Going to a Photography Workshop? Read This First

Going to a Photography Workshop? Read This First

The thing you should know before you ever attend a photography workshop, spend money on one tutorial, or invest in even one single conference is this: You are going to be your own greatest roadblock to success. 

I have attended upwards of hundreds of workshop situations as an adult learner, mostly as an instructor, but since coming into photography, many as a student. Workshop format and instruction certainly plays a huge role in what a student learns. Cognitive load is one of the many theories in cognitive psychology, which plays into and impacts instructional design and should be something every workshop developer should understand. For most of the population you teach; showing up and just showing people what you do will not be enough. But let's face it, we as attendees have a minor impact in this arena and therefore should direct our attention to what we can control. 

Eliminate Distractions

Both as an instructor and as a workshop attendee, I do my best to eliminate any potential distractions from my learning days before the class even begins. Start with a to-do list of items that must be returned before the workshop begins; client images, kids projects, business proposals, etc. Anything that might distract you mentally, or physically cause you to leave the classroom. I also remind my wife that we have invested heavily in the learning and ask her to limit communications during class periods, with the promise I will reach out during breaks and after instruction sessions. Expectation management is an enormous portion of keeping people happy. On the day of the workshop, silence your cell phone notifications, turn off all non-vital alerts and turn your attention toward the instructor. After all, it is rude not to give them your attention, but if politeness isn't a motivating factor for you, remember you paid a lot of money to be here, and presumably you desire to learn. Personally, I know a woman who has invested $10,000-plus in photography education, but her work never reflected this. Once I attended a workshop with her; she never got off her phone during the entire instructional period. I no longer wonder why her work has stalled. 

Come Prepared

Approach the workshop as you would a photography session, don't wing it! Bring a notebook and other class materials. Many photographers are not professional teachers; they are photographers, that's what you know them as. Do not be surprised (remember that expectation management?) if they aren't good at it at all. Do not be surprised if their teaching style doesn't match your learning style. Most, but not all, photography workshops are hands on; if you prefer a particular style, perhaps reaching out to the instructor before the course begins is an effective strategy. Especially if the workshop is at one of the many conferences, do not party all night the night before. Nothing will impact your ability to absorb material like being sleepy and hungover. Buzzkill maybe, but this is where priorities come into play. 

If the workshop is hands on, come to the seminar exactly as you would a shoot. Charge batteries, format SD cards, update Photoshop and all other applicable software unless otherwise stated. Unless it is a basic camera class, know something about the machine you bring to the class. 

Do Your Homework

We have all experienced that moment: we are home the night before a test, looking over our notes, only to find we have no idea what we were trying to remind ourselves of with the notes. Research has shown that reviewing notes from a class within 24 hours of leaving the classroom is essential for retaining information. So before going to bed after the workshop, review all your notes again. Not only will this allow you a clarify your notes while the information is still fresh in your mind, but it will also help in forming neuropathways, the little trails in your brain responsible for information transfer. 

The Dirty Little Secret

A workshop probably isn't going to change your life. You aren't going to leave with any one secret to instantly change your photographic journey. You are going to leave with a collection of ideas that will alter your route. Attempting to assimilate and implement them all will crush you. Imagine the instructor is going to give you a hundred packages throughout the course of the days together. If you attempted to unpack every book at once, you would quickly find yourself overwhelmed and ultimately, quit the task. However, if you were to unpack each box separately, spending a little time with each item before putting it in its proper place, you would find the task much less daunting. 

Most workshop attendees I have witnessed, go back to their previous habits almost immediately upon finishing learning. You old ways are comfortable. You have done them for a while, potentially for many years. Your neuropathways that carry you toward these habits are fat and established roads, to change, you will be forging a new trail. The solution here is picking apart the learning. Be intentional in the process. Find one item you want to work on, master it and then layer on another learned item after you have become comfortable with the first. The path to mastery isn't a highway, but more like a trail through very thick woods.

Workshops are great places to understand new techniques, network with other creatives, and meet the people you admire in your field. Making the most of the knowledge you receive will take efforts on your part. Many people fail in this regard, but if you have a plan coming into to the workshop, you will quickly find yourself among the elite performers in your craft.

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14 Comments

Yup, there are no silver bullets, unless you're the Lone Ranger. Never go to a workshop thinking that it is going to "solve all your problems" or help you make a fortune. There's a slight chance that it could, if you're really THAT far *behind* the curve, but then again if you're currently that un-prepared to make a fortune without any help, then your investment might be better spent elsewhere, especially if it is an expensive workshop without a proven track record of success.

I've been around in the wedding photography industry long enough to witness the rise and fall of the "rockstar workshop" fad, from about 2005 to 2009 or so. Left and right, "famous" wedding photographers were offering $3K 2-day workshops that promised the world, and yet didn't last more than a couple rounds before the workshop (and sometimes the photographer themselves!) vanished into thin air. I think the record was something insane like $16K for a workshop hosted by some hipster who had already begun to close down their own photography business.

