Teaching with the Nikon School: An Interview with Photographer and Instructor Reed Hoffman

Reed Hoffman’s career as a photographer has spanned more than three decades and has brought him to inspiring locations, both near and far. His professional career began in photojournalism, hitting a turning point with the dawn of digital photography. Leaving the newspaper world behind in 2000, Reed began teaching with the Nikon School in 2002 and also leads several workshops around the US and abroad every year. We had the unique opportunity to speak with Reed about his love of photography and what makes the Nikon School courses a valuable resource for photographers of all levels.

How did you get your start as a photographer?

I was 14, and my best friend got a 35mm SLR—an Exakta. I thought it sounded like fun, so I bought a Ricoh—I’d buy my first Nikon, a Nikkormat FTN, the following year. We turned his mom’s laundry room into a darkroom with an inexpensive plastic enlarger and were hooked. We then asked the newspaper and yearbook advisor at the high school if we could shoot pictures for him, and he hooked us up with a local photographer, Kent, who had a studio down the street and had offered to help students. I ended up working for Kent through high school and into college, as he became my mentor. I’m sure I would have drifted on to other things if not for the help he gave me, showing me what a great creative release photography can be. We still talk and visit when I’m back home and he remains a close friend. Despite being retired and unable to pursue photography like he used to, he’s still a role model for me in his passion for it. I highly recommend people take the time to learn about photography, as even a fundamental understanding of the basics can change the way you see the world and be your creative release.

I was doing a shoot for a family of their two small kids. Lawson was down on the floor, so I joined him. Kids are always fun to photograph, and I especially like doing it with available light and a fast lens (Nikon 28mm f/1.8 here, at f/2).

How did changing from film to digital photography affect your career? And on a larger scale, how do you think the switch changed the field of photography?

I’d been doing newspaper photography for nearly 20 years, at papers in Indiana, Alabama, and New York when my boss in Rochester handed me a digital camera and said, “Figure this thing out.” That was 1996, and it was a Nikon N90S converted to digital by Kodak—1.3 megapixels for $15,000. Although the technology was in its infancy, it changed how we were able to work as photojournalists. In 1997, our paper converted completely to digital and I helped manage that conversion. While I stayed a street photographer—I never want to give up shooting—it was a new challenge for me, and I enjoyed the combination of technology and photography. For myself, and many others at that time, the shift to digital reinvigorated our careers, letting us do things with digital that we’d never dreamed of. To this day I look forward to every new camera, not so much for megapixels or frame rate, but for new features that will let me be creative in new and different ways.

I do some commercial work for Brookside Optical here in Kansas City, and this was during one of our regular shoots showing new frames. When the model, Linda, flipped her hair during a break, I knew the shot I wanted. One of the things most people don’t realize about flash is how it can freeze action, which is what makes this photo work.

When did you first get involved with the Nikon School?

At the end of 1999 our family moved to Kansas City so my wife could be near her family and work at a larger paper, the Kansas City Star, where she’s still an editor today. That was the same time the Nikon D1 came out, and I started getting calls from papers around the US asking if I could help them make the conversion to digital. Over the next several years I traveled the country helping over 30 newspapers and other organizations manage that conversion, not just to start shooting the cameras, but showing how to get the best quality from them and create an efficient workflow. At the same time I’d been helping a friend cover the Eco-Challenge Adventure Races, which we started doing digitally in 2000. That friend, Kevin Gilbert, began a conversation with Richard LoPinto at Nikon about producing a digital Nikon School, which we started doing as a company, Blue Pixel, in 2002. Those first few years we taught an all-day Coolpix class on Saturdays and an all-day DSLR class on Sundays.

After teaching a Nikon School in Seattle last spring, the other instructor and I stayed an extra day to drive out to Rainier National Park. Being early May, it was still officially winter on the mountain, so not many people were there and we did find about 3 feet of snow where the road ended. But my favorite shots came from lower down, where the area is lush from all the water. This is a 15-second exposure with a neutral density filter.

What will be the focus of your Nikon classes this year? What are the goals of the Nikon School curriculum?

Over the last 13 years the Nikon School has evolved to change with the times and technology, and this year we continued that evolution. Realizing people’s time is valuable, we now offer five more concentrated three-hour seminars, one all-day class, and a two-day hands-on video workshop. The three-hour topics are Basics, Action/People, Landscape/Travel, Creative Lighting, and Introduction to Video. The all-day class is a broad photography class called Elements of Photography. The goal of every Nikon School class is to help people become more comfortable with their cameras, understand how to take advantage of the new technology, and have more fun with their photography.

