The Conference and Trade Show Industry Are Changing for the Better: The Portrait Masters Conference

The Conference and Trade Show Industry Are Changing for the Better: The Portrait Masters Conference

Over the years I have had the pleasure of attending a handful of workshops, trade shows, and conferences, but the last two I have attended have been different, and the changes I see are exciting.  

The first event that showed me things were starting to change was Sony Kando 3.0. This event is like nothing I had ever experienced before. But it’s also on a much smaller scale than traditional shows or conferences. But while at Sony Kando, I was told about The Portrait Masters Conference. It was described as different, inspiring, and life-changing. So I had to see for myself what it was that made this show stand out among the rest.  

It didn't take long for me to start seeing what made Portrait Masters different. On my arrival date, the only thing on the schedule was registration. Normally this is simply a matter of standing in a long line to get your badge along with some show details. But what I was greeted with was so much more. 

When you first walk into line, everyone was given an icebreaker question so that you could start a conversation with the people around you that were also waiting. Not only did this make the time spent in line more productive, but you also inevitably made friends that you could continue hanging out with for the rest of the conference. After registration, they also had three separate activities set up for you to participate in. There were a number of shooting bays filled with sets, models, and amazing lighting. These bays were topped off with everyone having the chance to shoot with Fuji cameras (including their medium format rigs) but you could also use your own camera if you wanted. The second section they had was an entire area for people to get professional headshots taken (complete with hair and makeup). Then to top things off, there were portfolio reviews where you could have industry experts look at your work and give you advise on how to grow and become a better photographer. My portfolio review also led to a great conversation with Russel Hamlet about my business and how I could make more money with a few small changes. And this was only day one. A day that was simply for registration left everyone with new friends, professional headshots, new portfolio images, and personal insights to being a better photographer and business owner.  

After registration, everyone was excited to jump into the first day and kick off the conference with a bang. Unfortunately, the opening presenter and headline speaker, Peter Lindbergh, passed away the day before. So at breakfast, everyone was a little somber dealing with the loss and left questioning what would happen next. As everyone took their place in the main theater, Sue Bryce took the stage to say some words about Peter as well as show a quick video to honor him and his work. A video that Caitlen Timmins stayed up to the wee hours on the morning putting together for everyone. It was here that I saw just how strong and supportive the attendees were of this conference. Not only for each other but for Sue and her team.

Once what happened was acknowledged and talked about, they hit the refresh button. Everyone left the stage to give people a minute to gather their thoughts and recompose and then they came back and started the conference the way it was intended. With a bang of excitement and enthusiasm. They also, somehow, found an amazing headline speaker that could jump to the occasion with maybe the shortest notice in all of conference history. The one and only Joel Grimes

Image by Walter van Dusen

After the first 2 opening presentations, I had a good idea of one of the key differences that help Portrait Masters stand out. Each talk started like most. The presenter was introduced to the stage where they then gave their talk. These talks ranged from educational to inspirational and left everyone with something worth remembering. Then when the talking part was over, every speaker led a live shoot right on the stage. This live shooting aspect really drove home what speakers were trying to convey and gave everyone an inside look into how they create the amazing images they are known for. 

Another aspect that helps Portrait Masters rise above the rest is the lineup of speakers. The presenters are from all around the world and specialize in different aspects of portrait photography. There was India Earl who specializes in weddings, Lara Jade with fashion photography, Kara Marie with boudoir, and so much more. Sue made it clear that it was her mission to not only give attendees tried and tested speakers but to also give up and coming educators a chance at the main stage. People like Dayron Vera, who gave one of the best talks and live shoots of the entire conference (in my opinion).  

In between the opening and closing talks for each day, there was a tradeshow floor. At first glance, this tradeshow floor seemed like your run of the mill room filled with companies showing off all their products. But something was different. Normally these booths have stages and presenters giving talks or live demos to entice you to visit them. But there were no stages and no people talking into microphones. Instead, the majority of booths had shooting bays. These bays were filled with models, lighting, and some type of ambassador to help you shoot. People like Susan Stripling, Felix Kunze, Sara France, and Alice Prenat. People that could easily fill a theater with attendees were giving one on one help and advice as people shot portraits. They even had an editing station where you could bring files and have the amazing Pratik Naik edit your images. Or you could watch Bella Kotak work her magic with colors and show you how to do it yourself.

Bella Kotak running the editing bay

While people obviously had the chance to see and use the gear from these booths, they didn't have to use the gear in order to shoot and learn. It was merely an option if people chose to do it. But no matter the choice, they could still get advice on shooting, posing, and explanations on the lighting setups so they could replicate the look when they got home. 

What’s The Big Change?

Now that you have a very general overview of what Portrait Masters was like, let's chat a bit about this change I’m seeing. Normally at conferences and trade shows, I feel like everyone is trying to sell me on something. The presentations are centered around gear and why I have to have it. Or there is an educational talk given that ends with me being told I should buy this class to really get the full picture. Trade shows are filled with booths trying to sell me what they have. There are platforms of people talking about gear and why I need it. This is why at past shows I have been to, most people do a quick walk through the tradeshow floor and don't ever go back.  

