How To Get What You Pay For At A Photo Workshop

I could have just as easily titled this, “How To Be A Good Photo Workshop Participant” but it didn’t sound sensational enough to me.  Gotta have a headline that jumps out and snags people, right?

So my post/rant about workshop leaders gave me another idea.  Now that you all have some ideas of what to look for in a photography workshop instructor I thought I’d tell you what I, as a workshop leader, like to see in those brave souls who sign up for one of my workshops.  I’ll bet if you polled other workshop leaders you’d hear a similar wish list.

First and foremost, I love, love, love workshop participants who want to have fun.  News flash: nature photography is fun.  Why make it anything but that?  I promise you will learn a lot of stuff about photography while we’re together but we’ll also have tons of fun.  I cut jokes, I make fun of myself and I’ve been known to get down on all fours and howl like a coyote because I was asked to do so by a client.  Wait a minute, that didn’t sound right.  Let’s just move on.  All I’m saying is arrive for the workshop with a good attitude and be prepared to have a good time.  I’ve only ever had to fire one client and that’s because he was a complete ass.  He bitched and moaned about everything and never once did I see the guy smile, even when the sun came up and the whole canyon lit up like it was on fire.  After a half day with him I gave him his money back and told him to get lost.  Sorry, but if a killer sunrise doesn’t make you happy I feel so very sorry for you.

After an earnest desire to have fun, the next most important attribute is a longing to learn, to accept constructive criticism and an open mind to take in stride whatever may come.  I can’t control the weather.  Only Todd Caudle has the power to will clouds into place at just the right time.  That’s why they call him “The Cloud Man”.  I am more like “Blue Sky Man”.  Some times I’m “Rain and Overcast Man”.  Regardless of the weather you can still find value in a workshop if you are willing to set aside your ego and expectations for a couple days.  Show your work and ask for critique.  Not just from the workshop instructor but from everyone in the class.  It’s a tremendously valuable exercise for photographers to critique the work of others and to have their own images critiqued.  Even in the worst of weather we can still huddle at a coffee shop and talk about camera settings, hyperfocal focusing, finding your creative vision, how to use the light you’re given and whether dark or milk is the better chocolate (dark is, by the way).

So you’re willing to have fun and you checked you’re super eager to learn.  What else?  Come prepared!  Write down a list of questions that have nagged you and bring the list with you.  Realize that there are no stupid questions except the ones you don’t ask.  If you’re not comfortable asking in the group environment flag down your workshop instructor and ask them in private.  You’re at the workshop to learn and if you spend a little time preparing for the event you’ll get even more out of it.  As a side note, a good question to ask before you even pack your bags is what kind of weather to expect and what kind of gear to bring with you.  You can have the most awesome attitude on the planet but if it’s 20 degrees and all you brought was a windbreaker it’s going to be awfully difficult to have a good time!

As part of “come prepared” I’ll add a few things that may seem obvious but you’d be surprised how often they crop up.  Bring extra batteries and extra memory cards.  Bring your battery charger.  Bring a laptop and, if you use one, an external hard drive to back up your images.  Don’t forget your camera manual.  I shoot Canon and I don’t know the first thing about Nikon cameras.  I’d love to help you figure out why your camera isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do but I probably won’t figure it out without your manual handy.  Most importantly, don’t forget your camera.  Go ahead and laugh but this actually happened once.  Luckily, I had an extra camera to loan out!

Communicate your goals to the instructor.  We should ask at the beginning of the workshop what you’d like to get out of it.  If we don’t, feel free to volunteer the information.  It’s a huge help to know that you’re struggling with composing intimate landscapes or that you just can’t figure out what the difference is between f/4 and f/22.  Seriously, this is good stuff and it will help any workshop instructor worth his or her salt to get you over the hurdles you’re facing.  When you return home after the workshop and realize that you forgot to ask an important question, send the instructor an email or call him up.  Chances are he or she will be more than willing to help you out.

