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.