How To Choose And Make The Most Of A Photographic Workshop
I’ve distilled insights from attending six photo workshops and talking to many photographers in order to help you choose and make the most of your photo workshop experience.
I was recently on a photographic workshop in Rajasthan. Even before the workshop was over, I was getting emails and twitter questions about the trip, the quality of the workshop leaders, the locations and the value of the experience. There’s certainly a hunger out there for photographic workshops, tours and learning opportunities.
The six photographic workshops I’ve taken since 2010 (can’t believe it’s so many), have given me a range of experiences, from photographing professional models in high end studios, to nomads in the furthest recesses of the Himalayas and everything in between. They have also ranged from identity defining moments of inspiration to career-threatening lows of disillusionment.
So, I’ve decided to distill what I’ve learnt from those six workshops I’ve attended, the ones I researched and did not join and the conversations with photographers who’ve attended workshops and workshop leaders over these years and put it all here for you to consider as you pick and choose the workshops that might suit you best.
First – Identify Your Goals
Why do you want to sign up for a workshop? Are you trying to become a better photographer? Are you hoping to add some great images to your portfolio? Are you looking to be inspired? Do you want to hang out with other photographers or maybe just one famous photographer you admire? Maybe you just want to get away from your “normal” life so you can try and be more creative for a while?
I’ve listened quite a few times now to photographers explaining what they want to get from a workshop and when they rattle off a big long lists of expectations I often wonder how they will cope with the inevitable disappointment. It’s hard to hit a lot of learning goals in a short space of time no matter how good the educational environment. And, sometimes, the goals we set ourselves are just not compatible with each other.
Wanting to bring home lots of good images is a worthwhile goal. But if you are also aiming to become a better photographer, in a technical sense, you might need to take one or two steps backwards, before you can go forward again. Sometimes, in pushing ourselves, we take bad images as we try to master new techniques. Great for our art in the long run, but bd for growing the portfolio in the short term
So, identify a (very) short list of your goals and, if you can, identify one big over-arching goal. And, for your own sake, be honest.
Then – Talk To The Organisers
Before you commit to a workshop and especially, before you hand over any money, talk to the organisers. While high profile photographers might genuinely be too busy to chat, if no-one involved with the workshop can address your concerns via email or, in this day and age, over Skype, it is probably a warning sign.
Dig beneath the programme, ask questions about how much hands on teaching will be on offer, try to find out about the kind of people who’ve attended the workshop in the past, enquire about the kinds of accommodation and transport on offer, anything you feel is important to you and might be the difference between enjoying and enduring the workshop. Remember, you are handing over your hard earned money (sometimes quite a lot of it) and surrendering over a fair bit of your life (maybe a week or more), so the workshop organisers should be able to respect that and convince you they will be good stewards of both these precious resources.
Importantly – Do Some Background Research
A good workshop organiser should be able to point you in the direction of some past attendees who can give references. Hopefully you can see photos taken by previous workshop participants or, better yet, check out their own galleries and blogs for yourself.
Do a some more digging, especially through blogs and social media, to find out what you can. Don’t just stop at comments about “having a great time,” but look for clues about what people learnt, examples of the kinds of photos they created and try to get some sense of what a typical day was like on the workshop.
This can be a little tough, because sometimes workshop participants don’t want to talk about bad experiences and some workshop leaders seldom or never post images by their participants, or links to their websites.
Before You Go – Get Your Gear In Order
Even if you are a beginner, or aiming to learn a lot on the workshop you can still maximise the learning experience by doing a bit of preparation work, like learning the basic controls of your camera, finding out a little about the places you might be visiting and installing any required software. And, if you’ve chatted with the workshop organisers before hand, they will might have given you some guidance about this.
Certainly, before embarking on any workshop, it is a good idea to make sure your camera’s sensor, lenses and filters are clean, make sure you have some back up and importing strategy in place for your photos and also a good carrying system (bags etc) for all your gear. If you do it well, this preparation phase can be one of the most important learning experiences of the workshop.
When You Land – Sort Out Your Attitude
My recent workshop experience in Rajasthan was a good one. But, to be honest, in the week before the workshop, I was in an odd mood. A variety things unrelated to the workshop meant I arrived in India feeling a little underprepared, a little unenthusiastic and, to be blunt a little taken by a “what am I doing here” feeling.
Once there, I was disappointed to see all the group members seemed to scurry off to their rooms as soon as dinner was finished. As a confirmed, lifelong night owl who is only at his best for most activities after 9pm, spending night after night alone was demoralising. But, I just had to face up to this and adjust my attitude, since I had too much invested, in time and money, not to try and make the trip work for me.
Everyone goes through some variation on this, either struggles with being in a group (I’m not a group person), camera gear that doesn’t work as expected (I always see this), illness or acclimatisation issues (agin, this always crops up), or just the stress of trying to make good images day after day in the presence of photographers who seem so much better, or more experienced (meltdowns are commonplace).
So, take it one day at a time, accept some days will be better than others and try to keep a good attitude. Remember, some of the fellow participants might also be good photographers as well, so you might learn from them. And, of course, enjoy the experience!
Back Home – Milk It
You’ve just been on an amazing workshop and you’ve come home with hundreds, maybe thousands of photos. Now what? Well, first all, make sure everything has been imported, backed up and unpacked. Then, go through your images and start processing and sharing them. Nothing confirms the value of the experience you’ve had and the lessons you learned better than getting your images out there – blog, exhibit, print, publish, whatever it is, don’t let your photos (or your experience) become nothing but faded memories or zeros and ones on your hard drive.
I’m not sure if photographic workshops are good value for everyone. Some are very expensive (OK, most) and not all of them are well run. But, I do believe photography, like any craft, is best learnt in a peer-to-peer environment. That’s not to say private or classroom (formal school) learning can’t help. But, there are so many things about photography that are best learnt hands on, watching or photographing with, other photographers.
And, I believe a lot of these lessons aren’t just about f-stop or exposure settings and they aren’t about gear choices either. Watching the way a really good photographer assesses a situation, keep their cool, interact with people (subjects, models, assistants, clients and staff) is a huge insight into what makes a great photo – something you will never really learn from a book or hours surfing blogs and forums.
It’s this in the flesh, alongside, photographer to photographer experience that for me, defines the value of any workshop.