The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Photography Workshops

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Photography Workshops

There isn’t much worse than doling out a substantial amount of money and ending up on a less than stellar workshop. I’ve been there, done that, so here are a few thoughts on how to have a great photography workshop experience.

The advertisements in any photography magazine or website are dizzying. There is a workshop for just about anything you could hope to photograph in just about any location. How do you select a good workshop for you? Let’s start with what potentially could make for an underwhelming experience and end with what great workshops can be.

The Breakdown of a Bad Workshop

Sometimes things are just outside of your control and can’t be foreseen, however the breakdown of a bad photography workshop is typically the result of poor planning and management by the host. I could be wrong, but when spending thousands of dollars on a trip I anticipate the coordination of all the events to be done ahead of time versus as we are driving from point A to B by members of the group. I also believe that when the workshop boasts photographing state and national parks, the commercial permits that are required should be in place ahead of time. Being told to leave a park on more than one occasion was not ideal. Also, being told to say that the group are just friends shooting together should have been an indication all was not well.

While I’ve heard of countless horror stories about workshops running afoul for one reason or another, in my experience a little planning goes a long ways to prevent disasters from striking.

Picking the Right Workshop

It’s important to set yourself up for success. Start by doing your research, and I mean a lot of it. While magazines have pages of workshop offerings to pick from, take some time researching the photographer, past workshops, the type of work that’s been produced in those workshops, and if the host really puts the time in to provide unique, awesome experiences.

Start with the basics with this research; what genre of photography are you hoping to achieve? Wildlife, street, landscape, lighting, night sky, fashion — the options are near limitless. The instructor for the workshop could make or break the experience. Researching if the photographer is well regarded in the industry is always a great place to start. With all things Internet driven today, this can be accomplished with a few keystrokes. Does the instructor’s business have reviews anywhere? While decisions shouldn’t be made on reviews alone, I know plenty of people who will read every review on a product they can find before purchasing, so why should investing your money in a workshop be any different? Now this next question seems like a given, but does the instructor’s work resonate with you? If you review their portfolio and come away saying they have nice images, but you aren’t secretly wishing you had similar images in your body of work, maybe other workshops should be researched. There is a caveat to this in my opinion when it comes to landscape photography.

If the instructor has landscape images that offer unique perspectives on locations that are well known to all, and you are looking for more of a location guide than a true photography workshop where fundamentals and editing are covered, then this may work for you. On my first visit to Yosemite National Park I was crunched for time, trying to sneak a visit while on a business trip. I hired a local photography workshop guide to help me hit the highlights on my brief stay. My intentions for this guided experience were met in that we hit the park highlights, as well as more secluded, less known vantage points that I would have missed in my planning for the trip. The guide made sure we were staged in the best locations for perfect lighting, meanwhile I enjoyed focusing on composition and my images.

Is there a solid itinerary of places or things that will be covered in the workshop? There’s a fine line for companies to provide information regarding what will be experienced in their workshops, but not provide the “secret sauce” to what makes that experience unique to only their workshop. Keep this in mind when speaking to the coordinator beforehand. If they aren’t wanting to provide the exact locations that will be photographed, this may be due to the many years they have had to work to gain the access and knowledge about these particular locations, and would like to keep that to only those who join their workshops.

Lastly, do you have the right equipment to set you up for success? For instance, if you’re a street photographer and decide you want to enjoy a wildlife workshop, you may need to rent or buy additional gear to get the most out of the trip. Street photographers typically have stealthy kits with lenses such as 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm. When I think of wildlife photography kits, my mind immediately gravitates towards the other end of the spectrum with 400mm-plus kits. As I stated earlier, a little planning goes a long way, and it never hurts to ask the workshop coordinator on suggested focal ranges and equipment to pack. A great host will gladly speak with you about the best equipment to bring to maximize your experience.

The Makeup of a Great Workshop

Would it be a great experience if all of your equipment failed, memory cards corrupted, and all you were left with were memories? This question was posed to me by Lisa Langell during a recent workshop I attended of hers. My immediate response that came to mind was “no,” I would not include the words “great experience” anywhere near equipment failures when I would only be left with trip memories. However, after spending time as a participant on Langell's Bear Extravaganza Tour which was an add-on to the Magic of Alaska Tour my initial response shifted. Unfortunately, my schedule didn’t allow for me to attend the first section of the workshop, but what was packed into the three days left me agreeing with Langell’s initial question that even if I lost all my images, I would still classify the trip as a great experience. Luckily, that didn’t happen and I, along with the rest of the participants, walked away with images we can be proud of.

Image used with permission from Lisa Langell.

To start, it felt like a well-designed workshop and vacation. Every plan had multiple back up plans in case something should have gone awry. Alaska’s weather changes by the minute, so planning ahead of time left for a seamless shift in the daily adventures was key. There were no rental car conundrums like in previous experiences, in fact she provided a lift from the airport which was a nice surprise. There was also no competing for the “perfect shot,” just a seamless experience focusing on wildlife photography. Langell was engaged with her participants and provided pointers throughout the entire trip. When the host puts participants and their experiences first, it really shows the dedication involved in running fantastic a workshop. Overall this was an ideal workshop experience from start to finish.

