Photography workshops are popping up everywhere these days, covering just about any kind of topic you can imagine. There’s some good ones out there, surrounded by plenty of mediocre and bad ones. Sometimes I wonder if there’s more workshops currently being offered than photographers to attend them all. So when MyPhotoCentral.com asked me to write about workshops, I cringed and privately wondered, “How can I get out of this assignment as fast as possible?” But after giving it some thought, and looking back over my years as both a workshop attendee and host, I’ve decided there’s so much that can and should be said…
BAPTISM BY FIRE
My first photography workshop was 8 years ago. I’d already been shooting for a living for 3 years, and was completely self-taught, but hadn’t really dabbled in photographing people yet. I felt like this was going to cripple my future potential if I didn’t expand into new directions, so I started looking around for classes. The problem with college classes: who has time for them? I already had a college degree and I was looking for more of a quick-fix.
So I spent what was (to me) a small fortune for a private, one-on-one session with a well-known commercial photographer in Chicago. And I walked away from that experience feeling like I’d wasted my time and money. His studio was chaotic. His dog was there, and would wander onto the sets while we were working. My host would stop mid-sentence to answer his phone constantly, and his clients and friends randomly came in and out all day.
I was promised three different models to photograph at that workshop, but only one bothered to show up at the very end of the day. She wasn’t terribly good at taking direction and so we had to grab her arms and legs and move her into the poses we wanted. My host felt bad that things didn’t go as planned. So after taking me out to dinner, he offered me a few free attendances at his group workshops.
Looking back a year later, now with a studio of my own, I realized I’d gone into that first workshop hoping to learn something about lighting. But I walked away with even more important lessons instead. I learned that model photography isn’t so much about lighting, sometimes it’s about managing projects and people to make sure they show up on time and prepared. Or barking orders and giving direction when the talent isn’t quite so talented. I learned that being a good photographer isn’t about technical and artistic ability, but about focusing and applying those skills in sometimes chaotic situations. And that in order to run a successful business, you need to maintain an open door policy and make yourself available at all times, lest your clients quickly forget you exist.
Since that first experience, I’ve attended other workshops ranging from group model shoots to flower photography classes and anything in-between. And I’ve used what I’ve learned to host my own workshops, where I pride myself in trying to fix the mistakes of others. These are hard earned lessons that I’m more than willing to share so that you get everything you need out of the workshops you attend.
In my experience, the single biggest mistake attendees make is not asking questions before, during, or after the workshop. I’ve talked to photographers who were disappointed to attend some workshop where the host forgot to tell them to bring their own lighting. Or attendees who just assumed food would be provided for an all day event… but wasn’t. And so on.
I’ve grown convinced that television has trained entire generations to sit back and watch, passively. I’ve been to workshops were the other attendees sit and stare at the instructor like confused mannequins, while I stick my neck out and constantly pester the host for clarification or additional information. Sure, maybe they’re afraid to ask questions and come across looking dumb. But as I always say: There are no dumb questions, only dummies who don’t ask them.
Get your money’s worth… ask questions.
A one day workshop will not turn you into a seasoned pro, especially if you are still fumbling around with and learning your camera knobs and dials. I don’t think good workshops are about 8 hours of non-stop learning. The human brain just doesn’t absorb that much info all at once. A productive workshop offers lots of info that may be quickly forgotten. But hopefully one or two things that stick with you forever. I call these “Eye Openers” and “Head Slappers.”
Eye-openers: I love when I’m working with a new photographer and they suddenly realize things aren’t as difficult as they’d assumed. Maybe they’d imagined some expensive, complicated studio lighting set up was used to create an image. Then I show them how it was done with just a reflector and the Sun. You get the idea. Drop the preconceptions and keep an open mind.
Head-slappers: You know that feeling – you slap your palm on your forehead and say to yourself, “I can’t believe I’ve been doing this wrong all these years!” That’s a good moment to have at a workshop. Someone has done their job well that day if they’ve showed you the right way.
Be honest with yourself: Why are you taking a workshop? What do you really want to get out of this?
At every workshop I’ve hosted, there’s always that person who says, “I want to learn about lighting and fashion.” But clearly, they don’t. When I start talking about lighting theory, those people glaze over with boredom. When we set up dressy fashion styles, they snap a picture or two and look disinterested. But as soon as a pretty model comes out in a bikini for glamour styles, suddenly they’re laser-focused and tripping over everyone else to grab as many shots as possible.
If bikini models and glamour are what interest you… great! I love shooting swimwear models too. But I sure wish you’d told me that upfront, because then I could steer you away from my studio lighting workshop and over to the sunrise swimwear event instead. I do hate to disappoint! If you’re honest with yourself, and with your hosts, you’ll find workshops that are the right fit for you.
LEARNING VS. PORTFOLIO BUILDING
Some workshops focus on teaching theory and technique. Others are geared towards portfolio building. The best are usually a mix of the two. But often, group workshops need to sacrifice something in order to keep the group together and focused on the main topics.
If your goal is portfolio building, then you may want to look into attending a group shoot rather than an educational workshop. It’s not unusual in educational situations where you barely take any pictures, and spend most of the time listening to lectures or watching demonstrations.
IDEAS ARE EQUIPMENT
Going back to my very first workshop experience, I mentioned that my host felt bad and offered me free attendance at a few of his upcoming group workshops. Well, I’d learned some lessons from the previous experience and decided to show up “armed” with a pretty friend, just in case the workshop host’s models were no-shows. And I brought some fun props too, like a guitar and cowboy hat for a Western look.
Well guess what: even with 4 other models showing up that day, everyone seemed to prefer my model friend instead. Nobody else thought to bring props of their own and they were all asking to borrow mine. This is not to say that it would have been a disaster without my model or props, but that I didn’t take a passive role and expect magic to happen. I got the workshop experience, plus one. My point being: you only get out of workshops as much as you put into them. Bring ideas, just in case.
I attended a Scott Kelby workshop once that was hosted in a ballroom with over 500 people in attendance. For a group that large, I give Kelby tons of credit for maintaining some level of interactivity with the crowd, and setting aside time for questions and answers too. But let’s face it, in a group of 500 you’re going to get lost in the crowd. You’re probably going to be watching the host work all day, not doing any work of your own. In smaller group settings, things are prone to be much more interactive. Keep the group size in mind, when booking a workshop.
LOSE THE EGO
Continuing with my Kelby experience: most attendees were very clearly brand-new to photography. This fact was made obvious when the crowd collectively went “Ooh!” and “Ahh!” as Scott opened up a silver reflector on stage… as if it were fireworks on the Fourth of July. I had nearly a decade of professional experience under my belt by then, and quietly snickered and rolled my eyes at their reaction.
But you know what? I learned a few things that day, despite my ego. Like I’d never really thought much about darkening the part in a person’s hair with Photoshop, till Kelby made it obvious how distracting that can be. Heck, I even incorporated that knowledge into my Adjustment Layers For Flattering Faces tutorial
Until that Kelby workshop, I’d always wondered why very experienced photographers would attend one of my beginner lighting workshops. Now I know: everyone has their personal tips and tricks, and the smart photographers go around collecting all those pearls of wisdom.
Workshops can be a great way to expand your knowledge and portfolio. I find the key to having a productive experience is to set goals, have realistic expectations, and arrive prepared to do more than sit on your hands and listen. And of course: ask questions, questions, and more questions. Oh, did I mention you should ask lots of questions? Yes I did….