From Educator To Educated - My Lessons Learned As a Workshop Photographer

From Educator To Educated - My Lessons Learned As a Workshop Photographer

As many of you may know if you follow me on social media, I teach workshops and give lecture on photography and retouching all over the United States. Through prepping each workshop, I sharpen my knowledge and become fluent in the material I’m teaching. However, without fail, I always learn a million new things when teaching each workshop.

And I’m not talking new ways to light, pose or retouch, I’m talking about things about my market, my peers and how things are done differently from person to person. You see, as photographers, you don’t really get the opportunity to see eachother work. With the exception of workshops, tutorial series and the occasional Creative Live, we’re left guessing on how to properly work with, light, and edit subjects to help create our art. As a workshop educator, I’m afforded the luxury of teaching, while remain a fly on the wall to a dozen different photo shoots throughout the day. Here are some of the things I’ve learned as an educator in this industry.

We’re All Oblivious When It Comes to Business

I teach workshops predominantly relating to lighting and retouching, though I encourage all of my students to ask questions throughout the workshop about anything related to photography. Without fail, the conversation eventually makes its way to business practices and making a living as a photographer.

While I pride myself on knowledge relating to client interaction, lighting, and retouching, I’ve found that generally people are most impressed with my ability to run a photography business full time. This industry is filled with far more weekend warriors than full time photographers, though many of them are trying to find the bridge from one to the other. I give them the same advice time and time again, and just simply encourage them to make the leap.

There is no guide book on how to run a successful business, and there is no one secret on how to get booked with photo shoots 5 days a week. You simply have to fight for it. The best advantage I have against other photographers in this industry is that I don’t have a nine to five I need to report to five days a week. My success as a businessman is solely dependent on the time I can invest in it.

People Can't Bridge The Gap With Client Interaction

Another thing I've realized, is that people think there is a secret to client interaction, that there is a single sentence of phrase that can be said when photographing someone, that'll instantly make them comfortable in front of a camera. Sadly, like all things, there aren't cheat codes. I tell people, there is no such thing as client interaction, only people interaction. If you want people to feel comfortable in front of your camera, you need to make them feel comfortable with you, and you with them. Want to know about client interaction? Then understand social interaction. Read books like "How to Win Friends and Influence People," and most importantly, find authenticity in your intentions.

Right And Wrongs Don't Exist

Perhaps my most staggering findings is that there is a million different ways to do the same thing. I like my lights close to my subject, and I like my modifiers large and circular in shape. I teach this practice at my workshops and watch students awkwardly fumble through this technique and idea. Eventually, I step in, swap out the octabank with a small softbox, and tell them "Do it how you naturally do it, and then let's maximize your technique."

It helped me understand that there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to technique. I love my off camera lighting, and will become a pack mule when working on location. That doesn't mean that there aren't people who work in natural light and do it brilliantly. I love to have my modifiers larger than life, making kites while outdoors on location. That doesn't mean bare flashes can't create some masterful results. I have become obsessed with large sensors and ridiculous dynamic range, but I'm still forever envious of those who can create exceptional art with nothing more than an iPhone.

So this is exactly how I approach my workshops. I tell people that I'll teach them what they need to know, and then together we can use those tools to help develop their own style. I'm not teaching workshops that show you how to shoot like me, I'm teaching technical skills that will help you develop how you want to shoot, without any limitations to your own knowledge. Shameless plug incoming....

Photography Workshops

Techniques Can Be Taught, Style Cannot

Which brings me to my next point, Only techniques can be truly taught. When starting on my workshops and eventually tutorial series, I got asked a question by many that sank into my brain, and scared the hell out of me. The question -- 

If you're teaching photographers the secret to your style, won't you lose your edge in the market?

This question rotted in my stomach for a long time, and made me second guess the nature of my workshops. My instinct was to withhold some information at my workshops, like I had some signature shortcut that was worth its weight in gold (There is no such thing). But it wasn't until I released every little piece of information that I knew, that I learned, there are no secrets.

My photos don't look the way they do because of a confidential light placement, or a top secret curves adjustment in Photoshop, they look the way they do because they're an extension of who I am and the experiences I've had in life. That is something that can not be replicated in an 8 hour class - or an 8 week internship for that matter.

And that statement rings true still today. I can have a student take a photo in the same location as me, using the same makeup artist, wardrobe stylist and light settings. The end result is that we're going to get different photos. No one can effectively replicate your style (assuming you have one), so there is no sense in hiding that from the world.


