My friend and mentor David Alan Harvey begins his talk at TEDxVerona with the observation…
A photo workshop can be a spectacular adventure. While being a vacation from one’s normal daily routine, the better photography workshops are not a vacation from hard work. Learning how to execute good photography is not easy, nor does the knowledge come quickly with such a complex subject. All art forms can take a lifetime to master. Exploring a bucket list destination, making new friends with shared interests, and improving your skills with the help of a talented professional all make great sense and are good reasons to sign up for a photo workshop.
However, the landscape of photography workshops has changed from one dominated by photography techniques and professional photography teachers to the present state, where the landscape is littered with often high-priced tours conducted by tour operators/instructors. Nearly every photo store and online Instagram wonder offer “photo tours” or their particular flavor of workshops of all makes, models, and descriptions. It can be challenging to find the right workshop and/or a good mentor to fit your own specific needs. Here’s a bit of advice from one who teaches and attends photography workshops regularly.
Ask Yourself, Am I Inspired?
The photos of the workshop’s lead instructor should inspire you and motivate you to want to learn how to make photos with the same style, lighting, flair, and finesse. The better workshop instructors have an online gallery for you to view. If not, or if all the photographs are taken by someone else, that should be a show-stopping red flag right there. Also, visit the photographer’s personal website, Facebook page, and especially Instagram so you get a good idea of what their photography is all about. Not every instructor can teach you something, just like not every student is ready for what some instructors teach. You want to get a feel for their skill level and photographic sensibilities. Photography is very subjective, so you need to ask yourself does their work speak to you? Do you find it compelling? It doesn’t pay to travel and attend a workshop to learn from an expert unless the images and place where the workshop speaks to your inner artist.
How Many People Are In The Workshop?
Pick a workshop with the smallest number of students if you want to learn more than socializing. Depending on your budget, anywhere from one to four students is perfect, and depending upon the workshop destination, a maximum of eight to 12 students is acceptable. Unfortunately, it cannot spark the camaraderie that makes destination workshops in far-off locations so much fun in larger groups.
“The more, the merrier” is not necessarily conducive to capturing a location. In fact, usually, too many people make it difficult to take a good photograph. All those people clacking away with their shutters are distracting to natural subjects. Even using models, your choice of angles will be greatly reduced – almost proportionally to the number of students shooting. Remember also, too many students may limit your opportunities for valuable one-on-one time with the host photographer and workshop assistants.
Are The Subjects And Destinations Crafted To Make The Most Of Your Photography?
Unfortunately, some travel companies who offer tours to famous destinations also market their standard tours to photo enthusiasts by inserting “photography” in the title and adding a lead photographer to the mix — without modifying the itinerary, stops, subjects, or creating a new instruction plan. IE: The Hollywood Photo Tour and the Hollywood Celebrity Homes Drive-By Tour both share the same open-top vans – at the same time!
What should you expect for your money? Good workshop organizers and organizations craft their workshops with high-quality, highly photogenic locations in mind. Workshops should be crafted to maximize the light for the time of day you’ll be shooting in those destinations. The customs and habits of the locals are always a big part of any photo story, so these should always be taken into account. Most of your shooting will likely be done in the “Golden” hours of the morning or late afternoon. Basically, a few minutes before sunrise for a morning hour and an hour before sunset to a few minutes post-sunset.
Every good photographer will tell you that lighting can make or break an image. If you shoot an antique historical Mexican church bathed in the glow of the rising sun, you’re more likely to capture an image you’ll be happy with than if you don’t leave your hotel until 10 a.m. However, once you lose the morning light an hour after dawn, the light will be harsh, and your images not up to the potential most photographs using only natural morning light would have.
I’ve had the best luck and highest satisfaction with boutique companies of small workshop operators owned and led by the host photographer because, as I do, they design their shooting field trips according to their own needs and expectations as photographers.
Can The Head Instructor Teach Me?
If you desire a lot of instruction, make sure the head photographer on your tour is keen on teaching. Surprisingly, this is not always a given. Companies will often pay a “big-name” photographer to lead a trip, but that doesn’t mean they like to teach. Or possibly even more importantly, is any good at it.
A good instructor’s temperament, habits, and patience must be givens even if they are truly photographic masters. Peer reviews can help weed the pack for your particular needs. Take the time to correspond with the workshop purveyor if you have any doubts about what you’re hoping to get out of the experience. Remember, even though your paying good money to be there, not every photographer is the right person to help you achieve your particular individual goals. Even the real ones!
How Flexible Is The Schedule?
Imagine visiting an exotic village in remote Oaxaca, Mexico. The lighting is ideal, the locals are friendly, and you see another fantastic photo candidate waiting to be captured everywhere you look. Unfortunately, if your workshop or workshop transportation is inflexible with its schedule, you may lose a rare, special photographic moment in favor of the group lunch reservation.
Some photo tours and workshops are more strict about the schedule than concerned with your individual photography experience. Once again, I can’t repeat often enough. You need to assure yourself that the workshop you’re considering mostly a photo tour emphasizes the tour aspects, or is it a more serious in-depth photo workshop? You absolutely need to invest time learning about the approach before you jump on a non-refundable reservation!
How Immersed Do You Want To Be?
Photographic tours can run the gamut from catering to the casual enthusiast for two or three hours a day to hard-core workshop field location trips that include daily lectures, sub-subject specific workshops on lighting and flash, daily assignments to be completed (Homework!) with lectures and demonstrations of post-processing techniques and tools. In addition, some workshops have once again started offering film shooting/exposure techniques and film processing.
Are you the adventurous type who learns best by pushing the boundaries? Or are you more the “photography is a good hobby I use when I travel” type? Is your interest in rich cultural, historical locations where lodgings can sometimes be considered “rustic” for the best rooms, or would you be more comfortable in a modern hotel room in a larger capital city?
A Realistic Adventure Is The Most Fun
Try to be realistic with who and where you are as an adventurer. Some photo workshops are strictly for hard-core adventurers, where others are more suited for those starting. It is a long road, the study of photography, and not one you can jump the line – you’ve got to put in the hours climbing the learning ladder from the bottom starting.
Everybody likes to think of themselves as adventurers, right up to where the real adventure starts. But, when the rubber meets the road is not the time to learn how little you know. You need to truthfully, honestly be self-aware of where your personal “edge” is. What is your tolerance for risk? Where do you set your personal limits? Can you actually hike the distances required carrying your gear?
Pushing personal boundaries to exceed prior limits is the most difficult but also the most rewarding of photographic experiences. But jumping into the deep end of a pool without first knowing how to swim is not only foolish, it can be dangerous, and it would most likely be mostly a waste of your time and money. Nevertheless, the world is your photographic oyster, so decide how you are going to shuck it.