Photography Workshops: Are You Checking Instructors' Qualifications?

Photography Workshops: Are You Checking Instructors' Qualifications?

It’s clear that there has been a tremendous upswing in the number of photographers across all markets. But also with that trend has seen a staggering number of people jumping into teaching and selling workshops.

Workshops can be very helpful for those that are learning but in the capricious state of the industry, it’s buyer beware.

I am aware this topic is likely to be somewhat polarizing, because nobody usually wants to talk about the elephant in the room, but let's.

I feel it’s important to note that the offering of a workshop or lesson itself isn’t qualification that the instructor should really be teaching. It’s up to the consumer or student in this case to do the legwork of making sure that you know this person really is qualified to teach. For instance, looking at learning lighting from someone whose images are always flat and plain but perhaps they get a lot of likes because of pretty or popular models, or posing workshops by folks who regularly pose subjects in a very unflattering manner to the subject’s figure.

An example of a stylistic concept and still applying my posing rules is shown here, proper technique for this dancer was a little different than the final photo but we made adjustments to flatter her figure the best. If posted without those changes, likely some folks on social media would say things about how they love the style but for me, as a people photographer the number one priority is to make sure the subject looks good, then the concept is second. So we redid this until we could achieve the concept and her figure both in one frame.

Equally, there are good workshops out there by real professionals that are super helpful, but it’s truly consumer beware which in reality is no different than any other industry. Same with tattoo artists, for example; there are some that are good, some that are awful, and everywhere in between. Photography is no different with the exception that there seems to be a socially obligated inhibition preventing people from being honest about a body of work. People have a natural opposition to perceived conflict, and a general dislike for potentially hurting someone’s feelings and as such, new photographers, retouchers, and the like do not get the real true constructive criticism they need to truly improve. This manifests itself in the way of a few social media likes and comments and it’s easy to get a false sense of where on the qualification and experience ladder one really is.

To dig into this a little bit we can look at a term the psychology world is very familiar with: social proof. The photography industry, on social media especially, is the strongest example I have seen of social proof at work. If someone is offering something and another person comments they are excited, it’s then easy for the prospective customer to assume it’s good and the instructor is qualified even if they are not.

Social proof is a natural thing we humans do when we don’t necessarily know something for ourselves. It's a factor of the automatic path to least resistance we seek throughout our lives naturally. If we stopped and analyzed every little interaction with anything we come across, there wouldn't be enough time in the day to process the millions of little things, so we look to see what others are doing and follow by example which can include undue praise. Much in the same way opera houses hire spectators to cheer and clap at certain key points in the show to elicit a similar response from the rest of the audience, albeit on social media it isn't usually intentional, but the result is nonetheless mostly the same.

When it comes to posing certain angles are less than flattering to the subject, and therefore our job is to adjust until it looks good. Minor little tweaks make a huge difference. 

This is a particularly difficult angle to make flattering. Tiny little leg changes and hip changes make all the difference. I generally shoot a lot of sexy styled work and work to flatter each subject's features such as adjusting legs here so that the hip curve looks right and the thigh gap shows.

Obviously in the photography industry the thing that happens most when there is a criticism is that the photographer will say it’s their art and that art is subjective. Subjective is the operative word here; it’s the very thing that prevents some type of licensing or qualification process for the industry. After all, who gets to decide who is good and who isn’t? It’s certainly a difficult situation to speak of in this way. But the reality is that no matter how hard we want to believe that there is no such thing as bad art, there most certainly is. There are absolutely some photographers that are better than others. There are absolutely popular photographers that are popular simply because people like them, not because of the actual quality of work. Combine that with a few social likes and a cool concept and a mediocre photographer can have perceived quality and success, offer a workshop, and the prospective student can have their own growth greatly inhibited by trying to learn from someone who doesn’t know either.

Teaching can be also educational for the instructor as well. By that I mean teaching can help the instructor by verbalizing and labeling the things they already know and do. Labeling can really instill it and make it more real or help embed the data in the teacher’s mind. But to leverage this and prevent an inaccurate self-assessment of our own skills, a knowledge of the subject does need to be had first.

I spoke of this to a group of photographers and the reaction was very mixed, some applauded and understood this and the others were in disbelief or downright anger by the mere mention that someone teaching a workshop may not actually be qualified to do such. It's definitely a don't-shoot-the-messenger kind of situation. I feel it's important to talk about things such as this even if it's uncomfortable or you learn news that you may not wish to hear. Wishing something to be good doesn't make it so and talking about it doesn't make one responsible.

The anger at the mention of such things is much the same as when folks get angry with a weatherman for delivering the bad news of inclement weather. The weatherman didn't make the weather and I don't make someone qualified or unqualified to teach. I am only suggesting that consumers do their homework before jumping into a workshop just because it seems popular or the person giving it is popular. Make sure it's a good fit for you and that this is the best person available to you to learn the proposed skills from. It's just smart business.

