable too.  If you’re ever at a banquet table with me, guard your dessert.

There was a stage set up at the front of the long room, with a giant rear-projection screen behind the stage.  I suspect this is all part of the traveling gear of Nikon School, and it was impressive that it was there and that the facility accommodated it.

I figure that the tuition must go entirely into the expenses of the classes and their logistics, considering the quality of the hotel arrangements, the materials available, and the expertise of the instructors.
  

More Materials

At the door on the way into the room we surrendered our class-registration tickets and received a Nikon School Guide and spiral notepad.  There was a different Nikon School Guide each day:
  

  • Nikon School Guide to Digital SLR Photography was provided to Introduction class attendees. This 148-page booklet is full of examples and tips, with an Appendix containing exercises.  It is different than the working notes and it is different from the presentations in the class, although all address the key points of DSLR photography.
      
  • Nikon School Guide to Creative Lighting was provided to Workflow class attendees.  Some of the tips in this 60-page booklet are adaptable to other DSLR cameras, but the features of the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) and wireless control of multiple flashes is relatively unique.  Again, this illustrated booklet is different than the working notes and provides more coverage of lighting with many suggestions.

At the end of each day, there were additional hand-outs outside of the room:
  

  • Capture NX 1.2 Fully Functional Trial Edition on CD-ROM.  Version 1.3 was newly-released and we were informed that the update can be downloaded and used as part of the trial.  (All downloads are of fully-functional 30-day trial editions so the CD-ROM is more of a welcome convenience rather than a necessity.)  A registration key is provided when the product is purchased on-line, removing the time limit.  Future updates installed over earlier versions are automatically under the same registration and key.
      
    I recommend that freely-available tools be used first, to develop comfort with basic workflow.  Install Nikon’s free (and Nikon-specific) View NX and Transfer NX software to get started.  I have also had great success with then camera-agnostic Windows Live Photo Gallery (on Windows) with Nikon’s Windows plug-in for NEF format.  They all interwork with Capture NX.  Install the Capture NX trial when you’re ready to use it and are willing to start the 30-day trial-use period.
      
    Unless Photoshop is already used, I suggest using Capture NX first and expanding to Photoshop later on, depending on interest and your desire for some different features.
      
  • Our diploma for each class.

There were also door prizes on the second day. 
  

The Instruction

Each day is broken up into four periods, punctuated by 20-30 minute breaks and 1-hour luncheons.  There was coffee in the mornings and water at the back of the room at all other times.

Our two instructors were Bill Durrence from Savannah, Georgia, and Nick Didlick from Vancouver, British Columbia.  (The other instructors are Reed Hoffman, Bob needs-a-website Pearson, and Michael A. Schwarz: find the work of some at Blue Pixel too.)  The instructors alternated through the periods, with Durrence kicking-off the Introduction class and Didlick starting-off the Workflow class.  Durrence claims that his out-of-date web site will be updated real-soon-now.  Didlick recommends his site’s digital info page as a great resource.  What he didn’t tell us is that there is also a great camera setup page for suggested beginner settings of camera features and also setting up wireless remote/multiple flash.

Great features of the instruction:
  

  • No one was reading PowerPoint or following the working notes in some slavish way.  The presentations were spontaneous and fresh while covering all of the promised topics to varying degrees of depth.  Durrance was using a presentation mouse and Didlick preferred to use a Nikon DSLR with attached video cable to the room projector when he wasn’t doing a software demonstration.
  • The instructors are light-hearted and humorous.  The banter between them is a little edgy but clearly between people who like and respect each other.
      
  • There were great slide shows and some humorous videos (including some famous Molson Canadian Beer commercials).
      
  • Although the second day is more focused on technical matters than the first, there was a refreshing acknowledgment of the importance, and the interplay, of art and craft from the beginning.  In these sessions, Durrence brought out more of photography with art and heart while Didlick delved deeper into exposing us to the craft, especially around workflow.  They are clearly both amazing photographers and this role-playing worked well to keep our attention and to lift us up out of one focus into the other and back again.

Take-Aways

The web-based materials and other on-line resources provide enough about the content.  Here are some highlights from my notes:
  

  • On the first day, there were two attendees who had never used film cameras: a youngster and one of the oldsters.  This will only increase.
      
  • Laptops were used for demonstration and presentation.  They were Apple Macintosh computers with Boot Camp and Windows Vista.  The presentations were done from Vista, including the slide shows, controlled with a Presentation Mouse.
     
  • Durrence: "Photography has always been a process."  Digital photography makes us more aware of it.
      
  • Durrence on how adults learn and how we tend to avoid starting what experience warns will be lengthy processes: "Just get a little better every day.  There is no finish line."
      
  • If you find there is new firmware for your camera:  First make sure the change is something that matters to you.  Then follow the instructions exactly.  Print out the steps and don’t skip any.
      
  • Digital photography is not really easier and it is not really cheaper.  But there is no per-picture cost to pressing the shutter button.
      
  • A FEW things you have to get right: Focus, Exposure, and White Balance (with guidance on each)
       
  • Levels of Learning: Ignorant (don’t know what it means to answer the questions presented by the technology), Getting it Right (competence with equipment), Doing it "Wrong" on Purpose (mastery)
      
  • The importance of adding the metadata at the time of upload and archiving, incorporating the metadata into the digital image file.
      
  • Backup, Backup, Backup.  Don’t delete images (although I still will), and never work on the original.  Storage is cheap.
      
  • Digital images require some form of cataloging and consistent identification system.  (I’m anal-retentive enough to have one already, but I am refining it as a result of this class.)  You can’t look through a file of prints or slides any more as a way of finding the image you want. 
      
  • Digital images are fragile and easily lost forever.  (The digital storage paradox — the fidelity is great but bits when broken are broken forever.)  Have backups away from home/office.
      
  • "Accept that there are no secrets, only things you have yet to learn,"  from the Ten Steps to Digital Happiness at the beginning of the second day.
      
  • I could never figure out what the color management system on the computer does and how to use it.  I have a glimmer now.  I must learn to use it.  It is all about achieving appropriate fidelity among what you saw, what the camera got, what your computer displays, and what the printer prints.  The second day was the first complete-enough explanation of this that I have ever found.
      
  • There’s nothing like a few well-chosen videos to liven up a long day.  There was a great rant about how your cat picture is not your cat and provides no experience of your cat and we should get over it.  (I must put up more Friday cat pictures in compensation for this.)  This video is not about that, but I had to find it on the Internet after seeing it on the big screen in the class:

 

 

 

  • Eliza Gauger: Herding Cats, Table of Malcontents (web log), wired.com, 2007-01-07.  Here’s a little background on the commercial.  I haven’t watched a Super Bowl in a very long time and I missed this.

[update 2008-01-16T17:57Z I spelled Bill Durrence’s name incorrectly in one place, so I also took the opportunity to tweak a few other statements.]

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