Photography workshops are a fantastic way to improve your photography in a short space of time. That said, workshops don’t suit everyone, and I have actually recommended to some photographers to not join a workshop, including some that I have run either through Nature’s Light or one of the other operators that I have interacted for in the past. Below are some questions that a prospective workshop goer can ask and so figure out where their personal needs in a workshop come through.
Is it a workshop or a photo tour? This is critical in knowing what to expect from a workshop. There are plenty of outfits that claim to be running workshops, but in fact are leading a photographic tour. The difference is immense. A workshop involves a very large learning aspect, usually under the guidance of a professional photographer or instructor. Some workshops have a strong classroom based element while others take place predominantly in the field. Either way, are you being taken to a location to take photos, or are you also receiving instruction at the same time?
Some photographers don’t necessarily want the workshop aspect. For them the idea is to travel to a location with a group of like-minded photographers as company. They want to maximise on the time spent shooting rather than spending time on theory or post-production sessions. I have actually had photographers join a workshop before and not bring a laptop or even a tablet with which to review their images. On the other hand, some workshops are specifically oriented to teach a technique so they are lesson or guidance dependent. Most workshops are a mix of the two though, particularly if they take place in a faraway location.
Are you going somewhere? What better than to go to an exotic location and learn how to take photographs at the same time? Be aware though that sometimes workshops based in a single location are more valuable from a learning point of view than workshops that require travel, (it’s pretty difficult to teach while jolting around in the back of a Landrover for 5 hours a day). That said, travel workshops have a unique feeling to them as a workshop group become friends and fellow travellers at the same time.
Having led several workshops in far flung places I have come to realise that often small communities of photographers end up travelling together and meeting up annually either with the same tour operator, or a different operator but with the same group of photographers. Some groups can be cliquey unfortunately. I count myself fortunate that I have only heard about these groups from guests and haven’t actually experienced this personally.
Who is your instructor? This links in directly to the first point. A lot of photographic tours are led by prominent professional photographers. This doesn’t mean though that the photographer, as amazing as they may be, is any good as a teacher. You pay a premium to join a workshop or a photographic tour (a workshop will always be more expensive than a similar tour by a non-photographic operator - you are paying for the specialist photographic knowledge of the instructors and the weird hours that photographers keep in order to catch the best light). Decide whether simply joining a photographer on a tour so that they can pay for their shoot is worthwhile or whether you actually want to get valuable one-on-one interaction with the photographer, which leads us to:
How many other photographers will there be? This is critical for someone wanting to obtain valuable learning from an instructor. A good instructor can really only handle 6-10 students while maintaining a high level of interaction. More than this and personal attention starts to fade. Nature’s Light does not take more than 4 students per instructor unless we absolutely have to (special request for instance), and usually strives for a 1:3 instructor : photographer ratio.
So how good is the instructor anyway? A recent article I read recommended that the workshop goer only uses a well-known photographer/instructor. I certainly agree with trying to avoid fly-by-nighters, but well-known is relative. A photographer may be well known in one country but completely unheard of in another. A good gauge is to look at how long the instructor has been teaching workshops for and also what their website looks like. Is the website full of awe-inspiring images, or is there also a good deal of instructional material? My preference would be to go with the photographer who also disseminates information through their websites. The former may just be another top-photographer struggling through the recession by piggybacking his/her shoots on a workshop, and for that matter:
Does the instructor take their own photographs? I’ve come across some internet chatter on this before. Some feel that the instructor should not even have a camera as it is the students that come first, while others feel that the instructor is a photographer and should be allowed to practice the art. My feeling is somewhere between the two. Photography to me is like breathing. So this is an admission that I do take photographs on workshops. However, the students’ images and their learning experience do come first. Quite frankly, if the instructor never picks up a camera they are going to get awfully bored. In my experience, when the light is right, the students disappear in every which direction to capitalise on it. I’ve tried the no-camera approach and not only found myself bothering the students (after-all, it’s only the rare student who needs to have their hand held the whole way), but was actually chastised by some of them as they wanted to see how I worked, resulting in my adjusting the workshop so that my images became teaching tools.
Is there feedback? Feedback sessions are possibly the most important aspect of the workshop and surprisingly are often overlooked by some operators. Here is the opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes. In all the workshops Nature’s Light runs, critique sessions are built in so that students are able to learn from errors and apply what they have learnt the next day.
Who is the workshop for? This is actually quite important. Not all workshops are equal. Some workshops cover a very specific area of expertise (Macro-lighting, Landscape Composition e.g.) while others are broad in their scope. Check to see who the workshop is intended for. Advanced photographers may be disappointed going on a workshop intended to teach the basics while beginner photographers may be completely overwhelmed in a workshop geared toward intermediate and advanced photographers.
At the end of the day one of the greatest advantages of going on a workshop is the artistic stimulation that you will receive. Whether there is a competitive air among the students or not (and sometimes there is a slight undercurrent), the ideas that bounce back and forth through discussion and viewing each other’s work is incredibly stimulating. In our upcoming Iceland workshop for 2019 we have two photographers whose work will likely influence each other. At the very least their respective styles will no doubt lead to some interesting creative discussions around the image making process. I am looking forward to seeing what impact (if any) the workshop will have on them. I have seen some students do a complete u-turn in their thinking purely from seeing other people’s work. There is also more energy put into finding and creating the images. It’s as if the artistic part of the brain decides, “Now I am going to work”. For me though, the simple fact that you are surrounding yourself with other photographers, talking, thinking and doing photography can only improve your skills and photographic mindset. For that reason, the instructor, if they are passionate about their work (the kind you want as an instructor), will get as much out of the workshop as the students will.