Charles Needle is an award-winning fine-art and nature photographer, and educator, based in Washington state. Read more about Charles’ work and his teaching style, below. Also, get the inside track on his Lensbaby workshop at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops next month (click here to register). (Photo above shot with Sweet 35 Optic)

Please talk about your journey to becoming a nature photographer. How did you then parlay that into teaching?

I’ve had a camera in my hand since early childhood. In fact, my very first “camera” was a vintage Fisher Price “Picture Story” toy camera, which I still have! I remember being inspired by the English landscape while studying English literature abroad during my junior year of college. After pursuing a master’s degree in journalism while working as a magazine editor, I recall peeking over the art director’s head and admiring all of the amazing photo submissions from photographers across the globe. It wasn’t until I began to study photography with a furious passion a few years later, read lots of books, and take workshops that it became clear that photography would be my new career path. Two mentors, in particular, encouraged me to pursue teaching photography on a full-time basis and selling my work professionally: Freeman Patterson and the late Nancy Rotenberg. Both had a huge influence on me because they saw photography as a way of “being” in the world and experiencing the full richness of everyday living. I began teaching private lessons, which eventually grew into full-blown workshops. To this day after teaching for almost 15 years as a full-time pro, I still get such a thrill from helping students notice and appreciate beauty…especially the beauty found in small things.

Talk a little about your style of teaching photography. What do your students respond best to?

My teaching style could be best described as intense but casual and laid-back. I want my students to feel like a child again in my classroom and in the field, encouraging them to experiment to their heart’s content while having fun. With all the emphasis upon technology in today’s digital world, I believe many have forgotten why we got into photography in the first place…for the sheer joy of it. I believe that one of the real secrets of making compelling and evocative photos is learning how to see, an art form in and of itself, which has been somewhat neglected recently. So I view my job as a photo instructor and workshop leader first and foremost as helping my students learn to see deeply with passion in an environment where learning takes place openly and freely amongst each other. I enjoy teaching both the technical and creative aspects of photography and cover both in my formal lectures, image assignments, field demonstrations and supportive image evaluations. I have many repeat clientele, so I must be doing something right!

When did you first start shooting with Lensbaby lenses, and what about them got you hooked?

I first started shooting with Lensbaby lenses soon after they were invented, right about the time I made the transition from film to digital. My first “baby” was the Lensbaby 2.0 (now called The Muse). I loved it for several reasons: the creative freedom it allowed, the ability to bend and distort a subject on the fly while still maintaining a sense of reality, and the versatility of each of the different aperture rings. When most photographers were packing up their gear at midday because of harsh lighting conditions, I discovered a whole new world of possibilities. I could shoot at high-noon and even hand-hold, and get striking and unusual images! The Lensbaby revolutionized how I approached subjects and how I viewed the world.

I had always been drawn to photos that went beyond documentation, and for me, the Lensbaby became the perfect tool that allowed me to experiment and create more Impressionistic, expressive views of my subjects. Now, I teach Impressionistic photography. (In fact, my next book due out this March will be all about that topic…how to literally use your camera as a paintbrush!)

(photo above shot with Soft Focus Optic)

Any advice for photographers to help them get the most out of shooting with their Lensbaby lenses?

My best advice is for photographers to keep experimenting and expanding the boundary of creative possibilities using a Lensbaby. Regardless of which model you’re using, I suggest you view your Lensbaby as an extension of your “creative eye” that allows you to see in ways you never thought were possible. Don’t get too caught up in the technical aspects, but instead focus on how you can best convey the essence of your subject. Eliminate all pre-conceived ideas. Practice often and stick with one particular model you feel most comfortable with.

What’s your favorite Lensbaby image?

This is a tough one to answer, because there are so many Lensbaby images I like. One of my favorites was captured while teaching in Keukenhof Gardens in Holland a few years ago. I was using a Composer and Double Glass Optic at the time with the f/2.8 aperture ring to make selective-focus images of tulips on my hands and knees. There was a child nearby, and when I looked up from my camera to take a break, she smiled at me and made a “peace sign” with her hand. I quickly fired one frame of her and captured the moment and her expression. Just goes to show you that you should always be open to creative image-making possibilities. I was thinking “tulips,” and then she appeared in front of my viewfinder! If you are open, present and “awake,” I’ve discovered oftentimes subjects will find you, rather than the other way around.

(photo above shot with Double Glass Optic)

Tell us a bit about your upcoming Lensbaby workshop at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

I’m very excited to be teaching my first Lensbaby-only workshop in Santa Fe. We’re going to explore various photographic styles using the entire Lensbaby product line of lens bodies, interchangeable optics and accessories. (There will be plenty of demo units on-hand, so you don’t have to own a Lensbaby to attend this workshop.) You’ll have a chance to try using a Lensbaby in a variety of settings in and around the picturesque environs of Santa Fe. Topics I’m planning to cover include: focus-bracketing to focus the viewer’s attention on different parts of a scene; converting your optics for macro, wide-angle, fish-eye or telephoto use; controlling depth-of-field; using a Lensbaby to create round bokeh; how to achieve subtle distortion; and using the Lensbaby to shoot video.

What’s your favorite Lensbaby product?

My favorite Lensbaby product is the Composer Pro with a Sweet 35 Optic because it allows me to change apertures quickly and easily. I usually shoot around f/2.8 or f/5.6 with this optic, because I really like focusing the viewer’s attention on a single portion of a scene. This optic works well with a variety of subject matter, from gardens and landscapes to people and architecture. My second favorite Lensbaby product is the 0.42X Super Wide Angle Conversion Lens. I’ve used this optic to render an extreme wide-angle view of a subject, with the center in sharp focus, as well as for macro subjects. When shooting close-ups, I have experimented with holding a Canon 500D close-up diopter in front of the Super Wide lens as well, which has yielded some interesting pleasing results.

Click here to sign up for Charles Needles’ Lensbaby workshop at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

(photo above shot with Double Glass Optic)