The muezzin's raspy call to prayer is my wake-up call, as dawn spreads slowly over the dusky pink walls of the medina. Our little group gathers for breakfast on the roof terrace of Riyad Edward (riyadedward.com). Photographer Chris Coe (chriscoe.com), our tutor for the next six days, is sharing his expert tips on exposure, giving us the lowdown on apertures, shutter speeds and ISO to control light and sharpness.
'P is for Plonker,' Chris reminds us, as we hesitantly adjust our camera settings to AV.
Bye bye pointing and shooting - from now on we are going to be taking control of our cameras and the creative process. Like several others in the group, my photography experience is limited, my skills basic and my technical knowledge rudimentary. I can often visualise the photo I would like but hit a wall achieving the desired results when it comes to anything other than blue-sky conditions. And as a writer, my focus until now has been on crafting words rather than images. But I would love to do both, and here I have the perfect opportunity - with Chris on hand round-the-clock to answer questions and steer me in the right direction.
The photography break is not only for beginners but for anyone who wishes to stretch their skills, spend time with like-minded enthusiasts and take photos in striking and, at times challenging, settings. And we have another professional photographer in our midst - Niek Milder (niekmilder.com) from the Netherlands.
Camera in hand and buoyed by the morning's intro session, I am more confident than I have ever been about my own ability to take great photos and raring to go. We leave the hurly burly of Marrakesh behind to head out into the Atlas Mountains, where a slick of winter snow still polishes the highest summits and an eruption of wildflowers signals the onset of spring. Our drive takes us past a scattering of Berber villages and makeshift shops, and through landscapes that draw a ragged line between the rust-red aridity of the hills and the vivid greens of the valley, where a river flows swift and clear. Here in the Ourika Valley, it is market day.
The market is in full swing when we arrive and we are automatically presented with several challenges - finding interesting subjects in the apparent chaos, dealing with the contrast between harsh light and shade and approaching people who are reluctant to be photographed are among them. I realise that I need to slow down, make sense of the scene in front of me and think about composition to get results. The locals are here to sell, not pose for the camera. To capture them in action, I need to move more, engage them in conversation and show a genuine interest. It works: little by little the market sellers start to warm to me - a butcher gives me a goofy grin and a farmer allows me to photograph him leaning jauntily against his Peugeot pick-up.
In a relaxed morning session, Chris takes us through some basics on how to control depth of field by adjusting aperture. We experiment by photographing a row of wooden bowls - with the largest number and minimum aperture (f/22 on my Canon EOS 7D) rendering everything sharp and the lowest number and maximum aperture (f/4) giving a sharp foreground and a blurred background. Chris also takes us through how the white balance (WB) function can add warmth or coolness to a photo for a natural look or effect. For instance, if the camera picks up the red tones in an image, it is possible to compensate for this by adding coolness (blue tones) to an image by adjusting the WB to the 'tungsten' or 'fluorescent light' setting. By contrast, more warmth (red tones) can be added to a photo by telling the camera that the scene is cool and setting the WB to 'cloudy' or 'shade'.
Chris also explains a bit about composition - how a subject should fill the frame for more visual impact and the 'rule of thirds', or splitting an image into thirds vertically and horizontally and placing important compositional elements near these lines or their intersections to create greater impact (the human eye naturally gravitates towards these lines). 'If art is a process of inclusion, photography is a process of exclusion,' he says.
I remember Chris' words as the group splits and we go our own separate ways in search of the four key elements that make up a photo - line, shape, colour and pattern. To remove the temptation to just snap away, I walk without my camera first. What seems like a simple exercise proves to be deceptively tricky; these elements are everywhere I look, but rarely in isolation. So I try to isolate them as best I can - the vibrant green of a cabbage leaf in the vegetable garden, the abstract lines in an adobe wall, the bold shadow of a chair leg, the pattern cast by diffused rays of light. With my camera in hand and greater confidence, I feel as though I am seeing the world through new eyes; picking out details I have never noticed before. It is a revelation.
As the light begins to soften, I venture out of the kasbah for a stroll with Niek , the other professional photographer in our group, who gives me some invaluable tips on photographing people and working against the light to create certain moods. We wander down to the river, stopping to chat to shepherds, children with excited smiles and farmers whose wrinkled faces map out their lives. On the river banks, we linger to gaze up to the minaret-topped hillsides, gradually silhouetted as day fades into a watercolour sunset.
Our final day in the Atlas Mountains takes us to Setti Fatma, a seven-tiered waterfall near the head of the valley. We clamber up and over boulders to reach the crash-bang spectacle of the falls. All of my past failed attempts at photographing waterfalls are explained - I've been using the wrong shutter speeds. Chris shows us how to adjust the TV setting to achieve the effect we want - a fast speed to freeze motion, a slow one to create motion blur. The rule of thumb works a treat. On the journey back to Bab Ourika that afternoon, I apply the techniques I have learnt to capture a man dressed in a djellabah, as he descends a flight of steps in a traditional Berber house.
Back in Marrakesh, the minibus disgorges us and the city sucks us in with its dust, heat, noise and chaos. The time we have spent in the Atlas Mountains stands us in good stead as we delve deeper into the souks, each of us with a separate task - mine being to focus detail. It is here that the art of exclusion really comes into play. Marrakesh heaves with life and bombards the senses - the medina is jam-packed with donkey carts, hawkers, shoppers and spluttering motorbikes. Yet, as I look closer, I see that every corner presents a new photo opportunity - a dyer plunging skeins into a boiling vat of pigment, a butcher dividing up a side of lamb, a boy sitting forlorn in a passageway, a man stoking the hammam fire in a sweltering underground inferno.
If the city rushes by day, by night it races at full throttle. We take a ringside seat at a cafe above Djemaa el Fna to observe the theatrics of the square at dusk. Using my zoom lens and tripod, I manage to isolate details on the square - a snake charmer with an enraptured crowd, men with monkeys, women out for an evening stroll. As night draws in, lights illuminate the smoke-enshrouded food stalls and the crowds swirling below. It is an entrancing scene and I long to capture it. And the beauty of it is, now I can.