I (and most photographers) am all for education and bettering everyone but let’s be smart about it and try to make a positive difference so that the overall industry will flourish and in that end, everyone wins including teachers, students and the end customer.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Have you been to a bad workshop or perhaps been taught things that you have since learned were not accurate? When I polled some photographers, over 90 percent had experienced an educational purchase they since regret.

Lead image courtesy of Pim Chu via Unsplash.

Bill Larkin's picture

Bill is an automotive and fashion inspired photographer in Reno, NV. Bill specializes in photography workflow and website optimization, with an extensive background in design and programming.

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Great read this Bill and accurate, I could certainly tell a tale or two, or three, no... make it 40!

I find it interesting you cite that photography instructors need qualifications, yet you don’t list any. First aid is probably the first. Outdoor guiding if they are taking you into the wilds. Photography qualifications are probably unreliable due to the sheer number of institutions providing poor training. Teaching qualifications are also important.

As a professional photography teacher I take these all very seriously and have a vast range of experience and appropriate qualifications. Unfortunately not many do.

Just consider these:

Bachelor of Arts, major in photography
Graduate diploma in art / photography education
Master of Education- adult education
Diploma in Alpine Bushwalking and outdoor recreation
Advanced Certificate in Advanced Wilderness First Aid

That’s over nine years of study or recognition of prior learning.

How many years have they been teaching photography for?

There are also some who don’t even have public liability either.

I do agree, that the teachers work needs to inspire you. As does thier ability to inspire others. I find I use other attendees as references to judge who I learn from. But for taking me into the Bush only the experienced and locally qualified will do.

Since photography is technically art, and art is subjective. Technical qualifications are difficult to label.

College, such as what was Brooks Institute, I don't believe at all helps you in the real world of the industry, many a graduate I met who were awful at photography. Conversely others with no schooling are very skilled.

Certifications, such as that of PPA are meaningless - customers don't care and much of the materials required for the certificate don't pertain to the actuality of doing the work.

Real world work experience paired with a drive to learn and get better seem to be the strongest paths.
But regardless of how one gets there, the bottom line is visible in the teachers work if you look close enough.

As I mentioned, if a person constantly has girls posed in positions that are unflattering to their figure, or (and this is a big one) men in headshots for example with a feminine head tilt. They aren't putting the man in a non masculine pose on purpose, they simply are uneducated about that matter, which in my opinion makes them unqualified to teach something like say, posing.

So basically, there's no clear cut certificate or answer, thats why I wrote in general... Buyer beware.

I heavily caution against using other attendees as a reference, because as proven by thousands of scientific studies.... people are followers and will simply follow bad advice if a perceived authoritative figure suggests so. Basically, just because 'everyone else is' doesn't make everyone right. (I have studied social psychology for years and this is well documented) :)

For my landscape work, I tend to avoid pure workshops and go with photo tours. I am still required to shoot images in the field, sort/select the best images each day, and present them to the group, usually between 5 to 12 other photographers. This process can be quite rigorous. I depend on the leader to get me to the right place at the right time. The leader always welcomes questions and will provide guidance and inspiration if requested. Otherwise, I'm left to my own vices. I also learn a lot from viewing other participants images. They can be a real eye opener.

A lot of those photo tours are self-serving to the organizer. If someone organizes it, they should be versed in first aid and they should not be shooting themselves. Additionally, many don't pull permits or get permissions to run workshops at the locations and they aren't familiar with the location. If they are running a trip they should be an expert on the location and have permission to run the workshop. The priority should be to the paying clients. But, they aren't interested in the other photographer's safety and enjoyment. They only care about getting a fully paid trip to a location they want to shoot for themselves.

The inherent problem is this:

Great photographers are sometimes horrendous teachers - typically because they can't break things down in a clear manner. And some's people's skill is so ingrained in them that they can't fathom how other people just don't get it.

And sometimes, the not-so-best photographers are fantastic educators.

You are right, sometimes the best aren't the best teachers. But in the inverse of that, even if you are the type of person that is a good teacher, you still can't teach what you don't know.

It used to be that your work would had to be featured in reputable galleries, published in magazines and books, and you’d have to have a track record of 20+ years behind the lens. Joe McNally is a good example of this.

In this day and age though, the only credentials needed are a high number of Instagram followers. Most of whom began shooting 3-4 years ago, and got good at one thing: building a quick online following which they quickly turned into their marketing base. Actions, tutorial videos, and workshops then followed.

Neither one is particularly better or worse. In the end, it’s the people spending thousands of their hard earned dollars on this education. Let them do their due diligence.

This is correct. And that was the main point, was reminding people to do their due diligence and not just blindly follow. :)

Do people who run workshops who don't offer value stay in business? If so I should get into that business, because based on this they are somehow immune to market forces.