At Sony Kando and Portrait Masters, I didn't feel like that. While these companies will always have the end goal of selling you a product, the focus has shifted from selling to educating. I can’t recall a single time during the main presentations and live shoots where I felt like I was being sold to. And for the tradeshow floor, they removed the stages and added shooting bays. This change has shifted the feeling from  “you need this and this is why” to “let me teach you something and you can use our gear while I do to see if you like it”. 

It may seem like a small change, but it resulted in a huge difference. Instead of people checking out the tradeshow floor once or twice, attendees filled the room from open to close. The staff even had to make people leave when the tradeshow hours were over because attendees wanted to stay and shoot. 

This is a really good thing for the people running booths as well as the attendees. The booth owners get more opportunities to have people try their gear and the attendees get more one-on-one education. And the fact that attendees don't have to try or use certain gear in order to shoot in the bays means they don't feel sold to. This is a win-win in my book. 

What Did The Educators Think? 

While I’m giving you my perspective as an attendee (and my perspective lines up with other attendees I have talked to), I also thought it would be interesting to share what some of the educators thought. These are people that get paid to teach at all kinds of different conferences, trade shows, and events. 

Felix Kunze

It was my second year at The Portrait Masters (in my first I was one of the main speakers), and each year it’s an experience that makes me want to go into other photo conferences with enthusiasm and vigor, eager to discover how they, too will be amazing. And then I remember that TPM is not like other conferences. I think Sue Bryce and her conference are still the only forum where I routinely see photographers achieving not just profitability but abundance in their businesses. Seeing that, day-in, day-out is what makes me come back. It’s a thrill to see people thriving as creatives and as business people. And that’s what The Portrait Masters is all about. 

Lara Jade

I've been to a fair few conferences during my 16 years of being a photographer but the Portrait Masters conference stood out for many reasons! It had a solid schedule — lots of evening entertainment and a varied speaker list. The best part? The vibe was welcoming and encouraging and gave all attendees the opportunity to network and create together.

Often as creatives, we feel alone — creating in our own space without much feedback. Conferences like this give you the encouragement and excitement to create. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I came back from the event feeling refreshed and ready to create! 

Dayron Vera

About TPM I have to say WOW, yes a big WOW. It is not a normal photography fair. Yeah, it has the brands at the trade show, but I don't think it was about the sales. It’s about the passion photographers put into this conference. The way people go to the shooting bays and wait in long lines until they get the shot.

I think TPM is changing the way of teaching photography. It is not just a person saying what they think about how photography should be, they also do it live, in front of that amount of people.

For me, it has been a very unique moment in my photography career. I didn’t want to leave and I hope to come back soon.

Kara Marie

The Portrait Masters is unlike any photography conference I’ve ever attended in the best of ways. I just attended the third annual conference, this time was my first time as a TPM instructor and being behind the scenes. And...do you know how sometimes when you see “behind the curtain”,  of an organization you see the ugly bits and it kind of loses its luster? I had the exact opposite experience. I got to witness a team of brilliant talents coming together, bringing their own unique skills together to create an extraordinary production... a team of people who weren’t complaining about being overworked and tired, but rather giving celebratory toasts and hugs and high fives. It was just as, if not more beautiful behind the scenes than sitting in the audience.  I’m also in absolute awe of the talent that is recruited by TPM to teach and be a part of the conference. They have such a knack for selecting instructors and cultivating a community that is completely geared towards learning and mastering your craft... while also having fun parties and a beautiful environment. 

Eyes-only to Hands-on

This shift from “look what I have” to “here try this” is one that I hope all conferences and trade shows adopt. It gives attendees more opportunities to learn and removes the pressure of being sold to. It also brings a bit of joy onto the tradeshow floor. There is a certain vibe that you can feel when a room full of people are being educated and encouraged to create work that they love.  I'm happy to have experienced this at The Portrait Masters Conference and look forward to seeing this change take hold throughout the rest of the industry.    

Lead image taken by Walter van Dusen

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7 Comments

Eric Robinson's picture

Interesting. Thanks for giving us your account of the conference it sounded like a good experience. Based on your experience do you think there is a danger that photographic technology is strangling photographic aesthetics and creativity. What I mean by that is quite often when you speak to photographers they often want to spend more time going on about the various bits of kit they have used rather than their creative ideas and intentions.

Jason Vinson's picture

I feel like that's just a season of life that's part of being a creative in this industry. As you grow as a photographer, learning the gear is part of that growth. Eventually you grow past the point of gear and start diving into the other aspects that make a photo great. You can almost always tell where a photographer is within this process based in the questions they ask.

Dan Howell's picture

While I am sure that it is was a positive educational experience, I really wish that they would either label their 'Portrait Masters' as Retail Portrait Masters or include names like Dan Winters or Annie Liebovitz.

Jason Vinson's picture

Peter Lindbergh was on the list and was very much a master. As is Sue Bryce, Matthew Jordan Smith, and Joel Grimes (who were all there for the 2019 event). So I think they have that part covered.

A M's picture

Do you know the cost of the regular and/or the VIP registration?

The website doesn't have it listed any longer.

Jason Vinson's picture

I can't recall off the top of my head, but it's probably gone until they announce next years event.

AM, VIP tkt was $2500, general admission tkt was $1800.