The two people who I ever actually learned anything from, (and actually paid money to) were full-time photographers who had an incredible track record for student success. Both of them had numerous proteges who went on to make as much or even more money than the instructor themselves. (And the instructors never felt threatened or bitter about that either, by the way, they were incredibly proud.)

These instructors repeatedly mentioned the 2nd-to-last paragraph of this article, too: Most students, unfortunately, go right back to their old habits immediately after a workshop, no matter how "pumped up" they are on the drive home.

So, that is my final bit of advice as well: After its all said and done, get off your ass and start changing, improving, whatever it is you've learned, force yourself to implement it. Pick apart exactly what it is you've learned, and come up with a plan that has goals, strategies, and deadlines. Otherwise you're wasting your money!

Cellphone etiquette for speakers: Silence your cellphones.
For Android smartphones, there is free app called AudioManager that allows a quick silencing or full blast of notifications and calls. The paid version allows custom levels, but the free version works for me

Simon Patterson's picture

I still get great value from the one Photoshop workshop I attended. Following all the advice in this article, especially taking copious notes, helped me to consolidate the learning for months afterwards.

Leigh Smith's picture

I've been to one photo "workshop" I didn't learn anything the internet didn't already teach me. I really don't see the benefits... especially for the cost.

David Parish's picture

I think workshops are very beneficial, you just need to prepare yourself properly for attendance. I have found tons of great information at workshops, heck, I am attending another one next week.

My advice is don't waste money on workshops. Youtube has videos, and multiple on any photographic subject you would like to learn for free. The beauty is you can.play them over and over again until you understand and bookmark them for future reference. It will save you thousands of dollars so you can buy that great lens you always wanted. Consult the global brain it knows more than any instructor.

David Parish's picture

While YouTube has tons of information, tons of knowledge is withheld because YouTube content creators know at some point they need to monetize their knowledge. I feel like most YouTube posters are only trying to teach you so much so that you will seek more.

Matthew Odom's picture

Excellent Article!

martin crombie's picture

Went on a business/ marketing 1 to 1 many years ago. Very poor in content was, a glorified chat where we came away with no answers other than 'get out there'.

Jason Brietstein's picture

It's coincidental that there is a shot from a dani diamond workshop above in the article because that is the one workshop I've ever attended. The knowledge I gained there was very valuable and has improved my post processing tremendously.

David Parish's picture

I agree. Dani Diamond has a unique way of breaking down learning for the user and not just teaching the "How" but "Why" as well. I feel like his style of teaching is very well suit for most adult learners.

Andy Foster's picture

Over the years I've attended many business workshops, sometimes lasting 5 days, I always used to ask people on the courses, so what are you going to put in practice on Monday morning direct after the workshop? I would always get funny looks.

The fact is that if you attend a workshop, you are there to learn or be inspired. The great feeling that you are left with after the workshop quickly can fade away if there isn't follow up and an attempt to put into practice what you learnt, or push on with that idea you got whilst listening to the instructor and made it so.

Tutorials you buy online, like the ones F-Stoppers have have their biggest gain through the access to the instructor in the way of a Facebook group, like the one you become a member of when you buy the Dylan Patrick Cinematic Headshot tutorial, having that encouragement and feedback gives great value to the tutorial itself.

A workshop I attended over two years ago with Peter Hurley, "headshot intensive" when he came to Stockholm has been enhanced tenfold through the Headshotcrew.com, the combination of the learning on the workshop, the inspiration of such a great teacher, and the continual direction, help, feedback and validation even now two years later is for me the blueprint for any photography workshop.

I had seen all of Peters material in his two tutorials prior, plus loads of stuff on Youtube, but yet I still got a massive amount of learning out of the two day workshop, all of which I use every time I shoot today.

My tip would be to ensure that by attending a workshop that you are not just seeing a "live" version of the tutorials available, but in fact going to learn something new. Read the reviews.

The article above is full of good tips, workshops if done right are going to blow your mind with information, more than it is possible to take in, so being alert and fully focussed is huge, also being present in mind to ensure that the big bucks you pay out to attend gets given maximum chance to get the best value possible.

marknie's picture

Many of these so called "Workshops" are help by inexperienced incompetent Person with a huge ego. Don't invest in them. Check their portfolio "The real truth serum" and look into their credentials. Most of them are phonies and just looking to make money.

John Skinner's picture

Speaking only for myself. I've have a ton of dogs I've attended.

I can say without reservations or having to mull it over, the Summit Sports workshops are in the very high recommended area of the scale should that be your thing.

I've never had under 10 gold nuggets come home.. the huge really important kind. The other 50+. Just dogs with fleas.