I lead photo trips around the world and take people to Africa almost every summer. On this trip to Tanzania I flew in early because I wanted to scout the island of Zanzibar, to see if we should add it to a future trip. This was from a boatyard where some men were taking a break.

Which is your favorite class to teach?

That’s a bit like asking which of my kids I love more! One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about photography is the many different directions you can go with it. So I have fun teaching all the classes, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the Landscape/Travel class. When I was working for the commercial photographer in my hometown, I’d do darkroom work for him in the evenings during the week, assist with dances on Friday nights, and Saturdays carry gear and load cameras for weddings. But every Sunday morning I’d show up at his house and we’d drive the back roads of southern Indiana and western Kentucky, looking for pretty pictures. That was my favorite time of the week, and I still love doing that. Today I teach six or seven travel workshops a year, and they’re great fun for both the participants and me. I firmly believe that photography is a great social experience—you can feed off each other’s energy and ideas.

This was from that same Africa trip, at a safari park in southern Tanzania. We were late to the site where a pride of lions was just finishing a kill, but we hung around and the waiting paid off. They moved from the brush they were lying in to a nearby tree, and this is the matriarch of the pride calling the other lions over. We only had about 15 minutes to shoot, as the trucks have to get back to camp before dark. It was a great 15 minutes.

Can photographers take Nikon courses regardless of their equipment brand? Will they still take away valuable lessons and information?

Yes. In fact, we always have students who are using other cameras. While the classes are sponsored by Nikon, and the teachers all Nikon shooters, we’re teaching photography and the camera gear are tools. Almost everything we present can be applied to any camera. I even have friends who shoot other brands.

This was from a workshop I led to Glacier National Park in Montana last summer. We were at Two Medicine Lake for a sunrise shoot and had asked our guide to bring his fly-fishing gear. Lying on the beach, I used one of my favorite lenses, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8, to shoot him casting. Oh, and the red jacket? That’s mine. It didn’t make much difference for this shot, but I almost always bring a red jacket in case we need to brighten up a shot!

On your website you say that you teach photographers how to grow regardless of their skill level. What are the elements you ask your students to focus on to improve their photographs?

I always start from the fact that if you can’t control the camera, you’ll never realize your full creative potential. For a beginner, that means getting off full Auto and onto Program mode, so they can start using EV, ISO, and white balance, among other things. For a more advanced photographer, I’ll usually spend less time on the technical side and concentrate on the three pillars of subject, light, and background. One of the great things about photography is that you can always improve and grow. I’m learning new things all the time too. The other classes offered are also a great opportunity for people to discover a new kind of photography they might have never considered. For example, the lighting class can totally change the way you see your subject, while the photographing people course can lead to some amazing travel images of local culture.

I led my first trip to Ireland last summer, and the country didn’t disappoint. The last place we stayed was an old castle and late that afternoon during a break I decided to take a walk. What I found was horses and dogs leading a wedding party to the castle. I just knelt down in the middle of the dogs and let them swarm around me.

When you’re on an assignment, what are the components that make for a successful shoot?

First I need to be sure I understand what my client’s needs and expectations are. If I don’t satisfy those, then it doesn’t matter how good a picture I make. Then I think about ways I might approach it that are different from usual and what gear might be needed to make that happen. Finally I have to make sure that my production and delivery of the images is fast and efficient, or else I’m wasting time that can be spent doing other work. Oftentimes the shoot itself is the easiest part because I am familiar with the principles that help to create amazing images.

Bhutan is relatively new to tourism, and a country of incredibly friendly and outgoing people. That makes it a natural for a photo trip, so we went there last October. I found this setting at a monastery and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited… Eventually a monk came along carrying tea for dinner. I’ve always loved photos with a lot of darkness in them and so regularly shoot with a lot of -EV (minus exposure compensation) while working in Aperture Priority. In this case I was dialed in to -1.3.

What advice would you give an aspiring photographer hoping to have a career like yours?

It’s not enough to simply be a good photographer. Find a niche that you can specialize in, learn to shoot video and audio and produce multimedia pieces, develop good writing skills, have strong people skills, be willing to work hard when starting out, and learn to market yourself with a professional social media presence. Most importantly, if you want to have a future as a photographer, develop good business practices.

The Nikon School offers courses for photographers of all levels in cities throughout the US. To learn more about the Nikon School and to explore their course lineup, please visit www.nikonusa.com/en/Learn-And-Explore/Nikon-School/.

To see more of Reed Hoffman’s inspiring photographs or to learn more about his workshop offerings, please visit his website reedhoffmann.com.

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