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12 Comments

Three I know have been to Tillman Crane's North Dakota workshop. Access to the abandoned farmhouses, schools and churches. Time with the instructors one on one as well as group time. Critique and field help.
Three books from participants have come out of the workshops the past 8 years. Many have had Salon images across the world from them.
Out of the way, challenging locations, weather and lighting with locations from falling down to looking as if someone could move in next week. Old farms, machinery and the like with opportunities from before sunrise and after sunset, night skies - including Aurora light shows on occasion - make for a shooting workshop. Not a "point your camera here" as part of a group. 20-30 locations each time so most anyone can find old farmsteads that will work for them.
Nice folks in the area, good restaurants and all stay at the central Motel in Rugby, ND.
All three have attended more than one year of this workshop and each time they have said it was worth it.

Andrew Smith's picture

Good advise about researching the workshop hosts. And asking them beforehand about plan b's. Not having the right permits is not only bad planning but shows a poorly run company. I think this article mostly relates to wildlife and landscape workshops though. If research and questioning both got reassuring results I would book it. Workshops I have done or heard about from friends have been model and studio shoots. Here it's how many participants will be attending, and how big an area with how many models if applicable would be good questions. For me, I wouldn't attend another studio or model workshop. In my experience it is just a conveyor belt with little time to do your own thing. Even worse if one of the photographers dominates the session. And the trainer doesn't step in. You end up with pictures exactly the same as everyone else. The worst I heard of was the trainer told everyone what settings to use, and where to stand. Then move on quickly for the next person.

Douglas Turney's picture

A few other things that a person may want to look at when selecting a workshop. 1) How many years has the workshop been run? If it is the first year for the workshop expect some unforeseen issues no matter how well prepared the organization may be. 2) Ask the workshop who handles the logistics of the workshop, especially if it is a multiday workshop. If it is a week long workshop and the instructor tells you they handle all the logistics like organizing transportation, meals, lodging, rooms for reviews while also instructing be cautious. While they may have done all the best planning, issues come up during the workshop that have to be taken care of. Do you want your instructor solving problems or instructing? 3) Are there big name sponsors involved with the workshop like Nikon, Cannon, Sony, ThinkTank, Tamaron, etc.? Big name sponsors don't want to be associated with bad workshops and the bad publicity that can come with association with a bad workshop. 4) Look at the itinerary. While it might seem great to have tons of classes and different instruction, if the day doesn't provide some breaks you are going to be overwhelmed and perhaps the instruction is going to be a fly by type of instruction. 5) For multi day workshops are the instructors available after hours? Do they socialize with the students at the bar at night or at breakfast in the morning? 6) Do the instructors have training videos available that you can review before signing up for the workshop? If so watch them. Do they instruct in a way that suits your learning style? Do they seem interesting and friendly in their videos? A little research can go a long way to ensure you have the best chance of having an enjoyable and productive workshop experience.

John Skinner's picture

As a rare wildlife/landscape shooter, I can merely speak to what I know.

ANY clinic with Peter Read Miller for sports images is going to more than you could have possible expected. So look him up for his personal clinics. Your takeaway will be more than invested.

And the Summit workshops (https://www.photographyatthesummit.com/sports/) are second to none. You will not be disappointed by either of these listed here.

Photography workshops are ridiculously expensive.

I know a guy who shot for National Geographic who stopped doing workshops when he realized all his unique photos were being also created by 35 other people in his workshop the minute he took his shot. That was in the mid-2000s when he had a lot of stock business that then still paid a living wage, so by now it may not still be as much of an issue.

Strongly reccomend workshops by Gary Hart and Don Smith. They do some jointly and some independently. Either way, you are well taken care of. I'm in the NANPA 2018 "Exposure" magazine for being one of the top 100 winners as a result of the fall Grand Teton workshop. And I had a photo.net "Editor's Pick" from their workshop on Northern Arizona.

Workshops:
Your Photos Suck now pay me $500+ to ramble for a few hours and leave you more confused than you were in the start.

Lee Stirling's picture

There was not much reference to the human factor and level of preparedness of the workshop members, in addition to the people running the session. Some of this you can prepare for and some of it you can't.

It's important to know what the physical demands of the workshop will be and prepare for the possible environmental conditions. It would be a waste of money and time to embark on a workshop that includes activities that you cannot physically perform due to age, medical condition, or physical fitness level. Not only that, but it may negatively impact the experiences of the other workshop members if one of their cohorts constantly requires extra attention and/or delays their progress in reaching photo spots throughout the program. Additionally, if your clothing and gear are not up to the task, you are going to be uncomfortable and risk possible injury as well.

To some degree, it's always a crap shoot in terms of the people who sign-up to attend a photo workshop that can make or break it as well. It's got to be tough if some of the people in the group don't get along, for whatever reason. Personality clashes, people who like to complain a lot, "needy" attendees who seek to monopolize instructor time, and people who just don't shut up, to name a few types. You can't control who attends a workshop, but you can control how you respond and interact with those people to get the most out of your experience as well.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I've been on workshops with up to 15 photographers and that is simply too many because of all the personalities that get out of control, especially after several days. My last bucket list photo trip to New Zealand's South Island only had 6 participants but because of the higher cost, attracted only the most serious photo enthusiasts so we didn't have any personality problems. It really is worth the extra cost for fewer people if you can possible afford it. I place more priority on experience than value.

Ed Sanford's picture

Absolutely true. I just returned from a great workshop in Iceland with only 5 photographers plus the instructor. It worked out great and was very intense. My take on good workshops is that they "put you on the shot". Next if I learn one thing that I didn't know, then it is a success.

Blake Aghili's picture

The MONEY TRAP workshops are the ones that you learn nothing new about business, pitching to clients, lighting, posing ,etc... and all they do is bringing in some cute models in cute dresses and setup the set for you, you take some photos that look cute ! and that's all . oh and probably a selfie with the workshop organizer for your IG likes :D