Weekend Photography Class - Rocky Mountain School of Photography

Equipment, equipment, more equipment...I have to admit it is a bias that the Gadget Guys have--heck we review equipment.   However, to truly improve your photography you have to improve your skill level.  Practice, reading, and friends can help but a professional instructor can help improve your photography significantly.  The highly respected Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP) was giving a weekend class in Austin (about 500 yards from GadgetGuys.com's home office in fact) so we decided to check them out.   

Course Material

The RMSP weekend class offers 10 different course offerings (listed below) on two tracks.   You can take five courses during the weekend.   The critique session is attended by all students.

Course Schedule


8:00-8:30 a.m. Registration

8:30-9:00 a.m. Orientation

9:00-11:00 a.m. Session I

  • Photography Basics
  • Understanding Exposure: Using the Zone System for Color

11:00-11:15 a.m. Break

11:15 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Session II 

Beyond the Basics

Introduction to Macro Photography

12:45-2:00 p.m. Lunch Break (on your own)

2:00-4:00 p.m. Session III

  • Composition – The Elements of Designing a Great Photo
  • Processing Your Images with Adobe® Lightroom® and Adobe® Photoshop® – The First Step

4:00 p.m. After the Weekend: Information on RMSP’s Career Training and Workshops


8:00-8:30 a.m. Registration & Orientation for Sunday-only Participants

8:30-10:30 a.m. Session I

  • Understanding the Qualities of Light
  • Sunrises, Sunsets & Flowing Water

10:30-10:45 a.m. Break

10:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Session II

  • Photographing People
  • Fine Tuning Your Images in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop – The Next Steps

12:45-2:00 p.m. Lunch Break (on your own)

2:00-4:00 p.m. Session III 

  • Critique                                                                                   

4:00 p.m. Closing Session

*I attended the italicized courses.

The course that most directly effected my photography was the first course of the weekend Understanding Exposure: Using the Zone System for Color.  Tim Cooper showed a simple and direct way of using spot metering to get precisely the exposure you want--spot meter on the color closest to midtone, and check that you haven't blown the highlights.   The concept was illustrated with plenty of examples that help internalize the concept.   

The Macro Photography session was a combination of equipment review and recommendation (extension tubes, close up lenses, macro lenses, macro sliders, etc.) followed by composition, focus, and exposure tip.   The advice that stuck--get a scrim; Velbon makes an inexpensive macro slider.

The Composition course talked about the Rule of Thirds, the 2 most important power points (top left, bottom right), offered other tips (never have readable text in the frame if it's not important, red is the most dominant color in photography, the eye will go to the brightest, and most in-focus object, etc.).

The Understanding Light session. talked about brightness, contrast, white balance, how the eye perceives light vs a camera, fill flash, and direction of light.

Photographing People highlighted the important differences between front, side and back lighting, discussed the difference between portrait and environmental portraits, showed how to use the rule of thirds when composing for people.   


The final session is a 2 hour critique of photos.  Students submit one photo and the photo is popped up in front of the two instructors during critique.   The instructors follow the general format of finding something they like in the picture and finding things that need improvement.  It is a good way of bringing together some of the lessons learned during the weekend--participants submit a wide variety of photographs at various levels.   In 75% of the cases a lesson learned during the weekend comes to mind when a photograph is popped up.   


Photo submitted for critique (Tejasstudio.com)

By the way Tim liked the picture overall.  Liked the clouds on the top left, thought they balanced out the empty space to the right and liked that I went past the curve, opened up the image.


The two instructors for the class were Tim Cooper and Tony Rizutto.   Tim does landscape photography and Tony owns a children's portrait studio in Missoula, Montana.   Both instructors had strong presentation skills, strong knowledge of the curriculum and materials.   Both Tim and Tony use humor well during the class--to enhance the material not to distract from the material.

The instructors did a great job answering questions during class.  Only occasionally did they say that material is covered in another class.  The instructors were also available during breaks and after class to answer questions--not many instructors do that.   Tim was kind enough to provide an email address to contact him with questions after class.   


The in-class curriculum was beautifully created.  The examples and exercises are extremely well designed.  Each example was relevant to the topic at hand.   A big disappointment was that there was no significant take home material.   For Understanding Exposure: Using the Zone System for Color a Zone system card was handed out---very useful but not comprehensive.   For Processing Your Images with Adobe® Lightroom® and Adobe® Photoshop® you can download material after the class.   It would have been far easier to focus on the material if the slides were handed out during class.  I ended up scrambling to take notes throughout the class.  I did not have as much time to think of questions and interact with the instructors.   Past RMSP workshops did hand out the material but the policy was changed.

The material was presented in a lecture format.   I do wish the curriculum had been designed for greater interactivity--adults learn better when the can interact with the material.   The two classroom tracks did allow students to choose material that was at the right level for them and to use their previous life experience.  All the material taught was relevant and practical which kept interest.


The class was held at Norwood Conference Center in Austin, Texas in two large classrooms.  The facility was comfortable but not luxurious.   The classrooms had decent quality projection and audio/video--unlike most hotels the A/V actually worked.  In the second classroom the light leaking into the classroom made it just a bit hard to see some of the detail on the photographs--but you could understand the concept.  Unlike a lot of conferences and classes no snacks or drinks (beyond a pot of coffee) was provided.   There were plenty of restaurants close by (including an old Austin favorite--Top Notch).  Each classroom had individual temperature control--important for keeping students comfortable and awake.  I do wish the chairs had been a bit more comfortable.   There's an aphorism in the training industry--"the brain will learn only what the butt can tolerate" and frankly at the end of a two hour session it was a bit hard to focus.

Does RMSP spend time advertising other product or classes?

I've been to speeches and classes where a significant portion of the time in class is spent advertising other products or services.  Annoying!  I have to say RMSP handled this very well.  Other products--classes, DVD's, sponsor products were advertised but not in an intrusive way.  DVD's and sponsor products were available in the hallway but no significant class time was used pushing products.   You could stay after class to learn more about RMSP's other classes--the incentive was winning discount to the classes.  A classy way to handle the need to advertise other products.


Was the course worth it?  Yes!  The Understanding Exposure class changed the way I choose exposure.  I liked it so much I bought the DVD at class.  The Understanding Exposure DVD is available from Tim Cooper's website.   Photographing People made me understand that it is about looking for repeatable situations (especially with kids) and not chasing the subject--great advice since I have a active three year old.  I was very glad that I spent the money on this class rather than another piece of equipment.