Last, but not least, be realistic about the experience.  Workshops come in all shapes and sizes.  There are one day seminars and multi-day, full-immersion workshops, and everything in between.  Even the most intensive workshops can’t possibly teach you everything you will ever need to know about nature photography.  If such a monster did exist I can assure you I would have already taken it!  Pick up as much as you can and enjoy the experience.  You’ll be back at work in no time, showing off your photos to co-workers and wishing you were somewhere looking out at a gorgeous landscape with several new friends by your side.

Did I leave out anything?  If you’ve got a thought to share I encourage you to leave a comment.  We’re all friendly around here!

6 thoughts on “How To Get What You Pay For At A Photo Workshop”

  1. Great article, Bret. Let me add one more suggestion for participants/learners.

    Come with the attitude of a learner, and with no fears about being open about what you don’t know. As a full-time educator I’m still amazed at the number of students – often the majority – who are scared to death of saying aloud, “I don’t understand.” It is as if admitting that there is anything that you don’t know would be an admission of failure.

    But that is utterly, absolutely, and (if you think about it) obviously precisely backwards. By default, the choice to put yourself into a learning situation is a result of recognizing that there are things you do not know and that you want to know more about them. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) be there if you think you already know everything that is available to learn in the workshop/class.

    I don’t say this as a put-down of learners – not at all! The idea is to liberate learners to see the obvious – that learning is not about possessing perfect, unfailing, and comprehensive knowledge of all things. At its core, learning is about saying, “I don’t understand, but I want to” and then pursuing the task of looking for answers to questions.

    (As a teacher, I think it is important to model this same idea. It is OK to sometimes say, “I didn’t know that!” or “I’ll have to find out?” or “That’s a good question.” I believe that good teachers are not just experts on subject matter, but also people who understand and can model good learning as well.)

    All learning must start with the realization that “I do not understand.” That is a good thing!

  2. Great advice, Bret. I’ll just echo one of my prior posts about workshop participant courtesy on location. No matter how much money you’ve paid for your workshop, it does not entitle you to “own” the location. Be considerate to the other participants and to any other photographers who come upon the scene. As I noted earlier, unless you’re on private land and shooting there by special permit, any other photographers who show up should not be denied a chance to shoot just because you’re a student of “Joe Famous Photographer” for the day.

    That said, you ARE entitled to feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth from the instruction. Don’t just stand there and hope you get the knowledge you’ve hoped for. Speak up and ask questions appropriately.

    On the other hand, unless you’re the only participant, don’t try to hog the instructor’s time. If he or she is helping someone else, wait a few minutes. You can always write down your questions if you’re worried you’ll forget. In the meanwhile, be proactive and study the scene, listen to the advice being given to others. It just might address your issue too.

    Also, don’t let your instructor push you into doing anything that makes you physically uncomfortable (e.g., setting up your tripod on the edge of a precipice if you’re fearful of heights). As Bret says, communicate your concerns throughout.

    If you have physical limitations or logistical concerns, let the instructor know BEFORE you even sign up and see whether or not you’re up to the challenges that might be ecountered. Much better than showing up to find you’re expected to slog through muddy swamps, climb Mt. Whitney or ford the Colorado River to get to the location.

    Good instructors will probably provide you with suggestions, even checklists and “rules” to help you get your act together in advance, but as Bret mentions, do your homework. Be sensible, be informed and be prepared. Then you’ll be able to maximize your workshop experience.

    Thanks for all of these workshop posts, Bret. They should be very helpful to both instructors and participants.

    1. I gotta add a quick “P.S.” here after reading Dan’s excellent comment about “how” to learn. He writes another note to instructors about how it’s okay not to know something. I’ll add to that by saying, never pretend you know when you don’t. Admit you don’t have the answer, but offer to research it and get back to them. If you attempt to bluff, they will see through you, and you will lose their trust. Integrity is key to your reputation and your success as an instructor.

  3. A workshop instructor who doesn’t know the “other system”? I feel a rant coming on! Okay I kid, but personally I have made it a point to master every canon camera that has come out, even thought I’m a nikon shooter… As a teacher in the worlds of portrait and wedding photography, you REALLY have to know both systems. (even though I’m a landscape photographer at heart…)

    Good article!
    =Matt=

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