And that is where I sit right now. I'm teaching workshops because each and every time, I learn something from them. Even as the instructor, I become better familiarized with the technical jargon, and gain a better understand of the concerns and techniques of others in the industry. A workshop is only as good as the class it contains, and the class is only as good as their willingness to learn - myself included. None of us are masters, and regardless of your time in this industry, you have something to both learn, and something to teach.

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David Vaughn's picture

Great points, especially the one about getting clients comfortable in front of the camera. In my experience, the hardest part if you're not an extrovert who can make conversation with a brick wall is breaking down the wall that says "I am photographer, you are client."

A lot of the time I'll try to be very casual and friendly but my subject. client will still be stand-offish even when we're just chatting because...idk...I guess they see the photo shoot as a kind of professional transaction instead of as a laid-back experience.

However, some photographers seem to just know how to make people loosen up and get comfortable. I think that's where this idea of a "cheat" comes from. Some people just have all the rights pieces of the puzzle (the look, personality, business sense, method of shooting) that seems to make interacting with their subjects seem like a piece of cake...And a lot of photographers are just mystified by these individuals.

At least that's the way I see it: There's not a cheat sheet but some people just have a knack for it more than others, and as such, people begin to believe there is some sort of secret to it. the Right and Wrongs Don't Exist heading, the first sentence reads"... there is a million different things to do the same thing." I don't want to be that guy but it did stand out....

Zach Sutton's picture

Thanks for the read and kind compliments David!

While I agree with the getting clients comfortable point you have, I think it's still something that comes with practice. When I started out, I was pretty terrible with client interaction. I made a lot of mistakes in my early days, and through trial and error, I learned how to better associate with my clients.

Certainly some of us are better at conversation than others, but I still think a lot of that comes with practice. It's hard to challenge yourself in this field, but I really think it's something you need to push to become better at if you want to up your photography game. I tell people who are uncomfortable around clients (or people in general), to force yourself into those situations. Talk to strangers on the street, at a coffee shop, and at the grocery store. Put yourself in those situations until they feel more like a habit and less like a chore. Then, I think at least, you'll find that it's even easier to do that when you have someone in front of your camera.

Ralph Berrett's picture

Really solid article, I might have to show up to one of your workshops, nah I am not that cruel. ;)

Like most profesional photographers I started in high school and study photography in college, well to be fair, I majored in photojournalism minored in photography. That was par for the course if you wanted to work for a daily paper. ;)

When I mention schools or workshops to some photographers they would get defensive and say' "You can't teach talent". I answer you can "teach technique and skill sets".

In many ways Ansel Adams was right Photography is like music, learning the basic skills is like learning to play an instrument and read music. It does not not make you Joe Satriani but gives you a place to start.

When I first started shooting I hated shooting formal portraits. I decided on year that I would shoot as many formal portraits as possible for my assignments. I remember I drove my newspaper nuts that I decided to shoot formal portraits of all the candidates running for office instead of doing the traditional mugshot against the wall.

What was funny was I started to get request from the publisher to shoot portraits the editors and himself. I have now have shot corporate heads and am doing the 40 portraits in the next two weeks of the local 40 under 40.

The biggest thing I learned was not so much the lighting as being comfortable with the subjects and interacting with them. So not only do they like the work but the experience.

Fantastic Article! Under the heading "Techniques Can be Taught - Style Not"... perfect!

A girlfriend I was in business with for many years, hated the idea that I was always helping our clients and their art departments in the early days of Photoshop. I maintained (and to this day after we've parted) that it was and is just that part of me and my business that keeps my clients from straying too far or often.

IM(Humble)O, sharing your knowledge and expertise exudes confidence all by itself, without even having to open up your marketing-mouth to say, "I know what I'm doing" and come across as an arrogant know-it-all.

Brad Delaney's picture

Spot On Zach. I don't think you can teach " people " skills. The ability to help someone relax in front of a camera is something that is gleaned from experience. I spent 20 years teaching people how to work in a bar and it was a similar experience in that i could teach them how to throw, ice, bourbon & coke into a glass but i couldn't teach them how to relate to every single person that walked up to the bar. It was something that happened over time.

Anonymous's picture

After a few workshops, interacting with the photographers was the main point.
Talent can be developed or at least cultivated...
Ansel could have been a musician or Walker Evans a writer

Justin Haugen's picture

I think their is a niche for photographers who don't work well interacting with their subjects. Landscape!

There are the brooding photographer types who aren't much for people skills, and book clientele that aren't much for chit chat anyway.I'm pretty chatty, and I crack jokes, but this probably wouldn't bode well with quick assignments where your subject has 1 minute to stand in for like 5 frames (like celebrities or CEOs). There's probably room for a clinical approach and a less people friendly style.